Trapping: Off-Color Coyotes

By Trapping Editor, Hal Sullivan

oddly colored coyotes


We are facing the opening of another trapping season with, shall we say, less than optimum fur prices. One fur that does seem to be viable is the coyote. They prime as early as October, and that makes them a good target early in the season. But before you get your hopes too high, be advised that the coyotes that roam the rest of the country are not the same as the pale Montanas that might top out at $80-$100 this season.

In my native Ohio, I catch coyotes with short salt-and-pepper pelts more like what you might see on a German Shepard.

Others have longer fur but in various shades of brown to black. Some are virtually hairless on the lower belly. Many also have a spot between the shoulders that totally lacks guard hair. It appears right about where the “mane” is located. Some think this is a rub, but it looks to me like the guard hair just doesn’t grow there, not like it’s been rubbed off. I think it is a genetic problem. Either way, the pelt is of little value to the fur trade.

When the hides are hanging in my fur shed, I swear no two look alike.

I learned to evaluate these pelts by trial and error, the error being skinning, fleshing, drying and shipping a number of $2 hides to international auction where I was charged a $1 drumming fee for each.

Some coyotes have mange, and in my zeal to put up every pelt, I learned another hard lesson. I was told and read repeatedly that mange does not infect people. That may be technically true, but the little buggers can drive you nuts even if they don’t give you full-blown mange. The bites itch and burn like fire.

My doctor said I had scabies. I said, “No, it’s mange, and I know the coyote that gave it to me!”

Not wanting to argue the point, he wrote me a prescription for insecticidal soap, the treatment for both conditions, and it worked. I still may skin a coyote with mange if it is not too far gone, but I always wear gloves and scrub well afterwards.

Burrs used to be a bigger problem; either the coyotes damaged their fur chewing them out or I did it trying to brush them out. A couple of coyotes caught beside cockle burr patches ended up worthless because I brushed out so much fur trying to remove the burrs. That taught me to stake traps away from the burrs or to remove the plants from the area of the anticipated catch circle.

Things changed for the better when Roundup Ready soybeans came along. Cockle burrs just don’t grow in the treated fields, and the coyotes I catch on the edges of those fields are also significantly less burr-infested.

But nothing has come along that alleviates the off-color of Ohio coyotes. Very few if any are the pale gray fur buyers like to see, and this only seems to have gotten worse over the years. The early coyotes that first showed up around here were more “coyote color” than a typical specimen trapped today.

The first time I caught a blond coyote, from a distance I thought I had snagged a feral dog. It was actually more the color of an orange/yellow house cat, or perhaps the palest orange on a red fox.

I took photos and sent the pelt away to be tanned, thinking it a unique catch. I caught another the next season, not 100 yards from where I caught the first. This one further distinguished itself with a bobtail, perhaps a birth defect but more likely an injury suffered as a pup.

I caught a cinnamon-color coyote a few years after that, with facial markings like a husky dog. That one was unique, and I sent it to the tannery. But I mishandled it, and it didn’t hold up in the dressing process. I really wanted a black coyote, but I never caught one even though I knew other local trappers had caught them.

I mostly trap a large hollow several miles above the Ohio River. It’s an abandoned farmstead with old fields and pastures mostly maintained for hay.

There is no farmhouse. The absentee landowner sets up a sort of summer camp behind a locked gate, about 200 yards in from the road next to a well-kept barn he uses for storage.

He gives me a key to the gate lock, and a dirt logging road provides easy ATV access to most of the land beyond the barn and campsite.

Fifty yards behind that barn, the lane swings up next to a creek. It’s a natural funnel, and I make a set there every season in a little strip of grass between the creek bank and road. I usually make a subtle dirthole with a natural-looking backing. Somebody driving or walking that lane would never know a trap was there.

I am the only one other than the hired hands who ever goes in there, but I don’t like to advertise my activities so I keep the sets subtle, especially near lanes and waterways that might attract others.

I don’t stake that trap but rather attach it to a 2-pound grapple with 8 feet of chain. I hook the grapple on a bush at the edge of the creek bank, and, invariably, caught coyotes drop over the bank and hide. Sometimes they pull the grapple off the bush, but they never get far and never come back to the top of the bank where someone might see them.

I’ve taken quite a few coyotes with that set, so I wasn’t at all surprised to find the trap missing one morning. Yet when I looked over the bank, I did a double-take, again momentarily struck by the thought that I had caught someone’s free-ranging farm dog. I know a coyote when I see one, however, and sure enough, this was my first black phase. Maybe not pure black; there were some lighter streaks. But the predominate fur was black.

I was very careful handling that pelt, remembering the cinnamon I had lost. It had been a long time coming, and I really wanted the tanned hide for my office. At this juncture in my trapping career, the novelty of such a catch is of more value to me than what the pelt might be worth.

I forged on after that, catching the usual “rainbow coalition” of local coyotes.

A lot of my sets are made around the edges of those no-longer-burr-infested soybean fields. The sets are productive and relatively easy to make, but when it rains and I catch a coyote in the worked dirt, the catch circle quickly turns into a mud wallow. The only thing I can tell about the coyote is that it is coated with mud.

I don’t like to let the mud set up, so I stop at the next pond, puddle or creek and wash it out of the fur.

I was doing that with one, but just couldn’t seem to get it clean. So I took it home half muddy, skinned it and rinsed it as best I could in a bucket of soapy water. After the water drained out, I hung the hide in the warm fur shed to dry overnight.

The next morning, it looked like someone had dumped a double handful of very coarse sand on the floor beneath the pelt—except the sand was moving!

Closer inspection revealed hordes of tiny crab-like insects leaving the pelt. It was lice, and maybe 10,000 nits had fallen out of the hide. Honestly, it was spooky.

I carefully sealed the pelt in a plastic bag with a few shots of insecticide. Then I swept up the nit larvae and tossed them in the wood stove. Nowadays, I can tell a lice-infested coyote by the smell, a distinctly acrid odor. If a coyote has lice at all, the underfur will be matted and the pelt worthless. But I figure I’m doing the coyote a favor killing it.

I don’t want to stray too far from the precepts of wise-use conservation, but I do not practice catch and release coyote trapping, even if the pelt isn’t worth handling. I’m one of very few trappers in this neighborhood, and my management goal is to eliminate all of the alpha predators I can, pelt or no pelt.

A few weeks later in the season, I was checking sets in a soybean field at the end of another farm lane. I’d crossed my fingers while making those sets, but it had proven insufficient mojo when the rain came and turned my carefully crafted dirt sets into what looked like hog wallows.

Not only had I made the sets in field dirt, I had made them at a low spot. Some of the trap beds were completely underwater. The only remake option was to move farther out into the field onto higher ground.

Every critter caught—be it coon, coyote or possum—left a slop hole that no self-respecting coyote would step in. I didn’t wanna step in ’em myself. However, I know remakes are high-odds sets, so I kept bedding new traps at the edges of the catch circles as best I could, and it paid off with a big coyote.

The lane back there was dotted with puddles where the farm machinery had left ruts. Some of those puddles were a foot deep, and I stopped at one to rinse off a very muddy catch.

I got the rubber gloves from my set bucket and began to rinse the fur. As I ran my fingers through, it became darker instead of lighter. The fur was black.

I waited 30 years to catch my first black coyote, and 30 days later, I caught the second. Go figure.

Yes, it would be more financially rewarding to catch high-dollar prairie coyotes. But I take what I can get, and both of those gorgeous black-phase Ohio hides hang on the wall of my office.