Charles L. Dobbins
(This article was published in the October 1994 issue of The Trapper and Predator Caller magazine)
The area I was trapping consisted of hilly farmland with plenty of woods and brush. My earlier prospecting revealed there were quite a number of gray fox present, with some reds scattered about in the more open areas.
During this time of the year the fox are still in family groups. The food they eat is very plentiful with a good crop of wild cherries and grasshoppers. It is the pasture land that will produce best during this time of the year. Most fence lines, back then, had wild cherry trees growing along them. When there is an occasional frost, the grasshoppers will take shelter from the night's cold under the dried "cow pies" in the pastures.
Whenever I would see these dried cow pies turned over, it would be an almost sure sign that fox had done this to obtain the grasshoppers and black crickets that took shelter there. (Skunks will also eat these insects, but the skunk will usually tear the cow pies apart. Raccoons eat grasshoppers, but the raccoon was not very plentiful, and at this time of the year most raccoon are still working the waterways for crawdads and other food found there.
It is usually dry at this time of the year, and the landowners would let me drive their farm machinery roadways to reach the back end of the farm. With small fields in this hill country, there were many gates to open and close daily.
At the western end of my line there was a long narrow valley about four miles long with a black top road along one side of the valley. Since the floor of this valley was relatively flat, it had mostly agricultural fields. Most landowners had land on both sides of this valley, and had their own bridges across the stream to reach the higher fields on the other side. Those that didn't have bridges across the stream forded the stream with their machinery at a shallow place.
The landowner that had the most land in this part of the county was in this area. It was two brothers that raised beef cattle and operated a nursery. They owned over 500 acres of land, which took up most of this valley.
Their flat bottom land was planted with ornamental shrubs and small trees of all kinds, along with different kinds of flowers from which they sold bulbs and seeds. On the surrounding hills they had their hay fields, corn fields and pastures.
When I approached them for permission to trap, they welcomed me with open arms, as both brothers were avid bird and rabbit hunters. They told several tales about seeing red fox all over their land. They blamed the fox for the low population of quail in the valley.
Their house and barns were on one side of the black top highway, and across the highway was the flat valley floor. There was a white long low building on this side of the highway where they sold shrubs, seeds, garden supplies and other things. From this white building an equipment road ran down to a bridge, then across the stream, and it continued up to fields and pastures on the hills.
Where this farm road went across the flat valley, there were rows upon rows of all kinds of shrubs, small trees and flowers planted in straight rows. There were several people working in the bottom. Some were digging shrubs, some were pruning and doing other work.
I stopped the truck about 35 yards before I came to the bridge because it would be a good place to check for tracks as I knew fox would use the plank bridge to cross the 20-foot-wide stream. The dry dust in the roadway showed tracks of rabbits, skunk and red fox. About 30 feet on the other side of the bridge was a rock protruding up about six to eight inches through the grass, and this rock was about three feet off to the side of the roadway. There were some very old, old, semi-fresh, and fresh fox droppings on and around this rock. I knew I had found a fox's "territorial marker" and this location demanded a trap.
However, my second thoughts caused me to evaluate this situation closer. A trap beside the rock, and a dirt hole across the roadway from it I was sure would produce several fox for me. But there were the workers that would surely see the fox bouncing around this close to the roadway. Across this bridge were more workers doing things with the nursery stock.
I followed the roadway with my eyes. It left the flat bottom and angled up through some sparse woods to where the road entered fields that were planted in contour strips on the gently sloping hillside. Farther up towards the hill top was a large permanent pasture with white-faced cattle.
No, I won't make any sets here, I thought to myself. That way I won't be tempting anyone of taking my fox or traps. I can catch these same fox on up in those fields and pasture.
When I walked back across the plank bridge to the truck, I noticed this stream had been channeled a few years ago, and it ran straight for as far as I could see. There were no trees or brush growing on its steep banks, just the ordinary weeds and some grass. The water looked to be about two feet deep in the main channel.
