Winter Coyote Magic

We all know coyotes breed from mid-December to the end of March. So, how do you hunt them during winter if the breeding urge isn’t going strong?

Winter Coyote Magic

From mid-December to the end of March (with mid-January to mid-March being prime time in most places), coyotes have one thought dominating their little brains — and you know what that is. Right? And using that breeding urge to get them to come to you using estrous whimpers, chirps and yips is a well-documented and common hunting tactic.

But during winter there’s another thought that’s never far from their brains — the need to eat. Right behind that, for males at least, is the primitive need to dominate the landscape, controlling their home range and challenging all comers. It is these two needs, and the ability to address them, that can make a difference between fur and a lonely day afield.

“Cold winter weather and a lull in, or the end of, the breeding period can mark a change in winter coyote behavior patterns,” said Mike Willett, a Western predator hunting nut who travels to several states each year to chase coyotes and cats. “You need to be able to assess where they are in their seasonal life cycle pattern when you’re out there, and tailor hunting tactics accordingly.

“For one thing, if you’re hunting the large public land areas like I do out West, by mid- to late-winter, the coyotes have likely been called a lot,” Willett continued. “So, in addition to switching up your calling routine and even the sounds you choose to use, you have to be extra careful when creating calling setups. Keep the truck out of sight, approach a calling location from the backside of hills and mountains, use depressions and cuts in the landscape, as well as brush and trees, to hide your approach, and do everything as silently as if you were trying to creep within bow range of a giant bedded buck. Then, once you’ve called a spot and had no luck, sneak back out the same way. Just because a coyote did not come doesn’t mean there’s not one around. Not spooking it with careless behavior one day makes it much more possible to call it in the next time.”

Brian R. Mitchell’s Study

Several years ago, Brian R. Mitchell conducted a two-year coyote vocalization study at the Dye Creek Preserve in northern California — a place I have hunted many, many times for blacktail deer, wild hogs and coyotes. Here’s what his study showed.

“Coyotes could respond by vocalizing or by approaching a playback,” he wrote. “Vocal responses were most likely to coyote group vocalizations when there was low wind. Vocal responses were also more common just before dawn and during periods when the moon was up and bright. The vocally responding animals were almost exclusively territorial alphas and betas; transients rarely vocalized. Approach responses were most likely to playbacks of group vocalizations (although human imitations of coyotes generated similar levels of approach responses). Approaches were most common when playbacks were within the responding animal’s home range, during the first half of the year and at or before sunrise. Territorial coyotes were twice as likely to respond as transients.” 

You can learn more about the study here — and what it tells me is that winter hunting during daylight hours is best from first light until about 10 a.m. Also, Mitchell included human imitations of coyotes in his study. When compared to recordings of real coyotes, these human calls “generated similar levels of approach responses,” he found. So don’t be afraid to do your own calling if the e-caller isn’t making it happen. 

The Basics Are the Foundation

Experienced coyote callers know all this, but it bears repeating — the basics are the foundation for successful and consistent success. Numerous studies have shown that the home range of a coyote is primarily dependent upon the availability of a consistent food source and competition from other predators. Thus, urban coyotes have much smaller home ranges than those living on the Great Plains or in the Rocky Mountain West. An interesting study that doesn’t affect coyote hunters per se, but does illuminate some interesting facts about urban coyote behavior and home range size, was conducted in Cook County, Illinois, (primarily Chicago) during the early 2000s ( Generally speaking, though, a coyote living in wild places we can hunt will have a core home range of 2 square miles or less within a home range of somewhere between 10 and 14 square miles, though it can be much larger.

Coyotes and other predators are often desperate for protein during mid- to late-winter, which makes prey-in-distress calls very effective.
Coyotes and other predators are often desperate for protein during mid- to late-winter, which makes prey-in-distress calls very effective.

Finding Good Winter Hunting Spots

Willett told me that having multiple places to call is important when he travels to hunt, because being afield for days at a time means you can’t beat the same places to death over and over again and expect results.

