Over the past few years, the popularity of predator hunting has skyrocketed. In fact, manufacturers of game calls now say that orders for predator calls has risen to the level of turkey calls, which means that predator hunting as a sport has a lot of recent new fans. Since there are so many new predator-hunting converts across the country, some sage advice from recognized pros can help you raise your success rates when hunting some of the more popular predator species.
Although I’ve been hunting predators for a quarter century, I bow to the level of experience exhibited by some of the well-known, and some not-so-well-known, experts who engage in the craft. Books have been, and could be, written about each varmint species that will come to a call, but I want to focus on what I consider the three most popular predator species that are most likely to live where you hunt deer and other game.
In no particular order, coyotes, gray foxes and bobcats rank as the most popular targets for varmint hunters. Some folks reading this will ask why the red fox isn’t on the list. It does seem ironic, but I have a red fox that has lived in my back yard for the past two years. The reason that red fox takes sanctuary in a busy neighborhood just outside a major city is a case in point.
“Red fox numbers are directly proportional to the coyote population,” said noted furbearer biologist Gary Cook. “When you have a lot of coyotes, you don’t have many red foxes. The reds tend to move into urban areas when coyote numbers are high.
“On the other hand, gray foxes don’t seem to be bothered by the coyotes because they don’t typically share the same habitat.”
Successful predator hunters know there’s more to the sport than just blowing a call. Knowing a predator’s habits and habitats through scouting plays a major role in getting it in your cross hairs. For that reason, we’re going to share some insight into the three species, as well as some proven hunting tactics.
PREDATOR HUNTING 101: HABITAT & HABITS
Habitat for red foxes is the open pasture type with lots of rodents, which is the same favored by coyotes. And since coyotes are the larger competitive predator, their increase in range over the past 20 years has displaced the red fox in many of its former habitats. Coyotes have a nasty habit of chasing every red fox they can, catching it and eating it. Cook is convinced they do it just to remove the competition.
“Buffer lands with more forest, forest edge and thickets are the best gray habitat,” said Cook. “Bobcats are more forest-type animals associated with thickets, and their habitat leans more toward timber, which is similar to a gray’s habitat.”
In addition to being an experienced wildlife biologist, Cook rose through the ranks with his state’s wildlife resources agency and became the Region Manager in charge of all personnel in the western part of the state. In his spare time, the 58-year-old Cook has honed his predator-hunting skills to a razor’s edge. To give you an idea of his experience, he taught a well-know predator hunting magazine writer and editor how to call and kill his first coyotes many years ago.
COLD WEATHER HUNTING 201
“December is a dispersal period in a coyote’s yearly cycle when the younger coyotes are looking for their own home ranges,” Cook said. “Young coyotes can travel great distances looking for the right home range. Radio telemetry studies have shown that a male coyote dispersed more than 60 miles from where he was born.
“As far as hunting them goes,” Cook continued, “colder temps come into play when persimmons (and other) fruit is gone and insect numbers are down, so a coyote’s diet is restricted to red meat — things that they can catch, kill and eat. The colder it is, the more important it is for them to eat steadily, which means that in December they are more active and hunting during a 24-hour period than in the early fall. That means you are into the period when a dying rabbit call works best.”
Cook has some more advice. “Hunt longer throughout the day, because coyotes are hunting more,” he said. “During the fall, the closer to daylight and dark the better the hunting is, but in December, you can hunt all day long.”
Cook’s rule of thumb on predator hunting is this: If the coyote hears your call, he’s going to come.
“Judge how far your call is getting out,” Cook said. “In the East, with lots of timber and few open areas, your call may be going 700 to 800 yards. If the call is going 700 yards and a coyote hears your call, then it doesn’t take very long for a coyote to come to your call.
“I don’t wait very long. I seldom stay on a stand for more than seven or eight minutes. If he doesn’t come in seven or eight minutes, I assume that he wasn’t within 700 to 800 yards, so I move that far and do it again. I stay until I have saturated, with a call, the area available to hunt.
“Home ranges of a coyote can be as big as 16 square miles, which means if a coyote hasn’t shown up in an area that’s four miles wide and deep, and you’ve saturated the area with calling, then he’s probably not in the area. Your best game plan is to cover as much area as possible.
“A gray fox’s home range is relatively small,” Cook said. “You still have to go on the same assumption that if they hear you, they are going to come. You wouldn’t have to move as much if you are finding their sign.
“Grays are so easy. They come right to the call. You really want to call with a prey sound that is small. They are not going to respond to a call, like a fawn bleat, but they respond really well to bird distress or mouse distress. When a predator hears you calling, it instinctively judges the size of the prey animal from the duration of the note. If you have a long note, it mimics an animal with bigger lungs with a longer note.
“Cats don’t come to a call like a fox or coyote,” Cook explained. “Bobcats come slowly. I stay in the same spot for 30 minutes with continuous calling. Cats are very visual, too. A bobcat may start toward a call, and then sit down for 30 minutes looking for a visual stimulus.”
Decoys are good to use when hunting for bobcats, Cook revealed. “The difference between a moving decoy and a still decoy is that a cat will sit across a field waiting for something to happen, whereas one that sees a moving decoy will run across that field to the decoy.”
Gerald Stewart, head of Johnny Stewart Game Calls, echoed many of those same opinions about what best attracts coyotes in December.
“That time of the year I’m not as focused on social sounds as food-based sounds,” Stewart said. “Pups are out on their own in September and October, and social sounds work fairly well then.
“In late January, February and March, social sounds seem to work so much better. They (coyotes) become territorial when they are trying to mate. They’ve got to eat year ’round, so food-based calls will work.”