This nursery was at the far western end of my trapline in a different county from where I lived. I would leave home an hour or so before daylight in the mornings, and arrive at this far end of my line just as daylight would arrive. I would then check traps and set new areas each day as I went back towards home. The next morning I had four fox up on the hill in the fields and pasture across the bridge.
It was the second or third morning when I was coming out of the nursery when one of the brothers ran from the white nursery building and flagged me down. We exchanged greetings and he asked if I did any good up on the hill across the bridge. I showed him six fox in the back of the truck. Three of the fox came off an adjoining property, and three were taken from across the bridge.
"Those fox won't eat any more quail" He exclaimed.
He continued on with, "The reason I stopped you was to see if you would catch the muskrats out of the creek bottom. We have planted some imported bulbs on both sides of the creek and those darn muskrats are digging them up.”
I then explained, "Muskrats are protected and can be taken only in season."
He cut in quick with, "We talked to the Game Protector about it, and he wrote us out a permit to kill those pesky muskrats. We paid a high price for those special bulbs and can't afford to have some varmit eating them."
"Could I see the permit?" I asked.
He replied, "Sure, it's here in the office."
I followed him into the white nursery building that had a small room built just inside the entrance, which served as the office. He opened a desk drawer, shuffled through some papers, and handed me the permit.
It read: "The landowner of this property or his agent can destroy any muskrats doing damage to nursery stock only on this land."
It was dated and signed by the Game Protector of this county. I knew the Game Protector, and had done nuisance work on occasion for him before. He then inquired, "What do you get for bounty on the fox?"
I answered, "Three dollars per fox.”
"We will pay you three dollars for every muskrat you catch out of our bottom," he offered.
I studied the verbal offer for a few seconds, then said, "I have to keep track of how many I catch. I'll cut the tails off, then drop the tails off here at the office each day.”
"Yeah, that will be all right. We can pay you each day if you want," he agreed.
"We can settle up when I'm done if that suits you," I offered.
"Whatever way you want to do it." he said.
I explained that I didn't have any muskrat traps with me, or any hip boots. I told him I would set traps for the muskrats the next afternoon.
As I drove towards the next place where I had fox traps, I got to thinking: At $3 per muskrat, I considered it a good price. Last season I received only $1.25 for my very best prime winter muskrats. Since I hadn't prospected along the stream, I had no idea of the muskrat population there. I was hoping for a high population, because with the $3 fox bounty and $3 for each muskrat, I should do very well on that nursery property.
I know that $3 per animal does not sound like much in today's economy, but back then $3 would fill up the gas tank on the Jeep truck, and I could drive all day. There were lots of fox then due to the Federal Soil Bank that had been implemented. It was a very common occurrence for me to catch eight to ten fox per day, some days more. Twenty three fox was the best day I had that early fall. This was much more than the better paid employees were making at the local mines and factories. Of course I was putting in many more hours per day than the clock punchers. But I liked what I was doing.
I ran the line backwards the next day so I would be at the nursery in the afternoon to set muskrat traps. I collected two fox from the nursery.
At the bridge there were roads that went left and right on both sides. These roadways followed along the stream but were about 30 yards back from the creek bank. It was between the creek bank and this roadway where the imported bulbs were planted on both sides of the creek.
This bulb planting was only five or six rows wide, but these rows ran for as far as I could see up or down the flat bottom. I drove about a hundred yards upstream from the bridge and walked over to the edge of the creek bank. Wow! It was eight to ten feet down to the water, and the bank was very steep. It would be best to describe the bank as being almost vertical. The water there looked to be just over a foot in depth.
I drove another hundred yards upstream and went to the top of the creek bank. There was a growth of tall grass and weeds from the edge of the bulb planting to the top edge of the creek bank about three or four feet wide. Here I saw a well-defined narrow trail through this grass and weed growth. The trail almost resembled a tunnel. There was a much-used narrow trail from the water's edge up the steep bank to the top of the bank. Checking the bulb planting where this trail led to revealed where many of the bulbs had been dug up.
It would have been a sure fire set to place a small Conibear trap in this tunnel like trail where it came through the weed growth, but this was a few years before the Conibear traps appeared on the trapping scene.
