Dirthole Sets for Cats
The last few years have been very trying in so many ways for all of us, and both the fur market and trapping supply business have been no exception. We’ve watched several day-to-day things get harder to find and buy, and we’ve experienced demands on some items that resulted in higher prices for both raw and finished goods. Shipping rates have gone through the roof for a lot of us, and I can only believe that smaller businesses are being charged higher rates to subsidize the shipping of big box online stores that offer free shipping. Add it all up, and a person has to be creative to survive, and possibly change their focus on things a bit.

I mentioned a some of the alternative markets a few months back, and I see and hear on some of the social media venues that some trappers are finding ways to sell tanned fur of various types. For the serious fur trappers though, it wouldn’t be easy to market a season’s catch, in my opinion, although I’m sure there are some exceptions.

The coyote market is in pretty tough shape, and might be for a while, but the bobcat market is hanging on. There have been some clearances of basically all types of cats from the various regions of the country, with the western cats being the most desirable and valuable of course.

The demand might not be as great as it has been, at times in the last few decades, but the demand is there. I know some of the coyote trappers I deal with have told me that they are going to concentrate on cats this year, and only try to catch coyotes where they are getting paid to harvest them, or if they end up in traps or snares intended for cats.

We’re getting calls daily, asking about cat prices, and orders for lure and supplies. The overall theme is bobcats, and probably rightly so. So, I thought I’d write this issue’s article on trapping cats, and more specifically, using dirthole sets for cats. This came to mind just a few days ago, while running a short line of 12 sets I’d made for coyotes in a pasture south of a ranch that runs sheep. My focus is on coyotes, being a county predator control trapper, but I have a ton of memories and things tucked away in my mind, when it comes to catching cats.

An unexpected, and welcome miss (cat season hasn’t started in Wyoming yet) of a decent sized bobcat at a dirthole set with an outside blocking really got me thinking, and I started to reminisce a bit about all the hard-earned lessons that had come tough at times.

First, cats are not a bright animal, or shy in any way usually. That’s a generic and well-known fact. I know, but let me finish it by adding that they are lucky a lot of the time, especially if you give them the chance. And luck was what saved that cat from getting caught and being there waiting for me to release it when I showed up. My dirthole was intended for coyotes, with a single outside blocking, and that allowed the cat to leave a few tracks at the edges of the trap and not get caught.

I well remember a conversation I had several years ago, with a buddy of mine from NW Wyoming. We were both trapping fox and coyotes at the time, and I had mentioned to him that I’d caught a few big tom bobcats in dirtholes I’d set for fox.

He said “I hate dirtholes for cats”.

I asked him why, and he simply said “Too many misses”.

We went into an in-depth conversation that went back and forth about our experiences with catching cats and also missing cats at dirthole sets, and our ideas on ways to cut it down. I also remember interjecting the many plus sides of using hole sets for cats, because I felt the case for the hole set needed to be presented. As usual, our debate kept us occupied for hours.

I don’t remember exactly how it all went, but I do recall some of the points we hit on, 25 years later. I’d still practice them today, if I was to pursue cats again, especially in a combination canine/cat type situation.

Dirthole sets have their own eye appeal and visual attraction value, and I know it draws critters from a long way at times. A dark hole in a light-colored bank, with any dirt dug out and laying in front is as blunt as a sign saying, “look over here” as you can get.

When the wind is from the wrong direction of an animal’s travel, there’s no doubt the eye appeal of a hole set is what gets them close to some of your sets in the first place. Sure, being on location helps and is crucial, but not all animals work a location like they should, or how you think they will. When they approach and get closer, the smell factor you left there hopefully takes over, and they investigate and get caught. Simple? Yes, but you can tweak things a bit to add some productivity to your operation.

A backing is the first thing that comes to mind for me and that can come in a hundred different forms. A steep bank, a rock wall, a sage brush with lots of grass and dirt accumulated under it, a yucca plant, and the list goes on and on. The main thing is, by using a backing that keeps them from coming from the back and eliminates say 50% of potential misses right off the bat.

I’ve never liked hole sets on flat ground, because of the lack of backing/blocking, and I guess I’m fortunate to have traps in areas that have a variety of spots that the terrain lets me find suitable spots easy. I’ve used a tile spade cut down to 4 inches wide for years, and I have several of them. I keep the edges as well as the tip of them sharp to dig in sod and roots and whatever else you come across at various locations. After the initial hole is started, I find myself twisting and prying with the spade, to make a rough hole. Depth isn’t as important to me as long as I can get bait and or lure down the hole and possibly cover them a bit.
I also use a cordless 20V drill with a 4-inch auger that’s equipped with an extra-long shank to make holes, especially when working right out of the pickup or side by side. The 4-inch auger moves a lot of dirt, and makes for lots of eye appeal, as well as hopefully producing enough dirt to bed a trap in. I’ll use this dirt until I switch to waxed dirt later in the season.

