Tips for Hunting Coyotes in Deep Snow

Increase your success with these proven methods for hunting coyotes in snow-covered conditions.

Tips for Hunting Coyotes in Deep Snow

Down to a hoodie, sweat was streaming down my forehead as I plunged forward. If you guessed I was hunting coyotes in a sweltering, early-season setting, you’d be wrong. The morning low was south of minus 20. The reason for the stripped-down approach to my hunt was knee-deep snow. The post-hole-making hike was zapping my strength, spiking my body temperature and I couldn’t have been happier to see my end goal. The broad basin with south-facing slopes and a snow-packed cattle trail was dead ahead.

After arriving, I dug out my previously shed clothing layers from my pack, dressed and kicked out a hole in the snow that was more than two feet deep. Then I settled in. My coyote dog, Sage, burrowed in a few feet away to take up her overwatch duties. I initiated my setup with a howl and sat back to watch.

Five minutes later, I added in the bawls of an agonized fawn and returned to observation mode. Ten minutes later, nothing was on the horizon, so I included a short spat of bickering coyotes. At 30 minutes, I was beginning to contemplate a finale when a coyote plowed through the snow from a nearby draw. Sage saw it at the same time. With a low growl, she started cautiously down the hill. Once the coyote locked on to Sage, I had the distraction needed to range and shift positions. A moment later, Sage was tearing into the coyote I’d pummeled by the Hornady ELD Match round.

The story had a happy ending, save for the snow-bogged descent down the north-facing slope for recovery and the slog out with the added weight of a pelt. Snow comes and goes in the North Country. For coyote hunters, deep snow has both advantages and disadvantages. Some of you experience deep snow on an annual basis, while others of you only have to stow a scoop shovel every few years. Regardless, anywhere there’s the possibility of snow there’s the probability of a deep-snow coyote hunt. Understanding its consequences gives you the benefit of increased success.              

Snowbound Stage

Geography and the longevity of a snowfall combine to affect coyotes. In rugged country, a deep snowpack may not be as burdensome on coyotes simply because south-facing slopes and windswept ridges offer travel and hunting environments. On the other hand, tall-grass prairies may catch feet of snow and corral coyotes with few travel alternatives. Fortunately, most areas see windows of thawing or simply are too far south to hold snow over long periods. Regardless of the time of the snow, even a week of deep snow can cause coyotes to alter from the norm.

How much is too much snow for a coyote to handle? That depends on availability of food and even more on the condition of the snow. In areas of high prey density or an overabundance of winterkill, you can expect coyotes to tough out many deep-snow environments. They’ll follow existing trails, such as those made by cattle or yarded deer, while maintaining a domicile as long as their bellies stay plump.

When snow piles up in above-normal quantities with diminished access to nutrition, you can expect coyote behavior to change. First, if the snow is unnavigable and food scarce, coyotes will leave. It’s no different from mountain lions following elk and deer herds as they migrate from high country to winter grounds. But not all snow is created equal. Heavy snow followed by a quick warmup can freeze snow hard enough for coyotes to walk across without problem. They may also navigate on windblown, frozen lakes and as noted earlier, they could stay put by spending more time on any windblown region.

Man also could aid coyotes in their travel efforts to stay put when the snow piles up. Road plowing, snowmobile trail management, tractor use for livestock feeding and even ATV pathways cut through public lands all carve out easy-to-use paths for coyotes. 

A U.S. Department of Agriculture National Wildlife Research Center study completed in 2008 radio-collar tracked coyotes in northwestern Wyoming. The study was established to determine relationships with coyotes and lynx, but revealed that the snowmobile trails in the region were liked by coyotes, depending on conditions.

According to the tracking data, all coyotes used the snowmobile trails at some point in the winter, tallying 35 percent of their travel distance. The time spent on the trails correlated directly with their ability to travel on snow. In early winter when snow was low, the coyotes traveled off the trail. In mid-winter with deep snow and no compaction, the coyotes used the trails with more regularity. And as spring approached and the deep snow solidified, they again spent less time on the trails. Another study in Western Montana actually came up with a different outcome disclosing that the compacted trails did little to alter coyote travel behavior.

Which study is correct? Again, it comes down to environmental and human factors for a specific region. From my experience in the West and Great Plains, I know that when snow piles up, coyotes seek the easiest travel routes available near food.

In addition to studying the geographical makeup of an area and surmising how coyotes will travel as snow deepens, I also use my dog as a gauge. I take my coyote dog, Sage, with me on all hunts whether I use her or not. She weighs just slightly more than the average coyote so I can watch her to judge difficulties coyotes may be experiencing in deep snow. If she struggles on our way to a set, I take that into consideration to determine whether coyotes will be in the general area. By combining that with tracks in the snow and an audit on possible prey, I get a good idea if I should hunt harder or move on.

Can You Handle The Icebox?

Equally important to what deep snow means for coyotes is what does it mean for you. Foremost is your safety. Not only do you need to consider the laborious effects of getting into a hunting area, you need to consider hypothermic conditions that may arise due to sweating in frigid temperatures. Not all bodies operate the same. One of my most horrifyingly, memorable hypothermic incidents occurred in July after a grueling pre-dawn hike. At the sunrise summit, a stiff breeze hammered me and in minutes I was spouting gibberish, shaking uncontrollably from hypothermia. Don’t think it won’t happen to you, especially after a sweaty hike in winter.

Getting to your hunting area can also be life threatening. Be informed on the extremes that will close down state highways and county roads. Today the weather is found 24/7 online, on TV and in the palm of your hand. You can tune to all-weather stations like the Weather Channel or get updates from local cable providers via nearby weather reporting stations. If you happen to be home preparing for a hunt the online options are unlimited. You can use the Weather Channel, ScoutLook Weather or go straight to the source and visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration where the National Weather Service coordinates nationwide forecasts.

