The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild - Dave Canterbury (2016)

Part III. Living Off the Land

Chapter 13. Trapping: Beyond the Basics

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”


If you hope to catch some of your food, you should have a good working knowledge of traps for three main food sources: mammals, fish, and fowl.

One of the main concepts for longer-term living in the wild is that live food never spoils. For us it means that we are not forced to process the food straight away, only to care for it while we have it alive. This can be of big advantage in hot weather, but can also be troublesome if you’re in an area with many large predatory animals. So a decision must be made. However for things like turtles and frogs, which can be kept in a sack or bag for a time, trapping is very advantageous.

Seasons and methods of take dictate what traps we can and cannot use as well as what species we can target. With traps being an indiscriminant means of catching prey we cannot control exactly what animal we catch; however, we can use traps sized, placed, and baited correctly for the target animal to reduce the risk of catching or killing a non-target animal. Check your local laws on what is to be done when a non-target animal is trapped.

Beginning with Bait Animals

The water’s edge is the best place to secure meat sources the majority of the time. But first we have to realize that meat sources and trapping do not always have to involve four-legged furry critters. Some of the easiest meat we can obtain is from animals that live the majority of their lives in or near water, like fish, turtles, frogs, snakes, and crayfish.

Seeking these items of food for ourselves and then delegating a portion of them to bait the traps we build will enable us to catch more sizable prey items. If we are in an area absent of these water sources we will need to micro-trap to secure things like mice, rats, and chipmunks to effect the same end results. We could also choose to combine both techniques to our end benefit. Some of these resources will be meals in themselves as larger fish and turtles will fit this category as well.

Catching animals lower on the food chain should be a priority even if you don’t plan to eat them yourself. A baited trap has a much higher percentage chance of success than a blind set. If you work your way up the food chain, you will fill your belly as you go and improve the food you eat along the way.

Water-Based Traps

You’ll want to learn how to make and set traps in water so that you can catch animals like fish, frogs, and turtles.


Net-making is a skill all by itself that can take a lot of time to master. However, there are easy ways of creating nets (although these are not as effective as methods that require true net-making skills). Any net will only catch fish or animals that cannot exit the holes you have created, so many nets have to be tailored to the intended prey. In a pinch you can use a T-shirt as a seining device.

Here are some common types of nets that can be used in water:

·        Dip nets. These nets are usually attached to some sort of hooped pole that can be used to reach into the water and lift the target out while trapped in the net. This pole can be fashioned from a green fork that is wrapped against itself to form the loop. The net is attached directly to this hoop while being made. If you are carrying a large roll of tarred mariners’ bank line, which I highly recommend, you can easily fashion dip nets with overhand knots on a main line. You can use dip nets to catch small turtles but larger turtles are hard to approach with them. Remember that most turtles that flip into the water during the day will swim under the log they were sunning on to seek cover. Dip nets are also useful for frogging and for catching crayfish. See Figure 13.1.

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Figure 13.1 Dip net

·        Gill nets/stop nets. This type net must be made long enough and deep enough to be stretched from one side of a creek or small river to the other and go from the top of the water to the bottom. It is usually weighted with stones at the bottom and has some type of floatation at the top or possibly a sapling running the length of the span. You drive fish into this net by walking downstream, chasing the fish into the net where they get hung in the holes as their gills pass through but body cannot. As with other nets, you will need to know the average size of the fish you’re trapping to make an effective net. Dip nets and fishing traps tend to be a better use of cordage than a gill net/stop net. See Figure 13.2.

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Figure 13.2 Gill net

·        Seine nets. These are fairly large nets with very small holes that are walked through a deeper water source. They are used to manipulate smaller fish to the edge of the water to scoop them out. See Figure 13.3.

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Figure 13.3 Seine net

·        Funnel nets. These nets resemble dip nets in many ways and can be made in small diameter and elongated for fish-type traps or can be made in large diameter and laid flat to trap animals when the net is lifted. See Figure 13.4.

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Figure 13.4 Funnel trap

Fish Fences

Fish fences can be used to either guide fish to a certain location in the water or placed on the water’s edge for other types of animals like turtles. They can be built from any natural material including stones, sticks, or even logs. Fencing called a weir can be used to trap fish in a smaller area where you can hunt them with a bow or gig. An M-shaped bank trap allows a turtle to climb onto the bank for bait but will not allow it to return to the water. This is a good trap for overnight while you are asleep. See Figure 13.5.

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Figure 13.5 Fish fence

Basket Funnels

Basket funnels are traps woven from natural materials employing two cones that fit together so that fish can swim in, yet they cannot swim out. These are woven in the same fashion as a basket. The inner cone has a hole in the bottom that fish can swim into, thus entering the closed larger cone, which traps them inside. See Figure 13.6.


