Andy's Tracks & Trails
Photo 1 left. Typical hollow tree raccoon den location.
While muskrats are often the first furbearer caught by new trappers in Minnesota, raccoons are usually the first large animal new trappers target. For many, making the changes necessary to locate, catch and hold a raccoon can present some challenges.
Looking back more than forty years ago, I can remember obtaining permission to trap a large farm in my home area (East Central Minnesota). I rode my bike to the farm a couple times a week in summer, counting all the raccoon tracks I’d see in the mud puddles along field roads and ponds in the cow pasture. I’d never caught a raccoon before, but had already picked out the new bike I was planning to buy with the money from the sale of my coon pelts. Raccoon tracks were everywhere.
When trapping season opened, I wired 1 ½ long spring traps to fenceposts along the field road, dumping raccoon lure onto the ground near the mud puddle, or wire a trap to a wooden stake and pound into the ground at pasture ponds where coon tracks had been all summer. Some sets were baited, some without. Surely a catch was a done deal on next morning’s check.
Photo 2 below. District 6 trapper Mike Herschman with 37.4-pound raccoon caught in baited cubby with 220 body grip. Won the MTA 2016 heaviest raccoon contest.
The first check of empty traps was hard to understand, but after two weeks of checking and only a skunk for my hard work, I knew something was wrong. One thing I noticed was that the hundreds of coon tracks I’d seen in the summer were long gone. I asked the farmer if he had anyone else trapping the farm, or coon hunting it? He assured me I had sole rights on his farm. I decided I needed bait for all my sets so fish and sardines were added. Within days I had plenty of action, but not what I had planned.
We didn’t have opossums in the area back then but skunks were extremely plentiful and they seemed to find the fish bait to their liking. After another week or so, I finally had a raccoon blunder into one of my sets. Upon arrival, my set looked like a bomb had gone off. A huge catch circle was clearly visible. The farmers wood fence post now looked like a toothpick, chewed around from bottom to top. The trap was wound so tight around the wire and post that it was difficult to untangle. The only way I knew I had caught a raccoon was the coon tracks in the mud. The coon had wrapped the trap tight around the fence, and using its great strength, powered out and escaped.
I didn’t bring home a raccoon that season, but I learned a lot. What I later came to realize is how little I understood about raccoons and their habits. I had completely ignored the farmer’s oak woods, corn fields and geographical features (ridges, dry washes, culverts). I even knew less about what raccoons ate, where they lived, how the seasons changed their habits, and just how strong they could be! Finally, my understanding of traps and methods were also seriously lacking.
Raccoons are large, strong animals. Often 25 pounds, Minnesota raccoons can be much larger. Body length of 30 to 37 inches is common with a tail between 9 and 12 inches long. Heavily muscled skull, neck and front shoulders along with an ornery disposition make them formidable opponents to larger predators and dogs. Long legs with tapered feet make pulling out of traps easier for raccoons than other furbearers. Raccoons have five toes on each foot and when walking have a peculiar back foot front foot, front foot back foot, track pattern.
Photo 3 on right. Typical walking track left by raccoons. Lower left prints – left track back foot, right track front foot. Alternates.
Raccoons start breeding during warm spells in late February or March, and young are born approx. two months later. Litters between two and eight “kits” are common. Female raccoons do all the work, raising the kits alone. Four to six months later, raccoons are “adults” and will start to live on their own.
Raccoons are “Omnivores” meaning they eat multiple types of food. The kits start out with minnows, frogs, crayfish, but also eat bird and turtle eggs and young. In midsummer, raccoons will eat worms and nightcrawlers, often tearing up sod in lawns to get them. They love soft dirt, and will investigate freshly dug dirt for grubs, insects and worms. In late summer, raccoons start to shift their diet to various plant material - fruits, berries, apples and grapes.
Photo 4 below. Late season food source – crab apple tree with fruit.
Late season finds raccoons hitting the oaks for acorns and in the corn fields, putting on as much weight as possible before winter.
Raccoons are not “true hibernators” like woodchucks or ground squirrels. They will den up at times during bitter cold weather, but do leave the den from time to time. I have trapped many raccoons during below zero weather, and often get some of my largest raccoons of the year during the winter in fisher/bobcat seasons. If a food source is easily available, and the snow is not too deep, raccoons will be feeding from it.
Photo 5 below on right. Large boar coon caught in northern Minnesota with below zero temps.
Raccoons are opportunists in denning locations. In my area, large Oaks, Cottonwoods, Silver Maples, and especially Basswood trees seem to be favored by coons. I have also found large numbers to den in dry culverts, large brush/tree piles, vacant buildings, storm sewers, under sheds, junked cars. In northern wilderness areas they like abandoned/dry beaver lodges and beaver runs. While living in Western Minnesota I often found raccoons living in ground dens and old badger holes. Raccoons will often change den locations, especially when ticks and fleas are numerous.
