Walter Arnold had a great deal of experience with bobcats, both as a trapper and a fur buyer in Maine. The state had a bounty on the predators for many years, such that even when the pelts weren’t worth much, trappers and hunters pursued ‘cats with a great deal of effort. In this article, Arnold goes over some of this thoughts and observations around bobcats.
First Published in Fur-Fish-Game October 1947
Like some of the other furbearers, the bobcat (also called wildcat) varies a great deal in size, color, habits, courage and strength in different parts of the country. In adjusting themselves to the varied conditions found throughout the country, ‘cats do not become equally developed in all respects. The severe climate and conditions in northern Maine make it a plain case of the ‘survival of the fittest’, and has developed a tough, hardy ‘cat that is nothing less than a bunch of fighting fury and strength when a trap snaps onto its foot. If the trap is not a strong one the first desperate lunge is likely to free that paw made up of tough bone and muscle.
Toughness and Traps
Ordinary #2 traps will hold a fair percentage of Maine bobcats and possibly will hold all ‘cats in some sections of the country, but they positively will not hold all of the big, powerful Maine ‘cats. This statement is based on actual experience. Powerful gripping #2 Victor coil spring, #2 and #3 Newhouse and similar traps will usually do the trick.
I say the same about bobcats that Dad used to say about bear. “No one can realize the strength of these animals until he has had the chance to see what they can do”. I have seen where a big ‘cat, with one swipe of its paw, actually ripped and tore the head free from the body of a full grown porcupine, the head and the body lying several feet apart. During a careless moment, the ‘cat had evidently received a face full of quills, and then in a sudden rage, lost all sense of caution and instantly decapitated his victim. With a mouth full of quills he could do no eating. There was no doubt as to what happened, as tracks in the snow told the story as plainly as written in a book.
Another time I had a big fellow in a trap and he was crouched under an evergreen tree. Wishing to have him out in the open so as to obtain a good clear picture, I cut a ten or twelve foot maple pole and sharpened the butt out to a point. I’d left a large limb near the butt, cut it to about ten inches long so as to make a hook. This was hooked into the trap and I started to pull the obstinate creature out into the open. I weighed about 175, and had to get down and pull with about all my strength to get him out, then I shoved the sharp point down into the ground very firmly and fastened my end to a tree. I started to get the camera ready when the ‘cat gave a sudden lunge, tearing the pole out of the solid ground, dirt flying everywhere, and retreated back under the boughs. I tried this a couple times more with the same results and then gave it up as a bad job. All I had accomplished was to learn there was an unbelievable strength in that bundle of fur.
Bobcats will be found in most any type of country, but the majority inhabit the dense swamps and thickets where rabbits and other natural food are abundant. In some parts of the country they develop the deer killing habit, which probably originates from the periodical scarcity of rabbits which occurs every few years. With the supply of rabbits diminished, they soon learn that a deer jumped from its yard into three or four feet of snow is a most helpless creature, and is easily dispatched in a few moments time. Even the largest bucks go down before them. This encourages the ‘cats to pair up and attack deer on bare ground, and in most cases they are successful in bringing down their victims.
Some years ago I left camp one morning, the ground frozen hard and a very light snow falling. About a quarter of an inch fell, then it cleared. It was probably an hour later that I came upon the scene of where a battle royale had taken place. A pair of large ‘cats had waylaid a very large buck deer and a terrific struggle had ensued. The ‘cats were evidently getting the best of it as there was lots of hair and blood all over the place. Then the buck had gotten in a telling blow with hoof or horns and badly crippled one of the ‘cats. With one less in the battle, the deer got a chance to make a run for it. The traveling was perfect, and although the other ‘cat gave chase for a quarter of a mile, the deer finally made his escape, bleeding badly. There was so much blood I figured I might find him dead, but after an hour’s trailing the wounds were drying up and I knew there was little chance of really creeping upon him after the scare he had experienced, so I gave up and went back to take up the trail of the disabled ‘cat. I jumped it several times, but it stayed right in a very dense thicket where I could not see more than twenty feet ahead at any time, and this too turned out to be a hopeless chase. I had twelve miles or more of trapline ahead of me, so finally gave up and went back to trapping. Several years later I caught a female ‘cat within three or four miles of this place, and when I pelted her, found that one of her hind legs and hip had been badly broken up some years before. I’ve always figured it was the ‘cat that the old buck got a rap at that morning.
