March 21, 2022
By Scott Bestul
The moon was bright enough to cast shadows and the wind just brisk enough to feel against one cheek. The conditions had Tad Brown, a veteran caller and predator hunter—and a product development specialist for Hunter’s Specialties—feeling confident as he slipped down a field road bisecting a cut corn field. The road ended on a timbered point that was a favorite hangout for area coyotes, and Brown found a slight rise in the field and set up.
As he often does after getting in position, he let some time pass before reaching for a call. This waiting period gives any nearby coyotes or bobcats a chance to relax if they hear anything during setup. However, as it turned out, he didn’t have to wait long.
After soaking up the moonlit scenery for several minutes, Brown heard a coyote howl from the nearby timber, then go silent. He let the echoes of the howling cease, gave it a few minutes more, then interrupted the serenity with his own brief rabbit-in-distress calling series. The response was nearly immediate.
Brown heard a coyote rush through the timber, crunching leaves as it ran. Then, after the animal cleared the timber, he followed the sound of the coyote’s feet ticking corn leaves in the field. Brown could see the coyote’s dark form coming into focus as it approached and angled back toward the road—and his position.
The uber-sharp senses and incredible caution of even the hungriest coyote are legendary, however, and this song dog was no pushover. To this day, Brown doesn’t know what that coyote heard, saw or smelled, but suddenly it pumped the brakes, looked around for a second, then turned to leave. Fortunately for Brown, the animal was clearly visible and already in gun range, and he dropped it on its second step.
BETTER AFTER SUNSET
While calling to coyotes, foxes and bobcats has long been a favorite winter activity for Midwesterners, few hunt these predators at night. This is a big mistake, according to Brown. In fact, he feels nighttime can be the most productive window to hunt them, largely because human activity is almost nonexistent and predators simply feel safer when moving. He says these wary creatures will often travel down roads and cross open fields—places they’d use very cautiously in daylight, if at all—without a second thought at night.
Contrary to popular belief, Brown doesn’t think predators like coyotes are inherently nocturnal. They’ve simply adapted to be active then.
“I think before humans became such a factor in their lives, they hunted whenever they were hungry,” Brown says. “Human activity forces them to hunt when they have less chance of encountering danger. They just feel safer at night. I kind of compare coyotes to burglars; they are most active when everyone else is asleep!”
Perhaps just as important, much of their prey, like rabbits and mice, are also active at night. This only makes night hunting that much more productive.
Brad Biddle, a pro-staffer with Johnny Stewart Game Calls, agrees with Brown. He’s hunted predators since he was a boy and believes that nighttime offers much better odds to call in multiple coyotes than daylight hours. In fact, during specific times, like fawning or calving seasons, he feels night hunting might be the only way hunters find any success.
THE NIGHT LIFE
Obviously, hunting after sunset poses some challenges, chief among them the lack of light. While more and more states are legalizing the use of lights (always check your state or area’s regulations before hunting), not all allow the practice.
“We’ve only recently been able to use lights here in Missouri,” Brown says. “But I’ve been hunting at night for many years, using nothing but moonlight.”
Full-moon nights, or those with some degree of moonlight and a clear sky, offer enough light to see and kill coyotes, according to Brown. He says it gets even easier with snow or a light background, like a frost-covered field. Even gravel can make a difference in total darkness.
“Lots of the public wildlife areas I hunt have roads or parking lots covered with light-colored gravel,” Brown says. “And coyotes use those roads and parking lots all the time at night. They usually avoid them during the day, but at night they feel safe. So, these are really good spots to target on a moonlit night because you can see them coming.”
Where lights are legal, use them cautiously to avoid alerting incoming predators. Biddle tries not to shine light directly on trees or brush as a coyote is approaching. He says that while predators might not be able to see a red light, they can sometimes spot the shadow left on the ground if you’re shining it directly on a hard object. Some people have difficulty believing this, he says, but he’s seen it many times. Biddle believes in the intelligence of these animals, and he has no doubt that a predator that’s traveled that field edge hundreds of times might spot a shadow not normally there and spook.
To combat this, Brown has learned to “halo” predators with his lights to avoid spooking them. “Haloing” essentially refers to catching a coyote’s or another predator’s eyes in the outer edges of your light source. To accomplish this, Brown aims the main beam of light up at about a 30-degree angle in order to only hit the eyes and not cast shadows where the animal might see them. Once the predator is in range, he drops the light directly on it to make the kill.
Brown also recommends using your ears to help you pinpoint predators at night. As mentioned earlier, you can often hear a predatory animal—especially a coyote—running toward you in the dark. Once you quit hearing it, Brown says, it probably means it has stopped to search for the source of the sound.
“That’s when you can drop the light on it and get ready for the shot,” he says.
PICK THE SPOT
Anyone who’s hunted predators knows that how you set up is crucial to success, and this certainly applies after dark. Setup basics—playing the wind, getting in and out without alerting coyotes—are no different than during the day, but Biddle does like to start with howling spots. He says coyotes typically start their night hunts by howling, and he looks for a specific area where howling begins.
