The Dog Days of an Iowa Winter
By Troy Hoepker
My truck seemed so insignificant and small as I drove down the road not even able to see up over the drifts and the snow piles in the ditches left behind from the maintainer. I came to a full stop and had to watch for a while at the scene of a county worker operating a bulldozer trying in vain to open the gravel road in front of me. Guess I wasn’t going to continue down this road. That was just one of many that I had to bypass on my way home. Things were drifted in so tight it made most of the roads to my hunting spots inaccessible. We’d had a blizzard just a couple of days earlier that January of 2010 dumping heavy snow and I was out hunting coyotes after the storm had passed and calmer conditions had prevailed for a short window of opportunity that morning. Things began to turn again before lunch time just as the weatherman said it would when the sky grayed, the wind began to gust and ice pellets began falling like tiny needles stinging my frozen face as they hit driving me out of my last hunt for the morning. This was a real Iowa snow stopper!
I had to think that maybe I was the only thick headed fool still stubborn enough to be out hunting when I saw what appeared to be another hunter parked in the road ahead of me on the way home. The road was almost down to one lane because of the enormous snow piles and I could see the other driver rolling his window down as I came near. It was our local conservation officer out patrolling for late season deer hunters. When he asked what I was up to I think he probably thought I was crazy when I told him that I was out calling for coyotes. By now the icy pellets of death from above were raining down with constant fury and he looked at me like I had gone mad. We continued to converse a little about the weather, the recent blizzard and the late rifle season for deer going on at the time and how finding hunters to check had been a bit challenging for him that morning. When I mentioned something again about my morning of traipsing through the snow from truck to field, he cocked his head, looked at me and asked “Did you actually have any luck this morning?”
“Yeah, I got one.” I replied. The look of astonishment on his face was telling as he asked if I had it with me. “Sure do.” I replied, “It’s in the back.” I think he just had to see it to believe it as he asked if he could take a look. With unpleasant conditions slapping us in the face unprotected now from the cover of our trucks, I described how I had sunk through the snow more times too numerous to count on my way into a sunny morning early stand. It was the calm before and after the storm so to speak. Pitiful distress cries brought on an apparently stressed and famished coyote emerging from some dark holed up place where he had sheltered to ride out the last couple of days more than likely. His drive to fill his stomach brought him almost directly to me without any thought of going downwind in his mind. Either his hunger was enough for him to throw caution to the wind or the brutal trek through the snow was enough to make him shorten his route to me because as I first watched him, I thought he had a limp. As it turned out, he was simply undulating side to side as his feet occasionally broke through the crusted snow as he ranged across the field to me. Now he lay in the bed of my truck freezing up just as fast as we were while talking about the hunt. We said our goodbyes and I returned home with a hard earned Iowa winter coyote.
We all know how Mother Nature’s fury can bear down on Iowa during January and February making for some very inhospitable hunting. Still even during those times I find myself longing to be out chasing song dogs. There’s just something about the fresh powder of snow and the cold felt deep in your lungs with each breath that makes it seemingly feel like the right time to be hunting coyotes in their domain. It’s the time of year for them to be breeding, dennning, defending their territories from intruding coyotes and throughout it all, they still have to eat to survive. Even when conditions aren’t great for hunting, those coyote behaviors make coyotes vulnerable to hunters. There’s just certain ways we have to adapt and change our hunting strategies to be successful in those conditions.
First let’s talk about deep snow and a coyote’s characteristical traits when extreme cold is present like I encountered with the previously mentioned coyote. There are times to call and times when calling won’t be as productive. Right before a front moves in is a good time to be out calling. Coyotes are out hunting hard to build up their reserve of calories in case they have to hole up tight for several days. After the storm has passed I wait for the next calm day to try and hunt. Even then after really deep snows, the next day can find most coyotes still holding tight to their bed, as I’ve found to be evident by driving the roads looking for tracks that are usually few and far between. They are in no hurry to burn calories by struggling with the deep snow looking for a hard to find meal when simply conserving calories by staying bedded at that point is much easier on their bodies. By the end of that first full day after a really bad storm coyotes may begin to move again with more frequency.
By the next day, calling success improves as long as the wind isn’t still howling. They are hungry and eager to feed and resume their normal activities. When hunting hours after a storm, don’t think of calling your areas in the same way that you normally do. Think of calling it based on where a coyote would have spent the last 24 to 48 hours. That’s because it’s likely where most of them will still be. You want to get in close to those places. Coyotes prefer to take cover in the thick brush or under cedar thickets where the overhanging tree limbs shelter the ground from large amounts of snow. They also like a river bottom tucked up under a riverbank that shields them from snow and wind. Culverts, brush piles, abandoned buildings and old den sites are also good structure for coyotes to hole up.
