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Otters on the Beaver Line


Paul Dobbins

     Being mindful of the weatherman’s promise of another sweltering June day, I entered a beaver site during the early morning while the lingering coolness of the previous night was still present.  I had been working this site for the past three days and had caught almost all the beavers in the colony.  There was one more for sure and perhaps two.  My contract with the timber company required me to remove all the beavers and open the three dams at the site.
    When I had surveyed the site a few days earlier, I found that the beavers had flooded about 10 acres of fifteen-year-old pines.  The area on each side of the creek had a buffer of old growth gum, maple, cypress and ash.  This old growth made the walking along the stream much easier than the briar choked pines that bordered the old growth.
    I entered the site from the downstream side.  When I drew to within about 150 feet of the lower dam, I heard a crunch, crunch, crack noise.  The sound would continue for a minute or so at uneven intervals, then there would be silence for a couple of minutes, and then it would begin again.  I’d never heard this sound during the many years I’d been stomping and wading through the beaver swamps of the south and I was intrigued.  The sound was coming from just beyond the dam I was approaching. 
    I quietly made my way to a large cypress tree that was about 50 feet from the dam.  Peering around the massive trunk of the cypress, I was able to detect motion on the other side of the dam, but I couldn’t determine what the source of the unusual noise was because of some low hanging tree branches between me and the noisemaker.  I saw another large cypress tree just below the dam and I put this tree between the noisemaker and me as I slowly crept up to the tree.
    When I peaked around the tree, I saw a medium sized dark otter on top of a large old water soaked log chomping on a snapping turtle, and the turtle was still alive.  The otter had the turtle upside down on the log and was chewing the turtle’s shell on one side between the front and back leg trying to get access to the tasty meat inside.   The otter was mighty respectful of the business end of the turtle and avoided it.  Every so often the turtle would slide off the log and the otter would then disappear into the dark water after it.  Shortly, the otter would surface, climb onto the log and then pull the turtle up on its round dining table and start crunching again.
    I was thinking about the sets I’d made at the site, and glad that they were all otter proof.  At the next dam, I had a snare hung in the crossover with an 8 – 10 inch loop and the lock was in the 11 o’clock position, making it very insensitive to otters and muskrats passing through it.  But the wide beaver would not slip through without getting caught.  This set had taken one yearling male beaver, which had been born the spring before.
    On the same dam, I had a broken dam set using a foothold.  This broken dam set was located in a place that would not be a very favorable spot for animals to cross the dam, and would only target beavers that were trying to repair the dam.  This set had taken one adult male beaver.
    There were three channels perfect for setting conibears that went from the main stream bed to ponded areas that were filled with water when the creek was dammed up.  I avoided setting these with conibears because of the possibility of catching a passing otter.  Although these would have been wonderful beaver sets, they would also be otter killers if any otters came through. I saw no sign of otters at the site when I set it up, but otters have a way of moving in when you feel confident that there are none around.
    One of the three channels had a submerged log just under the surface and there was a smooth hard channel under the log where the beavers were swimming under the log.  I set a snare in this channel making a large loop and setting it in an insensitive position like the one on the crossover, and put a dab of food lure two feet above the snare.  This snare location had taken one adult female and one yearling male.  This female was not the one that had given birth to the yearlings, and I knew that other female had to still be around.
    At the upper dam, I put a snare on the crossover and up till now it remained empty.
    Although I could have watched the otter work on the turtle all day, I decided it was time to get moving because the day would soon become extremely hot and I wanted to work other sites closer to the road during the intense summer heat of midday.  When I stepped out from behind the large cypress, the otter immediately dropped the still alive turtle and they both disappeared into the dark duckweed covered water.   I could trail the otter’s underwater swim by the bubbles it released as it made its way up the creek to the next dam.
    When I arrived at the next dam, I could clearly see the wet path over the dry sticks, where the otter had climbed the dam at the crossover and went through the snare.  The snare was empty and pulled down about halfway.  I checked the dam break set, and had the adult female I was hoping for.
    As I approached the next dam, I saw where the otter had climbed the dam and went through the snare.  But this snare wasn’t pulled down.  The otter must have slowed down a bit by the time it got to this snare, and didn’t bump it as it passed through.
    Trapping beavers full time in an area with a dense otter population presents a challenge.  The challenge of not catching the otters is very manageable, but it requires a constant awareness about where sets are made, and the tools used.  Most locations where I set for a beaver, can be a likely place to catch an otter.  However, when I use a snare, even in places where otters will travel, I can successfully avoid catching them.  This snare is set with an 8 – 10 inch loop and is set to be insensitive.  There are very few locations where I can use conibears that will not catch otters where the location and set are not attractive to an otter. 
    Of the three trapping tools I use, I avoid using the conibear more than the snare or foothold during the off-season.  The conibear is very unforgiving and is a real otter getter.   When setting the conibear for beavers, it is usually set in channels and travel ways where beavers will be inclined to swim through it.  The problem is that otters also use these same travel ways and are easily caught in the conibear trap set for beavers.
    Since the conibear is the easiest of the tools available for most to use, I find that a lot of trappers are reluctant to use the other tools available to miss the otters during the off-season.  It’s usually a lot easier to place a conibear in a channel than it is to make a drowning set with a foothold.  Plus the conibear is a very productive tool that is, until the beavers get educated about it.
    The snare can be very effective to catch otters if set correctly.  However during the off-season I will set up the snare so it is very effective on beaver, and not likely to catch otters, even when set where otters will pass through them.  I can usually set a snare anywhere I would otherwise set a conibear and have confidence that it will catch the beaver and miss the otter. 
    In order to achieve this the snare has to be set properly.  First, the snare needs to have a big enough loop so the otter can pass through the snare without firing it.  Usually an eight to ten inch loop is plenty large enough for this.  This size loop is big enough for the otter to pass through, while a beaver will normally force the loop closed because of it’s wide body.  Secondly, the snare either has to be completely submerged or completely out of the water.  If the snare is set so that half of the loop is underwater, the otter has a very good chance of forcing the loop closed as it swims through it.  Lastly, the snare needs to be set in the insensitive position.  What I mean by setting the snare in the insensitive position is that when the snare is set, it takes some force for the loop to close.  This will keep many non-target animals such as otters, muskrats and some nutrias from firing the snare.
    Getting the snare to be insensitive is easy to achieve.  The sensitivity of the snare will depend on the position of the snare lock on the loop when set.  If the snare lock is at top dead center on the loop or past, the snare will be sensitive and easily fired.  The further the snare lock is before top dead center, the less sensitive the snare will be.  

