Tough Winter Coyotes
Over the years, I’ve learned to take some precautions when it comes to dealing with bad weather during the winter months. I’ve learned it the hard way, with many costly mishaps, including a few that were downright dangerous, although I didn’t always fully realize it at the time.

Weather is a huge factor in the overall success of trapping anytime of the year, but in the dead of winter it often gets magnified. So far, the winter of 2018/19 has been no exception.

I’m no stranger to catching canines in harsh conditions, but it seems like I have to rethink things every year; no two years are ever the same. Animal populations, food bases, and even how much pastures are grazed, can all have their input on your overall success. It’s a never-ending game of guessing and re-guessing, and honestly, it just comes down to hard work, with no way around it.

I get to visit with trappers from all across the country throughout the year, and it seems this fur season was very tough on a majority of trappers and snare men. With the fur market focusing on coyotes in such a big way right now, it stands to reason that the harvest would be huge this season. But, having talked to some of the veteran buyers across the Midwest and West, it looks like the harvest will be off some.

Interestingly, I’ve heard as much complaining about “no winter” as much as about too much snow. Coyotes are apparently feeding well in the open areas of various states. This is apparently keeping them from visiting the traditional snaring locations, which would normally produce numbers of them.

One of my friends from Montana has told me that his area is literally overrun with a type of large vole, which are, no doubt, keeping the local coyote population fat and happy just by travelling and hunting at rather random spots and terrain. It made for a tough fall season of using foothold traps at time-tested locations, and although sign in the form of tracks and droppings were found while setting out his line, it was often fairly long intervals between visits and catches.

I talked to him again later in the winter, and he was still struggling to produce numbers, even in snaring locations that had produced year after year, especially when the usual storm fronts blew through the area. A few days after a major, or even minor, front came and left, has always been his favorite time to check big snare setups. His main observation was that most of these fronts seemed to fizzle out when they got to his area, failing to spur the much needed coyote movement. Sure, he had a few major snows early to contend with when he was running footholds, but it was simply bad timing. The extra snow and cold weather that should have pushed the coyotes into the heavier cover, where he’d placed the majority of his snares, simply never came, at least when I talked to him last.

We’d done some snaring and trapping together years ago, and often talked about the value of baits we’d place in key locations, making the coyotes concentrate in spots we could access fairly easily, and/or have enough appropriate gaps and tight spots to our liking. I asked him if he had many baits out, such as cow parts from a butcher shop, which was the first thing that came to mind. He said he did, but they just weren’t getting hit much this season. I asked him about the vole population he’d mentioned earlier. Yes, he said, there were still literally millions of them alive, and the result had been very fat and healthy coyotes. Western coyotes always need proper fleshing to produce a saleable pelt, and this year, his coyotes have been, in his words, “Fat like a coon.”

There’s no doubt that this readily available food source was a huge factor that was keeping the coyotes from going into traditional tough weather spots too. Kind of a double whammy for him, but there’s still enough winter left that he might salvage the season; he’s been through hard years like it before.

On the flip side, I’ve also had calls from several trappers that have been plagued by bad weather right from the start. Rain, snow, and freezing conditions are things that we simply have to deal with on a yearly basis when trapping during the winter months, and you can either learn to deal with it, or suffer the consequences.

Waxed dirt has helped a lot of us, and I’ve written about its use several times, so I won’t go into it right now. However, it has, in my opinion, changed winter trapping for many people, including myself.

This fall started out wet for a lot of people, and it never really got any drier or easier for many trappers. Sure, dry dirt or waxed dirt helped people that were prepared, but the extra rain and then snow, added a lot of other factors. Frozen ground had to be dealt with early on, and I know some trappers simply struggled to get any numbers of traps out. It took a lot longer to get a trap bed made, and an anchor in place. Simple logistics, and again, hard work is the only real answer.

