Once Pinched, Twice Shy

The scratch marks were deliberate and careful, uncovering the right side of the coilspring trap. The trap was still firmly bedded and unsprung. The backing, a fist-sized rock, was rolled out of the way, and the rebar-sized lure hole had been dug out.

A single, perfect paw print in the soft dirt just outside the trap bed identified the culprit: gray fox. The track wasn’t necessary for identification, though, because on top of the backing rock was a fresh, tarry puddle of gray fox poo.

“Looks like he knows more about how you make your sets than you do,” I said. “Evidently he doesn’t like your technique, either.”

Charles Hawley grinned at me from under the brim of his weather-beaten hat.

“Well, that makes us even,” he said. “I don’t like his technique, either. I bet I know this critter, though. I caught a vixen here last season, and the next day, I pinched another fox and lost it because I got sloppy and let a stick get between the jaws. I bet this is the same fox.”

Leaving the fox tar in place, Hawley replaced the backing rock and rebuilt the set. The next morning, the trap was uncovered again, but this time the backing wasn’t moved. Another remake. The third morning, the trap was uncovered again, and although the backing still hadn’t been moved, a fresh serving of tar had been deposited on it.

“This is getting old,” Hawley said. This time, after the remake, he moved to the other side of the backing and made a flat set close against it, blending the finished set in with a thin layer of sifted duff. When he was through, there was no indication of a trap bed behind the backing.

I had to leave that day, but Hawley called me the next afternoon.

“He was a mature dog fox, just like I figured,” he said. “I guess he wasn’t expecting that trap behind the backing. But if I’d done my job right last year, he wouldn’t have been expecting any trap at all.”

That trap-wise critter met his match a long time ago, and Hawley has gone on to a trapline where foxes don’t dig up traps. But I never forgot the valuable lesson I learned from that experience.

Not how to catch a trap-shy animal. That wasn’t it. Sure, Hawley eventually caught that fox, but it could have just as easily turned out the other way. Dealing with trap-shy animals is hit-and-miss, no matter what species of furbearer you’re dealing with, and no matter what you do. The important thing I learned from Hawley’s experience with that fox came from his comment to me on the telephone after he finally caught the animal: “…if I’d done my job right last year, he wouldn’t have been expecting any trap at all.”

Close Calls Educate Critters
That’s the secret: Do your job right, and you won’t have trap-wise critters to deal with. It’s as simple — and as complicated — as that. Aside from muskrats, skunks and opossums (and maybe even them, too,) it’s possible to educate almost any furbearer by giving it a close call. See how many times you can whack a beaver across the shoulder or pinch its belly with a poorly-braced #330 bodygrip trap before you make it “square-shy.” I’m betting once.

The beaver, incidentally, is probably the most-talked about species of furbearer when it comes to trap-shyness. Beavers are big, powerful animals with large but delicate feet, which makes them hard to hold if a trapper doesn’t know how — and most landowners who try to take care of their own beaver problems don’t have a clue. After the landowner botches the job, a trapper is called in — and has to deal with an educated local beaver population.

But beavers certainly aren’t the only furbearer species capable of becoming trap-savvy. Canines are capable of it, as are raccoons and otters. Although I’ve never had any experience with them, if even one-tenth of the stories I’ve heard are true, a wolverine is capable of extreme trap-wariness.

Tend to Details
Trap-wariness, regardless of the species, is avoidable. A furbearer isn’t born trap-shy. Trappers — and wannabe trappers — teach individual furbearers to be trap-wary through improper techniques.

Using contaminated equipment is one common problem. I’m no stickler for all that paranoid trapper stuff about hanging traps outside for several weeks before trapping season, using kneeling cloths and all that.

I think it is impossible to keep keen-nosed animals such as coyotes and foxes from smelling human odor at a set no matter what we do, so being too nit-picky about it is counter-productive because it slows us down. Still, it is foolish to leave unnecessary amounts and types of odors at sets. I try to keep my traps and set-making equipment clean — particularly when it comes to potentially attractive contaminants such as lure, fish oil or skunk essence. Just about the surest way I know of to get a trap dug — and a critter educated — is to catch a skunk in it, then use the trap at another set somewhere else.

The advice from this corner is pretty straight-forward: dye/dip/wax your traps according to personal preference, then use common sense in the way you treat, handle and store them until use.

Don’t contaminate them unnecessarily, but don’t give yourself ulcers worrying about it, either. A much more common culprit than odor contamination in creating trap-savvy furbearers is improper trap bedding, placement and stabilization.

If a fox, coyote or raccoon steps on the jaw or spring of an improperly bedded trap and the trap moves under its foot, the chances are good the animal will dig up the trap. The animal isn’t digging because it is smart, but because it’s curious. The ground isn’t supposed to shift under its feet. When it does, the animal investigates.

Raccoons are especially likely to dig, particularly at water sets. If you have a trap at a water set turned upside down, or pulled off to one side, but still unsprung, the culprit almost always is a raccoon. The ‘coon steps on the trap or the chain, gropes with its front paws, and moves the trap out of the way.

To eliminate the problem, bed land and water sets firmly, so the trap won’t move if an animal steps on it. I think it’s worthwhile at land sets to use a Trapper’s Cap and pack dirt firmly inside the jaws, because sometimes, an animal will dig if it steps on soft dirt. In water sets for raccoons, stepping sticks or guide sticks can also help.