Baits and Lures
The keen sense of smell which nature has bestowed upon most animals is their most dependable means of seeking out a living, as well as detecting the presence of enemies and danger. As might be expected, this sense is more highly developed in some species than in others. When compared with a fox, the bobcat might be cold scented. This does not mean, however, that he fails to smell every bait that he ignores. Not being a glutton of the animal kingdom, there is much of the time he shows little interest in the nice things the trapper has prepared for him.
Baits should be fresh and bloody. Rabbits, chunks of rough meat, deer heads or rib bones, beaver carcasses, partridge dressings including the feathers, half of a skinned out porcupine, and other natural food baits should be used. Curiousity baits often work well, such as rabbit skins, chunks of deer, moose or caribou hides, a piece of red cloth saturated with scent, fuzzy Easter chicks found in variety stores, and other items.
Bobcats are not as easily attracted by scents or lures as are some of the other animals. They are finicky: one day they are interested in a certain thing, the next day they are not. A majority of the experienced trappers seem to agree that a lure made up of beaver castor, fish oil and muskrat musk sacs, with or without oil of catnip, is one of the best all around ‘cat scents. A good mixture for them is as follows: 4 oz. fish juice oil, 1.5 oz ground beaver castor, 1.5 oz. ground muskrat musk sacs, 10-20 oz. pure oil of catnip. Most any one of these same ingredients may also be used alone for lure.
Wildcat matrix is becoming more popular each year, and really is quite effective, being used with or without bait. The matrix is the musk glands, bladder and urine of bobcats mixed together and ground to a paste.
Where one is not likely to encounter deep snow and hard frozen ground, the dirt hole set as used for fox is one of the very best. It is not necessary to go into detail as to the making of this set, as every trapper in the country knows about it. If he does not, then he must be a poor reader! In converting this set into a ‘cat set, bear in mind that the bobcat is larger and rangier than the fox, consequently larger and stronger traps should be used. They should also be placed with the pans six or eight inches from the hole. As cats do not tread around, but will stand for ten minutes in exactly the same spot, it is not a bad idea to put in a cluster of traps, two or three in sort of a triangle in front of the hole, one of them being exactly in front of the hole. It is also well to pick up a couple of dead limbs a foot or more in length with small branches on them, and stick them in the ground in a natural looking manner each side of the dug out dirt so as to direct the animal over the trap. Place bait or scent in the hole. A good stinking fox bait or some rotted fish will cause them to come up and look down into the hole. To attract their attention from a distance, take hold of a tree limb three or four feet above the set and push the tip end down into a bottle containing skunk musk, allowing none to drip down on the ground. Make these and most other sets right at the side of trails in the woods. This set is also made with success right in the middle of an old logging road. Always make sets where you think ‘cats cross or visit. The closer a set is made to where they naturally travel, the more likely a catch will be made. Don’t think that you are going to plunk sets down anywhere and take many ‘cats. You have got to go to them, they are not coming to you.
A set I have used with much success is to gather up a bunch of dead evergreen boughs with the brush on them, length anywhere from two to three feet, and using these, make sort of a cubby ten inches wide and a couple of feet long. Just stick the boughs into the ground to make the sides, the back will be the stump or tree it is built against. See that none of the brush sticks out into the opening through the cubby. Sometimes a small dead fir or spruce may be found that can be laid down to form one of the sides. It requires but little brush for the sides, as ‘cats will seek the clear, open entrance. As we have early snows here I usually select a place under the long heavy boughs of an evergreen tree that are about three feet above the ground. Sometimes it is necessary to trim off some of the lower branches to make things come right. In the back, stake down or fasten to the base of the tree a good big fresh bait. Out at the opening of the cubby, dig out a trap bed and place in a strong trap. Wax paper may be used to place over the trap, especially if the trap is to be covered with snow, but I am usually able to find a couple of large leaves and place these so the break between the two comes directly over the tripping latch so it will flip up through when the pan is tripped. A little natural covering is placed over the trap, which could be moss, dry evergreen needles, leaves, snow, etc. I use as little covering as possible, as this means less likelihood of the set freezing up. Now a couple of smooth, dry sticks about a half inch in diameter are stuck into the ground crosswise in front of, and very close to, the trap. The low part of the cross should be directly in front of the trap pan and about three inches above the ground, so the ‘cat will step through this part and directly onto the trap pan. These guide and stepping sticks play a very important part in successful ‘cat trapping.
