Food For Thought - The Great Debate about Trapping Bait

The Great Debate about Trapping Bait:

The following is part I of a multi-part feature on bait utilization for trapping furbearers.

I recall one of my very first trapping experiences; hot off the trail from my Trapper Education course, ready, willing, and soliciting local trappers for insight. I set off into the woods on a cool December afternoon to bag myself a wily Fisher. Rather than consult the locals with a “what kind of bait do you use” inquiry, I dug deep into fisher biology and characteristics. Through dedicated research I determined porcupine, acorns, berries, and small rodents – notably red squirrels, were primary food sources for the mighty pekan. As luck would have it, on my way home from school I came upon a road-killed red squirrel just off center of the breakdown line and hastily collected the carcass as my go-to bait to compliment my seemingly flawless leaning pole fisher set. I wired the intact carcass whole to the top of a blow-down sapling in the midst of a dark hemlock grove and set a 160 body-gripping trap just in front of the carcass. After a short study to ensure everything was in place and legal, I marched out of the dense woods certain I’d have my query waiting with a steel necklace the very next day.

That trap set remained in place for the full thirty days of New Hampshire’s fisher season, and I’ll now readily admit I never did connect with the fisher I was certain frequented that area. There are several variables that could have transpired to produce the lack of results – timing, location, lack of fisher around, competing food sources, or even my choice of bait; no one will ever really know for sure.

An article produced by The Wildlife Society from earlier this year attempts to study bait preference in rabies carriers such as raccoons and skunks, and hopefully begin a protocol for knocking back the spread of diseases like rabies. It also got me thinking about that first trapping experience, and furthermore, it got my gears turning about baiting and the psychology behind baiting and bait presentation. The article discusses bait choices presented to raccoons and skunks in a controlled scientific environment, and suggests that at least for raccoons, there appears to be a preference.

The article states biologist Shylo Johnson “placed captive raccoons and skunks in pens with an even number of sweet-tasting baits, fish-flavored baits and occasionally with the animals’ usual food. After monitoring them for 24 hours and checking which baits were left, Johnson found that adult raccoons consumed 100 percent of the baits but displayed a preference for the fish-flavored bait, since they consumed it first. Skunks consumed 87 percent of the baits and showed no preference.

These findings got me thinking about the vast array of bait products on the market for both fur trapping and nuisance control work. There’s enough out there commercially available to keep you busy experimenting for most of your lifetime, and that doesn’t include the even bigger assortment of homemade concoctions confined to private fur sheds and pack baskets. Everyone has his or her favorite, and almost every single commercial bait claims to “get the fur stacked”. That being said, with all the bait mixtures available for purchase, one has to ask – is it all really great bait, or is it all just a lucky shot of “hocus pocus” superstition; playing on the opportunistic mindset of a wild animal?

With all the baits available on the market, it can be overwhelming!

With all the baits available on the market, it can be overwhelming!

For skunk control, I always turn to Little Debbie snack cakes to bring in the stinkers. A good friend of mine who’s also in the wildlife control business swears by KFC fried chicken, while yet another swears by marshmallows and peanuts. The ultimate truth is that I’ve caught skunks on just about everything from bacon grease to sardines – so is there really one bait that’s superior to another, or is it all up to an equally important component of trapping - presentation?

My father, for example, is an avid bass fisherman; and from a young age I was brought up on the skills of making the rod tip bend. It didn’t matter how full his tackle box was, if he found a new funky looking lure that he hadn’t seen before, he had to have it in his arsenal. His justification for purchasing more and more amounted to presentation. His theory was that the funkier, odder, or crazy colored a lure was, the more curiosity it would evoke in the fish and trigger an inquisitive bite. Most of your old-time anglers of the past would use traditional colors for their lures – something that mimicked the native bait fish and food sources found in the water body you were fishing. Those old-timers must have been rolling in their graves to see the fishing lure market come out with all sorts of rainbow, sherbet-orange and chartreuse colored lures that have now flooded the markets after their time. Of course my father had plenty of the “traditional” lures in his box, but he sure put up his fair share of Lunkers on those funky-looking lures as well.

