Equipment, terrain and the predator itself dictate when a shot attempt should be taken
By Randy D. Smith
We went out to scout some deer hunting ground and try some coyote calling on a late October evening. My second set, about 20 minutes before sundown, found us sitting in the shadows of a closely grazed sand hill pasture overlooking a square mile of grass and freshly worked farmland.
My wife and I had dropped over the ridge and positioned ourselves in the open with little surrounding cover. I assumed that any coyote responding to my call would come in from the east across at least 600 yards of open ground and I’d have plenty of time to take a well-planned shot.
I set the MAD M1 unit 30 yards in front of me down the steep face of the hill and began playing a jack rabbit distress selection. I wedged my .223 Ruger rifle into my shooting sticks, dialed in my scope to 6X and set the parallax on infinity. I was ready for that long shot if a coyote appeared, and I wanted to make as few movements as possible from my exposed position.
The call hadn’t been playing more than three minutes when I saw movement 400 yards to the northeast. A young coyote was coming in hard to my left hugging the slope of the hill. I could only see the coyote intermittently. I barely had time to shift my bipod and try to get the glass on it for a shot when it rolled up on the M1 and passed it by. I don’t know if the coyote spotted the call unit, my stainless rifle barrel or my face, but it knew it had been fooled. That “Oh crap!” expression was in the coyote’s eyes, and it made a loping, arching retreat back down the hill. It was a perfect shotgun shot, and I was staring through an out-of-focus scope, dialed on too high magnification, with a bipod set completely out of position.
I fumbled the bipod to my right and took a quick shot. The coyote turned on the after burners and cut back to the northeast. I threw the bipod to the ground, and rolled the coyote with an offhand shot at 100 yards. The coyote came back to its feet and hesitated. That was all the time I needed, and my third shot put him down. I was out of cartridges, but the coyote was out of luck. In spite of my mistakes, I had my coyote.
Make or Break
Shot timing can make or break a successful predator calling session. Poor shot timing can be affected by planning, execution, marksmanship or failure to read a predator’s body language. In that instance, which should have taken only one shot, I was guilty of the first two errors.
My mistakes were setting my scope and bipod positioning for a specific shooting situation rather than a general one. Probably 85 percent of my coyote shooting opportunities are at less than 70 yards, and my scope should have remained set on low power with a wider field of view for that circumstance. My magnification was too high because I anticipated a long shot when, in fact, this shooting situation was normal. I selected a poor location for using a bipod. Had I set up only a few feet to my right, I would have had a flat, uncluttered shooting site. My adjustments would have been much smoother and quicker.
There are four common mistakes when making a shot: shooting too early when the animal is still coming in, allowing the coyote to get too close or “under the gun,” waiting too long before taking the shot on a standing predator and rushing a shot attempt. I believe that most of these errors can be eliminated by developing an analytical shooting mindset and concentrating on reading the predator’s body language.
Where to Position
Good calling and shooting positions will improve shot successes.
I prefer an elevation advantage whenever possible so that I can shoot down on a predator. I like the sun at my shadowed back and shining on the predator’s likely approach angles. I like to find areas with converging shooting lanes so I have a wide variety of short- and long-range sighting options.
I don’t want a lot of surrounding foliage that might reduce my flexibility, but I want back cover to be at least as tall as I am to break up my outline. I will often call from a concealing cut overlooking lower ground in buffalo grass pastures even if I don’t have a wide field of view to my right, left or behind me. Above all, I want uncluttered ground below me for quick cross stick positioning. I always adjust my cross stick height and test my rifle sighting options before I begin calling.
CRP grass is tough calling and challenging shooting, but I take a lot of coyotes in it. There are a couple of strategies for calling in such heavy cover. Having an elevation advantage over the target area makes a tremendous difference in seeing and shooting predators. It is easier to see and shoot down on a predator in heavy grass. I use terraces and even slight rises to gain an elevation advantage. I will call from treestands if it is possible and often use folding deer hunting chairs to gain elevation in flatland CRP grass.
Concentrating my gun on game trails has proven to be very rewarding. I place electronic units in an area with less surrounding vegetation and next to game trails that lace through thick grass. I watch that trail closely because coyotes will habitually follow it. That allows me to have my shotgun pointed in a specific direction and will give me a few extra moments of orientation and shooting time.
If I am using mouth calls, I orient toward a game trail. Shot timing is vastly improved if I am above the likely target site and am specifically oriented toward one general target area.
When to Shoot
If I have a coyote coming in at a steady trot, I will not shoot until it is less than 70 yards out. Coyotes will stop to take a final look before closing in on a sound source. Normally, depending on the amount of cover, this will be from 40 to 70 yards. I like to have my glass on the song dog and wait for that spot. When the coyote hesitates for even an instant after it is within my range limit, I shoot. I nearly always use shooting sticks to steady my rifle. I probably have a 90 percent success rate on such shots.
