January 26, 2023
By Scott Haugen
With a fawn decoy next to an electronic speaker, I settled into cover 50 yards downwind. The decoy was on a semi-open hillside at the intersection of four game trails that emerged from timber. A cougar I'd been catching on game cameras traveled each trail. Seconds after sending a fawn distress call on the remote, a cry rang out to my right. I knew what it was, and soon a gray fox came sprinting in, followed by another, then a third.
All three foxes yipped and barked at the decoy, then left. The shot would have been easy, but I was holding out for a lion. A few minutes later, a coyote came in, which I passed on. After an hour of calling, no cougar showed. I returned to the area the following morning and called in two more gray foxes and a bobcat. The cat was too good to pass up. While coyotes are often the target species when predator hunting the West, you never know what might come to a call. One of the biggest thrills is that a bobcat, gray fox, red fox, cougar, badger or even a bear, can show up at any moment.
When multiple gray foxes, a coyote and a bobcat came into my sets intended for a cougar, I wasn't surprised. What did surprise me was that more coyotes didn't show up. The number of trail-camera shots I had of all these predators, especially coyotes, in recent weeks left no guess as to what lived there. I was frustrated that the cougar never showed, despite seven straight days of calling.
Trail cameras play a big role in determining where and how I hunt predators. They reveal what predator species lurk in an area, when they move and what direction they're heading, and they provide an idea of how many animals are out there. Trail cams are your eyes in the woods and deliver valued information that helps establish a mindset to target multiple predator species at once, not just coyotes. I hang cameras on fence lines, game trails, secondary logging roads and the corners and edges of farm fields.
I run my cams on video mode. What you learn by watching the behavior of predators, and hearing what goes on out of frame, will greatly influence how you hunt an area since video with sound reveals much more than a string of still images. I hang cameras lower for predators than I do for big game, and often position them on fallen trees that create paths of travel. Supplement the intel you glean from cameras by also searching for sign. When traveling roads and trails, look for tracks and droppings from predators. Look for fur on fence posts, on trees near trails and where trails cross under barbed wire fencing. Take note of well-worn trails, as predators are creatures of habit.
GO IN PREPARED
While coyotes are the cornerstone predators of the West, many other species coexist in the same habitats. By being aware of the habitats of predators such as bobcats, foxes, badgers, cougars and even bears, and preparing, setting up and calling based on what you know is out there, you'll be on the way to expanding your predator-hunting experience.
When setting up to call coyotes, we usually do so in open, elevated terrain where we can see them approaching from a long way off. But if you know gray foxes, bobcats and cougars are around, and want to target all of them at once, move your setup into cover. Old logging roads closed to vehicle traffic, game trails, thinned habitats and even the edges of logged units and meadows are places to focus calling efforts if you're looking to bring in a mix of predators.
If you want to call red foxes or badgers, do so on the fringe of brushy habitat, as well as in open terrain like sage brush flats and agricultural fields. Red foxes and badgers often occupy more open habitat than cats and gray foxes, but not always. Red, cross and silver foxes thrive in river bottoms and riparian zones, too.
On a recent coyote hunt, I called into a dry gully amid a high-desert setting west of the Rockies. In less than two minutes, three coyotes came sprinting in. Only two left. I kept calling, and a few minutes later a gray fox came slinking in. Then 25 minutes after that, a bobcat. Three species in one set, all responding to jack rabbit distress sounds.
When targeting multiple predators in one spot, be prepared to sit. While coyotes and gray foxes often approach within the first two minutes, cats and bears can take an hour or more.
If you're hunting coyotes, bobcats and gray foxes in sagebrush country and you want a badger, a change might be necessary. Badgers are the one predator I've had to specialize my approach with when calling in areas where multiple predators thrive. If I can see a badger, I'll try to get within 100 yards before calling. I'll often start with rodent distress sounds. If that doesn't work, I'll move to soft cottontail and jackrabbit sounds. I don't call too loudly, as I don't want to scare them off.
Badgers are continually moving, digging and sniffing, and it can sometimes take them a while to hear your sounds. If you're confident a badger can hear you but isn't coming out of cover, try switching to bird distress sounds, which can work when nothing else will.
SOUNDS AND SHOTS
Not all predators approach calls in the same manner, but they will respond to the same sounds. My good friend Brandon Ayres of Arrowhead Outfitters is a noted big-game guide in the Pacific Northwest who loves predator hunting. He's called in every species of predator where he hunts.
"I like mimicking the food sources in the area I'm hunting, and mixing them up," Ayres says. "We've had good luck with every sound over the years, from all kinds of rabbit distress sounds, fawn distress calls, even rodent sounds."
I'm a firm believer in having a range of bird distress sounds at your disposal. I've used bird sounds to coax in coyotes, badgers, bobcats, raccoons and black bears. I like using open-reed mouth calls for this, as they allow for a great variety of sounds to be generated. I also like electronic calls, as some sets can grow long. Mixed-bag predator success simply comes down to being within earshot, then offering them a sound they can't refuse.
"I like using mouth calls," says Ayres. "I have better control of the sounds, and I think it brings in more predators than the electronic calls I've used. I do use electronic calls, I just don't place them very far when calling in places where bobcats and cougars are. Cats can hang back in the brush before making a move, and I want to be able to see them."
When calling in brushy country, many predator hunters carry both a rifle and a shotgun. Having the rifle set in shooting sticks and the shotgun by your side is a great approach. If you catch movement of a nearby predator in brush, grab the shotgun. Often, when hunting where a mix of predators live, you never know what will come in. Do your homework, cover country, and don't be afraid to tuck tight into cover before calling, especially if seeking cats and gray foxes. Be sure to check furbearer regulations in states you'll be hunting and have the proper license and tags.
Western predator habitat is big, but don't let that intimidate you. Find habitats that are home to multiple predator species, offer up a range of prey sounds and cover ground. With so much land to hunt and so many places for a range of predators to be, taking your sounds to where they live will find you bringing home more than just coyotes.
Add a variety of sounds to your bag of tricks.
When hunting a mix of predators, having both an electronic call and mouth calls is important. I use many different electronic calls, but I like the remote-operated Mojo Triple Threat E-Caller ($240; mojooutdoors.com). In addition to the 80 high-quality sounds that are included, you can customize it with your own. I like how the tripod legs get the movable decoy up where predators can see it.
For mouth calls, I’m a fan of bite-down, open-reed calls, as they allow for a range of sounds, from fawn distress to rabbits to birds. I’m loving the new Slayer Calf External Call ($26; slayercalls.com). Though it's designed for elk, it reaches a good volume for calling predators in expansive habitats and thick forests alike. I also like Slayer’s line of diaphragm calls.