Trapping: Proper Trap Selection

By Trapline Editor Hal Sullivan

Number 1 jump trap


There sure are a lot of traps to choose from today. Sometimes I think it can be confusing. At no time in history has such a wide variety been available. So, just what should go into selecting traps?

For most trappers, first and foremost is getting their money’s worth. And there is more than one way to look at this. Consider the 280 and 330 bodygrips. The 280 is a better otter trap, but the 330 works better for beavers and is still pretty good for otters. Even though the bigger 330 typically costs more, the practical thing for most trappers, in most instances, is to just buy 330s for the more prevalent beavers and then make one work at the occasional otter set.

But when otters were at $150 nose count, I invested in 280s. Each extra otter almost paid for a dozen new 280s, and I more than got my money’s worth out of those traps. Unfortunately, the price of otter has dropped considerably, and those 280s have pretty much sat idle the last couple of seasons. Nowadays, I am back to packing 330s and using them as a dual-purpose otter and beaver trap. There’s an economy in that, too, because packing just one trap simplifies things and saves time when setting out the line.

I never did buy special foothold traps for otters, because most of my otter sets were made with those 280 bodygrips.

Where a foothold set is required, the No. 5 coilspring is my dual purpose beaver and otter trap, even though a smaller, less expensive foothold could catch and hold an otter. The No. 5 may be way oversized, but it will hold an otter fine, and since I only make drowning sets with the footholds, I don’t need smaller traps.

At drowning sets, the otter goes down so quickly it doesn’t have a chance to injure itself fighting the big trap.

In this case, the economy of packing one trap, a trap I already owned in quantity, outweighed any benefit to buying a separate foothold just for otters, even a less expensive one.

My first beaver trap was the No. 5 longspring. Back in the late 1980s, no one made a 7.5-inch coilspring.

Those double longsprings were hard to set, but it required more technique than muscle, and even though I was not a big guy, I could set one over my knee. That used to impress people at trapping conventions. I am less concerned with impressing people today.

Even though I already owned the longsprings and they worked fine, as bigger coilsprings came on the market, I gradually replaced the longsprings with coilsprings I could set with my feet or with a pair of handy setters. The coilsprings take up less room in the carry box, and I don’t have to dig as big a trap bed for them.

In this instance, I figured ease of use and greater efficiency covered the cost of acquiring new traps. Besides, I got too old to wrestle those big longsprings.

Someone wrote me a while ago asking about the differences between trapping with coilspring and longspring traps. In reality, jaw spread for jaw spread, there is little effective difference between the two. Longspring traps were the originals, made with long, flat springs because that was the current technology. Today, it is easier and cheaper to make a trap spring from coiled wire. A few companies still make longsprings, but coilsprings have pretty much taken over. You are most apt to find longsprings in the used trap pile at a trappers convention.

I own a couple of old No. 3 longsprings that I set for raccoons next to deep water, and a raccoon goes down quickly with that big trap on its foot. But, in truth, I’m just playing around here. I wouldn’t advise buying a bunch of No. 3 longsprings for longlining raccoons.

Charles Dobbins showed me another little trick with the No. 3 (I think it also is in one of his books). Dig a small pocket hole in a stream bank, raise the free jaw to a vertical position, and set the trap tight against this hole. The upraised jaw becomes the top archway of the pocket entrance, and should a mink step on the trap pan, the jaws catch it by the body, dispatching it almost instantly, just like a bodygrip.

Again, it’s a novelty set, something Charles figured out on a “make do” basis because it was the only trap he had on hand at the time. Still, there is an economy in being able to make a trap work this way.

While economy always matters on the trapline, by discussing money first, I may have put the cart a little ahead of the horse when it comes to choosing traps. The first obligation is to use traps that fall within the guidelines of all applicable trapping regulations. Part of the reason we have such a variety of traps is that the different states have such a variety of regulations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the proliferation of bodygrip traps in the 5- to 6-inch range.

Because the 220 bodygrip (7-by-7-inch opening) can kill a dog, a lot of states banned them on dry land. But they still allow the smaller single-spring 110 or double-spring 120, because it doesn’t pose much if any risk.

