Fooling Western Coyotes
December 19, 2016
One might think coyotes would be doomed. It's a species that has had traps laid and poison scattered for it, and even right now has well-armed ranchers ready to pull a rifle from a pickup gun rack and dispatch it on sight. But this icon of the American West has escaped the fate of destruction that is wished on it to this very day.
Instead, it thrives. The yapping of coyote packs echoes mockingly off the buttes and sage and even the big city suburbs every night.
Coyotes are now pretty much everywhere. They adapt. They use cunning. They are in the end unconquerable. And that is why they are one of the supreme species to hunt. This is a contest of hunter and hunted in the highest degree.
It's not known how many coyotes there are, or even if their populations are headed up or down. That's because many state game agencies don't monitor them. It's partly political. Coyotes still aren't liked much by ranchers.
They are, however, enjoyed by predator callers.
In Nevada, for instance, coyotes aren't protected in any way. No hunting license is required to go after them. If you see one, it's fair game, if it is even considered that. "Varmint" is a more apt description for some.
Coyote numbers are probably headed upward, advised Nevada Department of Wildlife furbearer biologist Russell Woolstenhulme.
"This is anecdotal because we don't do any surveys, but in the last 30 years with fewer and fewer people living in a rural type of setting, they have less reason to shoot coyotes," noted Woolstenhulme. "Coyote numbers have increased. I see coyotes on a nearly daily basis, and I live in Reno."
Wyoming also has a similar legal relationship with coyotes. There are no restrictions, no limits, no seasons and no license is required to hunt coyotes. You do need a hunter safety card, however, if a rifle is used.
The Wyoming coyotes thrive.
"The regulations are super liberal in Western states," said Patrick Burke, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist at Green River. "Coyotes can sustain pretty heavy annual mortality. Some estimates have been as high as 70 percent annual mortality without too much impact on their populations."
December is a prime time for coyote hunting. The animals are hungry, and their fur is thick.
"I would expect this will be a pretty good year around here," noted Burke. "Last year there was a cottontail rabbit boom, and jackrabbits too. With voles, deer mice, bushy-tailed wood rats (pack rats), they increased in abundance. I expect it to be a good year for coyotes."
Find where that prey is located, and there will be coyotes, said Burke.
"Lots of guys will call up and ask where they will find coyotes," he advised. "Places with rabbits are places that have coyotes. That is a important food source for them."
Studying these coyote habits is part of the hunt for Patrick Carney, president of the Idaho Trappers Association and longtime coyote hunter. He spends a lot of time each winter going after coyotes. And he also gets a close look at how they live and survive in the West.
"They are eating anything they can get their lips around," said Carney. "I have seen them when it is real real cold with 6 or 8 inches of snow on the ground and there is nothing out there moving. You will find the coyotes around the cows, and you will see where they are eating the cow poop. Every pile of frozen cow poop is chewed on."
This adaptability has been key to coyotes thriving where other species falter.
"Earlier in fall they eat berries, mice, rabbits," said Carney. "They probably eat more mice and kangaroo rats and voles and that kind of stuff than anything. Then rabbits are next, and birds and cows that have died. They will get in a cornfield and eat corn. If you have a garden that is a little farther out, they will eat watermelon," he noted.
"The last things on Earth will be coyotes and cockroaches, and the coyotes will be eating the cockroaches."
The best coyote hunting time unfolds when the weather turns so harsh that the more timid are sitting by a warm fireplace listening to the snow pelt the pane glass window.
"The colder the weather and the more miserable as far as cold and snow, the quicker the coyotes will come to you," noted Carney. "The hungrier and the more they are hunting, the better. When it is cold and miserable and groceries are hard to come by it is hard for them to sit there and let a meal go by, if they think it is a meal."
Coyote calling is such a sporting hunt it is attracting more hunters. But coyotes do become educated, and quickly. They learn to shy away from mediocre callers because they suspect it is fake.
"There are a lot of people who call now," said Carney.
They try matching wits with a wild, smart coyote.
"What I try to do is find just a little bit of a knoll with some broken country," advised Carney.
Then he sneaks in and gets along the side of the higher ground. But he's careful not to be silhouetted.
"A lot of times they will lay in that broken country during the day. I like to get off the top and come partway down, and then I like to get where I can watch the country coming in to me. I lay down and call from there. I lay down on my belly with my rifle out front in front of me."
He prefers a .22-250 caliber with 52-grain hollow point. He takes coyotes out to 500 yards with it.
"You are out here on the desert," he said. "A lot of times you will get a coyote to come in and it will stand out there sideways and look at you. They may not peg you, but they are trying to figure out what is going on. Maybe they have been called before. If they are just standing out there, it is nice to be able to reach out and tap them on the shoulder."
Carney also keeps a shotgun within reach. Sometimes a coyote will sneak in undetected. Then Carney picks up the scattergun with No. 2 shot.
"If I get a coyote 20 yards away, he is not leaving," he said.
It's very important to be careful and quiet. Much of the American West is desert or dry sage landscape where if a person sits on the side of a rise or on top of a butte, a car can be heard miles away. That's how well sound travels in the dry Western air. And a coyote can hear sound far better than humans. Talking, car doors shutting, radios, all of that tips off the ultimate survivor of the wild before the calling even begins.
"Bear in mind that coyotes have heard more people out there calling," said Carney. "They have heard a lot of different calls. Most people mess up by calling or playing an electric call too loud.
"You want the wind in your face. You want to set up downwind so they are coming in to you. He will try to come in and be downwind if he can. Blend in with the country, don't skyline, and be quiet. And don't blow your call or play your electronic call way up. You will blast them out of the country. Start off quietly and ease your volume up. Raise your volume a bit at a time."
Call for 10 or 15 minutes and then move on.
For Western hunters who seek a challenge this winter, coyote hunting offers an opportunity to test your skills while pursuing one of the region's most cunning survivors.