February 25, 2022
- Note: This article was featured in the South edition of the February issue of Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to subscribe
February coyotes are flat-out hard to fool. The inexperienced and indiscreet among them have been shot or, if they survived, are now enlightened, having learned what they have to do to eke out a living.
This month, coyotes are in the breeding mood. They’re paired up, hunting together and searching out their dens, which will be home base for the next few months.
From the Carolinas to Texas, from December through April, a coyote’s diet consists of deer, wild hogs, rabbits and mice, augmented by such delicacies as feral and less-than-feral cats, skunks, gray squirrels and cotton rats.
With their new level of late-season wariness, how do we hunt them? We go to the edges, scouting the interfaces where landscape gives way to greenscape. Where the forest meets the feedlot. Where "free range chicken" meets "wild turkey."
In January or February, female coyotes go into estrus, which is followed by a two-month gestation period. During estrus and mating, a coyote pair search out potential den sites and will scent-mark their favorite spots to announce their intentions to other coyotes. They will often reuse old dens, but if coyote numbers are high, or recent development has pushed them out of previously used den sites, they will excavate new digs.
When searching for den locations, look for changes in elevation where the soil is conducive to digging, but where it is also well-drained. A den can be in the hollowed-out base of a rotten tree, beneath a rock outcropping or expanded from a badger hole.
Usually, the den is on the side of a hill, where water intrusion isn’t a factor, with some sort of protective cover in front of it like logs, boulders or brush concealing the entrance.
Dens may extend for 10 feet underground. The male and the female dig together and often there are multiple exits. For the hunter, finding the den is a starting point, but it must be coupled with figuring out the types of habitats and environments coyotes are using during the breeding season. In urban and suburban environments, coyotes tend to hide out during the day; however, they will venture out in daylight during the pup season when there are more mouths to feed. In February, coyotes typically hunt underdeveloped areas like ditches, greenscapes, culverts and open fields. Out in the countryside, in areas dotted with small farms and timber plots, coyotes tend to hunt when there is little likelihood of human or domestic dog interaction.
This became apparent to me when I tried to call in problem coyotes on several small 10-acre farms. The coyotes would come to the call, but on their own terms, meaning in the first and last hours of light.
While it is common to call coyotes throughout the day on large tracts of unused public land, urban- and rural-interface coyotes are more likely to rest up the balance of the day and become active from dusk to dawn.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
By early March, paired-up coyotes are in the den and will remain there through the end of April and beyond while pups are reared and territories are established. This is nesting time and the den is jealously guarded.
On occasion you will hear reports of people being “attacked” by a coyote when out walking their dogs. Pay attention to these reports. The dog walker got too close to the den and the coyote showed itself. Such a report can clue you into where a potential den is located—one you may be able to hunt if in a location conducive to hunting. To elicit a similar response, bring your dog and keep it on a leash—or let it roam free if you trust it to stay in sight.
I used to hunt with a beagle that (mostly) came when called. One morning a pair of coyotes came to my calls and focused on the tri-colored hound, committing the fatal error of trying to run it off.
On the same hunt, another coyote came off the top of the hill just behind my partner, though he missed the 20-yard chip shot.
When paired-up coyotes are hunting and pause to rest, they tend to position themselves on opposite sides of small hills. To communicate, they will use interrogatory (locate) howls. The hunter can mimic this with a howl, then go quiet for a few minutes. Next, introduce a food-source sound, like that of a cottontail in distress, a rodent sound or a chicken-in-distress sound, paired with coyote growling sounds.
Additionally, I recommend staying put a bit longer this time of year. Instead of spending 15 or 20 minutes at a stand, it is better to stay longer on each set, especially when calling on or near small farm properties.
One February, I was calling on public land along a fence line next to private orchard grass fields. That day I called two coyotes on one stand, six coyotes on another and, at the last stand of the day, while perched in a tree, I called two others. I didn’t get all those coyotes (I shot three), but they kept coming, even after the first shot.
