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Pockets Full of Fur: How to Make A Pocket Set on the Trapline

I love water trapping. I love walking the rivers, streams, and creeks in search of raccoons, mink, and muskrat. Maybe that’s because it reminds me of being a kid and following my dad along trout streams. As he fished, my sister and I played in the rocks and mud looking for animal tracks. I still remember my sister pointing down at a print on a sandy bank and saying, spookily, “Raccoon tracks,” while making her eyebrows bounce up and down.

It’s no surprise, then, that when I eventually learned to trap, my efforts centered around those same waterways. One of the first sets I learned how to make was a pocket set. Now, almost 30 years later, the pocket set is still an important part of my water trapping success, and with a few modifications I use it to take good numbers of raccoons, mink, and muskrats every year.

In essence, a pocket set is simply a hole in the bank. Raccoons and mink, especially, tend to check out every hole that might harbor a potential food source, such as rodents or crustaceans, or lead them to another animal’s food cache. Muskrats will sometimes den in holes at the water’s edge, and while they’re not as likely to randomly check out holes in the bank the way raccoons and mink will, they can be attracted to them easily with a sweet-smelling lure.

Of course, any set is only as good as the location in which it is made. My favorite locations for pocket sets are where feeder creeks, drainage ditches (both wet and dry), or other natural terrain features funnel furbearers to larger waterways. These travel routes are used by multiple species, and pocket sets made along them offer the opportunity to put a variety of fur on your stretchers.

Pocket sets can be equally as effective on small trickles as on big rivers. How I make these sets, though, depends on which specific animal I’m trying to catch as well as where I’m trying to catch it. In areas where theft is not a problem, I make my pocket sets with lots of eye appeal. In high competition areas, I tend to camouflage my pocket sets so that the only ones who will find them are me and the critters I’m trying to catch.

How to Make a Pocket Set

When I find a good location for a pocket set, I like to make it so that I get the most bang for my buck in terms of eye appeal. For instance, if I’m placing the set where a feeder creek empties into a larger stream, I’ll almost always make the set so that it can be seen from the opposite bank of the bigger water. My reasoning is simple. Any animal working down the feeder creek will naturally encounter my set. However, by facing it outward, I also have the opportunity to draw in animals from a greater distance.

I start by using a D-handle trowel to shave away any grass or debris on the bank. Once I have it down to the earth, I establish the walls of the set and determine the width of the opening and then I make the hole. When setting for raccoons, I like a big hole with lots of eye appeal. Most of the holes I dig are at least six to eight inches in diameter and at least twelve inches deep. This forces the raccoon to work the set from the water’s edge rather than stand on the bank and work it from behind.

How high I make the hole depends on the height of the bank, too. If it’s a vertical bank of several feet, I like a high hole perhaps a foot above the water. On smaller banks, the hole can be right at the water’s edge. After the hole is dug, I sometimes splash water on the set to round the edges and give it a slicker appearance, which creates more eye appeal.

Next, I scoop out a place in front for the trap. Targeting raccoons, I set the trap out about four or five inches from the hole. Raccoons have longer legs compare to a mink or muskrat and can stand farther back to work the hole. When mink and muskrats are my targets, I place the trap tight up against the hole.

Regardless of the species, though, the trap should be under at least one to two inches of water. I bed the trap by pushing it into the mud and giving it a quarter-turn clockwise to stabilize it in the soft bottom. It’s unnecessary to bury the trap in the mud or further camouflage it in any way. Also, you don’t want too much mud or debris over top because it could slow down the speed of the trap, resulting in a miss, or clog up the trap and prevent the jaws from closing completely.

Once the trap is solid, I check for any gaps on the sides where a raccoon or mink might be able to squeeze in between the trap and wall of the pocket to get the bait without getting caught. I use guide sticks to block these gaps and force the animal over the trap.

Finally, bait is placed in the back of the hole and covered with leaves and debris. The set is finished off with a dribble of lure on the top lip of the pocket.

(Photo: A finished pocket set.)

Pocket Sets for Mink and Muskrats

Almost any type of pocket set will effectively take raccoons. However, to consistently take mink and muskrats in pocket sets, several adjustments must be made.

