The morning is crisp and still. Only the drone of the idling outboard and tinkling of skim ice broken by the boat's aluminum hull cut the early morning silence.
When I beach the boat, thick ice on the downstream side of the sand bar fractures with a sound like thunder. I climb over the gunwale and grab my gear. Upstream, I can see wisps of fog rising toward the heavens.
I wade across the creek in thigh-deep water, gingerly toeing the soft bottom through my boot soles. Without warning, I stumble over something and awkwardly catch my balance. I realize I had just tripped over the stake I put down the day before.
I'm excited to find that the trap is no longer in the hole I'd set. I wiggle the end of the stake back and forth to free it from the stream bottom. As I lift it, a nice, big boar raccoon floats to the water's surface.
In many outdoor sports, opening day is the big event. Most of the excitement of firearms deer season, trout park season and dove hunting all occur on opening day.
The most exciting day in trapping, however, is the second day. Although I'd been working on my gear, studying new (and "old") techniques and reconnoitering
promising new locations for months in anticipation of the season, opening day of raccoon trapping is spent digging holes and setting traps - dozens of them! It's not until the second day when you make your first catch.
In minutes, I've rebaited the site, reset the trap and am on the way to the next set. The day brings several catches, and I make a handful of additional sets at promising locations. The time goes by quickly. For me, no place masks the noise and hubbub of the modern world more effectively than the high banks of Missouri's creeks and rivers.
While trapping serves as a livelihood for a small number of people, it can be a challenging and enjoyable outdoor pursuit for virtually anyone. To me, there's no better way to get started trapping than with raccoons.
Raccoons are some of Missouri's most abundant furbearers. Our raccoon population ranges from 1 to 2 million animals. Trapping helps keep their numbers in line with the carrying capacity of their habitat. It's especially helpful in suburban and agricultural settings where raccoons often damage agricultural and horticultural crops, prey on pets, poultry and small livestock and have the potential to spread diseases, such as canine distemper and rabies.
How do you entice an animal that has a home range of up to 10 square miles to place its foot in the area of 4 or 5 square inches? One answer is to create a a simple, yet effective "pocket" set. To make a pocket set, all you have to do is excavate a hole 15 to 18 inches deep in a steep bank at the water's edge. The hole simulates a muskrat burrow or an animal's food cache. Make the hole 6 to 8 inches wide (about the width of the trap) and about 8 to 12 inches tall. Try to cut the hole so that a couple of inches of water pools in the bottom. Place bait (more about this later) at the back of the hole, then place a set trap at the hole entrance. In soft prairie soils, you can construct a pocket set in just a few minutes with a steel rod or a small spade or trowel.
Employed properly, the pocket set effectively catches furbearers that frequent the water. While the primary purpose of my pocket sets is to catch raccoons, the set might also yield muskrat, beaver, mink or river otter.
Unlike muskrats and beavers, which spend most of their lives in the water, raccoons are not truly "aquatic." They are land animals that often visit water. Largely nocturnal, they leave distinctive tracks in the mud at the water's edge and well-beaten trails along the banks. They are omnivorous and leave distinctively shaped scat composed of undigested berries, grains, hair, fish parts or other foods.
You will often find raccoon sign in timbered areas along creeks adjacent crop fields and other food sources. Small draws and feeder creeks dissecting agricultural fields provide ideal travel lanes. Look along the banks for well beaten trails that occasionally dip down to the water. A good place to put a pocket set is at the upstream or downstream end of a sandbar where the contour of the bank forces the trail to the water. Logs, rootwads, bridge abutments and other obstacles can also force the trail into the water, creating good places to construct a pocket set.
Standard equipment for a raccoon trap line includes traps, pliable wire, pliers, a hatchet, waders, shoulder-length gloves and bait or lure.
I use #1 coilspring traps almost exclusively. The trap is strong and is easy to set and "bed" into the soil, and they are available in a variety of "humane catch" styles. These include rubber jaws, double jaws, "off-set" jaws (the jaws don't close completely) or "laminated" jaws (jaws with extra metal added to make them wider and more comfortable). The #1 1/2 coilspring, and the #11 longspring work well, too.
