It is very common to hear grumblings and restlessness from avid big game hunters during the winter months. The countdown to fall never quite goes fast enough. Many will utilize the off season to evaluate their supplies, purchase new gear, practice shooting skills, and hit the gym for physical preparation. Those activities alone might be enough to pull through the snowy months that keep us in a constant state of anticipation. For others, like me, it is necessary to continue hitting the outdoors to fill the time with activities only the snow-filled months can offer. There are many popular hunting opportunities during winter that provide not only time in the sun for much needed vitamin D, but also the time with nature that we all crave. Aside from the more obvious winter interests like coyote, rabbit, and mountain lion hunting, I also intensely enjoy bobcat trapping. The art of learning a bobcat’s territory and habits intrigues me almost as much as the craft of the trap set up.
Last month I enjoyed an elk hunting strategies workshop at the International Sportsmen’s Expo in Denver, CO. A question was asked at the end of the presentation by a man wondering what to do if he finds himself five miles from camp with an elk down. There is only one response and that is to work your butt off getting the elk taken care of and hauled out as soon as possible. It takes dedication and commitment. During our private conversation following the workshop, the presenter mentioned to me that he commended the gentleman for thinking ahead. That was a good point; not everyone truly considers all that is involved with every step of a harvest. And, even though bobcat trapping seems like it is on a much smaller effort scale than hauling out a 600 pound bull elk, the dedication, commitment, and forethought are just as real.
Most of you know all too well the type of hard work that goes into a big game hunt, but the effort put into bobcat trapping is not just for successful harvest; it is required by law. Wyoming regulations, which apply to my trapping area, require snares be checked just once a week. However, leg holds must be checked every 72 hours, which is a legal standard based on ethical consideration of the animal. This means you have to head out to check traps regardless of weather conditions or personal circumstances. With a season of November 15 to March 1, there are a lot of bitter temperatures, snowfall, and family holidays with out-of-town travel to consider. It does not matter if you are having heavy snowfall and 50 mph winds, or a niece’s birthday party; your traps must be checked. Not only do you need to complete the harvest of your bobcats and follow state regulations, but if you want to be successful, you are going to want to make sure your traps are still working through all the freeze and thaw conditions. A trap line of 10 traps in my country takes about 3 hours to check, and that is during good weather and daylight hours. You could check traps in the dark but I have found that it is difficult to see good sign that would lead me to move my trap to a more optimal spot. And if by chance I caught a mountain lion in a leg hold, it would definitely be best to walk into the area during daylight. A lion could go far enough with the drag log that I would not see it well enough before walking right up on it in the dark.
The good news for avid hunters is that this type of winter activity brings challenge, adrenaline, experience, and sometimes monetary profit. A quality western bobcat can bring in about $600 average at current market prices, but you must be willing to front cash for traps, lure, and lots of vehicle fuel. Not all parts of the west have good cats and the quality can vary by a mere 100 mile distance. What determines quality? Buyers want thick winter fur and a wide, white belly that is heavily spotted. These are best found during the peak season, which is late December through February. In my area, cats are of good quality but within just a few hours’ drive they can turn poor if you drive one direction or can be of very high quality if you drive another direction. It all comes down to habitat and genetics. Nevada seems to be the best bobcat producing state. Hide quality there is exceptional. But my great state carries good enough quality to make the efforts of trapping well worth it. On my best year, harvest was 9 bobcats. A normal year with a decent cat population will bring me an average of 6.
But if you only want to get involved with bobcat trapping for the money, I think you are not only going to miss out on what is an incredible experience, but without the passion you will most likely struggle with consistency. And what will you do when the market crashes and you end up financially breaking even or experience a loss? Or how will cope when the fur market is high and you have to deal with competition and thieves (an unfortunate reality)? So, my advice is to only get into this activity if you truly want to enjoy every aspect of the adventure. This includes learning how and taking the time to put up the pelt properly. You must be knowledgeable in skinning, washing, fleshing, and correctly stretching the hide. Taking the time to do these steps right will earn you the high end sale price, not to mention a great deal of personal satisfaction.
Successful bobcat trapping is extremely dependent upon location. You are not going to find bobcats in an area without a sufficient cottontail rabbit population. When the rabbits are plentiful, the bobcats will be as well. The numbers of both animals fluctuate, of course, and in my area seem to be on about a 5-year cycle. Bobcats will always travel the path of least resistance but require areas with a great deal of protection from predators such as coyotes, eagles, and mountain lions. So, you will want to look for rock piles, thick briar patches, tall sage areas, and thick willow creek bottoms. You are not only looking for habitat but very specific sign including tracks and scat. You need to find the general area of where they are hanging out, but also know that leg holds must be set directly on the track of a bobcat if you want higher success rates. Bobcats will follow their same paths and not even a smelly lure will pull a bobcat off their pathway more than about 20 yards. Snares should be hung in travel corridors that are fairly obvious from observing their habitat. When you find good bobcat tracks, you are fairly golden. It does not matter if the tracks are old, eventually a cat will be through that area. If it is clearly an area of attraction for them, you will get a bobcat traveling through again, even if it is not the same cat. The February mating season will especially have toms circling their home areas more than any other time of the year. And it is normal for a tom to cover a 15-20 square mile range while the female’s home area is about 5-10 square miles. You will want to be aware of other trappers in the area and make effort to run your trap line further from easy access than your competition will venture.
