To Set a Trap

By Kathy Etling | January 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 1998

A few years back, my husband found on our doorstep a cardboard box that had been delivered from a famous outdoor catalog house. Bert's immediate reaction was glee.

I watched Bert's eyebrows arch and his forehead disappear beneath his hairline as he pulled from the box some steel traps, a long-handled trowel, coyote lure and, the piéce de résistance-a huge jug of coyote urine.

"Urine?" he howled. He checked the label once more and saw that the box was addressed to his wife. Steeling himself, he demanded to hear my latest scheme.

I'd never trapped before. In fact, I didn't know the first thing about trapping. Bert stood in front of me, dazed and confused, wondering why I wanted to trap now. My friend and helpmate obviously never had a hankering for a full-length coyote coat.

Our farm is rife with coyotes.

The darned things terrorize fawns, turkeys, rabbits and quail. They steal our neighbors' piglets and chicks. To let us know they are around, they howl on our property; sometimes it sounded like they were right under our bedroom window.

I didn't plan to make a career out of trapping. I figured to get in and out quickly, sort of like a corporate raider of the woodlands, taking just enough coyotes to make my coat-about nine, perhaps more if I wanted to match the pelts perfectly.

I argued that the money I'd spent for traps was only a tiny fraction of what a coyote coat would have cost, so I was really saving Bert money. And how hard could it be to trap nine coyotes?

And anyway, I had "The Book." Let me explain about The Book. A few years earlier I'd inadvertently and through no fault of my own become a member of an outdoor book club.

Well, I suppose it was inevitable. I didn't get a card back to the club on time and soon found a book on trapping stuffed inside my mailbox.

I didn't think much of it then but, during the January doldrums, I thumbed through it, garnering just enough information to be dangerous. To wit:

  • You need big traps-at least a #3-for coyotes.
  • Dig bait holes with a long-handled trowel. This creates the famous 'dirt hole set,' a tactic almost as familiar to trappers as it is to coyotes.
  • Place lure near the hole.
  • Bury the trap. (Preferably without springing it, a near impossible task.)
  • Sprinkle some coyote urine to cover your scent.
  • Remove coyotes from traps the next morning.

Armed with this information, I'd ordered everything needed to catch coyotes. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, I'd skimmed through only the chapter on trapping coyotes, not the chapter on trapping basics, or what every good trapper should know before launching a career.

Once Bert calmed down, I could see doubt welling up in his eyes. "What's wrong?" I demanded as my daughter Julie and I sprang traps simultaneously.

"I see chains on those traps," he said, "but what do you chain them to so the coyote can't drag them off?"

"Quick, The Book," I replied, and there it was: "Chain traps to metal stakes." There was more to this than I'd imagined.

"All right," I admitted. "I need some stakes and I need them fast." Coyote season ended on February 15, so time was running out. I consulted The Book once more. Might I need something else?

"Hmmm. It says here I also need a sifter."

"A sifter?" queried my better half. "Are you trapping or baking?"

"To sift dirt, dear. You just can't pile clods of dirt all over your traps. That wouldn't look like some little critter had just dug a hole in which to hide a yummy morsel."

"This is getting complicated," he whined.

Silently, I agreed, but I wouldn't concede the point. "I also need a large plastic tarp so I don't leave footprints and human scent when making my sets." The list grew. "A garden claw so I can rough up the grass when I'm through with the set. That way, my quarry won't notice any grass flattened by the tarp."

I returned to The Book. "Rubber boots are essential," I recited. "Odors don't adhere as readily to rubber as they do to leather. The higher the boots, the better."

Bert brightened. No money spent there. We already had rubber boots.

"Trappers must wear clean, odor-free gloves, preferably rubber or cotton. They need a hammer for driving the trap stakes and some covers for the trap pans."

"Good grief," cried Julie. "We'll need a wagon to haul it in."

I kept reading. "I also need some anti-freeze so the dirt won't freeze solid on the traps, preventing them from springing. And a good pair of pliers would really come in handy . . . " Two sets of hands clamped over my mouth.

The week passed quickly. By Saturday morning, I was sure I had everything I needed. What else could there possibly be?

On our way to the farm, eager to trap, I gazed at The Book while Bert drove. That's when I noticed the one chapter we'd missed altogether: "Preparing Your Traps."

Prepare them? Do you give them a pep talk or something? I read on apprehensively, learning my traps should be rusted and dyed. I wasn't eager to tell my husband and daughter that our traps weren't prepared for anything.

"I don't think I was cut out to be a trapper," I mumbled.

"What?" they cried in unison, their heads swiveling my way.

I decided to come clean. "Our traps aren't ready," I muttered. "We have to rust our traps."

"Rust the traps?"

"To get all the oil and slickness off the traps so we can dye them." I tried to slur my words.

"Fry them? Why would we fry them?" inquired Julie.

"Not fry them. Dye them. We have to dye them in a vat of boiling water into which we've dissolved a package of logwood crystals. If we rust them right, our traps will take on a nice, black color and lose their oily scent. You know, so . . . ."

"So the coyotes can't smell them" they moaned, by now knowing the drill.

"We also need to wax the traps," I said, after a long silence.

"You mean like car wax?"

"Not exactly. Some beeswax and paraffin dissolved with a tiny bit of pine resin to make it pliable. Oops, add resin to the list," I said, "That way the coating won't break when you set your traps, or when they spring shut."

We only had time to set our traps out two nights during that first year. I didn't catch any animals, unless of course, you count the time I sprung the trap on myself. Bert remained amused."

The coyotes probably got a good chuckle out of my dirt hole sets. They certainly enjoyed the venison chunks I'd used as bait, especially since they were able to abscond with them without springing my traps, even though I'd set them on hair triggers.

 I knew I'd more than met my match when I walked up to my very best set, the one it had taken me hours to perfect, to find my trap dug up, hauled to the end of its chain and balanced precariously on a fallen log. As I stood there, the darned thing sprang shut all by itself.

Somewhere, I knew, coyotes were laughing.

I still long for a coyote coat but I'm afraid at the rate I'm going, when I finally get it, I'll be too old to enjoy it. I gained new respect for the one or two souls in the world who may actually be smarter than coyotes. And while I don't discount the possibility of someday getting back into trapping, I think I need to get another Book.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer