The early morning predator hunt began like countless others. However, as it unfolded, it led me through a rollercoaster of emotions that I still recall vividly.
A newly acquired farm was my destination. After checking wind and trekking through 8-inch deep snow, I reached a promising set up location. I was positioned at the end of a hedgerow looking at a huge field that bordered a swamp. As the sky turned from black to silver, I emitted a lone howl with my mouth call. To my surprise and delight, a response howl came from the field to my left. I waited for sufficient light before emitting any distress sounds, so I could see any responding coyotes. During the next few minutes, multiple howls came from the field… and they sounded close!
Minutes elapsed, the sky was getting brighter and I began to see features in the terrain. What I first thought was a fence post, turned out to be the source of the howling. Although, it wasn’t light enough to see details, I could make out the vertical shape of a critter sitting and howling in the middle of the field. “Coyote” was my first impression and my heart began to race. My first impulse was to find the critter in my scope and brace for the shot. Instead, I raised my binoculars for a better look. Thank goodness, I did! The object in the field was not a coyote… it was another hunter! My stomach turned as I thought of how things could have turned out on that January morning had I not verified the target. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget and an event that serves as a constant safety reminder for all of my hunting ventures.
For Safety’s Sake
Hunters in virtually all states are required to take a hunter education course before obtaining their license. The information in these courses is vital and the time invested is well spent. However, many hunters come to take safety for granted. This is especially true of those who have been hunting for years or even decades. They assume that what they’re actions afield are sufficient, since no accidents have happened yet. The bottom line is, that the issue of safety must be paramount to all hunters, at all times.
The fact remains, that accidents can and do occur. Two such accidents, in recent years, involved predator callers. One occurred in the winter of 2008, involving two experienced fox hunters in my home state of New York. They had been hunting together for years, but one unfortunate night, things went horribly wrong. In a case of ill-fated circumstance, one hunter shot his partner while attempting to shoot a fox. Thankfully, no one was killed. The accident did increase awareness of what can go wrong during a predator hunt, even to hunters with many years experience. The likelihood of such accidents can be reduced if hunters follow specific steps for increased safety while calling for predators.
Steps of Increased Safety
The three golden rules for firearms safety:
While these basic rules are hugely important and all hunters must always obey them, the crux of this article deals with predator calling specific guidelines to ensure maximum safety.
Step 1: Safe Shooting Essentials
Being aware of your backstop is vital day or night. Set up so that no shots are taken with farm houses or roads in the background. Refrain from shooting at predators on top of a hill or rise. When hunting at night, it is important to positively identify your target. Hitting a non-target species is unethical and taking random shots in the dark is never wise. Use extra caution when loading and unloading. Many overlook this issue. However, when temperatures are cold or as nights get long, the chance of getting complacent increases. Unload before you get into your truck and be sure to have the firearm barrel pointed away from harm’s way.
Step 2: Where Is Your Partner?
In my 24 years of predator calling, 90 percent of the time I’m alone. I’m more productive solo. However, I realize the camaraderie of having a hunting partner adds to the fun. While safety concerns should be always paramount, they are multiplied when hunting with others.
When you have a partner, it’s imperative that you know exactly where each other are located. Most predator hunters set up side by side or back to back. It’s easy to whisper and fun to share the hunt. This is the safest way to hunt with a partner. For some locations, however, the practice of “splitting up to cover the terrain” has merit. When separating during a hunt, day or night, it is vital to know your partners location. This is crucial in the dark.
The obvious lack of vision calls for more than a “Bob’s-over-there” mentality. It might be necessary to actually walk a partner to your set up location and show him where you will be sitting. This is especially true if one hunter is unfamiliar with the hunting grounds. Once set up, during night hunts, my hunting partner and I aim our hand held lights at each other and make a circular motion. This communication affirms that we know where each other are and the calling/hunting does not start until we have visual confirmation of our positions.
Once in position and the calling has started, never move to a different location. The temptation to move for a better view can be devastating. When hunting solo, re-locating is no big deal. However, when a partner is involved, moving may be a deadly mistake. If you have to move for any reason, use a two-way radio or cell phone to communicate your intentions. If no verbal communication is possible, stay put.
Step 3: Develop Detailed Communication
Effective communication with your hunting partner will increase your success and your safety. Make verbal directions specific so that nothing is left to question. If questions arise, the time to ask is when you are together. It will not be a pleasant stand if you are pondering what your hunt responsibilities are as you sit separated from your buddy.
Many hunters use maps of hunting spots and label information such as prevailing winds and set up positions. Go a step further by adding spotlight scanning zones and designate areas that each hunter is allowed to shoot.
Communication is vital when a predator is responding to the call. My partner and I have been using a neat technique with success. If I spotlight a predator approaching in my shooting zone, I will emit three short lip squeaks. This “tells” my partner a predator is coming and I plan on shooting. At this time, he will cease his spotlighting efforts so as not to spook the animal. He will also recognize that this will be “my shot” and he should not be shooting. If a predator is approaching that gives my partner a better shot opportunity, I emit a single drawn-out squeak. This alerts him to be on the lookout and prepare. The opposite holds true if my partner spots a predator approaching my location.
Step 4: Savvy Scanning Techniques
I cringe when I see scope mounted lights on firearms. Attached to a shotgun or a rifle, these types of spotlights should only be used for the shot – not for scanning! Swinging a gun to scan is dangerous. First, it forces hunters to be aiming their firearm at things they have no intention of shooting. This is an invitation for disaster. If the scanning sweep is too far, the firearm could be aimed at a farmhouse, livestock or hunting partner. Secondly, the extra motion of an entire firearm moving may be detected by responding predators and ruin the approach. Even in darkness, motion should be keep to a minimum. Use a handheld spotlight for initial scanning. Then switch to the mounted light for the shot.
Step 5: “End of the Set” Signal
During many set ups, hunters are so close to their partners they can simply whisper that it is time to pack up. When partners are split up, a different technique must be used. Again, this must be understood between partners prior to the hunt. I advise using a specific stand ending sound that is hard to misinterpret. During night hunts, I play crow fight sounds on my Foxpro call. During day hunts, I play elk bugle sounds (keep in mind, I live in New York). Once these sounds are played, it is clear that the hunt is over, no shooting is allowed, and it is time to gather up and move on. Hunters without electronic calls can substitute with a mouth blown crow call or distinct whistle.
Don’t let excitement override your rational thoughts. Keep a cool head and think before you shoot. Hunters should regularly re-examine their hunting techniques and implement these safety steps. Pack along a first aid kit and cell phone. Hunters must develop a mental checklist of safety measures and adhere to them on every hunt. It could be the difference between the hunt of your dreams or a nightmare.