Feeling The Pressure
By Troy Hoepker
Beginning my trek across the field of an old familiar farm one February afternoon this last winter, I noticed that I wasn’t the only visitor the farm had recently. A pair of boot prints in the snow led right to where I was headed. One set going in, one set going back out. They were from the morning or evening before. I followed the tracks to the ¼-mile fenceline where I usually like to set up but the tracks continued across the open field ahead of me. Worried a coyote could cross their trail on its way to me, I continued onward trailing the boot prints further until I reached a disturbance in the snow where the hunter likely sat against the treeline calling for coyotes. I moved across clean powder further into the section to remove myself from the contaminated area until I ran out of open ground real estate. My only chance now was to crest over a hill and set up in the timber looking down the hill towards the riverbottom below.
It would have to do. I stood there wishing that I had the shotgun instead of my 22.250 for this change in plans that befell me and thinking that if I got a coyote, it’d now be a long drag back to the truck. My hopes were that by going part way down the hill a coyote would follow the river bottom to me or come through the timber on either side of me instead of going behind me uphill where it could wind me from above.
I began by pulling out my howler and giving out two lonesome howls making them as lonely and friendly as I could. Five minutes later I used my mouth call to give one short series of rabbit distress in hopes that it would agitate a local pair that something was eating their groceries. Then I waited ten more minutes and put the howler to my lips again giving out six female invitation howls. Then I waited.
Silence surrounded me except for the occasional barking of a squirrel in the timber off to my Southeast. All of a sudden twenty minutes in I heard, “Whoosh, Whoosh, Whoosh!”
Looking straight above me, a bald eagle was flapping its wings to gain elevation just above the top of the tree closest to me. I wondered how close he had been to me coming up from my backside like that? The encounter left me uneasy. Again the squirrel barked but I didn’t pay much mind to it since he had been doing so every once in a while. Sitting in silence again I noticed a snow-packed deer trail that came from the Southeast around the hillside and ran just below me as it traversed the next hill to the Northwest of me. Figuring that might be a place a coyote could travel, I moved my gun to cover the possible approach.
Maybe it was the eagle, maybe it was the squirrel or maybe it was the boot prints I had seen earlier, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t alone out there? It had been fifteen minutes since I had called but still, something just seemed like it was going to happen. Checking my watch I had been there for thirty minutes and normally it’d be time to leave. I zipped up my call case, not because I was ready to leave but because I wouldn’t use another call while I waited. I just looked up from doing that when there he was! A coyote coming right up that deer trail towards me in the snow! Only a coyote can do that. One second there’s nothing there and the next he’s magically coming at you like some sort of apparition that you almost have to take a second look at just to confirm that it isn’t your imagination! Thank goodness I had moved my rifle to cover the trail.
The luxury of calling timber is using the trees around you. As soon as the approaching coyote went behind a cluster of trees I moved the gun on its bipod the couple of inches that I needed. When I did, in typical coyote awareness, the coyote came to a slow stop. I leaned into the gun and bipod pushing it outward to see around the tree between us and as I did, the first half of the coyote’s head appeared; then his whole head looking right at me. I slowly kept leaning until his shoulder also filled the reticle. He stared in as if there should have been a quotation bubble above his head saying, “What …… is that?”
I have a lighter trigger pull on this rifle than I do on others and I’m always mindful of it when I’m creeping my finger in on it. This time there was no surprise at the shot. When I pulled straight through the trigger sending a 52-grain hollowpoint only 35 yards to do its deed, the coyote leapt into the air and began howling a painful cry that echoed through the timber and flooded the river bottom below with agony. As he did so he began a death spin. Like a merry-go-round, he spun over and over while crying out for what seemed like a minute. I’ve had coyotes do the death dance before but this one took the cake. Finally he collapsed into the snow and gave his last breath.
Standing over the coyote moments later I couldn’t help but think my howling had been perfect for just this subject. The lonesome howls, the short distress, and the female invites all brought this male in looking for love or companionship. He came straight towards me relaxed and without fear of running into a dominant coyote. His guard hairs weren’t up and he was expecting to see a coyote that would be welcoming to try and pair up with.
The coyote had a half-dollar sized exit wound low and behind the front shoulder from the hollowpoint at close range but I couldn’t see letting this one go to waste even though I dreaded the thought of the half-mile drag back up the hill through the snow to my truck. So I hooked him up and began the arduous journey out of there.
On the walk out, I met up with the boot prints again. I noticed no drag marks in the snow near them. No blood drip stains in the snow. Had they been successful? Likely not. But I guess I’ll never know for sure? They did however change my plans for how I was going to call this spot. Maybe for the better? Dragging my coyote out over their tracks did leave me with a smile.
Learning how to deal with coyotes that are called to, chased by hounds or pickup trucks and shot at by nearly everyone that gets an opportunity in the winter is tricky. By January, coyotes have seen combines, deer and pheasant hunters, trappers, coyote hunters, possibly coyote hounds, and maybe even had interactions with coyote callers. It’s no wonder they can become educated quickly. Some call it hunting pressure and those are all certainly forms of intrusion that a coyote feels and becomes more and more aware of with each encounter. Some chalk up failed calling attempts to this hunting pressure. I used to subscribe to that theory too, but after years of calling coyotes in Iowa I finally decided that I wasn’t going to let “pressure” be an excuse any longer while trudging back to my pickup empty handed.
