By Tom Carpenter
It used to be that when small-game, upland-bird, waterfowl and big-game seasons ended, a hunter finally had a chance to pull up an easy chair next to a cozy fire, rest up and reflect on an autumn well spent.
Ditch that notion. Winter is time to hunt the hunter. Coyotes are out there waiting in habitat near you, and all you have to do is get after them to live some of hunting’s knee-shakingest thrills.
In South Dakota, the chances are good that the landscape you’ll be hunting predators on will be agriculturally oriented, whether in the form of crop land or range land.
While the basics of coyote hunting are simple — set up from a well-hidden vantage point, minimize movement, keep the wind in your face or crossing, and call in coyotes by appealing to their stomachs, libidos or penchant for defending their territory — success hinges on the details. It pays to gear your approach to the habitat and meticulously choose your gear.
Easy chairs are for old farts. Get out there now where the air is clean and coyotes roam.
After exurban and suburban areas, agricultural habitat has experienced the biggest increase in coyote populations over the last decade.
That doesn’t mean farmland song dogs are easy to hunt. On the contrary, these coyotes are pressured and persecuted hard by everybody and their uncle.
This presents a challenge, because these folks hear them howling at night, know where they live and pursue them with a vengeance. As a result, local coyote populations can quickly become well educated on the ways of hunters.
Another challenge is the agricultural landscape coyotes call home can vary widely. In the eastern half of the Dakotas, the landscape is often rolling farm country with a mix of tree belts and groves or row-crop country punctuated with sloughs and grasslands. It can also be beef country, with expansive pastures and tree-ridden river bottoms.
They’re all different, and no single set-up approach fits every scenario. As a hunter, you have to be as adaptable as the farmland coyotes you are chasing.
However, all these landscapes feature two common factors: limited cover and ample open areas. The trick is getting in unseen with the wind blowing from likely coyote hideouts to you, setting up secretively, calling with a purpose, and staying patient with these suspicious and reluctant canines.
Don’t overestimate the amount of cover a coyote needs. Where I hunt coyotes in eastern South Dakota, frozen cattail sloughs serve as the hideout of choice. In the southern Wisconsin dairy-farm country where I grew up, brushy, abandoned pastures actually harbor higher densities of coyotes than traditional woodlots.
Also, never underestimate the craftiness of farmland coyotes. They may be used to vehicles driving around, but not yours. Sneak in on foot instead.
Farm parcels can be small, with only a limited area or two for setups. If the wind is wrong, hold off and hunt the area another day rather than educate the coyotes even more.
Set up across fields, pastures or other open areas and call into cover such as grasslands, wetlands, fencelines, brushy thickets, forgotten orchards, fallow fields, ditches and other spots where prey such as rabbits, mice and pheasants would hide from prowling coyotes. Keep the wind blowing from the cover to you, or flowing crossways, and draw the coyotes out.
Fat farmland coyotes need big sound to get their attention and then some finessing to get them to commit. You can do both jobs with one call. Primos’ Raspy Coaxer creates long-range prey screams to get things started. Then, by covering one of the call’s ports with your finger, you can make little whines and whimpers.
Some farmland coyotes have heard it all when it comes to rabbit-in-distress sounds. That’s when you need to appeal to their territorial instinct or, when late winter arrives, their sex drive. Carver Predator Calls’ Big Dog Howler and Pup/Female Howlers are hand-carved, human-tuned calls that are ready to make the various coyote vocalizations you need.
Guns and Glass
A rifle that’s smaller than your deer gun is more fun, easier on your shoulder, lighter to carry and more palatable to landowners. Let’s get all in for under a $1,000.
For a rifle, I prefer using the bolt-action Savage Model 25 Walking Varminter, which carries a $600 price tag but performs like much more expensive rifles. Plus, it comes in one of the perfect small-centerfire coyote calibers, the .22 Hornet. It’s also available in other popular predator calibers.
A rifle is only as good as the glass that tops it, and Bushnell’s 3-9x40mm Trophy riflescope is bright, lightweight and affordable at under $180.
A decoy is a useful tool on predator setups, and the Mojo Critter is lightweight to carry, simple to use and operates on 4 AA batteries. A decoy will give a coyote something interesting to focus on and pull its eyes away from where you’re positioned.
Classic coyote hunting begins west of the 100th meridian, which basically bisects the Dakotas. Every serious coyote hunter owes it to him or herself to hunt coyotes out West on the range, where the deer and the antelope play.
The western reaches of the Dakotas are a perfect place for new predator hunters to gain experience as well as that initial confidence and gut-felt belief that coyotes really can be called in. With dense enough song-dog populations, there is always more opportunity awaiting if you commit mistakes on your call or miss with your rifle.
But don’t get the wrong idea. One of the worst miscues you can make with western coyotes is being overconfident and nonchalant, because these varmints are ready to beat you up.
All that open country both helps and hurts. You can see coyotes coming from a long way off and be ready for them, but at the same time they can spot you in a heartbeat if you’re silhouetted or making random movements.
So, be a real sneak as you move about and travel between setups. This means skirting below the crests of ridges and hills and never skyklining yourself. Only cross high points on the terrain at dips or saddles. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t stand on a hilltop and glass for coyotes.
