March 18, 2022
By M.D. Johnson
I remember my first predator call well. Coyotes were still a novelty in my native northeastern Ohio back in the 1970s, but we had plenty of foxes—grays and reds both—and it was these crafty furbearers my dad and I targeted.
This was before MP3 this and Bluetooth that. Before compact discs, even. The unit itself was of my father’s design. It began with an old cardboard cigar box fitted with an 8-ohm speaker that, if memory serves, Dad pulled from the door panel of a 1965 Ford 500. Twenty-five feet of red-and-white speaker wire and a male jack connected our speaker to the sound system, an old portable, battery-powered Panasonic five-button cassette player. A Burnham Brothers cottontail-in-distress tape—adult on Side A, young bunny on the flip side—rounded out the high-tech outfit.
It was perhaps a little hokey, but dozens upon dozens of foxes were taken in front of that little cigar box, and not a few overly curious raccoons. In time, the cassette deck gave way to modern contraptions. Convenient? Without question. Effective? Absolutely. But, to tell you the truth, these 21st-century systems don’t work any better than the Old Man’s jury-rigged cassette deck or the collection of mouth calls that have hung around my neck for decades.
Which brings us around to this minimalist approach for duping today’s often well-educated furbearers. Simplicity, it seems, often has an advantage over the more complicated. Mouth calls that allow for inflection. Do-it-yourself decoys that coyotes haven’t seen—and avoided—a dozen times. A return to the basics of watching the wind, a stealthy approach, and, when the opportunity finally presents itself, being able to capitalize with a firearm of choice. Some may call that "old-school," but when it comes to fooling today’s cagy canines, old-school never really got old.
Calls and Calling
Today’s electronic calls are small, lightweight and incredibly rugged. Power sources are typically rechargeable and, unlike traditional batteries, have a much longer lifespan. Most calls are wireless and can be run quietly and almost without movement. Take the Triple Threat digital caller from Mojo Outdoors. The remote can be used up to 300 feet away from the unit, which itself features 80 field-proven sounds, any of which can be blared at up to 120 decibels. And did I mention the built-in motion decoy?
However, these modern units aren’t without their drawbacks. Electronics are bulky and, without exception, weigh considerably more than a simple mouth call. Not to pick on it, but the Triple Threat tips the scales at 8 pounds, while my four mouth calls are a feather-light 6.9 ounces combined.
Too, electronics require set-up time—placement, concealment, decoy preparation and remote readiness. Conversely, a mouth call can be put into operation almost instantly. Sit down, get your gun up, wrap your hand around the call and bring it to your lips. My mouth calls require no batteries, aren’t affected by cold or moisture (if I maintain them as I should) and, of course, cost considerably less than modern digital callers. To be honest, there is no right or wrong when it comes to predator callers; rather, it’s a matter of personal preference. I enjoy playing a very active role in the calling part of the hunting equation. As such, I opt for mouth calls. But not all mouth calls, or the sounds they make, are the same.
- Closed-Reed Calls: These are easy to use, though some callers contend that closed-reed calls aren’t as versatile as open-reed versions. Here, the reed is enclosed within the body of the call, a design that helps keep the sound assembly cleaner.
- Open-Reed: If you’ve ever held a blade of grass between your thumbs and made a high-pitched whistling sound, you’ve essentially operated an open-reed call. Downward pressure on the reed with lips and/or teeth produces the different pitches, while air pressure creates the sounds. This is a versatile call, but with a steeper learning curve than the closed-reed (aka blow-through) design.
- Prey Sounds: Predators like coyotes, foxes and racoons are driven, to a large extent, by their bellies. That is, if it sounds like food, especially an easy (injured) meal, a predator will often investigate. Therefore, many predator calls produce the sounds made by an injured cottontail rabbit, bird or other small animal.
- Curiosity Sounds: One of the most effective vocalizations we used growing up was that of a frightened gray fox pup. The screams of a flock of crows, too, can lend to the aural illusion you’re trying to create. Crows often gather at a food source like a deer carcass, and both canine and feline predators know this. "Paint the complete picture," an old-timer once told me when I asked him about calling foxes and coyotes. Crows around a carcass can do just that.
- Territorial Sounds: Here, we’re speaking of coyote howls and, perhaps to a lesser extent, fox yips and growls. Territorial howls can prove to be a Catch-22. When they work, they work extraordinarily well, bringing aggressive ’yotes from quite a distance. However, being too emphatic in your howling can work against you when dealing with subordinate animals. Coyote vocalizations are many—there are territorial howls, challenge howls, receptive breeding howls, whines, yelps, low-key growls and barks. It’s best to know what you’re saying before you say it, especially when it comes to wise coyotes.
