Words From The Past

High Water Sets
Charles L. Dobbins

(This article was published in the February 1990 issue of The Trapper and Predator Caller magazine)


    The weather plays an all important part on the trapline. When the weather is cooperating, trapping is rather enjoyable. When the weather turns sour, it can be a chore keeping sets operating with the raising and lowering water. This article will deal with rain on the trapline. I don't mean flood conditions, but rain that will cause the water to raise and will put the traps too deep to take the intended animals.
    Why don't the traps take these animals when the water raises a few inches to over maybe a couple of feet? When the set was made during normal water levels, the trap was probably placed in less than four inches of water for mink, muskrat and the raccoon. For the beaver and otter, foot-hold traps may be up to 14" deep. Now with the high water, the animals may be using a different route than when the water was at normal levels. The animals will be swimming well above these traps.
    The animals didn't leave the area, but have only changed their habits and routes until the water returns to normal. If the water is too high for the trapper to retrieve the traps, then other traps must be used to make sets in this area. The animal didn't wash away with the high water.
    I have known of trappers that took trips out-of-state to trap. High water put their traps too deep under water to retrieve them so other sets could be made. These trappers had set almost all but a handful of their traps. Now they had to wait until the water went down so they could reset. Sometimes this could take longer than a few days.
   The experienced trapper will have enough traps to hold some in reserve for such circumstances. There are sets that will take all animals during periods of high water. I will explain some sets and animal habits during these periods of high water.


    These animals know the crawdads, frogs, small fish, and other food it finds during normal water levels can't be found when the water is high. Now the raccoon will go to higher ground to forage for its food. Depending upon the area of the country, these other foods are corn, wild grapes, persimmons, acorns, soybeans the combine dropped, beechnuts, mice, rose hips, and other things the raccoon considers good to eat.
   Raccoon will use brushy and weed-choked fence rows as travel ways when going from place to place. Any long low place on the landscape, such as a wooded draw, or even a dry wash or gully, is a travel way for this animal. Most of us know that small culverts that go under the roads, even dry ones, are used by raccoon all year. These small culverts are in draws, ravines and other low places that the road crosses over. The sets don't have to be right at the culvert. These sets can be made some distance from the road, as long as the sets are on the travel way.
    Any small spring seep in the woods, brush or tall grass areas are good locations for more than one set.
    During this high water period, you know where the raccoon will be feeding in your particular area. You have an idea of the travel routes they will use going from place to place. Go to these feeding areas and ON the travel ways to make the sets.
    Even if you are primarily a water trapper, I am sure you can make the ordinary dirthole. The raccoon will investigate all kinds of holes. I realize that it has been raining, and the ground is very soggy. There are some trappers that may shy from using the dirtholes due to the muddy conditions.
    Picking the exact place in these feeding areas, or the exact place along the travel routes, there are places dirtholes can be made so little or no mud is involved in making these sets. How about a rotted stump or a log in a fence row? A hole can be dug beside or under this stump or log. The rotted wood can be used as trap covering. A pile of stones or wooden fence posts along the travel routes can be used as a location.
    Spring seeps found in the woods, brush, weedy areas, or even open fields can be used for multiple set locations. The raccoon living in this area, and for some distance from these spring seeps, already know where they are. That is why I recommend multiple sets in and around such places. A pile of dug up grasses and dirt in this seepy area will stand out. The use of bait and lure just out of sight in and on this mound will take raccoon. If this spring area is in a long or tall grassy area, look closely for trails or passageways through this growth. Sometimes these trails are rather faint because the animals do not come here on a regular basis. Trail sets can be made here.
    Then there is the old standby cubby set. I don't go into much work to construct these. A couple chunks of wood or stones moved into position beside a stump, log, or boulder is a quickly made cubby, and it looks natural. All I want is someplace to hide the bait and lure. The animal must cross the hidden trap to investigate the smells I will use here.
    If the ground is very soft from all this rain, I will not dig a trap bed. Instead I will use my heel and stomp in a trap bed. The grass and leaves are pressed into the depression my heel made, and this depression is the trap bed. The trap can be covered with wet flat leaves, chopped grass, buckwheat hulls, rotted wood, rotted sawdust, or most any suitable material for trap covering.
