Waxed Dirt
The first time I saw waxed dirt advertised, I was more than a little curious. It said "freeze proof", which got my attention because like many land trappers I dealt with harsh weather conditions and the consequent frustrations. Freezing and thawing have plagued a lot of us, and if there truly was a way to put Mother Nature back on her heels a bit, I was all for it.

Most of my friends read the same magazines I did, and a few were as intrigued as I was, but none of us would spend the money for a bag to try. No doubt shipping charges to Montana were a factor.

This was before trapping forums and Facebook, with their many members ready to chime in on an issue. I had to search out people who had used it and could give me firsthand information on how it worked.

I was trapping in an area that had a lot of coal shale seams and banks, and I was used to simply backing up to a spot and getting a half barrel or so whenever I needed it. This was free, and worked fairly well in a variety of weather conditions, with the exception of freezing/thawing periods after snows.

If I was able to get up high on a natural coal bank, and set on the south side, it really was surprising how much bad weather a set could take and still work. The black coal shale would absorb the sunshine on the short winter days, and dry out faster than the gumbo found in the same banks.

But anyone who has done any winter trapping has probably experienced the almost frantic movement of predators a few days after a major storm front. You need to have your sets working as well as possible, to take full advantage of this escalation of predator activity.

More times than I care to remember, I've had fairly large lines of traps almost completely frozen down after snowfalls followed by chinook winds that partially melted the snow. The freezing temperatures that seem to come along the next night resulted in traps so frozen down that, as I used to say, "An elephant couldn't set them off".

An inch or two of hard, condensed frozen snow forms a crust that's as tough to deal with as it gets. It often comes off in chunks when you remove it from a trap bed. The result is a sunken trap bed, and a place for even more drifting snow and moisture to collect. In other words, a real mess.

So, when a furbuyer friend of mine became a dealer for waxed dirt, I asked him to let me at least have a look at it. He had brought some to the Montana rendezvous, in hopes of changing winter canine and cat trapping. I was impressed at how fluffy and dry it was, right out of the bag. But I was a little concerned at how fine it was, and wondered if the wind would carry it away.

My friend sent me home with a few bags to try; he'd bought a few hundred coyote pelts from us the year before, and I guess he figured it was a good investment. I was both intrigued and skeptical at the same time, but I promised to give it an honest go that winter.

And, with waxed dirt being the new trapping topic of discussion at the time, I asked people in the industry about it and its origin. One story I got was that years ago, a trapper from the eastern U.S. had figured out that some types of anthill dirt were actually coated with a wax-like substance. This substance repelled moisture fairly well, which kept traps working in winter conditions.

It made sense to me, as I had been using anthills for backing at dirthole sets for years. I also learned early in the game that the top 1/4-inch or so of BB-size grit on an anthill was great trap covering, that didn't blow away in the wind.

The first chance I got to use the waxed dirt came soon enough. I was running a coyote and cat line on the ridges and trails on the south side of the Missouri Breaks, in eastern Montana. The gumbo of that region is unlike any other type of soil I've ever experienced, before or since. When wet it's slimy and gooey, and impossible to use as a trap covering. When dry it's fairly easy to run through a good sifter, and the consistency you get when using a fairly heavy expanded metal- type sifter tends to stay put in wind. The problem was, it acts like a wick when any moisture is involved. Sets that were working perfectly one day would be complete blocks of icy mud the next. I got in the practice of bedding my traps in coal shale, and then blending them in a bit with gumbo I found at the set, or brought with me. Unblended sets got a fairly high percentage of refusals from coyotes at times, so I was forced to use this dry gumbo as a blending material. Like a lot of things, the so called weak link will get you in trouble if it can, and this final dusting was often the weak link. That minimal amount of frozen gumbo soil could hold a surprising amount of a coyote's weight -- and it happened a lot.

So, with winter wearing on me, I was struggling to keep what felt like each and every trap operating. I broke out the bags of waxed dirt my friend have gave me.

Right away I saw that the wind did blow it around, and I had quite the mess in the bed of my pickup the first day. I really wasn't prepared to carry it around, and I wasn't sure how much to use at a set, so I'm sure I wasted quite a bit. Still, I remember being impressed at how dry it really was, and virtually no sifting was needed. Both were factors that made life a little easier, at least for a handful of test sets that I made at various locations.

The dirt used in the product was obviously from the East, and was a completely different color and consistency than anything found in Montana, so it didn't blend in very well. To make a long story short, it worked okay for cats, but the rate of refusals by coyotes was way too high for me.