The greatest tool for forecasting winter weather sits comfortably in your hand. The smartphone teamed with its infinite weather and hunting apps gives you the power to foresee incoming subzero phenomena and determine its length of stay to plan a hunt. Most predict the weather, some predict it hourly and a few even show you the winds along with scent dispersion. ScoutLook Weather owns that market and the app includes a predator application for targeted help.

With weather at your fingertips, there are no excuses for missing an incoming snow event and planning your hunt accordingly. It aids you in determining when the snow will roll in. This information is crucial in planning travel, preparing gear and executing a strategy before, and after the storm. Coyotes, like deer, sense barometric and atmospheric changes well before you do. The NWS may be able boost your forecasting odds, but rest assured coyotes will sense incoming changes and react without NWS help. Before the storm, they may be on the hunt. During the storm, if harsh enough, they may hunker. Afterwards, expect them to be hungry and on the move once again.

Snowbound Gear

Your clothing will spell success or doom for your snowbound hunt. The term layering is a catch phrase, but don’t ignore it. There are three building blocks to your layering system: base layer, insulation and a protective layer.

You need a base layer up against all parts of your skin from head to toe and including your hands. This layer is the most important and responsible for transporting any body-generated moisture away from your skin. After the base layer, you need to provide insulation. The mainstay for insulation for decades has been down. Unfortunately, down loses its air space when wet and bunches up. It also dries slower. Synthetic fibers like Thinsulate Supreme, Primaloft, Microloft and Polarguard effectively trap air between fiber strands, are water resistant and dry quickly.

Finally, you need to wrap the entire ensemble in a waterproof, yet breathable layering for an efficient package. This weatherproof wrap not only protects your insulation and base from outside moisture, but it traps heat and fights wind chill. Gore-Tex is the pioneer in this arena, but Cabela’s Dry-Plus rivals for waterproofness. Team it with a great camouflage pattern like Mossy Oak’s Mountain Country. Don’t forget to don heavy gloves, subzero pac boots and insulated headgear. Shed heavy layers while hiking and bulk up when sitting.

Snowshoes definitely help you stay afloat in deep snow. Models vary but shop for a rigid, strong construction to support weights up to 200 pounds. Newly designed footpads and heel lifts guarantee you’ll be able to spend a day in the woods without achy feet afterwards. This design keeps your heel centered and reduces exhaustion while tackling steep terrain.

Finally, outfit your truck. Tire chains, a handyman jack, scoop shovels, tow straps, jumper cables, extra fuel and survival gear should all be part of your excursion gear. If the weather looks questionable, debate the merits of staying versus a stranding or worse.

Snowbound Tactics

Once you get a sense there are coyotes in your targeted hunting areas, it’s time to select a tactic. Calling ranks at the top, but choosing sounds and a location quickly follow up that decision. Begin by reviewing where coyotes may find the easiest travel. Obviously, review snowmobile trails as noted in the Wyoming study. Also, be watchful of tracks on plowed county roads, along cattle travel routes, in elk snowplowed paths and even along urban hiking paths cleared for human recreation. Look for any routes cleared or packed. Coyotes could be using such routes to bypass panting.

If the pathway leads to feed it increases the likelihood of coyote usage. In my hunting areas that intermix the West with prairie, I always pay attention to tractor paths created to hay reserves and to feed areas. From there I inspect all cattle trails leading off to any southerly slopes where cattle lounge and glean a few extra bites over the hay provided. If the snow isn’t too deep and alternate prey is available, it’s almost a guarantee coyotes will be using these passages.

If plowed or packed areas are scarce, you need to look for windswept areas with little snow cover. This could be a ridgetop, an open slope, a harvested field or even ice. Be careful when venturing on ice as deep snow easily insulates ice to minimize freezing. Even though the ice supports coyotes, it may not support you.

Find a downwind location overlooking these areas or the habitat they lead to for a sensible calling location. Don’t get too creative in your calling. If food looks meager, a prey distress sound should be the main advertisement. If it appears there’s an ample supply of rodents and carrion consider vocalizations to challenge territoriality.

Don’t neglect a good spot-and-stalk hunt either when the snow piles up. Coyotes have as much difficulty as you when attempting to cross-country. After you locate an area visited by coyotes, determine where coyotes will hunt the most and travel routes in between refuge. Deep snow in between can slow a coyote and give you the opportunity to sneak in close for a shot after spotting it. You can also watch sidewalk-like paths that draw coyotes for travel ease. Watching and waiting could give you a chip shot without even blowing a call. Of course, tracks in the snow will reveal much about the coyote artery, but don’t overlook coyote vocalizations that also pinpoint immediate whereabouts of coyotes.

Two winters ago, the snow was belly deep on coyotes. After an unsuccessful setup on a high ridge I was descending down the opposite slope to my truck when I spied a dark object on a distant hillside. It was a coyote trudging through the snow in no particular hurry.

When it went out of sight, I hustled to the truck and cut the distance in half with fossil fuel. With the wind in my favor, I donned my snowshoes and plowed up the hill with Sage wading in the plowed path. Just before the summit, I slipped out of my snowshoes and crawled to a rock pile. Before peeking over, Sage began to growl. She had scented the upwind coyote. I eased up and there was the coyote 150 yards away pathetically trying to mouse in the fluffy whiteness. My Bergara B-14 fuel with Hornady energy ended that coyote’s stomach pains and cold discomfort.


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