Since humans first began to take prey with traps, a large body of experience has been gained by trappers. A number of standard sets have emerged from that experience, and many are described in the following pages. Some experienced trappers would not want to be limited to just these standard sets, but nearly every trapper used some of them. Modifications of the sets are used to fit the situation encountered at a given time and place. New trappers should study these sets and practice making them before the season arrives.
Trap site selection is extremely important. A poorly constructed but well-placed set will often take more fur than a well-constructed but poorly placed set. In fact, many trappers feel that trap placement is 80 to 90 percent of successful trapping. Learning the best sites for traps requires time, sign reading ability, and plenty of pre-season scouting.
Trap fastening is probably the most overlooked, yet one of the most important, aspects of trapping. Nothing causes more frustration to the trapper or more problems for the animal and the trapper’s image than to have an animal escape with a trap on its foot. Trappers should always “overstake” their traps and use good swivels and fasteners (use a larger stake than seems necessary). Most commercially available traps do not have adequate swivels for trapping predators. You can purchase good replacement swivels or make your own. For land trapping, lap links or S-hooks are much better than wire for fastening traps to stakes. Wire, if used, should be of 12 gauge or larger, should be doubled, and should not be twisted tight with pliers, which can weaken the wire and cause a break later. Enough wire should be used so that it can be twisted by hand, and a wire cutter used to trim the excess.
Stakes, when used, should be made of strong material and be long enough to hold solid in whatever type of soil conditions are present. Always test a stake after driving it by pulling hard upwards. If it gives, use a larger stake or “cross-stake” it. Cross-staking is very effective in sandy or loose soils, which will not hold a regular stake.
Various types of drags or grapples can be used by knowledgeable trappers for fastening traps, but their use by inexperienced trappers is discouraged. The use of grapples and drags depends on the type of terrain and vegetation, soil conditions, and the type of animal being trapped. Also, some trailing ability is needed to find captured animals.
Muskrats create feedbeds, which are actually piles of food cuttings. These piles of clippings or cuttings can be easily distinguished from muskrat lodges because the feedbed is not piled much above the surface of the water. Muskrats are caught at these feedpiles by foothold traps set in 1 to 2 inches of water in front of the pile. The trap should be attached to a drowning wire, or a heavy (1 ½) trap should be staked in deep water. If the water is less than 1 foot deep, a guarded foothold trap should be used.
Many new trappers start by trapping semi-aquatic furbearers, particularly muskrats, and mink. Though less aquatic, raccoons will also be taken in water sets. The selection of sets present here is useful for those species as well as for beavers and otters. As noted earlier, body-gripping traps of suitable size or drowning sets should be used whenever possible for water trapping. When trapping muskrats and mink where the water is not deep enough to ensure drowning the catch, and body-gripping traps are not usable, guarded traps should be used.
For muskrat and mink, drowning sets need not be elaborate. Stake traps in deep water (12 to 18 inches) or use a sliding wire or cable to let the animal reach deep water.
Make sure the trap is firmly anchored since many raccoons are taken in muskrat sets. Beavers and otters require the use of a sliding lock on a strong wire of cable. Sliding locks can be made using angle iron. Commercial drowning locks and cables are also available.
Muskrat and some other aquatic animals tend to climb up on floating logs or other surface objects. The trapper can take advantage of that behavior by using existing floating logs or by building a small floatation platform and concealing traps where the animal will trigger them. When such sets are used in one foot or more of water, the weight of the trap will drown the muskrat. The trapper can avoid catching ducks by placing a crossed pair of branch hoops about 6” over the float. Float sets are particularly effective where water levels fluctuate markedly.
Most semi-aquatic furbearers follow well-defined trails underwater. Since the animal commonly goes through restricted spaces, body-gripping traps of adequate sizes are ideal for trapping these channels. Where the channel is too large for the trap, it may be fenced or otherwise constricted using the brush and similar natural materials. The trap is usually more effective if it is placed at the bottom of the channel. Mink will be taken occasionally in channel sets for Muskrat. Beavers are effectively trapped in their channels, and otters may be caught in those sets as well.
