Every trapper has a little bit of scientist in them, and sooner or later they get the itch to try formulating their own baits and lures. There are many reasons for wanting to learn. Part of it, I think, is the feeling of accomplishment. It’s knowing that you created something that attracts critters to your sets. It’s similar to how fly fishers feel when they’ve caught trout on flies that they’ve tied themselves. It adds depth to the overall experience.
Making good baits and lures is a craft that can take years to perfect. It also seems to be one of those topics that, the more you explore, the more you find to explore. Much of that has to do with the literally thousands of scents available from all over the world for us to experiment with. And every year, that list gets longer. Starting out, though, it’s best to keep things simple.
During the offseason, many trappers enjoy fishing for carp and other species that they can chunk up to use on their traplines. It’s a cheap, effective bait, and you can get a lot of sets out of one good-sized carp. I caught my first red fox using nothing but a hunk of fish in a dirthole set, but I’ve also seen raccoons walk right by pocket sets baited with the same thing. By far, the baits that I spice up with a few extra ingredients outproduce straight fish. Here’s how I do that.
First off, whether I’m using fish or meat scraps, before I add anything I run them through a grinder. This breaks down the flesh and allows other odors and preservatives to mix properly. Some folks then place the meat in a jar and set it in a warm, dark place to let it age for a few days. Aged meat has more body and cuts through the cold better, potentially drawing critters from a longer range. Note, however, that I don’t say rotten meat, which produces a sour smell that will repulse more animals than it will attract. If you want to err on the side of caution, stick with fresh goods. Also, dealing with only fresh stuff will keep you on good terms with your spouse and neighbors.
After the fish or meat is of the proper consistency, I add a preservative (pictured below). The two most common bait preservatives are non-iodized salt and Sodium Benzoate, which is a form of salt. The main difference between the two is that Sodium Benzoate doesn’t have that salty odor that attracts deer, rabbits, and other non-target species. One ounce of Sodium Benzoate will generally preserve one quart of flesh.
From this point on, your imagination should be the only inhibitor. The important thing is to start slowly and never add too much of any ingredient at one time. Ingredients bought through trapping supply dealers aren’t cheap, and a little goes a long way. Add just a few drops, allow it to mix thoroughly, smell it, and then add more or add something else. It’s important to mix things in small batches, too, because there’s a good chance you’ll screw up and have to dump it all out and start over again multiple times before you get what you want.
Of course, baits don’t always have to be meat- or fish-based to be effective. Various fruits and vegetables can be highly attractive to raccoons, mink, muskrats, gray fox, coyotes, and other species, too. When using fruits as the base material for the bait, I follow the same procedure as when using meat or fish. The preservative locks in that freshness and prevents the material from beginning to decompose while I figure out how to proceed with each concoction.
Simply perusing trapping supply dealer websites can teach you a lot about making baits and lures. Dealers that sell long lists of ingredients often provide a description of each one and how it’s typically used. For instance, from gleaning a list of ingredients in one particular catalog, I learned that a few drops of Smoke Oil added to a pint of ground up fish was deadly on raccoons. So I bought some and tried it. And they were right. My catch went up, and I noticed fewer raccoons walked by without stopping to investigate my sets.
Once you’ve sniffed enough ingredients and have become familiar with their odors, you’ll no doubt begin recognizing their presence in other baits and lures already on the market that you might even be currently using. Ingredients such as asafoetida, beaver castor, muskrat musk, ambrette, and anise are commonly used in lures designed for a large range of species. Trying to replicate the aroma of a commercially-prepared bait or lure is a great learning experience. The odds are against you ever matching it perfectly, but it’s a great way to figure out how various scents work together to create a successful product.
Next time you uncap a bottle of your favorite lure, hold it a foot or so from your nose and really pay attention to the wide range of odors wafting out. High quality baits and lures are typically multi-layered. There will be the initial, first odor, but if you smell a little longer, you’ll notice softer scents lingering below it. All of these odors work together to keep the animal at your set long enough for you to seal the deal.
There are several resources available regarding bait and lure making. Russ Carman, often regarded as one of the greatest lure makers of all time, has written several excellent books about the process. So have Kellen Katz and Nick Wyshinski. They’re worth the investment and will substantially shorten the learning curve.
Notes and Observations
I highly encourage anyone getting started making baits and lures to take plenty of notes. Don’t trust your memory. Write down the ingredients used as well as the step-by-step process used during formulation. There’s a reason they’re called bait and lure “recipes,” and as any good cook will tell you, the order in which ingredients are added can sometimes effect the outcome.
A common way to test new formulas is to make sets, but with no trap, in sandy areas where it’s easy to see tracks. When doing this, I’ll often make two sets, several feet apart. At one set, I’ll use a commercially-made bait or lure that I know attracts fur, and at the other will be my latest experiment. Those occasions when my lure held its own against a well-known brand are quite satisfying.
My favorite way to test new formulations is to use trail cameras that have video capabilities. Most of my cameras are capable of producing 15- to 60-second clips every 10 seconds or so. These clips provide deeper insight into the animal’s behavior and attitude as it approaches the set, its initial response to the scent, and approximately how long it stays on site. When using trail cameras, though, it’s important to keep them far enough from the set and camouflaged so that they don’t influence the animal’s behavior at the set.
In a sense, tinkering with homemade trapping baits and lures lengthens my trapping season. I may not actually be putting any fur on the stretchers during the offseason, but I’m still in the field studying and learning about animal behavior. It’s a great way to take your trapping habit to a whole other level.