I knew better than to use a foot hold trap in the exposed trail, but I had brought mostly the guard type traps with me for the muskrats. (The guard traps helps to prevent wring-offs.) If I did set one of these traps in the trail, and it was sure to make a catch, the animal would be out in the open. Everything seems to like muskrat flesh, and the muskrat would very likely be taken by predators. Even though the muskrat would have been killed, I would not have a tail to count. Closer sign reading showed some muskrat sign along the edge of the water, and there were two 'rat den entrances about a foot beneath the surface about a couple of feet out from the steep bank.
I would position one of my dirty #2 Victor square jaw coilspring traps in each of the underwater dens. (A perfect situation for a small Conibear. Before the Conibear arrived, a foot hold trap was positioned in underwater dens.)
The bank here was about ten feet above the water and very steep. I put on the hip boots, gathered two dirty fox traps, one guard trap, a roll of wire and three wooden stakes. I used my shovel to dig "steps" in the side of the steep bank down to the water. My steps ended a few feet from where the trail entered the water.
Out of habit I shoved the blade of my shovel into the bottom close to shore. I got a surprise! The water was only a foot deep here, but the shovel went into the bottom very easy. I pushed the shovel deeper, and it went in easy till my hand on the D-handle was in the water. The water wasn't deep but the bottom was a soft silty sand and it would have been over my boots had I stepped into it. I wouldn't be able to set the 'rat dens because I couldn't wade the couple of feet from shore to reach them.
The last step I had dug was about a foot from the water, and down stream a few feet from where the trail entered the water I dug a few more steps along the side of the bank so I could reach the trail. Here I dug a bed for the trap so it would be about an inch beneath the surface where the trail left the water. I wired a trap and a stake to each end of the three foot long wire. I wouldn't be able to get out into the water to push the stake into the bottom, so I pushed the stake in at the edge of the water until its top was flush and out of sight.
I broke off a weed stalk, and used a six inch length of it as a lure holder. I placed the lured stick about four inches up on the bank from the water beside the trail. I was sure this set would connect. Before I drove off, I used the shovel and turned over a sizeable chunk of sod in the middle of the roadway. This would be a marker for me to know to stop here to check a trap. All of the roadways looked alike. This marker wouldn't mean anything to somebody else, but I could see it easily when I would drive along here.
I hadn't proceeded over a hundred yards and saw from the roadway several tunnel-like trails coming through the tall grass at the top of the creek bank. I stopped to check these out, but there was no way for me to get down to the water because of the vertical bank. But from my vantage point I could see three dens under water.
Closer inspection revealed how the muskrats were getting to the top of the steep bank. They had dug a tunnel from the water's edge up the steep bank. The tunnel had an exit hole close to the top, and from it the trails branched off towards the sprouting bulbs.
I looked across the stream and could see where part of the bank had slipped away into the water. Even from this distance I could see several trails leading up over the slip into the planted bulbs. I continued on down the roadway driving slow to watch for the tunnel like trails coming through the tall grass at the top of the bank. I found several of these places in the next few hundred yards, but in each case the bank was too steep for me to get to the water.
One place where a well used trail came up on the bank there was a gully that had washed down the steep bank. The 'rats were using the gully for easy access to reach the top of the bank. I carried enough equipment down the steep gully to make three sets. Checking the bottom, I found it to be too soft to wade.
A guard trap with a long wire was set at the base of the trail where it entered the water. I looked for natural places to set the other two traps, but saw none. I dug a couple of steps along the bank to get down stream from the trail. Here I made an artificial trail by digging a slot in the bank about five inches wide down to the water. This trail I made was only about two or three feet long up the bank. I placed a guard trap in an inch of water at the base of the artificial trail. I then lured the trail a few inches above the water and carried the extra trap back to the truck.
Near the end of the planted bulbs on this side of the stream was a place where three trails came to the top. Here the bank had slipped down into the water. This gave me an easy access down to the base of the trails where they entered the water. I carried three traps down to the water and set two of the trails. I could stand in the water here, as long as I was on the more solid dirt that had fallen into the water.
