By Troy Hoepker
Only the pleasing sound of loose gravel under the tires of my ¾ ton could be heard as I slowly rolled up the lonely gravel road by one of my hunting spots. Darkness was slowly losing its struggle to grip the landscape as I stopped to glass a pair of dark shapes in the pasture of the adjacent field. “Aha, coyotes!” I thought to myself. It was that same resident pair of coyotes that I had seen on several occasions that denned way back up in the middle of this section. It was breeding season and this pair held a firm territory of at least 640 acres of almost impenetrable vastness. In past weeks I’d viewed the coyotes from a horribly taunting vantage point; broad daylight with no way to get near them where they had so wisely chosen a den site. Today, I’d be in there when light hit. Today I’d catch them by surprise. Or so I hoped!
I rolled to a stop a couple of hills away as to not put them on alarm. Quickly but methodically I gathered my gear and set out around the first big hill on my way to them. My only chance of remaining undetected across the barren pasture was to skirt my way around a couple of large hills and then use the only cover the whole farm had, a narrow strip of blue stem barely fifteen yards wide along the creek bottom to push my way further into the section to get to my ground zero calling location. Plopping down among the last remaining bits of the beard grass the coyotes were out of sight but I had almost certainly made it into the enemy’s territory undetected and with plenty of time to call this pair in before the sun would show signs of life and eventually blind my eyes over the Eastern hillside.
I began some squalling while muffling the call with my hand so that I wouldn’t blow a decibel level equivalent to a 747 at them since they were less than 3/8 of a mile away. It didn’t take long at all and I got that feeling that something was encroaching into my area. A look to my extreme left up a fence line that ran behind me presented a creature trotting along a cow trail of beaten down weeds between the fence line and the ditch. How could one of those coyotes have gotten to me that easily? I hadn’t anticipated them coming from that direction! They had to have used the hills to hide their approach to me? Regardless of how they got there, they were there and it was on! The only one I could see was now trotting away. I had to stand to get a shot above the blue stem. Eventually I found the cunning little canine again and rushed an unsteady, standing shot while holding the rifle. The coyote disappeared down into the ditch and out of sight. Quickly I scuttled back to my sitting position all the while cussing myself under my breath, hoping that I could call the coyote back in and knowing in the back of my mind that there should be a second coyote lurking around close by. I threw a call to my lips and again gave some screams, mostly muffled with my hand. Within a minute, coyote number two popped out. This one followed the script. She trotted nicely out in the pasture before me and stopped looking in just shy of a hundred yards. I was just squeezing the trigger when I noticed her begin to trot. But it was too late and the shot anchored her!
Hunting coyotes from mid January through February is full of excitement. Procreation is priority number one in a coyote’s world during that time of year. Sometimes it can be tough calling and other times it can seem easy, but one thing is certain; coyotes change their ways, and callers can take advantage of it. Mating instincts take over every part of a coyote’s existence and they’ll become more aggressive, protective and territorial. Additionally winter cold means extra hunger and all of those things combine to make a coyote callers dream season.
First let’s talk about the tough times of calling during the breeding season and why they happen. Ironically after all those reasons I just listed as to why it’s a great time of year to call, some of my longest stretches of not calling in a coyote have come at the same time. Coyotes pair up in mid-winter so you will find that reaching as many sets of ears as you did in the fall might not be as common in all areas. But when you do strike pay dirt you can call in a double or even more coyotes in one spot more often. I’ve noticed here in Iowa that the coyote’s breeding season almost resembles that of the whitetail’s rut. There’s a sort of pre-rut, and then a lockdown period. Right before a female experiences estrus, the males will aggressively follow her for the right to be her suitor. Coyotes are monogamous unlike deer but that doesn’t mean that all males aren’t out actively running hard to scent different females. The more dominant males will win the battle to breed eventually but bachelors are testing the waters. Even when a female has accepted a male to run with she still won’t let him breed her until she’s ready. She’ll reject him and turn him away with razor sharp teeth every time he tries until the time is right. Frustrated, those male suitors will seek out other females that might be receptive even outside of the territory they’ve established with their monogamous partner. They’re simply following the basic male mating principal of spreading their genes. They return to their female when she is ready.
That lockdown period when a female comes into estrus can make for some tougher calling. You won’t be able to call the male away from the female hardly at all. They are actively breeding for up to ten days or more. Transient subordinate coyotes that are still loners can still be called but they obviously only make up part of the population and anytime you’re calling to an area that is well within an established pair’s territory, you’re not going to get many transients to hear you. So that makes for some tough winter calling. That’s why using a combination of distress and coyote vocalizations can work better than anything. The distress is to trigger their hunger instinct and if you’re well within their territory, both alphas may come to the meal. If you’re not within that core area, but on the fringes, the coyote vocals can stimulate a territorial response that gets them coming. Female invite howls appeal to any male that may not be with a female at the time, and a deeper male lonesome howl could bring in a female with out a mate or a dominate male to protect his girl. Interrogation howls can work in similar ways. The more aggressive sounds can be used to really ignite a fire under the resident pair. If you’re confident that you’re in a core area that a pair lives in then aggressive sounds such as deep interrogation howls, bark howling, and domain howls can stimulate a territorial instinct to defend their area and bring them charging. Pup distress and challenge howls can work very effectively on a resident pair once the female is bred and is denning.
