PUBLIC-LAND PRIZE: COYOTE HUNTING
Learn the nuances of hunting public land using specific calling and setup techniques
By Mark Kayser
Western hunting has the variety of a high-class, Easter Sunday buffet. The menu includes pronghorn, mule deer, elk, moose, sheep, mountain goat and even adaptable whitetails. You just don’t find those offerings east of the Mississippi River. Despite this salivating offering of trophy options there’s usually a line to wait your turn at the buffet. Limited tags, license lotteries and the ever-increasing phenomena of point creep equals a long wait for the chance to savor the fare.
You’ll still be able to hunt, but some years the hunting could be leaner than others. Fortunately, there is one “all-you-can-eat” opportunity in the West: coyote hunting. Sure, coyotes thrive east to west today because of the transformation of the American landscape. Still, coyotes are an icon of the West and it’s a prize that comes with many rewards.
The obvious prize is the fact that you don’t have to wait each season or even decades to draw a license to hunt coyotes. It truly is an “all-you-can-eat” opportunity and you don’t have to pay in many cases. At most, states may make you purchase a small game license or even a predator license. No worries since these licenses are more affordable than the price of an elk or even a costly bighorn sheep tag. States like Wyoming and Montana don’t even bother you to purchase a license at all. They openly invite you to help manage coyotes under big, Western skies for free.
Nevertheless, you still have to study each state’s regulations. You may not be required to purchase a predator hunting license, but you may have to have in your possession permits or licenses to access state lands. You also likely will have to purchase licenses to hunt additional predators such as bobcats, or even mountain lions. Whether or not those extra cat expenses are worthwhile depend on your research, but in some country while using simple prey in distress sounds the odds are high of a high-money cat slipping into V-Max range.
You can’t debate the thrifty nature of a coyote hunt. It costs little for licensing and coyotes thrive across the West. Hold on. There’s even a larger reward while hunting this crafty critter. They can be found on the millions of acres of public land found across the West. If you don’t believe in that benefit digest these numbers.
The federal government owns nearly 650 million acres of land, almost 30 percent of the land area of the United States. Federally-owned and managed public lands include Bureau of Land Management, National Forests, and National Wildlife Refuges, plus others. These are lands that are held for all Americans. The National Forest Service manages 193 million acres of land throughout the United States including forests and grasslands. The BLM has authority over 270 million acres. Alaska aside, many of these federal lands reside in the West, particularly vast stretches of so-called wastelands deemed worthless in the pioneer land grabs of yesteryear.
Although federal parcels dominate the West, don’t overlook smaller parcels of state and county lands. Plus, states also are making great strides in opening additional properties to the public. Wildlife agency officials routinely negotiate payments to landowners willing to open their private properties to hunting opportunities, oftentimes with a walk-in rule in place. These properties may not consist of thousands of acres, but they can link you to other larger parcels or even adjoin a private property off limits to hunting. Remember, you can call a coyote to you unlike many species where you have to wait for them to come to you.
Just to cement this reward consider these figures from a handful of coyote destinations.
Nevada, home of Sin City, is more than 84 percent publically owned; Montana, 40 percent; Wyoming 50 percent; Utah 75 percent; Arizona 57 percent and Idaho more than 60 percent publically owned. Pick your Western state and you’ll see other figures registering north of 50 percent publically owned and much of it occupied by coyotes.
A final reason to hunt coyotes is to benefit other wildlife. You’ll never be able to kill every fawn-eating coyote, but it doesn’t hurt to keep the pressure on them. It’s not breaking news that coyotes prey on other game. They especially appreciate fawns and have a real addiction to mule deer fawns. The Mule Deer Working Group was started in 1997 by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to evaluate the health of mule deer. Coyotes definitely make the list of worrisome elements that reduces fawn recruitment.
You don’t have to knock on doors. Licenses are cheap to nonexistent. Coyotes roam most of the public land base across the West. Managing coyotes boosts big game projections. Yes, those are true rewards leading to a great hunting prize.
PUBLIC LAND POINTERS
Don’t overlook any public hunting locations for coyotes regardless of the size. That was mentioned earlier, but small parcels may connect to larger public lands, even more importantly they may adjoin large private ranches giving you openings to call coyotes across the fence. Just as important, they may be overlooked due to their small nature as the American mindset kicks in that larger is better. Some of my best coyote hunts occur on state lands less than 1,000 acres in size and oftentimes within shooting distance of a fence separating public from private land.
That’s not to say you should ignore large chunks of public. Do your research just as you would while planning for a mule deer hunt and locate property that limits off-road travel, or simply has vast roadless areas of several square miles. Search for such areas and you’ll likely find yourself alone, especially during the winter months when most hunting seasons are closed.
Another factor leaving you alone is America’s increasing love affair with the donut bulge. Data suggests that more than 64 percent of adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese. In fact, five percent are considered morbidly obese. If you’re one of the 64 percent, a long hike into public land might be too much for the extra donut weight you’re carrying. Stay fit and walk away from your coyote hunting competition.
