Scouting For Fur
I've often said, "You cannot over-scout, or know too much about your area." I truly believe that.

I would guess that the majority of trappers, myself included, have other outdoor interests. Hunting, fishing, prospecting, wood cutting, and a variety of other activities usually round out the average trapper's list when you ask them what they do in the off-season. I have found myself hunting and fishing more as my kids get older, and can harvest their own game and bait their own hooks. Hunting everything from upland birds to big game overlaps with fall canine trapping here in eastern Montana, and having the shotgun and an extra rifle in the pickup has helped round out a great day in the field many times for us.

Still, one activity seems to be the most rewarding for me. That is scouting for fur. The quest for new places has been a driving force for me over the last 30 years. I have trapped several different states, and even moved a few times to fuel this desire. I remember once reading in a book by Garold Weiland, "I've always had a hankering for bouncing into a new area." Man, did that statement hit home! I remember thinking, "He has it bad, too".

I enjoy all phases of scouting, from looking over new country while driving through it to getting out and picking actual set locations, and maybe even doing some pre-staking. I've often said, "You cannot over-scout, or know too much about your area." I truly believe that. I can't tell you how many times over the years that going the extra mile (literally), or spending that extra few minutes looking, has revealed something that has paid off over and over throughout the years.

Luckily, I have a family that loves the outdoors as much as I do. When Dad says "We're going for a ride tomorrow, I have some places to look over," they know what that means: a day filled with driving miles through beautiful country, stopping to look for tracks and cat toilets, and playing the siren I have mounted on my pickup headache rack, for coyote howling responses. Of course, they tend to get sidetracked looking for frogs and turtles in the reservoirs, and arrowheads, fossils, and the usual 2 or 3 shed deer horns we find on a typical day.

For years now, I've given them a "bounty" while on our scouting trips. To keep it fun, and try not to let the day become "work" for them, I say, "I'll give 50¢ for a track and $1 for a dropping." When the truck stops the doors fly open and everyone scatters.

My kids can find sign with the best of them, and it sure speeds thing up for me. They learned long ago that tracks are found in low, wet spots more often than in sun-baked places, and they seem to be able to find them with ease. Cat droppings and toilets are old hat to them; they know the terrain to look in, like loose pine needles or sandy spots. Their noses are good too, and they know to stop and look around when they get that whiff of urine. Of course, Dad usually has a good idea where to stop and poke around, so that speeds things up too.

A tailgate lunch, the usual banter, maybe some prairie dog shooting, and the occasional rattlesnake rounds out the day of finding tracks, scratches, and poop, and the result is tired but happy campers. For me it results in a variety of notes, mostly mental, of fur pockets, litters of canines, old/new cat sign, and most importantly, places to not waste time with when the season rolls around.

I spend many days scouting on my own, too. I try to follow some great advice a Wyoming friend told me many years ago: "You have to treat scouting as a business." If he was going to hills for the day he usually left early, spend the day, and came back late. He took lunch and a jug of water, and went prepared. We both did a lot of overnight trips in those days, and he didn't want to have to come home because he needed a cup of coffee. Most importantly, he was making the most of the mileage and other expenses he was racking up. Several days of scouting can amount to a pretty big gas bill, at times several months before the next season.

That is still great advice. You may not use some scouted places for a few years, but someday down the road they might tie into another line you're prospecting. It's often money in the bank. When you're in it for the long haul, you often have to absorb some expenditure.
Scouting big chunks of country basically starts with windshield time; driving through the area looking over the terrain to assess what's there. I look for dramatic terrain changes, outstanding features, and possible corridors of travel. If I see a pattern developing, like the coyotes are in the rough pockets and not the stubble field country, I lean more to places that offer the same features. You have to bear in mind a few things, though. The fur might move as the season approaches, and hunting season, grain/hay harvest, and even the rotation of pastures can change things. Sometimes a litter of canines might be in the general vicinity because of a water source, and then relocate later in the summer.

After I get a feel for the terrain I plan a trip back to pick out actual set locations. I learned these methods years ago, from Keith Gregerson, of Gregerson Snare Lock fame. Back in the 70s Keith and his wife, Lois, would travel to various parts of Montana and trap throughout the winter months. He told me that as soon as he got his trailer unhitched and the family situated, he spent a whole day just driving through the country to check it out. He especially liked to do it after a fresh snow, as it really showed what the critters were doing. By doing this he didn't waste time setting up marginal spots for the first few days, and then stumbling on the better spots later. He was looking for the hot spots, "cherry picking" the best spots first and filling in the lesser spots later.

As I look things over I try to play in my mind how I'll work things when the season comes. Things like hiding the catch, places to park the vehicle, and, an important thing, finding a place to check the sets from that will alleviate me having to walk right to the sets every time. Again, you can't know too much about your area.

If the location is a trail leading through some timber, I'll follow it far enough to give it a fair assessment. If the ground is hard, even one or two tracks will be a good find. All I need to know is that they were there.

You can't find tracks if the ground is hard. If you're not making much of a track yourself, chances are a coyote won't either. In that case look for toenail marks. Or the muddy spots.

When picking the actual set location I will walk slightly over a hill or around a bend in the trail. I actually get down at coyote level and see if I can be seen from a passing vehicle. I park my pickup where it's most visible, and see if I can see it from the set location. If I can see a catch, chances are someone else driving by will too.

The amount of sign will dictate how far to drive or move to another location to scout. If I feel I'm on the outside or marginal area of a litter of canines that I suspect are there, I will move over and check out another drainage or pocket. A track or two isn't enough at times for me to justify setting an area up, when I feel a mile away there might be a better chance of connecting with the same, and possibly more, animals.

Access should also be taken into consideration. Snow, rain, and closed roads can all be factors once the season opens. Stubble fields might be disked under, and some farmers don't want you driving when it's wet. Fire danger is a factor too, and areas with lots of hunting traffic might see some road closures because of it.

No matter how you approach it, scouting for fur should be enjoyable. I personally get great pleasure and satisfaction from going into a new, unfamiliar area, and I find sign and good locations relatively easily now, after doing it for so many years. Finding a cat toilet with a variety of sizes and ages of droppings will brighten up any trapper's day. The fact that there might be a decent 2-track 50 feet away, hidden from the location, would make it even better. Those places are out there, you just have to go out and find them.