The motion decoy danced to the troubled squeak of a baby cottontail. My eyes scanned the dry creek bottom as my e-caller repeated the sequence. Suddenly I saw a white face peering around sagebrush. My heart drummed loudly in my ears and I took a deep breath. “Calm down,” I told myself.
I held still. A large tom flipped his tail as he began to stalk. When he ducked behind a large rock, I positioned my rifle for a shot. Time dragged on before his head popped into view again. Then, without warning, he charged the decoy in three long jumps, batting at the twirling fur with his paw like a kitten with a ball of yarn. I moved my gun again and he hopped to the side and spun around to face me. I let the crosshairs settle on the center of his chest and squeezed the trigger on my .17 HMR.
WOP! The cat jumped 4 feet off the ground and swatted the air with his deadly claws, took two hops and fell over dead. I jumped up and trotted the 25 yards to my trophy, staring down in disbelief. My hands shook as I knelt down and stroked the thick, prime fur. Finally, my patience had paid off. Although luck played no small part in my success, there were several factors that had improved my odds. Like real estate investing, it was mostly about location. I had seen tracks on this creek bottom before. In fact, I had called it several times with nothing to show but the occasional coyote. Most bobcats have large territories and travel in an elliptical pattern, so if they go through the area once, chances are they’ll pass by again. Today’s success was mostly attributed to the feline being in range. Like most open-country callers, I’ve witnessed coyotes sprinting in from miles away, anxious to feed or defend their territory. Bobcats, however, typically won’t respond to calls more than half a mile away. This is what makes calling these elusive furbearers so challenging.
Opinions are like annoying relatives — everyone has them. I draw my opinions from years of experience. You might learn from my experience, but only time in the field will teach you techniques that work for you in the habitat you hunt. After calling cats in the dense Oregon coastal range to the remote eastern Oregon high desert, I have found some guidelines that I believe hold true in any bobcat habitat.
Proper recon is essential for consistent success. Driving remote roads in search of tracks after a snow, or scanning sandy creek beds or soft mud on the banks of watering holes, can reveal travel routes, feeding areas, watering holes and bedding areas. These all have the potential to be future successful setup locations. Mark the locations on your map or waypoints on your GPS. The more of these spots you find, the more chances you have of success. I don’t waste my time calling spots that “look good” without the presence of sign. I have several places where I’ve called at least 20 times before hooking up, and some areas remain unproductive, but as long as I keep seeing sign, I keep calling the spot. Eventually the odds will relent and the cat will be in range.
During daylight hours, bobcats travel and hunt out of sight, keeping to thick brush, creek bottoms and gullies, or staying low in brushy draws. They will also lie down in thick brush or under rock outcroppings or occasionally sun themselves on remote hillsides or rim rock. With the exception of large toms, coyotes view bobcats as prey, so the smaller and more plentiful cats remain hidden, stealthy and cautious, especially during daylight hours. The key is to call in an area that makes them feel safe, low in a gully or creek bottom, or in a small opening in a large brush thicket or brushy draw. In the world of predator calling, few rules are absolute, so don’t let one dumb animal change your technique.
Most trappers will tell you, and I agree, that the best way to educate yourself about bobcat travel and behavior patterns in your area is to get on a track and stay on it. It will tell you what structure the cat is attracted to, where it crosses roads and streams, the way it hunts, and the kind of habitat it beds down in. The best teacher is experience, and the best experience is hands-on. Successful trappers will tell you they catch most of their cats in the same sets every year. This means that cats are attracted to ancient travel routes, and when one cat is taken, it’s just a matter of time before another one takes its place, often walking in the footsteps of its predecessor. I’ve called multiple cats in at several set locations, but it might be years between hookups. If you call a cat in somewhere, by all means call that spot again and again.
Every caller has their favorite sounds, and most of them will work just fine. I would stay away from coyote sounds, although I have called in cats after howling. On more than one occasion I’ve spooked them off using coyote silhouettes, so if you are targeting bobcats, the presence of a coyote will scare away more cats than it will bring in. I use a variety of sounds from the ever-popular cottontail to the not-so-popular baby turkey and everything in between. I’ve called in cats with mouth-blown calls, but I prefer using a good loud e-caller to divert the cat’s attention from my position and allow me to call continuously (you will run out of wind blowing on a mouth call). I call for 45 minutes or so unless I’m on a fresh track. If I’m on a fresh track (fresh snow) I will call an hour. I generally call continuously for about 15 minutes, wait 5, switch sounds and call continuously for 15 more minutes. Cats tend to get distracted, so switch sounds to regain their attention. I also vary the volume. I start at medium volume, then go loud, then go medium, then go soft during each 15-minute sequence. This is another technique that keeps their attention. Too much silence or too much repetitiveness will increase the chance the cat will find something else more interesting. His weakness is his curiosity.
