A Decoy Dimensional Trapline

Decoys have been used by hunters successfully for centuries. But do they work for trapping?

By Jack Spencer Jr.

There’s far more innovation out there in trapping methodology than what we currently think. I have noticed that strategies in the trapping world don’t necessarily change as fast as other outdoor pastimes when trying to collect predators. Heck, I occasionally find myself still setting the very reliable Newhouse leg hold traps that don’t look all that different from today’s long spring traps. Mr. Newhouse himself would be proud, almost 200 years since his birth, to see his iconic trap design still in the field today.

Photo credit: Jack Spencer Jr.

I have personally tried just about every bait recipe known to man, and have concluded that there’s no secret magic bait — only concoctions that fare a little better than others on the trapline. I haven’t discovered the secret dirthole or blind set, either.

However, there could be a secret little golden addition to a trapline. This is one method that I haven’t really seen on the Internet, read in a magazine, heard on the telephone, telegram or trapper network. After a decade of testing, I have found that employing the use of decoys on the trapline works pretty darn well.

For years, trappers have used feathers, synthetic fur, Christmas tinsel, aluminum foil, animal carcasses and other visual aids with varying degrees of success for capturing predators on the line. I changed things up a bit and have been experimenting with decoys and laminated prey pictures around my traps, and would like to say that I’m the first trapper on the block to have “discovered” the true effectiveness of decoys. I sure don’t see anything in print about trapping decoys, but truth be known, the Native Americans probably tried just about every decoy long before my arrival to this world.

My good friend Dr. Meegan Gray and I have conducted some really interesting predatory wildlife research projects in Nevada over the years — ranging from lions to coyotes. I tend to think like a trapper: Innovative, a part-time researcher and after a deep breath, open to a younger nontrapping person’s ideas — no matter how crazy they may seem.

Dr. Gray is a college professor, animal researcher and encourages free-spirited college students to experiment with whatever comes to mind on their semester predator studies. While the latter drives me crazy, college students that know absolutely nothing about trapping, but a little about toothy predators, can actually come up with some pretty innovative ideas. So, I sit back, watch, listen and once in a while I snag their creative ideas and try to incorporate them on my everyday trapline.

One time I witnessed a student pack buckets of zoo-tiger fecal matter up the mountain to see what, if any, animals would be attracted or not attracted to it. I wasn’t at all surprised that not much happened to the huge pile of tiger dung laced with trail cameras silently recording 24 hours a day. Another year one young student’s project was to place a bunch of plastic toys out on the ground and document what, if any, animals were attracted to them. To my surprise, the trail camera photos clearly showed a wide variety of predators — including coyotes and bobcats — infatuated with the plastic rubber toys.

Hmmm interesting… When I saw picture after picture of bobcats fondling the toys, I began to question what is actually inside the diabolical bobcat’s head. The location of the toys wasn’t even on a good bobcat trail or pinch point, just toys placed on an open hillside.

Photo credit: Jack Spencer Jr.

The very next cat season found me purchasing rubber toys, and I actually found some varying success attracting predators to a specific site location for eventual capture. I immediately branched out and tried various other decoys at my trap sets. After much trial and error I found a few things that repeatedly seemed to work the best.

First, a crow decoy on a metal pole hung about 5 to 6 feet off the ground really had critters coming to the set. To start, I used wood poles, then soon discovered that some predators, such as raccoons, would simply climb to the top of the decoys, pull them off and chew on the them or carry them away. I also learned that mountain lions would effortlessly snap the wood poles, so I switched to a half-metal pole that I could simply pound into the ground. The raccoons then at least quit climbing the slick metal poles.

Photo credit: Jack Spencer Jr.

Mountain lions and bears, on the other hand, simply bent the crow decoy poles flat on the ground and I would have to bend them back up. Coyotes often seem to initially charge the decoy and jump at it. It appears that if the coyotes didn’t get the decoy on the first try then they knew something was up and left. Foxes and bobcats would discover the decoy, then walk circles around it for a considerable amount of time. Each loop that a predator walks around a decoy is just another chance to be caught in a trap.

Trail cameras are huge help to capture evidence of what’s happening at each decoy site. On days with snow coverage, I could see where predators traveled 50 to 70 yards to investigate the airborne decoys. I also noticed that two or three decoys really drew in predators closer than just a single decoy. I estimate that if I put a decoy on a ridgeline or hill skyline that I could probably increase the sight distance. However, it’s safe to say that small predatory wildlife can see a crow on a pole a considerable distance away. So, I simply conclude that the more decoys one uses the better.

Photo credit: Jack Spencer Jr.

While the decoys on a pole prove to be successful at bringing predators to a specific location, I still have to convince them to step in a trap, stick their head through a trail snare or walk into a cage trap. These are all easier said than done.

Next, I experimented with using quality, color laminated pictures of prey species placed behind traps or inside live trap cages. I had noticed that occasionally predators would miss blind sets while inspecting the decoys. In some of my trapping areas I simply cannot use leg hold traps or snares. The only thing left in my toolbox are live traps.

The one thing that I do like about live traps is that they don’t seem to scare other predators out of the area when a targeted predator is captured. The prospect of coyotes in live traps in almost nil, but who cares, if I am boxing foxes and bobcats and they sit quietly in a live trap not rattling chains and scaring other predators away, then all the better. I actually think live-trapped bobcats and foxes help catch other bobcats and foxes that come for the decoy, but are possibly attracted by their caged cohorts, in turn getting caught themselves.

