The trap stake was still there, sticking at a rakish angle in the soft mud above the torn-up spot where my set had been. A sharp, pungent reek of mink musk, a quarter-sized puddle of blood and the boot tracks around the set told the story.
The unwelcome fellow who E.J. Dailey long ago started calling “Johnny Sneakum” had paid my trapline a visit.
It was supposed to have been a drowning set, but I guess I’d been a little careless, or lazy, or something. I’d staked the trap in a way that allowed a trapped animal to wrap around a nearby root instead of getting into the water and drowning, and that’s what this mink had done. If I’d staked the trap a little farther from the root, or used a little less wire, the set would have functioned the way it was designed. The mink would have been out of sight under two feet of muddy water, and I would probably still have had the mink and my trap.
As I climbed the steep road embankment to my truck, I swished the heavy rebar through the air like a cutlass. At least he left me the stake, I thought sourly. I’d like to have the chance to give it to him, though.
That scene, in many variations, plays out countless times every year as trappers all over the country lose furs and traps to people who find them and can’t resist the temptation. It’s worse in some places than others, but it happens just about everywhere. It’s a very rare trapper indeed — not to mention a very lucky one — who hasn’t had traps and catches stolen.
The theft problem is usually worse for trappers who operate on public land and waterways, of course. And generally speaking, Eastern trappers are bothered more by trap and fur theft than their counterparts in the western states. Less theft is partly because of a much lower human population, but probably also because of the much more favorable attitude toward trapping of most folks in the West. Fewer bunny-huggers live in Wyoming than Maryland, and therefore, the incidence of vandalism-type trap theft is lower.
But none of us, West or East, public or private, are immune. Even so, trappers can minimize their level of exposure and risk. Nothing is foolproof, but many steps can help make your trapline activities invisible.
Avoid Risky Places
One of the best ways to avoid trapline theft is to avoid theft-prone areas in the first place.
That seems overly simplistic, but it’s true — a location along your line where you’ve had theft problems in the past is also likely to be troublesome in the future. Unfortunately, the only sure-fire way to identify theft-prone areas is through the School of Hard Knocks. It’s a classic good news/bad news situation: The good news is you can avoid those places. The bad news is you have to lose a few traps before you figure out the places to avoid.
Of course, common sense can help to identify high-risk places. If you’re trapping culverts and bridges, high-risk locations might be those close to dwellings with free-roaming dogs or cats that might get caught and lead someone to your sets.
If you’re using a canoe or johnboat to trap a river, a high-risk theft location might be where an angler’s trail comes down to the water’s edge. If you’re trapping a national forest, a hiking trail or well-used all-terrain vehicle trail might prove to be a high-risk location. However, sometimes these places are perfectly safe for setting, with no theft problems whatsoever.
Out of Sight, Out of Danger
Keeping sets and catches out of sight is the most important step a trapper can take to minimize theft. A set underneath a bridge is harder for people to see than a set on a bare creek bank 50 feet downstream from the bridge. Likewise, a raccoon set 50 yards off the main stream up a feeder creek is less likely to be seen and interfered with by boaters.
Making predator sets in heavy brush and concealing mink pockets underneath overhanging grass or roots are good examples of keeping sets out of sight. If you’re trapping bobcats and canines, walking a few extra yards and making your set around the bend in a trail or secondary road so it can’t be seen by passing traffic is a good idea.
Of course, the downside to making your sets so that they’re not visible from the road or stream is that out-of-sight sets usually take longer to check. It’s a trade-off. Your sets are safer and more likely to still be there when you check them, but you can’t check as many sets in your available trapping time.
Low-Vis Beats High-Vis
Out-of-sight sets are not always practical, of course. Time factors must be considered, and in some cases, the best set locations are visible from a road. That doesn’t mean you have to avoid them — provided you can make sets that don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
For example, instead of using a big-hole pocket set on an exposed bank where there’s an abundance of raccoon sign, opt for a more subtle set that’s equally effective. Rather than digging a foot-wide hole that can be seen from 100 yards away, use a rebar stake to punch three or four small “crawdad” holes in the bank, and put bait, lure or fish oil (or all three) in the holes. This type of set is much less visible, but just as effective as long as it is on location.
Use overhanging grass to hide your pocket in a high-visibility area — even if you have to transplant the grass to the proper place. A single clump of long grass, dug up by the roots and arranged so it drapes properly, is enough to turn a visible set into an invisible one, and it doesn’t deter a mink or raccoon in the least.
When I started longlining for mink more than 30 years ago, one of the first things I figured out is a dead mink in a bodygrip trap is much less visible than a live mink in a foothold trap. It’s less visible than a dead one in a foothold trap, too, for that matter. A mink can create quite a disturbance at a set location before expiring, which can be very noticeable to passers-by.
I’ve since applied that philosophy to trapping other furbearers as well. Where it is legal and where catching domestic animals isn’t likely, using #160s, #220s or power snares to quickly kill captured furbearers is an effective way to reduce theft and interference.
