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Locating Furbearer Funnels and Dispersal Zones

One group of houndsmen in my area runs coyotes all winter long. They’ve been at this game so long that they know all of the crossings in the area. Even if they cut a track or jump a coyote miles away, they know the specific funnels where they’re likely to kill that animal, and so they post hunters in those travel corridors ahead of time. They kill hundreds of coyotes every year this way.

When I first heard their strategy, I immediately started thinking that what they do isn’t much different than what the most successful trappers do. Ron and Pete Leggett, for instance, caught over a thousand fox a year and preached the importance of locating dispersal zones and funnels where the majority of the animals are most likely to pass through. Also, the theory is that if you can find these zones, your catch will stay consistent over a longer period of time because new populations are constantly moving through the area.

A dispersal zone is a travel corridor that links separate populations of animals. It can consist of habitat or terrain features – and many times both – and is most commonly impacted by human encroachment and structure. Basically, these corridors allow an exchange of individuals between populations, which helps prevent inbreeding and promote genetic diversity.

For the purposes of trapping and finding great locations, I prefer to think of it this way: Imagine two distinct populations of foxes or coyotes, each with their own territorial boundaries. Inevitably there will be some overlap of populations, and where that overlap occurs is the dispersal zone. Look closer at terrain features and habitat and you can then locate the specific funnels where that dispersal will most likely occur. These funnels are the hot spots that will give trappers the best chance at reaching the largest number of animals from a single location.

Mapping Fur

I’m constantly surprised by how maps can answer many of my questions about finding trap locations. Deer hunters often talk about “pinch points,” which are places where the habitat narrows down and forces deer to travel through a smaller, more predictable area. Well, those same pinch points are usually killer trapping locations, too. And they’re incredibly easy to find on aerial maps.

When consulting an aerial map, I look for places whereas many different edges come together as possible. In agricultural areas, this is relatively easy because fields make up so much of the landscape. But even within those fields, look for drainages, high and low spots, and brushy rows that might funnel animals. Once I have those located, I try to find that one spot where several of those features seem to come together to form a distinctive pinch point, or funnel.

Aerial map of diverse habitat features.
Aerial maps can be excellent tools for locating furbearer travel routes because they help you see how various habitats are connected across the landscape. This is one of my best gray fox locations.

One of my best locations is situated along a narrow strip of woods separating two crop fields. A tiny trickle flows through the length of the woods. A tractor trail connects the two fields. On the back edge of one field is an old strip mine that has grown up into perfect small game cover. As an added treat, the strip of woods connects two large areas that have recently been timbered. I’ve caught coyotes, red fox, and raccoons in this location, but above all, it’s the best gray fox location I’ve ever set. The main reason this area is so good, I believe, it because so many different types of habitat and terrain features all come together in one spot.

Aerial maps are probably the most useful types of maps for most trappers looking to build a trapline. The exception might be if you’re trapping big woods country, where there are very few agricultural fields, and you must rely on terrain features to predict animal travel. In this case, topographical maps can come in handy. They do a better job of showing elevation changes and where drainages actually begin.

In recent years, I’ve relied on maps to help me pattern whitetail movement in the mountain country where I hunt. As I’ve placed trail cameras in strategic locations based on terrain features and habitat, the number of pictures I’ve gotten of mature bucks has gone up – but so has the number of pictures of coyotes. Oddly enough, these locations weren’t what I thought of when I imagined coyote locations. But just like the deer, the coyotes followed specific terrain features such as ridges and drainages regardless of the type of habitat that was present.

Big woods country is often synonymous with logging. Finding old logging trails and forest roads to set up usually isn’t a problem. However, consulting maps and figuring out the surrounding terrain features and how it all comes together can help you decipher which trails are the best ones to set up. This is the main purpose of using maps, after all, to help you build a trapline quickly and easily without spending as much time exploring new areas on foot.

Locating Hubs

All of this sounds simple enough, yet the difference between great and good trappers often comes down to setting the best locations versus the mediocre ones. With so much information available to new trappers today, there are no secrets as far as equipment, sets, or baits and lures. For the price of a book, DVD, or magazine subscription, you can dramatically reduce the learning curve. But perhaps the hardest skill to perfect involves choosing set locations. This is something that can only be learned through trial and error and paying attention to the subtle nuances of terrain and habitat.