It’s difficult to make a blanket statement in terms of predator calling, as every situation is different. Are you working unpressured animals in farm country? Is your hunt on the edge of suburbia where human noise is an everyday thing? Are you targeting bobcats? Gray foxes? What’s the weather? Warm? Rainy? Cold? Snowy? All are variables in the big picture, and the very best predator hunters and callers consider each one.
- Volume: Start low and soft and gradually build volume as your calling progresses. Canines and cats have sensitive hearing; use too much volume at too close a distance, and you’ll put your target on edge. “He’s not going to want to tackle a 500-pound rabbit,” my father would caution me when my youthful enthusiasm would get the best of my 15-year-old lungs. And never underestimate the drawing power of a low-volume squeak. Think deer mouse or chipmunk and you’ll be on the right track.
- The Cone of Sound: Think of the sounds you’re directing downrange as forming a cone of sound. Often, a predator will work into that cone to take full advantage of its hearing and to pinpoint the location of its next meal or adversary before it commits. With that in mind, is your cone directed in such a way as to afford the best possible shooting opportunity if and when it comes?
- Dogs vs. Cats: It’s been my experience that a canine predator will often approach a call more quickly than a bobcat. Instead, a cat will walk silently, sit, watch and listen as it calculates its next move. Perhaps it’s a matter of aggression—’yotes and foxes want to get there first before another critter steals its meal.
Whatever the reason, I’ve experienced this behavior enough times over 40 years to believe there’s something to it. What’s it mean for the caller? Patience, especially if bobcats are the intended target. Give a gray fox 30 minutes; give a cat an hour. And then another 15 minutes.
Guns and Ammunition
I won’t say that long-range centerfire rifles don’t have their place in eastern predator hunting. They most certainly do. However, growing up in northeastern Ohio, the places where I could safely use my .243 Winchester were far fewer than those where a pump or semi-auto shotgun was the wiser choice due to factors like suburban sprawl, numerous roadways and lots of people around. Plus, while we occasionally hunted during the day, most of our calling was done after dark. As such, our shots were close simply due to limited visibility. Today, with the advent of rail-mounted lights capable of reaching out to 400 yards or more, lighting is no longer an issue, though population density certainly is.
My go-to predator firearms are hardly the tricked-out guns adorned with countless doodads that are currently in vogue. In fact, the shotguns I use for predators are the same ones I’ve used for years on ducks and geese. The first is a 1966 Mossberg 500 pump 3-inch 12-gauge fitted with an old-school Poly-Choke screwed down to extra-full. The second is a 1988 Remington 11-87 semi-automatic, also a 3-inch 12-gauge, with a full choke tube. Neither gun has aftermarket sights—just the single OEM front bead. Lighting is provided by a headlamp—formerly a 4-inch 6-volt wired white light with a red lens; now, a Lantern Lite from Predator Tactics with white and red LEDs that pulls double duty for pre-dawn waterfowl chores.
My predator ammunition is also straightforward. For short-range foxes and bobcats, 3-inch No. 2 or BB loads out of full or extra-full tubes have always gotten the job done effectively. Where allowable, I’ll use copper-plated lead due to improved penetration. For coyotes, No. 4 buckshot (41 pellets per 3-inch 12-gauge load) has been a proven performer for me. Hevi-Shot’s aptly named Dead Coyote, with its 1 1/2-ounce load containing 39 pellets of .20-inch T shot is another option. It’s a bit pricier, but will meet any non-toxic requirements that might be in place.
The Role of Woodsmanship
Without a doubt, calling and firearm selection are vital to predator hunting success, but certain factors take precedence over them.
- The Wind: I won’t suggest that a scent elimination program involving sprays and detergents and ozone machines can’t help with your predator hunting, but if you always keep the wind in mind and remember that predators are often likely to approach from downwind, you should be covered. Here’s where hunting with a buddy can truly make a difference, with one shooter watching upwind and the other downwind.
- Stealth and Concealment: This one’s as simple as they come. Get into position quietly, using the terrain as cover. Once in position, get and stay hidden. Modern digital camouflage is undoubtedly a plus for the predator hunter; however, I’m partial to a traditional stick-and-leaf patterns or, better yet, a ghillie suit that matches the foliage.
- Patience: Never forget you’re on the predator’s schedule. If you’re checking your watch or looking at your phone trying to figure out how long you’ve been at a stand, you might as well head home. Just as you do with a reluctant gobbler, give a predator time and then some.
- Dress for Success: Patience and proper dress go hand in hand. Some of the best predator hunting comes under bitter conditions, and being warm makes it easier to stay afield and remain still. To that end, excellent footwear, socks, gloves (I like sniper mittens with chemical handwarmers), watch caps, neck gaiters, base and mid-layers and a quality wool outer layer all ensure I’ll be comfortable enough to stay focused on the challenge at hand.