A gardener friend of mine uses a bucket and a #160 to keep marauding raccoons out of his corn. He calls the setup his “pancake maker,” in reference to the way the powerful little trap flattens ‘coons.
I also make extensive use of my own pancake makers for a variety of furbearers — muskrats, mink, raccoons, beavers, otters, and even bobcats and gray foxes on occasion. I couldn’t even begin to estimate the number of furbearers I’ve taken in plain sight of major roads that were all but invisible because the animals died very quickly in the trap.
Slide Them Out of View
Foothold sets and the catches they make can be rendered pretty much invisible by using slide wires. The technique was developed primarily as a method to drown catches at water sets, but it has the added advantage of getting the trapped animal under water and out of sight.
Therefore, provided the set is subtle, traps can be placed in more visible places than if the trapped animal was going to be confined in full view at the trap site. I use slide wires extensively, for everything from raccoons to mink to otters to beavers.
Slide-wire drowners can reduce theft even if the drowned animals aren’t out of sight. Most trap thieves are opportunists, and it often happens that they aren’t equipped to retrieve a catch they can’t reach from the bank.
A friend who road-traps for raccoons in Iowa told me about a double set he made under a wooden bridge. He made two crawdad hole sets, one on each side to the 20-foot wide, hip-deep creek, and ran a single slide wire between the sets with a twist of wire in the middle to stop the traps at midstream. He doubled on coons the first night, and when he ran his trapline the next day, both animals were visible, floating head-to-head, in the middle of the slider at midstream. The bank on both sides of the creek was full of human footprints, where a potential thief had paced up and down trying to figure out a way to get to the two raccoons.
Slide-wire arrangements are useful on land sets, too. I trap national forest and state wildlife management area lands, and many of the best set locations are on well-traveled roads. I can make effective flat sets at the edge of these roadways that are practically invisible, but the invisibility goes away when one of these sets connects with a furbearer.
Grapples are one solution to the problem, but looking for my trap and catch takes a bite out of my trapping time.
The answer is slide wires — more accurately, slide cables — because in this instance, the trapped animal will remain alive and will fight the trap longer than a water-caught animal would. Using the same principles I use on my water line, I can catch furbearers on the road where they’re traveling and quickly direct them down the cable and out of sight under the road berm or into a thicket.
Don’t Be Predictable
Showing up at the same place on your line at the same time every day can make it easier for thieves to rob your traps and catches. If possible, vary your routine. Run your line backward or in a different sequence, so you check sets at different times of the day. Run your line at night every once in a while, if you can.
Another way to reduce your exposure to theft is to avoid running traps during high-traffic times. Sometimes your scheduling requirements won’t allow this, but if your trapline and your available time will permit, run the more remote portions of your line during pre-work and post-work times when commuters are most likely to be on the roads, and save the higher-traffic locations for times when passers-by are not as numerous.
Leave No Tracks
Footprints and vehicle tracks can give away your activities to potential thieves, so minimize them when possible. Walk in the grass or in the water when approaching and leaving set locations. When you’re vehicle trapping along gravel roads, leave your truck in the edge of the road, if traffic allows, rather than pulling to the shoulder and leaving telltale tire prints.
Minimize the amount of time you spend at each stop. Not only will you tend more traps, but it reduces the likelihood someone will see you or your vehicle. The fewer folks who know you’re in the area, the better off you’ll be.
Use Your Junk
Not junk, exactly. That’s a poor choice of words. But if you have to set a place you suspect has high theft potential, it might be wise to use your less valuable traps. I prefer using modified #1½ coilspring traps for mink, for example, but one of my modified traps costs me $8. That’s a substantial investment.
If I find too much mink sign to ignore in a high-risk area, I’ll set it up. But instead of the high-dollar #1½ coilspring, I’ll use one of my old #1½ longsprings. They’re good traps, but I bought them used for less than $2. If I lose one, it’s easier to live with.
Know Your Competition
If you are sharing trapping territory with other trappers — which most of us do — make an effort to find out who they are and make contact with them.
Looking a fellow trapper in the eye and letting them know you’re in the area tends to lower the possibility of them messing with your stuff. Contact can also result in friendships and alliances, and even to new trapping partners.
At the very least, it can put you on speaking terms with the competition, and can lead to mutual agreement to keep an eye out for each other’s interests. Two sets of eyes are better than one when it comes to keeping tabs on a trapping territory.
Weighing the Risks
It pays to always be thinking about ways to make your activities, sets and catches less visible.
In the end, trappers must go away and leave traps unguarded, so no set location is 100 percent theft-proof.
We must weigh the possible gain against the possible risk at each and every set location, take precautions, then be prepared to accept any losses and consider them as a necessary part of the cost of doing business. It ought not be that way, but it is.
Jim Spencer, a notorious mink trapper of Calico Rock, Ark., is a field editor for T&PC.