Song Dogs of the East: Change Expectations, Tactics for Eastern Coyotes

coyoteAs a lifelong New Englander who has called predators from Connecticut to Maine since the early 1960s, I’m always amused when a Western-based writer tries to explain how it’s done east of the Mississippi. They invariably come up with some great theories that often sound convincing to the nov- ice predator caller, but it’s easy for those who have been there, done that, to see through their creative smoke screen.

Having hunted coyotes in the Deep South, the far West, the Midwest and the Northeast over the last 50 years, I can say with conviction that coyotes are as different as the regions they inhabit. What works in Nebraska won’t do in Rhode Island, and tricks that take Georgia predators are useless in Wisconsin.

A scene some believe is too prevalent in the Southeast and elsewhere, including the Northeast where concerns are growing about fawn predation.

A scene some believe is too prevalent in the Southeast and elsewhere, including the Northeast where concerns are growing about fawn predation.

Generally speaking the bigger the country the easier coyotes are to hunt. The army of pro staffers who call coyotes in the Western states is proof enough. These guys routinely bring in 10 or even 20 coyotes per day. Such results look great in photos and on video but those same hunters suffer a serious reality check whenever they decide to focus on the Eastern coyote.

I don’t know any hunter in the East who can achieve even half those numbers in a single day and there are good reasons why they can’t. Simply put, the problem is territory shrinkage. Western hunters can

spend all day on the same ranch, which may cover 100,000 acres or more. You won’t find that in the East, where property lines are erratic, posted signs are nearly everywhere and prime coyote habitat is far less abundant. Finding permission to hunt coyotes (especially at night) is a challenge of its own, and even when a land- owner does give the OK his neighbors may not give permission, so hunters are often limited to farms that may not en- compass 200 acres total. That’s not much room when it comes to calling coyotes.

I began calling predators in Connecticut in about 1960. My father had ordered a C-3 long-range call from the Burnham Brothers in Texas (I think he paid $3 for it) and we spent that winter trying to lure red and gray foxes into range. There were few coyotes in the East at that time, just a remnant population in New York and Pennsylvania that gradually expanded into Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, where they are now widespread, although still not terribly abundant by Western standards.

We called and called but nothing happened. We called early, we called late, we stayed out all day and called … nothing. Finally, we spent one Saturday calling after a few inches of wet snow had fallen and we were able to put some pieces together. For one thing, we discovered that we were facing upwind and so the foxes would get a whiff of us long before they showed themselves. We discovered our error when we headed home that day and found fox tracks in the snow that came right along a stone wall but then stopped where the wind had carried our scent to the animal.

Whether you're targeting predators or have an opportunity while deer hunting, song dogs provide a wary adversary and are fun to hunt.

Whether you’re targeting predators or have an opportunity while deer hunting, song dogs provide a wary adversary and are fun to hunt.

The tracks told the story. The fox had come tiptoeing in to see what all the noise was about but when he detected our scent he bounded away in 10-foot leaps that didn’t stop till he was far across the second pasture.

After that we decided to turn around and face downwind, and even came up with the bright idea of using cover scent (a dead cottontail rabbit), which we placed about 20 yards from our calling site and directly downwind. The following week we had our first customer. A beautiful red fox came running in atop the stone wall that bordered the field about 100 yards away. When he paused to sniff the dead rabbit’s scent, my father took a crack at him with our Win- chester Model 67 .22 single-shot. Dad was sharp-eyed and a dead shot with that little rifle and just like that we were hooked on calling predators.

But, we had a lot more to learn.

Several weeks went by and we had no further response to our call so, in desperation, I wrote to Murray Burnham and explained our dilemma. I told him the whole story, and how after one successful hunt we couldn’t seem to get another fox to respond to our calls.

Murray’s reply has stuck with me for over 50 years: “The only thing I can figure is that you are not moving enough between calling sites. I’d recommend that you move at least one-half mile each time you call. Wait 30 minutes and if a fox doesn’t come in, move again.”

We never even considered that option! We thought that if you plunked yourself down in a good spot and called loudly enough all the foxes in the county would hear it and come running.