Bobcat vocalizations are a last resort. Start off with non-aggressive sounds (purrs, soft meows) and switch to more aggressive sounds (bob-in-heat, agitated bobcat, etc). I would stay away from these sounds for the first half hour of calling. You might scare away hungry non-dominant cats and decrease your chances of success. If you are strictly trophy hunting, start out with cat vocalizations and follow up with distress sounds. A big tom will readily respond to any cat in his territory. The smaller ones will avoid other cats, for such run-ins are too costly.
A motion decoy helps, too. Since cats key in on motion, it makes them more curious and narrows their attention enough to mask subtle movements from the shooter once they have keyed in on the decoy. I’ve used feathers or fur on a string, electronic motion decoys or stuffed animals that wiggle. They all work well.
As with calling any predator, camo is important, and you must cover your hands and face. Movement will ruin more sets than anything else. Even the slow turn of your head can give away your position. I sit down about 50 yards away, where I can see the caller and decoy, in front of a bush or rock to break up my outline — but not in the bush. If you have to reposition yourself for a shot, nothing will give you away faster than a wiggling bush. Keep your head still and scan with your eyes. Cats are moody and unpredictable at times. One might be sitting right behind you. There’s no way to tell what direction the cat is coming from or what route it will take to stalk the caller. I’ve had them circle around behind me and follow my tracks in the snow right down to the caller. Imagine your surprise to see a bobcat peering around the bush you’re sitting in front of. No matter what happens, hold still — bobcats are oblivious to human scent. Even after missing, or giving away your position, hold still and meow with your voice — the cat will more than likely stop long enough for a follow-up shot.
Remember, for the most part bobcats are solitary animals, alone in the world with much to fear. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend bringing a partner or group out cat-calling (in the daylight hours). Simply put, the more people, the more movement, and the less success. When a cat commits, it will come all the way in, most times right up to the decoy. So get where you can see your decoy and hold still — no extra eyes are needed.
I prefer my .17 HMR for bobcats because of its low fur damage. There are many people that will argue it’s not enough gun, and if you don’t take your time and place the shot, it’s not. However, if you place the proper bullet (.17 grain V-max) anywhere in the heart/lung area, the cat will fall within a few feet of impact and the fur will be unblemished. A .223 Rem. or .204 Ruger will exit a small to medium cat standing broadside at close range, regardless of the bullet and velocity. It seems to cost me about $100 an inch for an exit hole, even after I carefully sew it up. I also carry a medium-choked shotgun loaded with #4 buckshot just in case I get busted and only have a fleeting shot, or in case a coyote blows out my set.
If you hunt areas with a good coyote population, you will call more coyotes while calling bobcats than you will cats — a lot more. Coyotes kill bobcats, so don’t let them go. Chances are if one blows out your set, the cat has already left. Lots of times coyotes will come in on the bob-in-heat sound — they are looking for a meal, so kill them. Also, the added fur will help you pay for all that gas you used locating your bobtails. If you do take a coyote, just in case, keep calling for a while. The cat might be so far behind it could be oblivious to what’s going on. The .17 HMR works on ’yotes out to 200 yards, but you have to take a broadside shot and hit the lungs, heart, brain or spine. It’s better to sew a hole than wound the animal, so use discretion depending on how good of a shot you are. Another advantage of the .17 HMR is that it’s quieter than a .223 Rem., and you might get a follow-up shot. The last cat I missed playfully batted at the dirt where the bullet hit. I didn’t miss the second shot!
I can’t overstress the importance of setup location. It’s by far the most important aspect of cat calling. Locate yourself on travel routes to and from feeding, watering and bedding areas. Most successful sets have a couple of similarities: they are out of sight, remote, and populated by cats. Do your recon. Vary your sounds and volume, hold still and remain alert. If you call in one cat in a day (at least up North where the fur is worth big money), you’ve done well. If you call in no cats at all — welcome to cat calling. Persistence is your best friend. Keep these things in mind and soon you will be bush-whackin’ bobtails and wearing a “$500-dollar smile!”