An old trapper finds himself trapping 2400 miles west

Ron Nickerson oneThis story came to me from Ron Nickerson. I hope you enjoy it! – george

I spent the better part of my 50 years trapping in Maine. I was born in Searsport, Maine in sight of the Atlantic Ocean. At the age of 73 years “fate” happened – some bad choices, ill health etc. I became a trapper in North Western Arizona on the Mohave Desert at the base of the Hualidai Mountains. I only had 18 #2 coil spring victors with rebar hold system. That was it. I could not have been more “ill prepared” and this is what I learned.

I found that 85% of Arizona is public land and “leg holds” were illegal. You could set cages but I didn’t own any. I purchased a trapping license and a small game license. You couldn’t even shoot an animal caught in your trap without a hunting license.

I didn’t really know what I was after, because I didn’t know what was out there. I was so intrigued by the desert I couldn’t wait to get out there. Arizona law does not allow any wild birds, game or parts thereof, for trapping bait and I did not know what to use. Meat that was not game could be used. I realized that Jack Rabbits were not considered game and that I could use them for bait. I spent my first evenings out hunting jacks and managed to shoot 3 or 4. So I had some bait.
Ron Nickerson twoThe next morning I put out my fox and coyote equipment. A strong skunk scented base, a quart of bobcat urine, and away I went. I drove out over the dessert about 6 miles from my residence to the base of the mountains. I stopped out there and started to look around. I had no idea what I was up against but I couldn’t wait to find out.

I hunted around and found a large area which turned out to be a 40 acre parcel of private land. If “No Trespassing” signs did not exist then it was legal to use leg traps there. A passable gravel road ran through the property

On this road I found several scats which were black and I was sure they were coyote scats. There were also some smaller ones that were fox and I determined in my mind that there was a kill nearby but I didn’t find it. The first set I made was a coyote dirt hole. Sand was everywhere with strange looking clumps of vegetation growing in it.

I chose one of these clumps for a background and proceeded to dig a bed for a trap. The sand was very DRY – this section of the country received only 3 or 4 inches of rain in a year and I had been told it had not rained for a month or so. The sand kept falling in and I had a hole about 18” around and only 4” deep. I drove crossed 18” rebar into the ground to hold my trap. Luckily about 6” to 8” down these stakes I reached “hard pan “ gravel.

Ron Nickerson fiveBeing careful how I drove them, I was able to hold the trap to my satisfaction. I bedded the trap to the best of my ability in the loose material and covered it with a nylon trap cover – then sifted sand over the whole thing. Upon trying to dig a dirt hold for my bait I found out that it fell in as fast as I removed it. Finally I was able!

With a long piece if rebar used in a circular motion I was able to get a hole big enough to put some Jack Rabbit meat. I covered it over then stuffed some vegetation on top, sprayed some bobcat urine nearby, and put some strong, skunky lure on a stick and stuck it in the clump of vegetation. Behind the trap I put in 7 or 8 of the same kind of sets on the 40 acre lot.

The only variation was one set placed near a dead Joshua Tree which had fallen, leaving a small area between the tree and the stump. A large piece of bark had peeled off and fallen behind the stump and tree, making a perfect “cubby” to cover a bait in. I set the trap guarding the cubby in the same manner as I had the rest, used urine on the stump and scent on top of the bark. That was enough traps for one day as I was recovering from open heart surgery and I grew tired very quickly.

The next morning I was up early, anxious to check my sets. I had action at one set only. It held some kind of a fox which I had never seen before. I thought it must be a gray fox but I wasn’t sure. I dispatched it, took it home, and handled the fur. I then referred to some books and trapping magazines to see if I could find out what I had caught. It turned out to be a “kJ fox” or “Desert Fox.”  I thought that what I had read about them was that they were smaller and I was correct. As it turned out this was the largest sit skin sold at the Arizona auction that year. I didn’t set any more traps as I was still not sure how to approach the situation.

