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Raccoon Trapping: Mountain Bandits

I love mountains. I love the dense stands of pine, the wilderness, the trickle of spring water down steep slopes, and the fresh smell of a crisp, fall morning. I also love trapping raccoons. Unfortunately, mountain country isn’t always ideal habitat for raccoons. Populations are sparser, and putting up big numbers can be a challenge. But make no mistake, there are plenty of masked bandits in those hills to make things interesting.

The more I trap mountain country, the more I realize how much terrain dictates raccoon movement. For me, in the past, catching a ‘coon meant setting a few traps under a bridge where I’d seen tracks in the mud. In high country, though, sign isn’t always that prevalent. Even along the springs and creeks, tracks can be hard to find because those drainages are usually rocky. Most of the time, I find myself just assuming the animals are there, even if I don’t find sign, and then I study the terrain to figure out how they got there.

In many ways, mountain raccoons are similar to whitetails. They like to run the ridges, especially the saddles. They take advantage of features that allow them to traverse rough country with the least amount of effort, such as logging roads, drainages, and benches. They’re edge-oriented and will often travel where multiple types of cover intersect various terrain features – where a clear cut meets mature hardwoods on a ridge, for example. All of these things can act as funnels that channel raccoon movement through a more predictable and smaller area.

A few years ago, I was giving a raccoon demo at the trapping convention in Escanaba, MI, and someone asked where they should set on a wooded hillside that lacks any distinguishing features. I can’t remember my answer – it was the first raccoon trapping demo I ever gave and I was a little nervous – but I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and I even encountered this situation last fall on my own trapline.

The short answer to his question would be to target either the ridge or the valley. In my situation, though, the ridge was way too far of a hike and the valley was posted property, so those options were ruled out. I was going to bypass the location completely except that I knew there were a bunch of den trees up on the ridge. But how were the raccoons getting from the ridge to the bottom?

And then it hit me: there’s really no such thing as a featureless hillside. The only reason we can’t see those features is because trees are blocking them from view. No hillside is perfectly smooth. On every hillside will be multiple low points and high points, drainages and spines, and raccoons use them as travel ways no matter how subtle or obvious they may be.

I pulled out my iPhone (isn’t technology grand?) right there and looked at a topographical map of the area. Sure enough, I located a set of wavy lines that signaled a change in the terrain only about 50 yards off the road. When I checked it out, it was nothing more than a small dip – but raccoons were definitely running it. I found a couple piles of scat by a big tree nearby. I made three sets and caught two big males the first night.

Food sources also funnel movement. I keep an eye out for berry patches, grapevine thickets, and oak flats. As the season progresses, some food sources such as berries may dry up while others are just becoming available, and it makes a huge impact on how raccoons use the area. Raccoons can be abundant one day and literally nonexistent the next once a food source has been depleted.

Most raccoons prefer denning sites high on hillsides and ridges, and when I say that, it’s important to know I’m not talking about the Rocky Mountains here. Where I trap is considered the Appalachian Mountains and elevations generally range from 2,000-3,000 feet above sea level. Also, historically, there has always been a lot of logging activity throughout this area, but many of the mature stands of oak and pines on ridges and points have been left untouched and raccoons have done a great job of turning them into dens. Find these denning areas and you can make some great catches in a very short time.

Raccoons travel these ridges and bottoms on their way to food sources.
Look for little ridges and washes that lead from denning areas to food sources. These are good travel routes for all furbearers.

A few years ago, I crossed a nice-looking stream along my trapline and found tons of tracks plastered along the banks. I punched in two sets under the bridge and moved on to the next location at the top of the hollow where there was some mature timber. Over the next week, I caught six raccoons along various old logging roads at the top of the hollow, but only one at the bridge. It took a while before I realized that I had effectively cut myself off, even though the two locations were almost a mile apart. Most species that live in mountain country have larger than average ranges, and raccoons are no different. This idea was reinforced when no more new tracks appeared on the creek banks after a few rainstorms.