Figure 13.6 Basket funnel

Tube Trap

You can make a simple tube trap from any pop can by placing skewers into the can at an inward angle. These allow the animal in to eat the bait—but not back out again. See Figure 13.7.

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Figure 13.7 Tube trap

Bushcraft Tip

Some type of alarm system like an old can filled with rocks is a good addition for any trap that will catch an animal live.


Fish can be caught with a snare-type device by using an available hook, bent safety pin, or carved gorge-type hook. Bait is easy enough to obtain; turn over logs until you find worms or grubs. You can also rig a trigger system so that the rod does not have to be attended. A simple hook with any red fabric chard will attract frogs to a hook and line.

Lines with L7 Triggers

This is a form of fishing that employs line and trap together to set the hook after the animal runs with the bait. An L7 trigger (a type of quick-release system made with simple reverse notches, described in the section in trigger traps later in this chapter) is combined with a spring pole device, allowing the line to be hand cast off the bank with a baited hook of some sort. When the fish or turtle runs with the bait it dislodges the L7 trigger and springs the pole, which immediately jerks the line to set or lodge the hook in the throat of the prey. This trigger system can also be used to catch turtles. See Figure 13.8.

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Figure 13.8 Trigger

Once you’ve secured one or more of the lower-food-chain meat sources (the things other mammals eat), you can use the leftover material for baiting traps to capture larger animals.

Primitive Traps

Primitive traps are designed to accomplish one or more of three things: strangle, mangle, or dangle. With that said, we need to look at the differing types of traps because many of the same releases or triggering systems can be employed with many different setups to accomplish the end goal.

Deadfall Traps

These traps are often what you think of when you think of a primitive trap. They are generally designed to drop a large, heavy weight onto an animal, crushing it or trapping it beneath the weight of the deadfall. Small mammals such as mice, rats, chipmunks, and ground squirrels are about the largest animals that can easily be taken by deadfall traps. These animals are usually too small to set off more complicated spring-type traps (discussed in the following section).

Many people, unfortunately, set deadfalls incorrectly. There are many factors we must first realize about these traps to use them effectively. Deadfall traps are not always intended to instantly kill prey. Smaller deadfalls for micro-trapping of rodent species will many times suffocate the animal. Misunderstanding this point is what causes so many people to raise a deadfall like a rock or log at a high angle to achieve this crushing power. The fact is that the higher the angle of the deadfall, the more chance the animal has to escape the trap. Placing the bait as far to the back of the trap as possible will decrease the margin of error.

There are several different types of traps that use weight to kill or trap an animal:

·        Leaning deadfalls. These traps generally employ a heavy object leaning at one end on the ground with the weight of the leaning object held up by a trigger that releases the weight of the deadfall. There are two simple rules of thumb when using these leaning deadfall devices. The first is that deadfalls should be five times heavier than the weight of the animal to be trapped, and the second is that the deadfall should never be at an angle greater than 30° from the ground. See Figure 13.9.

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Figure 13.9 Leaning deadfall trap

·        Suspended deadfalls. These traps involve a device suspended above the ground that drops upon release. These can also be combined with some type of spikes or spear points for larger game. See Figure 13.10.

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Figure 13.10 Suspended deadfall trap

·        Windlass machine traps. These traps involve a windlass machine (a type of winch) that delivers a killing blow or deploys a spike or spear to impale the animal upon release of the trigger. See Figure 13.11.

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Figure 13.11 Windlass machine trap


A snare is a noose made of rope or wire that loops around an animal and pulls tight, catching it. Most snares will not catch the animal around the neck as you would hope. Body catches will happen more often than not. Snare loops need to be set at a targeted diameter to ensure a proper catch. A snare set a bit larger than an opossum’s head will most likely never catch a coyote. This is another reason paying attention to animal sign is important. Only a baited and triggered snare should be set off trail (otherwise you are unlikely to catch anything), so this is an important consideration as well.

Medium-sized mammals like opossum and raccoon are about the largest animals you will want to tackle in a short-term situation since they can be processed and consumed easily without having a lot of meat lying around camp, something that will attract predatory or scavenging mammals. When trapping larger animals, set traps just off the trail going to or from a water source so that a non-target larger animal like a deer does not trip over and set off your trap unnecessarily. See Figure 13.12.

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Figure 13.12 Snare

·        Free-hanging snares. These are also call blind snares. They are unpowered snares that rely strictly on the animal’s momentum or its fighting the trap to tighten and hold the creature. These are the least effective traps when done in primitive fashion; however, cable snares can be very effective. They can be set in small-game trails and should be suspended bearing in mind the animal’s height at the head when walking. We always strive for a neck catch when snaring. For opossum or raccoon, if you can place your balled fist under the snare, that will be pretty close to head height. You want the opening of the snare for these animals to be about half again larger than your fist.