    The regular "post set" used for the wild canines will take raccoon along their travel routes or in their feeding areas. For the raccoon, the post set does not have to be made out in more open areas as it should for the fox and coyote. The best lures for these post sets for the raccoon that I have found are: coyote, bobcat or gray fox gland lures. These same lures used at my water-related sets don't seem to have the appeal for the raccoon as they do in the more upland countryside.
    As for the lure to use at the other sets made away from the water, I find the following are my preference in this order: bobcat gland lure, coyote gland lure, red fox gland lure, and beaver lure with a strong castor base. Of course, the sweet type lures will also draw the raccoon, but I will use these sweet-smelling lures more as a bait.
    As for the actual bait - most fishy smells will cause the animal to stick around to find the bait. Any of the prepared wild canine baits are attractive to the raccoon. These baits can be poked back into a hole with the trap guarding the approach, to the bait. A flat rock with another flat rock placed on top, with the bait between these two rocks will cause the animal to do much moving around to get to the bait.
    When the water starts to recede, the raccoon will come back here to see what the high water had washed in or uncovered for them. To the trapper that has spent more than a little time on the water trapping for the mink, muskrat, beaver or the raccoon, if he can remember, raccoon tracks are in the mud of the receding water. Maybe you made sets for these animals, but they didn't return for some time. High water will uncover or bring in tidbits of food for these animals. They seem to know this, and sets made just as the water starts to go down, will produce the best.
    I will make these sets at the edge of the lowering water or just above the falling water level. The pocket set is a killer at this particular time. The big hole set has good eye appeal and works well.  Sets made at the very edge of the water will probably have the edge of the water much lower and away from the set the next day. I will not move this set. The smells I placed there will draw the animals to it, even if it is well above the water level. The smells I prefer at these sets have a fishy smell. That is what the raccoon has come here to find and I will try to accommodate them.
   Locations to intercept the raccoon coming back to the water are draws, small tributaries, and fence rows that lead towards the streams. Any drift piles created by high water will be thoroughly investigated by "ole rubber foot." A trail along the edge of the water where there is an obstruction to cause the animal to detour around it, is another location. A hole can be made high and dry. The bait and lure is in the hole and a trap is guarding the good smells. If the trail is well used, a trail set can be made.
    Logs floating on the water can be anchored so they don't float away. Some kind of fish oil smeared on the log will induce the raccoon to want to walk the log. A notch cut in this log and a trap concealed in this notch will usually produce. If the bank is steep here where the log is anchored, a narrow trail of sorts can be dug from up higher on the bank so the animals have easier access to get to the log. A trap placed on this narrow trail is a good set. Since the bank is rather steep, a pocket can be dug were the log is close to shore, and a trap placed here. At this floating log there are several sets. At a good location such as this, it is very possible to make multiple catches.


    When high water along the streams covers the feed beds, resting places, and toilets, and disrupts the ordinary routine of this animal, it will make new feed beds and toilets. These new feed beds and toilets are not used more than a night or two at the most, because of the changing water levels. The underwater holes and channels are now too deep underwater to find and use by the trapper.
    If I know the water is rising, I will make a slide. This resembles where a muskrat has climbed up on the bank several times to gather grass or some kind of a plant root for food.
   During rising water, the trap is placed very shallow or even up out of the water. As the water rises, it will cover the trap. During falling water, I will set the trap deeper. As the water level lowers, the trap will be at the right depth. Sometimes it is a guessing game to get the traps so they will be at the correct depth when nightfall arrives. Up a ways on the slide, I will place some bait, usually of the kind the muskrats are feeding on from this area. It may be a certain type of a plant root, or it could be the greener grasses with the white roots washed off. A dab of muskrat lure is used for an added attraction.
   One of the best muskrat sets during high water are traps placed up the small tributaries away from the effects of high, water. During wet spells such as this, the muskrat will travel quite a ways up these small drainages. They may be looking for ponds or lakes to resettle in, or it may be searching for food. I am more inclined to believe they are looking for new territory to resettle in.