Trick Sets for Wise ‘Cats
There is now and then an old ‘cat that has been in and out of traps so many times that he can no longer be fooled. I have picked up a couple of these by trickery. The first one was many years ago. I knew the cagey old fellow well, and one of my sets was directly on his line of travel. After a while, I found that when he came to this set he would pass around the back of the bough house and continue on his way.
I made up a good strong snare and placed it in the narrow opening he had to pass through. Knowing he could chew and twist off the wires, I anchored it so he could also get a foot into the trap once he got excited. It worked to perfection, for a couple trips later a blue jay was screaming “You got him!” as I approached the set. There he was, neck in the snare and a hind foot in the trap. Blue jays and squirrels have passed along the word many times about things going on around me.
There was another big fellow that not only kept away from all sets of any kind, but was also sharp enough not to have any trails that he would use over and over again. After four or five years I finally spotted a place where about once a year he came into a trail and followed it about six rods and out into a little opening in the woods. There was too much snow to make a set when I reached this conclusion, but I knew another season was coming. If I ever used all my woods and trapping sense in making a set, I did so in that trail set at the top of that little hill overlooking the opening. If the old fellow used the trail that fall, he did so on bare ground before I put in the set. Next fall the trap was back in again, a perfect trail and blind set. Along the second or third week of the season he was there to greet me with his lion-like growl as I reached the top of that little hill.
Deep Snow Sets
Real winter trapping where there is anywhere from a three to six foot snowfall during the season is not as easy as some might think. There are numerous ways in which cats are sometimes easily taken when circumstances are favorable. Now and then a trapper will find a den that is being used. In such cases, if snow is light and real deep, Mr. Cat will walk in his same tracks for some distance. The beginner is likely to take it for granted that the trail has been used but once, but the experienced trapper can tell by the looks of the punchings that it has been used a lot. Approach the trail so as to have the snowshoe tracks hidden behind a clump of evergreen or an old log, and then reach over and push the trap down through the light snow and in under a track, so the pan is directly under the punching. This is very near a sure-fire set. When a carcass is found upon which ‘cats are feeding, try and find the trail or trails leading to it, and make sets this same way. The trouble is that the trapper will not run into many of these places, as oftentimes the ‘cats will take only one feed off a deer, and the next time they are hungry, will go and kill a fresh one. Catches are sometimes made at carcasses, but usually the disturbances made in getting to the place and making the sets will frighten the intended victims.
During hard traveling, there is now and then a ‘cat that will take up the habit of following a snowshoe trail. In such a case a trail set, or several of them, are quickly made in this manner. Push down two guide sticks about midway of the trail. These should be about four inches apart and each slanting out to its side of the trail. Now lay a half inch stepping stick across the entire trail, close to the guide sticks, so it is about three or four inches above the bottom of the trail. Conceal a trap in front of the guide sticks. If lucky enough to shoot a rabbit nearby, shake out the blood along the trail to some distance each side of the set. Then cut open the rabbit and fill with snow and shake this out too, as fast as it melts .i have even gone as far as to chop the rabbit up into fine pieces and string along the trail and over, but not on, the trap. This is also a good way to lay a bloody trail from a cubby set, out along the trail so these animals will follow it back to the set.
