The habits and habitat of Southern coyotes may be vastly different from their Northern and Western counterparts, but any avid predator hunter knows that a coyote is a coyote no matter where you find him. They all use their impressive array of senses, wit and instincts to survive, and after more than a century of human attempts to eradicate them, coyotes are in fact more numerous now than ever.
As the saying goes, you can fool a coyote only once. If he comes in to a bait or call and you miss him, all you’ve done is educate another coyote. He won’t make the same mistake twice!
Many folks look down on the coyote as a lowly predatory varmint, but those in the game know that the brush wolf is one of the most difficult of all animals to hunt, more challenging than deer, bear, turkeys and waterfowl combined. To beat a coyote at this game you must plan ahead, set up properly at every stop and be ready to shoot the instant your quarry comes into range. If you take chances, overlook details or act out of impatience or impulse, you will fool very few coyotes.
Coyotes are quick, intelligent and alert, but they can be mastered. Don’t underestimate these top-end predators; just learn to use their senses and insatiable appetites against them. Do it right and you won’t have any trouble collecting a few hides for the wall or dealer.
Like most predators, coyotes are forever looking for their next meal. When food is plentiful (and coyotes will eat anything), they spend their nights hunting for food and their days basking in the sun. Around sunset, coyotes spend a few minutes howling in anticipation of the hunt or to gather other members of the pack. They spend the next several hours looking for mice, birds, rabbits, deer, beavers, skunks, even dogs and cats — just about anything that is made of protein, vegetable or fruit, live or dead, is a prospect.
When food is scarce, coyotes may hunt around the clock, which is why they are often hit on highways during the day as they travel or pause to eat rotten carrion on the side of the road. Injured, ill or mange-stricken coyotes may run and hunt continuously, which only adds to their thin, rangy and diseased appearance.
Because they are always hungry, coyotes pay attention to every possible source of food, even newly-spread manure, which contains undigested seeds and vegetable matter. The list of coyote foods is endless and they are always looking for more. When the spring breeding season begins, coyotes become even more desperate for food because they may have as many as 14 pups to feed! That means a lot of foraging in competition with other coyotes, foxes, bobcats and predatory birds, and all this is good news for hunters, who can take advantage of the coyote’s bottomless stomach to bring them in close enough for a killing shot.
CALLING STRATEGIES AND TACTICS
Setting up for coyotes depends on the habitat you’re hunting and the equipment you are using. In wide-open, flat grassland, there’s not much sense in using a bow or shotgun because the odds are that much of your shooting will be at 50 yards or more. Sooner or later the coyote will run out of cover options and will stop, stand and stare at you. This is when you must take your shot because he’s not going to come any closer. In this case, a long-range varmint rifle or small caliber deer cartridge (.222 Remington, .22/250, .243 Winchester and similar calibers) will do the trick.
In river country, brush country or woodlands, a bow or shotgun (even a handgun) may be used with success. This is where your patience will be tested because a coyote coming in under cover is a stealthy dog indeed! They’ll slink from tree to tree, brush pile to blow down, stone wall to beaver dam, even creep up between crop rows (such as corn, peanuts or soybeans) and the process can take 30 minutes or more. But, as long as there is suitable cover between you the coyote will keep coming.
It’s not necessary to be able to see a long distance while coyote hunting. You need only be able to thoroughly cover the area directly downwind from you, in a path about 20 yards wide. The coyote will zig and zag as cover allows all the way up the scent trail, and he will keep coming as long as your cover scent is working and you do not make any unnecessary moves.
The coyote’s eyes and ears are its personal protection devices, but the coyote hunts primarily with its nose. No matter what it sees or hears, the coyote (and foxes) will follow the scent trail to the source no matter how far it must travel to get downwind of the subject. This is critical information for hunters, because even if you have the perfect setup and are the world’s greatest caller, you still won’t ever see a coyote if you make the mistake of facing upwind. Sure, you will call predators in to within spitting distance, but that does you no good if they show up behind you!
So, Rule No. 1 in coyote hunting: face downwind. This means you must use a cover scent because no coyote is going to come running into the scent of a human being no matter how often you wash yourself or your hunting clothes. There is nothing in the human realm that attracts coyotes, so go with the natural flow and use a realistic, local cover scent such as skunk, rabbit, fox or raccoon — anything that’s not human or patently illogical for your part of the country. If the coyote hears realistic calling but smells unfamiliar odors, those eyes and ears will be on high beam and the game will be over — you simply can not fool them with a cavalier “good enough” approach.
THE IDEAL SETUP
The best setup for coyotes gives you all the advantages. Facing downwind, you should be on high ground with some kind of cover at your back, just as if you were turkey hunting. If all you have is grass or snow to back you up, so be it. Wear clothing that matches, cover up from head to toe and sit still.
When you drop into position, get comfortable before you start calling. Have a comfortable seat, a reliable back rest and be sure all your gear and equipment is covered up. Sooner or later the coyote will spot you, but if you are set up properly, with no peripheral gear to catch his eye, he will pause and stare just long enough for you to take the shot. No coyote is going to stand there all day and admire your setup, so take your shot as soon as you know you can make it. Fidget or hesitate even once and he’s gone!