I used my shovel and dug a pocket into the side of this dirt, but it was of a fine sandy texture, and the hole for the pocket kept caving in.
At one end of this bank cave-in, the nursery workers had dumped a truck load of tree trimmings and prunings. These trimmings still had leaves on the branches, but they were shriveled and dried.
I went up on the bank and collected several of the tree branches and a chunk of sod. I shoved the butt ends into the bank horizontal so they extended out over the water about eight to ten inches above the surface. I pushed these branches in close together, then dug the pocket so the roof or ceiling of the pocket was the butt ends of the branches I had shoved into the bank. This kept the pocket from falling in.
I swished the chunk of sod around in the water until all the dirt was washed from the grass roots, then I tore it apart. The white grass roots and the green grass stalks made good eye-appeal back in the pocket. I finished the set by putting some muskrat lure on a piece of weed stalk just above the pocket.
By now it was well after sundown, and it would be after dark by the time I reached home. During my drive home, I was trying to think of different ways to trap that stream. Its very steep banks and its soft bottom were going to cause me to sprout some gray hairs and worry lines in my forehead.
By the sign I had seen, there was a fair population of muskrats along that part of the stream where I set some traps, but it was going to be a hassle to catch them unless I figured out a way I could work most of the water's edge and not just where I could get down to the water.
Wearing my chest waders would not be the answer because of the soft sandy silty bottom. However, I could use my canoe, but a friend borrowed it to take to Canada on a late season fishing trip and he wouldn't be back for over a week. By then I will be bounty trapping for fox in the two counties east of my home county.
If I were to do any good there, I would have to come up with a way so I could set traps almost anywhere I wanted to. I had set only a few traps today, but had passed up many good places because of the steep banks. I estimated I could have set at least 25 more traps at just the natural locations I had seen.
I arrived at the nursery late in the afternoon of the next day. The ‘rat traps had collected five ‘rats. I went upstream from the bridge and set five more traps before dark where I could get down to the water.
Since it was late, I stopped at the house to turn in the ‘rat tails, and they were surprised that I had caught that many muskrats the first night. (I was disappointed because I knew I could have caught more if only I could have set at all the available muskrat sign.)
The following day it rained off and on. The stream gave up nine muskrats to my traps. I arrived at the nursery around noon, and set
traps on the other side of the stream where I could get down to the water.
I stopped at the nursery shed and turned in the 'rat tails. We talked awhile, then it really started to rain. We were standing just inside the entrance to the shed, and I noticed a long extension ladder hanging from wooden pegs on the wall. When I saw the ladder I knew I had found the answer on how I could get down to the water's edge almost anywhere I wanted.
I explained to the landowner the trouble the steep banks were causing me. I asked if I could borrow one section of the twelve-foot ladder to get down the banks to the water. I told him that I would leave the ladder here each day after using it. He was more than happy to loan me the ladder to help get rid of his muskrat problem.
I spent most of the next day remaking some fox sets, but pulled quite a few too. The stream at the nursery had raised about a foot, but by late afternoon when I arrived, I could see the water was receeding. I didn't check any 'rat traps and didn't set any because all the sets were under the high water. Since we had no rain for several weeks, the ground was very dry, and the soil had soaked up most of the hard rain from the previous day. The stream would be back to normal level by tomorrow.
The next day I arrived at the nursery well before noon. I loaded one section of the ladder on my truck and used it at the first set I had made a few days ago. Looking down at the trail where it entered the water, I couldn't see the trap. I assumed it had made a catch, but the water was somewhat discolored from the recent rain and I couldn't see any depth into the water.
I lowered the end of the ladder down the steep bank til its bottom end settled into the mud at the edge of the water, then jiggled the ladder to make it solid. There were two rungs of it above the top of the bank. I had my digging tool in my hand when I started down the ladder.
When my full weight was on the ladder, its lower end sank into the bottom at least three feet. Now the top of the ladder was a couple of feet below the top of the bank.
