Bobcats: A Matter of Yards, Feet and Inches
I’d just made my way up the entire length of a long draw in fairly rough country, and was pointing the Honda side-by-side towards the waiting pickup. Very little coyote sign was evident in the 4 inches of snow that had been on the ground for several days, and I decided not to set any equipment in the area. I’m a firm believer in setting on sign, no matter how old it is. I figured any coyotes in the area would’ve hit that pocket of rougher country during the previous snowstorms.

The area of Wyoming that I live and trap in is at the bottom of a cottontail rabbit cycle. I figured the sagebrush and greasewood in this draw would hold at least a few bunnies, or maybe a few wintering mule deer. But, like I’ve witnessed over and over through the years, if there’s no food, there’s no predators. It’s basically as simple as that in a lot of cases.

I just hit level ground when a few tracks, partially snowed in, caught my eye. I was surprised to see a predator track, since I had just made a ¾-mile loop without seeing any.

The way it hugged the top of a partially melted off bank had me thinking bobcat, but I had to look anyway. Way too many times I’ve guessed wrong, and if there was a coyote or two around this area, I might make some sets after all. I didn’t have to walk far; I could see a clear bobcat track in the snow, and then a few more in the narrow strip of wet dirt caused by the receding snow.

I work predator control for a county board in Wyoming, and I primarily focus on coyotes, so I didn’t set any traps or snares on this fresh cat sign. This particular ranch had also asked that we didn’t harvest cats, so I just continued on back to the pickup.

I thought back to times, over the years, that I aggressively sought out as many bobcats as possible. There were many years that bobcat furs had accounted for a large portion of our yearly family income. Many of those cats had been caught at locations that only held a track or two.

If I had been intentionally looking for bobcat sign in this draw, I’d have probably looked at the spot where I came across the tracks. The strip of bare dirt along the lip of the huge sink holes and cut banks are common spots to find sign.

Tracks aren’t the only sign I learned to look for when I’m trying to pick locations for cats, though. Droppings are a sure sign that a cat, or multiple cats, are present. Toilets, or places where there are multiple droppings, are great places to not only catch cats, but to take an inventory of the ones using it. Dropping size is a fairly accurate indicator of the size of the cats present. The age of the droppings and possible scratches in the dirt might show multiple visits, too. In some key spots, several bobcats might be visiting and checking things out on a regular basis.

I’ve set right at toilet locations, usually with a trap that has a heavy chain and drag attached because I like to preserve the location as much as possible. I learned a long time ago to set more than one trap at a good toilet. I got accustomed to setting two or three or more at spots that had many avenues of approach. Doubles aren’t uncommon at good locations, and cat catch circles make it that much more attractive.

Like many people, I learned the most about cats, and how and where to catch them, by following tracks. One self-satisfying thing that I’ve enjoyed often is to predict where a cat will end up, or where you’ll cut the track again.

In some cases locations are easy to find, and tracks will be fairly easy to find, too -- if cats are present. Rim rocks in good country are a good example. Some rim rocks seem to go on forever, while others just pop up here and there, often in a chain-like fashion. Bobcats will follow them from rock to rock usually, and are very easy to predict. Obviously, it was usually drier under any overhangs that the rocks created, which made setting and keeping traps working much easier. And tracks usually stayed evident longer there than they did on top of the wind-swept rims.

I never documented it in any way, but looking back to the days that I actively pursued them, I’d say I caught more males, or toms, on top of a rim that below it.

Blocking the set down is fairly easy in most places, too, since the edge of a rim rock is a great, unmovable backing. A few loose rocks of suitable size to finish the blocking process and get their feet where you want them, and you’re in business. That’s Cat Trapping 101 for a lot of western trappers.

On top of the rim, though, things can be very different. I’ve followed a lot of tracks over the years along the tops of rims that didn’t offer any obvious set locations. It took me awhile to realize and accept the fact that in many instances, a cat had started along the top of a rim rock, and then followed the dry spots and areas with no dirt. In most cases they followed within a few feet, maybe even within inches, of the edge, apparently hunting for prey below. If there’s any loose rocks or some vegetation, the cat or cats might veer off their original line of travel and hunt those spots too. Many, many times, all I would find was a single track. But that would be enough. As they say, “Sign doesn’t lie!”