I dye all my traps with logwood crystals and dip them in wax. The dying process protects the metal of the trap much like blueing protects gun metal, and the wax makes the trap operate faster. I modify the trap from the factory by shortening the chain to just six or seven links. I also move the chain from the end of the trap to the center of the underside of the trap. I add a slide lock to the last link in the chain. This allows the trap to travel along the length of a wire or cable in only one direction.
I use 14-gauge wire, doubled and twisted together to make one wire that is six or seven feet long. Small (3/32-inch) steel cable works well and is more durable, but it is much more expensive. I attach the wire to a 12- to 15-inch long hardwood stake at one end and a 4-foot long anchor stake at the other. The wire passes through the slide lock between the two stakes. After assembling the apparatus, I just wrap the wire around the two stakes and "package" it for easy storage in the boat.
Making the Set
After excavating the pocket in the stream bank, I bait the hole and set the trap. I usually use a chunk of carp or sunfish I've caught and frozen for bait. Canned sardines or tuna work well, too. I add a few drops of a sweet smelling, commercially-made lure to a tuft of grass and place it over the bait in the hole. The grass is important because it discourages shorebirds and other sight-feeding, non-target animals from bothering the set. The lure's strong scent carries far to attract animals that find their food by their sense of smell.
Another way to attract animals is to put lure on a cotton ball and place it in a 35-mm plastic film canister. Cap it until you're ready to use it. After digging the pocket, simply uncap the canister and push it into the mud near the entrance to the hole. It's OK if the raccoon can see it. They're curious enough to investigate something new or different along their normal route.
Before placing the trap, excavate a level "bed" about the same size as the trap at the entrance of the hole. Dig it deep enough so that the trap pan sits about an inch under the surface of the water.
Insert the short stake to the side of the hole at the water's edge. Place the long stake in at least 24 inches of water. Make sure the stakes are solidly in the ground. Place the trap firmly onto the bed at the hole entrance. Make sure it doesn't wobble. A wobbly trap will be dug out or flipped over by a curious or clever animal.
The last step is to place a stick about 8 to 12 inches long and about the diameter of your thumb into the mud next to the loose jaw on the set trap. This will both guide the animal's foot to the trap pan and protect the loose jaw from being prematurely lifted. When the raccoon steps on the trap, it will slide down the wire with the trap and drown within a couple of minutes.
It's a good idea to skin raccoons the same day you catch them. Raccoons should be "case" skinned, meaning that you leave the pelt whole, except for an incision running the inside length of the hind legs. The pelt can either be "finished" (fleshed and stretched on a wire frame or stretching board) at this point, or frozen "green" until ready for sale. The advantage of fleshing and stretching is that the pelts can be stored and shipped long distances without requiring refrigeration.
Marketing green pelts is much less labor intensive, and they can be sold locally to fur buyers or at fur auctions close to home. Some trappers have developed their own niche markets for tanned pelts as souvenirs, home decorations or materials for do-it-yourself garment manufacturers. Several "how-to" books on fur handling detail skinning and finishing methods for raw fur.
Except for a few hardy souls, the days are probably gone when one could make a living trapping. However, armed with a dozen traps, a little elbow grease, an adventurous spirit, and knowledge of the "pocket set," even a novice trapper can pay for his or her equipment, and even make a little profit.
Like hunting and fishing, trapping has seasons, rules and regulations that are specified in Missouri's Wildlife Code. Trappers are required to have a trapping license and to follow all rules governing the sport, including checking their traps daily.
Trapping often comes under fire from those who don't understand the important role it plays in the management of the state's wild animals. Trappers can improve their public image by employing selective, humane methods that reduce the chances of catching domestic and other non- target animals. When handling and transporting game, trappers should keep in mind that those who are not involved in the sport may feel uncomfortable at the sight of dead animals.