   Some of these small tributaries have small deep holes large enough to drown the animal. At these holes, I will make a pocket set with lure and bait at it. If there is no water deep enough for drowning purposes, I will resort to the small Conibear type traps. These body-grip traps are placed in the narrow places of the small tributary. Sometimes weed stalks, stones, sticks, and long dead grass are used to narrow it down just wide enough for the small body-grip trap. Usually I will place two or more sets in these small tributaries during spells of high water. The multiple setting of these locations have told me that more muskrats use them during high water periods than their sign shows. I have had many pleasant surprises from these small tributaries.
   In some quiet backwaters, float sets can be made. These sets produce better if they are located so the set has overhead protection from flying predators. This overhead protection are branches that are closer than three feet above the surface of the water. These float sets are baited and lured.   All of the pocket sets made for the raccoon at water level, can be made so the set is also attractive to the muskrat. (Now I have a multi-purpose set.) This is done by using eye appeal material the muskrats will be interested in. This material is shredded white roots of the plants the muskrats are feeding on in this area. This material can also be the greener grass dug up and the white roots exposed by washing the dirt from them. The raccoons have seen this kind of material before at holes near the water level where muskrats have worked. The fishy smell at these pocket sets will not cause the muskrat to shy away. 


    During periods of high water the mink will generally go up the smaller tributaries to find food. These smaller streams are not affected for very long periods of time by the high water as the larger streams are. Up these smaller streams the mink can find frogs and crawdads. There might be some deeper holes here that might contain some minnows. These small streams usually have a dense growth of long grasses, weeds and brush along their sides. This kind of habitat will harbor rabbits, birds, mice, and other small rodents. All of this is mink feed.
   In areas of where the long dead grass is matted down, look closely for small narrow trails going under this matted down grass. Here a foot-hold or a body-grip can be used. If the trail is large enough for the raccoon to use, then I will use the foot-hold trap. This is a set that can take more than one kind of a furbearer.
   These small tributaries can have a body-grip trap at certain narrow places the same as the muskrat sets I had explained earlier. Now you can see that sometimes a pleasant surprise awaits me in the way of a mink at these sets. It is another multi-purpose set.
   If there are agriculture fields on the sides of the small stream, check for drainage tiles coming from the field towards the small stream. This is a good location for mink and raccoon sets.
   Up on the bank, check the larger trees for cavities at the ground level. Mink will investigate these kinds of places. 
This goes for hollowed out stumps and logs with cavities in them. These kinds of places always get a trap from my packbasket. Along some streams in certain parts of the country, there are sheer rock cliffs a short distance from the water. I will look for a shelf along the base of these cliffs because the mink likes to hunt in these kinds of places. A trap placed on the shelf is positioned so the loose jaw of the trap is tight against the wall of the shelf.
    Sometimes at the base of these cliffs there is a jumble of rocks that has fallen from the cliff. Amongst these boulders will live mice and sometimes other rodents. Natural cubbies can be found many times among these large rocks.
    In and around the edges of large drift piles there usually are narrow natural passageways that the mink will use when investigating this place for food. If there are no narrow passages, they can quickly be made from the material of the drift pile.
   Holes can sometimes be poked through from the upstream side of the drift pile. Many times these holes will break through to a large cavity inside the drift pile.
   If the drift pile is such that holes or narrow passageways cannot be found or made, the ordinary dirthole set will take mink at this type of a situation. I rarely pass up a drift pile without making some kind of a mink set. I can say the same think for brush piles up on the bank along streams. Sometimes these brush piles will have a narrow slot going into them. If not, then I will punch in a dirthole. Most times a pole can be used to poke a suitable hole into the brush pile at ground level. A trap placed at the mouth of this hole will take the mink that comes to investigate the brush pile.
   There is a set for mink that has been around for sometime. Back in the early 1950's there was a trapper from the Midwest that advertised a "thief proof and under ice set" for sale. This man's name was Hunt. (I can't recall from what state he was from.) For $5.00 he would send directions for constructing the set and an illustration. This set would work during all kinds of weather. However, it took much preseason work to make many of these sets by his methods. 
   Mr. Hunt's method was to dig a hole about three feet in from the edge of the water, and straight down to below water level. If I recall correctly, he recommended using a post hole digger to make this vertical hole. Then go out in the water and dig an underwater hole straight back into the bank so it joins the vertical hole that was dug straight down from the top of the bank. A few weed stalks or long grass was lightly scattered over the hole up on the bank.