In making a permanent winter set, quite a bit depends upon what the trapper can expect in regards to the average winter conditions in that locality. Where too much snow should not be expected and it is not likely to drift about, here is probably one of the best winter sets:
Alongside a trail in a thicket or where ‘cats are likely to travel, find a place where there are two small or medium sized trees about two feet apart, and about three feet directly back of these, two more two feet apart. A stake or so may be driven down to take the place of a tree, but usually four trees will be found in the right position, especially if a little clearing is done. Now up about three or four feet, nail o wire a strong chunk of a tree about four inches in diameter, across the first two trees. Fasten a similar piece across the back two trees at the same height. Now short poles may be fastened into these cross poles, forming the framework for a roof. These poles are now covered with a heavy layer of evergreen boughs so that no snow can work down through. Allow the boughs to lop down over the ends and sides a bit. Stand up a few strong, brushy boughs on each side. It may be necessary to fasten a small pole about midway up, from the front to the back tree on each side in order to fasten these side boughs securely in position. Do not close in either end. Fasten a big bait, like a whole rabbit or skinned-out porcupine to the ground midway of the room, or hang it from one of the roof rafters. Place a trap at the entrance at each end, and place in guide and stepping sticks. After this is covered by the next snowstorm, it will not look bad at all, and most ‘cats are not afraid to walk in and through – if they are lucky. Owing to the heavy snowfall here, I have made quite a few sets similar to this but close in the back of the set. ‘Cats do not like the looks of this as well, but we do pick up one now and then with it. The ‘open at both ends’ set is by far the best if it can be used.
Quick Tree Set
Oftentimes beaver trappers will find themselves in good ‘cat country, but have little time for making sets. A very good set that is quickly made and will stand a storm or so is to locate a fir or spruce with long brushy limbs down close to the ground. Chop down any old stub, or even a green tree if necessary, seven or eight inches in diameter. Cut off a chunk six or eight feet long and lay it out on the snow so that the other end runs in to the tree and rests upon a solid limb and against the tree a foot above the snow. Now, up within a couple feet of the tree, cut a notch in the log and place a trap in it, so the pan is about level with the surface of the log. Hang a beaver carcass up in the tree, so a ‘cat will have to climb up on the log to get at it easily. Cut away any brush that will bother Kitty from getting in there. It’s a very effective set and quickly made.
The bobcat is powerful, and proper trap fastening must be used. I myself have lost several that have gotten into fox traps which had common two and tree prong fox drags attached to the chains. The only effective drag I have found is a three foot chunk of hardwood, like beech, maple, etc. Something that the trap ring will just fit on over and down half the length and fastened there works well. They will not go too far with this. If the trap is to be fastened securely at the set, try to wire it, using plenty of wire, to a tree. If a stake is going to be used, make sure it is a solid one and driven in so you can not pull it out yourself. Until one can see for himself like I did, he will never believe what a big bobcat can do with a common fox drag.
I jumped a large ‘cat one day and he ran smack into one of my blind sets. I heard him when he got in and rain out just in time to see hi streaking through the small firs and other trees, snapping that drag along as though it was nothing. I slid out of my pack and took after him. He outran me and finally I heard him bring up, deep in a fir thicket. He went all of thirty rods in what seemed like thirty seconds. No fox would have gone two rods in that growth in two days. All that snubbed him was that the drag hit the ground long enough to slide in between two small firs. If it hadn’t been for that, we would have been going yet. Several times I have had fox traps that just vanished, traps that I knew were not stolen. After going through that experience, I now know what has happened to all those other traps.
When it comes to weight, the bobcat and the smallmouth bass are in the same boat. If one wishes to get credit for a lot of weight on either of these two, just let good friends estimate their weight and let it go at that. I have weighed quite a few ‘cats and have yet to see one top reliable scales at forty pounds. When Bill Gourley and I were trapping together, he brought in not only a large, but a very fat bobcat. We had no way of weighing that one, but he might have gone around the forty pound mark. They are rangy and look a lot heavier than they really are. Dad brought one in many years ago, had it tied onto a moose sled. Hunters and trappers gathered around him in the road and looked the critter over, estimating the weight anywhere from 25-75 pounds. When dad got home, we weighed the huge beast and he tipped the scales at exactly twelve and one half pounds! Most of the real large ‘cats run from 30-35 pounds, but usually have an estimated weight of 50-75 pounds. I have seen a lot of ‘cats, but do not claim to, or believe, I have seen the largest bobcat. I do not say there has never been a 60 pounder, but only say I never saw one.
If you enjoyed this article, please check out the entire book, “Walter Arnold, Maine Trapper: Stories from one of the last Mountain Men”.