Photo 6 below. Massive tree regularly used as a raccoon den tree. Many raccoons previously caught here over the years.
Raccoons commonly travel in “family groups” in the fall, consisting of the adult female “sow” and young of the year. They will follow regular routes from the den to water, and from den to a food source. Some of the trails can become quite visible. On car trips south through Iowa, I’d drive family members crazy pointing out heavy coon trails easily seen from the car window along highways/freeways. If heavy trails are found in your area, think about multiple sets at these locations. It is not uncommon to make multiple catches.
Photo 7 right. Heavy raccoon trail from denning area to food source (corn field).
The male “boar” coons also make trails to and from dens and food sources, although it has been my experience that these trails are less visible and not nearly as worn down as those made by the sow and her young. In more open country with long fence lines, raccoons will follow weedy fence lines with scattered trees, having a distinct trail from tree to tree.
Photo 8 below. Huge one-eyed boar coon caught along less distinct coon trail leading to food source (cornfield).
Lakes, ponds and marshes often have a heavy coon trail around its perimeter. Look for large hollow trees close by and trails will be found leading from the tree to the water. Raccoons hunt for injured ducks, geese and muskrats around water. In winter, check farm fields or woods for fruit/apple trees with fruit still attached to the branches. Coons will travel a long way to feed from these.
Photo 9 right. Large hollow Cottonwood tree, den location with trail leading to nearby pond. Many coons caught here over the years.
Rivers, streams and ditches often have distinct wet trails in and out of the water, and higher dry trails up on the bank, from raccoons. Trails may lead to a tree leaning out over the river and used as a crossing log, log jams, or prime food sources. Late season trails may lead to an area of the stream that doesn’t freeze over in cold weather, giving coons access to open water.
Photo 10 below. Winter snared coon on trail leading to open water. Heavily furred boar coon.
A large wooded area with mature trees adjacent to a cornfield will usually have a distinct coon trail leading to the cornfield food source. If a large tree “stands out” more than other trees, or is a little bit closer, look closely for a trail leading to/from this tree. Raccoons use such trees as landmarks for travel and safety.
Never before has a trapper had so many options for traps/equipment in trapping raccoons. I have footholds, multiple types of dog-proof traps, body grippers, live traps, and snares in my inventory. All are at times better suited than others for different situations. Anchoring systems have also improved. Wiring a trap to a tree is pretty much a thing of the past. Adjustable cable tie-off systems, various types of rebar stakes, cable and chain anchors are much improved over my first attempts at anchoring raccoon traps with a wooden stake.
Photo 11 right. Large lone tree adjacent to cornfield. Raccoon spotted sleeping in the fork of tree, middle of the day, late October. Heavy trail from tree to cornfield.
When anchoring a trap, if not on a drowning cable, or using a body grip, make sure that the raccoon, when caught, can not get ahold of anything solid to tangle on. Once the trap chain gets twisted tight and stops swiveling, a raccoon can often use its strength to pull out of the trap. I have had raccoons “twisted up” this way pull out on my approach from both footholds and dog-proof traps.
Raccoon trapping tips:
- Early season raccoons seem to prefer sweet attractors, and fish
- Late season/colder temps use K-9 gland lures, skunk based, and meat baits
- For dog proof traps, use fish-based cat food with various mixes, cherry oil, vanilla, molasses, salmon or fish oils
- Sweet smells reduce the number of opossums and skunks in dog proof traps, versus fish-based smells
- Raccoons often follow the low spots when traveling, a dry wash or creek versus climbing up and over a steep bank
- Low notches on river banks will often have coon trails through them
- Culverts are often used by raccoons to travel under a road rather than climbing up over it
- Keep track of raccoon den tree locations. During a warm spell in January/February, set up dog proof traps nearby. Large catches of heavily furred boar coon will be the reward
- During mid-winter warm ups, raccoons will often den up in large cat tail marshes. Look for some of the thickest cat tail areas where they make “nests” in the feeds
- My records show that my best color raccoons are feeding primarily on acorns, rather than corn
- Raccoons move heavily before a storm/weather front during trapping season
- Raccoons can carry rabies, and a far more common disease, distemper. Always skin raccoons with rubber gloves
- Distemper can rapidly reduce raccoon populations in a given area, especially when populations are very high
- Standing corn fields hold raccoons far later than picked corn fields
- The colder the temps, the closer you need to be to the den locations
- Using glycol or glycerin mixed with dog proof baits will keep traps from freezing up.
Photo 12 below. Processed Racoon Furs.
Even though current prices on raccoon pelts are poor compared to years past, consider taking some time to harvest raccoons every season if found in your area. With trappers taking less of these large predators, our game bird and song bird populations are taking a beating from the growing raccoon population. A large fully furred prime raccoon pelt makes a beautiful tanned pelt for wall hangings and gifts to others who do not trap.
by Andy Shoemaker