“I am reminded of bass fishing when calling coyotes, to the extent that experience in a given area shows you the places that coyotes frequent over the years,” he said. “So if I am successful in a certain spot one year, I for sure try hunting it again. I may not try it again that week or even that month, but next season you can be sure I’ll be there. It’s like when I bass fish. If you catch fish off a certain point or piece of underwater structure, you can bet new fish will move into that spot at some point.” 

Even when hunting vast tracts of public land out West, Willett says he likes to focus his initial efforts near places where coyotes can find abundant food. Makes sense, right? This includes lands near farms and ranches raising cattle, hogs and other domestic animals — especially during the birthing season — as well as crops. These ranches often include irrigated pastures and fields, where regular water and the flora it allows to grow creates a haven for rodents, rabbits, songbirds and other favored coyote foods. In the Midwest and East, where land holdings are smaller, Willett seeks hunting permission from as many landowners as he can, so he can remain mobile and not overcall any one spot.

“Another place I like to hunt are tracts of public land adjacent to suburban housing tracts,” Willett said. “Some of my favorite spots are reasonably rugged public lands near golf courses and parks. Coyotes find lots of food in these places — can you say house cats? — often denning in the adjacent public lands. I sneak in and out of these places, taking great care to avoid being seen by the residents, and often hunt with a modern air rifle that nearby residents can’t hear when I shoot.”

Challenging Late-Season Coyotes

Willett likes to challenge late-season coyotes to come to him, though he is judicious when using the standard challenge howls found on most e-callers because, as he says, “This can be too intimidating to young or subordinate males. So I like to use a lone howl, and when I get a response, mimic the same sound that the coyote made. I think this irritates them, and makes them want to come and see who that smart-aleck is that’s mocking them.” Willett also wants the coyote to have to hunt for him, so he likes to hide the remote speaker of his e-caller in brush tall enough to conceal a coyote upwind of his location, which is elevated enough so he can see a long way off. “If he can’t readily see me but can pinpoint where the sound is coming from, he’ll want to come closer for a look,” Willet said. “That gives me a good chance to shoot him.”

Willett also believes challenge howls are better during late season, after coyotes have been called heavily by others using the standard prey-in-distress sounds. “If I get a response to my howls but the coyote hasn’t come to me, I’ll sometimes up the ante by hitting the button on my e-caller that says ‘fighting coyotes.’ It reminds me of grade school, when two boys would meet out back of the gym after school and have at it. Everybody wants to come watch a good fight. If the weather’s cold and there’s some real snow on the ground, I think coyotes think there are a couple of mad dogs fighting it out over some choice morsels of food, so I best get over there and see if I can get me some of that.”

Speaking of snow, after a successful setup Willett will often take some time and backtrack the coyote he’s called in and killed. “Following the tracks — which can lead me on a hike of a mile or maybe more — helps me learn the country, and see the exact kinds of places where a particular coyote liked to hang out. I can use that information to help me identify similar places, as well as remember it so I can hunt it again next year.”

Setting up for late-winter success means having the mindset of a sniper.
Setting up for late-winter success means having the mindset of a sniper.

How About Baiting?

Baiting can be very effective for hunters limited to small tracts of land, where a bait site can draw them in from a long way off while allowing the hunter to keep from polluting the countryside with his own sound and scent. 

Meat scrapes make great bait, and you’ll need lots of it — especially if there are lots of meat-eating scavengers around such as birds, stray dogs, mink, martin and other small carnivores. A bait site should be remote, hidden from the prying eyes of other humans, and the bait should be staked down or covered with chicken wire or sheep fencing so it can’t be easily hauled away. Bait hunting can be especially effective at dawn and dusk, but especially so after dark, where night hunting is legal — making the use of modern thermal optics the ticket. Blinds should be at least 100 yards downwind from the bait — 200 is better — so dress warmly and be prepared to stay as long as you can. 


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