So the question remains – is there really a definite preference that makes one type of bait more attractive and interesting over another? In the case of raccoons and skunks, I’m not totally convinced there is. Search your online trapping message boards and you’ll find hoards of trappers who swear their “raccoon mix” is the best. One trapper says they catch the most raccoons on a mix of peanut butter, marshmallows and crushed-up cereal, while another swears sardines, dog food, and apples mixed in a blender is the only way to go. Once more another says they only catch their raccoons on a ball of bacon grease. I’ve personally caught raccoons well off the beaten path on everything from stale Twinkies to beaver tails – and it’s a pretty safe bet that for every coon I trapped, I likely missed one who snubbed their nose at my set to what was presented. Therein lies the true beauty of modern trapping – what works for another trapper may not necessarily be what works for you, and the endless amount of experimentation is what quells the ever-growing curiosity of the trapper.

The author with a late-December raccoon.

The author with a late-December raccoon.

While bait choices are fairly loose when it comes to trapping, there are some key criteria each bait application should meet in order to be successful.

First and foremost, the bait you use should generate interest. A great “call/curiosity lure” can be used to draw the animal into your set area, but rarely will the set be effective unless the animal fully commits to the substance that lies just beyond the trap you hope to catch them with. Good baits should naturally funnel an animal, and create a focal point to draw an animal’s gaze and drive.

Second, your bait should motivate. The animal must be motivated – and if they aren’t motivated to feed or further inspect your bait, there’s no reason for them to slow down the foraging mission they are currently on. Think about the newspaper rack at your local general store; the biggest headline and boldest print usually gets your attention first, and depending on what it says will entice you to read further. In a forest full of distractions and food sources, your presentation must be worth the effort to your target animal. This is easier with opportunistic foragers like raccoons and skunks who’ll pretty much feed on what’s available, but for more finicky critters such as mink, the selection of bait can mean all the difference. In my experience, mink tend to gravitate more towards fresh fare – which means I typically use fresh fish or a recently trapped muskrat carcass to generate interest and maintain motivation. My bait for mink are changed every few weeks depending on temperature, to ensure I am competing with the local water body filled with fresh living fish, crawdads and frogs. The same rules to that of a raccoon certainly wouldn’t usually apply – unless anyone out there can convince me they’ve caught mink on Cheese Doodles or other “processed junk foods”.

Your bait choice should also focus on selectivity. What you are intending to trap typically dictates what kind of bait you’ll utilize, but your choice of bait could also help reduce interest from the critters you’re not intending to catch. This idea comes into play more so in urban areas where domesticated pets may roam. Choosing sweet bait, such as marshmallows, will attract skunks and raccoons while reducing interest from domestic cats, which are more interested in fishy baits and odors. Bait placement and choice may also inhibit interest from raptors and birds of prey that may be interested in meat-based baits.

Lastly, the end goal of baiting is to convince your target animal that the reward outweighs the risk taken. In a world full of pitfalls, where every step or choice could be your last, survival instincts run deep with furbearers, and your selection of bait may be the convincing argument driving an animal to commit to working your set.

With all these points in mind, I still find myself gravitating back to the Wildlife Society article referenced earlier. Raccoons are synonymous with water sources – whether it be creeks, lakes, streams, swamps, ponds, or even man-made outflows, some of the best ‘coon trapping I’ve come across was near or around water bodies. Is the science behind the above stated “bait study” proof positive that an entire species gravitates towards one preferred food source over another? Are the findings of this study pointing to proof of some evolutionary trait in the raccoon species that simply can’t be ignored no matter how far they drift from water and into urban sprawl? Or is it simply suggesting that raccoons are an opportunistic feeder, taking full advantage of whatever tastes and smells good? Am I just critically over thinking the idea of bait attraction? While I tend to lean towards scientific study and evidence for rationale, I’m afraid Shylo Johnson’s baiting study raised more questions than answers.

While I dive deeper into the complex matrix of bait presentation and preference for a follow-up article, feel free to share your favorite bait mixes for furbearers in the comment section below. Also, join the discussion on the Live Free And Trap Facebook page.