Pan Covers Part II
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 last article ended with me describing the trials and errors of finding adequate and effective pan covering materials, based upon my early trapping experiences. The late 1970s and early 1980s were times of a new wave of information, riding the excitement created by the fur boom of that era. Looking back, I realize I was using up a lot of time and energy on something that should have been easy. Today, 40 years later, beginning trappers still present me some of the same questions and concerns.

My first experience with land trapping was with dog-on footholds, and then later with dogless types. When I moved West, the people I met used a variety of things for pan covers. Some used pan 'plugs', material under the pan to keep dirt out. The concept of putting something under the pan was new to me.

The pan covers I saw included plastic sandwich baggies, cupcake covers, un-scented toilet paper, and even the plastic drawer or cupboard lining used in kitchens. Pan plugs, or 'underalls' as some called them, were either foam, or one of the many commercially offered plugs made of one sort of foam or another. Most of my new friends were still experimenting with these new concepts.

All seemed to work to a point, but they all had drawbacks, too. It took time and extensive field testing in real trapping situations to figure out what would work the best for me.

The plastic baggies were handy, and since they were on a roll, easy to dispense. But their problems were many. First, the rodents seemed to sense them buried in the ground. In hindsight, they possibly smelled or heard them when they crossed the trap pattern. I hate to think of how many times I had the baggie type covers exposed, removed, or partially shredded at a set. The kangaroo rats and ground squirrels must have liked to hoard them because some simply vanished, exposing the pan of the trap.

Another huge problem with the baggies was that they weren't rigid enough to always create a void under the pan, and preserve it, especially after even a little rain. Dirt sometimes pushed against the sides below the pan, and got under the pan. And, when it did rain, they seemed to trap the moisture right where it didn't need to be, in and around the trap jaws. I had to find something better.

One of my trapping mentors at the time was using a commercial pan plug, and he encouraged me to try some. They came pre-cut, and in a handy plastic bag. I remember opening the bag, and smelling them for the first time. I had my doubts about the obvious man-made material, based on my previous experiences. My buddy said he didn't worry about the smell, and he simply boiled them with his traps. I was game to try anything, but I was having trouble with the fact that he was suggesting using a plug that could possibly contain some moisture. I was reflecting on previous experience, and a frozen, rock hard plug under my pan didn't appeal to me.

But I tried them, and they did work in a lot of cases, at least in the early season. I got around the smell factor by placing some sagebrush tops in the box and bags I carried them in, and they worked OK overall. Then the rain and snow came, and the plugs became sponges, and I had a real mess on my hands. If I didn't keep the trap 100% maintained with bone dry dirt, the material seemed to wick any and all moisture away from surrounding dirt in the tap bed, and in some cases froze into a block of ice. In other words, the trap pan wouldn't go down when the animal stepped on the pan, because it couldn't. Later that spring I asked my friend about his experience with them, and he admitted he had used them for the first time that winter too, and went through the same experience. A lesson learned.

To my knowledge, this was before waxed dirt came on the scene. Freezing and thawing were major factors in land trapping, and most people were simply hauling around pre-collected dry dirt or coal shale to remake sets with when Mother Nature dropped the hammer on us every season. It very quickly became clear to me that some of the recommended pan coverings left a lot to be desired. The way I looked at it was that the weather was always going to be a factor in keeping traps working, and at the time no real way around it was in sight.

But an effective method to keep my foothold traps working was always on my mind, and the search continued.
By the mid-1980s I was pretty much sold on the merits of the high lever dogless traps, and had almost completely converted to them. When I bought several dozen new traps from a friend of mine who dealt in them, I asked what he was using for pan covering. He handed me a piece of fairly heavy window screen cut in a rectangular shape. He lifted the free jaw of a set trap, cupped the screen slightly, and slid one end under the free jaw. The rest went over the pan, and the other end was slid under the opposite jaw. I stood there in silence, my mind racing.

He said this type of screen was solving so many of his previous problems that he was 100% sold on them. I didn't waste time getting to the hardware store and buying several feet of the same type of screen. I cut them the same 5-1/4 by 6-1/2 inch pattern that my buddy had come up with as the best size, and ran with them.

I was too busy trapping and trying to make a living to fully study and realize all the benefits of the stiff screen that first season, but that all came about in time. Once again, field experience was needed to fully evaluate them.

The stiff screen created the dead space or 'pocket' under the pan that I like. Knowing that no dirt or other obstacle can prohibit the pan from falling was a big plus, and the obvious fact that the screen increased the pan size a bit really appealed to me too, as misses are always a factor, no matter the set or the blocking involved.

These screens became my pan covering of choice, and every year we'd cut up piles of them. I never boiled many, but did try it a time or two. I just tried to keep them clean, and I continued my habit of putting a little of the aromatic sage, easily found in my area, in with them. If I ever thought there might be something on a screen, I'd simply rub it around in the dirt a little to scour it clean.

I tried a few different types of screens, usually when I couldn't find the fairly heavy stuff I came to depend on. Some were very flimsy, and quickly got dismissed. I didn't like how they would collapse under the weight of the 1/2-inch of dirt I cover my traps with, and how they'd actually slide a bit, creating problems from time to time.

I tried some super heavy, very stiff material. Some friends said they were using it, and I gave it an honest try. I found that if the screen is too stiff, your pan had better be 100% perfectly adjusted each and every time to work properly. If my pan was even slightly too high, the hump the screen created over it was a problem. Also, I saw that the very rigid screen, while resting on the levers of the trap inside the jaws, could prohibit the pan from falling as easily as I liked. I quickly decided that it wasn't for me, and went back to what I had been using.

I cut different sizes and shapes over the years, to fit different traps that I was trying, but most were close to those original dimensions. You can experiment to see what size would work best for you, on the trap of your choice.

Like a lot of other things in today's world, materials available and products made just aren't what they used to be. The screen available in so many of the big building and hardware supply stores is too flimsy and light for my liking. Some is made from fiberglass or aluminum material, and based on my experiences with any smells associated with those, I avoid them too. I just don't see any reason to put a foreign smell right on top of my trap, right in the center of the trap bed. It's as simple as that.

Now, after 30 years of using it, I've found a happy medium of material weight and rigidity. There is no number or gauge or anything else associated with it, to better describe it - you'll have to experiment. We cut up four or five 100-foot rolls to use and sell every year. A high quality paper cutter has paid for itself many times over in this application.

I've used the screens with both dog-on and dogless traps, but I've got to where I like to use Polyfill (a man-made pillow stuffing) with smaller traps, like a #1-1/2, #1.75, and even a #2 at times. Screens and small traps just don't seem to work right for me, and I've opted to use this type of under pan plug on them. A $3 bag of Polyfill will last a whole season, and is easy to use. I simply place a small amount under the pan, and I've found that it takes maybe half of your first estimate to make it work right. I allow maybe 1/4-inch of the material to stick out from the edges of the entire pan. Any visible fibers are tucked back under the pan, because I've found they are quickly found by rodents, which might cause some scratching or activity inside the jaws.

The Polyfill doesn't seem to absorb moisture, although I've seen where some people claimed that it did. I've found that it doesn't freeze, even when wet, but of course any water around it will. Anyway, it is as close to perfect that I've found for smaller traps for land trapping, and is easily found at Wal-Mart. I carry it in a small Ziploc bag, or simply in a pocket inside my canvas setting bag, the same as my screens.

These two types of pan covers/plugs are what have worked well for me over the years. Give them a try on your line, in your weather conditions.