Eventually, I probably could have caught most of those same raccoons just by setting up the bridge, but when animals are traveling that far to get to your traps, a lot can happen. Some nights they might stay high on the hillsides. Other nights they might hardly even leave the den. There are still other raccoons that might never even go to water and are content to just run the ridges.

Competition also has to be considered. Along my trapline, access to streams can be an issue. Long stretches of many streams flow through remote, roadless areas, so there aren’t a lot of bridge crossings. If there are other trappers working through the same area, it doesn’t take long for every bridge to have traps under them before I even get there.

Many of those same trappers, though, overlook the tiny trickles in mountain country. During summer months, many of the trickles and springs dry up but come fall have water in them, although raccoons will travel them even if they’re dry. Every mountain road that parallels a creek or river will have a series of culverts along their length to accommodate run-off from these trickles. All of them have potential to produce raccoons, even the ones along roads on really steep hillsides above the streams.

I don’t use any fancy sets to trap mountain ‘coons. If I’m culvert-jumping along the roads, dog-proof traps work just fine, and I bait and lure them the same no matter where I set them. Up on the ridges or obvious dryland spots, though, I prefer traditional foothold traps in dirthole or flat sets.

I can’t stress enough the importance of solidly bedding the trap, which sounds easy enough until you try doing it in mountain soil where it’s either too rocky or too soft. There’s not much you can do about rocks except poke around or chip away at them with a mason’s hammer. Where the soil is too soft, I carry a sod buster hammer and pound down a spot big enough for the trap. The packs down the humus for a more stable foundation.

Most of my dryland raccoon sets will also catch fox and coyotes. I wear gloves and try to keep the set area clean and human scent to a minimum. Fox and coyotes will run the same terrain features as these mountain bandits, and although I’m not necessarily targeting them, those are incidental catches I don’t mind.

There’s just something about ridge-running raccoons that makes them suckers for gland lures. It doesn’t even matter what type of gland lure, although red fox is my favorite followed by coyote. I think gland lures elicit a territorial response that drives the big boars crazy, especially later in the season when they start thinking about mating.

Any meat-based bait works great down the hole or tucked under the backing of a flat set. Occasionally I use fox urine, but not very often. In many of the areas I trap, porcupines are a problem, and they’re attracted to the salt in the urine. This is also why I don’t use salt as an antifreeze at my sets. The first few years I trapped in the mountains, I caught more porcupines than raccoons and constantly had trouble with deer pawing at my sets and springing my traps. They couldn’t resist the salt either. If you’re trapping through a lot of freeze-thaw conditions – inevitable in mountain country – a 1:1 mixture of glycol and water is a much better option to keep sets working.

Last year I caught a raccoon on a morning when the thermometer read minus five degrees Fahrenheit. That’s more the exception than the rule, but I do believe raccoons in mountain country tolerate cold weather better than their farmland cousins.

Trapping raccoons in the mountains can be challenging.
You can catch some really big raccoons later in the season even when temperatures drop well below freezing because this is also when raccoons mate. This big boar was out searching for a female to breed.

Years ago, trapping farmland where I grew up, a few nights in the low-teens would be enough to make raccoons shack up for a couple of days, but in the mountains my catch seems to stay consistent. The main reason, I think, is because I’m not relying on the animals to come to the creeks. Rather, I’m setting closer to the denning areas, which means they don’t have to travel as far in cold weather to encounter my sets.

I’ve run long traplines that included nothing but quick stops at every bridge and culvert along my route, and I’ve put up a lot of raccoons that way. But it can also get monotonous at times. Maybe what I love most about trapping in the mountains is that every situation is different, and it takes a little more effort to find and access good places to trap. I feel like I’ve earned every animal I catch. Best of all, I can combine two things I enjoy most of all, mountain country and trapping raccoons. That in itself is its own reward.

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