Ending Coyotes at the End of Winter
By Troy Hoepker
Recently I was reading an interesting days-gone-by story about Ed Canfield, a pilot from Williston, North Dakota who helped pay the bills in the depression era by eradicating coyotes from present day oil boom country in the Northwestern North Dakota landscape. His methods were a bit unconventional. He’d spot coyotes from the air and his wife Dorotha would pilot their little Iowa made, 55 horsepower Kari-Keen airplane down in steep dives to within feet of the ground while Ed would shotgun coyotes out of the side of the plane as they swooped by. The Canfields became quite famous in their part of the world as well as in the aeronautics field and killing coyotes soon became a way for them to help survive the depression. The bounties paid on coyotes at the time were fairly lucrative and the Canfields were surely successful at it. They’d kill several hundred coyotes a year to help make ends meet and photos of hundreds of coyote furs laid out by their airplane became a thing of legend.
Canfield described to American Magazine in October of 1932 just how cagey a coyote could be. “There is no predicting what a coyote will do when attacked from the air. Some of them dodge for cover, if there is any; others jump into the air, snapping at the plane; some huddle up, with the apparent hope of escaping detection. It is a game of luck and wit all the way through—a game in which not infrequently the coyote outsmarts his attacker. When a coyote sees a plane overhead, the spectacle does not excite him particularly, for heretofore he has been master of every creature that flies. The coyote however, does not become alarmed until the plane is almost upon him in the first swoop. If he is shot at and not killed, it’s an even bet that he will out-maneuver his pursuer. He will use any barricade he can find, be it a big stone, haystack, bush, culvert, or bridge. Uncanny as it may seem, they all learn in a very short time that by dodging directly under the plane they escape being shot. This little trick causes us to waste more shot than any other one thing.”
Canfield’s interesting story shows just how well and how quickly a coyote can adapt to his pursuer’s methods, even one so unusual as an attack from an airplane. If you’ve ever spent much time hunting coyotes with dogs or by truck, then you’ve probably witnessed coyotes that have been chased before and how witty they are. The veterans seem to just disappear into thin air using the tricks they’ve learned to survive and evade and it’s not long in an Iowa winter before a rookie coyote becomes a veteran. They’ll head straight for culverts or brush piles to hide or run creeks and double back on their own track trying to disorient trailing hounds. The same can be said of calling coyotes. We call it an education but it’s their senses, their memory, or their inner feeling that something is wrong that may make a coyote hard to call by the time March rolls around if he’s fallen for something once before and had a bad experience.
March represents a time in a coyote’s world where several things are going on. Females are preparing to have pups within a few weeks possibly preparing a den site. The male and female will defend their territory harder than any other time of year. A coyote’s gestation period is between 58 and 63 days on average and while a vast majority of females are pregnant there is also still a slim minority of breeding age females out there that are yet to be bred. As winter turns to Spring, it’s the time of year for new birth and for fresh, easy prey from a coyote’s perspective. Depredation on livestock by coyote shows it’s largest jump during calving and lambing season. Coyotes will hang out around pastures knowing that vulnerable calves and lambs will be hitting the ground along with afterbirth. Deer fawns, and the babies of so many other wild animals mean that coyotes may not have to travel as far to scavenge for food. Coyotes by now also show an extreme shyness about being caught out in the open especially on snow-covered ground. They are well trained to remain hidden and conduct their business in the dark or areas that are deeper into Iowa’s typical sections during the daylight making them harder to get to.
Coyote callers can exploit all of those traits but it’s also a very keen animal we’re dealing with by this time of year. A caller can rely more heavily on certain sounds at this time. I am not abandoning rabbit distress by any means but I’ll be sure to include coyote vocalizations into about every set I make in late winter. The possibility of the right coyote vocalization triggering a coyote to approach is just too high. Aggressive sounds that I may rarely use in the fall are now tools in the bag for a late winter coyote such as a domain howl, challenge barks or interrogation howling if I feel that a resident pair may be calling a section home. They’ll defend a den area and any coyote too close is a threat to them. Pup distress is another sound that triggers an instinct to come take a look this time of year.
Aggressive sounds can still chase off subordinate coyotes, but as long as you have done some homework and are calling sections that you know hold coyotes on a regular basis, there is a good chance that you’re calling to coyotes that intend to have dens on some of those farms. In such a case, your aggressive calling has a decent chance of working based on the time of year alone. If you have any inclination that the ground you’re calling may hold a single coyote or the young of the last year, then more subtle sounds like female invitation howling, whines and whimpers or elongated, lonesome howling will work better. Mix in some distress sounds with either situation and you’ll have a well-rounded calling session that includes all the sounds that stimulate a response.
As far as distress sounds go, rabbit distress always has it’s place, even in late winter, but if you know that it’s entirely possible that you are not the only one calling in the area, try some other sounds. Fawn distress is a good call at this time because fawns will be hitting the ground soon and anytime a coyote hears the bawl of a baby fawn, it’ll perk up its ears. Mix in some sounds that not every caller may use as well like kitten distress or quail distress. Most e-callers have a variety of different animal or bird noises that you can interchange on your caller by plugging it into the computer. Add in some confidence sounds as well like crows, or blue jays. The realism of something dying or being attacked is increased when a coyote hears crows gathering over a scene.