Leg Hold Traps
Bobcats are not prolific breeders; it is difficult to have their entire litter reach adulthood. Proper management of a trap line includes releasing females and kittens, if identification is possible and no leg damage exists. This is the main reason I highly recommend using leg hold traps over snares. I use #3 Bridger coil spring traps. The kill area (jaw spread) of a #3 trap is ideal for ease of guiding the bobcat’s foot into the set. Cats will not stick around a set up like a coyote will. They will investigate and then move on. So, it is vital to attract them, funnel them to your set, and have a trap with a large kill area. With this hefty trap, it is only necessary to have a single coil spring on each trap lever. You can add extra to each side, but a 2 coil (one spring on each lever) #3 is enough trap for a bobcat. It is also a tad comforting to think a mountain lion would most likely be able to free itself from a 2 coil trap, saving a call to the Game and Fish Department for the release. I also have offset jaws on my traps, which assists in preventing leg damage.
I suggest that you research how to prep your traps as newly purchased traps do need boiled to remove the oil on the metal. Then, after a small amount of intentional rusting, they must be dipped in trap dye for scent control and further rust protection. There are also many add-ons you can purchase for your traps. I am not going to go into the full details of these aspects here but there are many good online resources (such as trapperman.com) and trapping publications you can utilize. In addition, you can find a wide variety of scent lures to choose from.
It is necessary to procure lure for your leg hold set ups. I recommend you target 2 of a bobcat’s 3 attractants, which are food, curiosity (called a call lure), and sex drive. A food lure is mostly used in a cubby set where you build or find an area within their habitat that acts as a den. I like to use rabbit or beaver meat (up to 5 pounds, per Wyoming regulations) as a food lure. A call lure should be used near one side of the trap. I use bottled concoctions of skunk or peppermint for this lure. To target the third attractant, their sex drive, you can purchase bottles of bobcat scent glands. This should be smeared near the opposite side of the trap from where you placed the call lure. Cats are so picky, you really do need to focus on 2 senses in hopes of triggering an interest but every set up should also have bobcat urine in addition to the 2 lures. I will do you a favor here and suggest that you store all lures in a well-sealed plastic container that is then stored in a slightly larger well-sealed plastic container. The intensity of the aroma coming from the jars after they have been opened can be quite alarming, even if you ensure the lids are tightly closed after use.
Since lure will draw in rabbits and packrats, I run 3 pounds of pan pressure on my leg holds to prevent these intruders from setting them off. The heavier pan pressure also requires bobcats to fully commit with a lot of body weight, which then allows a high paw catch and prevents toe catches that cats can pull out of.
These traps are set along a travel path. It will significantly increase your chances of a catch if you can set up over bobcat tracks, but you will often be successful on a general path within their habitat area. Setting snares requires less evaluation of the area and the process is less sexy of an art than leg holds. You merely use heavy #9 wire for support, with a tree or 18-inch disposable cable stakes (when the ground is not frozen) as an anchor. In Wyoming you cannot anchor a snare to a wire fence or any moveable object, such as a drag. You can use any wire but I like the heavy #9 wire to help keep the wind from deflecting loop placement. Yes, we tend to have a bit of wind in our state. The end of the support wire is then inserted into what is called a whammy (1/4 inch surgical tubing), which is positioned on the snare itself, next to the loop.
I use snares comprised of 1×19 (there are 7×7 or 1×19 cable choices) 1/16 inch galvanized aircraft wire. Each snare must have a breakaway device, and in Wyoming the breakaway must release the catch once 295 pounds of pressure is applied. This is helpful in the instance of the occasional mountain lion or deer in your trap…or in my case one day, a moose. Regulations here require a loop size less than 12 inches but I recommend an 8 inch loop placed 8 inches off the ground. I also add a vertical stick placed into the ground directly under the loop; this is called a chin lifter and helps prevent the cat from ducking under the snare.
Leg Holds vs Snares
Leg Holds: It is easier to draw in a bobcat with lure, which you would only use with a leg hold set. With the leg hold you can release females and kittens, resulting in better trap line management. And my favorite aspect, you are better able to be very deliberate about your set up. The few down sides of this trap include the requirement to check the set every 72 hours, and the fact that heavy snowfall will take them out of operation.
Snare: The only benefits I can see for this kind of trap are that you only have to check them once a week and snowfall has no impact on their effectiveness (to a point). These traps are easy to work with and fast to build, but are set up on a path of travel and are called a blind set for a reason. You are merely taking a chance on catching a cat.
Whatever set you choose, I hope you find enjoyment in the craft and the excuse to get outdoors during the snowy months. There is a lot to be learned about the details of trapping, but there are also incredible amounts of information readily available. But as with any outdoor adventure, experience seems to be the best teacher. So get out there, have fun, and good luck.