Pushing the Right Buttons

Putting more fur on the ground requires a working knowledge of what makes predators tick — and what triggers specific behaviors.

Pushing the Right Buttons

Just as I sat down to make an early morning stand, a pack of coyotes lit up in the woods below me. From the sound of the howling, they seemed to be only 300 yards away! I sent a lone howl into the air and waited two minutes for a response. Nothing! Then, I served up a cottontail series. Still nothing! How can they not show up? My approach was stealthy and the wind was perfect, I thought in desperation. I then sent the sound of a canine pup in distress across the frozen landscape, and that’s when two coyotes popped out of the wood line. Only one coyote made it back into the security of the woods. The other succumbed to the 55-grain V-max bullet from my Remington 700.

In the afterglow of the hunt, I had a few thoughts. First, How am I going to lug this coyote up this hill? OK, that was not pertinent to the crux of this article. My second thought was, What would have happened if I had kept playing that rabbit distress? I mean, coyotes are said to always be hungry. Why did they not rush in? My third thought was, Something changed those coyotes’ minds to come in. Each sound I played was a bona fide producer. Yet, for some reason, they ignored the first sounds and opted to investigate the pup in distress. The “something” on my mind is the focus of this article — the “trigger.”

Triggers Defined

When a hunter hears the term trigger what typically comes to mind is Timney, Jewell, AccuTrigger and TriggerTech. Although these are all fine choices, we are talking about a different kind of trigger here — one of the freshest buzzwords in our sport. And one that can help hunters across the country become more successful in the field. 

During the early 1900s, human psychologists labeled cues or signals that motivate behavior as “triggers,” and these pioneers identified two types: internal and external. Internal triggers stem from within and are not influenced by environmental factors. Hunger is an example of an internal trigger. On the other hand, external triggers stem from the environment. This could be a situation that causes a certain behavior. An example could be a reaction to hearing a coyote fight. There are many ways that triggers are incorporated into the sport of predator calling. Some have been occurring for decades without hunters thinking about them and some are cutting-edge tactics that can change the way we call coyotes and foxes.

Witnessing Triggers

Torry Cook, from MFK Game Calls, is in a unique situation in that he gets to observe and record wild coyote behavior daily. Some of his most fascinating, and worthwhile, observations come from watching coyotes that he has raised from pups respond to various sounds coming from e-callers. 

Cook uses two methods to monitor triggering behaviors. When by himself, he places and operates an e-caller 75 yards away while he is positioned right with the coyotes. When accompanied by his wife, Torrie — who runs the e-caller — Cook observes the coyotes when they are a quarter-mile away. In either case, he observed the coyotes “doing whatever they were doing in the woods” and then noticed how they would react to various sounds from the e-caller. 

Since most folks are not in the position to witness this behavior, I asked Cook how the coyotes physically react when they hear sounds. According to him, the coyotes would sometimes abandon what they were doing immediately and race to the call. Other times, they would turn their heads toward the sound, turning their ears, trying to figure out what is happening. “When they trigger, it happens fast!” he said. “Sometimes the coyotes will trigger and then stop again if they do not see what is creating the sound. These coyotes will have to re-trigger.”

Sound Triggers

As one would imagine, Cook discovered some very interesting information regarding triggers as they relate to sound. As far as prey distress sounds were concerned, specific characteristics of the sound were enough to trigger a response. If a coyote did not approach the original cottontail rabbit sound, switching to a different cottontail sound — with perhaps a faster cadence or higher pitch — was enough to trigger a coyote. So, it was not that the coyote did not want to investigate a dying rabbit. It was that something within another rabbit sound was enough to trigger the coyote to come to the call. This alone is a good reason to have a variety of prey distress sounds programmed on your e-caller. Cook did not find that changing volume was a huge factor in triggering when using prey distress sounds. He simply felt that it was important to make sure that the prey sounds were initially being played loud enough to reach the predator.

Cook also made some interesting observations concerning the use of coyote vocalizations. What he witnessed will certainly help hunters who rely on getting coyotes to vocalize as they try to locate them before setting up to hunt. According to Cook, “Longer and louder lone howls are way better than shorter, low-volume howls at making coyotes howl back.” Additionally, he found that switching from lone howls to group howls can act as a trigger. If coyotes do not respond to lone howls, it is beneficial to crank things up and use group howls for the second series of howls. He favors C’mere Lonely Howls, Boone Lonely Howls, Happy Family Howls and Holler Back Group Howls from his collection to trigger a response.