I do a lot of mouth calling throughout an entire season but late winter is especially a good time to go to your own self-made sounds. If there’s even a chance someone else has been calling an area, you don’t want to be running the same sounds that they are. By mouth calling you are creating an original, one of a kind sound and distress can sound different in so many ways. I may also stay at each stand longer than I typically would in the fall or mid-winter. You may be working previously pressured coyotes and sometimes it seems that by sitting longer, you’ll have a coyote timidly commit late in the session if you are patient enough to stick it out. Good scouting goes a long way to know what time to call, what sounds to use and good locations to expend the extra effort of sitting longer.
Extra thought should also be given to your set up and especially pay mind to be able to see downwind. By now coyotes are downwind approachers. They may also be more apt to approach cautiously and keep their distance. This time of year you’ll see more coyotes that will want to get a look at something from afar before approaching closer than you will in the fall. It may be wise to choose a rifle that will shoot flat and at longer ranges. You’ll want to choose set up locations that are far away from the road. I’ll take more risks of being detected on my walk in than I would in the earlier months of the season. I want to be in an area that first and foremost makes a coyote feel comfortable and safe as he comes to my calling. That usually means getting deeper into a section by the time March rolls around. Coyotes don’t play by the rules so why should I? There are times when the risk is worth the reward and this time of year is one of them. Granted, walking deeper into a coyote’s domain requires the terrain and cover to get away with it, but in sections that offer it, remain quiet, use the cover and hills to hide yourself and always, always play the wind and you’ll find it to be a successful tactic.
The pelt of a coyote can be hit or miss this late into the season. You’ll find a lot of coyotes by now will have some form of thinning of the guard hairs between the shoulder blades on top of their back caused from rubbing. Even though they may have a prime pelt otherwise, rubbing can seriously deduct or ruin the value of the pelt once the fur buyer lays his eyes on it. Add to that the percentage of coyotes out there with some signs of mange on their body and finding an Iowa coyote with a top dollar pelt is sometimes challenging.
It was almost March three years ago when I remember taking to a field to deploy a few of these tactics for one particular hunt. Coyotes had been wreaking havoc on a friend of mine’s deer hunting earlier that fall and winter. He spoke of countless hunts interrupted or ruined by coyotes coming through at the most inopportune times. This is a place where deer hunting is king and where we get the opportunity to watch on television some of these wonderful whitetail hunts unfold. No one had permission to hunt there, so I was grateful and humbled that he thought enough of me to invite and trust me on his ground to try and kill some coyotes. Other callers hunted the area however and I knew these coyotes were used to human pressure. I scouted the ground for some good locations where I could get set up and have success. Along my travels I stumbled into a gorgeous little gold mine of coyote heaven in the form of a food plot that was enclosed on three sides by timber and CRP grass on the other side down along a creek.
I waited for a day when the wind favored my walk in to get deep within a coyote’s range where the food plot was located. There was hardly any wind to speak of and I found a comfortable spot just a few feet into the CRP grass to sit where I could see the entire food plot in front of me. A bald eagle made a majestic pass overhead after my first series followed by a murder of crows. They were interested so I played on with my mouth call as if to sound like I was literally ripping the toenails, one-by-one out of a poor bunny rabbit’s foot. I’ve never personally heard what sounds a rabbit would make when doing this but one could imagine that it would be quite unpleasantly loud. “Man something’s got to be on their way to that!” I thought to myself. I was still having that feeling and had the camera turned on ready for an arrival when the arrival showed up a little quicker than I expected. No matter how many times I do this, it’s still always unnerving to catch movement out of the corner of your eye that you instantly know is close. Real close and hunting you!
A silvery coyote came trotting down the same edge of CRP grass that I was sitting in and went right by at 15 yards, eventually stopping at 20 yards out in front of my gun barrel. She stood there feeling comfortable in her surroundings and looking around for the source of the commotion she had heard. She knew she was in the right spot. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that coyotes can’t pinpoint sound down to within a few feet. I hadn’t had a coyote get my heart beating this fast in quite some time, probably because I was trying desperately to get some pictures before she simply looked over and saw me sitting there plain as day. In fact, she was looking at me from time to time. I could see her through the viewfinder of my camera moving her eyes and not her head. Repeatedly she’d peer at me and then move her eyes elsewhere looking for the distressed rabbit, then back at me again and again. I kept clicking the shutter release and as you can see in the picture in this article, caught the last thing she would ever see on film. Me!
At that moment a strange silence followed the thunderous boom of a gunshot that befell this bold and proud coyote on her own turf. The agonizing screams of death and shrieking cries of agony that minutes earlier had blanketed over the tree tops above this sharp banked, rough-cut creek and funneled further down into the river valley below, were now gone and a tranquility of calmness swept over the ground the coyote lay on before me. What a hunt! Eyes locked in a life and death moment with Iowa’s top predator. It doesn’t get any better than that to finish out an Iowa coyote hunting season!