Hunting predators in the wide-open Western spaces is often considered a sport for the serious long-range rifle shooter. Popping a coyote with a .22-250 at 300 yards is the stuff that TV shows about predator hunting are made of. Actually, a far better choice, even for open desert, is often a shotgun. A combination of the two can be awkward to carry around, but a scoped rifle backed up by a fast-shooting scattergun is always a wise choice.
Among other things, a shotgun allows quick reaction to a hard-charging coyote. Recently, while lounging around on a Saturday morning, I watched an episode of a predator hunting show where a caller had a coyote show up right under his nose. With the scope on his high-velocity varmint rifle cranked up for an expected long shot, he couldn’t get on the coyote and shot the dirt in front of his calling spot. The surprised coyote beat a hasty retreat and lived to tell the tale. Had this hunter been using a shotgun, the story would have been different.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been surprised by a song dog that slipped in so close I could count the hairs on its face. Even in flat, open desert country, coyotes will pop into view closer than you expect. One time on a solo hunt, I spent a half-hour slipping as quietly as I could into a bend in a big, brushy wash overlooking a wide area of juniper and sage. I had both a shotgun and a scoped rifle with me. I sat the rifle on a pair of shooting sticks, cradled the shotgun in my lap and started off with a few low squeaks to attract any critter that might have been close in.
I could see easily some two hundred yards and spent at least ten minutes carefully scanning the area before letting out the first call. About ten seconds into the calls, a coyote suddenly appeared on my right side at about twenty yards. He saw me at the same time I saw him, but couldn’t outrun the load of number 4 buckshot. I rolled him at less than thirty yards going away. He must have been bedded in a little side wash, and I’d slipped right into his back door without him knowing I was there.
Quick reaction is what a shotgun does best. With just the sight bead on the barrel, or with a low power turkey scope or red dot sight, a shotgun points quickly and delivers a lethal punch out to as much as 60 yards for 10- and 12-gauge shotguns with 3- or 3 1/2-inch loads of lead or other dense shot. Personally, I shoot a 12-gauge, since the 20 and .410 gauges don’t pack the punch I think is necessary (although I have hunted with guys who used 20-gauge shotguns with good results), and the powerful but punishing 10-gauge is expensive to shoot and kicks too much for me.
Note I put an effective limit of around 60 yards on hunting coyotes with a scattergun. I have seen coyotes dumped at more than 75 yards with a load of Hevi-Shot’s aptly named “Dead Coyote” and 3-inch lead buckshot loads but, practically speaking, a coyote is a small, fast-moving target, and for me 60 yards is about all the distance at which I’m willing to take a shot.
Besides, the most fun is working a coyote or two in close. While shooting photos, I’ve had coyotes practically jump into my lap looking for that screaming rabbit. In the confusion, the coyotes almost turned themselves inside-out trying to put distance between me and them. The ability of a shotgunner to swing quickly to pick up a coyote closing at full speed (or departing even quicker, once he’s discovered you ain’t a rabbit) is what gets fur on the stretcher.
The shotgun you choose for your coyote hunting can be anything from a custom-tailored unit specifically designed and outfitted for predator hunting, or just your standard pheasant or duck gun fitted with a quality choke for shooting loads of buckshot or the equivalent. It’s even possible to get away with an expensive single-shot, break-action gun, although you give up one of the shotgun’s best properties — the quick second or third shot.
Most of the coyote hunters I’ve met go either for an autoloader or a pump. Both give you high performance with multiple rounds available for those moments when you get more than one coyote coming at full tilt to the call. I know one cranky character who uses one of those short-barreled side-by-side 12-gauge “coach guns” modeled after the sawed-off shotguns carried by stagecoach guards in the Old West. He’s killed a bunch of coyotes and bobcats — even a few cougar — with this antique-looking rig — but he’s not your average coyote hunter.
For most of us, two rounds may not be enough and a pump shotgun will fill the bill nicely. You can find any number of specialized pump shotgun setups offered by various gun manufacturers and importers. Many offer short-barreled “tactical” pump shotguns that handle easily and shoot quite well. While that long-barreled goose gun your grandfather had may shoot well out to long ranges, it swings like a tree trunk and the so-called defensive shotguns may be better for quick work.
Automatic shotguns are good coyote killers. The ability to get off a quick second shot is essential when reacting to a fast-moving target. One thing an auto has over a pump is that the gun does the work of racking in the fresh shell and you don’t loose your sight picture as easily with an auto. I’ve never been one of those who can work a pump without inadvertently pulling the sights off the critter I’m trying to hit. That said, I’ve used a standard Mossberg Model 500 pump shotgun for a couple of decades and have shot a number of coyotes with it. It’s an inexpensive gun that continues to work well, as do the majority of low-priced pump shotguns on the market today.