The morning after a snowfall, I like to be on the roads before light searching for tracks crossing the roadways before they get too littered up with tracks of all kinds. Finding a fresh track has led to the demise of many a coyote. In this case, once I cut a track going into a section, I’ll drive the rest of the way all around the section searching for any tracks going back out of the same section. If none are to be found then it’s time to survey the ground and determine the area where the coyote was most likely headed and hunt it accordingly.
I don’t like to try and call a coyote back to where it’s already been. The chances of doing so are poor. I’ll also use the wind to approach the area so that my scent doesn’t drift into the cover I suspect the coyote has entered and I’ll look for any hills and cover to use to hide my approach. There are several ways you can hunt the section after finding tracks though. Try taking up the track and following it, pausing and glassing thoroughly as you go for sight of a bedded coyote. You’d be surprised how close you can get sometimes with fresh snow keeping your footsteps quiet. If you have a hunting partner have one hunter take up the track and push the coyote out towards the other hunter.
Coyotes will follow compacted heavily used trails throughout the fields and across roadways. Pay special attention to any track that breaks away from the compacted trail and sets off on it’s own. Check for a fresh track with little disturbance or flaking within the track and one that hasn’t settled from any degree of melting. They don’t want to blaze trails through deep snow if they don’t have to and will stick with used trails of compacted snow, so once you’ve found a fresh track leaving a compacted trail a coyote is likely nearby or in a spot where the trail is headed.
A couple of days after a storm has passed, turn your attention to some areas that coyotes will use more than they do at other times of the year. I always love to check under bridges for tracks. As soon as the rivers ice up, coyotes begin using them as highways. The unobstructed ice serves as easy travel from one hunting area to the next. Once I find a highway of tracks on the ice, I like to get into the river bottoms and call. Cattle pastures are another place where it’s likely to see increased coyote activity. Coyotes will forage off the manure left behind on cattle trails and if it’s calving time, they’ll be especially observant to the birth of newborn calves. The coyote’s ability to survive depends on food sources. They are extremely adaptable when need be, able to eat on everything from berries, to corn, but they want a hot meal as much as we do. So they’ll seek out and use CRP fields more often because the rodents, game birds and rabbits will congregate there for warmth and cover. Keep an eye on any carcasses along your travels as well. The carcasses are much more likely to be hit because the snow cover has limited their other hunting activities. Calling near a carcass that is fresh or being actively used at these times can be productive because a coyote will often not be far from the meal. Even a road kill carcass might be a steady meal for a coyote using a nearby road culvert as temporary shelter.
The first sunny days after a storm or extreme cold can be great days for glassing. Coyotes love to feel the warmth of the sun just like your dog loves to stretch out and be lazy basking in the sun to warm his body. They’ll usually bed down in the sun where they can get out of the wind. By midday, scan closely any areas that are southern facing slopes for bedded coyotes. Take into consideration what the wind is doing and know that coyotes defend their position by being able to smell what they can’t see and see what they can’t smell. By that I mean they’ll have the wind coming over their back and be able to see their own downwind as they lay out in open areas where they are a little more vulnerable. Apply that to your glassing and scanning areas to find them as well as to how you approach and hunt them once you’ve found them.
I’ve noticed over the years that extreme cold sometimes can have a similar effect on coyotes the same as if a snow storm has passed through. That first day or two of double digit wind chill temperatures dipping into the -20 range can keep Iowa coyotes down for a day or two. After that, they’ll be up moving around cold or no cold. Your mileage may vary somewhat but that’s been my experience. If the wind is really blowing forget about it. The combination of cold and heavy wind is the one thing that makes me resign from coyote hunting over the years. I’ll wait for a better day to hunt. I’ll take hunting in the snow or rain over excessive wind. As a matter of fact, I love to hunt during a slow, gentle snowfall. Coyotes seem to love to be up and moving in it also which bodes well for calling. I think they enjoy playing in it because I’ve watched many coyotes out mousing in broad daylight during the middle of the day during a gentle snowfall. The hunting is hard on equipment, but a lot of fun.
Snow cover will alter how a coyote reacts when coming to a call. Because of the reduced ground clutter a coyote can more easily see where the sound is originating from and can see the area from a greater distance. Therefore a larger percentage of coyotes will stop to survey the scene from a farther distance in more open areas. Some will even sit down and just watch if they can tell that your calling location is too obvious. Coyotes are reluctant to cross over open snow covered fields. So you may need to get deeper into their territory to call them or set up in areas that make them feel comfortable. I like field corners, or shorter grass CRP fields where some of the grass still sticks out above the snow yet the coyotes are still easy to spot moving through. You may be able to spot coyotes easier in the snow but they can also spot you easier as well. I wear a white snow camouflage with a broken brush pattern on it to help me blend in to my surroundings. I’m not invisible while wearing it however, especially when I’m walking. A coyote’s eye is trained to pick out movement so when I’m walking into a location, I still have to choose my approach routes wisely.
This winter when you feel Mother Nature’s bite, instead of watching it out the window from inside of your cozy home, bite back and turn the snow red during the dog days of an Iowa winter.