Sometimes, the coyote does not stop. This can be a problem for a rifleman with a high-magnification scope, and it’s why it’s always best to keep the scope on a low setting. A shooter can easily dial up magnification on a distant target. Reducing magnification is tricky when following an approaching coyote.
Sometimes a coyote will sit and watch in the direction of the call source at a long distance. Normally, the caller will see this as a coyote waits on a hill crest. I prefer to get a predator within 100 yards of my position before trying a rifle shot. I’ve had them watch from as far as 300 yards over open ground. This is the situation when a high-magnification scope and bipod can have a significant impact on long-range shooting accuracy. But these situations are not normal in my area.
Generally, if the coyote sits down and watches at a long range, I might try a shot depending on target exposure, distance and wind conditions. I do not shoot if I cannot see what is behind the animal, and I normally try to lure it on in. Sometimes, a caller can break a coyote loose by reducing the volume of the call or switching to a lighter sound, such as transitioning from a loud jackrabbit wail to a cottontail distress.
There are times when a coyote mysteriously stops at a long distance after a strong approach. This often takes place when the coyote leaves thick cover and must cross open ground. I’ve seen a lot of callers lose patience and miss low-percentage long shots because they believed the coyote was preparing to bolt back to cover.
If a coyote is still on its feet, with ears high and apart, and the tail in normal position, I will continue to call and wait it out for a closer shot. A coaxer call will sometimes change the coyote’s mind. Remaining absolutely still during these circumstances is critical. The coyote is already suspicious and any movement will set it off. If the coyote lowers its tail and ears into a “hunkered” dog position, I normally attempt a shot because the coyote is usually getting ready to retreat back to heavy cover.
A coyote will sometimes stop at a distance and then move downwind in a broad arch to try to find a scent. If the ground is open and the coyote can be easily followed, I’ll wait to try for a higher percentage shot because the coyote often works in toward the shooter as it works around for a scent. I’ll also hold my shot if I anticipate that the coyote will cross open terrain before it will pick up my scent.
If I see a coyote circling for scent and open shooting ground is nearby, I’ll switch to a Ki-Yi call or a mini-howler to try to “bark” him to a hesitation pose for a shot. My best luck has occurred when I have set my bipod and rifle to wait for the coyote to cross an anticipated travel path and then barked him to a stop when he reached it.
When a hard-charging coyote is coming in to an electronic remote call in heavy cover, it will invariably run by the call and then hesitate, turn back and reorient to the call’s location. If the wind is against you, shoot as the coyote passes, but if the wind is in your favor and you have no reason to suspect that the coyote has spotted you, it is better to wait until the coyote turns and hesitates.
I have taken so many coyotes in CRP grass using this pass-by strategy that it has almost become second nature. In extremely heavy cover, I set the electronic call no more than 30 yards out and use a shotgun.
When I am using a rifle, I try to get the glass on a coyote as soon as possible. I concentrate on watching its expression, body language and speed. Try not to allow predators to get too close or “under the gun.” Most coyotes responding to a call will come in at a fast lope or dog trot.
If a coyote is coming straight at the shooter, the main problem is target size. Most coyotes are less than 8 inches thick through the chest. I allow a straight-on dog to get as close as possible, but I often bark them to a stop at 40 yards in light cover to get them to hesitate and turn.
Most of the time, the animal is coming in at an angle so the shooter will have to take a lead before pulling the trigger. The closer the coyote is, the less critical the lead. I will often try a leading shot on a dog that is running away when I have little to lose, but I seldom do so when it is approaching. Again, I wait for the stall when the coyote reorients or simply stops its advance. I don’t decide when the shot is taken as much as I allow the coyote to dictate its stop. The instant it stops, I pull the trigger.
Coyotes will often jump to try to see their prey in CRP grass, thickets and sage brush. The coyote is jumping to try to see what is making the sound, and this is an indication that the coyote is totally fooled. I never take a shot at a coyote leaping into the air. I wait for it to close the distance. Usually, they will come to within 30 yards and then break off, or they will come into extremely close range.
There are all kinds of theories regarding shooting strategies when a pack responds to the call. My theory is simple — I take the closest dog or the easiest shot regardless of where the others are. There are exceptions, but generally, I try to put the odds in my favor to take at least one pack member.
The one exception that I have is when two dogs are extremely close together and I am using a pump shotgun or semi auto rifle. If I have a good chance of getting a very quick right and left instants apart, I will try it. Otherwise I go for the sure dog.
Shot timing is always better if you are analytical, chose the right equipment for the terrain, watch the predator’s body language and take the high-percentage shot. You’ll have a lot fewer misses and more fur in the truck.
Randy D. Smith times his shots in northwestern Oklahoma.
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