Each year, more and more hunters extend their season while helping to preserve wild game populations by chasing bobcats, coyotes and foxes. The west Texas sun was setting low over the mesquite trees when Scott and I got into position to start calling. Long shadows stretched across the rocky plains. We used those shadows to conceal ourselves from the eyes of any predators that might be coming to our calls as we settled down against a backdrop of catclaw and mesquite, careful not to get hooked or stabbed by an errant branch.
The real mission of our trip to Texas had been to find a whitetail buck, but I had been fortunate and tagged out early. The fading daylight offered us a narrow window of time in which to squeeze in a predator hunt, so we ditched our big rifles in favor of lighter guns. Just as last light was fading, Scott propped his rifle across his knee. I did the same, and he pressed the button on the FOXPRO call. I knew that if we were going to have any success on this hunt, things would have to happen quickly. We had no lights and perhaps 30 minutes of light remaining. But I needn’t have worried: Sometimes things happen very slowly while predator hunting, and sometimes they happen very, very fast.
The first wail from the call was still ringing fresh in my ears when a gray fox broke cover to my right. It crossed in front of me so quickly that I wasn’t prepared; he was galloping at a range of perhaps 10 yards in front of me while I sat dumbfounded. The fox must have been right under us when we started calling. It caught wind of a setup and doubled back behind a bush, vanishing almost as quickly as it had appeared. I was so busy pouting about the missed opportunity that I didn’t see a second fox crest the ridge opposite us, perhaps 100 yards away, and come spilling down into the valley. Scott didn’t miss his chance. One shot from his Ruger .17 HMR dropped the predator at a range of 30 yards.
Not all predator hunts are as action packed as our evening hunt in Texas, where we had two foxes come in and one on the ground within a minute of starting the call. I’ve spent a lot more time sitting on the cold ground, day and night, and been rewarded with nothing but a cold backside. Still, the pursuit of predators is unlike any other hunt. You’re matching wits with some of the great hunters of the animal world.
Why Hunt Predators?
There are some very important ecological reasons to spend time chasing foxes, coyotes and bobcats. For starters, these animals take a major toll on some wildlife species. Predators thrive in a variety of habitats, urban, suburban and rural, and they take a toll on other wildlife and domestic stock. An article published recently in the Journal of Wildlife Management suggested that coyotes took the highest number of fawns in the Southeast.
The coyote is a native of the American West and has only recently started populating states in the East and Northeast. This adaptable animal has even been found in Central Park in New York City. In addition to coyotes, bobcats also kill deer fawns, wild turkeys (especially hens on nests), game birds and small game. Foxes, too, target small-game species such as rabbit, squirrels and quail. Predation on species such as whitetail deer is significant but not detrimental, but other game animals—specifically quail—have more-fragile populations that require more protection. The best way to protect them? Hunt predators.
In addition to protecting wildlife populations, hunting predators also extends your hunting season. While most hunters are wrapping up their big- and small-game hunting season in January or February in anticipation of turkey season (which is still months away), predator hunters are taking advantage of the late-winter and early-spring months to get out into the woods. Aside from simply extending your hunting season, predator hunting will make you a better hunter.
Wary coyotes, foxes and bobcats will test your skills and will elude you if you make any mistakes. As one coyote-calling friend told me, “All the dumb ones are dead, Brad.”
“You’re matching wits with some of the great hunters of the animal world.”
Effective Hunting Methods
The bulk of predator hunters use calls, either mouth calls or electronics. Mouth calls are less expensive and easier to transport to the field, but electronic calls offer a variety of sounds and remote volume- and call-control capabilities. When I started hunting, I began with two simple mouth calls on a lanyard: a rabbit squeal and a mouse squeaker, two of the most effective calls for a wide variety of predators. I could control the volume level and, to some degree, direction, and having a mouth call allowed me to adjust cadence as needed. An electronic caller typically has one call frequency and tempo, but I could instantly adjust my mouth call to the conditions.
In more-open country, I would give a shrill series of loud, rapid squeals to catch the ear of predators at long range. In dense cover (where, like the fox mentioned in the opening, the predator might be on you so fast that you don’t have much time to respond) or when hunting call-shy predators, I could slow down the cadence and drop the volume. In addition, mouth calls are cheap and easy to carry. Today’s e-callers are highly sophisticated, with topnotch speakers that provide the clearest sound with no static. One of the great advantages of a remote call is that the predator won’t be drawn directly toward your position, instead focusing on the area where the speakers are emitting the noise. If you’re still and well camouflaged, there’s a good chance the predator won’t focus on you but will pay attention to the sounds coming from the speakers instead.
