January 27, 2022
- This article was featured in the East edition of the December-January Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to subscribe
It was a typical late-December day: clear and cold, snow on the ground, the air as still as a statue. I’d set up on the downwind edge of a 40-yard-wide lane between rows of cattails, turned on the e-caller to rabbit-in-distress, and started the fake bunny hopping and dancing next to it.
My set-up for predator hunting made it nearly impossible for anything to get downwind, but after 45 minutes of nothing I was ready to pick up and move when I caught movement off to my right. A big male coyote was homing in on the bunny. When I hit the button and gave Bugs a twitch, the dog couldn’t resist. But, instead of bunny stew, he ate a 55-grain V-Max bullet.
Coyote populations are increasing rapidly across the East. According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the most widely accepted hypothesis is that eastern coyotes are a relative newcomer, reaching the region sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. Since that time, they’ve expanded their range and numbers, finding growing suburban areas especially friendly, along with farmland and big-timber ranges.
If there are so many coyotes living in such diverse habitat throughout the East, why, then, is it so difficult to hunt them?
UNDERSTAND THE TARGET
Coyotes are smart. Really, really smart. They have a fabulous sense of smell, terrific hearing and great eyesight, along with a wariness that keeps them from traipsing about carelessly.
Unlike wolves, coyotes don’t live in packs, but instead in small family units scattered about their habitat. Territorial conflicts are common, so you cannot expect to find a pile of coyotes in one place at one time. That doesn’t mean that if you shoot a dog or three in a certain place it will never produce again. In fact, just the opposite is true. It means you’ve found preferred habitat, and sooner or later another family will move in.
In winter, coyotes will travel extensively in search of food. They may search over dozens and dozens of square miles, increasing that range when pups are born, usually in February. For the serious hunter, that means you need a lot of land to hunt. The more farms you can obtain permission to hunt to supplement public hunting opportunities, the better. Landowners that won’t grant permission for deer or upland hunting are often happy to welcome courteous sportsmen hunting the coyotes that peck away at their deer, livestock and domestic pets.
WHEN AND WHERE TO HUNT
Coyotes are best hunted near their favorite food sources. Livestock farms are ideal, and not just when the cows are calving. They’ll flip over cow pies to look for bugs, and pastures and hayfields are full of mice, rodents and songbirds coyotes love to eat. Sometimes you can even see them patrolling these areas when the sun’s up. But understand that coyotes do most of their business on the cusp of daylight—dawn and dusk—as well as at night. This is when you want to focus your efforts.
Don’t be shy about asking landowners and others if they’ve seen or heard coyotes or seen tracks and scat. You’re trying to pinpoint areas where coyotes are spending their time right now, along with potential denning areas, so you can maximize your chances. Because coyotes roam a lot, hunting the same spot day in and day out will be mostly boring and unproductive. Let your friends, landowners and others out at dawn or right at dusk—delivery people, fishermen, farmers, joggers—know that when they see, hear or somehow locate coyotes, you’d love for them to give you a quick call so you can plan to hunt that spot.
Public-land tracts can also be good places to hunt winter coyotes, with the best hunting usually found along the borders of neighboring croplands and livestock farms. It is not unusual for coyotes to spend their sleep time in the forest lands, where the chances of human intrusion are low, then head down onto the adjacent cultivated lands to hunt for rodents, rabbits, birds and even domestic animals.
EVER TRIED BAITING?
Your technique will vary depending on state regulations, but if baiting is permitted, why not? It’s not a sure thing by any means, but it’s a great way to supplement calling, and bait sites tend to keep coyotes in the area. The most effective baits are what coyotes road-killed deer carcasses (where legal), animal carcasses from farms, offal, meat scraps from butcher shops and so on.
Set up the bait site in an area away from human traffic to both keep people from being offended, but also to help encourage daytime coyote visits. Out-of-the-way field corners are great bait spots. Make sure the bait is secure, with a mesh wire over the top.
I always like to have bait in a little plastic kiddie sled, so I can move it easily over the snow and frozen ground and quickly and efficiently remove it when I’m done. Expect to haul 50 to 100 pounds of bait a week to a site to keep it going, as it will get hammered by everything from birds to domestic dogs and cats and whatever else might be living close by.
Set up a pop-up blind a couple hundred yards downwind of the bait site and be sure to be in the blind well before first light (or well before dark for evening and nighttime hunts).
WINTER CALLING STRATEGIES
This time of year, you want to imitate a coyote’s prey species—commonly rabbits but also mice, small rodents, woodpeckers and songbirds.
Successful calling begins the minute you decide where to park your truck. Keep it out of sight and far enough away from the hunt site that the sound of the engine and doors closing won’t alert nearby coyotes to your presence. No talking, either. Walk quietly to your spot at least an hour before first light for a morning hunt.
The right location is critical, too. The number-one consideration, always, is wind direction. Brushed-over gullies, hedgerow cover, river and creek banks, a clump of trees—anything to break up your outline as you set up is key. The ideal location will give you a large enough field of view that you can see dogs sneaking in and trying to use the wind and terrain to their advantage.
Bring a seat cushion so you can stay still for at least 45 minutes once you start your calling sequences. Check the wind and remember that a coyote will try to approach with the wind in his face, so that’s where you should focus your attention. If you have an e-caller with a motion decoy attached, set it up so that it is visible to the approaching coyote from as far away as is practical.
You might add a scent wick loaded with a coyote urine or coyote calling scent. Remember that even though you may run a calling sequence that lasts a while, the coyote will have the location pinpointed right from the start.
Don’t overdo the calling. Less is generally best to begin with. Run a short, 3- to 10-second dying rabbit sequence, for example, then shut up and sit tight for the next 20 to 30 minutes before trying again. No luck after that? Time to move on, but do so by staying out of sight and with minimal sound.
I didn’t start having consistent success with coyotes until I admitted a basic fact: They are smarter than I am. That’s when I began calculating each and every move before making it, and ensuring I varied my calling and set-ups so that the coyotes could not pattern me. It’s playing this chess game that makes it so rewarding when it all comes together.