Mike Wilhite’s truck crunched through the Wisconsin north woods, widening a path carved through seven inches of day-old fluff.
“There have always been ‘cats on this creek,” Wilhite said as we approached a wooden bridge. “I hope they are still around.”
Before I hopped out of the truck, I spied animal tracks dotting the ice on
“Looks like a bobcat,” Wilhite said.
“Maybe two,” I said upon closer inspection.
“That’s good,” Wilhite said. “We’ll come back here later and set up this
Laden with steel, soil, smells and two anxious trappers the pickup stopped over tracks that cut its path. An obvious animal trail appeared on the ice at a culvert.
“Looks like fisher,” I guessed.
“This area was loaded with fishers the last time I trapped it,” Wilhite said.
“We’re going to go check out an abandoned beaver colony and make some sets.”
Minutes later, I trudged behind Wilhite, ducking too late as a pine limb unburdened its icy glaze and powder. Visions of bobcats bouncing and fishers flashing wrestled with the chill of melting mist down my back.
The first set of the trip was a frigid affair — a crude dirthole near a clearing. I rediscovered that uncovered fingers don’t function at 10 below zero.
Two sets later, we returned to the culvert to set the fisher sign. I put in a dirthole and a walk-through on a ridge, while Wilhite positioned a pair of pails with bodygrip traps closer to the water. Then we examined the tracks on the ice more closely.
“That’s an otter,” Wilhite said, correcting my earlier guess. “But it’s still a good spot for fishers.”
We revisited the bridge covering the creek. Adorned with a pack basket, Wilhite plowed a path through the brush and gingerly toed the ice.
“More otters,” he said, pointing to the crossover in an untended beaver dam.
“But this is bobcat,” I replied as I traced a trail up the bank.
I dropped a set on a shelf, then Wilhite and I circled to find the path of the ‘cat that had hunted the ice the night before.
I made a walk-through set where the bobcat stepped over a log.
“I’ve always been told to set on sign,” I said as I blended the dirt pattern into the snow. “I just hope the ‘cat comes back through in the next three nights.”
Wilhite peered at me as if he was looking into a crystal ball.
“I like it,” he said. “You’re going to catch a ‘cat there.”
I was pleased with the set, but I liked the next location we found even more. We crossed the road and followed the other set of tracks near the bridge. They led over a beaver dam and onto an island.
“Something stinks,” Wilhite said.
Bobcat tracks ringed a rotten beaver carcass. At least two ‘cats had visited the pungent flattail since the snow flew.
In the remaining mid-December daylight, I made a trio of sets on approaches to the carcass, making sure to set far enough away to comply with Wisconsin’s trapping regulations regarding bait use.
“If I catch one, it’s going to be near that dead beaver,” I predicted as we drove to our hotel.
“What do you mean — if?”
Return to Bobcat Creek
“We’ll start at the creek,” Wilhite said the next morning as we eased onto the snow-covered logging trail.
The shelf set was first.
“Something went through,” I said excitedly.
“Trap’s not fired,” Wilhite said. “And I’m glad we didn’t catch it.”
An otter — maybe more than one — had whisked dirt off my trap as it slid to the icy creek below. I quickly patched up the set, then matched Wilhite’s steps as we climbed the ridge. I nearly bumped into my partner when he stopped in the trail and pointed at the boot prints we had left a day earlier.
“That’s a ‘cat!” I said, steam drooling from my mouth in minus 10 degree excitement.
The bobcat had followed our trail. My chest swelled as we neared my set. Print after perfect print closed the gap between us and the trap. I strained to see.
The pad impressions went directly to — and past — my set.
I was speechless as I knelt beside my untouched trap.
“Two inches,” I finally muttered.
The bobcat had missed the pan twice. Each of its front feet had kissed the ground inside my dirt pattern — one two inches to the right, and the other, two inches to the left of the pan.
I couldn’t help but feel that I’d missed my best chance of the trip as we checked my triangle of sets near the dead beaver. No visitors.
We rode to the culvert area. I hung a short string of decorative garland above my dirthole — a heavily lured set that required extra digging in the frozen ground to make a hole for my bait. Wilhite laughed when I called it my “double dirthole with Christmas cheer” set.
His fisher buckets, like my ‘cat sets, were untouched. However, we discovered bobcat tracks nearby, although they were made before we placed our sets. We walked deep into the pines to check the last three sets.
With one set to go, Wilhite again pointed to our day-old trail. Another bobcat — this one with much larger paws — had chosen to use the trail we’d carved. And again, the prints were lined toward my trap. I studied each boot hole as we walked.
“Wait a minute,” I said with confusion. “These are going the wrong way now.”
The bobcat had backtracked and hopped off our trail near a tangle that undoubtedly housed snowshoe hares.
We returned to the creek. We found three more bobcat crossings. I made a combination of walk-through sets and dirtholes, setting on sign everywhere I could. Wilhite left a few more buckets in the woods.
