Pan Covers - Part I
Like most of us, whenever I set a trap on land I use a pan cover or pan plug. Over the years I've formed my own criteria of what I want to achieve. Some people seem to struggle in their selections, so I'll explain what I use, and how they came about over time.

Other than the woodchucks (groundhogs) on my family's farm, my first real try at land trapping was for raccoon. Their tracks were often found, especially around our sweet corn patch. I was also seeing a track or two when I ran my muskrat and mink traps along the railroad track ditches, and the deep ravines that ran through the woods next to one of our hayfields.

My first real fox and coon traps were some #2 double longsprings that I bought with money I'd saved, and I was really proud of them. Fox tracks were fairly scarce, though I knew they were around, and I intended to catch one sooner or later. At that young age a coon was almost as good as a fox, so I set out to catch a coon the first fall I had those new #2s.

I had been seeing some large coon tracks along the water that had collected in a deep ravine. At the time I considered it a real 'hot spot' simply because I could see their tracks; the rest of the woods floor had a covering of leaves. That carefully chosen location was my destination on the first day of trapping season, October 25, many years ago. I had cut light log drags, and had heavy wire for tying my trap rings to them. A few hollowed out roots under large oaks and maples were the specific spots, and even though the digging in the heavy, wet, red clay was a mess, I got the job done.

I dug out the trap beds with a garden trowel I'd borrowed from the garage, and carefully placed the traps in them. Everything was going great until it came time to cover the traps. I had figured on simply 'sprinkling' the dirt (clay) back over them, but it didn't take long to see that the wet clay wasn't having anything to do with that. A slight feeling of panic came over me, and I saw my dream of catching a barn wall covered with fur was slipping through my fingers.

I came to my senses, and realized that the entire woods floor was covered with hardwood leaves. I'm sure it took a minute or two to find the 'perfect' maple leaf to cover the pan. The leaf simply folded around the edges of the trap pan when I applied the heavy mud, so I laid another wet leaf on top of it, to hide the pan and create a place for the coon to step. The leaves helped form a space, or pocket, under the pan, that allowed the pan to drop when the coon stepped on it. A minimal amount of mud had seeped under the pan, and all went well.

I was rewarded with a coon on the first check, and all my worries and plans had come together. My first experience with pan covers had turned out well.

I considered raccoons well worth catching, but fox and coyote caught my attention at a very early age. Fox were often seen in the fields and along the woods roads and trails on the farm, and they became my obsession. I cut the wires off my trap chains, since I didn't feel the traps should be cluttered up with the dirty, twisted messes the coons had created, and I found lap links to anchor with instead.

My first experience around fox and coyote trapping was with a family friend who was bounty trapping. He used canvas as a pan cover on his traps, so after my first trip with him I was quickly looking for canvas. I found some old canvas in one of the sheds, and I cut it up in appropriate sized pieces with some heavy shears from my Dad's workbench. I can still smell the musty lingering of old dust, horse manure, and grease. Grease? Did I say grease? This couldn't be! Another setback, and the hunt was on again. I wasn't about to have a season wasted on my traps being dug up. Entire articles had been written about dug up fox traps because of dirty pan coverings, and I didn't want it to happen to me.
More searching around the farm resulted in a chunk of old carpeting in another outbuilding. It was really heavy, with coarse weaving. With the same shears I cut pieces just big enough to lay inside the trap jaws, with a notch for the dog. A little trimming of loose ends, a little airing out, and they were good to go.

This heavy pan covering was higher than the jaw level of the set trap, but I didn't recognize that as a problem at the time. I simply sifted the dirt over those first fox sets like a pro, and never paid attention to the fact that there was a hump in the center of the trap, created by the carpet. That made the clay covering over the pan thinner than over the rest of the trap.

I can't remember what my first finished fox set looked like, but I'm sure I admired it for some time. I do, however, remember the fox tracks that appeared on my trap pattern after only a few days. A clean miss. I started to doubt the lure I'd ordered from one of my supply catalogs. I'm sure my first impulse was to snap the trap off and start over, but something made me leave things alone for a few more days. My trapping mentor had really stressed that checking canine sets from a distance was important, and I was following his advice to the letter.

After a few days of checking from a distance I couldn't take it anymore, and I looked more closely. If I recall right, all three of my sets had been messed with. Fox tracks were everywhere, except on the pan. Scratching and digging at the jaws, the chain, and the pan cover was evident. My ample trap beds were literally packed down with fox tracks, and almost perfect outlines of the trap jaws were in plain sight.

Thoughts raced through my head so fast I couldn't process them all. My traps were clean; they'd been boiled right along with my friend's traps, and he was catching coyotes every day. I had worn the rubber gloves that my Dad had salvaged for me, and I had kept them clean, so I didn't think it was a case of odor contamination, although that nagging doubt was in the back of my mind. Looking back, I'm sure it was like the end of the world; my future plans dashed, my dreams disrupted by these fox.

It's possible that if I hadn't gotten the trapping obsession so bad, I just might have pulled my traps and quit. I've heard stories like that over the years. Instead, I got a ride over to our friend's house as soon as possible, to ask him what I had done wrong.

When I explained to him what had happened, he asked what I had used for a pan covering. When I told him about the old carpeting, he grinned. He explained that the thickness of the carpet had created the hump over the pan, and that my dirt covering over the trap had been compromised because of it. He also said that the smells in the old carpet possibly had more odor than my bait did, and that the fox were simply shying away from it, and digging at it. I was almost oblivious to trap adjusting or tuning at the time, but his quick lesson on having the pan slightly below jaw level was one that stuck, and I still subscribe to that theory 40 years later.

He always seemed to be boiling a pot of traps on his barrel stove, and we strung the remaining carpet pan covers on a piece of wire and boiled them right along with some traps. He also told me to go out to the manure pile behind our barn, and get some good dry rotted stuff to place in the bottom of my equipment bucket. He said it would help with any remaining odors.

I didn't ask if he had any pan covers to spare; my Dad was fairly strict about me doing my own scrounging, salvaging, and preparation, which I think was a good lesson. When I got home I went on to find some thinner, cleaner canvas.

Next issue: My pan covering education progresses.