Shot Placement Outcome for Coyotes

By Troy Hoepker

After holding back the anticipation all morning, it was time. I finally donned my white parka midday leaving the truck behind for a journey I had been anxious to begin for several weeks. A shotgun in hand, a calling bag on my back, my hunting chair over one shoulder and a rifle over the other; I unconsciously jump and shrug at the same time in a move that is never really taught to us but somehow we all learn in an effort to gain leverage on the straps around me as I started out over the first hill on the way to what I eagerly hoped would be a coyote killing ground like I’d never seen before. A light dusting of snowfall the night before fell on the existing six inches of snow pack but a midday temperature rise below the grey-blue hue of sky left it all soft under foot. Perfect for the venture I was about to undertake, trudging more than a mile inland into a section that rarely sees human contact. I seek out places like this. Places where solitude beautifully harmonizes in sync with wildlife’s playground of the vast expanse of enormous valleys surrounded by the shadow of arboraceous timber. How could I afford to miss out on such a rare day of winter’s beauty where I dreamed of fending off coyote after coyote on the charge to the call.

Before pervading too deeply into unknown country, my plan was to stop short a half-mile in and call from a terrace overlooking a perfect little ambush spot for the shotgun in hopes that’d I’d be able to call a coyote shallow and then proceed deeper into the section before calling again. Nothing showed at my first blind and I began to question my sanity as I trekked over the hills towards my second calling location dreading the thought of dragging a coyote back to the pickup that was now more than a mile away. I cursed the exploratory nature coursing through my veins that always seemed to lead me over the next hill just to see what view it might expose. True to the soul of a coyote hunter though, the view over one of those hills left me pleased to be right where I was. A perfect spot where a fenceline intersected a large chunk of overgrown timber with another island of timber to my east and a pasture to look over while I waited. This is where I had wanted to get to, deep in the heart of coyote country where a coyote would never suspect deception.

I settled in along the fenceline and filled the air with tormenting cries from my hand call in hopes the sound would invade every crevice and abyss where a coyote might be held up among the cedars or ditches below. After time, where the pasture met the timberline, out popped a coyote 125 yards to my east. He stepped lively down the edge scampering towards me and he’d be gone in an instant melting back into the woods with only a whiff or a whisper if something went wrong. I voiced him to a stop just like I wanted but he held his stance only briefly and as I pulled the trigger I feared his lurch forward harmed my point of aim. It was too late and the bullet was on its way. Striking him well, he pounded the ground and then began a series of spinning, flopping circles biting at his wound. I chambered another round and got off another shot at a coyote that was moving so much I had an unreliable target. Soon he had disappeared into the edge of timber a mere few feet away and I really had no clue whether my second shot had hit or not?

Generally, when I see a coyote behave the way this one did after being shot, it’s a dead coyote. It may go a little ways but I’ll usually find them. Especially when there is snow cover and this coyote left the snow red all over where he had been flailing. With that much early blood loss and that wounded body language I was confident to set out in a trailing effort through undesirable land to say the least, sure I would find the coyote not far.

Leaving all my gear behind except the shotgun, I found early on that tracking this coyote would be no easy adventure. I followed blood under cedar trees and momentarily lost the trail at times because of dry ground under the cedar branches. Always, I would pick up the track or trail again however, sometimes on hands and knees to travel under the low hanging thickets. Finally the blood led me out of the cedars into more of a rugged hardwood landscape. Why in the world did some part of me actually enjoy this? Down into a viscous ravine the trail led and after some struggle to get there, I could see where the coyote had laid down for a short time leaving a pool of blood under a downed log. Despite my slow tracking, I hadn’t given that coyote enough time to expire there peacefully in its bed. A further trip down the bottom of the creek left almost no signs of blood loss and a now momentary clot had left the track dried up. Defeated, I now had to find my way out of the jungle that I had wound my way through after aimlessly following the track for so long.

I had shot that coyote as it was quartering to me and hit it somewhere in the rear shoulder area, but the bullet path likely descended into the coyote’s body at an angle that missed an instantaneous kill. The damage was done but it led to an irrecoverable coyote.

Hunt coyotes long enough and you’ll have similar experiences as I had with this coyote sooner or later. Coyotes are notoriously tough. That’s why shot placement is critical to recovering the animal. So many of us have been taught to shoot a game animal right behind the front shoulder for a quick, clean kill. For coyotes however, it isn’t the ideal place. The heart and lungs sit farther forward in the chest cavity in a coyote’s anatomy than a deer or other big game animal and are protected by the shoulder bone. A shot tucked right in behind the shoulder of a coyote will result in damage to the liver or rear part of the lung and result in a dead coyote but death may or may not be instanteous. If you’ve ever shot a coyote behind the shoulder, you’ve likely witnessed a “spinner.” The coyote will spin in circles biting at the wound and source of the pain before taking off in a run or dying on the spot. This is because the shot is not immediately lethal. It can still result in a dead coyote if the angle of the bullet path leads it into the vitals, causes enough blood vessel or bone structure damage or creates enough hydrostatic shock to other organs. We all strive for clean, ethical kills and to do so on a coyote, we need to know the best shot placement on a coyote’s anatomy.