The next morning I arrived at the stumps set first. As I approached it I saw some movement and that quickened my pulse and I couldn’t believe what I saw. I had caught an “Arizona Lynx cat” or what we call a Bobcat. It was the most beautiful cat I had ever seen. Even after all my trapping years I was very excited.

A short distance away at my next set I rounded the bend and there was a coyote held firmly in my #2 trap. Needless to say I was really “pumped up” about AZ trapping and I was off and running to set more traps. I found another parcel a couple miles away that I was sure it was legal to trap on and set about 6 or 8 more traps. I then went home tired but very happy!

In the next few days I caught 2 more bobcats in the stump set and a couple more coyotes . I also caught 2 or 3 gray fox. This was a first for me the area I had been trapping back east contained no gray fox. One morning I saw a large bobcat cross the road in front of me and I caught him a few days later near where I had seen him.

February came and the weather started to warm up. I had never trapped in a t-shirt before. The other problem was that the bait would rot in about 2 days and I had to hunt Jack Rabbits at least 2 evenings a week to keep fresh bait. I wound up my season about the twentieth of February, my birthday, and I caught 6 cats and 8 gray fox to go along with my lone kit fox.

Ron Nickerson threeI spent the last 2 weeks of the season hunting for places to trap with leg traps. I found some areas but they contained no cats as far as I could see – only coyotes and gray fox. I must admit I had not come close to mastering the desert and I was afraid to get more than 10 miles from my home.

I returned to Maine knowing that if I was still able I would be back the next fall and I would be equipped with a few cages so I could trap the federal B.L.M land which included most of the mountains and foot hills, along with the desert.

When I got home to Maine and settled down I started to hunt for cages in trapping magazines and I found they run in the neighborhood of $100.00 each which to my pocketbook was a lot of money. I finally found some 12X13X37” cages in Harbor Freight Catalog for $25.00 each. I had one sent to Maine to see if I thought it was sturdy enough to hold bobcats. I figured that the front of the cage needed reinforcing so I added some wire and a drop wire after the caged closed for about 7 or 8 dollars. I ordered 10 more of these cages and had them sent to a neighbor’s house in Arizona so they would be there when I got back. I left Maine for a 7 month period starting in November. When I got back to AZ, trapping season had already started, but I didn’t go because of the warm weather. I didn’t think fur would be prime. I started after Thanksgiving.

All the time I was back east I thought steadily about what I had to do to catch cats in AZ. It all boiled down to what I already knew from a lifetime of trapping. I had to trap in a much larger area close to the mountain – that location was the most important thing, and also hard work and proper presentation . It was not going to be easy!

I started hunting rabbits for bait near the mountains and put them in the freezer. I searched for cat signs while hunting and found a lot of droppings in places, which all seemed to have same characteristics. I once read that you can’t find cat scat because they cover it up but that is not true. They do not cover scat. I have seen a lot of cat toilets, some containing hundreds of dropping piles 6″ or more high. I came to realize cats use these toilets to establish their territory. Once you find droppings that are reasonably fresh you are ready to start setting traps.

A Bobcat likes to walk in soft going and take the path of least resistance in his travels. There are many places where , when it does rain, stream channels called washes wind down out of the mountains around points of boulders at the foot of the mountains. These cut down 8″ to 15″ into the ground and when the rain stops, and the washes dry up, they leave mostly soft sand in the bed of the “wash”.

Bobcats love to travel these soft washes. They can travel very quietly and walk around their eye level just about at ground level of the desert. There are many different kinds of rats and chipmunks and cottontail rabbits which the cat can see at his eye level without being seen himself. Therefore he is a very successful hunter. Islands in these washes covered with bushes are a good area to catch cats in.

If a cat can see down a long stretch of wash, then the wash splits leaving an island or a peninsula, usually a clump of bushes or a tree stump at the intersection. Here is a good place for a cat cage with the open door facing up the wash. It is very important to tie a visual “attraction” over the trap a couple of feet over. Cats hunt by sight more then by smell in my opinion. Use a shiny off white ribbon where it is very visual.

