Trapping: Mastering Flat Sets

By Trapline Editor Hal Sullivan

Number 1 jump trap

Droppings and tracks told me this was a good place to trap a bobcat, and the big hole is one of my favorites cat sets. So, I found a little rise in the ground and dug out a thick plug of sod. But, much as I feared, the hole immediately filled with water. It had been raining, and the ground was saturated.

No problem. I found a couple of chunks of half-rotten log and improvised them into a flat set. The trap bed itself still filled with water, but that wasn’t a big problem at a cat set where the trap covering would be minimal, anyway. The chunks of wood provided visual attraction and also gave me a nice dry place to tuck away a ball of wool soaked in lure.

When trappers think about going after a particular critter, they often place too much emphasis on one particular set. The problem is further compounded when inexperienced trappers get the notion that learning to make that certain set is the magic bullet that will ensure success.

Granted, well-made dirthole sets work exceedingly well. However, most seasoned trappers would agree that finding a good location is the primary concern, and sometimes a dirthole can’t be made right there. Maybe the ground is too rocky to dig the hole. Or maybe the ground is too soggy. You could look elsewhere, searching for a nearby place where a dirthole set could be made. But that’s putting the cart way ahead of the horse. Animals are not magically drawn to even great sets.

The farther removed any set is from the animal’s natural line of travel the less effective it will be—period. The proper mix of scent and eye appeal can make a set more readily detectable and also more attractive to the targeted animal, but nothing beats making the set where the animal literally walks over top of it in its normal course of travel. And the closer you are to that direct line of travel, the less important choice of set becomes.

Versatility is the key. You need to be able to make more than just one set, for a couple of reasons. As already stated, you are not going to be able to make any one set at every good location. There are just too many variables. And if you want to gang set good locations with more than one trap, you will be better served if different types of sets make up the gang. It’s much more effective than just making two or three of the exact same set in one small area.

It can be hard to get started working with different sets. Most beginning dirt trappers spend a lot of time perfecting a dirthole set. It’s what they do best, the first thing that really works for them. In time, they develop some confidence in the set, and that makes them a better trapper. One of the major obstacles to learning new sets is gaining the same confidence in them. It may very well be that a pet dirthole set is more effective than a new “experimental” set. In fact, if you gang set locations and include dirtholes in proximity to the new sets, odds are good the critters may end up in the dirtholes. Then, you’re going to be even more convinced that the new set is less effective.

Dirthole sets can become akin to training wheels on a bicycle. They prop you up while you are learning, but you are never going to be a confident rider until you leave the training wheels at home, and you may never know how well a new set performs until you stop backing it up with dirtholes. Also same as removing the training wheels from a bicycle, this can be a little unnerving. You probably are going to miss a few critters you might have caught with well-made dirtholes. When this happens, the natural inclination will be to go back to making only dirtholes.

That would be a mistake, akin to bolting the training wheels back on the bicycle the first time you tip over. In the long run, you will be a much better trapper when you can confidently use a variety of sets, and it’s not that complicated. Disregarding the cubby, when it comes to basic land trapping, only two broad types of set are commonly made—dirtholes and sets that don’t use holes, also know as flat sets.

A sub type of flat set that has gained a reputation in its own right is the urine post. In its traditional construction, you make it with a wood post of some type, usually about 8 inches tall and roughly as big around as a broom handle. The post is driven into the ground and the trap is bedded just off the post, on the side where the urine is dribbled.

Critters work the set because they naturally urinate on such objects to mark territory, same as domestic dogs pee on fire hydrants. Everyone has seen this, and it makes it easy to sell the post set to a new trapper because he can picture a coyote or fox peeing on that post, same as he can picture a dog hosing down a fire hydrant. But that image can also lead to confusion about the way the set actually works and where the trap should be bedded.

Some folks have the idea that the critter should be caught while it tries to pee on the post. But the idea is to catch the critter as it first comes in to sniff the post. And you don’t even need a post to make the set. You can make it with a rock, on the end of a log, or at any other object where a passing critter might pause to urinate. It may be helpful to follow tracks in the snow to get a better idea of all the different places wild critters do urinate.

If you are used to making baited dirthole sets with added lure, it can be hard to gain confidence in a set that relies almost exclusively on the odor of urine. But it does work, and you can substitute a dab of lure for the urine, if you like.

If you want to use bait as the enticement, you may instead make the “classic” construction of a flat set. Instead of using a post for the attractor, this one uses an object roughly the size of a shoe, typically a rock or chunk of wood. Lure may be applied on the side of the object and bait may be placed underneath the edge of it. The trap is bedded on the same side as the added attractors.

I’m not exceedingly fussy about what I use to make a flat set. I make do with whatever I can scrounge up in the vicinity of the set. To make the cat set at the beginning of this article, I used two short pieces of a rotten limb that had broken apart. I placed one on the ground then laid the end of the other on top of it, so they formed a “T.” I hid the lure, saturated in a ball of wool, between the two pieces at the juncture of the T, and I also bedded the trap there.

I doubt you’ll find this set in a trapper instruction book, and I don’t claim it to be superior to any other. It’s just a set I could make with the materials at hand, without digging a hole.

One of my favorite objects for making a flat set is a small chunk of root wad, like might be found on an uprooted tree. All of those crevices and crannies provide ample places to hide the lure. A little fur or feathers tucked inside or under the edge of the root wad can lend additional appeal. (Before using such attractors, check state regulations regarding the use of animal parts at sets.)

With cats, the object doesn’t seem to make much difference, as long as it stands out from the background. But fox and coyotes can be a little more suspicious of overt constructions. Coyotes, especially, may show an aversion to strange objects that show up all at once in their environment. When making a flat set for coyotes, I try to use an object that is not too large. And while I want that object to stand out from the surroundings, I also try to make it appear as if it got there naturally.

The bottom line is I no longer worry about what kind of set I’m going to make at any given location. If I’ve found a good location, I figure I’m already more than halfway home. If a good ol’ dirthole fills the bill, I may go ahead and dig one. But if a dirthole seems untenable, or unnecessary, I’m more than willing to contrive some sort of flat set with the materials at hand, and I walk away relatively confident that I’m going to catch the critter.

That confidence comes with the success I have experienced at such sets.

To gain the same confidence, I suggest you experiment with new sets at your very best locations. The next time you set up on fresh sign or at a location you just know furbearers are likely to use, forego the pet dirthole and instead try a post or flat set.

Yes, it may cost you a few critters, at first, but it is the fastest route to gaining confidence and proficiency with the new sets, and over the long haul, that will boost your catch back “out of the hole.”