I had a few reports of coyotes that quit travelling previously used trails, after hard rains that are often followed by low temps. They simply weren’t going to run down trails that were icy and slick, that could literally be compared to a highway covered with glare ice. Snare men were experiencing that in many areas, and it cost them dearly at times. Sure, I’m betting even a little skim of snow would probably change that, but several days would be lost, during the right, or in this case, wrong time.
With the snow also comes wind, at least where I’ve lived and trapped most of my life. The drifting snow can be like a reoccurring bad nightmare, with no way out of experiencing it. Travelling around from one location to the next can be tough, and I know virtually all of you have you own stories about getting stuck and shoveling out of drifts if you live in snow country. But drifts can also affect your locations and sets. Even a little crusted snow will usually affect traps bedded in dry or waxed dirt, and drifted snow is no exception.

I try to set the majority of my footholds with the backing on the upwind side of where the trap is bedded. I do this to take advantage of the prevailing wind, with intentions of the coyote working the set the way I want them to, which takes advantage of my preferred walkthrough type blocking. It isn’t always the case, I know, as some locations and some specific sets don’t always work out that way.

It doesn’t take much wind and snow to literally cover and totally obscure even a fairly large blocking, even if it’s just sparse vegetation. The drifts caused by the blocking can also extend right over your trap, which almost totally defeats the purpose of using the blocking in the first place! The results are coyotes visiting from just about any direction, and often times, a high percentage of misses.

Again, it’s simply hard work, in the form of maintaining sets that will keep you making catches during these windy periods. You have to realize that going into the winter months, and also be prepared for a shift in wind direction to possibly change things again.

Another factor to keep in mind is footprints in the snow around your sets. I’m a stickler about keeping foot traffic to a minimum, and while some of my friends and colleagues don’t always agree with me, I can’t be swayed much. I’ve watched canine avoidance of sets way too many times to think any different.

Again, at times it can’t be avoided, simply because the entire landscape is white. I don’t like tire tracks by my sets either, but I know that is totally unavoidable usually. I run a side-by-side (ATV) more and more. I like to drive past my sets maybe 15 or 20 yards, and then walk back in the tracks in the snow, if I have to freshen up a set with lure or urine, or possibly add a touch of dirt. I guess I find myself doing just the opposite, too. I get out of the pickup or ATV before a set, and then drive over my tracks when I’m done. Are you thinking, “A little too cautious?” Maybe for some of you, but not for the coyotes I usually deal with. A boot track or two at the berm of the road isn’t as bad as several in the area, and I’d rather not take chances on coyotes avoiding sets any more than they already will.

And, the age-old method of stepping on grass clumps when approaching and leaving a set comes into play a lot on my line during snow conditions. It’s a habit I’ve developed over the years, and it’s hard to break.

I guess one thing that doesn’t seem to be much of a factor this season for the trappers I’ve talked to, is avoidance of lure or bait. Even fickle and well fed coyotes seem to be working sets, if they come in contact with them, at least from tracks evident at the set. I’m sure there’s a higher percentage of misses than is being detected at times, but I don’t recall having anyone say that the coyotes on their line were flat out refusing sets, or stopping short of sets and digging or scratching much without getting caught.

One thing that I’ve noticed myself, and has also been conveyed to me by other trappers is that coyotes seem to be simply off locations by enough that they aren’t finding the sets. I’ve had sets that on any given year would be the spot to make a catch, simply not get a track by them this season. Wandering coyotes rather than hunting coyotes, so to speak. I’ve heard it numerous times, and I can only say that I’ve seen it before.

Sure, wind is a factor, but also so is their mood, or maybe their attention is on something else at the time. Whatever. No one catches them all, every time, that’s a fact. Still, I’ve noticed more random travelling than normal at times, and I find myself adding in more additional sets than most years. I simply watch where the coyotes go, and add in sets almost in their tracks if I can. Does it always work? No, but enough that I will continue to do it. I don’t usually pull the already existing sets though, because I’ve had coyotes that I assume are the same ones return and get caught in the original set made earlier. Again, it’s just simply work, and trying to increase your odds of success.

I know not all of you have experienced tough conditions this season, or have dealt with different coyote behavior than you are used to, and I’m happy for you. For those of you who can relate to what I’ve talked about, all I can say is that these kinds of years do happen. You’ll learn to be a better trapper and learn to approach things different in the coming seasons.

I know I’m not the first person to say it, but I firmly believe it: “You learn more from the coyotes you didn’t catch, than from the ones you did catch.” Mother Nature will keep us guessing and learning!