·        Powered snares. Snares involving a spring-loaded engine or a counterweight device can be very effective depending on setup as long as they lift the animal off the ground. Remember, an animal will do what it has to for escape if it is alive and chewing is a natural act! If it is on the ground, it has lots of opportunity to chew its way free. (For this reason, trappers sometimes use wire or cable snares.) Spring-loaded snares should always be alarmed for immediate reaction to reduce the suffering of the animal as well as to prevent its escape from the trap. All spring snares will require an engine or catalyst to make the snare close around the animal. Many things can be used for this, from a simple bent sapling to a counterweight device such as a log. Items from your kit can also make great engines, including bungee cords or sling-shot-type latex bands.

Trap Triggers

Trap triggers come in a variety of configurations. The main thing to remember is that triggers, like traps, must match the size of the quarry. Triggers for rodents cannot be made from 2" branches that the animal does not have the strength to pull down or manipulate to set off the trap. While there are many styles of these spring-type traps, I find the simpler the design and the simpler the trigger, the better. A pressure-release toggle can be adapted to several applications, and the majority of components can easily be carved in camp. In an extreme emergency, the toggle-type traps can be constructed with no tools at all. See Figures 13.13A, 13.13B, and 13.13C.

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Figure 13.13A Figure 4 trigger

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Figure 13.13B Piute trigger

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Figure 13.13C Split trigger

Trapping Birds

All North American birds are edible. Because of this—as well as the sheer number of them—birds can be a good choice to add to the table. Birds, especially small birds, should be trapped in an open clearing where the visibility of bait is optimal. Most of the time bright-colored berries or fruit will be most attractive to birds as bait. Remember to alarm the trap if possible, as the bird will be captured alive. There are three traps that work the best in my opinion.

Multiple Ground Snares

One of the most effective traps for small-seed-feeding birds is a simple stake in the ground surrounded by a small pile of ground debris with small-diameter snares attached that overlap to create a network of ground snares. Bait them with something the birds are feeding on. Two main considerations here are:

1.    The size of snare material should be very fine line.

2.    You need many snares—at least 25 for a 2-square-foot area with 2–3" overlapping loops. See Figure 13.14.

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Figure 13.14 Multiple ground snares

Ojibwa Bird Trap

This trap uses a perch for the bird to land. The weight of the bird on the perch drops a counterweight that, when released, activates the snare, which in turn traps the bird by its feet. This device works well as the bird will grab the stick when landing, ensuring its legs are inside the snare (which lies over the perching stick). The big trick to this snare is to make sure that the closed snare is drawn close to the hole in the upright pole so that the bird is held tight and close in an upside-down position. See Figure 13.15.

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Figure 13.15 Ojibwa bird trap

Cage-Style Traps

Cage-style traps for smaller birds are easily built by making an X with a length of cord across two sticks, then filling in with progressively shorter lengths of cord in log-cabin fashion. Small tripping lines work well connected to a step or breakaway trigger so that birds attempt to hop or duck the strings to get to seed bait in the center of the trap. This trap can catch up to ten birds in an hour in the right conditions. See Figure 13.16.

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Figure 13.16 Cage trap

You can also take a larger bird with a net, especially at night. During nesting season, most waterbirds like geese or ducks will defend their nest to the point of becoming very vulnerable to dispatch. This gives you the opportunity for eggs as well.

Eating Animals Found Dead

Okay, so what about animals we find already dead? A free meal, right? Maybe. There are several things you must consider before digging in. First, realize that heat is the enemy of any fresh meat even if the animal was healthy when it died, so the longer it has been dead the more you should think before eating. However, you can put a lot of trust in your own nose. We can tell when something smells off. When it does, stay clear of it.

With fish the best indicator is the gills. If they are still pink, the meat should be okay. Once they turn white, don’t consume it, even if it’s well cooked.

What about mammals? I have a personal policy that unless it is an extreme emergency I will not eat any mammal I did not see expire. This allows me to evaluate the way it died or was killed as well as the condition that animal may have been in before expiring. It may have died from a disease. Some diseases are transmittable to humans, and you want to avoid them. If the animal is not acting according to normal behavior, there is usually a reason for it. For example, raccoons are nocturnal animals. To see one wandering around during the heat of the day is an automatic red flag to me.

If you must eat an animal you find dead, there are some things to take note of to determine how long it has been dead as well. However, there are no guarantees.

·        If the animal is bloated badly, it has likely been there a while and is no good.

·        If there are still fleas on the carcass, it has not been dead long as these will be the first to abandon a dead host.

·        If the eyes are still wet or glossy, this is a good indicator of an animal that has died recently.

·        If there are maggots on the body, this is a sign it has been dead too long.

·        If you decide to clean and eat the animal, look at the internal organs for bright rich coloring. If the liver has any spots on it or there are lumps visible on the organs, abandon that desire to eat and move on.

