Setting Trails - Part I
The first trapping books I read included detailed descriptions and diagrams on how to set trails for coyotes and other animals. I remember reading about stepping stones and sticks, and various ways of blocking down trails. There were some old wolf and coyote catch photos alongside the written methods, and I was convinced, early on, that trail trapping had to be an effective way to catch coyotes, fox, and other animals.

I can remember scouring the pastures and woods within walking distance of our house. I was looking for those picture-perfect trails that I saw in the old black and white photos of those books. Our horses had trails along the perimeter of the pastures and through most of the gates. I learned right away that low spots in trails created mud puddles after the frequent summer rains in the U.P. of Michigan. I checked them out as often as possible.

It always amazed me how quickly eight or 10 horses could really track up a good trail. Many times they totally eliminated any and all tracks left by the animals I was interested in. When we had sheep, they were even worse. They had a habit of splitting one trail into several trails, and widening some of the popular narrowed down spots.

When I got far enough away from the barns and corrals the horses spread out, and I began to see furbearer tracks with some regularity. I had already believed that animals were using our pastures, but their tracks let me know they were there, and where they travelled. It was a major step in my first lessons of tracking and sign reading.

As best I can recall, my first trail set was intended for raccoons. I picked a spot in a well-used trail by a hardwood patch, and the first thing I learned was how hard the ground was! All that hoof traffic had made the red clay almost cement-like. With the exception of the top 1/4-inch, it almost hurt my arms to dig a trap bed big enough to get a longspring trap fairly flush with the ground.

Staking the trap down was something that the books hadn't really gone into detail about. I guess it hadn't been a concern until I tried to drive a rebar stake into the trail. This all took place years before I got into the habit of having my stake in the right position and height to let the loose jaw rest on it, to stabilize the trap. I'm sure I had to chisel out a small trench for the chain, too, and in turn, had to cover it up. The soil I dug up was a different color, which caused concern because it sure didn't blend in very well with the rest of the trail when I sifted it back over the trap.

To make a long story short, the horses kept me busy resetting traps over the next few weeks. My Dad knew that even small traps would hold a sheep so he made me stay in the farther pastures. My first attempts at trail trapping didn't go well, but some lessons were learned.

Dirtholes and flat sets became my preferred sets for canines, and, for a long time, I didn't see any reason to get too far from them. There's always an exception to the rules, though, like when I found myself trying to catch late winter fox while in high school. Deep snow was the norm, and the same old books that showed me how to set trails, also talked about setting blind in snowshoe tracks. It all sounded tricky to me, and I was sure it would be an easy way to catch those fox that I hadn't caught in the early season.

I saw from time to time where fox would follow my snowshoe trails at what seemed to be random places, and for various distances. They would occasionally urinate on a tuft of grass or edge of a cattail hump. My first attempts at getting a few traps on these "highways" led me to discover just how hard a trail can get when wet snow is compacted and then frozen during the night. Again, it was hit and miss at best.

I asked my trapping mentor for advice. He told me how to place my trap in a hollowed out area beneath a fox track in the crusty snow. I didn't know it then, but that was a good lesson on learning to look where the animals want to go, not where I was trying to make them go.

When I later moved to Montana and Wyoming, I again tried, occasionally, to set trails with footholds. Some soil types in the West can hold tracks for a long time, which made it look like every animal for miles around was using that area. When I found trails with various sizes and ages of tracks, I figured they were worth a try. I was still in the stage of experience that made me think nearly all animals in that area would use the well-worn paths. I relied on trails to give me an accurate gauge of animal populations, and also to pick set locations.

It also took some time to fully grasp the amount of non-target animal traffic some of these trails got. Deer and other hooved animals followed them regularly. Smaller animals, like rabbits, virtually lived within feet of the better trails, and skunks seemed to follow them after wet weather. And, in nearly every area I trapped, livestock were present during at least part of the year. In other words, a whole lot of feet were going to beat a coyote or cat to a trap set in a trail.

Some types of soil in the West become even harder than Michigan clay, especially when it's been baked in 100-degree plus heat. My first hammer with a digging tang was a tool that I cherished for years because of that.

I was introduced to the famous Mike Ayers Dog-Knot stakes in 1983, and marveled at their ability to drive into very hard soil. They were made of high quality steel, with a hammer-forged point that didn't bend. They were tailor-made for trail setting, as I'm sure thousands of trappers discovered before me. Their unique design held in practically any type of soil, even in the spring when cement-like ground can become muddy and very loose.

I started using the dog-knots at about the time that they were available with a universal swivel. These swivels were added, in the building process, between the head and the "knot", so they were permanently attached. A rivet (J-hook) was used to connect the trap chain to the stake. It all made for a pretty efficient system. I was starting to use 18 inches of chain on my predator traps, so it did require a little more planning to bury as I had always used much shorter. And, the forged heads on the stakes worked well to stabilize the free jaw of the trap.

It did take me some time to learn the various types of soil to avoid in making effective trail sets. I was often tempted to set in areas that had high alkali soil, mainly because tracks seemed to be well preserved in them. The problems with that type of soil included: sets were very hard to blend; traps rust faster; and probably the most critical, they seemed to be in low spots or seeps that froze fairly easily.

At the other end of the scale were trails in sand blows and river edges. Tracks were only evident for a short time, usually due to wind, but they were easy to spot. Blending a set was fairly easy, and I often did the top covering by slowly letting sand or small river gravel run through my fingers and letting the wind blow it to a natural state later.

Blocking trail sets was illustrated in the books I mentioned earlier. Some showed sticks, stones, and even cow pies or "chips". Early on, I was disappointed to find out that those types of blockings got moved by non-targets too quickly for my liking. Often I'd find a stick laying directly on top of, or even in, my trap. After I saw tracks going right over or by my sprung traps enough times, I learned to use blocking that was fairly stationary.

One thing that intrigued me right from the start was, some coyotes didn't mind walking right by and/or over a sprung trap, while other shied away. Often there would be a dropping they'd leave close by, usually with a few feet. I found out, over time, that when a coyote does that, they are fairly easy to catch. (But not always!)

I truly believe that there's more "traffic" on smaller or side trails than might loosely follow a larger, possibly well used trail or path. I know it's not always the case, but I see it often enough that I might actually skip over the obvious places, and look for a secondary line of travel to set on or by.

Another thing that I've observed fairly often is, don't rely on finding tracks right where a trail crosses a road. Sometimes canines and bobcats will venture several yards down the bigger avenue of travel, and then cut across to the trail many yards away. It only takes a few more minutes to find a suitable place to set, usually, but it can increase your odds.