Invisible Public-Land Coyotes

Pressured canines often require a shift in hunting strategies — especially if you’re pursuing them on public property.

Invisible Public-Land Coyotes

Lying prone on a frozen plateau, I was looking into an abyss of gullies and adjoining ridge tops that revealed a whole lot of nothing. But as I slowly swiveled my head to take in the forthcoming sunrise, I stopped abruptly. There, on a distant ridge, was my target. A coyote had summited the rise to scan for the sounds of its brethren dining on the bogus buffet I had advertised with my calls earlier. I used my rangefinder binocular to confirm its distance at just over 400 yards, quickly did the math and was about to dial up my riflescope when I glanced back to the horizon. The coyote was gone. 

Hoping it had ducked into one of the gullies below and was loping my way out of sight, I waited for another appearance. Ten minutes later, I gathered my gear and shrugged off the morning set as just another loss to vanishing public-land coyotes.           

The parcel of public property where I was hunting was not in a desolate location, and the coyotes that lived there had already seen more than three months of hunting pressure — upland and big-game hunters trying to add a fluffy coyote to their bag, government gunners with aerial authorization as well as other predator hunters. And since the block of land was leased for cattle grazing, hired hands in pick-up trucks hassled the canines on a daily basis. 

Public lands are receiving more hunting pressure than ever before, with several factors contributing to this increase, including the pandemic push to spend more time outdoors. Hunters are also managing more acres of land than ever for wildlife. These parcels, large and small, traditionally hosted many hunters via a handshake, but land investments have fostered an era of fewer hunters being allowed access to the private lands of America. The result is more hunters roaming public lands. You get the point — and so do the coyotes that live there.           

Regardless of what waypoint you call home, you might have to reconsider how you hunt coyotes on public lands, especially well into the fur season. The easy coyotes that ran to the rabbit call during early fall are long gone, leaving educated veterans that slink in and stay hidden. The invisible coyotes of public lands require a different approach.


A Change of Attitude

Your first clue that coyotes don’t want to play nice on public lands is the fact they are invisible — meaning they simply ignore your daytime calls. So, the first thing you need to do is determine if there’s anybody home. An effective way to confirm coyote occupation on a parcel is to spend an hour after dark or before daybreak howling. Several volleys of howls around your hunting properties could get a response from coyotes that otherwise keep to themselves during daylight hours. On-the-ground scouting for tracks and scat can also help determine if there are any coyotes present, and if you discover such sign, it could be time to rework your hunting strategy.           

This is my go-to strategy when I don’t want to make a long road trip to find new coyote properties. Instead, I will hunt local properties, sometimes literally in my backyard, and test the waters with howls after dark to see if a pack is holed up nearby. The coyotes might still not show up during daylight calling setups, but at least I have confidence that they are in the neighborhood.           

Of course, you could be in the predicament where coyotes respond, but do not fully commit. Instead of charging the call, they stay farther out — peek and duck or do a running pass through the area giving you only a glimpse of a moving target. 

Steve Monson lives in south-central Montana, and even in Big Sky country still struggles with the effects of pressured coyotes, especially those occupying public lands. Approximately 90 percent of his hunting is done on public ground. During his more than 40 years of hunting coyotes, including working as a pro staff team member for Les Johnson’s Predator Quest, he has seen dramatic changes in coyote behavior, leading to adjustments in his coyote-hunting strategies. 

Monson points to an increased interest in pursuing coyotes, coyote-hunting contests and big-game hunting seasons as reasons why coyotes are becoming increasingly paranoid — especially on public ground. 

“Our big-game archery and rifle seasons combined are nearly three months long,” he said.

“Coyotes are constantly harassed and shot at by hunters all season long. Add to that the pressure from predator hunters chasing them hard September through November and it all adds up to very wary coyotes that are constantly on high alert — making them much more difficult to call in.” 

Monson says the big reveal is having them appear, but not commit. When he witnesses coyotes sitting and watching from a long way out and ignoring a variety of sounds, he knows he’s hunting guarded, educated coyotes that require a different approach.

Mouth calls can add realism and a fresh sound to your calling setups.
Mouth calls can add realism and a fresh sound to your calling setups.

A Change of Scenery

One of the easiest ways to combat educated coyotes on a public parcel is to up and move to another public property. That sounds easy if you live in Nevada or Arizona where most of the state is publicly owned, but it might not be as simple in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska or even Texas. Less than 3 percent of these states, like handful of others, is publicly owned. States such as these represent one hurdle and the distance between public-land holdings is another. Plus, not all public lands are conducive to coyote hunting. The habitat might not be ideal to hold a high density of coyotes, or the property could be under strict predator management with an aggressive eradication program ongoing. 

