Cats, My Advice
After a rather long, and harsher than normal winter, I believe we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, and spring is trying hard to get started.

It’s been 12 years since I moved my family and business from Montana to eastern Wyoming to start another county predator control contract. While the winters are a little milder here, we still get snowstorms every year. We do have wind as well, and it’s common for a warm wind to come out of the southwest after a period of snow, and take most of it away eventually. So, most winters a guy can pick his way around the countryside fairly easy to get to favorite spots.

This past winter started just before Christmas and it just kept coming and piling up. The wind did create some bare ridges and big expanses of bare ground, but that snow must go somewhere, and it made for some unbelievable drifts that kept county roads plugged frequently. Just getting from point A to B became a huge and uncertain chore, but I kept plugging along as best I could.

Friends from all over the country sent me pictures of trapping and calling on bare ground. I was bit envious at times and kept reminding myself that everything I could get done in the winter months would help our upcoming coyote denning season; with some breeding pairs of coyotes taken out of the equation.

Keeping traps from getting frozen down wasn’t that big of a chore, because of all the insulation the fluffy snow provided. It became a matter of just finding them to sweep them off, and letting the waxed dirt do its job. Keeping them working for any length of time was a different matter though, because the wind and drifting was constant.

Snaring is my preferred winter method, and some of my best snaring areas were completely drifted shut by Christmas. That caused the predators to hunt the bare ridges in a lot of cases, which affected the percentage of snare catches at times. But, there again, all a guy can do is try, and I kept raising snare loops a bit to compensate for the depth of the snow. So, when the coyotes finally ventured down into the brush where I’d hung my loops, I usually had some of them waiting for me when I fought my way back in those spots.

I wasn’t alone. I also got a lot of pictures of fellow trappers stuck in drifts and knee-deep snow on the flats, and all I could say in return was, “Sorry, been there done that.” And to be positive, even though I’d broken two shovel handles in one day in January, while shoveling heavy and crusted snow, at least I had gotten out without spending the night. To sum it up, it was very trying and I hope it’s not the trend for things to come. I do realize that the moisture will hopefully create some grass on the prairie this spring which is good.

These past few weeks, I’ve been in contact with a lot of trappers who had harvested western bobcats. It seemed everyone has their own story of dealing with the lack of access this past winter, and how the snows affected their catch. I usually just nodded and agreed with them while I was grading their cats, as I’d been through much of what they had experienced. One comment I heard a lot was, “Next year will be better, and I’m going to be prepared.”

It’s no secret that the bobcat market is doing well, and it seems cats from just about every section of the country are in better demand than just a few years ago. The worldwide Covid epidemic hurt almost every market, and it’s hard to believe that demand for bobcat skins has rebounded so fast. But it just goes to show that people love spotted fur, and they are going to wear it.

I’ve been around bobcats, trapping and snaring them, for 40 years now. At one time, I specialized and long-lined for them almost exclusively at times, and made a decent seasonable living from the sale of cat hides for many years.

I can’t remember exactly what I got paid for my first cat, but $265 comes to mind. I also remember sending 10 nice Montana cats to a furrier in California once, and arguing and haggling to get a $90 average for them; being glad to get it. There were a few years that low cat numbers coincided with low prices, and to me, cats were looked upon as just a bonus that was worth the same as five coyotes, if one showed up.

As time went on, a furrier or two began promoting garments made from high-end western cats and things evolved into a specialized market that spurred prices for several years.

Today, most of the better western cats are being used for belly garments, and their individual fur value is based on the whiteness and “clarity” and spotting (or lack of). While some areas produce a higher percentage of the better-quality cats, most areas in the west are capable of turning out at least a few of the highly desired A and B type bellies that are bringing the current high prices. At the present time, lesser quality skins are being utilized too, and that has created a growing market for bobcats over much of North America. Taking that into account, along with a coyote market that’s suffering due to lack of interest as a trim item, a lot of focus will be on bobcats again next year. I’m predicting right now that this past season’s short catch of bobcats will be surpassed greatly next season. With the current low coyote prices, the shift to bobcats will no doubt happen.

