By Predator Hunting Editor Judd Cooney
Most hunters believe winter is the deadliest season for coyote predation on big game. Deep snow and cold make the animals vulnerable as deer yard-up in small areas across the North and elk concentrate on their winter grounds in Western states. However, truth be told, early spring is when these animals are hardest hit by coyotes and other predators. They have survived the toughest part of the year, but their reserves are at a low ebb. Females are heavy with young and less able to outmaneuver relentless predators, critters that are fully intent on maintaining peak condition for their own whelping season.
Back in 1969, when I was a conservation officer with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, an extremely tough winter hit the mountains with early snow and sub-zero cold. The mule deer and elk moved down to the valley bottoms, and by early March, most were barely surviving. It became a killing ground for coyotes. Thank goodness there were no wolves at that time.
Every coyote, from young-of-the-year pup to alpha dog, ended that winter killing easy prey. For several years following, predation on big game and livestock was far higher throughout the region, I believe due to the simple fact that the coyotes had fine-tuned the art of killing big animals during that bad year.
I got a call one March morning from an irate rancher who had lost 20 lambs to coyotes. The department didn’t do predator control, and ADC work certainly wasn’t part of my job description. However, I didn’t let that override common sense. I agreed to try and eliminate his problem.
The next morning at daylight, I was parked on a hill overlooking the valley where the kills had taken place. I heard a couple of coyotes howling and soon spotted both of them on an adjacent ridge headed up a canyon.
I returned that evening and located them moving back down toward the ranch in the valley bottom. I didn’t make a move but spent the hour glassing the upper end of the valley, laying out a plan of attack. I returned to watch the next morning and evening, and the coyotes followed the same pattern, showing me an excellent ambush where I might be able to get both.
The following morning, before daylight, I left the pickup and hiked in a quarter-mile to set up under a clump of sagebrush overlooking an open area 100 yards below. An almost imperceptible breeze drifted into my face. It was barely light enough to shoot when I heard the pair howl and yip on the flats a quarter-mile below. I cut loose with a couple of challenge howls and got my .220 Swift settled solidly on the bipod.
Three minutes later, both coyotes broke cover 200 yards below then paused to try to locate what they assumed was an encroaching coyote. I made a couple of muffled pup distress sounds, and both of the coyotes bolted my way at top speed. I flattened the small bitch when she stopped at 50 yards, and a couple of distress yips stopped the retreating male at 100 yards, just long enough for a 52-grain Sierra hollow point to end his lamb killing.
The two days I had spent glassing and scouting the coyotes made the actual setup and calling seem easy.
The rancher offered me a fat yearling lamb, but I graciously declined. I did, however, accept an invite to hunt the ranch, and I took several good mule deer and a couple of elk along with a number of coyotes over the ensuing years.
Similar predation takes place all across the West, every spring, yet game and fish officials overlook it because of the perceived political incorrectness of anything even resembling an effective predator control program.
However, the ADC pros know the score, and many of the best have developed tactics that target killing coyotes before and during the spring fawning, calving and lambing seasons. They hunt coyotes that have seen and heard it all through the fall and winter hunting seasons, coyotes that are about as survival-oriented as they get. Combine this with the fact that coyote breeding season is also underway, and the ADC men must approach coyote calling from a different angle.
Bill Countess, of Cortez, has spent much of the last 17 years doing ADC work on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, which encompasses more than a million acres of prime coyote habitat. He says his most effective coyote control is carried out during March and April, after most of the coyotes already have been “educated” by big-game and predator hunters. By then, the coyotes are paired up and establishing territories. They aren’t roaming thither and yon and are less susceptible to the “run and gun” calling techniques that work during fall and winter hunting seasons.
Bill calls in the fall and winter, too, using standard prey species sounds, such as jackrabbit and cottontail. But come March, he switches almost exclusively to howling and stays with it throughout the spring. He uses a combination of open-reed howlers, including the Hunter’s Specialties Mac Daddy, which he rates as one of the easiest to master. Bill makes mostly female coyote sounds, challenge howls, barks and hurt coyote sounds. He also likes the FoxPro digital caller’s female chirps and estrus calls and figures these new sounds will play a big part in future ADC work.
He typically spends much more time at a stand when working to take out a specific coyote, oft times staying for more than an hour. Late-season ADC work is a game of patience, a boom and bust cycle of working previously pressured coyotes. He may blank out for several days running and then hit things just right and kill coyotes on successive stands.
During the earlier calling season, Bill packs an AR-15 .223, but when doing the late-season ADC work, he switches to a favorite .22-250 or .220 Swift. He doesn’t get many close encounters with these wary and skittish coyotes, nor does he take a lot of fast follow-up shots. One day last spring, he called in four lamb-killing coyotes and dropped three of them with three shots. The closest kill was 280 yards and the furthest 350. Those cagey coyotes just weren’t going to come any closer.
Chad Walk, an ardent coyote hunter in Virginia, changes to late-season tactics the second week of January, mixing his prey species distress calls with howls and ending most calling sessions with an interrogation howl or two. Then he waits in silence 10 more minutes before calling it quits. According to Chad, late-season coyotes in the East also take their time responding and often circle downwind before coming close.
By March, he has switched to mostly howling and starts with the invitational howl and then the challenge howl. He said this howling works great until the end of March, when the coyotes den up and stop responding altogether. During April, Chad likes to combine spring turkey hunting with opportunistic coyote calling, switching back to prey distress sounds. He’s had fair success calling Virginia coyotes during the spring using a turkey distress call.
Chad does almost all of his ADC coyote hunting at night, as it is by far the best time to con the local coyotes and also a fair number of fox.
The canines have been constantly pressured for several months during regular hunting hours and just won’t respond to any type of call during the day, whereas calling and howling in the same locales at night produces late-season kills.
Byron South does a lot of late-season ADC work on Texas ranches. At one of the ranches he hunts and traps, the owner will reduce a hunting client’s fee by $200 for each coyote killed. Needless to say, the coyotes that are left by early spring are well-versed in typical hunting and calling methods.
Byron uses lots of howling to take advantage of these coyotes’ seasonal territoriality. He has hunted most of the ranches long enough to know the coyotes’ core areas. By the late season, coyotes limit their daily movements to these smaller areas within the general denning areas. If you don’t know going in, scout first to pinpoint such areas.
When Byron is working a particular coyote or coyotes, he stays at each stand longer and uses a different technique than he might during the early season. He said the setup is the most important aspect of the late-season hunt. He wants a location with a clear view of as much of the downwind area as possible, figuring the cagey coyotes are likely to circle downwind.
He starts out screaming on an open-reed call, as loudly and agonizingly as he can, and then shuts up and waits. He may only call a couple of times over two hours. Eventually, the coyote will get curious and try to circle downwind to scent-check the source of the sound, and this gives Byron his shot. During the fall, Byron may call from 15 stands during a day of hard hunting. While culling problem coyotes in the spring, he may only get in three or four stands a day.
Spring coyote hunting requires more planning, patience, persistence and plain hunting smarts. However, when it all comes together, it is worth the extra effort.