Bodygrip traps can also educate animals rather than catch them. Brace a bodygrip poorly, and the target animal is likely to push it over instead of going through it. Set it too low, and the animal will often try to climb over. If the trap fires when it’s being pushed or climbed over, the result will be a sharp whack to the critter’s leg or body, but no catch. Presto, a trap-savvy animal that will probably refuse bodygrip traps from then on.

Use commercial stabilizers or sturdy sticks to position the trap high enough off the ground and hold it steady. Catch the animal the first time through.

Trap Sizes and Fasteners
Another way many animals become educated is by being caught and escaping. Using good, strong, mechanically sound traps of the proper size for the target animal is one of the ways to minimize pullouts.

Usually, when a trapper uses the wrong trap for a particular furbearer, the trap is too small or weak. It’s pretty obvious why that is unwise, but using too much trap can also be bad.

It’s not as critical in drowning-type sets, but traps that are too large for the target animal can break bones, resulting in twist-outs or chew-outs. If the escaped animal survives, it likely becomes trap-wise. If it dies, you’ve wasted a furbearer. Neither is a desirable outcome. Fastening a trap properly is almost as important as using the right one. Use drowning sets or killer-type sets wherever possible. Stake land sets securely or use drags that are heavy enough or grab enough to keep the captured animal where you can find it.

Don’t just catch the animal the first time through. Hold it, too.

Leave Some for Seed
In the end, there’s only one sure-fire, 100 percent successful way to deal with trap-shy critters. I learned this trick from an old trapping buddy, too. The situation was similar to the one I’d seen on Hawley’s trapline: a dug-up trap, backing moved aside, lure hole dug out, anal commentary from the guilty party left at the scene. This time it was a coyote, and a set of tracks in soft ground near the ruined set revealed a missing toe on a front foot.

I expected Harold to remake the set and maybe employ a sneaky back-door tactic like Hawley had done, so I was surprised when he pulled the trap. As we walked back to the truck, I related Hawley’s tactics for catching the trap-wise gray fox.

“Yeah, I might have caught him if I’d done something like that,” Harold conceded. “But you don’t want to catch every last critter unless you’re working damage control, and a dumb coyote is just as valuable as a smart one. While I was spending extra time trying to catch this smart one, I’d be passing up dumb ones somewhere down the road. So, I have a name for critters like the coyote that dug up that set. I call them ‘breeding stock.’”

Inheriting Trap-Shy Animals
Leaving some animals to breed is a healthy attitude for a fur trapper, but as Harold mentioned, it’s not an option in nuisance animal control situations. When dealing with problem animals, the trapper must often remove every animal. It can be tough going.

Ten years ago, I got a call from a landowner having beaver problems in his ponds. A creek running along the boundary of his place provided an easy travelway for beavers, and the trees around the chain of ponds running through his land were an attractive food source. Many of the trees in the landowner’s yard were ornamentals.

The job looked simple enough. As near as I could tell, no beavers were actually living in the ponds, but were coming onto the property from the creek. Their travelways between the creek and the first pond and between the ponds themselves were well-defined. After making sure the landowner knew removing the current beaver crop wasn’t a permanent solution because the creek would eventually supply replacements, I got to work.

Three days later, I still hadn’t caught a beaver. I’d asked the landowner in the beginning if there’d been any other trappers there before me.

Nope, he said, but after three goose-egg days, I asked him again.

The man hadn’t exactly lied to me, but he hadn’t told me the whole truth, either. He’d consulted two other trappers before me, and when they quoted him their rates, he’d decided the price was too high.

Now, this man was a wealthy surgeon. The rates he charged for his services were astronomical compared to what beaver trappers charge. He could have bought and sold those other two trappers and me a hundred times, and yet he’d balked at paying a few hundred dollars to have beavers removed so they’d quit cutting down his shade trees. I don’t know, but I bet his train of thought ran something like this: If I’m smart enough to be a surgeon, surely I’m smart enough to trap a few dumb beavers.

So he went down to the local farm supply store, bought a half-dozen #1½ coilsprings and two #330 bodygrip traps, and became a beaver trapper.

Or rather, a beaver educator.

Evidently, he either pinched the toes of or whopped the nose or belly of every beaver on his place. His total catch in three weeks, before he figured out he needed outside help after all, was two beaver toes, a possum and a snapping turtle. By the time I got there, his “dumb beavers” had graduate degrees in trap avoidance.

“Did you use snares?” I asked, when he got through telling me what he’d done.

Blank look.

OK, good. I still had something to work with. It wasn’t as good as if I could have used footholds and bodygrip traps, too, and I probably wouldn’t be able to catch them all using just snares, but at least I had something.

I set the place heavily, because I knew the beavers would be alive and visible and I’d need to catch as many as possible before the survivors smelled a rat. As it turned out, I think I got them all. Or at least, I got enough of them that the survivors got spooked and vamoosed. I took 14 beavers in three days, and fresh sign stopped showing up.

The surgeon gladly paid me, and I’ve gone back three more times to clean out his beavers again. But I’m always careful, and every time I’ve been able to take care of his problem in a few days because the travelways are so easy to set.

And also because the good surgeon has learned his lesson, too. Nowadays, he sticks to his operating room, and leaves the trapping to me. That way, I don’t have educated critters to deal with, and my job is much easier than it was the first time.

Which is the whole point: Do it right the first time. If a furbearer’s first encounter with a trap or snare it its only one, it will never become trap-shy.

Jim Spencer of Calico Rock, Ark., is a filed editor for T&PC.

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