Montana Decoys (www.montanadecoy.com) sells absolutely pristine, realistic laminated wildlife pictures. The company was created by an average hunter offering a 100% money back guarantee, however, I am not so sure the company is prepared to replace a bunch of chewed-up rabbit pictures. But, I have successfully used some of their products on my trapline. Over the past 20 years Montana Decoys has made some pretty neat products for attracting a wide variety of critters — from predators to big-game ungulates.

Photo credit Jack Spencer Jr.

While I find it nearly impossible to fool a predator’s olfactory system, I think I have proven that without a doubt, I can fool a predator’s eyes pretty easily. Or, at least what I consider an easy task for animals that have better diurnal and nocturnal vision than a human’s. What intellectually superior bobcat, badger, raccoon or fox would walk into a big cage trap with nothing more than a picture of a rabbit to entice them? No physical bait or scent whatsoever. Over the years my fur stretchers seem to agree with me. I have simply wired high-quality, laminated rabbit pictures in the back of live traps and have been surprised to find a plethora of predators show up in my sets.

I have also used the laminated photos wired behind leg hold sets, however, I have noticed a higher nontarget catch rate, so I try to stick with the photos primarily in the back of live traps. While I recommend using rabbit photos, other prey species could work just as well. Depending on its size, a laminated color prey picture usually costs only a few dollars. There are all kinds of copyright laws about using other photographer’s photographs, so I either purchase them or take my own pictures to stay on the right side of the law. Remember, there are copyright laws protecting photographers’ photos.

Two-dimensional laminated photos work well to coax in predators, however, they must be viewed straight on to be seen. One of my favorite sets with laminated photos is to place one in each live trap, and place each live trap back to back in the middle of an active trail system. I have had great success with this setup, but be careful about placing this set in the middle of a rabbit trail. These photogenic decoys seem to work especially well if you can speculate on a predator’s path of travel so that it will see a full view of the photo, while traveling on the trail from either direction.

Decoys have been used for thousands of years by Native Americans and other cultures all over the world, so by no means would I claim to have invented trap decoys. But, I have used decoys in a very nontraditional trapping way, and packed decoys while on the trapline for the past decade with continued success. While 3-D decoys silhouetted against the skyline obviously offer a potential 360-degree view for unsuspecting predators, full-size decoys also tend to cost more money than one-sided photo laminated silhouettes. I pay about $10 to $15 for a single crow decoy and metal pole, which I think is a bargain. I can get many years out of their constant use, unless the decoys are chewed up or carried off.

One thing that I know for certain is to place as many blind sets or live traps around the decoy(s) on poles that I can. Even to the extent that every little travel corridor is afforded a trap. I have used multiple crow decoys and set as many as 12 to 15 traps in a 50-yard area. I try to strategically place leg holds where one trapped animal can’t see the other, because animals captured in trail snares and leg holds can easily scare off other nearby predators.

While I brag about my use of decoys, there are some downsides. When using realistic photos and two-dimensional decoys in live traps, birds of prey will actually walk into the cage traps. I never expected that a hawk would walk into live trap, but trust me, they will. Fortunately, they can be easily released. The final downfall of the laminated prey photo decoys is that after a target animal is captured they tend to wreck the photo decoys to the point that they must be replaced. The good news is that laminated pictures are relatively inexpensive.

Decoys placed on top of poles can attract people, especially if they frequent your trapping area. The general public can be a worrisome animal that I’ve had to deal with on the trapline over the years. I have had bears rip live traps apart and mountain lions walk down my lines eating trapped critters, but humans are the worst. People should know better than to release animals from traps, break traps or steal them. I’ve also had people leave nasty letters in traps. I used to pray for the day that I would catch someone messing with my traps, until it actually happened.

The day finally came in the form of two old folks who had recently relocated from California, and as I walked over a ridge I saw them just as they were releasing a bobcat out of my live trap right next to my raven decoy set. I was on private property, well posted with no trespassing signs, and they had done a little walking to find my sets. Many things went through my mind — none being very appropriate. As I approached, the couple simply walked through a gate into their backyard. At least then I knew where they lived.

I could have called the game warden and he would have given them a ticket. But, I have learned that some people are just not very smart, so after contemplating the situation for a while, I decided to knock on their door and ask them why they released my bobcat. They both came outside, and I explained that I was legally trapping and that what they did was wrong and against the law.

I could tell immediately that I got through to them as they apologized profusely, and said they would not have went into the area, but they were curious about the crow on the pole, then they walked over and discovered the trapped bobcat. I figured that I could trap the bobcat again, but I would have to use a different method. A trail snare or leg hold would probably do the trick. When I mentioned how much I was selling big bobcats for, the couple said that they wanted to make it right and pay for the released bobcat. As mad as I was, I didn’t let them pay. A few weeks later I caught a nice tom bobcat in a leg hold not far from the live trap, so I figured all was good.

The fall before last I had a location with two crows on metal poles and a bunch of leg hold blind sets, and several live traps armed with color rabbit photos in the back of the cages. I left this particular trap set out for three and a half months without moving it a bit. I caught a lot of critters in November with that setup, then it tapered off, but picked back up during the fox and bobcat mating season in February.

Photo credit: Jack Spencer Jr.

On a cold February day toward the end of trapping season this year, I approached the first two leg hold sets and there was a bobcat in each, both very close to the decoys. I walked around a big juniper tree and there was another nice bobcat in the live trap. I went a little farther and I had a pair of gray foxes tied up. Five predators lay in traps with no bait, only unscented decoys on a pole, and pictures of prey. Five stretchers filled in a 50-yard area was pretty special for yours truly.

Over the years I have learned that being innovative and trying new trapping techniques can shorten my predator trap nights to catch the attention of otherwise unsuspecting predators. Utilizing 3D crow decoys and realistic laminated prey photographs has become a pathway to trapping heaven for me every season.

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