Let’s use coyotes as an example. It may be true that coyotes prefer to run roads and open travel ways, but it’s also true that certain points along those travel ways receive more traffic. Look closer and you’ll most likely find some other distinguishing feature such as a high point, a low point, or perhaps where multiple habitat edges converge. Truth is, even if you eliminated the road and all you had was brush, chances are you’d still find that these other features were fur hubs.

One of my favorite canine locations is a huge powerline in hilly country, a classic dispersal zone. To access the spot, I follow a rugged dirt road through extensive clear cuts until it intersects and then parallels the powerline another couple of miles. More clear cuts of various stages border the powerline on both sides. The whole area is a trapper’s paradise. With so much cover and prey species, it must be absolutely loaded with predators, yet in many years of trapping that area every winter, I’ve seen coyote, fox, and bobcat tracks consistently in only two places. One of those places is the highest point along the powerline. The other is the lowest point. And I catch numbers of animals at each spot every year.

My point here is not just that there are two prime crossings on this powerline. My point is that there are literally miles and miles of road that the animals could run, but they don’t. Even when there’s snow on the ground, I drive slowly, head sticking out the window, and cover all those miles without cutting a single track, until I get to those two hubs. As I approach those locations, one or two sets of tracks inevitably emerge from the brush and start following the road. Sometimes they’re joined by another set of tracks farther down. They all follow the road for a short span and then cut off again into the brush.

If you want to find those high percentage locations, study more than just the road. Try to figure out what’s happening with the land. Note any changes in elevation. This is where topographical maps come in handy because they show you the lay of the land without the habitat. It’s easier then to see where those little ridges and dips occur. Find where roads intersect those terrain features and you’ll have a spot worth setting year after year.

Multiple types of habitat and a diverse ecosystem
Where multiple types of habitat converge will often form an edge that will help funnel furbearer movement.

Drainages and Divides

In my opinion, drainages and divides are the key to just about everything furbearer related. A drainage, of course, is any waterway, even the tiniest trickles up on the mountainsides. Many of these serve as travel ways for animals. Raccoons use them when traveling from ridgetops to bottomlands in mountain country. In agricultural land, fox and coyotes will hunt along brushy drainages for mice and other prey.

Even more importantly, and on a much larger scale, drainages serve as dispersal routes for various species. Studies of collared red fox in Minnesota have shown that they will often follow rivers during fall dispersal. The same is true of coyotes. And if you’re wondering how mountain lions from South Dakota are ending up in Oklahoma and other Midwestern states, look no further than the Missouri River. They’re simply using that drainage to disperse.

I read another study about fishers in New Hampshire in which researchers discovered that the home range of every collared animal was bordered by a large body of water. According to their findings, fishers would not cross large rivers or lakes the way coyotes and foxes sometimes do. Finding new populations of fishers to trap can be as simple as setting up the other side of a river.

A divide separates two drainages and is typically a natural boundary between two separate populations of animals. The dispersal zones between these two populations is typically the low gaps or passes found along the ridges.

Any change in elevation can signal a dispersal zone, even if it’s a change of only a few feet. The Kansas prairies are a great example. A divide can be as subtle as just a few feet, but that elevation change can be enough to cause the water on each side of it to flow opposite directions. When you find those locations, you can bet you’ve found a hot spot.

Pulling it All Together

It’s been said that the most important part of trapping is location, location, location. You can’t catch animals that aren’t there. On a similar note, you can’t catch lots of animals unless you have lots of animals to trap. The guys making huge catches are doing so because every location they set up has the potential to catch multiple animals, and they do that by locating dispersal zones and funnels.

All year long, I study maps to find new trapping locations. I also enjoy looking at aerial and topographical maps of locations where I’ve made good catches in the past and trying to figure out why that area was such a hot spot. I then look for similar features in new areas where I hope to trap in the future. The more dispersal zones and funnels I can find, the higher my catch will be next fall.

That’s the real secret to trapping, I think. Finding what works and then repeating the process over and over and over again. That goes for selecting traps, making sets, and using lure. And it’s especially true when finding places to trap.


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