Some states went at it by stating an upper size limit of 5 inches to preclude the 220 but still allow the 4-1/2-inch 110. So trap makers came up with the 150, a slightly bigger trap than the 110, one with a full 5-inch opening that maxed out the regulation. Where regulations said a “220 on up” was not allowed, a 6-inch trap was still legal, and this is where the 6-inch 160 came into play.

Parsing such legal distinctions may seem like splitting fine hairs, at first, but it makes a difference when selecting the best trap for a given set and situation.

And, my gosh, what a variety of canine traps we have today. Way back when, all I needed in Ohio was a No. 1.5. The trap would hold a fox all the live-long day. Then along came the coyotes. Now, I set 1.75 traps for both fox and coyotes.

The 1.75 actually came out slightly before the coyote expanded its range, and it was first touted as a better fox trap. Well, it is a good trap for red fox, though a little bit too big for grays. If I had my druthers, I’d set the 1.5 for both reds and grays. It has sufficient jaw spread and power for either. The 1.75 is actually on the small side for coyotes. But it will do for all three canines, in most instances.

The No. 1.75 has a 5-inch jaw spread. A trap with a jaw spread of 5-1/2 inches would be better for coyotes, but that’s getting on the large end for gray or red fox. And I couldn’t use much larger, even if I wanted, because 5.65 inches is the maximum legal jaw spread on dry land in Ohio. I do own a few traps with a jaw spread of 5-1/2 inches, and I do set them when specifically targeting only coyotes.

The bottom line to all of this, the economic consideration, is that Ohio coyotes have low-value pelts, barely worth the breath it takes to cuss ’em. The 1.75 works for the vast majority of them, and I ain’t out much when it doesn’t. As a bonus, the trap is pretty easy on fox, and I can turn them loose without injury, if I choose. I often do that where the coyotes have decimated fox numbers.

Prior to 1996, we could not set snares in Ohio. If I wanted to make a trail set, I had to figure out how to do it with a foothold. But I used snares on my out-of-state traplines, so when they became legal in Ohio, I was ready to hang cable.

The snare is my top choice for trail sets, extremely efficient and economical. If you’re one of the old timers who’s never learned to use snares, maybe you should check them out. Instruction books and videos can give a good introduction. Just be mindful of the specific state regulations before purchasing or setting snares, because these vary, too.

On my Southern trapline, state regulation requires rubber-jaw footholds on land, and because of that, I was never much interested in land trapping—until cat prices rose to the top. For a while there, I averaged $50-$60 for Southern bobcats, and that more than paid for some rubber jaw traps. I settled on No. 3 size because there are very few fox to worry about. All I am going to catch with the bigger traps is cats and coyotes, and the increased jaw spread is a plus for both.

For rubber jaw traps, I prefer four coilsprings instead of two. When the jaws are heavy, be they laminated or in this case padded, four coilsprings get the trap up and going faster. Most of my No. 1.75 Ohio land traps have standard steel jaws, and two coils is enough for them.

Jump traps are a thing of the past, but like the big longsprings, still found in the used pile at trapper conventions.

When I was a water trapper, particularly a mink trapper, I was a big fan of the little No. 1 jump trap. In those days, I waded the creeks with all of the traps on my back, and the light weight mattered.

The No. 1 jump is still my all-time favorite for setting up a log for muskrats. Find a toilet on a sloping log, drive a finish nail into the log just under the water, and then just hang the set jump trap on the nail, through the hole in the lever. I even caught a bunch of bonus raccoons with a variation on this set.

Where I couldn’t find droppings on the logs, I stuck pieces of apple on nails above the water line to lure in muskrats. The coons also walked the logs to steal the apples, and quite often they wandered down to the water line and stepped in the little muskrat traps.

The No. 1 jump is big enough to drown a muskrat or a mink, and it holds the majority of raccoons with little injury. When the spring rises underneath the jaws, it leaves very little room for a raccoon to get under there and chew on its trapped foot. If No. 1 jump traps were still being made, they might have passed Best Management Practices testing for practicality, efficiency and humane trapping. Trap long enough, and you may even outlive a good trap.