Public Land Coyotes
By Troy Hoepker
Every fall the day comes when warm temperatures give way to a cold front passing through that stokes that burning desire to hunt inside of us! You know the feeling I’m talking about? When that mercury dips for the first time under 40 or 30 degrees and you just feel it. The need to grab the gun and hit the field to scratch that insatiable itch to hunt! One late October day a few years back was one of those days and it found me headed down a dead-end, winding gravel road for an afternoon coyote hunt. Fur hadn’t primed yet but I just couldn’t resist the urge to hunt that cold front and feel the chill of autumn air on my face as I waited out a coyote that I hoped was just as excited about hunting such a day.
That twisting road took me back into a piece of public land in Southwest Iowa’s rural Union County. The road would eventually dead-end into 3-Mile Lake but I would hang a left before getting there and enter a piece of public hunting that bordered one of Iowa’s hottest fishing spots. Parking at the gate, I anxiously loaded my gear in anticipation of one of my first coyote hunts of the young fall. A quick walk over the hill and I found my spot elevated on the hillside overlooking a view that had it all. As I settled in I couldn’t help but take a moment to enjoy the spectacle of landscape in front of me. The grove of cedars to my left on the hillside; the CRP grasses endlessly climbing the smaller hills below me; the mighty oak trees on the adjacent hillside and beyond it all, the beauty of the lake off in the distance to the east reflecting the fall colors of the timber. All of it channeled into a patchy, brushy little ditch below me where I hoped to funnel a coyote to his demise.
I seemed to have the whole place to myself that afternoon and even though I knew better, it seemed like I was the only person that knew of this special little place to hunt. The first cries of agony split through the air from my custom mouth call at 6:04 p.m. By 6:45 or so it’d be too dark to see anything on this gray, murky day so I needed to reach out and grab a coyote by the ears and pull him my way. I gave another excited series and then another before five more minutes were up and then I sat the call down and told myself I wouldn’t call again for fifteen more minutes. “Trust in your sounds,” I told myself. “Give the calling a chance to work,” I thought, fighting off the urge to call again before my fifteen minutes were up. Stubbornly I waited while scanning the terrain, trying in vain to make my eyes spot the distinctive shape of a coyote making his way towards me. Finally, my fifteen minutes were up and I grabbed the call again with intentions of breaking a coyote loose from the dense shag carpet of cover before me.
Again I pierced the air, first wailing repetitive screams from the high-pitched reed on one side of the call and then sliding right into raspy bawls from the low-pitched side of the little double-reed call. Back and forth from low to high, raspy to clean cut screams, eventually finishing out by blowing straight through both reeds at the same time producing an agonizing sound of an animal being eaten alive! As I recuperated my breath I sat the call down and scanned once more. It wasn’t long and the old familiar trot of a coyote came into view around the opposite hillside. Below the oak trees and above the ditch below a coyote was in the open at a distance I wasn’t exactly sure of? If he kept coming from that location he’d get in the ditch below me and in heavier grass coming up the hill to me letting him get too close. I had to try and take him where he was!
Guessing the distance at around 175 yards, I found him in the scope and let out a quick voice howl. He stopped at full attention, eyes and ears pointed straight at me. I held the 22.250 crosshairs high on his chest under the jawline and eased into the trigger. At the crack of the shot I lost him in the scope but heard the meat thump, the sound only a bullet can make as it sinks solidly into flesh at 3,400 feet per second. As I gathered up a sight picture once more I found him desperately trying to flee up the hill in which he had came, biting downward towards his chest, unable to reach the pain he was in while awkwardly trying to run at the same time. Eventually his front legs failed him as his heart stopped and he skidded, jaw to the ground to a violent stop. I took a second to scan around for a possible second coyote and then sat back in my chair to enjoy the success coupled with such beautiful scenery that public land coyote called home!
When people think of public land hunting here in Iowa they usually think of bow hunting whitetails or following their dog through the grasslands for upland game but that same great habitat also holds predators and it can certainly be utilized for productive coyote hunting! I’ve hunted state forestlands and DNR managed lands, county conservation lands and Iowa Habitat Access Program (IHAP) lands and all types can hold great coyote hunting. As with anything else there are upsides and downsides to hunting public but when thinking about coyote hunting it, there are sometimes a few extra obstacles to consider.
I’ve found over the years that hunting public land is no different than hunting private ground in that you still need to scout it just the same as you would your neighbors field down the road. Public land presents the challenge of finding a suitable place to call from. Often times you won’t find areas of row crop, pasture or hayfields in public hunting areas. They are covered head to toe in overgrown grasses, thickets, trees and shrubbery. That makes spotting a coyote more challenging. It’s necessary to find areas to call from that either elevate yourself above the cover so you can see through it or find spots inside the property that open up a little to let you see and shoot. While there are certainly some public lands that do have some row crop available the pickings are slim to find. Studying a topography map is one way to narrow down your search for a place to call from. You can see the elevation changes and funnels of a property and sometimes even be able to identify cover that might be thin enough to hunt from. Many times I’ve located a field that I never knew existed because I saw it on the aerial view map and couldn’t see it from any road or place I had been before. After you’ve narrowed down your search then it’s time to physically see the land and those spots you’ve identified to make sure they’ll actually be conducive for calling predators.