Luckily, Biddle says finding howling locations is often not difficult. Where he lives in central Kentucky, properties are usually not that large, so the first thing he does when he gets permission to hunt a spot is consult an online mapping system. He uses this to find the backside of the property and, more specifically, an area where several farms meet. Often, this is the corner farthest from a road and least accessed by people. If dense cover is present, he says it’s almost a guarantee that’s where the night’s howling will begin.
Thick cover might offer predators security, but it’s often not the best place to kill them. Biddle likes a field or opening near the thick stuff where he can see well. He also wants a tree, brushy fenceline or other backdrop to hide his silhouette.
With his setups, he often looks for any kind of high spot in a field. In his experience, that’s exactly where coyotes want to go, and he’ll make sets with a clear shooting lane to that spot.
Most of the areas Biddle hunts are fairly wooded, and with typical setups, he can’t see more than about 80 yards. He positions himself where the wind is in his face and his electronic caller is a bit off to one side. That way, even if a coyote circles downwind—which he says they usually do, even at night—the animal will still be in range for a good shot opportunity.
Brown also seeks thick cover, where prey species are most abundant and where predators feel the safest. The Missouri bobcats he hunts really like dense, cedar-covered hillsides, especially if there’s a farm or logging road going through it.
He encourages hunters to think about setups the way they would when deer hunting. Wind is crucial, and he suggests anticipating a coyote circling the call. Being mindful of your approach is equally important. If a coyote comes down the road and catches the scent of your boot track, Brown says that ’yote will back out immediately. He recommends walking off to the side of any road or clearing you think a coyote might use as an approach.
The last thing Brown adds regarding setups pertains to visibility. If sitting down to call means poor visibility, by all means stand next to a tree or fencerow instead. Brown also doesn’t hesitate to hunt predators from a shooting house or blind that he might use for deer hunting.
“You’re up off the ground and your visibility is so much better,” he says. “Plus, if you’re using an electronic caller, you can place it on the ground, and that’s exactly what the coyote is going to focus on.”
MAKE THE CALL
When selecting calls, Brown likes to mimic the most prevalent prey species in the area. In timbered areas, or spots where many deer are present, he likes a fawn-in-distress call. Many associate that call with late spring and summer, but coyotes will respond to the sound throughout the year as fawns and young-of-the-year deer are always favored prey. In CRP or grassy terrain, mice and rabbit calls are his go-tos. That said, one of his favorite and most successful calls is a jackrabbit sound, even though those don’t exist where he hunts in Missouri. So, a hungry predator can be fairly indiscriminate if it sounds like any critter is in trouble.
Brown usually starts soft on volume in case there’s something close to his initial setup. If there’s no immediate response, he amps it up after several minutes. This higher-volume calling reaches out a bit, so he’ll wait again before returning to softer calling to give a coyote time to cover a great distance.
Like Brown, Biddle also begins with short, low-volume sequences, waits a bit, then goes a little louder. However, instead of using prey distress sounds, he typically starts off howling.
Usually, he’s already setting up close to a known howling spot, so he just sneaks in there before he expects them to start howling and waits for them to go off on their own. If he hasn’t heard anything after 30 to 40 minutes, he’ll howl to kick things off.
“Coyotes are very territorial,” he says. “If they hear another dog in their area, they’re probably coming to investigate.”
While both Brown and Biddle are quick to praise night hunting, they admit there’s a learning curve. And Biddle acknowledges that he’s made many mistakes over the years, but always does his best to learn from them. He strongly believes coyotes are more vulnerable at night, but he still regards them as one of the smartest animals out there and feels every coyote he kills is a trophy.
Brown, likewise, admits there are some extra challenges to overcome with night hunting. However, he says, once a rookie night hunter starts figuring things out, there’s no question he’ll start spending more time hunting at night. The odds are just too good to ignore.
Staying out late for predators? Pack along some essentials to help.
Nighttime predator hunting is a specialized pursuit that often requires tweaks in gear. The items here will get you started.
- A light (where legal) is an obvious addition to a predator hunter’s after-dark arsenal. The GSM Outdoors Coyote Light ($429.99; coyotelight.com) is a valued part of Biddle’s kit.
- Most predator hunters tote a rifle, but both Brown and Biddle feel a shotgun is a deadly tool for hunts after dark. While Brown doesn’t think predator loads for shotguns have come as far as turkey loads have in recent years, they’re getting closer. He says with today’s modern loads, he considers any coyote or bobcat at 75 yards to be in range. Brown’s favorite predator shotgun load is Hevi-Shot’s Dead Coyote ($56.95/box of 10; hevishot.com).
- Whether using a shotgun or rifle, a scope is a must at night due to its light-gathering capability—even one with a relatively small objective lens. One good option is Leupold’s Mark 3HD 1.5–4x20mm ($499.99; leupold.com).
- If you’re looking to add to an arsenal of e-calls, or perhaps acquire your first, you won’t go wrong with models offered by Johnny Stewart Game Calls or Hunter’s Specialties. The Johnny Stewart Executioner Electronic Game Call ($149.99; hunterspec.com), in particular, is a solid all-around e-caller.