Analyzing Misses

I was delighted to finally see eyes looking at me from behind the sage. It was the third time I had checked my traps in the area. One set was visited all three times, but I hadn’t recorded a catch.

Once, coyote tracks covered the dirt around the set, but the trap was undisturbed. The next time, the trap was out of its bed and the chain pulled straight. The third time, the pan cover had been removed but the trap was not set off.

I was glad to see the coyote in my trap, but I wondered what happened at the other set.

Mysterious Encounters
Over the years, I have seen many disturbances at sets without a coyote catch. I used to think an animal with super intelligence was pulling my chain.

I would try all kinds of techniques to catch this wily hound so I could brag about my superiority over the beast. Sometimes, I would catch the coyote.

Other times, the wise coyote would be left for seed to teach offspring how to mess with my sets. I have discovered though, that sometimes the mysterious set encounters don’t involve a coyote at all.

Normally when I check a trap with a catch, the animal is waiting with a perfect pad catch because the set is made so the coyote has no recourse after committing to the step. That’s the way it is supposed to happen.

We all have the occasional toe catch, and the animal might not be there when we check. But when the trap is dug up, overturned or set off in manners we can’t explain, we need to correct the set if we can to avoid future disappointment.

Snapped Traps
An occurrence that puzzles me is a snapped trap still in its bed. The screen is still in the jaws but not moved at all.

I am an accomplished animal tracker and can usually write off a snapped trap to a deer or cow because of track evidence around the set. But what about the trap that is set off with no other tracks around?

I have found frost causes snapped traps. Early in the year, before it is cold enough that I start anti-freezing traps, the ground will freeze enough to hold the jaws down at night, but will be soft and working when I get to my sets during the day.

This season, the ground wasn’t as dry as normal, so it stiffened a bit at night. Firm soil can hide coyote tracks that would be visible when it is softer. Consider the idea that a coyote worked the set and stepped on the pan, but the trap did not spring.

Later in the day, the sun hits the set and the trap fires because the coyote tripped the dog. I saw partial prints in the soft dirt between the jaws this year.

Now, when I start trapping, I put a bit of anti-freeze down before the trap because frost could arrive at any time.

Chain Pulled Tight
Another common scenario is the trap being pulled to the end of the chain, with no catch circle to indicate a struggling coyote was ever in the trap. It could have been a toe-caught coyote or another critter the trap couldn’t hold.

Deer and elk will sometimes step on a trail set and pull the trap out. Sometimes, tracks can help you analyze the situation.

Usually the pan cover will be nearby or still in the jaws of the trap. A coyote in the trap will usually be held long enough to bite a branch or bush before pulling out. The animal might chew the pan cover or carry it away.

However, a missing pan cover might be the result of another animal stealing it after the original incident.

Another similar miss occurs when a coyote steps on the jaw, just missing the pan. Often, the animal takes the bait or removes the lure stick. Sometimes, it results in a toe catch, and sometimes the trap isn’t set off.

I used to think I needed to tweak trap setback distances. At a dirthole, I usually set my trap back a bit and off to the left or right to make it easier for the dog to put its foot on the pan. I even alternate which side, right or left, on the line to catch southpaw coyotes.

Could it be some little critter moved the bait stick, causing the coyote to work the set differently and not put its foot where I planned?

Most of the time, the coyote will return and be in the trap within the next few checks, but I have to expend more gas and time. Sometimes, I will tighten the set up a bit, especially if the set doesn’t look disturbed by rodents.

Later in the season when dirt is not as dry and powdery, misses become harder to decipher.

The Super Coyote Phenomena
Most misses are easily explained — whether the trapper has made an error, Mother Nature foiled your attempt or animal behavior was the culprit.

However, some misses are more complex. I love the one where the coyote has dug up the trap, pushed it aside and taken the bait or pulled the lure stick out and left its mark by pooping on the set.

We know it was the coyote because of the tracks and scat, but what happened at the set?

Most of us believe we didn’t do a good job at cleaning the trap, so the coyote smelled the trap and dug it up. If it occurs more than once in the same area, the Super Coyote is born.

Stubborn trappers try to go head to head with the wise critter, wasting time and gas to put the coyote on a stretcher.

Could it be the coyote really wasn’t as smart as we thought?

The coyote might be smarter now that it dug up the trap, especially if its toes were pinched, but if the trapper did everything right, why did the coyote dig up the set?

At one set, mice made tracks in and out of my dirthole and over the pan while working my bait. I’m glad mice are in the area, because chances are good the resident coyotes hunt them. But I don’t know how many times the mouse urinated on the trap pan in its travels. This year, I saw wet spots on the pan cover dirt that I used to think were dew or moisture from the ground or air. With rodent tracks on the pan and small diggings, I now believe it is urine.

I have also returned to the set and found my lure stick right in the middle of the pan. The ground is stained with oil from the lure, so I imagine smell is right there.

What would happen if a coyote worked the set after a mouse urinated on it or the lure stick was over the pan?

The coyote might dig up the trap investigating the scent. And it might be the cause of a trap left with a bit of dirt dug between the pan and the jaws.

Did the coyote dig the trap because it smelled mouse urine, rabbit urine or lure there? Or did the mouse, rat or rabbit dig up the trap?

The coyote might have arrived after the jaw was exposed and refused the set. Or the coyote might have been caught and the catch circle destroyed the evidence. I have caught coyotes and foxes in exposed trap sets when bobcat trapping, so it is possible.

Pack Rats and Rabbits
A similar miss is when the pan cover is removed, exposing the pan and sometimes, the trap jaws. I used to attribute it to a trap-wise coyote.

If it happened more than once at a set, I would construct one of my trap-wise coyote sets with two or three traps. Usually, I would catch the coyote when it returned to dig up the set again. Occasionally, I would have a coyote strung out with a trap on each foot.

I was digging around in a pack rat nest one year while bobcat trapping, searching for dry duff to cover a trap, when and low and behold, there was a pan cover buried in the duff.

Could it be my thief was a rat and the coyote never saw the set, or came upon it after the crime was committed?

I think rats expose the screen and take it with them as a trophy. How much activity happens before a catch is unknown because the coyote wrecks every bit of sign. We don’t really mind because the coyote is in the trap.

Rabbits also dig around the jaws of a trap. Sometimes, they leave tracks.

Most of the area I trap has a good population of rabbits. They are attracted to sets because of salt in the urine, so I seldom use urine in areas with a lot of rabbits. Soft dirt around the trap also draws rabbits. They like to sit in it. A rabbit will use your backing as a covered resting spot.

Other Diggers
Foxes and coyotes dig carefully in soft dirt, especially if the surrounding dirt is hard or frozen. I think curiosity fuels this behavior. Maybe a fox or coyote thinks the smell is buried in the soft dirt. They are either caught or expose the trap and stop working the set.

At misses, careful analysis might help form a more accurate guess as to what went wrong. From that information, you can make changes to improve the set.

Badgers are common on my trapline, and they will step in set no matter how exposed the trap has been from a prior critter. They hunt areas with a good population of rodents and rabbits, so they might destroy evidence of previous activity. I once had a badger dig up a trap and push it out of the way, then make a deep hole. The badger might have been after a rodent that was using my set and was lucky not to stick its paw on the pan.

Use the Clues
Unfortunately, misses on the trapline are common. Many of them can be attributed to coyotes’ instincts to avoid danger. Some coyotes become wise, but even those animals are usually trapped, snared, called or shot before they get old. In many cases, smaller critters or weather are the culprit.

By analyzing the clues, trappers can make the proper corrections to catch the coyote.

Dave Morelli of Leadore, Idaho, is a field editor for T&PC.

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