Fitness aside, as you weigh the coyote-worthiness of any hunting property remember that coyotes have lifestyle needs just like a deer or elk. They require refuge habitat, feeding areas and water. A coyote may be less finicky than a bull elk, but without these elements an area may not have as many coyotes as you hoped.
Begin by scouting the area and also note what surrounds the tract. Is there rough country on the property or adjacent habitat that predators may be using for escape, or bedding cover? Coyote home ranges vary in the West. In areas with fewer resources their home range may exceed 10 square miles. In ideal habitat, it may be less than two square miles in size. Regardless, it means coyotes may travel through a public parcel to reach daytime escape cover on private or vice versa. Coyotes lounge in rugged hills, mountain foothills, tall grass, eroded badlands and other property that humans tend to avoid. Find a location such as this within a few miles of a reliable food source and you’ll likely discover coyotes.
What’s a good food source? Consider an area that offers great hunting. Are there open meadows or grassy areas providing mousing opportunities? Rodents rank high on the menu list of most coyotes. As the days grow shorter scout for wintering densities of wildlife nearby such as deer, elk or even waterfowl? Are there any nearby livestock operations, particularly those that may be in the process of fall or spring calving? Coyotes eat anything, but if you find an area with a high small game population it will receive more attention from nearby coyotes.
Finally, you should consider water. Coyotes require water nearly daily. They can acquire moisture through some of their meals and in cold weather snow provides hydration. The remaining months they’ll visit seeps, springs, creeks, rivers and reservoirs for water. In arid zones of the West this can also help you zero on a coyote domicile.
If you want to be alone on public lands fitness is a starting goal, but you can also plan ahead. If you believe the area could be seeing weekend-warrior hunting pressure consider hunting during the week. Take advantage of the midweek lull. Most hunters hunt the weekends for predators instead of taking off precious vacation time they save for family or big game hunts.
You also have to be adept at outthinking the public. First and foremost, beat them to the trailhead. Nothing discourages you more than arriving at a public hunting area and discovering several vehicles already ahead of you. Set your alarm for an hour earlier and be the first to arrive at the hunting area. Using advantageous winds, scent elimination products like Scent Killer and the natural darkness you can sneak into position before the rest even have coffee. Swing wide around the best cover and terrain, and put that country between you and trailhead. Coyotes naturally move away from any human hubbub at dawn and head into the backcountry. That’s where you’ll be waiting at shooting light for your first setup. You can hike farther for additional setups as the day progresses.
It also pays to scout public access areas and look for any backdoor entrances to public tracts. The vast majority of the hunting public follows the credo of using the path of least resistance. They drive to the trailhead and take the easiest trail into a public area. By taking back roads and entering public lands from far, remote corners, you’ll be less likely to bump into other hunters. You’ll also be in excellent position to intercept predators evading hunters at the main access point.
Boost your scouting potential with online assistance. Whether you do a Google-Earth flyover or utilize one of the dozens of hunting apps out there such as ScoutLook Weather, tap into this unique resource. Apps like ScoutLook Weather open up opportunities to see wind forecasts and visualize your scent dispersion through unique graphics. A helpful app should also allow you to make notes on a map marking coyote sign or even potential setup sites. Most of all it should distinguish land ownership and ScoutLook Weather’s new Property Lines feature means an all-in-one hunting app. With two taps on the interactive map users can see property lines, property sizes, landowner information, and other helpful property details for coverage in all 50 states.
COYOTE CAPERS FOR PUBLIC LAND
How coyotes react to your calls typically depends on hunting pressure. In the late summer and early fall your calls provide excellent results. New pups dispersing and establishing territories fall for the standard ruse of a dying rabbit. They’ll trot in to investigate a friendly howl too. That all begins to change as big game seasons kick off and every nimrod in a truck tries to take a shot at a fleeting coyote. It gets worse as the true predator crowd begins calling coyotes and escapees discover not every sound ends with a “Happy Meal.”
Another factor has been increasing the education of coyotes as well. Coyote hunting competitions are increasing across the landscape. The team with the most coyotes wins and that equals lots of speedy setups. That works well for coyotes that respond speedily, but some take a long time to commit, especially youngsters not looking for a fight. There’s no hard data, but when you combine the traditional 15-minute setup into a competitive strategy you likely educate a few coyotes watching from afar.
Regardless of how a coyote gets its education, by the time fur is prime most coyotes have a doctorate in evasiveness and a minor in paranoia. You need to be constantly evaluating your coyote strategy and adapting to their changing behavior.