“I can’t believe we haven’t seen a fisher track,” Wilhite said. “Plenty of bobcats, though.”
“Two inches,” I mused.
A New Day
The minus 10 degree stranglehold lifted overnight, replaced by dreary skies and a sprinkle of snow.
“Let’s go collect your ‘cat,” Wilhite said as we left the hotel.
Two men were standing outside of a row of four trucks a half mile from the bridge. The boxes on the back of each were empty — hound hunters.
“Hope they are running the other way,” I worried aloud. “I don’t want them anywhere near my sets.”
With dogs baying in the distance, Wilhite and I quickly walked to my first set. No otter sign today. No bobcats, either.
The scene of my near miss was void of new tracks, as was the new walk-through I had set just beyond it.
The dead-beaver triangle was as lifeless, although milder temperatures allowed more water to trickle through the flattail’s handiwork.
My newest sets, made high on a ridge, held promise. As we neared a trap I had set under a low-hung pine tree, I spied fresh’cat tracks in my dusted-over trail.
I was almost afraid to peek ahead at the walk-through set. I eased toward the trap, hoping for spots.
The bobcat traced my tracks perfectly. It even hesitated where I knelt to make a perfect walk-through in the exact spot where a bobcat had placed its feet a night earlier.
“The ‘cat was supposed to walk in bobcat tracks, not mine,” I lamented.
Just then, a rifle report pierced the pines.
“Dead kitty,” Wilhite said.
“That’s not good for me,” I said selfishly.
“The beauty of it is that there’s plenty of them in here to go around,” he said.
I couldn’t argue. But it didn’t soothe the sting of near misses two days in a row.
Last Chance For Four Years
Just drawing a Wisconsin bobcat tag is a lesson in patience. The harvest quota is fewer than 300 ‘cats per year, and with more than 6,500 people applying for about 1,300 tags, it takes four or five years to draw in the state’s preference point system.
The season runs from mid-October to Dec. 31, and it is legal to hunt or trap. Unfortunately, because the closest open zone is two hours north of my home, I could not afford to spend more than four days trapping.
I knew we’d have the creek and woods to ourselves on the last day — a Monday. Mother Nature had softened even more overnight, and a hint of mist hung in the air as we skipped through the snow.
The shelf set was undisturbed, but the otters had again breached the beaver dam during the night. I wished I had a valid otter tag, but drawing a bobcat tag was unexpected, so I had not applied for an otter tag in the northern zone.
I pulled the trap. We quickly climbed the hill, closing in on the site of my first check close call.
“Trap’s fired,” Wilhite reported.
I sped up to get a better look. A snowshoe hare lay in the snow. Wing marks — likely made by an owl responding to the distress cries — explained the condition of my catch.
Disappointed, I pulled the trap. Wilhite retrieved a fisher bucket set as I strode to my nearby walk-through.
I paused at the unfired set, staring at the ground. A smallish, perfectly formed bobcat paw print was directly atop of the pan.
I shook my head, squinted and furrowed by brow. I stared some more. It was still there. Dead-center.
“Unbelievable,” I mouthed, although I’m not sure if any sound passed my lips.
Wilhite was just as baffled. He took a stake out of his pack and touched the pan with the lightest of pressure. The trap fired, soiling the snow around its bed with sand.
“I don’t know,” he offered.
I was queasy. Wilhite pulled the stake. The next 100 yards were tough walking.
I was sure it was the same ‘cat I had missed two nights earlier at the other set.
“That one has two less of its nine lives,” I told Wilhite later that day on the drive home.
I tried to shake it off. I had 17 more traps to check.
I lingered behind Wilhite as we crossed the logging road. The next set — a dirthole under a cedar canopy — was made on Wilhite’s hunch that bobcats might come off a ridge to reach the beaver dam.
His educated guess was correct. I had caught a bobcat! Had. I had.
Like a skeptical crime-scene investigator, I immediately began assembling the clues.
Whatever had pumped the rebar stake almost a foot out of the ground was gone. It left two calling cards: several strands of hair, and a straight line of tracks to — and from — my set.
“No,” Wilhite said in sheer disbelief.
I said nothing.
I wanted to pin blame for the scene on a coyote, a trap thief, hound hunters, anyone. But the culprit was obvious: a large bobcat had stepped in — and pulled out of — my trap.
We retrieved trap after trap.
Turkeys had fired one, and another had seemingly sprung for no reason. At the double dirthole with Christmas cheer, a white-tailed deer had obviously nosed my garland, leaving deep, telltale hoof prints a foot away.
All of Wilhite’s fisher buckets were disappointingly still baited and waiting, and even a pair of weasel traps we’d placed near tracks were as we’d left them.
“I don’t know how I could have come any closer to catching my first bobcat without bringing one home,” I said when I was sure the last of my sets was empty.
Wilhite bit his lip as he pulled the last stake and deposited the trap in my basket.
“If we just had a few more days…”