Western Trapline
The 2019 fur season is approaching for many North American trappers, and for some it’s already here. Coyotes are one of the bright spots in today’s market, and although weather will be a factor, I’m predicting a fairly large harvest from the various regions. The trim market is driving this demand, and from all indications it should continue for at least a few more years.

At the Wyoming, Montana, and Western South Dakota conventions I attended this summer, the ‘buzz’ was that coyotes have passed bobcats as the target animal. Sure, there are plenty of serious cat trappers still out there, and they will produce some numbers, and the “coyote guys” will produce a few cats too. But the focus seems to be primarily on coyotes.

The timing appears good, since some areas seem to have fewer cats, so the switch to coyotes is probably partly due to that. And, as we all know, rabbit numbers will cycle up again in a few years, and cat populations will follow. Maybe by then, today’s fashion trend with only the better bellies in demand, will make an adjustment or two in our favor.

Mike Wilhite’s fur market report will no doubt keep us up to date on how the tariff China has placed on our raw fur will affect things. Sure, not all of our fur goes to China, but it could affect things somewhat. I read Mike’s market report first when I pick up this magazine, and that says a lot, because I consider myself fairly well connected in the fur industry. And yes, I read what he has to say about coyotes first, and then bobcats and the other western fur.

Coyotes have expanded their range in the last few decades, and I constantly hear from guys who used to have good fox numbers, but slowly had to deal with the coyotes that moved in and took over. I personally enjoyed several good years in eastern Montana trapping red fox, for fur as well as for predator control around the lambing areas (western red fox can be tough predators on lambs), and they were fun to work with. They seemed to average $20-$25 for several years, and even if you weren’t really trying for them, a few hundred seemed to end up in the fur shed by late winter. Coyotes were worth roughly twice as much, but some of the areas we worked all summer around the sheep had been picked over pretty hard, so the fox filled in. Having a 20-plus fox day in footholds is pretty good therapy, after a long, hot summer hunting the ‘survivors of the survivors’ coyotes. Fox are easy to skin and put up, and I miss them.

But, even though red fox seem to be slowly gaining a foothold in some areas, they’re at such a low price that most trappers aren’t deliberately pursuing them. Maybe, like bobcats, their populations will cycle upwards at the same time a new fashion trend leans towards fox garments again. Time will tell.

So, for now, coyotes are where it’s at, and that’s okay. I feel that the majority of trappers out there can produce at least a few coyotes every season, and they add up. And of course there are some serious guys who produce real numbers, and will be taking advantage of the demand and decent prices. But no matter where you fall in the amount of coyotes you harvest, it seems you can always look back and see a few things you should have done differently. I know I do, and I’ll share a few things that you might think about before things get underway.

I’ve always felt that you can’t over-scout, or know too much about the area you’re going to trap. I enjoy scouting immensely, and since I’m in the field 320-plus days a year with predator control, I guess I’m always scouting. I spend a fair amount of time just looking for and interpreting sign. Tracks, droppings, kicks or scratches, and of course howling, are all important parts of the puzzle.

For trappers with limited time, even an hour or two spent in potential areas can be productive. Knowing the lay of the land, the gates, the pastures that will have livestock in them while you’re trapping; these are all important factors. Areas that have spring dens can be important too, although coyotes won’t be anywhere close by them in the fall, at least not the whole litter.

I often get asked about pre-staking and making trap beds in advance. Yes, do it if you have time. Anything that will speed things up when you’re setting will help. Just the fact that you’ll be spending less time at a set location, and leaving less sign that might push the coyotes out for a while, is a large plus in my opinion. Another factor is that pounding in a pile of disposable stakes or rebar day after day can get to you physically. Having even a few of them in before the season can help.

I made a hanger or ‘ring’ out of a piece of #9 wire that I can hang several dozen wolf fangs on, and usually have it on the headache rack of my pickup. I usually have a driver or two in my pickup, as well as one in my side by side. When I see a place that I think I might set later, I simply dig a trap bed where I think the set will be. I try to pound the wolf fang’s cable in the ground a few inches below ground level, so when I pull it up to ‘set’ it, it is slightly above the bottom of the trap bed. That’s where I hope to place the trap’s free jaw. Does this work out every time? No, but enough that I find myself doing it a lot. I place a flat rock or something that stands out a bit over the cable loop, so I can find it easy later. I use 1/8-inch, 7x7 cable, and it’s easy to find.

