Stakeout Strategies for Winter Coyotes

Your stakeout strategies for winter coyotes may need to be tweaked from autumn, spring or summer outings. Learn what one hunter does to put songdogs on ice.

Stakeout Strategies for Winter Coyotes

Use of bait staked to the ground helps ensure predators visit but can't drag away the goodies. (Photo: Steve Markwith)

Although nearly midnight and just above zero, we were comfortably tucked inside a heated blind. Conditions seemed right, too, with a sliver of moon and snow-pack to silhouette coyotes. Nevertheless, an eerie quiet prevailed. Time for a check of the surrounding dark cover. 

“Eyes!” my son exclaimed in a hoarse whisper. After cautiously switching on his night-scope, a sweep of his infra-red illuminator revealed two glowing coals within an alder patch,130 yards out front. Could it finally be Dogzilla? This cagy part-wolf canine had given us the slip on several occasions, escaping only seconds before the moment of truth. 

Changing tactics for this hunt, we positioned a coyote decoy in the field near our active bait-pile. Two hours into darkness, one coyote invitation series from a nearby e-call pierced the still February night, interrupting our otherwise silent vigil. Cold eventually killed the call’s batteries, but patience can be a virtue — and night-vision can be handy, too. Betrayed only by infra-red, the faint outline of a large coyote materialized in the night-scope followed by the sharp report of my son’s AR-15. Lights out for Dogzilla at last, a wily 50-pound male, done in by romance and technology.

New England Tactics

In Maine, three common methods are used to take coyotes. Calling is catching on, but it’s not as popular as hound hunting. Several teams in our area enjoy great success by running dogs equipped with tracking collars. They establish bait sites throughout the region and then track coyotes off them for winter-long action. Trouble is, both techniques rely on mobility, which can be difficult during deep snow. For that reason, others prefer stakeouts over bait. Although less effective than hound hunting, it’s a fairly straightforward technique. 

The most successful practitioners I know maintain baits behind their houses. They have the system down pat, employing motion detectors to activate alarms that signal the arrival of coyotes.

Bait & Blind Strategy 

We develop large bait sites in areas with minimal human presence. Heated blinds are then positioned to weather the harsh winter months. As conditions deteriorate and natural food supplies dwindle, coyotes begin hitting the baits. Sites are narrowed down through scouting and local tips. Surprisingly, access is often not difficult due to concerns over pets, livestock or winter deer predation. Landowner respect (along with cleanup) ensures future access and can lead to more prospects as word travels. 

Areas off the beaten path minimize well-intentioned complaints about possible night-poaching, while offering coyotes more security. A secluded field surrounded by thick cover is often a good bet. Knowing more open areas are likely to see nocturnal action, hunters with lakefront camps sometimes freeze a road-killed deer into the ice for target visibility. Better are several sites to minimize burn-out, while providing a “Plan B” if action ceases.

We also try to discover the whereabouts of any competing sites that could also educate coyotes. Ours coyotes are larger hybrids with some gray wolf genes mixed in. They’re quick learners, so it doesn’t take them long to pattern a threat of any kind. Frequent baiting just exacerbates the problem, which is why we lean towards volume. The downside is, although squawking ravens and crows provide good advertisement for coyotes, they can decimate a site without countermeasures. 

Bait 

Our females will be in heat by February, so those (along with others) that check the bait will leave a network of scent trails throughout the area. And coyotes can cover ground. More often than not, those we see are traveling at a trot. That explains why a seemingly dead site can suddenly erupt into a chaotic cacophony of howling coyotes; a real thrill on a dark winter night, miles off the beaten path! 

Some folks create bait-popsicles from plastic buckets molds. Others dump piles of slaughterhouse remnants. We prime the pump by putting out feelers with game processing stations, butchers, trappers and poultry businesses. Our local deer-cutters provide plenty of scraps each November, so we start our bait-sites then with as many pickup-loads as possible. By the time our nocturnal coyote season opens, we’re ready for action lasting throughout our long winters. 

Northern climes are cold enough to keep bait from rotting during prime-time, and frigid weather restricts many scavengers, but those cussed birds can be a problem. Without countermeasures, a truckload could disappear within days! Of course, a fresh-killed deer is the ultimate bait. Hammering re-bar through the carcass pins it to the ground but, even at that, a deer won’t last very long. To maintain site activity, supplemental bait may be necessary. 

Farms routinely lose animals and many we hunt pitch in. Trying dead cattle, our results were disappointing, even with calves. We’ve had much better results with beef scraps. On the other hand, dead goats seem to work. Whole, dead chickens work great (less messy than entrails), and are often available from poultry farms. We collect them after dropping off plastic drums made from halves of 55-gallon barrels. We’ve had great luck with skinned beaver carcasses. Using a 3/4-inch spade bit, we’ll drill a hole through the tail and then slip it over a vertical re-bar stake. 

Plastic jet-sleds work well for hauling bait on snow, towed either on foot or behind ATVs and snowmobiles. When possible, we’ll use a 4WD pickup truck. As a bonus, since our coyotes seem to love following wheel ruts in snow, we’ll chose a route that guides them our way. One thing we won’t do is walk directly from a blind to a bait! We’ll go to great pains to isolate one from the other, simply because these critters are smart enough to make a connection.

Just like with other hunting pursuits, preparation, stealth and patience can tip the odds in the hunter’s favor.