Can Silence and Distance Be Triggers?

Triggering behaviors go well beyond the sounds we make. Sometimes the sounds that we do not make can trigger coyotes. From his observations, Cook says silence is a major player in the realm of triggers. He has seen coyotes come to the call and then stop for no apparent reason. When the sound is muted, the coyotes trigger to come looking for the sound. I asked him how much silence to use and he said it could range from 15 seconds to five minutes. Cook believes that the coyotes simply could not miss out on seeing what was causing the ruckus and triggered to look for the source when silence was used.

Hunters may overlook the importance of distance while setting up and how it relates to triggering behavior. Cook says this is especially true of early fall hunts, when coyote family groups have not yet fully separated. If coyotes are known to be in the area but are not approaching, hunters should move closer to the coyotes (assuming they have given away their position via howling) to trigger a response. Cook says moving only 50 or 100 yards can pressure the coyotes into triggering and approaching the call.

A New Trend in Calling

The information Cook provides should truly impact the way hunters construct their calling sequences. Many hunters play their favorite sound for five to seven minutes before interjecting silence or selecting another sound. From what we have learned thus far, this might be a mistake. Cook calls the overplaying of sounds “burning their ears.” He said, “If a single sound is played for too long, it can have a bad effect on the hunt. I have witnessed coyotes lose interest and walk away from the scene altogether. The result is an educated coyote!” Based on Cook’s experience and our newly expanded knowledge of triggers, maybe we should rethink our calling strategies altogether.

Instead of playing a few sounds for longer periods, it might be favorable to play more sounds for shorter periods. Furthermore, hunters should construct their stand sequences by playing two or three sounds from specific predetermined sound categories. Playing the different sounds, each with unique characteristics and meanings can act as a trigger. Each sound should be played for no more than two to three minutes. Short periods of silence (10 to 30 seconds) can be interjected in-between the sounds to take advantage of the triggering stimuli. Cook labels the sound categories as 1. Vocals (various lone howls); 2. Social Interaction (pair and group howls); 3. Pup Distress; 4. Pup Fights and 5. Adult Fights. He believes the sound categories should be presented in the order they are listed here. He also mentions that prey distress sounds can be mixed in the sequence whenever the hunter chooses. 

Triggering Foxes, Too

The concept of triggering is not exclusive to coyotes. Foxes are also susceptible to triggering tactics. In my experience, red foxes will approach a hunter’s stand in one of two ways. One is that they play the wind and boldly race to the call. The other is to proceed with caution and sit back, out of firearm range, to assess the situation. These are typically foxes that have dealt with this situation before. 

It is frustrating to call in a fox and then have it “play hard to get.” The good news is that red foxes can usually be convinced to continue their path to the call. I have been dealing with this situation for decades. I did not call it triggering the fox. Instead, I called it “Playing a DJ” and gave the fox something it liked to hear to come my way. 

Back in the day, I would simply go down my list of prey distress sounds until the fox responded favorably. These days, I have determined that some sounds are better than others to trigger a fox into coming my way. If a few squeaks from my bulb squeaker do not work, I go right to Foxpro’s Field Mouse Distress sound. I like to play this sound, mixed with 10-second intervals of silence, for up to two minutes. The second sound I play is Foxpro’s Young Robin Distress. Again, play this sound, with intervals of silence, for another two minutes. If this does not do the trick, I play Foxpro’s Platinum Gray Fox Distress for another two minutes. There are not many red foxes that can resist this trio of sounds. 

If you have gray foxes in your area, they, too, will trigger to specific sounds. Getting grays to trigger is not really that difficult. All hunters need to do is cycle through as many different gray fox distress sounds as they have on their e-caller or mouth-call lanyard. As with the prey distress sounds, play each sound for two to three minutes before moving to a new sound. The nuances within the different sounds can be enough to trigger gray foxes to investigate the call.


The information in this article is thought provoking in regard to how we present sounds to the predators we hunt. Our sport has developed into so much more than simply making a sound and hoping to see a critter. The concept of triggers is proof of this notion as we discuss how we can alter a predator’s behavior to come our way. I predict a countrywide shift in the way predator callers construct their sequences. By incorporating the “more sounds, less time” concept, we are presenting a multitude of triggers on a single stand. And it is these triggers that make a difference between a successful stand and an unproductive one.


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