Check your state’s regulations. You may find that the standard three-shot capacity required for bird hunting does not apply when hunting predators, and defense guns with extended magazines may offer you all the firepower you might need with multiple coyotes. In my home state of California, you can use a magazine capacity of six shells when hunting non-game or fur-bearing animals.
Choice of ammo is up to you. I use lead shot, even though there is a large area of California in which lead shot is outlawed. I just don’t hunt that part of the state. Some prefer 00 buckshot, but I like the slightly smaller #4 buck for coyotes. They are large enough pellets to kill cleanly and small enough not to tear up the pelt. The extra number of pellets in a shell is also better. In steel or tungsten shot, you’ll have to experiment a bit to find what will work for you.
The longer 3- and 3 1/2-inch shells hold more shot and reach out farther. That said, I’ve hunted a lot of desert dogs with 2 3/4-inch buckshot loads and never felt under-gunned. I should say, however, I’m not prone to taking long-range shots with this load. I prefer to let them get as close as possible.
When considering a
shotgun for predator hunting, think seriously about getting one with a synthetic stock. Fancy, checkered walnut looks great on a quail gun, or a trap gun, but coyote hunting is a rough, dirty, and bumpy business. Your shotgun will get dinged, and synthetic stocks ding less than wood. Also, a synthetic stock with a good camo pattern like the many models used for turkey hunting is better for the task.
Add a sling to your shotgun. While this is not something you see on most quail hunter’s guns, a sling really adds to the comfort of carrying a shotgun (especially if you are also toting an electronic call, decoy, shooting sticks, varmint rifle, etc.). I don’t know about you, but my pump starts out weighing around seven pounds as equipped for coyote hunting, but by the time I get back to the truck it weighs at least a ton. A sling helps.
Sights are another thing you need to think about. I’ve used most types, from low-power scopes intended for turkey hunting to ghost ring sights to zero-power red dot sights, and even the original bead front sight. All work, and you need to try a few to see what works best for your hunting conditions. Whatever you choose, make it a sight that gets you on the target quickly. You won’t have time to zero in on a small target like a turkey’s head. Instead, you will be trying to put a lot of shot into a dog-sized target that may be as far away as 60-70 yards or as close as the end of your barrel, and moving fast. You are far more likely to shoot at a running or trotting target than a coyote posed like a photograph.
Another item of shotgun coyote hunting equipment that is a very good idea is a decoy. Since shotgun hunting is a close-in affair, it helps if the critter is looking at a “rabbit” instead of you. It also is a great help to use a remotely activated and controlled predator call you can place at the same spot as the decoy. Again, this gets the predator’s attention and keeps him from seeing any movements you might make trying to get the shotgun into action.
I was hunting with two friends last year using a remote call. We were stretched out in a rough line about twenty yards apart on the side of a hill where we had good visibility for perhaps a hundred yards to our front and sides. I was on the extreme left, with one hunter in the middle and the guy with the call on the right. About thirty seconds into the first call sequence, a big reddish coyote popped up out of a gully on my left side and started trotting from my left to my right. His attention was focused on the call instead of looking around.
I was out of position, with the muzzle of my shotgun at right angles to his position. He was only about fifteen yards in front of me, and was a perfect side-on shot. Despite this near-perfect setup, the moment I moved, he saw me out of the corner of his eye and went into overdrive. I shot right behind him — twice. Still, had we not been using the remote call, he would have seen me as soon as he crested the side of the gully.
Another time and place, and almost the exact thing happened again. This time I was hunting with a Department of Agriculture predator hunting specialist. We were using an electronic call, but not a remotely operated one. We were set up in perfect desert shotgun country — an open space where we could see about 30 yards in a otherwise dense “forest” of scruffy desert juniper trees next to a sheep corral.
After about a minute of calling, I detected a movement on my extreme left. It was a coyote that had sneaked in, detected us, and was already leaving the area. I swung the shotgun quickly and the coyote disappeared in a cloud of dust kicked up by a charge of No. 4 buckshot. This one didn’t get away.
California, Washington, and Oregon all allow the use of shotguns for desert predator hunting. In my neck of the desert, a large chunk of the western Mojave Desert is actually shotgun-only, and it just makes sense to carry a shotgun on your predator hunts, whether or not you also use a rifle or pistol for your coyote hunting. A good scattergun will put more pelts in the truck over a year’s time.