    A foot-hold trap was placed back in the underwater hole. (This was before the appearance of the Conibear trap.) When the ice came on, any back running mink would go down the hole from up on the bank. On its way out into the water, it would get caught in the under-water trap set inside the hole. (This was the way Mr. Hunt explained it.)
    I mentioned earlier that this set will take mink under all types of weather conditions. I catch more mink in this set during high water periods, than at other times. I have a theory as why this set works better for me during high water conditions. The fish in the stream as well as crawdads will seek refuge from the fast currents of the high water. They will take refuge behind anything that will break the force of the current. What better place to seek refuge from the fast current than in an underwater hole?
    The mink seems to know this about the fish during high water. They will either go down the hole from up on the bank, or enter the underwater hole. The position of most mink taken in the body-grip traps and the foot-hold traps tells me that most mink (not all) prefer to enter the hole from underwater. I assume they do this to force any fish inside the hole farther back into the shallower part of the hole. This way the fish are easier to catch and subdue.   When the #110 Conibear trap appeared on the market, I knew this was the trap to place at the underwater entrance of this hole. During periods of, ice and normal water levels, the Conibear trap works well.
   On certain streams, the Conibear did not work very well during high water. This trap, on certain streams during high water conditions, was accidentally taking bullheads, suckers, horned chubs, small carp, and some other species of fish. Most of these fish in the Conibear traps were less than ten inches long. This is how I learned that fish will seek refuge from the fast currents of high water.
   Now in streams that have a good population of fish, I will use the foot-hold trap in the underwater hole. Fish will swim over the set foot-hold trap. The main trick with the underwater hole when using the small trap, is to keep the hole small. If it is too large in diameter, it can be narrowed down with the use of stones, sod or sticks. The hole should be smaller than four inches. This smaller diameter hole will cause the mink to push against the bottom with its rear feet. Most mink (not all) in this set will be taken by a rear foot in the foot-hold traps. This hole can be larger when using the Conibear trap.
   Lately I have been using the Tunnel Trap at this particular set on mink with good success. It is natural to place in this underwater entrance, and fish do not fire the trap as they do the Conibear.
   How do mink find these underwater holes? They know the hole is already there by their other trips through this area during periods of normal water levels. The mink seems to know that fish will congregate in this protected place during high water.
   Several times I have witnessed the following: I saw where mink were traveling on top of the ice when there was a light covering of snow. I already knew where there were some old abandoned muskrat dens. When the mink came to where the underwater entrance was on top of the ice, the mink milled around on the ice over this underwater den. It couldn't get under the ice and there was no top entrance hole because of a large tree growing on the bank at the edge of the water. However, the mink knew the exact place the hole was from on top of the ice. 
   The way I construct these sets is to find a suitable muskrat den. There cannot be many roots or solid stone to dig down through. I will catch all the muskrats from this particular den. With a long slender pliable pole, I will determine where the underwater hole angles up towards the bank. I will dig from up on the bank well above water level, down to the nesting chamber.
   A foot-hold or a Coniber style trap can be set up op the bank at the top hole. When a foot-hold trap is used here, this trap has taken mink, raccoon, fox, and a couple of bobcats for me. They came to investigate the fishy smell I have placed down the hole up on the bank. The underwater traps will take only mink and muskrats. Under the right circumstances, it will take some small fish. I have been told by some of my students that they have taken small snapping turtles accidentally in this underwater set on occasion.
   All pocket sets made for the raccoon, with a fishy type bait or lure used, will also take the mink. With some root material or green grass placed at the mouth of these pocket sets for eye appeal, these sets do multi-purpose work. These pocket sets will now take raccoon, mink or muskrat.
   The fish oil that was smeared on the floating log will also be attractive to the mink. The trap bedded in the cut-out notch in the log, the nearby pocket set, and the trail I made coming off the steep bank are all potential mink catchers.


   This animal has some different habits during high water conditions. As a rule, beaver flowages that have a series of dams on them are not usually affected very much by ordinary high water.