While visiting with trappers selling their cats, I’d often talk strategies and compared notes on how to overcome some of the problems they had this past season. I don’t target cats with my predator control work, but I haven’t forgotten how to produce them in numbers, so I tried to offer advice whenever I could.
First, just getting access to the cats must be considered. Some people use a snowmachine, some have tracks on their side by sides. A few run tire chains on an ATV. Others snowshoe in off maintained roads, and some do all the above. If the snow doesn’t pile up and drift over a large area like it did last year, a lot people will operate out of their pickups as much as possible. That will all come down to individual preference and using what is feasible. I do know that I dug my trusty and familiar pair of Iverson snowshoes out for the first time in years, and I did use them some to check snares in a few places. But, what to do after you got to a spot was what most of the discussions were about.

I’ve always been an advocate of setting on sign, and it doesn’t have to be fresh sign either. A single track, or in some cases, a dropping or two, are all I need to see to make me want to set up a spot. Cats are notorious for being able to move through an area and leave very little in the way of tracks. I’ve seen where they’ve travelled on a 2-inch-wide strip of bare dirt on top of a bank for quite a distance. In those cases, they preferred to walk on the dry ground rather than in the snow.

And, there are times that a cat will track up an area fairly well as they zig-zag back and forth through a piece of cover, checking out all the likely spots that a rabbit or other prey might hide. Brushy cover and sink holes are two spots that seem to get the most activity in areas that I’ve trapped cats, and in a lot of traditional cat areas, the coveted rim rock locations get their share of use also. If you can follow their tracks around a bit, and see where they entered those kinds of spots, and then where they go from there, that’s what you need to know and where you will learn the most, in my opinion.

Travel routes between hunting areas are great producers, and cats will usually follow a basic route or pattern every time they return. I say “usually” because they don’t always play by the rules, and often veer off their line of travel. And, again, snow conditions can change their movements as much as anything. And, they will actually follow their same exact foot prints in places, especially if there’s snow on the ground. Many times, I’ve looked at a track and saw it would have several toe prints, indicating that the same cat had been there more than once, or another one had followed in its tracks.

I always preferred lots of pre-season scouting to locate cats and lay out a prospective line, but that isn’t always possible; I know. However, I do know anything you can learn early will usually pay off down the road.

Back to the present, and to add to what I’ve been conveying to people that had asked for my input. I’ve been thinking about such things a lot the last few years, because I’ve often toy with taking some time off in the future and going back to some of my old cat areas and specializing in cats for a few months.
So, here’s the plan that I’ve followed in the past, and added on to where I had to:

First, scout as much as possible. That’s a no brainer, since I believe you can’t know too much about an area, and let’s face it, finding new locations to use is gratifying and a large part of your overall success too.

Second, if I felt that I wasn’t catching as many cats out of an area that I should be, probably based on sign found, I’d go there and look things over again. Maybe walk it from a different direction, or from a different starting point. So many times, I’ve done that and discovered the cats there have changed their habits a bit, and what once was the spot, no longer is. Sometimes you only have to be off their line of travel by yards, and that is enough to miss them.

Third, I’d set up a spot or area with a variety of methods. I’d prefabricate walk through or blind set type spots well ahead of time, or at least have the items like rocks and pieces of wood or whatever, close by. I’d also try to find places to hang snares if possible, and that might only be a piece of brush the size of your living room, but it could get hunted by a bobcat. And, of course trail snares in tight gaps are always effective, and those spots that have trails in tight cover that don’t get much deer traffic are my favorite. Cats will follow corridors of brush and structure for quite a distance at times. Trail snares and blind sets will often pick up cats travelling through, that you might not know existed.

Fourth, I’d find at least 2-3 places to set more traditional type sets, like a flagged set against a rock, at the base of a prominent tree, along a rim rock, or even alongside a trail that I might have snares on too.

In other words, variety. If I were actively pursuing bobcats for a fur trapping venture, that would be my game plan. I’d do whatever I could to tip the odds in my favor, since there are so many factors to deal with. A variety of location types, a variety of sets, a variety of smells and scents. I’d find places to snare as the season progresses and the going gets tougher, and cats are hunting cover more.

I know it sounds a little generic, and isn’t earth shattering, but let’s face it, it all comes down to being out there, and doing it. Scouting and variety. That’s my advice.