By Trapline Editor Hal Sullivan
On either side of the elevated road, the fields had been flooded to provide habitat for ducks. I was sitting on my ATV on the levee that held back the water, looking at my truck parked on the road on the other side of one of the shallow impoundments. I checked to make sure all of my my gear was in the carry box and then drove down into the water.
I had just finished a book on bobcat trapping by a very good trapper out West. It included location photos taken in some rough and rocky-looking desert country. For my purposes, those photos might as well have been taken on another planet. I was after cats that made their living in and around the beaver swamps and sloughs of the mid-Mississippi valley.
Bobcats are commonly associated with the arid mountain West, and those areas do produce some of the best cats, value-wise. But bobcats are quite adaptable and can make a pretty good living in an Eastern wetland, too. That’s where I target them. Western bobcats may be perceived as the quintessential dryland furbearer, but Eastern swamp cats show little aversion to water. They don’t mind getting their feet wet, and they steal dead beavers from my traps in shallow water on regular occasion.
Both cats and coyotes work the edge cover, and you are almost as apt to catch one as the other in a set placed where their paths cross, which isn’t necessarily advantageous. Cats are worth more than the average coyote.
I’m not sure exactly what a Western trapper might do to keep unwanted coyotes out of his cat traps. Around here, the cats go much deeper into the swampland bottom brush than do the coyotes. And that helps me to make more cat-specific sets, which was the case on this duck hunting lease.
They hired me to thin out the beavers, and much as I expected when I took the job, I found cat sign right on top of the remote levee at the lower end of the property. The fields above the levee had been flooded, and the swampy land between the levee and creek was seasonally flooded with winter rains. Nothing here would interest a coyote. But at least one bobcat was doing alright hunting along the levee. At least that’s where I found its droppings.
Logistics presented a minor problem. From the levee, I could actually see my truck parked at the gate on the other side of the flooded field. But to get here, I had followed a circuitous route and it seemed a shame to backtrack so far. That’s when I decided to strike out across the pond. After all, it was flat ground and the water was likely only knee deep. A duck doesn’t need deep water, just water. It was maybe a quarter-mile across the pond.
When I first started using a four-wheeler to check traps, I came across a big puddle in the low end of a field, very similar to this one but only 50 yards across. It wasn’t behind a levee; it was a crop field that had just filled with floodwater from an adjacent creek.
It didn’t surprise me at all that there was only 6 inches of water in that field. But it most certainly did surprise me when, halfway across, the four-wheeler nose-dived and the handle bars went underwater. I gunned the engine to keep water from back flushing into the muffler, figuring she was a goner. Then, just as quickly, the four-wheeler shot skyward like a porpoise and almost threw me off the back.
Next thing I knew, I was again cruising along through flat, 6-inch water.
I came out of the field fairly dry, thanks to chest waders. However, I was significantly shook. Later, I found the cause of the dispy-do. Apparently, flooding had been a problem in this field before. As the water receded, it ran out a ditch the farmer had cut through the field to the creek. I had driven headlong into that ditch.
If it hadn’t been for the immediate ascent up the opposite side, the machine would have sucked water through the air intake and drowned out in the middle of that ditch.
If I had crossed just a few feet closer to the creek, where the ditch was considerably deeper, the four-wheeler would have become a submarine—a possibility for which I was not equipped.
Ever after, I have not crossed water, no matter how seemingly innocuous, until I have plumbed its depth. I’d traversed the route across this pond the day before on foot. There was no place where the water would be any deeper than the top of the ATV tires. (The manufacturer recommends the machine not go in water deeper than 10 inches, but he doesn’t have traps to tend.) I pulled out on the other side of the pond where a culvert allows big farm machinery to cross from one field to the next.
Even when the place is not flooded for ducks, the fields abut a swampy timber bottom along a major river. You might find a cat or two anywhere in that bottomland during the summer when it’s dry. But when the winter rains come, the cats move up on the higher ground, where the various levees and embankments provide travelways for them. These levees are often overgrown with brush, which also makes them good hunting ground for the cats.
From an elevated position on top of a levee, a cat is ready to pounce down on any prey. And a lot of mice and voles prowl that brush, plus the occasional swamp rabbit or disabled duck.
If a levee is completely overgrown, and it often is, I fight my way to the top to see if there is a trail along the top. If there is, and it is not big enough for deer, I hang a snare in it. Swamp cats slink through some tight places. Basically, if a coon can get through, so can a cat. For this reason, I use a small 6- or 7-inch loop, 10 or 12 inches off the ground. I want the coons to go under the snares.
The levee here was too open to provide year-round hunting for cats. It was maintained in sod, and the brush had been kept low with a boom mower. Still, there was no denying the cat sign. I found both tracks and droppings. Apparently, it was a good place for a cat to hunt during high water, when the mice and voles also became concentrated along the high banks.
The sod path was 8 feet wide, too much to block off and hang a snare. The only suitable trap for the location was a foothold, but the sod itself presented a problem. Sod can foul a trap chain and render the swivels inoperable. Especially a short-chained trap, as all mine are. So, to gain a little leeway, I attached an extra 30-inch length of chain with four additional swiveling points.
While the top of this levee was too open for a snare set, it was narrow enough that I could assume there was no need for an extra flashy set, either. A passing cat would have to come within 8 feet, no matter what.
I rustled up a gnarly chunk of rotten tree stump about the size of a football. I positioned this at the side of the travelway, at the edge of a sloping bank. This would limit the angle of approach. I knew the critter wouldn’t be coming from the backside. And that chunk of wood stuck out like a sore thumb—exactly what I wanted.
Just off the edge of it, I stabbed with my trowel until I had outlined a circular pattern for the trap bed; I pulled out the sod in one piece, turned it dirt side up, and placed it outside the trap bed, 180 degrees opposite the stump. This would give the set a walk-through configuration.
I tamped down the rim of the bed to better hold the set trap and then drove the stake in the bottom of the bed.
Before I set the trap, I centered a coffee filter over the pan. Pressing down on the paper near the notch, I let the pan shank tear a hole in it to accommodate the dog. I set the trap and let the power jaw hold down one edge of the coffee filter. I spread the filter out over the base of the trap and threaded it under the loose jaw, as well. When I placed the trap in the bed, the coffee filter was held in place. Then I covered all with dry dirt.
The coffee filter pan cover is really advantageous in this application because without it, too much dry dirt tends to sift into the hollow underneath the trap. Using the large pan cover, I cut my use of dry dirt in half. Almost all of my cat sets are done this way because most of the swamp cats live where the natural clay/mud is just unworkable as a trap covering.
I finished the set with three more attractors. First, I shoved a turkey feather in a crevice underneath the stump, with just the tip of it showing. Then I dabbed bobcat gland lure on the side of the stump near and above the feather. Then I gave the side of the sod plug, facing the trap, a shot of cat urine. The idea was to get the cat between the sod plug and wood backing, offering it three specific points of interest to investigate: the gland lure, the urine, and the feather.
I use this set a lot, and in high ground, it’s just as effective for coyotes as cats. No, I take that back. It’s more effective for coyotes than it is for cats. But for almost a week, this set remained untouched. I was glad to have outfoxed the coyotes by choosing this location, but it would be all for naught if I didn’t catch a cat.
It almost came to that. Then, as I motored across the duck pond on trap-pulling day, I could see a cat from a long ways off, bouncing around on that extended trap chain. It was my last swamp cat of the season, and I strapped it on top of the carry box on the back of the four-wheeler, where it wouldn’t get too wet on our trip back across the pond.