First, I make these pockets smaller than those geared for raccoons. Mink are small, quick animals that can squeeze through much tighter spaces. Many times, I’ve seen mink and muskrats work my raccoon pockets without getting caught by squeezing in between the wall of the set and the trap. For that reason, when I’m targeting these animals, I make the opening to my sets narrower, approximately the width of the trap, and I place the trap tight up against the hole, directly under the top lip of the pocket. In essence, the walls of the set will funnel the animals over the trap.

Second, I make pocket sets that have a more natural, subtle appearance. The same things that can attract a raccoon to a pocket set can also scare away a mink. I take care not to disturb the bank too much with boot tracks, and I splash water on any that I’ve left behind. I’m also not as concerned about the eye appeal of the hole, and I’ll sometimes even partially camouflage it with grasses and weeds. Mink hunt the brush, and if the set is made in a good location, they will find it.

A pocket set at the water’s edge can be made more attractive to mink by adding a second hole on dry land directly above the set. The two holes should connect in the back to create a tunnel. Also known as an Elbow Set, this set is best made where you find dryland trails in brush where you suspect mink to be traveling. Because this is such a mink-specific set, I’ll sometimes use a 110 bodygrip trap to guard the hole at the water’s edge rather than a foothold trap.

(Photo: A mink caught in a modified pocket set using a bodygrip trap instead of a foothold trap.)

I’ve found that the best way to make my sets more attractive to muskrats is simply with the type of lure or bait used. Sweet, food type lures attract muskrats from great distances. I never realized how much of a difference lure makes on muskrats until I ran out of Carman’s #2 Coon Lure one day and decided to freshen up my sets with a cherry-based lure made by a friend of mine. Over the next few days, I couldn’t keep the muskrats out of my pocket sets. It was a good problem to have!

In the winter time, when many waterways start to freeze over, pocket sets will still take their share of mink and muskrats. Even during extreme conditions, many streams have swift stretches that resist freezing, and these are great places to pick up those winter mink and muskrats in pocket sets.

Tools for Making Pocket Sets

I prefer D-handled trowels over straight-handled ones for their gripping factor. It doesn’t seem like much, but when you punch in 50 or 60 pocket sets in a single day, you’ll appreciate the larger handle. I also carry a small sledgehammer in my packbasket to pound in stakes to anchor traps.

Rubber gloves are also important, whether they’re elbow-length or simply come halfway up your forearms. Human scent isn’t much of a factor for most water-oriented furbearers, but dipping your bare hands in and out of cold water all day can wreak havoc on your skin. I used to think gloves were more of a nuisance that cost me valuable time putting them on and taking them off, but my tune changed once my fingers dried out and started splitting open after a week or so. Talk about painful! Lesson learned. Now I wear gloves.

As far as traps, there are two setups that I prefer most for water trapping that will cover a variety of situations and species. The first is a 1.5 coilspring on two to three feet of chain. These are generally used in combination with 30-inch T-handle stakes. The second is a #11 double longspring (which has a slightly smaller jaw spread than the 1.5 coilspring) with six feet of chain with a two-prong grapple on the end. I use these in brushy areas where the animal can get tangled up quickly once caught as well as in rocky areas where driving stakes isn’t practical.

(Photo: My preferred setups for water trapping raccoon, mink, and muskrats using pocket sets.)

Both of these traps are ideal sizes for raccoons, mink, and muskrats. All of my trap chains have multiple swivels to prevent them from binding should the animal tangle up in brush. This is extremely important and will eliminate loss or any damage to the animal’s foot and will result in a humane catch. Also, whenever possible, I try to keep the animal in the water. Not only will this prevent them from gaining any leverage to fight the trap and potentially pull out, but it will also keep the original set somewhat intact and save you a lot of time remaking it after a catch.

Pocket sets don’t have to be pretty, fancy, or time-consuming to make. Once I get in a groove, I can typically punch in a pocket set, place the trap, lure, and bait, and move on to the next location in a matter of a few minutes. That, perhaps, is one of the real secrets to putting up big numbers of furbearers. Make simple sets that can be adapted to a variety of situations and conditions to catch multiple species. The pocket set is definitely one of those sets.


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