   The beaver that lives in streams or in the ponds they have created, will have the urge to travel during high water periods. Some beaver will go down the small tributary from their pond to the larger stream. Here where the small tributary joins the larger stream, they will make a castor mound. During dry periods, or when the ice is on, they will not be back here again until the next rainy spell.
   At the next good rain that will cause the small tributary to raise slightly, the beaver will be back to freshen up the old castor mound. I believe that beaver that travel less than a mile during a rainy spell are usually a new pair that has just built a new pond on a small stream.   A few years later, there will be a series of dams on this small tributary. The natural increase of beaver forced them to enlarge their habitat by building more dams and lodges in the ponds they created. 
  This small tributary now has no more suitable places to construct dams. The food supply may be getting short to sustain a number of beaver of all different ages in this particular habitat.
   When some of the beaver of an established colony leave to find another place to live, it is usually (not always) the two-year-olds that leave. They are usually chased out by their now pregnant mother. It is generally in the very late winter or very early spring when these beaver leave to find new living quarters.
   As this colony gradually enlarged over the years, the older beaver went on longer trips during rainy spells. It is not unusual for the adult beaver to be gone at this time for several days.
   While they are gone, they make castor mounds along their route. A good location to find these castor mounds are very near stream junctions. I am sure most water trappers have seen these castor mounds near stream junctions, and some were very high on the bank. 
Beaver will make the castor mounds within two to four feet from the edge of the water. These older castor mounds that may be several yards from the edge of the normal water level, were made during very high water. The water level when these mounds were made, was very close to these mounds. Quite often these castor mounds can he found several miles from any known beaver colonies.
   Sets for beaver during high water periods are the same as during normal water levels. Body-grip traps can be placed in small tributaries just up the small stream from a larger stream. The traveling beaver during a rainy spell will travel up these smaller streams. (This is how new locations for dams are found by the beaver.) Another good location for the body-grip traps during rainy spells, is some distance below their dams in the small tributary flowing towards the larger stream.
   Foot-hold traps can be set at baited sets or at the castor mounds. The bait set I use to take traveling beaver is fast and simple to make. It is also very effective. To construct this baited set, I will cut a food tree of the kind the beaver are using for food in this area. This small tree is the diameter of my wrist, down to the diameter of a shovel handler. I will make a trail going up a bank that resembles the trail made by beaver. I will lay the large end of the cut tree a few feet up from the edge of the water in this trail. The top of this tree is towards the top of the bank. I will peel a few sticks so they resemble sticks that a beaver had eaten the bark from, and these short peeled sticks are placed at the edge of the water by the trail.
    This resembles where a beaver had gone up on the bank and cut a food tree, but ate only a little from it. When another beaver sees this "beaver work," it will come to investigate it. The foot-hold trap is placed at the base of the trail underwater. This foot-hold trap is on a slide wire out into deeper water so the beaver will drown. The next day, if this bait is gone and there is a drowned beaver at the deep end of the slide wire, consider that the drowned beaver did not carry the bait away. Remake the set and it will connect another beaver.
   At these bait sets, I do not use a castor-based lure, it is not natural for castor to be here. Instead, I will use a beaver food-type lure. The lure is placed a few inches from the edge of the water beside the trail.
    The castor mound set can be made at any suitable place along the route of the traveling beaver. The first thing I look for is water deep enough to drown the animal. I will select a place to make this set so the beaver must use the short trail I made from the edge of the water to the castor mound I built. The foot-hold trap is positioned to get a back foot catch on the beaver.
    The reason I do not go for a front foot catch at castor mounds, is because the beaver will have its front paws holding material to its chest to deposit on the castor mound.
    The animal will swim in until its chin or belly touches bottom. Then it will lower its rear feet to the bottom. With the use of its rear feet and tail, it will climb towards the castor mound. (Maybe this will explain the reason why many traps are fired at the castor mounds.  The trap was set too shallow)
    At this type of set, the trap is positioned so when the animal lowers its rear feet, a back foot will make contact with the pan of the trap.  A trap with a small jaw spread can be accidentally fired by the back foot of a beaver.  This is caused by the back foot spanning all the way across the jaws of the trap.  At these sets I will use a trap with at least a 6 ½” jaw spread.  I prefer a trap with a larger jaw spread for a back foot catch. 

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