In dense cover, such as in CRP fields, river bottoms and the like, it’s possible to lure your quarry in to almost hand-shaking distance. The coyote will keep coming in as long as he can’t see his potential prey, but there is a point of no return on this. Sit still, keep your gun or bow aimed at your target and take the shot the instant you know you can make it. At that point you are at full risk to lose the animal if you take too many chances with
it, so I recommend taking the first clean, clear shot you are offered. I have played with coyotes to see how close I can get them to come in but, sooner or later, they get wise to the game and disappear — often when I’m thinking, “One more step and I’ll shoot.” That’s when they decide not to take the step — and you lose!
One of the great surprises in coyote hunting is that you don’t need to call, squeal and squall all day long to get a coyote’s attention. In fact, real prey species (rabbits, squirrels, mice, chipmunks, etc.) may make one blood-curdling scream when they are pounced on by a coyote or fox, or they my utter a short series of pitiful, warbling squeals that last a second or two. No prey species sits out there screaming its head off for hours on end — that in itself makes the coyote suspicious, and most of the incomers I’ve seen quickly vacate the scene when the calling goes on and on without a rest. It’s not natural and they won’t buy it!
Back in my wilderness homesteading days, I’d come out at night to admire the stars or have a cup of tea on the deck and, somewhere out there, a rabbit would give its last, anguished cry. It was always one short, anxiety-filled squall, and it sent shivers down my spine every time I heard it. That rabbit was some predator’s dinner, but the fight was short and not very sweet for the rabbit.
When you are ready to start hand-calling, utter three or four dramatic squeals in descending volume (loud at first, then muffled by your glove or hand). That’s it. Pick up your gun or bow, get into position to shoot and sit still. Stare down your scent line (using cotton balls set about 10 yards out on either side of your position) and wait for a coyote to arrive. Make no more noise, do not move, do not talk. In most cases a coyote will show up (whether you see him or not) within 30 minutes. Wait 20 more minutes, and then wait 20 more minutes. Your best weapon is patience, because you don’t know for sure when the coyote will come in or how far away he may be. Give him time, stay alert. . . and wait.
If nothing shows, utter a few very light squeaks using a call or simply kiss the back of your hand a few times. Don’t overdo it — one or two plaintive squeaks are all a coyote needs to zero in on your position.
Sit still, keep aiming downwind and wait another 20 minutes. If nothing shows, it’s time to move to a new spot. Even so, stand up slowly, gun or bow at the ready, and scan the area downwind thoroughly. Young coyotes can fool you with their ignorance, but if they surprise you and win, another coyote has been educated. Assume there’s a coyote out there and don’t drop your guard until it’s obvious that no one’s coming.
HIT AND RUN
None other than calling legend Murray Burnham once told me that when calling in heavy cover, it’s best to move one-half mile or so between calling sites because the terrain, density of coyotes or other elements may preclude them hearing your call. I had complained to him about not seeing any coyotes or foxes while calling in the brushy farmlands of Connecticut, but after taking his advice, I began to kill predators with regularity. I sometimes had to move a mile or more, but the technique worked to perfection.
If you set up and call without results, plan to move one-half mile or more to a new location. There may be few coyotes in your area, topography may be such that they can’t hear your calls over the distant hills, or the local coyote pack may have moved a few miles to new location for a few days.
WHEN TO HUNT
Although coyotes are active throughout the day (especially in winter when pickings are slim), the best times to call are at night (where legal) or at dawn or dusk. Be set up well before daylight and begin calling when you are legally allowed to hunt, or set up about an hour before sunset and begin calling as soon as the sun sets.
If you hear coyotes howling in the distance, don’t be afraid to howl back at them. I can voice-howl coyotes right up to the headlights, but if you are allowed to use a commercial howler, use that. When you are set up to call, howl first, getting their attention; and then call once or twice using a long-range hand-held call or electronic calling device (again, where legal). Hungry coyotes moving out at sunset in winter will come in fast, yapping and barking all the way. Most often the younger coyotes will show up first, so pick your shots. If possible, wait for the rear guard to show up, those older, smarter coyotes whose hides will be worth more. Eliminating them (particularly the dominant female) can also reduce coyote numbers in that area, at least for a short time.
When night hunting is allowed, never miss the period of the full moon. Coyotes seem to come unglued when I start howling to them at sunset, and the next hour or two can offer some hot action. Stay put, keep howling and squeaking, and be ready to pick them off as they come barreling in to investigate. I did this last year during a controlled bow hunt for deer in Georgia and had five coyotes come running in just after sunset. None offered a shot, but it was an exciting showdown nonetheless.
There is no bad time to hunt coyotes, but the odds are against you in very windy conditions, stormy weather or during heavy rains or snow falls. Be on hand the next morning, however, or certainly the next evening after the storm passes, because the coyotes will be on the move in search of food.
There is nothing like seeing your first coyote come in to your setup on your calls. The moment when you first lock eyes with him will be burned into your mind forever. Just don’t forget to shoot!