You’re in the supermarket, gathering the makings for trapline lunches. Your cart is half full of crackers, soda pop, candy bars, apples, beef jerky, canned peaches and rat-trap cheese, and you’re headed for the sardines and potted meat aisle when you pass the magazine rack.
And there it is, in prominent and glorious display: the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated magazine. It stops you as quickly and effectively as if you’d pushed your cart into a brick wall.
It’s probably a stretch to say the sleek, gorgeous super-model on the cover drives all thoughts of trapline vittles out of your head, but it’s probably a safe bet that she pushes those thoughts momentarily to the back burner. You stop, you pick up a copy, you browse through it.
If it makes you feel any better, you won’t have been the only shopper that hit the wall in front of that SI swimsuit edition display. In fact, if shopping carts had brake pedals, there’d be so many skid marks in front of that magazine rack the tile floor would look like a tar pit. Whether you buy the magazine or not is immaterial. It stopped you (and scores of your fellow shoppers) dead in your tracks, and in so doing it proved once again the universal value of eye appeal.
Eye Appeal for Trapping
Like knowledgeable magazine editors and publishers, savvy trappers also understand the value of eye appeal at set locations. The principle works for literally every furbearer species, from weasel to wolf.
Judging from many of the conversations I’ve had with experienced and accomplished trappers from all over North America though, a good many of them don’t actually realize what they’re doing when they choose this set location here instead of that one over there. They might very well be good at picking the best locations (that is, the ones with the most eye appeal), but for a great many trappers, choosing the best location to set is almost a subliminal thing. If you asked them why they chose a particular spot to make a set, they couldn’t tell you.
And yet, they choose the best set locations time after time.
But what is this thing we’re calling eye appeal? Simply stated, it’s something that catches your eye, something that draws your vision to a particular feature of the landscape. It can be anything: a big tree in a pasture, a large rock at the side of a wooded road, a small sand bar on an otherwise brushy creek bank. Whatever stands out from its surroundings, that’s the thing that has eye appeal. Eye candy, a trapper buddy of mine calls it.
What Catches Your Attention?
One effective way to explain this concept is the way it was explained to me, a long time ago, by an old-timer who has gone on to better traplines. I was a kid, thirsty for knowledge, and one morning I was running my traps on my bicycle when I ran into Mr. Mayhue as he was carrying two big boar mink back to his car. I was intimidated just being anywhere close to this master trapper, but I stopped to talk to him anyway. After hemming and hawing for a while, I finally screwed up my courage and blurted out the questions that was bubbling around inside me: “How do you know where to set your traps?”
This was about 1960 or 1961, still in the time when trappers didn’t share their secrets and when accurate trapping information was as scarce as hen’s teeth. But I guess I must have sounded pathetic enough, or desperate enough, or something, to stir Mr. Mayhue’s sympathy.
Whatever the reasons, he temporarily took me under his wing. We walked out onto the wooden bridge that spanned the creek where he’d caught the mink. As we walked, Mr. Mayhue told me to keep my eyes focused on my feet and not look up. I obeyed. He grabbed me by the shoulders and positioned me so I was facing downstream, and then he told me to raise my head, look down the creek channel, and tell him the first thing that caught my attention. I did, and I still remember exactly what it was that grabbed my eye: a 12-inch metal field drain pipe overhanging the left bank of the creek, maybe 40 feet below the bridge. The pipe stuck maybe 4 feet out of the mud bank, about 2 feet above the water level. Directly underneath it was a shallow v-notch in the bank, providing a convenient and overhead-protected resting spot.
When I told Mr. Mayhue that pipe was the first thing I’d noticed, his whiskery face split into a huge grin.
“That’s where I just caught one of these mink,” he said. “You picked it out and so did he. That’s how I figure out where to make my sets, son.”
Mr. Mayhue didn’t use any of the terms we’ve been talking about here — eye appeal, visual attractor, eye candy. He probably didn’t think of it in those terms, but obviously, he understood the concept. Just as obviously, he was a good teacher. It took Mr. Mayhue all of 20 seconds to show me that trick, and nearly 50 years later I‘m still using it to find set locations for myself and also to explain the “eye appeal” concept to other people.
‘Brightest Pebble on the Beach’
You might have noticed I’m struggling here, trying to put this extremely important trapline concept into words. Maybe what’s giving me so much trouble is that eye appeal is so variable. Mr. Mayhue’s field drain is an excellent and obvious example of a high eye appeal set location, but it’s only one type. There are, quite literally, thousands of others.
Bill Nelson, who died in 1973 and was unquestionably one of the greatest steel-stringers of all time, had another way of explaining it. Nelson referred to these standout set locations as “the brightest pebble on the beach.” That’s a pretty neat turn of phrase, if you ask me, and in my humble opinion, it would take a pretty dim bulb not to be able to understand what he was talking about. In his writing, Nelson also called these places “salient features,” and he repeatedly stressed the importance of making sets near them. Here’s a quote from his writings, borrowed from Scherm Blom’s excellent biography of the legendary trapper (Bill Stoneydale Press, Stevensville, MT): “A good set is one that is located near or on a salient feature that the thinking trapper knows will be visited by any traveling animal. When he selects a location for a set, he is asking himself why he is making the set. If he cannot come up with a good answer, he will not make it.”