To hit the heart or lungs on a broadside coyote the best place to hit is right through the front shoulder. I won’t get too deep into caliber selection but obviously the bigger the better for downing a coyote. Other factors such as fur damage play a role in bullet selection however. In the end, proper shot placement is what we all want regardless of the round. Most centerfire rounds do a good job of puncturing the shoulder, but there may be a few projectiles that could potentially have some trouble. Anything rimfire is not consistent enough penetrating the shoulder bone. Also, some centerfire rounds could result in what is called bullet splash. While sometimes dependant on the angle of travel, “bullet splash” occurs when shooting a very light bullet at extreme velocities. An example of this could be shooting a 32-grain bullet out of a .204 caliber. When a lightweight bullet impacts bone the speed and weight of the bullet can cause deflection to some degree instead of penetration. Shooting a heavier, better constructed bullet takes the worry out of the equation. Bullet expansion is important to creating internal damage on any animal we shoot but I’ve found with coyotes that as long as you’re shooting something that reliably breaks through the shoulder, you’re usually in the right spot to do the effective damage needed to kill a coyote sized animal quickly without the need for extreme mushrooming of the projectile. I shoot a variety of bullets out of different calibers and have found hollow points, soft points, and ballistic tipped bullets all do a good enough job of expansion and penetration when proper point of aim is achieved. Personally I desire a bullet type and velocity that achieve good penetration but is fur friendly, not always creating massive sized exit wounds. In most cases I shoot a 50-grain or heavier bullet. I would stay away from full metal-jacketed bullets or anything under 50 grains and if you sell your pelts, anything above a .243 caliber.

At times I think we feel the need to hit flesh instead of bone for fear of not penetrating to the vital organs, but on a coyote the shoulder bone just isn’t thick enough to stop a bullet such as I described except possibly when extreme distance is involved. The projectile alone isn’t always the only thing killing a coyote. Along with bullet fragmentation and expansion, once the bullet passes through shoulder or rib bone, you’ll also create bone shrapnel further damaging internal organs. Often times even on a shot placed a little too far back we get lucky and hit a rib bone resulting in shrapnel piercing the lung. Other times with a large enough caliber bullet we may create enough of a shock wave through the internal organs to disrupt their function. On runners hit several inches behind the shoulder we often create enough blood loss by blood vessel damage to dump the coyote’s blood pressure so severally that they fall literally in their own tracks. You may have seen this in a coyote that was hit, sent into a spin that developed into a full run on adrenaline and then several hundred yards later falls on it’s face dead. Usually with runners that die after a short run they expire when they finally run out of air from a lung hit or from sudden and complete blood pressure loss.

To hit the sweet spot on a broadside coyote, draw a line up a front leg into the widest part of the torso. This method is quick and easy and allows for more room for error if you’re center mass above the front leg. Adjust the point of aim accordingly when confronted by quartering away or quartering toward shot angles. Think of the bullet’s flight path and the angle it will enter the body based on the coyote’s positioning. That isn’t always something that is easy to do so when in doubt aim center mass of the shoulder or right behind the shoulder on quartering away shots. Any coyote giving you a frontal, facing shot gives you great opportunities. Headshots are instant killers but smaller targets at a distance, increasing the chances of something going wrong. What is nice about frontal shots at any distance is the amount of area you can hit and be lethal. Keeping the shot center mass is the most crucial aspect. Head shots can fold a coyote up like a lawn chair and a bullet placed in the throat or neck can also be highly lethal destroying the trachea, carotid artery, esophagus or cervical vertebrae. Further down under the throat, you have that sweet spot of exposed heart and lungs. A shot placed center of the chest usually results in a coyote dead right there. Even at distance and unsure of bullet drop as long as the bullet stays center mass you can aim at the head and bullet drop has a better chance of hitting something that is lethal. Be careful when aiming low to avoid a brisket shot. No matter what position the coyote is in just remember, “Aim small, miss small.”

A lights out heart shot is far forward and even when you miss small you’ll likely hit a lung or both lungs either above or behind the heart. The caudal lobe is the farthest lobe of the lung from the heart and may extend just past the shoulder bone especially when a coyote’s leg is forward positioned. While it may be possible to hit this section of lung when impacting behind the shoulder, the liver is also directly in danger positioned just below and slightly behind the caudal lobe. Shots tucked in behind the shoulder into these organs are killing shots and likely produce enough other damage to find a coyote not far. Expect some blood loss for tracking especially when accompanied by an exit wound. Continuing down a coyote’s body and more mid-body, you have next the stomach followed by the spleen.

A shot to these organs likely results in a running coyote and possibly an unrecoverable one. Depending on the amount of blood vessel damage a coyote can go quite far with this wound but may be trackable in snow covered conditions. Further back as the body structure narrows, sits the kidneys and small intestine. Shots here also result in runners and have a higher likelihood of an exit wound because of less body mass and softer tissue. Even more to the rear lies the large intestine. Any shot to the back half of the body and especially low with a large exit wound can result in the intestines becoming dislodged from the body. When this occurs I’ve found that entanglement with the surroundings frequently happens and can result in enough damage to find the coyote after a trail. Blood loss can be at a minimum at times with this type of wound so a good working knowledge of where the coyote was headed or sweeps across the landscape may be necessary to find the animal.

No one wants a poor shot on an animal regardless of the species. Even though coyotes are often shot at on sight year-round here in Iowa, it’s still important to make every effort we can to not let an animal suffer. A recoverable coyote is one we can sell when fur is prime. Hopefully this editorial will help the next time you have one of Iowa’s wild canines in the crosshairs!