Bank Hole Set
Muskrats dig bank dens along streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. These dens may look like small underwater woodchuck burrows. Foothold traps can be used to capture muskrats at bank den entrances, but body-gripping traps are usually easier to use at the set location. No bait or lure is needed.
Many water animals travel the same trail each time they pass over a given spot. Blind sets in these trails are often very productive. They are also selective if properly placed. Muskrats can be taken by concealing a foothold trap underwater where their trails are evident. The trap should be placed so that the animal’s foot comes between rather than over the jaws as it approaches. Muskrat lure can be placed above the trap to enhance the set, but it is not necessary. Be sure to follow the precautions for drowning the animal or use a guarded trap if deep water is not available or use a small body-gripping trap.
Beaver and otter can be taken at trails using a strong foothold trap carefully concealed in 3 to 4 inches of water at the base of the trail. The use of a sliding lock and drowning wire is essential for beaver and otter trapping.
Spring Run Set
Spring runs or small streams entering larger bodies of water are essentially natural channels. They are attractive to muskrats, milk, otters, and raccoons. Foodhold traps of appropriate size and a drowning wire should be used. In some cases, appropriate-sized body-gripping traps also may be used effectively. Where the spring run is small and shallow, raccoons will frequently move along or across them at the edge of the larger body of water. Therefore, a wise trapper must make sure such sets are secure for raccoons as well as the smaller minks and muskrats.
Underwater Ice Beaver Bait Set
Many beavers are trapped under the ice by using fresh bait such as aspen or poplar. Either foothold traps or body-gripping traps may be used. A hole is chopped into the ice near where the beaver lives or feeds. Then a trap and bait are fastened on a dry pole, which is pushed deep into the mud and anchored above the ice to a cross pole that cannot be pulled through the hole in the ice. If the trap used is a foothold trap, it should be secured to the lower portion of the pole in such a manner as to prevent the beaver from reaching the hole in the ice. This prevents the beaver from getting air and thus ensures drowning.
The pocket set will take mink, muskrat, and a raccoon quite effectively. An upward-sloping hole with its base a couple of inches below the waterline is dug into the stream bank so that the back of the hole is above the water. For mink and muskrat, the hole should be about 6 inches in diameter and 12 inches deep. Pockets for raccoons can be made as much as twice that size, but it is unnecessary. Use either a body-gripping trap of appropriate size or a foothold trap with a drowning wire or a heavy drag. The pocket is baited with a fish or honey-based bait and an appropriate lure. In areas where free-ranging dogs may occur, the trapper should avoid meat baits and raccoon gland lures. Locating the set under low handing cover, like branches or exposed tree roots, and keeping the trap well inside the pocket are also helpful in keeping dogs out of these sets. Muskrat musk and beaver castor are excellent lures for pocket sets.
Another type of trail set makes use of the habits of the furbearer upon encountering an obstruction. Raccoons and minks tend to enter the water at the same place each time they encounter an obstruction on the bank, often forming a visible trail. Water sets at those points can be quite productive. The traps should be well-bedded and may be covered with water-soaked leaves or mud. A drowning set should be used. No bait or lure is needed.
Beavers, muskrats, and otters often use the same path or spillway to cross a beaver dam. Traps can be set in such path spillways. Foothold traps should be set as described for trail sets. If body-gripping traps are used, they must be set in the water (generally below the dam in the spillway).
Scent Mound Set
Beavers make mud mounds and mark them with castor, much like foxes and coyotes mark prominent objects with urine. A well-concealed trap in 3 to 4 inches of water with a sliding lock drowner at either a natural or artificial scent mound will account for some beaver in open water trapping particularly in the spring.