Many public areas have rivers running through them. Once the water freezes over the ice becomes a highway for coyotes. Check the ice for tracks and don’t be afraid to follow a fresh set of tracks until they exit the ice. Instead of setting up directly on the back trail of a coyote, I like to continue on ahead of where they exited the river and then find a suitable spot to call from 100 or 150 yards farther up from where their tracks left the ice. When the ice is on late in the season is a good time to try this tactic. The other hunting seasons are done and there are less people using public lands.
Just like any privately owned land, you still have to play the wind just the same with your approach and with how you’re set up. Iowa’s parcels of public hunting aren’t like the vast expanses of public land they have out in western states, so making sure your scent never reaches a coyotes nose until it’s too late is paramount. If the wind isn’t blowing in the correct direction don’t hunt it! Too often hunters just shrug their shoulders and call it anyway when the wind isn’t right. That’s fine and dandy on land you and you alone have permission to hunt, but when it comes to public hunting ground, please do us all a favor and don’t slime it up by educating coyotes. You wouldn’t want to swim where someone else is peeing in the public pool so don’t be that hunter who is infesting the air to the coyotes that call it home.
Early fall is always a good time to use distress calls on private or public land. Public hunting lands usually hold abundant amounts of cover, which often means that they are a core area for a coyote or a family unit during the daytime. That translates into a high probability of young of the year coyotes within. A sound smorgasbord of distress sounds will entice those younger coyotes more easily and fall is the time to hit their virgin ears with it. As the season goes along you can switch to coyote vocalizations. If you fear public ground is being overcalled, coyote vocalizations at the right times can still bring a coyote in out of curiosity alone. You have to appeal to more than just their hunger. Plenty of coyotes mate and den on public land and using vocals during breeding season can trigger that territorial defense instinct or appeal to their desire to find a mate.
You never truly know exactly how much pressure a piece of public land is getting or how often coyote hunters actually use it. I like to pay attention to the vehicle traffic parked around those public areas but I can’t be there everyday to monitor it obviously. During the rut it may receive it’s most traffic or during bird season. Sometimes it may be more productive to just wait and call after those seasons have closed. Regardless, if you believe that there may be some others hunting coyotes on a certain piece it doesn’t mean that you can’t still be successful. Park somewhere different and enter the property from a different location than everyone else does, wind providing. If everyone else parks in the regular parking lot and walks in and calls it then they have all tried to call coyotes towards the outer edges of the property. If you can find a way to get in and around the land to a place where you’ll be calling coyotes back towards the core of the property than they’ll be less apprehensive. Trying to manipulate an animal into a situation that it’s already had a bad experience with is counter-productive. It’s not always about the sound you use but more about making the coyote feel comfortable to come. Coyotes become conditioned to always hearing the same sounds trying to entice them to travel the same direction all the time and they’re even more suspicious when the direction you’re trying to make them come is always towards the outskirts of their core safety zone.
If the public land piece you are hunting is one of our larger parcels of land then go in deeper into the section. Deeper than you think others have tried. There are many places in Iowa that offer large chunks of public hunting and I’ve found better success the further I get into them. It might mean a long drag out but if you’re willing to put in the work you can be rewarded. Try multiple set ups when doing this. Call your way through the property so-to-speak. Moving a few hundred yards from spot to spot between calling attempts can work!
Lastly, let’s tackle the problems that come with public hunting in general. As a coyote hunter there are things that set you apart from others who are hunting the same public land at the same time. Your footprint is larger than that of the bow hunter. If you are shooting a rifle than your range of shot isn’t even comparable. The calling you make spreads sound over a large amount of area. Be mindful of this as you hunt. It means that safety is the number one factor to consider. Always know your background when you shoot on public land. Never shoot with timber as your background or flat ground or at a target silhouetted on top of a hill. You never know who else might be on the same land as you. If I see another vehicle parked alongside a public piece when I’m hunting coyotes I’ll usually just head somewhere else. I don’t want to ruin their hunt and I don’t want them ruining mine. I don’t know where they are and i don’t want to fire a rifle anywhere near them. A shotgun pattern is sometimes worth considering when hunting public. Even when no one is there when you enter doesn’t mean someone won’t come walking in after you have. Always identify your target before shooting and if you have a hunt ruined….. Accept it! It’s public land! It’s not always just other hunters we have to watch for. Nature lovers, mushroom hunters, shed hunters and the like also use these areas. We try our best not to infringe on anyone else, but sometimes it can’t be helped on public domain.
Consider adding some public land hunts to your hunting list this year. They provide a great resource for the coyote hunter as well!