The wind almost always blows and when the ribbon moves the shiny part can be easily detected in the moonlight. Hang part of a fresh jack rabbit in the back of the cage. Smooth out a path into the cage and put a good portion of skunk lure. Try to get it in the shade. Remember the sun shines at least 300 days a year and you will dry out the lure more quickly if you don’t put it in the shade buried in the brush. The only reason to try and cover a cage is to keep other trappers and desert travelers from seeing it.

Ron Nickerson fourThese cats are too curious to be trap shy. I found that another ideal place to set a cage or a leg hold was a few feet off the boulder stream mountains. Usually a soft layer of sand was situated between the rocks and any washes. I found a small plateau to walk along from 30 to 800 feet wide at one point where a huge ledge protruded from the mountain about 30 feet into the desert like a huge piece of pie.

Closer examination showed a huge cat toilet about 40-50 feet from each of this point. At the very point of the ledge there was a split about 6 to 8 feet deep. As this was private land I set and flagged the split with a #2 leg hold with jack rabbit buried behind it and skunk spread under a crack nearby.

A couple of mornings later I found a large male blond cat caught in the leg hole and he was lying on the left side of the crack. A little later on I caught another large male at the same set and he was lying on the right side of the split. I also caught a couple of females nearby.

I may be wrong but it is my opinion that the 2 large cat toilets were marking the end of the 2 toms territory. I believe this because of way the cats were situated while they were waiting for me was on the side of their territory. It might have been a coincidence but it made sense to me.

I set about half leg holds and half cages the second year I was there and had pretty good luck with each. Gray fox also showed no fear of the cages – they went right in. The coyote wanted no part of the cages and I was able to keep catching them in leg holds by setting bare handed in blind cubbys.

Havalina “small pigs” were a problem for trappers who used large cages. My cages were too small for them so they didn’t go in them. They are very near sighted and I believe they hate skunks. Every time I saw their tracks going towards one of my traps, they would without exception circle around giving the area a large berth.

The desert is not level so I worked my line uphill. I started seeing 15 or 20 foot trees – some of them looked like cedar, and some a little larger and coarser which was some form of juniper.

In this area I found mule deer – not a lot but a few. Cats seem to be near the deer. I never found a deer the cats had killed so if they did I have no proof of it. If you come across scat or tracks, believe me they will kill deer, free roaming cattle or anything else they can catch. Bobcats are not at the top of the food chain in AZ – the mountain lion is. I believe this is one reason cats hang out and live near the boulders at the base of the mountains. They can travel into the rocks very rapidly and get into holes where lions or hounds cannot get.

One thing I have not mentioned is that AZ is open range meaning free ranging cattle. They were everywhere, but they cause very little problems for the trapper. Once in a while they will have set off a cage – usually one you have set in the shade. The cattle will crowd into the shady spots and sometimes hit the cage doors. Other than that you just have to watch out not to run over them as they will sometime lie down right in the middle of the road.

I realized that late January through February was mating season for the cats. This is a great time to catch big toms. They range far and wide. It helps if you catch a large female and handle her with care. You can sometime harvest a bladder full of urine. This used in late season sets will attract the big toms, and up your catch. Remember the least amount of females you kill the better next year’s trapping will be.

As you travel the roads you will see cat scat in the roads. These cats are hard to catch as they are traveling and the droppings are “nature calls” – where they exist a cat can usually see in all directions. Watching for predators they are always on alert. To describe cat droppings all one has to do is look in his cats “litter box”. Bobcat scat is exactly like it only larger with well separated links, like sausage about 1 inch long and usually dry. I have been told the reason for the dryness is that cats drink very little water, getting the moisture from the blood of their prey. Another thing I have learned is that cats are very lazy, doing only what they have to do to survive. Hunt, eat and rest is a full time job for them. Once I realized this I started looking for the shortest distance and the softest between two mountains or huge rock piles.