Regardless of your battle, moving to a different public property with coyote potential might be your next play. And like scouting for a new big-game unit to hunt, you should make a list of all the pros and cons before taking a road trip. First, determine how remote a property is — how far is it from human population centers? Properties that are closer to cities or towns tend to see more pressure. Hunters, dog walkers, mountain bikers and hikers are just a few of the guests you might encounter on these public lands. Coyotes react differently to every user group and are highly adaptable to differing environments, so do an assessment of whether these visitations are altering coyote behavior. 

The safe bet is to look for remote properties that require more planning and a determined mindset. They will see fewer visitors, especially after big-game and small-game hunting seasons end. To ensure even fewer hunters, be flexible and hunt during the middle of the week. Being self-employed, I can work whatever days I want. So, I routinely work weekends and hunt public lands during the week when there are few, if any, competitors. 

In addition to remoteness, I also research accessibility. Does the area include highway frontage or is it accessible only by ATV? Is there a huge, designated parking lot, maintained for a large number of vehicles? A pristine access point indicates high usage whereas questionable access turns some hunters off, especially if they cannot afford an ATV or are physically out of shape. My HuntStand app includes a Natural Atlas feature that details all access for any property. 

Finally, look at the size of a parcel. Are you researching a million acres of national forest or 640 acres of state land? Size matters. Large areas offer more sanctuary opportunities for all wildlife while it can be easy to bump wildlife off small properties. Nevertheless, do not bypass any property. A piece of public land could be overlooked time and time again by other hunters simply because they believe it’s too small. 

I oftentimes find myself in the Midwest during deer season. When I am lucky enough to punch my tag before the end of the hunt, I routinely change gears and hunt coyotes, venturing onto public lands when possible. One of my friends shared his secret for hunting public-land coyotes. He looks for small, upland bird hunting properties and then sets up and calls along the borders against large tracts of private land. This strategy has paid off for me many times after my November deer tags were filled. 

In Montana, Monson has options for changing public-land venues, but it can be pricey and often involves a long drive. When he encounters coyotes with a paranoid attitude on his first-choice property, he has no qualms about pointing his truck in another direction and traveling 50 or more miles to another public property. Oftentimes that simple move results in more cooperative coyotes.

Steve Monson lives in south-central Montana and even in Big Sky Country, still struggles with the effects of pressured coyotes, especially those occupying public lands.
Steve Monson lives in south-central Montana and even in Big Sky Country, still struggles with the effects of pressured coyotes, especially those occupying public lands.

A Change of Pace

Sometimes trivial things can make a difference after you have assessed public-land coyote behavior and looked at making a move to a different public-land location. One thing Monson does is give the coyotes some time off after the big-game seasons. “One thing that I have had success with and have done for years, is I’ve waited a couple of weeks after the big-game season closes to give the coyotes time to settle down,” Monson said. “Things tend to get back to normal when the countryside isn’t crawling with hunters, and coyotes, most of the time, begin to let down their guard a little bit after a pause from hunting season.” 

Monson also recommends staying put longer at each setup, and I agree. In open settings, waiting longer allows distant coyotes to show up that might be coming at a slow trot. It also allows them time to build confidence and gauge the situation for danger. Toss out the old 15-minute rule that might have worked on young-of-the-year coyotes in October. Instead, give them 30 minutes to an hour to show up. In addition, if the vantage point allows, use optics to scan for coyotes that might be checking you out. 

“What worked in September and October usually doesn’t work later in the season,” Monson said. “In the vast, wide-open areas where I hunt, it is essential when hunting educated coyotes that I have a high-quality binocular. I routinely glass coyotes sitting off in the distance, many times a mile away.” 

Monson also looks for calling locations that others might have overlooked, and some of them could surprise you. For instance, he might call near a road or even near buildings because other hunters often avoid these locations. Despite the hustle and bustle of humans, these places sometimes attract coyotes. For instance, coyotes routinely hunt roadway corridors for roadkill, big and small. In addition, brushy rights-of-way can be ideal rodent habitat. Building sites also harbor mice and rabbits, domestic pets, livestock feed and other food options.

Monson is not afraid to use prey-in-distress calls, but he leans toward coyote vocalizations on public lands, especially later in the season. He opens with a howl, then waits to see if anything responds. After approximately 10 minutes, he adds the sounds of dying prey, but quickly transitions back to vocalizations, including coyote growls, ki-yis, fighting coyotes and closing with a pup in distress. All of this tells a tale of a pack of coyotes making a kill and then fighting over the last drumstick. 

Monson’s final advice. “Learn as much as you can from other hunters, get out in the field and, most of all, have fun,” he said. “Don’t get discouraged and give up, because about the time you think you can’t call anything in, a coyote will surprise you out of nowhere and literally run you over.” 

I can attest to that. On a recent public land outing I set up on a ridge and howled to mimic a young coyote looking for company. Less than five minutes later, I was staring at a coyote peering through the grass as it appeared from a nearby ravine. I gave him the red-tip brand a second later to make that public-land coyote mine.


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