I climbed back to the top of the bank, and I had a tug-of-war to get the ladder freed from the bottom. Hmmm, maybe the ladder won't work was my first thought.
I studied the situation for a minute or so, then I had an idea; With the use of a piece of hemp rope I had under the truck seat and a trap stake, maybe I can use the ladder. I drove the stake in about four feet back from the top of the bank, but left about four inches of it above ground. I repositioned the ladder, then tied one end of the rope to a rung that was just below the top of the bank. The other end of the rope I tied securely to the stake.
I eased my weight onto the ladder, and its lower end sank into the bottom a few inches until the rope tightened. I lightly bounced up and down to check the steadiness of the ladder. Everything seemed OK.
I climbed down, and with the blade of my digging tool I located the wire going out into deep water. The guard trap contained a drowned muskrat. I could see fresh tracks in the trail where it left the water. I reset the trap just barely under water where the trail entered the water.
I used the ladder to make sets at other places where before I couldn't get down to the water. At each place I had to use the ladder, stake and rope. I set mainly the base of the trails where they entered the water. But instead of setting only one trap, I would position the ladder so the trail was on one side of it, and I would set the trail. On the other side of the ladder I would make another set.
At first I tried making pocket sets, but the soft loamy soil would cause the pockets to cave in even before I had it completely dug. Instead I made an artificial trail about three or four feet long from the edge of the water up the steep bank. A trap attached to a long wire was positioned an inch or so beneath the water. A dab of muskrat lure a few inches up the trail completed the set.
When I got to the last set on this stretch of stream, I saw I had made an accidental catch on a medium size coon. This was the set where I had shoved the butt ends of branches into the bank to keep the pocket from caving in.
The coon had dug away and destroyed all the branches, and there was an excavation at water level that the animal had dug. Coon were not very plentiful back then like they are today, and the season was closed. I managed to release the feisty critter, and it swam across the stream, scampered up the opposite bank and disappeared.
I looked over the damage the coon had done to this set. The excavation it had dug was about two feet long, and went back about a foot into the soft bank. The excavation did not go back under the bank, as it kept falling in. The trap at the trail was fired and dislodged. I assumed the coon had accidentally done this.
I gathered some more tree trimmings from the pile of discarded branches, and shoved them in horizontally into the bank just above the excavation the coon had dug. I used another chunk of sod with the dirt washed from its roots, and placed it back under the overhanging branches at the back of the excavation. It now looked like a muskrat feed bed. I added a smear of lure to the grass wad.
The opening under the overhanging branches was rather wide, and I studied where would be the best place to position the trap to intercept the muskrat. I then gathered some more of the tree trimmings and shoved the butt ends of them into the bank, but I arranged these so the uppermost ends of the branches were down at water level. This arrangement would shut off the "straight in" approach to the feed bed. The ‘rats now would have to enter either on the upstream side of the opening, or on the downstream side. I placed the trap at the down- stream opening.
Why not add another trap at the up stream opening, I thought to myself. I climbed the ladder, and brought back another trap that was positioned in the upstream opening. I added some more lure to a branch that was a few inches above water level.
The next four days this set took doubles on muskrats for me. On the last day it took one muskrat.
I spent the rest of the day making 'rat sets with the help of the ladder. My fox catch had dropped to less than half of what it had been, and I was anxious to get the fox line farther east in operation. However, these muskrats were making up for the fox I wasn't catching. In about five days I had caught the majority of them, which was a few short of a hundred. The landowner was surprised there were that many muskrats there, but he gladly wrote me a check.
The set that I had modified after catching the coon, I have named "The Alcove Set." Since back in the early 1950s when I first learned to make it, I have used it every season since along steep banks. Through the years I have improved upon this set, and now use it to take mink and raccoon. Under the right situations I have used it to take beaver and otter.
In the next issue of this magazine I will explain in more detail how I construct the Alcove Set. Try it. You will be surprised at how well it works.
I have not used a ladder as part of my trapping equipment since that one time at the nursery property. There are times when the trapper must have ingenuity and inventiveness to cope with the different conditions and situations that will arise on the trapline