One thing to remember about a road-killed animal is there’s a good chance the internal organs were damaged, including the bladder, which may taint any interior meats as well.

Recipes for Trapped Game

The following are some of my favorite recipes to use for trapped game.

Fried Potatoes and Squirrel

Boiling the squirrel the night before reduces the amount of time it takes to make this meal.

1 squirrel, skinned and gutted

1⁄2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning or garlic powder

2 medium russet potatoes

1 onion

Bacon grease or lard for pan frying

1.    Boil squirrel in pot the night before. The meat is ready when it is falling from the bone. Drain and debone. Store the meat in a cool place, away from scavengers or predators.

2.    The next day, shred the squirrel meat and mix with Old Bay Seasoning.

3.    Boil potatoes for approximately 15 minutes, then slice. Dice the onion.

4.    Grease a pan with bacon grease or lard and heat over medium heat. Add onion, potatoes, and squirrel meat to the pan and fry until the meat is heated through and the potatoes are golden brown. Serve.

Dutch Oven Raccoon Roast

This is a great meal to start in the morning and then enjoy for an evening meal.

3–4 pounds fresh raccoon meat, cut into chunks

4–6 tablespoons cooking oil

1 beef bouillon cube or 2 teaspoons beef bouillon powder

1 cup hot water

3 medium potatoes, quartered

3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 11⁄2" pieces

2 medium onions, quartered

Old Bay Seasoning or other seasoning to taste

1.    In a Dutch oven over hot coals, braise raccoon meat in oil. Dissolve bouillon in hot water to make broth.

2.    Once the raccoon meat is browned, add vegetables, broth, and seasonings.

3.    Cover and cook over medium heat 3–5 hours or until meat reaches desired level of doneness.

Rabbit Stew

This is a good stew recipe that can work with most types of game.

1 large rabbit or 2 young ones, butchered into 8 pieces

6 pieces salt-cured bacon, cut up

4 large carrots, peeled and cut into chunks

8 red potatoes, quartered

2 cloves garlic, minced

1⁄2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 medium onion, diced

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons ground black pepper

Place rabbit in stew pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and boil for about 5 minutes. Add all ingredients along with enough water to cover the meat in the pot. Slow cook over medium heat 1 hour. Serve with bread or biscuits.

Opossum Roast

As with any roast, baste this one frequently with drippings to retain moistness.

1 small opossum, cleaned and quartered

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning

Dash Cholula Hot Sauce

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1.    Place opossum in a Dutch oven. Mix remaining ingredients into a paste and spread over the opossum.

2.    Roast using medium heat 30 minutes per pound, usually about 2–3 hours. Baste frequently with drippings. Serve with drop biscuits.

Opossum Cracklings

This works best with a winter opossum, as it will have more fat. Be careful not to overheat or burn as this will impart a bad flavor.

1 opossum

1.    Remove fat from the opossum. Use the meat in another recipe.

2.    Place fat in a skillet and render by cooking on medium heat.

3.    Pour off the liquid and save for lard. The hard brown bits leftover are cracklings. They eat well when salted or seasoned with Old Bay.

Glazed Pheasant

This recipe can work for a larger bird.

2 pheasants

1⁄4 cup salt

1 box wild rice stuffing mixture (12 ounces), prepared according to package directions

1 jar raspberry preserves (about 12 ounces)

1⁄2 cup water

1.    Remove feathers from birds. Rinse birds, remove giblets, and pat dry. Sprinkle cavity with salt, and stuff with dressing. Tie legs together with string and arrange in a Dutch oven. Bake 11⁄2–2 hours or until tender.

2.    Mix preserves and water in a pan and bring to boil. During the last 1⁄2 hour of baking, baste the birds frequently with the preserve mixture. Remove strings before serving with remaining preserves.

Tips and Tricks

·        Frogs are fairly easy to stun with any flexible stick if hunted at night with a headlight to freeze them in place. This technique will work whether the frog is on land or in water.

·        Snakes will be found in the water or on the edge, especially at night when frogs are present. They can be dispatched just like a frog with a nice flexible stick. Or, you can pin them down with a Y-shaped branch and dispatch them with a rock. However, trapping a snake is tough, as they are masters of escape.

·        Alarming of any trap possible is important.

·        The location of traps is also important. Try to keep all traps within a 50–100-yard perimeter of your camp so you can easily get to them in the middle of the night if you catch something. Scavenger animals such as opossums and raccoons are not shy of humans for long, and scent control is not a worry with them.

·        Travel routes are excellent places for traps. Prey can often be lured to a baited trap as most are opportunistic in nature.

·        You may at some time capture a non-target animal. If it is a large animal, it will most likely escape without your help. If it is a skunk, you are one step away from a few days of good stink, but so goes life in an emergency scenario. Just do your best to free the animal and watch its back end!