It turned out that Murray was right. We started moving more often and start- ed taking a lot more foxes, both reds and grays. But that was only the beginning.

There is a world of difference between hunting Western and Eastern coyotes. I haven’t seen that the coyotes themselves act or react any differently when working a call site. The real issue is terrain. In the West it’s not unusual for hunters to take shots at 500 yards and more, and there is a contingent of callers who are eager to join the 1,000-Yard Club. Good luck getting a 1,000-yard shot in Maine, for example, which is over 90 percent forested.

Most of the Northeast is heavily forested (80 percent in most states) with some brush but very few opportunities to hunt fields, pastures and similar open cover. In most cases a long shot at a coyote is 200 yards. Most opportunities come at half that distance and even half again when calling in broken rural farm country. I have shot many coyotes, foxes and even a few bobcats at 25 yards, and there have been some that were even closer.

To succeed at coyote calling in the Northeast hunters should create a plan that enables them to hunt small areas quickly, and then move a mile or more between sites and try again. It’s essentially the opposite of the standard Western strategy: Go to them, don’t wait for them to come to you.

Hunting at night is legal in some western states, which allows predator chasers to move around and go after coyotes and bobcats looking for an easy meal.

Hunting at night is legal in some western states, which allows predator chasers to move around and go after coyotes and bobcats looking for an easy meal.

On my first trip to Nebraska’s legendary Sand Hills region my first thought was, “This is crazy! There’s not a speck of cover here anywhere!” But, when the calling started coyotes popped up all over the horizon.

Unfortunately, most of the Northeast is neither flat nor open. There are roll- ing hills, mountains and many other geographic land forms and nearly all of it is covered with trees, which effectively obscure a coyote’s approach until he is nearly in your lap. Factor in thousands of miles of rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, beaver flowages and swamps and it’s easy to see how a coyote may take a little more than 20 minutes to close the gap. This is rough, thick, forested country that will test any predator caller’s patience yet it’s the patient hunters who invariably win at this game.

Also, despite the wailings of doomsday soothsayers (deer hunters) who believe there is a coyote behind every tree, the truth is that coyotes are widely scattered throughout the region. Yes, they’ve been seen in New York City, on Cape Cod’s beaches, in Boston and Hartford but that is not where they want to be. Those individuals are usually quickly dealt with by animal control agents or hired trappers whose job it is to eliminate these “dangerous” critters. These are exceptions, not the rule.

As is the case with most predators, the highest populations of coyotes in the Northeast will be found in and around farm country simply because that is where the most food exists. A steady mix of mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels, deer and other prey can be found in New England’s typically broken farm country, along with cows, sheep, goats, pigs and assorted other live- stock. More food means more coyotes – a simple equation to remember.

“Abundant” coyotes may mean one family group per farm, but keep in mind that coyotes roam widely and may not return to the same area for several days at a time. They wander, they roam, they travel long miles in search of food. And, they’re smart enough to avoid sticking around in one place too long. (Another good reason to move one-half mile or more between calling sites.)

Leap-frogging between farms is a good strategy for Northeast coyotes but, logistics being what they are, expect two or three moves to use up a morning or evening. Plan your hunts well and put as many vari- ables in your favor as possible, particularly wind direction.

Coyotes are also found in the region’s heavily forested rural areas. Maine, for ex- ample, has 17 million acres of forestland, which gives hunters (and coyotes) plenty of room to roam. Also, Maine’s access laws are such that it is legal to hunt on land that is not posted against it, although that trend is slowly turning to “seek permission first.” Huge chunks of the state are owned by paper companies that allow public access so finding room to hunt is not a problem. Most of upper Vermont and New Hamp- shire is the same.

In southern New England “forest” is a deceiving term. Most state forests are wide open hardwood stands with some hemlock and pine interspersed. Roads are everywhere, which is great for access but not so great for coyote calling. Very early and again late in the day is your best bet for calling because local traffic is generally light during these periods.