I prefer the hole to be back in to something as much as in to the flat ground, so the hole is more visible, and seen from a distance. This is where a bank or slight grass clump or road berm really shines. Even a slightly higher elevation helps. Maybe you have a tree at the location that has enough exposed roots where you can get a hole made in the dirt and duff/debris under it, and that is productive too.

If you still think that a cat can work the set from behind, simply add some sort of blocking, which can be maybe a rock, a clump of wood, a good-sized cow chip, or whatever is handy, to make them approach from the front. I prefer to place additional blocking at cat sets, and I have used the “Y” pattern of blocking for almost 40 years now and I’ve seen no reason to vary from it. Some people I’ve talked to call it the “three rock set”, and I guess that describes it well too.

After digging the hole, I let the terrain and natural blocking at the set dictate to me exactly where I will bed the trap. Usually, the jaw of the trap is within an inch or two of the front edge of the hole, and pretty much directly in front. If the ground is fairly loose, I’ll take a good handful of loose dirt and pack it in the front lip of the hole, to keep the soil from sluffing off and exposing part of the trap, (unless you are making exposed sets, but that’s another story).

I like to use three rocks as blocking, but I avoid using the round river rock type, because they are usually smooth and cats will step on them at times. I like rough edged, sandstone and shale type rocks, and if I have to guess, most of what I use are maybe less than a foot long and maybe 4-6 inches wide. You can get by with smaller rocks and items of course. Sometimes when using less than perfect blocking I’ll use the digging tang on my hammer to form a spot to bed the item so its edge is facing up. This helps to keep the cat from stepping on the blocking too.

I place them in a “Y” pattern, and I try to place them so that the trap is at the center, or confluence of the “Y”, so the long portion of it is directly in front of the trap. The spacing I prefer is so that the blocking is within an inch of the edges of the jaw. This spacing will almost completely eliminate misses, as it funnels their feet over the trap, and can actually break their stride, which results in another chance or two as they navigate the blocking if you miss the first step.

I personally use 6-inch jaw spread, #3 traps for all of my canine and cat trapping, and with a stiff galvanized screen, it makes a pretty good-sized target area for a cat to step on. Size of the trap probably isn’t as important as good blocking in the long run though.

Keep in mind that whatever you use, it needs to be substantial enough that it’s immovable, because light and small items can and will be moved. Rodents, rabbits, and even birds that are dusting themselves in the freshly dug dirt can cause you unneeded problems, so use fairly large or heavy items if you can.

After the trap has been covered with dirt, make sure there isn’t anything big enough to clog the trap when it fires. Not only within the jaws of the trap, but also in an area of a foot or so around the set, because that’s the stuff that will invariably get moved by wind or rodents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a cat dropping that I used at a set for additional eye appeal, moved directly in the center of the trap bed by a rodent of some sort. My remedy for that is to take my set making hammer and slightly squash the dropping into the ground so it’s more securely in the exact spot that you intend it to be.

For smells, I prefer two at a set, and I like bait and/or lure down the hole of course. I also like to place a little urine or gland lure on the inside edge of the outside blocking, which gives a cat two places to smell, and hopefully make them move their feet and take an extra step or two.

The initially blocking of the set should eliminate most of your misses to begin with, but I know that the placing of two smells at the set helps. Again, I want any smells to be on something that can’t easily be moved, as they will disappear fairly often if not.

I also use a lot of dry, bleached white cow bones at my sets, not only for eye appeal, but as a smell holder. Dried bones that are fairly porous are my favorite, and I’ll use them down a hole, with part of it visible, that adds to eye appeal also. A white bone on dark ground can be seen a long way off. I also use T-bone (vertebrae) bones driven in the ground at the edge or back of holes at times as a variation. That way you have additional visual attraction and also something to place some smell on. The variations are many and they all work.

The finished dirthole, three rock set, will probably not be the most productive coyote set, but over time, they will produce some. But, for an easy and effective cat set, in areas or locations that aren’t picture perfect rim rock and rocky ridges that cat trappers usually set, they can be very productive.