Otter Toilet Set
Otters create and regularly use certain spots for toilets. These spots are generally near the water and contain numerous piles of otter droppings. A foothold trap can be set in 3 to 4 inches of water where the otter leaves the water to visit the toilet and should be properly attached to a drowning wire and one-way slider.
Precautions - Traps at Land Sets
Body-gripping traps can be used in some land sets with the proper precautions. These precautions for not capturing domestic animals are necessary because a body-gripping trap normally kills its catch. Therefore, the use of body-gripping traps on land is generally discouraged for beginners. Use of large body-gripping traps on land is illegal in Minnesota. The two sets that involve body-gripping traps in trees tend to reduce the possibility of capturing domestic animals (except cats).
Trail sets and log crossing sets are often recommended by trapping manuals for use in land trapping. Such sets can be selective if used by an experienced trapper, but their use requires both extreme caution and long experience. For these reasons, we do not recommend using these sets for trapping land furbearers.
Much like the bank cubbies and pocket sets mentioned under “Water Sets,” cubbies can be used effectively for land species that will enter a closed space. They work well for weasels, skunks, raccoons, opossums, fishers, marten, mink, and even bobcats. They are not effective for foxes or coyotes. Cubbies are pens or boxes that prevent the animal from approaching the bait or lure from any side except that guarded by the trap. Hollow logs or trees, stumps, and drain tiles are natural cubbies. A trapper may construct others of sticks, logs, bark, or rocks. Boxes with one end removed, or with holes cut in them are also types of cubby sets.
Some types of cubby sets can be made using body-gripping traps if there is no danger of catching non-target animals. Where that danger is present, foothold traps are a much better choice. When used, they should be entirely inside the cubby entrance, and they should be of an appropriate size for the species being taken.
Another type of cubby can be used effectively for raccoons. An open-ended wooden box about 9” x 9” with its opening guarded by a medium-sized body gripping trap is placed vertically on a tree no more than 6’ above the ground. The trap can be held in place by staples, light wire, or sticks. (Be sure not to anchor both jaws!) Baits of fish, beaver castor, or honey with anise can be used. This set can take domestic cats so it should not be used where there is a danger of catching them. Be sure the box is securely fastened to a tree.
Weasel Box Set
A small wooden box with holes cut in the ends is an excellent weasel cubby. The holes should be about 2 ½ to 3 inches in diameter. The box can be baited with grain (to attract mice), bloody bait, weasel scent, or a combination of those baits. Small body-gripping or solidly staked under spring traps in sizes 0 and 1 with a very light pan action are appropriate. A large flat rock placed on top of the box will prevent other animals from getting into the set.
Box traps are self-contained cubbies, thus they can be used effectively for the animals that will enter an enclosed space. In many cases, carefully covering the box trap will make the set more effective, and also may help in hiding it from thieves. In most instances, the bait should be placed behind the treadle or trigger, with just a few “appetizers” near the front opening and just inside the door. Single-door traps may work better than those with double doors, particularly for raccoons and fishers.
The dirt-hole set is an extremely good producer for nearly all predatory furbearers. Making the dirt-hole set for fox and coyote is the most demanding construction, and the instructions below are written for that type of set. Site selection is all-important. The set should be made in a relatively open spot where visibility is good on all sides. Naturally, fox activity should be evident in the area.
After selecting the site, all necessary equipment should be made ready, and the trapper should go directly to that spot. The bait hole should be dug with a clump of weeds, a rock, a small stump, or some similar backstop. It should be about 2 ½ to 4 inches in diameter, 6 to 8 inches deep, sloping back about 60” under the backstop. All dirt removed should be placed in the sifter. In areas where free-ranging dogs may be present, the trap should be set as near the lip of the hole as possible. Some trappers offset the trap slightly to the right or left of the center to assure a front foot catch. Next, a triangle of sod about 8 to 10 inches on each side is removed in front of the hole. The point of the triangle should touch the hole, giving it the appearance of a fox-dug cache. Dirt is removed from the triangle until the trap bed is sufficient for the trap to sit below the surface.
