It was the morning after Thanksgiving when the phone rang with a report that several sheep had been killed on a local farm. Hooking up with a buddy and a pair of hounds, we headed out, fairly certain of what had taken place. Closer inspection revealed 11 dead sheep. All had been killed in the field, and then dragged to a fence line that bordered a heavily timbered ridge. The culprit was, indeed, a cougar.
The cat failed to find a hole in the fence to drag his prey through, and just kept killing and stacking them along the fence. Finally, the cat succeeded in dragging the 12th sheep under the fence, to a safe feeding place on the opposite side. Given his full belly, the chase didn't last long, and ended in my first cougar, a 155-pound tom.
That was more than 20 years ago, and analyzing the situation raises questions. Being atop the food chain, why didn't the cougar simply devour the first sheep it killed in the pasture, while still under the cover of darkness? And, why did the cat, once it finally got a sheep through the fence, only move it to the opposite side, still nearly touching the woven wire?
The answer is in the fence itself. It was the fence that offered security for the cat. Knowing the taller grass on the other side of the fence provided the most cover in which to feed, that's where the cat was intent on going.
Over the past 30 years, the number and variety of predators I've encountered along fence lines has taught me a lot, not only about the animals themselves, but also of the microhabitats they utilize. Be it fox, coyotes, raccoons or bobcats, badgers, cougar and even bear, fence lines offer a wide combination of what predators need to stay alive.
One of the key elements to hunting success is learning all there is to know about the animals we pursue, including the habitats in which they live. The hunter who is open to the idea that there's always something to learn is the one who will most likely discover new places to hunt, and innovative ways to find success. Fence lines are one such habitat. Once understood, they offer great hunting opportunities.
Fence lines are a unique, often small, habitat that is continually undergoing change. In this case, change is good, for typically, the older fencerows become, the more of a predator hotbed they evolve into.
Take the classic farm fence for example, be it barbed or woven wire. Such fences keep livestock contained within certain areas. The older a fence line grows, the more the microenvironment associated with it changes. Depending on the level of human activity around the fence, be it burning, poisoning, planting or digging, the progression of the habitat associated with that fence can be dramatically impacted.
One of my favorite fence lines on for bobcats and coyotes has been in existence for over 40 years. Until nine years ago, it was a sheep pasture and the wooly critters kept the grass eaten tight to the fence. The farmer also sprayed it to keep the briars down.
When the sheep were pulled from the meadow, it turned into a hay field, which means the spraying stopped. Now the long grass growing next to the fence is thick, and the briars are high enough to engulf a house. Today it teams with predator activity. Mind you, the habitat is not yet thick enough for predators to take up residence there, but they do visit it on a regular basis in search of food. I've taken coyote, fox, bobcat and raccoon from it, and have seen two cougars working it over the past three years.
Fence habitats vary, and can be categorized based on what they have to offer. In a primary fence habitat, all of the elements are in place that a predator needs to survive: water, food, protective cover and a place to den. Some of these tangled messes can be incredibly thick, and the thicker the better for predators looking to establish a home.
An old habitat allows food to grow, food that attracts insects, songbirds, upland birds, rodents, squirrels, rabbits and more. As the food chain grows, predators enter the picture and become linked to the area.
I was scouting one winter, just prior to dark; along an old fence line I like to hunt coyotes on. As I walked to within 100 yards of my favorite fence junction where a T-intersection forms and the grass and briars grow tall, I saw a trio of blacktail deer feeding.
Curious if there was a buck in the group, I sat back and watched. After several minutes of feeding, the deer grew alert. At first, I thought they winded me, but their attention became focused along the fence. In a burst of speed, a cougar lurched forward, tight against the fence and low to the ground, then stopped. Again he jolted forward, then froze. He covered 30 yards, and was within 50 yards of the deer, but because of the cover along the fence, they failed to see him.
As the cat made his final stalk, the deer detected him and spooked. Deer fled in various directions, unscathed. A few days later, I found a fresh cat kill in the same area, but failed to draw the elusive feline in to my varmint calls.
As fence line habitats mature, they foster food growth, which attracts prime prey species for an array of predators. Knowing what food sources are available can help the predator hunter focus on which calls to use, even where to set up.