The pre-rut time is an excellent time to be out calling with a multitude of sounds. Although females come into heat each at their own time, a general time frame for a pre-estrus cycle is roughly from January 15th to the end of the month. That timeframe will catch a larger percentage of females right before they begin breeding. Still there will be others that are actively breeding then also, but a lower percentage. That pre-rut time is when you’ll sometimes see more coyotes out running during the day or the early morning hours. They are out scent checking and freshening up their own scent stations. Coyotes are constantly trailing each other and checking out where each other has been so they know not only territorial boundaries but also if there is a female in heat nearby. When coyotes are in a frenzy to pair up and find a mate they drop their guard a little and become more vulnerable to a myriad of sounds that you can use to your advantage as a caller. During this time it can sometimes seem that almost any sound you use can trigger a response if you’re calling to the right set of ears. Curiosity if nothing else will bring in coyotes for a look similar to the effect rattling has on smaller bucks in the pre-rut of the whitetail world so long as their natural instincts tell them everything is safe. Remember that is a time of year when coyotes are beginning to receive a lot of hunting pressure so care has to made to make sure that you’re doing everything right to not alarm a coyote of danger.
I like to do a lot of scouting at that time of year to try and help me determine exactly what is going on in each of the sections that I have permission to hunt. Such as the pair of coyotes I called up, I had witnessed them together on several occasions and knew that if I were going to get to them, I would probably have to get into their core area to have success. Simple distress sounds were all that was needed. I didn’t have the luxury of a snow for that hunt but once snow hits the ground in that timeframe it can make things easier. I’ll spend a fair amount of time glassing sections looking for activity. Even if the chances of getting what I see are slim I’ll use that information for another day like I did with those two. I’ll also pay attention when walking to and from my calling spots for scent post markings.
I’ve used the information from something as simple as yellow snow to help me figure out what is going on in a section. Coyotes have a tendency to urinate on structure of some sort. So when I’m out there hunting I’ll pay attention to the fence post that’s been dotted yellow or some other spot of similar type. Look for two sets of tracks. If you can’t decipher whether its one coyote or two then look at the scent markings. If one spot is a narrow channel or hole melted through the snow that is where the female squats and if you notice that there is a broader spray of urine dotting the snow yellow even up to a foot or more away, then that is the male raising his leg to mark the female’s spot. From there I’ll look for a pattern. It could be twenty fence posts down or 40 but along a road, a fence, a tree line or anything, you may discover those same scent markings in the snow as you walk. You now have something to go off of in possibly determining a territorial boundary. After using this method I’ve actually called in coyotes from separate directions, (from each side of the boundary markings) at the same time and watched them clash because each thought the other was intruding upon their territory.
Those two coyotes I called were a couple of weeks before February. The next spot I hit within the hour of killing one of those two was a section that I really had very little intel on other than to know that it held coyotes on a regular basis. My pre-rut calling plan was to start out with distress and give that an ample 25 minutes to work. After that I engaged in a series of coyote vocalizations that vocally mimicked the beginning and end of a coyote-to-coyote altercation. I put out a female invite to make it seem as though a coyote was at the scene of the rabbit distress I had voiced earlier. After just a few minutes, I used my howler for a deep interrogation howl almost as if I was another coyote questioning the female howler as to why she was there stealing her groceries. I then quickly switched to challenge barks and short howls as if the original female was challenging her inquirer. After waiting a short bit, I then did a series of submissive whines and whimpers to show that both coyotes were now in close proximity and that one of the coyotes was now pleading into submission. Soon after I followed the whole thing up with ki-yi’s and sharp barks to simulate a short fight and one coyote getting injured.
Not long after that series, a coyote came. I still remember him oddly standing on a downed log just to try and get a better look. He wasn’t looking for trouble. You could certainly tell that he wanted to stay wide of the area but still see what was going on. He saw a muzzle blast instead and then everything went black for him after that. Unfortunately for me he was mangy but it proved that in coyote pre-rut conditions, even when distress sounds couldn’t call him in, his desire to see what was going on with the social hierarchy of other coyotes in his area was too strong for him to bear.
I went on to use the same sequence of sounds at the next spot I hit and called yet another coyote although that one got away. That’s a rather sore subject that I don’t want to get into, but it shows just how social and curious coyotes are at that time of year. To call in 4 coyotes in 4 different spots in one morning in Iowa using two different methods; well those are results I’ll take every time, even if I only get 2 of the 4. So get out there this January when the coyotes are running and take a few of these tips with you and learn a few more of your own. You can learn more about coyote behavior during their breeding season than any other time of year.