“Today’s e-callers are highly sophisticated … ”
In addition to calling, I sometimes use a visual attractant to draw in predators. For years, that was a thin piece of tanned rabbit fur suspended from a stick with light fishing line. If there were any type of wind at all, the patch of rabbit fur would pitch and roll, offering foxes, bobcats and coyotes something to visualize as they made their approach and activating their natural predatory instincts. Additionally, I wrapped my speakers and call box in this faux fur, as well, giving my electronics a more natural look. Predatory species have exceptionally good senses, and most of the great predators hunters I’ve met from Texas to Montana are very serious about concealment. That means camouflaging yourself, your gear and your gun; more importantly, it means using the natural terrain to help hide you from the eyes of approaching predators. The best setups offer concealment to the caller and a relatively good view of the surrounding area.
They also protect the hunter from the noses of cats, foxes and coyotes that are coming to investigate the setup before committing. Learning to identify the proper place to set up takes time and experience, and it’s probably the greatest hurdle to becoming a highly successful predator hunter.
As with any big-game hunting, scouting is key. I look for areas where predator sign is plentiful while simultaneously evaluating the surrounding areas and looking for a setup location. My favorite coyote setup is positioned atop a small hill on which a group of fallen locust trees provides cover, along with a stand of cottonwoods and willows along a river course about 200 yards away that holds plenty of dogs. The wind is in my favor, and approaching from upwind is usually easy (depending upon wind conditions). The dogs can’t circle to catch my scent without coming out in the open, and all I need is for the coyote to come to the edge of the willows and give a cursory look in my direction. There are other predator hunting methods that work, too. Baiting works in some cases, particularly for coyotes. Although I haven’t done it myself, I do know several hunters who have shot coyotes off the carcasses of dead livestock and game. Additionally, while flying over the west Texas brush country in a helicopter during a feral pig eradication mission, I spotted perhaps 100 coyotes; many of those were stationed very close to heifers with new calves. When the chopper flew over a cow with a new calf, almost invariably there was a coyote hiding in cover nearby. So livestock needn’t be dead to attract coyotes. Of course, many bobcats, coyotes and foxes are taken by chance each year, and more are taken with hounds. Nevertheless, baiting and calling remain the two most common methods.
There are many great predator guns, and these include handguns, shotguns and rifles. Revolvers chambered in hot rounds such as the .17 HMR will work for predators up close, and hunting with handguns adds a new layer of challenge and excitement.
Shotguns work well, too, and you don’t need anything especially fancy when it comes to scatterguns. Turkey guns, whether pumps, semi-autos, doubles or even single shots, work quite well, because these guns typically are covered in camp and have barrels short enough to remain maneuverable in thick cover—somewhere between 21 and 24 inches. Most turkey guns come with extra-full choke tubes, too, and that extends the effective range of your scattergun out to 40 yards or more. Rifles are the most common choice for predator hunters, and I break those rifles down into two categories—walking guns and target guns. Walking guns weigh less and have a smaller scope, as well as a lighter barrel contour that allows you to cover miles. Target guns are typically heavier, with large, beavertail forends, heavy barrels and large scopes with high magnification. These guns are great for serious long-range shooting, but they aren’t so great for all-day walks through scrubby country.
Some of the best walking bolt guns available are Ruger’s new Hawkeye Predator, Thompson/Center’s Venture Predator and Browning’s X-Bolt Predator Hunter (notice a theme?). On the AR side, check out Remington’s R25 GII and Smith & Wesson’s excellent M&P 15 PC. There are also a number of great options for dedicated long-range guns, including Weatherby’s H-BAR RC Vanguard and Mossberg’s slick new MVP LC (Light Chassis) rifle.
It’s long been known that eastern and western coyotes differ in many ways, particularly in their hunting habits and sizes. As wolf populations declined in the eastern United States and Canada, opportunistic coyotes moved in. But, thanks to DNA evidence, scientists have finally figured out what locals have believed for years: Eastern coyotes are actually part wolf.
These coyote-wolf hybrids, known as “coywolves,” exist from the far northeastern United States south to Virginia, according to genetic sampling in scat. The first wolf-coyote hybrid in the eastern United States was identified in 1919, but it is only recently that scientists have learned how prevalent wolf genes really are in eastern coyote populations. According to collected evidence, coyotes in the eastern United States average 25 percent wolf DNA. In addition, a high percentage of the coyotes tested have at least some domestic dog blood.
What does this all mean? For starters, it’s a fascinating evolution of two predator species over a short period of time. But there are behavioral differences as well: The wolf is a forest hunter, and the coyote is more prone to hunting in open country. That means the eastern coywolf may be better adapted to hunting in forests than their western cousins, and for that reason, they are more likely to be found in hardwood stands and target, on average, larger prey than their western relatives.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the May 2016 print issue of Gun World Magazine.