How to Trap Fur Animals

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This body-gripping trap is combined with a homemade cubby for a cubby set.
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Oiled and dyed traps will be more effective in the field than shiny traps fresh from the store.
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Oiled and dyed traps will be more effective in the field than shiny traps fresh from the store.
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A coyote caught in a foothold trap; you can see that the trap catches only the toes of the animal.
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Beaver dams create plentiful trapping opportunities.

All of us have a little trapping in us, even if it’s limited to setting mousetraps in our kitchens to relocate or exterminate pests. I imagine if you look back in your own family history, you’ll find trappers who made a living off of, or supplemented their income with, fur.

Trapping Benefits and History

Trapping surely began as a means of survival. Native Americans across the continent trapped fur-bearing animals with pits, deadfalls, and snares, and used the furs for warmth and trade and the meat for food. After Europeans arrived in North America, trapping provided furs for mountain men and Native Americans to trade with merchants selling rifles, pistols, knives, food, pots, and blankets.

Nowadays, trapping can supplement your income or provide furs for your own use, and it’s also useful for wildlife population control. Trapping both predator and prey species keeps overpopulation and disease under control. If they’re overcrowded, predators may end up licking their chops around your chicken coop more often than you’d like. No matter your goals, before you start trapping, check your local game laws for what is and isn’t legal.

Tools of the Trade

There are several makes, models, and brands of the four main trap types. You should choose what’s available, affordable, and effective for your target animal.

First, and probably most common, is the foothold trap. These traps are like toothless versions of the familiar cartoon bear traps with gigantic teeth. Like mousetraps, foothold traps have a pan in the middle that an animal will step on, thereby triggering the spring-tensioned jaws to close around the animal’s foot. Foothold traps are designed to hold the foot, not to smash or injure it — which is handy if unintended creatures get trapped — but the safety of the trap depends on calibrating it correctly for the target animal. The trap will also need to be staked to the ground, to keep animals from making off with it. If you trap long enough, you’ll probably find a nosey pooch in your set eventually.

Snares have been used from the beginning of trapping history. They’re typically composed of a wire loop set up so the animal will walk through headfirst, and ideally, the snare will tighten around the critter’s neck like a leash until you arrive.

Body-gripping or conibear traps are mainly used for water animals, such as muskrat, mink, and beaver. Unlike footholds or snares, conibear traps are designed to dispatch the animal on impact. They have hinged metal frames powered by two torsion springs; when an animal places its head between the frames it triggers a scissor-like action that kills the animal immediately.

Cage or live traps are most commonly used near homes. Predictably, these trap animals alive, with a door to the cage that’s sprung with a trigger in the back of the trap. They’re commonly used to relocate animals that have become nuisances.

The traps themselves aren’t the only tools of the trade: Every trapper has what they call a trapping bag that holds everything else needed for trapping endeavors. Mine has a long-handled trowel; a 3-pound hammer; dry, presifted dirt and a sifter; a catch pole; stakes; lures and bait; rubber gloves; a .22-caliber firearm; and pliers. No two trappers will agree on what’s necessary to have in a trapping bag. As you develop experience, you’ll discover what tools you prefer to pack.

Practical Preparations

Before you take new traps into the field, boil them in a pot you don’t use for food to clean off the manufacturing oils and lubricants. You may also want to dye them, to help conceal the shiny metal. Walnut husks make a good, earthy brown; just put some husks into the water while you’re boiling your traps. The final step is to coat your traps with unscented wax to prevent rusting and protect them from the elements. You can melt a lump of wax in a large pot of boiling water, and slowly dip your traps to pick up the floating layer of wax, or melt wax directly and dip each trap in the molten wax.

Sets for Success

Setting traps, like choosing trap types, will depend largely on your target. In general, sets are designed to entice an animal to step close to an intriguing object or hole, triggering the trap in front of it. Or, they’re hidden in a known travel path of the target animal to increase the chances of it encountering the trap. Wherever you place your traps, plan to run them once a day; you don’t want trapped animals to suffer.

Location is everything in trapping. Learn the habits of your target animals, and then scout for signs of them. Take note of prints, scat, or visible trails. The more time you spend scouting, the better your chances of success.

Cubby or pocket sets are popular for land and water animals alike. The gist is that you create a hole or small structure with a single opening that your target animal won’t be able to resist investigating, and set your trap in front of the bait. On land, most trappers use foothold traps; for water animals, most will use a body-gripping or conibear trap. Regardless, set your trap to the correct poundage for your target animal before you place it. For a pocket set, dig a small hole in the ground or at the waterline in a bank. A cubby set is similar, but made of rocks, sticks, boards, or other materials to create a small, above ground structure. Bait the hole or cubby, and anchor your trap in front of it. On land, you can hide the trap with dry, sifted dirt; submerging a body-gripping or conibear trap completely in water should be sufficient camouflage for water critters. To draw animals closer, you can add feathers or other eye-catching bait above or near your set, and arrange sticks and rocks to guide them toward the set.

Another common strategy is the blind set, which is placed at a funnel, pinch point, or a well-known path your target animal will travel. Conceal your trap just as you would for a pocket or cubby set, but skip the baits and lures. Instead, place a couple of small sticks directly in front of and behind your trap. Most creatures prefer to move quietly, and will step on the seemingly bare ground between the noisy sticks. You can also place a snare at about head height across a known walking path for your target animal, so the animal will end up putting its head through the snare as it passes through.

Preparing Pelts

If you have the freezer space, you can put your catches in the freezer whole and wait until the end of the year to cash in. It’s more common to skin animals first and then freeze the raw pelts. This takes a little more time but results in a higher payoff. You can also flesh and dry the raw pelts; this will take even more time and work but will yield the highest prices for your pelts.

Every day on the trap line is a learning experience — maybe a rewarding way to put some extra money in your pocket, and maybe just time spent outdoors. When you run traps, you participate in a longstanding tradition of folks living off the land and its bounty. 

Trapping, Then and Now

People have trapped animals for food and fur since at least the beginning of recorded history. A century ago, nearly every farm kid spent the winter trapping fur. Many a farm kept afloat and paid mercantile bills with furs, which were as good as cash and readily available.

The days of the mountain men are long gone, but trapping can still be a satisfying and lucrative gig. Contact your state’s fish and game department to inquire about fur trapping, get the licensing you need, and learn about up-to-date tools and methods. You’ll find the trapping fraternity is friendly and happy to teach newcomers. Learn how to properly harvest and prepare fur for buyers, whether you aim to sell raw or tanned skins.

Every rural location has fur trapping opportunities. Look up permitted animals and trapping seasons, and respect them — many fur bearers are now plentiful because of the hard work of wildlife agencies and careful hunters. So what’s out there for the farm trapper? Muskrats, raccoons, opossums, skunks, foxes, and coyotes tend to be common. You may find beaver, mink, and river otter near good water sources, and bobcat has long been a prized catch.

You can buy traps and tools easily online or by mail. Choose traps certified by your state, and if you buy secondhand, make sure the traps are still strong, well-maintained, and legal. About a dozen traps is plenty — it might even be more than you have places to set them! Leave rough ground, brushy fence rows, and swamps or bogs alone on your property to give fur bearers room to live.

— Cary Rideout

Todd Foxx grew up in southeastern Kansas, hunting ducks, geese, turkeys, deer, and more. He took the Kansas Hunter Education course when he was 9, and has been an avid outdoors man ever since.

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