I found a low ravine between two mountains a good place for sets. I am not trying to write a manual on cat trapping only what worked for me. Every trapper should do what he is comfortable with.

In my own mind I learned a lot in my second season. I went home happy with double the number of cats and a fine paycheck. The third year I fell behind for a couple of reasons. I did not stick to my own findings and searched many other areas, where people had trapped ahead of me or where there were no cats in the areas.

The main reason I didn’t do as well is because I found a mountain lion kill and became obsessed with killing a lion. To me that was the top trophy in North America. I waited at the kill site, never seeing the lion. A couple of times he saw me and the hair stood up on my neck and then he was gone. I found a younger hunter with lion hounds. He has all the bells and whistles but the dogs knew more than he did and it was not enough. I also realized that all the lions ran up hill and at my age and my health there was no way I could chase up those mountains. I hated to admit it but it was not meant to be.

I quit the mountain lion dream and went back to work and caught a few cats and somewhat salvaged the season. During the off season I gave the desert more thought and I realized that there was a big equation I hadn’t thought much about and that was the cactus on the desert. When people think of cactus they think of the tall ones with arms, those are “saguaro”, They are plentiful but play no part in what I am talking about. The ones that effect the most wildlife are the bush cactus. Most are not over 4ft high. These are organ pipe, staghorn, chola, hedge hog, ect. Rats, Rabbits, Birds and other small wildlife feed on them How they are able to do this without the pricklies sticking into them is a marvel. While rabbit hunting I had occasion to see jack rabbits feeding on these.

I think the most important part the cactus plays in its source of water. Once the thorns are bitten off, it is chewed out by the animals. The pulp is very important because it contains water. Other plants wither and dry up in the heat, but not the cactus. Where you find cactus you find rabbits, birds and other small mammals.

It’s not located everywhere on the desert but it is in a lot of places, and where you find it the food chains start. It is one of the first places to look for “cat sign”. No small animals – no bobcats. I found that to be true with few exceptions. Rats also use dead cactus to build houses out of. Along with anything else they can find from beer cans to “cowflaps” and most are the size of a large muskrat house. The “runs” going into these houses are lined with old thorns 3 or 4 in a clump that had been chewed off the cactus. They were everywhere.

Remember the predators are barefooted. When the rodent went into his house he would drag a few of the cactus clumps called “goatheads” in behind them. Coyotes even if they are starving do not try to dig them out. I quickly found that traveling on the desert in these areas, work boots with very hard soles was the only thing to wear. Ordinary soles would easily be penetrated and next step you took you were done. If you can visualize a 70 year old man with arthritis jumping around on one foot you get the picture.

In the following years I followed paths outlined in this story and caught what I considered to be a lot of cats. The last year I trapped it would have been impossible for me to function well.

But fate intervened. Another old trapper from Maine, called Mo, wanted to fulfill his dream to trap bobcats. He stayed two months with me and we managed to catch 13 cats. Two were kittens and we released them. We also caught 30+ fox. All cats and foxes were caught in cages and I could not have achieved this alone.

After he went home I stayed another month and it gave me time to think. I realized that time had come for me to give it up. I decided to sell my truck and all my trapping gear. I knew if I left it I would go back to it and I just was not able to. The 7 years that I trapped in AZ leaves me with the best trapping memories of my life.

As far as I am concerned there is no more satisfying experience than going out in the desert and finding an old tom bobcat in one of my cages. That was a beautiful sight. It was a pleasure to handle his “silky fur” and get paid a handsome price!  I sold my best cat for $600.

The desert of AZ is one of the most beautiful places on earth. People say it all looks the same. If you study it and watch it you will see it changes colors hourly. You find something different every day. The beauty and memories of this place will last me the rest of my life. I was truly blessed to be able to go there and trap.

Ron Nickerson

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.