The trap is staked so that the stake and chain will be directly under it. Only about 8 inches of the chain should be used. After the stake is driven, pull hard on the chain. If the stake moves, the trap is inadequately anchored. Either add an additional stake or move the set to a location where the stake will hold adequately. Cover the stake and excess chain with a smooth layer of earth and bed the trap carefully. The trap should not rock or shift position. In wet or freezing weather, the trap should be bedded in dry sand or anthill dirt, or a trapping antifreeze may be used. Types of antifreeze include salt, calcium chloride, or commercial products. When using salt or calcium chloride, traps should be heavily waxed to prevent rusting.
After adding the pan cover (if used), the trapper can cover the trap with sifted soil. The pan cover can be a piece of clean cloth, a plastic “baggie,” a nylon window screen, or crumpled waxed paper. The pan cover should go over the pan of the trap and under the jaws. The soil should be level, and the trap should be buried no more than one-half inch below the surface. The trap pan should be as close to the front of the bait hole as possible.
For coyotes and bobcats, the set is made a bit larger with larger traps and with the trap set farther back from the hole. When trapping strictly for raccoons, raccoon lure may be used, and fox urine is unnecessary. Skunk and opossums may also be caught in these sets. Mink and fisher are sometimes taken at dirt-hole sets.
Scent Post Set
Like domestic dogs, coyotes and foxes urinate on prominent objects along their lines of travel. Trappers can take advantage of that habit to catch these furbearers. Raccoons, skunks, and opossums also may investigate post sets for foxes. A small prominent object, like a protruding stone, grass tuft, or stick, serves as the post. A liberal amount of fox urine and a few drops of gland lure are placed on it. The trap is carefully bedded and concealed a few inches away from the post so that the animal will step on it while urinating. Traps should be covered and staked as with the dirt-hole set. Scent posts can be natural, but most often are made by the trapper in open areas with objects taken from near the set.
Slanted-Pole or Running Pole Set
A second “dog-proof” set for raccoons, fishers, and gray foxes is the slanted-pole set. A leaning pole is baited at the top with suitable bait. The trap is placed lower on the pole, but at least 5 feet above the ground. Medium body-gripping traps can be stapled (the jaw nearest the bait) to the pole. The trigger should be set on top and to the side to permit the animal to enter the trap to the shoulder before springing it. This also prevents small mammals such as squirrels from springing the trap. A pan-type trigger is commercially available, and very useful in this set. The traps should be carefully screened or concealed in all cases, and the trapper should be sure the animal will be suspended above the ground and away from the tree. This set will catch cats, so the trapper must use it with caution where they may be found.
Fish, beaver meat, and raccoon meat are good baits. The bait should be screened with conifer branches or leaves so that it is not visible from above. Suitable lures may be used as well. Fish oil dribbled along the pole, or the tree trunk will help lead the animal up it.
The spring hole set is effective for raccoons and foxes. It takes advantage of the habit of the fox to avoid wet feet. A site with permanent water (preferably a non-freezing spring), several inches deep and 3 feet or more wide is selected. A large piece of moss-covered rock or sod is placed about 12 inches out from the bank. A second, smaller rock or sod, fitted to the inside of the trap jaws, is placed about halfway from the bank edge to the bait sod.
The trap and drag should be concealed below the surface, but the “stepping stone” should be above the water and stable on the pan. The trap should be adjusted so that the pan is level and rather stiff in action. Bait and lure placed on the bait sod should be carefully hidden to prevent birds from stealing the bait or getting into the set. Spring-hole sets work best in late fall and winter in most areas.
The flat set is quite similar to the dirt-hole and scent post sets. No bait hole or post is used, but the set is lured and liberally sprayed with fox urine. The flat set is an excellent choice when foxes are acting shy of dirt-hole sets.