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Trapping pocket gophers

I always enjoyed trapping pocket gophers.

The first traps I used were death-klutch traps. Sometimes I used an old fashioned trap I called a pedal trap. I preferred the death-klutch trap because they were faster to work with.

After I retired from active farming in the mid-’90s I caught about 3,000 gophers during a six year period. I thought trapping pocket gophers was just as challenging and enjoyable as deer hunting or fishing.

The death-klutch traps I used were made by P-W Manufacturing Company, Henryetta, Okla. These traps are easy to set and check. One of the best days I had trapping gophers was when I checked 21 traps and got 21 gophers.

I used a four wheel-drive pickup to carry my supplies. A 5/16-inch steel rod from an ancient potato digger was used to open the hole. I look for the “eye” in the gopher pile and poke in the eye with the 5/16-inch rod until the rod goes into the runway. Then I take another rod with a small hook on the end and get the loose soil out of the runway.

I use my hand to clean out all the loose soil, reaching down as far into the runway as I can. It is very important to remove all the loose soil from the runway. Don’t enlarge the runway any more than necessary to get the trap in.

I spray a small amount of WD-40 oil on the jaw and tail of the trap just before I set it so it goes off better.

I leave the flat metal trigger set “hard” and put the trap in the runway. I move the trap back and forth to make sure it is free in the runway and has room to move a little when it goes off. Then I remove the trap, clean out any loose soil, set the flat metal trigger “soft” to the end of the tail and put the trap back in the runway.

I use a 5/16-inch or 3/8-inch rod at least 18-inches long with a “stop” on the top to stake down the trap. The “stop” keeps the trap from being slipped off the top of the rod. Push, or hammer, the stake firmly into the ground.

Dogs and other animals like to visit the traps for a free meal. A landowner won’t be very happy when they find a gopher trap in a tire or piece of their equipment. I stake traps well and some animals still get away with them. Normally the entrance to the runway is left wide open.

All traps are marked with a four foot white fiberglass fence post. (I just happened to have these left over from my farming days.) A small red or orange flag is taped to the post. I put a pop can on top of the post which makes it easier to see.

I write down a brief description of the traps location in a spiral notebook. Many times I would have forgotten a trap if the location hadn’t been recorded. When a gopher is caught the description is crossed off the sheet.

Special occasions

Knowing the “tricks of the trade” helps catch gophers. These are learned through experience. One of the most important “tricks” is knowing how close to the “T” or “fork” to place the trap.

I check this by putting the trap in the hole as far as I can and move it from side to side as I take the trap back out of the runway. When the side movement stops, notice where the trigger is. If the trigger is too close to the top of the opening the gopher may not get caught.

In these situations I dig up the “T” and set one trap each way. I check to make sure one of the runways is not a “dead end.” About half the time, one runway is.

When the opening to a runway is rather large I partly close it with some grass or a piece of board. I think the flow of air in the runway can influence how much soil the gopher brings to the opening to close it. The more soil the gopher brings the better the chance of pugging the trap. Keep in mind how it feels in your house when a door is left open.

When the runways are larger than normal, I often cover the entire hole with a board, making the runway totally dark. Many times this method has gotten a gopher when other methods have failed.

This works especially well when I have dug out the “T” and a trap is going both ways. Light doesn’t need to enter the tunnel to get a gopher to come to the trap. I have caught many gophers to prove it.

A small file is used to keep sharp points on the ends of the jaws. When a gopher doesn’t get caught in the trap correctly sharp jaws can make the difference of holding the gopher by the hide or letting the gopher get away. Sometimes the flat metal trigger needs to be straightened in a vise.

When setting the trap “soft” make sure the flat metal trigger doesn’t “rock” on the spring. I think many plugs occur when the trap is set too “soft” and goes off before the gopher comes. I don’t wear gloves when I am handling traps or equipment.

When a trap catches a gopher it is rubbed in loose soil to “clean” it and hung up to air out. Most of the time a trap gets a day of rest before it is used again.

The reality of gopher trapping is that there are some gophers that can’t be caught. These gophers don’t eat poison either. They just die of “old age.” However, in the meantime they seem to make lots of little gophers, which have lots of ambition and are usually easier to catch.

When I am setting traps I don’t “wonder” if I should set one or more traps where there are several mounds. If the holes are easy to open, set two traps. If nothing comes to one trap for 24 hours chances are there was one gopher. Any mounds I don’t open I step on or level out so I can distinguish new digging from old digging.

When I find gopher piles I can’t get open, I drive over them with the pickup and mark the site with a newspaper with some soil on it. Sometimes within a day or two a gopher will dig and I will be able to get the hole open.

One summer, from mid-June until October, I trapped 270 gophers off an 80 acre field of alfalfa. Whenever I got a gopher I put the trap right back into the same hole. I got as many as five gophers from one hole. Many holes had two gophers. Every empty hole got marked with a piece of newspaper. I would check the “newspaper” and if the hole was plugged it meant another gopher had moved in.

Persistence is the only way to keep gophers under control. A trip around the field once or twice a year is hardly adequate. To really do a good job, the fields need to be checked every time a crop of hay comes off and at least twice in the spring and fall when the hay is dormant. When gophers are being trapped, the dominant ones get caught and then the timid ones move in. It is a never ending process to keep them under control.

Gophers are very unsociable and they will fight to keep other gophers out of their territory. When I think about gophers being unsociable I am reminded of the statement my neighbor made, “How can something that is so anti-social be so prolific!”

Poisoning pocket gophers very late in the fall seemed to produce good results. One November I poisoned about 40 different sites where I thought gophers were digging. I marked every site with a newspaper and made notes in a notebook where the sites were.

The following spring only three or four sites showed any active gophers. It is my theory that the gophers carried the poison to their root cellar and in turn whoever came to the root cellar to eat got poisoned.

It is my sincere hope that these tips about trapping pocket gophers are helpful to you. I thoroughly enjoyed trapping pocket gophers on many different farms. I always asked permission to trap and I wasn’t denied access by any landowners. Many landowners paid me for the gophers I trapped.

By Roger Engstrom (Special to the Tribune)