Some fence lines grow so thick, however, it's tough setting up directly on them. This is where a ground blind or tree stand comes in handy. If a hillside is nearby, the hunter can often set up on the elevated vantage point, with a remote call placed below, and be in a very good position to observe all that's going on.
If targeting a thick stretch of fence line featuring broken or open habitat leading up to it, hunters can often position themselves tight to the fence, on the thin fringe, and begin calling. In this situation, the target area is the periphery of the brushy zone. Such an area can house predators, or can serve as a strong draw to predators as they emerge from daytime hideouts amid dense creek or river bottoms, even adjacent timbered hillsides. Setting up tight to such a semi-brushy location can be very effective.
Younger fence lines are a bit different when compared to ones encapsulated in brush. Such fence lines don't offer thick enough habitat to entice predators to take up residence, but they do offer forms of food that attract visiting predators on a regular basis. These fairly open habitat zones are where long distance shooting skills can be put to the test, for concealment is a valid concern, especially in flat terrain.
Again, ground blinds can be effective here, especially one with a low profile. If timber borders the area, tree stands may be the best option. Situate a remote calling system at the base of the fence, operate it from the distant tree stand or ground blind, and the worries of getting too close to the target area is alleviated. These two tools – the tree stand or blind, and the remote call – are ones which can take fence line predator hunting to the next level, thereby greatly diversifying the number of setups which can be employed.
In addition to offering small food sources that attract predators, young fence lines can be used as primary and secondary travel routes. Primary travel routes are those predators travel along intentionally, on a regular basis, and are most easily identified by distinct trails paralleling the fence line. Predators choose to routinely travel along these routes due to consistently available food sources, and because of the cover offered. It doesn't take much cover to hide a moving predator, and often a foot of tall grass will set their minds at ease.
If there's a lack of large food in the region, predators may be content patrolling such fence lines for rodents, birds and other bite-size prey for extended periods. Predators also travel along these fences because they offer just enough cover to safely reach major hunting grounds situated elsewhere.
Fence lines that serve as secondary travel routes are most easily identified by their lack of cover. Here, predators are using the fence for nothing more than a direct line of travel that happens to link one key habitat to another. Such fence lines have no vegetation growing along them, thus attract little if any food. Who knows, perhaps the fence itself, is the predator's camouflage?
In Texas last winter, a buddy and I stumbled on an old gravel pad, which served as the former foundation for a small building. The pad, situated 20 yards from a main fence, was littered with dove feathers, obviously falling victim to something. We returned to the area a bit later and positioned ourselves where a barren fence plunged into a dry creek bed. In no time a trio of bobcats responded to our setup, but only two left. It's likely these were the same cats that had been traveling the fence line for grit-seeking doves.
Capitalize On The Moment
The closer attention hunters pay to fence lines, the more clear the value of microhabitats become. By taking the time to study the habitat and learn how it's being utilized by predators, the greater the likelihood a person has of increasing hunting opportunities.
One of my favorite times to hunt fence lines that transition into thick creek bottoms amongst farmland is immediately following a heavy rainfall, where creeks flood over their banks. Under such wet conditions, rodents are forced to higher ground.
This past winter I worked one such flooded area, expecting to find a coyote along the edge of the hardwood forest above the creek. Instead, I found a lone dog mousing his way along an overgrown fence situated on higher ground. After failing to connect on the yapper, I examined the area he worked. What I discovered was a labyrinth of deep, miniature trails, obvious sign that meadow voles had been forced to higher ground by the nearby flooding creek.
Fresh snowfall provides another prime time to closely evaluate fence lines. Not only can you find what predator food sources are living in the area, but what travel routes the predators themselves are using. At this point, take time to study the area and figure out why animals are traveling those pathways.
Other factors that influence fence line usage include human activity, be it hunting for upland birds or deer, which tends to force those species into the confines of thick fencerows in search of refuge. At the same time, as various upland bird species gather in their larger winter flocks, or vertically migrate to lower elevation habitats, which often include fencerows, this can draw predators in on a seasonal basis. If predators aren't there year-round, it's likely due to the fact little food exists.
By paying attention to environmental details, hunters may discover the value fence lines have to offer. If this is a habitat that's gone overlooked, take the time to assess what's in the area. Chances are, there could be some fantastic hunting opportunities right at your fingertips.