I use J-hooks, or ‘rivets’ through the hole in the end of the last swivel on the trap chain to attach it to the cable loop, with an S-hook tool. It’s the system I’ve used for years.
If I intend to use a drag, I might use my cut-down tile spade and dig a quick trap bed, making it a little deeper than sets that will be staked. I bury my drags under my traps, so having some loose dirt in those spots will speed things up later. Just moving that inevitable rock or two that always seem to show up in those situations, is worth doing it earlier.

With my spade I sometimes take a few swipes of dirt out of where I intend the dirt hole to be, keeping in mind that I might also make a flat set there when the time comes. When I return to set a trap, a few swipes with my hammer’s digging tang will clean the hole out enough, and it also produces the fresh dirt that has eye appeal.

I use white, sun-bleached bones at the vast majority of my canine sets, but I usually don’t place them pre-season. I like their visual attraction and intrigue factor to be new when I set. With that being said, I frequently uncover bones at sets that I’m using a second year, and if I can, I’ll pull them out and toss them to the side, and then use a new one at the set itself. Sometimes I squirt a little urine on those old bones, just to make the location even more attractive, and other times I just figure they are valuable enough as extra eye appeal. They seem to disappear over time, so I know there has to be some remnant lure or bait smell on them. That adds to the overall attraction, too.

Out of habit, I look for spots for my sets on the upwind side of a location, at least for the first set or two. I’ve always claimed that western locations are simply ‘bigger’ than similar eastern locations, and my spacing of sets to cover a location might be different than what people in other parts of the country do. It seems that even the size of our gates is bigger in the West! It simply takes 3-4 or even more sets at some locations, to cover things to my satisfaction.

Of course, the sign, either new, old, or both, has to warrant several sets. If I think the spot might only produce one or two ‘resident’ coyotes, I’ll take the extra minute or two to determine what I think will be the spot, and set a pair of traps. Let the sign dictate where to set the traps, and go from there. A dropping or two of various ages placed by a bush has caught me a pile of coyotes over the years. That extra minute to find the droppings was usually well spent.

On the other hand, sign of non-target animals might dictate how you set up a location. Luckily, I don’t have ‘possums in Wyoming, but we do have skunks and badgers. Lots of badgers. Unfortunately, they aren’t the valuable pale type I caught in Montana. The ranchers want them harvested along with the coyotes, because of their digging in the pastures and center pivot alfalfa fields, so I don’t mind catching them, but they do ruin coyote sets.

Last winter, my son Riley and I set up a 2-track road that runs down a ridge on a ranch we trap every winter. Badger sign was evident virtually everywhere, so we made about 12 sets in maybe ¾ of a mile. Coyote tracks were in the road when we set it up, but I knew that after we made a few trips they might not travel down the road as much, but rather cross over in the saddles and sagebrush pinch points.

The first check, we had seven badgers. All of them ruined our sets. The craters had good eye appeal, but we had to move the sets. All our activity made those coyotes move, and we had to catch them elsewhere for the most part. A few coyotes eventually came back and got caught. We ended up with 12 badgers out of those sets, which is a very high density. So, even though we’d set heavy, it still didn’t work. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.

So many times I’ve started to set up trails leading to a stock dam, or a predominate saddle in a ridge, only to find there are multiple trails leading to and from it, from just about any direction. It’s simple to spend a minute or two, and determine which ones are getting the most activity. I try to walk beside the trail, not in it, to avoid tracks in the area. That tactic might seem little too paranoid, but I’ve had lots and lots of coyotes avoid set locations for long period of times after I felt I’d spent too long setting them up. I’ve had to work with coyotes in control situations for so long, it’s hard for me to imagine doing it any other way.

Tire tracks are handled the same way. I drive past sets that are on dead end roads or 2-tracks, and turn around farther down the trail rather than making a U-turn right at the sets. Coyotes can pay attention to that sort of thing, trust me. Sure, you’ll catch them right along the edge of a road usually, or even in the middle of a seldom used road. But if you start making too much sign in a different way than they’re used to, they sometimes shy away from that spot.

As the season progresses, I add sets where I see sign of coyotes that I don’t think I will have a shot at catching in the sets I already have in the area. Some of these spots aren’t of the type I’d normally set, usually because they aren’t ‘crossing’ type places. But as a buddy from Cody, Wyoming, used to say, “Sign doesn’t lie.”

I realize that a lot of the things I’ve touched on are common knowledge for many of you. I just wanted to revisit some topics that are important in my opinion, and that can make big differences for you. The 2019 coyote harvest is about to begin, and hopefully you can use some of these ideas on your own line. Good Luck!