Now I don’t really believe in hunting pressure as a reason to why a coyote won’t come to a call. If there is one point that I want to convey more than any other with this article it is to instill the belief that as a caller you should never settle for having the mindset that because coyotes are being pressured you can’t have consistent success calling them in. It’s just untrue. Mentally you have to out wit, outthink, and be a step ahead of coyotes knowing their tendencies. Think of it this way; in sports if it’s pouring rain during the football game you wouldn’t use the weather as an excuse for losing to your opponent if you are a competitive person would you? After all both teams have to play under the same conditions. It’s the same with calling coyotes. It’s you versus them even though they’ve been shot at or chased in their recent memory. You have to adapt and change your strategies if you want to continue to be successful. After the big ball drops to announce the new year the landscape changes, the weather changes, and human interaction goes up and with those things coyote’s tendencies change somewhat. It’s how you handle this change in their environment that leads to success or failure.
The first part of what we conceive as “pressure” is the harvest season in fall. When fields open up it leaves coyotes more vulnerable than they were before having been used to traveling almost anywhere in relative secrecy. Like any animal at that time, they delegate more of their traveling to areas where cover is leftover. It’s no different than the prey species they seek. Prey animals will also converge on whatever is left for cover once the fields open up. Both prey and predatory animals use cover for concealment, food, and water. Coyotes know where their food source is normally found so when your caller is blaring from some wide open beanfield don’t be surprised if no one answers the call. Coyotes pinpoint sound without having to see the source of it. Remember that it’s the tendency of a predator to use cover to conceal its approach to its prey. So it’s not pressure that makes them harder to bring out into the open after combining, it’s just in their DNA to naturally stay closer to cover.
Once hunters hit the fields the next stage of what we think of as “pressure” begins. Coyotes learn quickly that humans represent danger. Yet they go through their daily lives constantly seeing cars, constantly smelling where we’ve been, and constantly seeing hunters move about without harm. If coyotes vacated every section of farmland where a human had ever been there’d be hardly any coyotes left in the state. So they are used to being around human scent. If you call coyotes long enough you’ll likely encounter where a coyote has found where you sat as you called and left a calling card of defecation behind at that very spot. It doesn’t deter them from continuing to live in the same spots you hunt. The thing we need to be aware of however, is how we interact with them. Coyotes don’t reason, but do associate remembered dangers such as a bad experience at a certain location. If you’ve called a spot where you fired a shot at a coyote you called in and missed, it’s likely that coyote won’t return to that spot again for a while after hearing the same type of sound it heard before getting shot at. Instead of pressure it’s more of an education. Think of your own dog and how it will avoid an area where it’s had a bad experience. Sometimes it might avoid that spot its whole life. Coyotes remember well. Another location around the same property or within the same section will be a wiser choice the next time you hunt.
The same goes for wind. A coyote can decipher an active, present scent from an old one where you have been some hours earlier. In other words a coyote will associate danger when hitting your scent cone as you sit there much more then it will if it comes into the area long after you’ve been gone. If the wind is wrong for calling a spot, go somewhere else. Too many callers likely hunt a wrong wind when they shouldn’t or set up incorrectly leading to future call shy coyotes. It’s the mistakes we make to begin with that often times lead to future failure.
Patience is key to all aspects of late season coyote calling. Everything from how often to call, to knowing when to shoot. Education by sound will lead to call shy coyotes and so over-calling an area with too many sounds all the time will decrease your call-ups. It’s not so much pressure as it is education to a coyote. It doesn’t take them long to figure things out. Sometimes we try and will a coyote to come to us by over-calling when less is more. Tailor your coyote vocalizations to the time of year and distress sounds to the prey that’s natural in that area. Try a new sound when calling a spot for the second time. Keep it fresh and try and learn if there are any other callers calling the same spots that you are so you can mix things up if need be. There are times it’s better to hold off on shooting at a coyote in a low percentage shot situation than it is to sling lead as well. You might call a coyote that has no clue you’re there, but for whatever reason won’t commit to giving you a great shot. If the shot is no good and the coyote is none the wiser, sometimes it’s best to hold off and still have a callable coyote for later.
I’ve called coyotes to me that have been shot at just minutes before, and coyotes that were even being actively pursued by dogs. You see all kinds of crazy things after a while. But the point is that you can’t call a coyote to a place where it doesn’t feel comfortable being and this time of year, snow covered barren fields, roads where they’ve been pursued, or nearby occupied buildings are places where coyotes generally feel uneasy. Scout hard and find those areas where coyotes have access to open water during frigid temps, where they can keep warm and where food sources are near. To have the mentality that you can call up coyotes during the time of year with the most “pressure”, you have to call them to places where they are comfortable to come. Places where they think they are safe. That may take you deeper into the land you hunt and that carries with it a certain amount of risk of spooking the animal, but it can pay bigger dividends than simply attempting spots that a coyote won’t risk coming to. Those distress sounds or coyote vocals you make still peak their interest I promise. The difference in whether they respond or not is in the location the sound is coming from. Don’t let “pressure” be an excuse for failure. Adapt, overcome and earn a coyote!