Insert Drawing showing sensitive/insensitive snare here

    Keeping the otters out of the foothold traps is simply a matter of selecting the right set locations and blocking.  When I set the footholds where the otters are likely to travel, I will stand a good chance of catching an otter when it passes over my trap.  I will set my footholds where otters don’t want to go.  An example of this is a dam break.  If I just open a hole in a dam for a dam-break set the otter may use that spot to cross the dam.  However if I break a hole in the dam and put an obstacle on the backside of the break that will make the otter detour around, the chances are good the otter will take another route to cross the dam.  An obstacle can be made from a dead tree branch that has many limbs on it that would be hard for the otter to walk over.
    I also do this when making food type sets for beavers where there is a path leading up a bank.  I’ll place my foothold at the base of the path in the water, but I’ll put some sort of blocking material that will cause the otter not to want to climb up the bank.  The beaver won’t mind the blocking, because it will be interested in the freshly peeled stick at the water line and the beaver food lure it smells.
     I will avoid setting the foothold at the large castor mounds.  These hold an attraction for the otter also.  I will make my own scent mound at a spot along the bank where I use just a dab of mud and leaves, and some castor lure.  I like this set to be where there is nothing behind the set on the bank that would make the otter want to go up there.  I think they are attracted to the large castor mounds because they are a nice place to play and groom themselves.  The area around these large castor mounds is usually pretty well beat down from the constant visits from the beavers.
    By following these simple guidelines, I don’t catch otters in the off-season.  Otters are too valuable a resource to waste and it’s so easy to avoid them.
    A lot can be learned from the animals we pursue, and here’s something I learned while observing a group of five otters swimming together in a beaver site I was working.

    The cool air felt refreshing on a sunny December afternoon as I was entering the last beaver site of the day.  I was full of expectation thinking about all the fresh otter sign I’d seen the day before at this location.  I had already caught two otters that day and was in great hopes of increasing that number.  This site contained three beaver dams.  There was a small dam on the downstream side, a  large dam that impounded the water where the beaver’s lodge was located and a smaller dam upstream.  The site was about a quarter mile from the nearest road and there was a sycamore plantation between the road and the site, which made for some easy walking. 
    As I usually like to do, I crept as silently as I could through the twenty-foot high sycamores.  The white and gray smooth barked trees were about ten feet apart planted in neat rows like an over-sized cornfield.  Walking between the rows I couldn’t help thinking about all the fresh otter sign I’d seen the day before.  There was a well-used toilet between the first dam and the primary dam.  It was freshly used the evening before and I hoped they would remain here another day.  I didn’t set the toilet, but had two sets on each of the upper two dam crossovers.  It was late when I set this up the day before and I went with the high-percentage sets to get the most out of the daylight I had left.
    I slowly made my approach through the sycamores to where this otter toilet was located.  I could see movement in the water above the toilet area.  I eased just a bit closer so I could see what was making the small waves.  I was delighted to see three otters swimming around in the main channel.  No wait, there were two more below these.  Wow!  Five otters together!  I just knew I should have an otter or two to carry out, providing beavers hadn’t filled the traps on the crossovers.  Or perhaps I had already caught an otter or two.
    The otters began swimming upstream towards the primary dam.  I could see the dam and the darker beaver crossover was very evident on the lighter colored sticks on the backside of the dam.  I watched excitedly as the otters made their way to the dam.  My heart sunk when I saw that three of the otters decided to cross the dam to the left of the crossover and two crossed to the right of it.  Not one of the otters crossed where I expected them to cross.
    I slowly made my way to the dam and looked for any sign of the otters.  There was no evidence of them except for the wet paths they left where they crossed the dam.  I then checked the traps on the dam.  The 280 I had placed at the bottom of the crossover was still set, just like I had left it.  It was available to catch one of the otters, if it had chosen to use the crossover.  The foothold on the upper part of the crossover contained a nice adult beaver.  I immediately made my way to the upper dam because I still had big hopes of catching an otter or two in the traps set on the upper dam, and I was anxious to go see if I connected. 
    I slowly made my way to the next dam and upon arriving there, I saw that I had a muskrat in the 280 at the base of the crossover and there was a wet path that at least one of the otters had made using that very same crossover.  It had traveled over the dead muskrat and up the crossover.  There was another wet path that crossed the dam to the left of the crossover.  I checked the trap at the top of the crossover and had another large adult beaver.
    The lesson I learned that day was that an otter will cross a beaver dam anywhere it wants to.  They don’t always cross on the well-established path the beavers have made over the dam.  They can cross it next to the bank, or anywhere that suits them.  I found that during the regular season, I can use blocking to help me catch the otter.  I will place obstacles all across a dam on each side of the beaver crossover leaving one easy path for the otters to cross.  They will choose this path rather than try to climb over the obstacles.  In this path, at the top, bottom or both, you will find my trap.  Since doing this, my otter catch has increased quite a bit.