It did work when snow came along and covered the sets, and that was a big plus. Throughout the winter we had many periods of bare ground and then snow, and then melting again, alternating every few weeks or so.

And, like I had thought, the very light and fine soil literally blew away at times, sometimes leaving traps bare in the bed. That clearly had to be dealt with if waxed dirt was going to be feasible in a large operation.

It was a few years later before I decided to try it again. I had started hearing that people were making their own waxed dirt, and using it with good success. To be honest, when I inquired about how they made it and how it was working for them, I at first thought it was too labor intensive and time consuming to be of any value for me.

My fall fox lines were basically pulled by the time real severe winter weather set in, with only a skeleton line left out in prime coal bank locations. Trail snaring coyotes and cats became my main winter objective.

Along in time, a friend who owed me some money paid me in waxed dirt. He had been making and using it for a few years, and really spoke highly about it. I bought 10 plastic garbage cans with lids, and headed to his place. He had the dirt in an old shed, with the cement mixer and propane torch he used to make it. As we shoveled it into the containers, I could see that it was pre-sifted and ready to go. One thing I wasn't sure about was that he had made it with fairly fine, sandy-like soil. Again, I was afraid of it blending in with soil in my area.

When I got home and unloaded the red plastic trash cans along the fence that bordered our driveway, my wife wasn't impressed. We hadn't been married very long, and I knew she would've rather had the money than 10 garbage cans in front of her house. But, being a good sport, she didn't say much.

That winter was a tough one, weather-wise. The waxed dirt was transferred into smaller containers and used on a daily basis for what seemed like a slug-out with Mother Nature. As the season wore on, I could see that waxed dirt was going to be an important part of my winter trapping operation, at any cost. It saved my bacon on countless periods of freeze/thaw that would normally have left sets with much maintaining.

That year turned out to be my very best for bobcats, and the money they brought paid a lot of bills for our young family. I'd been telling my wife how having lots of waxed dirt saved time and helped my catch. She apparently got used to the garbage cans in the yard, because she asked me the next summer if I was going back for more dirt!

I was impressed with the waxed dirt overall, but I noticed that coyotes avoided it at times. I was dealing with coyotes that had some pressure put on them, and they were naturally a little spooky. In some places, by looking at how they avoided it in the snow, I felt they could smell it. I asked my buddy more about how he made it, and he revealed the cement mixer and a propane torch. I immediately figured some of that smell got into the dirt while making it. He maintained that he didn't have many refusals from coyotes in his area, so I reasoned that maybe I was just dealing with a little tougher coyote to catch in the sheep county.

Time restraints and a busy summer with coyotes kept me from making any waxed dirt of my own for the next winter. So I bought more from my buddy. When I was shoveling it into my garbage cans, it appeared to be a little different consistency than the year before. It didn't seem to be as fluffy and dry. I was glad to have it, though, and started to use it on early winter coyotes.

It didn't take long to see that I was having problems with coyotes flat out avoiding it. I first thought that maybe the difference in color was enough to make them shy away. So, I sacrificed some of the precious dirt and made my patterns a little bigger, with the edges feathered in. This actually made it worse. I came back to my original theory that the propane used in the process was causing some smell. On the other hand, I knew that the smell in propane was induced into it, and dissipated fairly quickly. It really had me concerned, and puzzled.

When I opened the lid to a full trash can of dirt one morning, a strange smell was apparent. I stood there trying to figure it out, and then it became clear. Some of the batches had scorched wax. It had got too hot while being melted. Having melted wax to dip traps in for years, I knew there was a fine line between melting and scorching at times.

I opened more lids, and took big whiffs of each. Some seemed worse than others. I made a plan to use any that I could easily smell at cat specific locations. I knew bobcats wouldn't mind the barely detectable smell like some coyotes apparently did.

I also did what I was accustomed to doing whenever I wanted to hide or mask a smell when it came to trapping coyotes; I added sagebrush to the mix. The pungent odor of sage literally fills up your nose. I love it, as do a lot of other people. Its smell is absorbed well by dirt, as I soon found out, and I salvaged some waxed dirt in the process.

I got through that season fairly well, and learned even more about the waxed dirt. I started carrying it in smaller containers, because it tended to get almost cement-like when it jiggled and shook all day in the back of my pickup. And, I asked more people about their experiences and thoughts concerning waxed dirt.

In the next issue I'll talk about the plan I came up with to make my own.