Looking for Salient Features
Salient features, or locations with eye appeal, come in so many forms they’re impossible to categorize, and this is true even when you’re only dealing with a single furbearer species. Things really get tricky when you start talking about multiple critters.
We’ve already mentioned that every species of furbearer is susceptible to the use of eye appeal at set locations, but some species are much more susceptible than others. Raccoons, for example, are extremely attracted to certain types of salient features.
Along streams and lake banks, for example, ’coons investigate big, snaggy hollow trees. They’ll almost always be ’coon dens, if not permanent dens then at least intermittent ones, and every one you find is worth a ’coon set or two. These are prime spots for buckets or baited-hole-type sets, and often you’ll find well-worn trails leading to the tree from various directions opening up the opportunity for blind sets using snares, bodygrippers or footholds.
Look also for logjams, individual logs, stumps, big rocks, rockpiles and similar things along the edge of the water. Raccoons key on these features when hunting the shoreline, and sets made nearby will be right on target. If you’re trapping ’coons away from waterways, look for Bill Nelson’s salient features (an old grain silo, a cluster of round hay bales in a field corner, a “wolf” tree alongside a country lane, an abandoned house or barn, a plum thicket sticking above the surrounding grass of a fallow field, etc.), then go there and look for ’coon sign. You’re probably going to find some. Or, use that eye-grabbing exercise Mr. Mayhue showed me to look for ’coon travelways between denning sites and food sources — a fenceline or under-the-road culvert between a corn field and an abandoned barn, for example.
The Smaller Picture
What we’ve been talking about so far is big-picture eye appeal – Bill Nelson’s “brightest pebbles.” I sometimes think of these places as having “big-picture” eye appeal. But there’s another part to this whole business.
These landscape features attract the furbearers, sure, but it’s still up to the individual trapper to catch the animal when it shows up. Basically, there are two ways to do it. The first is to figure out how the animal is relating to the landscape feature and make a blind set that will catch the animal as it goes about its normal business. The second is to make a set using an attractor of some sort — bait, lure, flagging or some natural or man-made smaller feature that will catch and focus the target animal’s attention and bring it to the set.
To illustrate what that means, imagine we’re mink trapping and we’re looking at a box culvert under a highway. Mink traveling up or down the stream will encounter the culvert, and its wing walls and artificial narrowing of the stream means that it also tends to funnel and concentrate mink movements. If you can find tracks or trails indicating where mink are traveling near the culvert, blind sets are probably the best bet here. But if there’s no obvious trail or travelway, a baited and/or lured pocket set, properly constructed, will catch a passing mink’s attention and focus its movements even further, allowing you to make the catch.
In an upland trapping situation, let’s say the salient feature is the old grain silo mentioned a few paragraphs ago. It’s standing all by itself in a scraggly patch of sumac at the edge of a fall-plowed field, and when we go to take a closer look, we find several piles of ’coon droppings scattered around its base. However, the sumac shades the ground and there’s not enough grass for the ’coons to have worn a trail through it, so there’s no stand-out place to make a blind set.
No problem. Since ’coons are suckers for eye appeal, give them some more of it. The silo itself got them in the neighborhood; now give them something that will get them caught. One option is a big-hole pocket set dug against the foundation of the silo, or maybe a dirthole set with a big, obvious dirt pattern. Or, if dogs and cats aren’t a problem, use a bucket set and a #160 or #220, if that’s legal in your state.
Bobcats are attracted to ledges and rim-rock areas, and savvy trappers know this and make sets at these places, but they often increase the odds a feline will find their sets by flagging them with fur, feathers, a bird’s wing, surveyor’s flagging or similar material. The rockpile gets the bobcat into the general vicinity and the flagging finishes the job.
If It’s Got It, It’s Got It
The savvy trapper is continually conscious of the eye appeal factor, and he’s always thinking about ways to take advantage of his trapline’s “salient features.” He’s always looking for new ones, as well. Some of these landscape features change from year to year – flooding can remove large trees from a stream bank, for example, or a farmer can tear down a brushy fence row or move that old collection of round bales that was such a draw for foxes and ’coons last season.
But then again, some of them remain the same. A few years after Mr. Mayhue showed me the set-finding trick related in the early part of this piece, he hung his traps up and I took over setting underneath that metal field drain pipe. Over the course of the next three decades, before I moved away from the area, I caught 150 or more furbearers there: mink, ’coons, muskrats, beavers, otters, skunks, possums and, once, an extremely muddy red fox. The pipe is still there; I saw it just last month when I drove through a small chunk of my old trapline. Although I didn’t go down the creek bank and look underneath, I’m certain if I’d done so I’d have found some combination of mink, ’coon, muskrat and other furbearer tracks. I won’t be doing this, either, but I’m equally certain that if I made a set or two there this coming season, I’d catch another few furbearers to add to the total.
It’s that kind of place. It has eye appeal.
Jim Spencer is executive editor of Trapper & Predator Caller.
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