HUNTING 301: SETUPS & SCOUTING
“I pick locations to set up where I can see the best,” Cook said. “It is more important than the animal seeing me. I typically dress in full camo and sit with the sun at my back and a decoy 40 yards in front of me.”
Cook favors open-reed calls. “I call as loud as I can possibly call for 30 seconds, and then I wait a minute and a half before calling again. I do that three times” before moving.
“When an animal comes into the field, I don’t want them to pinpoint the source of the sound. They can pinpoint the sound within 10 feet if they are already in the field. I want them to key on the decoy.
“You can tell from a coyote’s body language when he sees the decoy. He immediately starts coming to the decoy. While he’s moving to the decoy I don’t say anything. If he gets confused, like going into a gully, then you might want to give him a note or two to refocus his attention.
“A coyote is going to stop, every time, about 20 yards from the decoy, apparently confused as to why the decoy isn’t running away. Then you have about a second and a half to kill the coyote. I don’t worry very much about being scented, as the velocity of my bullet generally overpowers his sense of smell,” Cook said with a grin.
Randy Anderson, a member of the Primos Game Calls staff and host of several of their “Truth” videos on predator hunting, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to calling in varmints.
“A coyote wants to smell what he’s coming to,” said Anderson. “One of the biggest mistakes hunters make is the setup and wind. I set up with a crosswind. You’ve got to set up with the wind to your advantage.
“Another mistake that many hunters make is calling too much. A coyote’s head will pop up over the knob and they’ll pick you out, turn around and run. When they smell you, they turn around and run faster than they came in. The best thing to do is put a buddy downwind.
“For a coyote, you don’t have to call too much. He’ll come for a long ways when he hears you calling.”
One of the biggest differences in Anderson’s calling technique, when compared with Cook’s, is that Anderson heavily relies on social coyote calls year ’round.
“I started howling for coyotes in the early 1970s,” Anderson said. “The first coyote that howls in the evening is like a siren. I always start with that. I’ve had bobcats come in to howls, too. I’ve even had foxes show up when blowing ki-yis.”
Another type of call that Anderson likes is what he calls the “interrogation.” “It’s a coyote greeting like, ‘Who else is out there?’ ” Anderson said. “Do three to four of them.
“You have to call in all directions, too. Howl once, and then wait 30 seconds. In a minute, do three or four. Most of the time coyotes don’t answer, but come in silently.
“I don’t call where it’s going to educate them,” he advised. “Most of the time they come in silent, probably 85 percent. For a beginner, just howl, and then go to a distress call.
“The first few years I was coyote hunting I would howl and then start a rabbit scream and it would work. When a lot of coyotes in my area got educated by hunters, then it became necessary to refine my techniques.”
One of the many things that Anderson has learned is that patience can be critical to killing some coyotes. “On my new video, I watched some of them come for two miles, so I learned to stay on stand longer.
“Camouflage is just like turkey hunting,” Anderson said. “I’ve seen coyotes turn around and run when they saw a reflection off my blued gun barrel. A coyote is tough to call in a second time. I’ve had ‘em come and see the flash off of my glasses, too.
“If a gray fox hears your calls, it’s going to come right away, so you don’t have to worry about calling too much. A fox will circle downwind, but you don’t have to worry about it too much.
“The biggest thing with a bobcat is that sensation I get of where did they come from. I’ve had them run in, but they usually come slowly. They don’t have much of a nose at all, so you don’t have to worry about wind direction with bobcats.”
“The most significant thing you can do to improve success is to scout the area to know coyotes live in the area,” said Stewart. “Find out if coyotes are in the area by scouting for droppings and tracks, and talk to farmers. Scouting to determine coyote density is critical, too.
“Second, you need to be able to see where you want to shoot. Power lines and woods roads are good setup spots. Just remember, they’ll follow the path of least resistance. A coyote’s fastest way to get to your setup may be to go around an obstruction.”
With the rise in popularity of predator calling, more hunters mean educated animals and harder hunting. “There are fewer places to call coyotes in virgin territory,” Stewart said. “As land is being gobbled up and split up, it’s harder and harder to find virgin coyotes that have not been called to. Since guys have probably been hammering ‘em with cottontail sounds, I’m going to use a woodpecker sound. If I want to get a territorial response, a call like the open-reed style Coyote Hooker will help change things up.”
Another call that Stewart favors is the gray fox pup distress. He favors a PC-7, which is actually sold as a rabbit distress call, to make the modified fox pup distress calls. At other times, he likes the 113A Gray Fox in Distress call.
Stewart encounters wide changes in terrain in his home state. “Variable presentation due to the terrain, foliage and wind condition is important. When there’s a downwind position the animal can come from, hunt with a buddy and place him downwind. In a lot of the thicker areas, you better take steps to mask or diminish your odor. Hunter’s Specialties makes quite a line of scent elimination products. If you are not using good techniques to minimize your odor, you are going to educate a lot of animals.
“I’ve started doing something called ‘misting’ too.”
The veteran hunter mixes various urines from fox and raccoon and sprays it into the wind on his downwind side every few minutes to distract the coyotes coming to his setup.
“It has enabled me to stop a coyote in a downwind area, in my scent cone, and kill him,” Stewart proclaimed. “I can guarantee you that in some areas where the foliage demands it, you are going to have to use scent control to have any kind of a chance to kill a coyote.”
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Put some of these proven methods to the test when hunting coyotes, grays and bobcats this season. Pretty soon you’ll learn which tactics work best to help you line up your cross hairs on these challenging animals and put their fur on your stretcher.