The lesson was it often pays to remain in place after a shot is fired, even after a missed shot. Remain concealed, keep calling and finish the set, because another dog just may be on its way in. Often, gun shots don’t scare coyotes as much as we think they do.
COWS AND CHICKENS
Cattle feedlots offer coyotes a ready food supply. Coyotes hang around the boneyards, eating ground squirrels, controlling the mice and watching for the carcasses of expired livestock. It is also not uncommon to see coyotes mingling among cattle in feedlots, either. During an early-season deer hunt, I had to drive through a feedlot twice a day for five days. Each time through the lot I saw coyotes lurking there. I made a mental note of that and circled back around and decoyed a couple of them within earshot of an Angus.
Poultry operations attract coyotes, too. Depending on the size, there will be numerous chickens that die and eggs that break. Many of these operations place carcasses in open holes and then top them with dirt when full. Here, coyotes will congregate looking for an easy meal. If you have access to such a place, it is well worth a close look.
HIDE, SEEK, CALL
Hunting coyotes is a tough tactical pursuit. They can and do appear out of nowhere. Many times, they do so without alerting the hunter of their approach or announcing their arrival. As such, there are several things you need to consider when setting up and calling late in the season.
Keep in mind that these coyotes have been hunted hard, so they have their eyes peeled for anything that looks suspect. When setting up to call, choose a spot offering the best concealment. This may mean sitting in front of a small tree, weedy clump or bushy fencepost to break up your silhouette. Facemasks and camo gloves are mandatory now, too. Prop the barrel of your shotgun or rifle on a boot toe, with the safety on, pointed in the direction from which coyotes will most likely approach.
When determining what calls to use, consider the primary food sources that are still available. Are there rabbits around? Deer, hogs, chickens or feral cats? All of these are easy distress sounds to replicate with just about any commercially available electronic call.
Start a call set with an interrogatory howl then stop and listen for an answer. If nothing calls back, give another howl, making it a bit louder than the first call. Keep in mind that most late-season coyotes typically won’t howl back. They will either run in to fight or, more likely, sneak in and try to run off the interloper. If a coyote does howl back, give it a fight howl or a submissive female whine.
If no coyote shows up in 4 or 5 minutes, switch to a food-source distress sound. On the edge of the suburbs, a good call choice is a feral cat distress or mating sound. Then, take a hard right turn and amplify the sound of scrapping coyotes. Use pup sounds or adult fight sounds—nothing makes a pair of denning ’yotes madder than other coyotes fighting on their home turf.
Out in farm country, wild hog sounds, or a whitetail-in-distress bawl, might be a better food-source choice. Call sets in urban and rural interfaces should last 20 to 60 minutes. Once, I used chicken sounds and shot a big coyote at dusk that waited an hour before stalking in.
If you’re hunting with a partner, one person should watch the downwind side, as coyotes often approach from there. And, more than at any other time, late-winter/early-spring call sequences should utilize coyote and/or domestic dog vocalizations.
No matter where your predator pursuits take you this year, keep in mind that late-season coyotes have been hunted hard. They are now keenly aware of any intrusions into their world. As such, you must modify your approach to hunting them while keying in on the edges.
A look at three of the hottest modern-day varmint loads
There is an ever-expanding selection of varmint-specific ammunition on the market. Here are some of the best.
Approaching .22-250 Rem. velocities in a smaller package, the .22 Nosler has 25 percent more case capacity than a .223 Rem., making the round capable of pushing a 55-grain Ballistic Tip bullet up to 3,500 fps.
An excellent round for hunting coyotes with AR-platform rifles, the .224 Valkyrie launched in the fall of 2017. One of the best loads for coyotes in this cartridge is Hornady’s Varmint Express with a polymer-tipped, 60-grain V-Max bullet. Expect a muzzle velocity of 3,300 fps.
A big advantage of the .300 BLK is the ease with which it is suppressed. One of Hornady’s Black offerings is loaded with a 110-grain bullet that travels at 2,375 fps. Nosler offers a .300 BLK load with a 125-grain Ballistic Tip Varmint and a muzzle velocity of 2,250 fps.