Hunting the Hunters: Calling predators in winter can be an exciting sport

Friday, January 27, 2017
Photo courtesy of January is the breeding season for coyotes in Tennessee, making them easier to call.

By Jay Langston


Over the past couple of years, the popularity of predator hunting has skyrocketed. In fact, manufacturers of game calls now say that orders for predator calls has risen to the level of turkey calls, which means that predator hunting as a sport has a lot of recent new fans. Since there are so many new predator hunting converts across the South, some sage advice from some old pros can help you raise your success rates when hunting some of the more popular varmint species.

Photo by Jay Langston Retired Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Region I Manager Gary Cook, also a noted wildlife biologist and coyote expert, is one of the best predator hunters in the country. Here, he cradles a favorite AR15 rifle while blowing the "dying rabbit blues" to attract a hungry predator.

Although I've been hunting predators for a quarter century, I bow to the level of experience exhibited by some of the well-know, and some not-so-well-known experts in the craft. Books have been, and could be, written about each varmint species that will come to a call, but I want to focus on what I consider the three most popular predator species that probably live where you hunt deer and other game.

In no particular order, coyotes, grey foxes and bobcats account for the most popular targets for varmint hunters. Some folks reading this will ask why the red fox isn't on the list. It does seem ironic, but I had a red fox that has lived in my back yard for a couple of years. The reason that red fox takes sanctuary in a busy neighborhood just south of Nashville, Tennessee, is a case in point.

"Red fox numbers are directly proportional to the coyote population," said noted furbearer biologist Gary Cook. "When you have a lot of coyotes, you don't have many red foxes. The reds tend to move into urban areas when the coyote numbers are high," he added. On the other hand, "Grey foxes don't seem to be bothered by the coyotes," the retired Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologist said, "because they don't typically share the same habitat."

Successful predator hunters know that there's more to the sport than just blowing a call. Knowing a predator's habits and habitats through scouting plays a major role in getting them in your crosshairs. For that reason we're going to share some insight into the three species as well as some proven hunting tactics.

Predator Hunting 101:

Habitat & Habits

Habitat for red foxes is open pasture type with lots of rodents, which is the same favored by coyotes. And, since coyotes are the larger competitive predator, their increase in range over the past 20 y ears has displaced the red fox in many of its former habitats. Coyotes have a nasty habit of chasing every red fox they can, catching it, and eating it, just to remove the competition, Cook explained.

Cook added, "Buffer lands with more forest, forest edge and thickets are the best grey fox habitat. Bobcats are more forest-type animals associated with thickets, and their habitat leans more toward timber, which is similar to a grey's habitat."

In addition to being an experienced wildlife biologist, Cook rose through the ranks with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to become the Region 4 Manager in charge of all personnel from the Mississippi River to the eastern counties along the Tennessee River in West Tennessee. In his spare time, Cook has honed his predator hunting skills to a razor's edge.

Cold Weather Hunting 201

"December is a dispersal period of in a coyote's yearly cycle when the younger coyotes are looking for their own home ranges," Cook said. "Young coyotes can travel great distances looking for the right home range. Radio telemetry here in Tennessee studies have shown that a male coyote dispersed more than 60 miles from where he was born."

"As far as hunting them goes," Cook continued, "colder temp come into play and persimmons (and other) fruit is gone, insect numbers are down, so a coyote's diet is restricted to red meat; things that they can catch, kill and eat. The colder it is the more important it is for them to eat steadily, which means that in December they are more active and hunting during a 24-hr period than in the early fall. That means that you are into the period when a dying rabbit call works best.

Cook has some more advice. "Hunt longer throughout the day, because coyotes are hunting more," he said. "During the fall, the closer to daylight and dark the better the hunting is, but, in December you can hunt all day long. Cooks rule of thumb on predator hunting is: If the coyote hears your call he's going to come. "Judge how far your call is getting out," Cook said. "In the East, with lots of timber and few open areas, your call may be going 700 to 800 yards. If the call is going 700 yards and a coyote hears your call, then it doesn't take very long for a coyote to come to your call. I don't wait very long. I seldom stay on a stand for more than seven or eight minutes. If he doesn't come in seven or eight minutes, I assume that he wasn't within 700 to 800 yards, so I move that far and do it again. I stay until I have saturated, with a call, the area available to hunt. Home ranges of a coyotes in Tennessee can be as big as 16 square miles, which means if a coyote hasn't shown up in an area that's four miles wide and deep, and you've saturated the area with calling, then he's probably not in the area. Your best game plan is to cover as much area as possible."

"A grey fox's home range is relatively small," Cook said. "You still have to go on the same assumption that if they hear you they are going to come. You wouldn't have to move as much if you are finding their sign. Greys are so easy. They come right to the call. You really want to call with a prey sound that is small. They are not going to respond to a call, like a fawn bleat, but they respond really well to bird distress or mouse distress. When a predator hears you calling, it instinctively judges the size of the prey animal from the duration of the note. If you have a long note, it mimics an animal with bigger lungs with a longer note."

"Cats don't come to a call like a fox or coyote," Cook explained. "Bobcats come slowly. I stay in the same spot for 30 minutes with continuous calling. Cats are very visual, too. A bobcat may start toward a call and then sit down for 30 minutes looking for a visual stimulus."

"Decoys are good" to use when hunting for bobcats, Cook revealed. "The difference between a moving decoy and a still decoy is that a cat will sit across a field waiting for something to happen, whereas one that sees a moving decoy will run across that field to the decoy," he added.

Hunting 301:

Setups & Scouting

"I pick locations to set up where I can see the best," Cook said. "It is more important than the animal seeing me. I typically dress in full camo and sit with the sun at my back and a decoy 40 yards in front of me." Cook favors open-reed calls. "I call as loud as I can possibly call for 30 seconds, and then I wait a minute and a half before calling again. I do that three times" before moving. "When an animal comes into the field, I don't want them to pinpoint the source of the sound. They can pinpoint the sound within 10 feet if they are already in the field. I want them to key on the decoy. You can tell from a coyote's body language when he sees the decoy. He immediately starts coming to the decoy. While he's moving to the decoy I don't say anything. If he gets confused, like going into a gulley, then you might want to give him a note or two to refocus his attention. A coyote is going to stop, every time, about 20 yards from the decoy, apparently confused as to why the decoy isn't running away. Then you have about a second and a half to kill the coyote. I don't worry very much about being scented, as the velocity of my bullet generally overpowers his sense of smell," Cook said with a grin.

The most significant thing you can do to improve success is to scout the area to know coyotes live in the area. Find out if coyotes are in the area by scouting for droppings and tracks, and talk to farmers. Scouting to determine coyote density is critical, too. Second, you need to be able to see where you want to shoot. Powerlines and woods roads are good setup spots. Just remember, they'll follow the path of least resistance. A coyote's fastest way to get to your setup may be to go around an obstruction.

Put some of these proven methods when hunting coyotes, greys and bobcats this season. Pretty soon you will learn which tactics work best to line up your crosshairs on these challenging animals and put fur on your stretcher.