So, I guess I could honestly say that to be on location is often a matter of feet, and at times, inches. I’d try to determine, without much doubt, right where I needed to be to feel that I had a good chance of picking up that cat when it returned.

Most of my serious cat trapping was done before the “exposed set” became standard for a lot of trappers. Looking back, I probably would have used some of those types of sets, but so many of my areas held virtually no brush to narrow things down.

I carried a lot of dirt to locations to bed traps in, where there wasn’t enough available naturally to use. Rocks were used for blocking because they were there and didn’t move around in the wind. And staking? Well, that seemed to always be a problem.

Good lure, bait, and urine helped get cats caught, of course, along with flags that might help get their attention. But I usually came back to the conclusion that it was better to be on exact location as often as possible.

Like a lot of western trappers, I came to rely on snares when and where I could use them. Brushy spots, even those that didn’t cover much more area than a pickup truck, have produced cats for me over the years. Many areas of the West don’t have much in the way of vegetation, but in a lot of cases, they do hold some prey species.
Bobcats will follow even a thin ribbon of vegetation for some distance. I’m sure it’s partially for them to be close to cover while traveling, but the chance of them finding food is, no doubt, greater in those spots too. Again, you have to get a feel for where the cats will be travelling when they make their way along brushy areas.

Trails that follow along the tops of draws or creeks have always been a favorite place of mine to hang snares. And I’ve placed snares in the bottoms of dry creek beds and washes, if there’s sufficient vegetation in the bottom. Many creeks, draws, and sloughs seem to wind and meander, though, and in those places, trails will cross them eventually. In a lot of areas I’ve trapped over the years, cattle grazing in the spring and summer will create trails while going to water. Some of these will be suitable spots to place snares during the winter months. (After the livestock has been removed.)

Some areas don’t have many trails. In those places, I simply try to envision where a traveling cat will go through. I’ll often take a minute and study the natural pinch points the terrain offers, such as where a creek bank makes a bend, making the brush thicker and possibly in a narrower band. Cats will often end up passing through those tight spots as they travel and hunt, and instead of being yards wide, the cover might only be feet wide.

The edges of various vegetation types are other places to consider. Tight gaps, created by dense vegetation, are other spots to utilize. Cats don’t mind being forced through fairly tight spots. Take advantage of it. And, by all means, if there are tracks evident, follow them. It’s easier to place your snares in gaps that they naturally use, than try to force them into a spot even a few yards or feet away. Many times I’ve followed cat tracks for hundreds of yards before I found the spot to put a snare. That may sound crazy to you folks that have a lot of vegetation and brush to use, but it’s often true where I’ve snared.

The height the snare is supported off the ground is a big factor, too. Opinions vary, and that’s fine, but I do have mine. In tight cover I would usually support my snares so the bottom of the loop was 8 inches off the ground. I’ve caught them with snares set a little lower, say 7 inches. At the same time I’ve snared many cats, ranging in size from yearlings to big adult toms, in snares intended for coyotes that were 10 inches from the ground. I know some cats will simply duck under loops that are right in their face. I’ve witnessed that with coyotes, too, in fairly open cover. For that reason, if the cover is on the scattered or light side, and I feel the animals will move through it a bit faster, I raise the loops a bit.

One thing I think needs to be touched on is, if there are many suitable spots for snares, try to set as many as possible until you feel you’ve adequately covered a location. I’ve set as many as a dozen, and sometimes more, in brush patches only 100 feet across. And in some locations, a combination of snares and traps will produce bobcats. I’ve set traps and snares within yards of each other plenty of times. I just made sure that they were far enough apart to avoid tangling.

No matter how you catch them, bobcat furs are salable from virtually all areas in North America right now, with the Western cats bringing the most money. Within reason, right now the value of a bobcat pelt is determined by the belly. The clarity of the white, along with spots or lack of, will greatly affect the value of the pelt. A large share of the better Western-type Heavy and Semi-heavy cats are being used for “all belly” type garments. With upwards of 30 cats needed to make an all-belly garment, the total square inches of usable fur that a cat has will be directly proportionate to its value. The end results are garments that go to many areas of the world, such as Greece, Italy, and Russia.

I’ve often thought about how a bobcat, harvested in some remote and scenic place, ends up in a garment made by a skilled garment maker, to be later sold in another country. And how that foreign money makes its way back to trappers, to be spent by us, thousands of miles away. And it all started as a matter of yards, feet, and inches.