Farms and forests that abut rural communities provide the best coyote calling opportunities because they also provide coyotes with a long list of foraging opportunities. Over the years I have had to deal with coyotes that were killing and eating Huskies, beagles and assorted other domestic pets, not to mention urban house cats, geese, ducks and chickens.

A good combination of farm and yard livestock is money in the bank to a coy- ote, so the smart hunter will study current maps and find the “seam” where farms, woods and subdivisions collide. And then, of course, it’s simply a matter of matching local and state hunting laws to each situa- tion. It can be tough to successfully execute a coyote calling session, especially near de- veloped areas, but it can and is being done.

Even after more than 50 years of predator calling I’m still fond of the one-gun, one-call, and one-hunter approach. I’ve worn out four or five Burnham C-3 long-range calls over the decades but I still use them when conditions are right.

Varying your calls but being passionate when you use them can give the squeak or cry more realism and get a hungry coyote on the move.

Varying your calls but being passionate when you use them can give the squeak or cry more realism and get a hungry coyote on the move.

Because coyotes are so widely dispersed in the Northeast and the cover is invari- ably thick, I set up and start calling just a few yards into my chosen hunting area. I have lost count of how many foxes and coyotes I’ve called in that were within sight of my truck and had to have seen or heard me pull over and park.

To catch these close-range skulkers, I use a high-pitched squeaker (mouth or hand-held) that simulates the protests of a small rodent caught red-handed by a weasel, hawk or other small predator. Two or three loud, pitiful wails will get the attention of any nearby predator and don’t be surprised if house cats, domestic dogs, owls or other unwanted targets show up.

If nothing shows up I will move on to my preferred calling site, which will be a few hundred yards from the truck, usually near hedgerows, wood-field borders, swampy thickets or crop fields.

I check the wind so that I will be facing downwind when I call. I’ll toss a couple of scent-laced pads or wafers to my left and right and then sit quietly for a few minutes to let things settle down. When the chickadees, blue jays, crows and other wild “eyes” start talking again I’ll start my first call sequence.

To each his own when it comes to calling. Some hunters blast a woodpecker scream on high volume all day long and hope for a response, and sometimes they get one. I prefer something a bit more natural; two or three loud, angst-filled wails and then perfect silence for 15 to 30 minutes.

I lived 12 years in the deep north woods without electricity or running water and often heard rabbits, squirrels and other prey scream their last. Most often it was one loud scream, sometimes a whimper or two and then a loud screech, but I have never heard any wild prey species sit there all day screaming his head off. As the saying goes, “Whatever works for you,” but I have had better results by calling sparingly and waiting quietly for 30 minutes or more.

I generally wait as long as I can stand it and then force myself to give it another 15 minutes. There have been many times when the only coyote I saw showed up 10 minutes after I would have left.

Another important difference between Eastern and Western coyote shooting is that most Western coyotes first appear hundreds of yards in the distance, and then must dip and dive through rolling hills to reach the caller. This is great because it gives the shooter time to get set up for the shot.

Alas, in the Northeast the first time you see a coyote will be when he’s 45 yards away and staring right at you. Twitch and he is gone, simple as that. For this reason Rule No. 1 for Northeast coyote callers immediately after calling is to sit tight facing downwind, gun up and ready. Imagine where the coyote may come out and focus on that point. Incoming coyotes may well run straight in on a string (some do), but many others will use roads, streams, hedgerows, stone walls, fallen trees and assorted other obstacles to close the distance.

Your target will most likely appear in the wind current directly in front of you, but he may also be slightly to the left or right. Scan (with your eyes only) and try to pick up that one small movement that gives the coyote away and tells you where he’s going to come out. When he does appear, quickly adjust your sight picture and pull the trigger. If you pause to admire him, think about a better shot or otherwise dawdle he will spot you and be gone.

Whether the shot is good or the coyote busts you and departs, pack up quickly and move to your next site. There is no sense in trying to lure that coyote in again (it could happen, but rarely does). And, the odds of there being more than one coyote in the area are desperately low. That, in a nut- shell, is how it’s done out East.

This story originally appeared in the DDH sister publication Trapper & Predator Caller and is published to help deer hunters interested in predator hunting and management.