When moving into a likely spot for a setup, stay low, be silent and slide in unannounced. Treat every situation like coyotes are within a hundred yards — they very well may already be waiting for you.
Here are five prime setup spots for western coyotes:
• Within sight of a rocky bank, jumble, ridge or escarpment.
• Just beyond cedar thickets, willow tangles and other daytime coyote hideaways.
• In river-bottom habitat that’s patched with brush and meadows.
• In rolling pasture of low sagebrush or other shrubs.
• Anywhere the terrain is broken and inhospitable.
Believe it or not, many ranchers will welcome a responsible predator hunter. Most western landowners are only too happy of get rid of a few coyotes in winter when the cows are in feedlots and other hunting seasons are finished. Get landowner contacts from local chambers of commerce, wildlife agencies or cattlemen’s associations, and make sure to check on hunting rights before arriving.
Sometimes you need to “match the hatch,” as fly fishermen are fond of saying. Western coyotes love the full-meal-deal of a big, old jackrabbit, and the Bugling Bull’s jackrabbit predator call provides deep-throated, slower squalls that mimic a jack in trouble.
Wide, open country begs for electronic callers that can really reach out and do the work for you. The Boss Dog from Primos, which you can operate via remote control from up to 200 yards away, comes pre-programmed with 100 sounds and eight hunt sequences. It also includes a random motion decoy you can place up to 30 yards from the speaker.
Guns and Glass
Part of the allure of hunting the western half of the Dakotas is the chance to kill coyotes at longer ranges. For that, you need a rifle that reaches out fast, shoots flat and hits where you point it. You could spend $10,000, or you could spend around $1,500. Let’s do the latter.
It’s hard to beat the value and accuracy of Tikka rifles, and the Tikka T3x Varmint comes in at under $950 to boot. It’s extremely lightweight, and its free-floating barrel eliminates vibration and increases accuracy.
For western coyotes I prefer the .22-250 caliber. It shoots a little flatter and faster than the .223 Rem., which is also available.
For glass I love the Leupold VX-2 4-12x40mm riflescope. Leupold offers the clearest glass and reliability for the price, and this particular scope retails for about $400.
The windy West is the perfect place for low-tech decoys. Tie a feather to a stake or twig, and let it fluff, ruffle and blow in the breeze.
Core Coyote Concepts
Whether you’re hunting cropland or rangeland, there are several core concepts that apply.
First, remember that wind is king when it comes to killing coyotes. It’s impossible to describe the acuity of a coyote’s nose, and the only way around that magnificent muzzle is working the wind.
Always set up with the breeze blowing your scent away from where you suspect coyotes are lurking. This might mean the wind is coming directly into your face or angling across from somewhere within 180 degrees in front of you.
You also have to watch for sidewinders. Coyotes — even those with no hunter incidents on their resume — are extremely suspicious, and they trust their nose more than their eyes or ears.
It’s in every coyote’s genetic makeup to try and circle downwind when approaching something, be it an easy meal or a perceived challenge. As a result, it’s in every predator hunter’s best interest to minimize head movements while maximizing eye movements. Look for coyotes coming in or skulking around either side of you, not necessarily where you’d like them to come from.
The best coyote setups involve getting some kind of elevation on the surrounding countryside. A proper vantage point gives you a better chance to see a coyote coming and perhaps even raise and start aiming your firearm without being noticed as it travels behind vegetation or through other terrain.
More coyotes are lost on the final approach than at any other stage of the process. Why? Because they’re able to pinpoint exactly where those calling sounds are coming from. If something doesn’t add up or if they catch a glimpse of foreign movement as they close in, they’ll turn and bolt.
One solution is to set out a decoy and let that draw the coyote’s attention instead. This could give you a little forgiveness when making those last shifts and moves needed to settle the sights and make your shot.
When using prey-in-distress calls to attract coyotes, think about the process in two stages. First, make contact with loud and squawky calls for attention to get a dog moving toward you. Then, be ready with a mouse squeaker to softly coax that slinking varmint the rest of the way, or into the open, for a shot.
The first step of classic coyote-calling strategy is to hop on a rabbit-in-distress call. The secret to success is giving it all you’ve got with real personality that involves screams of fear, last-ditch whining and sorrowful squeals that combine to make you sound like a crying, helpless bunny being eaten alive by a hateful enemy coyote intruding in the neighborhood. Get the idea?
Some coyotes commit and run all the way into shooting range like an obedient dog, but plenty of coyotes hang up, circle, skulk and generally want to diagnose the entire situation before committing further. That’s the time for the soft, itty-bitty squeals and pleadings that a mouse squeaker makes.
Don’t worry about being too soft with these calls, because even though they’re barely audible to you, a coyote can absolutely hear those tiny squeaks. If you keep calling like a banshee, though, coyotes may just turn and run.
A coyote investigating your calls might lurk out there at a hundred yards or more, but then again they could come barging in to under a hundred feet. Carry a rifle and a shotgun to cover both scenarios.
With that in mind, consider hunting with a partner. One carries the rifle, while the other carries the shotgun. As a team you’re then ready for shots at any range. Remember, two guns are often better than one.
About the Author: Tom Carpenter is a freelance writer who focuses his outdoor year on the Dakotas and northern plains. His favorite thing to hunt or fish for is … whatever he’s hunting or fishing for.