Blinds

Hunting over bait is largely a winter game so a heated enclosure helps, however, we avoid pop-up blinds. Below-zero temperatures immediately penetrate any openings. Such conditions also require a substantial structure capable of resisting heavy snow-loads, while safely retaining heat as well as scent and noise. 

Useable box-blinds can be built from OSB or plywood and 2x4s, insulated with blue-board. During cold temperatures, a marathon sit can become a miserable experience in cramped quarters, so allow room to stretch with a heater, gear and seats. Locate gun-ports at the correct height, installed to open quietly. Heat can come from a portable unit fueled by either one-pound propane cylinders or a larger external tank. Construction should be weatherproof, but with adequate ventilation. These factors translate to at least a semi-permanent blind that’s more easily built off-site. A trailered, seasonal setup is another option, as is a purpose-built deer blind.

One of our favorite permanent structures began as an abandoned pump house. A building with white plastic siding sitting in plain sight might not seem like much of a blind, but on a working farm, it just bends in. Installation of commercial windows and blue-board resulted in a habitable set-up capable of marathon vigils. Thanks to a propane heater and chairs, two people can comfortably hunt from this structure. 

We take pains to keep interiors dry and snow-free. That prevents moisture released by a warming interior from condensing on the glass. Tip: Shield any locks from moisture and pack a can of de-icing solvent. 

Location And Light

Stealthy access is essential, but standoff distance and natural light also need consideration. At one time, we faced a blind east toward the moonrise, resulting in reflected scope-glare off snow, that’s why our pump house blind faces west. With a rising full moon at our back, the bait is bathed by light as darkness creeps in. Pre-dawn hunts gain the same effect during sunrise when scheduled to avoid low-angle moonsets.

This particular bait is in a corner of a field, 75 yards from the blind; somewhat closer than preferred. Ideally, we’d back up at least another 25 yards. Too far though, and you may have trouble acquiring targets at night. Plusses here: Out front, a wall of thick soft wood obscures the setting sun while providing security for wary coyotes. And, since our winter winds trend westerly, the bait is often upwind.

Equipment

Beyond a suitable firearm, decent optics are essential, including good binoculars! Where legal, night-scopes are another great asset, not that you need one though. It’s just that opportunities to hunt are more limited without NV since action is often nocturnal. As for lights, we don’t use them to spot coyotes. Same story for our NV-scopes, which are primarily reserved for aiming. Rather than educate coyotes with lights from static locations, we rely upon passive observation.

Actually, a good set of binos works quite well in even minimal moonlight on snow, revealing coyotes as dark silhouettes. A good conventional scope with an illuminated reticle also works during the brighter moon phases (especially on snow), with daytime capability to boot. If so equipped, hunt those lunar cycles permitting seamless light transition.

Calls and decoys are rarely used for the same reason we avoid lights. Coyotes connect the dots once lead starts flying, so their use is reserved for special circumstances. As for other items, the heater and cold weather clothing are essential along with heavy, insulated boots. A gear bag or pack is handy for lugging equipment such as chemical heat packs, lights, spare batteries, ammo, snacks and cough-drops. 

Although we enjoy good bolt-actions, AR-15s are our night-hunting preference. Today’s rail systems permit easy mounting of lights, NV and IR devices. Their threaded muzzles also offer good flash-hider options – essential for quick follow-up shots in low-light. Where legal, suppressors work even better. They’re also less likely to alarm any neighbors, while increasing shot opportunities. Pre-loaded magazines are handy in the dark, and an AR’s telescoping stock accommodates thick winter clothing. 

Weather

Where I live in Maine, prime time runs from mid-December through late March. Bait decomposes during warmer periods, and the availability of competing natural food increases as snow recedes.

However, we’ve also seen red-hot bait sites shut off during deep snow. Northern deer often “yard up” then, so coyotes, always the opportunists, stake out those concentrated locations for easy pickings. Several inches of snow are ideal; enough to show sign while providing a backdrop for target ID. Ideally, we’ll look for below freezing temperatures and an upwind breeze.

A small exterior noise-maker made from can lids strung through wire will eventually become background noise to coyotes, while covering the inevitable window squeak or equipment bump. 

Intelligence Gathering 

Although snow-cover helps, trail cameras will identify your dinner guests as well as their times of arrival. In our experience, coyotes usually won’t appear during broad daylight, so if birds are a problem, we’ll program cameras accordingly.

Set them up when the bait is first established using rubber gloves and scent control methods. Cold weather function is important (lithium batteries), as is sufficient memory. We bait and check cameras infrequently to minimize human pressure — something the latest cellular-transmitted versions solve through real-time information.

Coyotes often seem random, but patterns are sometimes revealed through spreadsheets after entering image-dates and times. Concentrating on those periods will help maintain sanity during long winter stakeouts.

Putting It All Together

Experienced deer hunters will note similarities regarding stand access and hunting frequency. Time in the woods counts, but so does an undetected approach and exit. Any noise or indication of human presence contributes to defeat, meaning caution is the byword. And, more often than not, coyotes approach the bait on red alert so maximum readiness is essential. Assuming you manage to pull off a shot, sit tight for a chance at another. 

Perhaps the biggest night-related hurdle is a work schedule. If so, by consulting moon charts you can focus on optimum periods — essential without night-vision, but useful even with it. Old Man Winter is another major wildcard that can trump the best laid plans.

However, like other pursuits, preparation, stealth and patience can tip the odds in the hunter’s favor. You could think of bait and blind hunting as ice fishing with a rifle. And, beyond an opportunity for more winter entertainment, any coyote you shoot won’t be chasing pregnant does! 



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