First, vary your calls on public lands. It ensures that you don’t follow the Joneses and use the same call as the guy who hunted the parcel the previous weekend. More than likely the other hunter was using a rabbit in distress so keeping a variety of calls handy is a must and electronic callers with vast libraries of sounds make that easy. If you only use hand calls make sure you have four or more sounds at ready. Cottontail in distress, jackrabbit in distress, bawling fawn and even housecat meows work as a variety pack in calling. Woodpeckers, canine in distress, rodent squeakers and crow squalls also add variety to any setup, plus learning to howl adds to a coyote’s confidence to approach your stand.
A dilemma many callers face is whether to use a sound that doesn’t live in their zip code. Don’t worry. Coyotes don’t have a penchant for only the meals living amongst them. If the sound sends a message of a great meal or spikes curiosity, such as coyote vocalizations, coyotes may respond. Some sounds may not be on your radar screen. For instance, many use the fawn distress call, but the higher-pitched pronghorn fawn call or even prairie dog calls, both have appeal. The growing presence of wetland birds in the West such as Sandhill cranes and the exploding Canada goose population make these species go-to candidates. Peruse the options on your electronic caller. Baby porcupine sounds, piglets in distress and any squawking bird will raise a coyote eyebrow. If you hunt near ranch domiciles don’t forget that any domestic critter nearby has plate potential for coyotes. Many callers include the sounds of lambs, goats and even chickens clucking out a message of distress.
A good rule of thumb is to stick with tradition in the early season before other hunts pressure coyotes. Most young-of-the-year coyotes haven’t heard a manufactured call so if you hit this window you can lure adolescent coyotes with tried and true prey in distress calls such as cottontail in distress, jackrabbit in agony and any rodent squeaks, or bird squawks on the market. Young coyotes in particular will be eager to approach since they haven’t experienced true hunting pressure. Plus, youngsters fresh from being evicted from the den may be struggling with their hunting skills.
As hunting pressure ticks up and coyotes may have run into caller or two, consider adding confidence into your stands. Howls provide the easiest way to convey that message. My go-to is to start out most stands with a lone, friendly howl. After waiting five minutes or so for an early arrival, I switch to a bawling fawn to indicate coyotes killing a fawn. The howling tells other coyotes somebody is in their territory and the later bawling indicates someone is raiding the refrigerator. Coyotes, young or old, oftentimes lope over to check out the commotion.
As you begin to note additional predator hunting pressure you’ll have to consider new strategies. Coyotes may not be as easily fooled by their stomach and need additional incentives to show themselves. Toss in the sounds of additional confidence and crows offer one of the best boosts to a coyote’s self-esteem.
Crows infest most Western skies and they especially provide coyotes an aerial indicator of food sources when masses of crows congregate, and caw. To spark interest in wary coyotes and other predators, include crow caws, crow fights and crow squabbles. Local coyotes understand that increased chatter in these scavengers means something is up and likely there is a meal near the crow chaos.
You can begin a set with prey in distress squalls and integrate crow calls later, or simply use crow calls to lure in a nearby, curious coyote. Increasing the intensity of the crow caucus as the set continues helps set the tone that feeding has ensued. Most Western hunters are familiar with magpies and their gathering chatter has a similar effect. Today I use magpie or crows on nearly every one of my setups, and in most instances the real birds show up to fulfill the effect.
A final calling ruse to consider occurs later in the winter. February is mating season for coyotes in most locales. By incorporating the sounds of breeding and fighting you can lure in a nearby loner looking for love. If you want to send a love letter vocally you need to capitalize on the coyote estrus yip, the estrus whine and the basic howl. Estrus yips are short, simple and high pitched. Three or four advertise a female is in the area and are unmistakable to male coyotes. Follow this with what’s referred to as the estrus whine. Forget the fancy definition and imitate the whining your pooch makes when you pluck a steaming, hot bratwurst from the grill. Give it intensity and sound sultry. Wait for up to 15 minutes and it that doesn’t do the trick you can always end your setup with a howl for a long-range invite.
If you want to increase the tempo even more add in the sounds of coyotes fighting. Coyotes may race to the sounds of fighting coyotes to check for territorial invaders, to see if there is a food fight or to check if a love spat is in progress. You can add in the sounds of coyotes fighting with other canines or even other animals, but it is a sound that oftentimes produces when others go ignored.
Last fall I wrapped deer season and immediately traded deer gear for predator equipment, including my Bergara HMR rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor. My coyote hunting partner is my coyote dog Sage and on our first setup we called in group of five using howls and a bawling fawn. They held up on a distant ridge, likely from an adult in their midst, but I whispered for Sage to “get em” and she worked her antagonistic magic. One broke free to engage her and shortly the distance was whittled to less than 450 yards confirmed by my Nikon LaserForce. With a quick click, I dialed in the coyote and the Hornady ELD-X bullet planted my first coyote of the season.
You can’t measure a coyote for Boone & Crockett, but testing your hunting skills on them certainly increases your hunting success later. Plus, you may just have saved a future buck by your deed while hunting a great public-land prize.