How to Hunt Desert Predators

California’s arid desert can be unforgiving, and PX cartoonist Tim “Spike” Davis reveals some of his lessons learned about how to hunt desert predators.

How to Hunt Desert Predators

As my eyes scanned the parched landscape, I licked my cracked, chapped lips. The sound of dying rabbit broke the silence and carried over the sage brush and juniper bushes. I quietly slid the bolt of my rifle an inch back to double check that I had a live round ready for the inevitable hungry visitor. I was trying to prepare myself for all the potential variables I might encounter in this strange, new environment. What I hadn't anticipated was being stabbed in the left butt cheek by an inhospitable yucca plant as I sat down for this stand.

"You don't have to contend with those in Chicago, do you?," grinned my host and hunting partner, Tim Hovey.

This was my first stand hunting for predators in California, with my dry lips and throbbing backside, trying to stay focused on the hunt was becoming difficult. We let the Foxpro e-caller run for over 30 minutes and nothing showed up, or at least that we saw.

"I guarantee you there was a bobcat in there," Tim said as we unloaded our rifles back at his truck. "Me and the girls have killed a bunch of cats out of that spot in the last few years."

Tim's daughters, Alyssa and Jessica, have joined him on most of his outdoor adventures since they were in diapers. Tim has chronicled their hunting journeys in a book he wrote titled, Raised behind the Trigger. Now, at 17 and 14, the Hovey sisters have put a lot of fur down between the two of them. Tim handed me a bottle of water back in the cab of the truck as we contemplated the blank stand. It was evident the higher-than-normal temperature was a factor.

Since I had arrived in California, the daytime temperatures had risen from normal temperatures of 40s and 50s into the upper 70s. Since we were hunting fur bearers (in this case, coyote and bobcat) with their winter coats on, we figured our best bet would be to go after them at night when the temps drop.

We returned to Tim's house, north of Los Angeles, where we prepped our gear for night hunting. The next morning, Tim and I loaded up his truck with rifles, food and water and hit the road for the Mojave desert and the Sierra mountains. Before we left, Tim handed me a tube of Chapstick.

"This won't help with the yucca wound, but it will keep your lips from falling off," he said.

Hunting at night has a learning curve when it comes to seeing coyotes and bobcats coming to a call. But after a few sets and calls it's easy to get dialed in. (Photo: Tim Davis)

We drove for most of the morning and saw some beautiful country. At one point we passed the historical Manzanar internment camp. Where Japanese Americans were held captive during World War II. I have read several books about this place and it was interesting to see it in person, if only in passing. I hope it is a time in our history we never forget.

By the time we got to our spots we were able to do a few late afternoon stands. As expected with the high temperatures, we blanked on every one of them. As I hid from the sun behind a bush in one of the last stands of the day, Tim raised the remote to shut off the caller and said, "Have you ever thought of taking up tennis, Spike?"

Tim wanted me to have a great time out hunting with him and was disappointed about the warm weather and lack of animal response. I responded, "I've been doing this long enough to know there are no guarantees and I'd have to go through a lot more blank stands before you'd see me wearing tennis shorts."

We loaded up the gear and headed to the nearest town for dinner and to wait until the darkness covered the landscape and the temp dropped. At the diner we passed the time with hamburgers, fries and lots of storytelling. In some aspects, Tim and I are polar opposites. He is a man of science, working as a state biologist for the last 20-plus years. I am a man of faith, working for a church community in the inner city of Chicago for the last 32 years. Our passion for hunting and the outdoors gave us a platform that made it easy for us to talk and connect on a level that so many people of differing worlds miss out on today. After we paid the waitress and loosened our belts, we walked out to the restaurant parking lot readying for a night of hunting. We looked up into the night sky only to discover another obstacle — a three-quarter full moon was mocking us from the heavens.

"This is going to make it tough," Tim said. "Every predator we call in is going to spot us from a ways out. Convincing one to come into gun range will be a tall order."

Between the daytime temps and a midnight moon, it felt as though nature was doing everything it could to stop us from putting fur in the truck, but we weren't going to let these obstacles deter us. One thing I've learned from the best hunters in the coyote hunting community — never give up.

We drove a short way out of the small town and saw an 80 to 100-foot tall rock formation. To the right of the truck was a long slope of sage brush and yucca climbing to a ridge above us. Tim silently climbed up into the bed of his truck with a Dan Thompson mouth call and a powerful spotting light covered with a red lens. I was standing below at the back of the truck with my rifle on steady sticks in anticipation of a predator coming in from any direction. Tim filled the night with the eerie sounds of dying rabbit as he slowly scanned 360 degrees around his truck with his light. I followed his light pattern as best I could but felt that I should stay as motionless as possible until my host directed me. Any extra movement in this lunar condition would give our quarry an unwanted advantage. We hadn't been at it for more than five minutes when Tim spotted eyes.

"Come on over to the passenger side, Spike," Tim said in a hushed tone.

I carefully walked around to his side, navigating the rocks and brush at my feet so as not to trip or bang the rifle stock into the bed of the truck. Sure enough, out at about 150 yards was a set of glowing eyes. The tiny red dots moved slowly towards us as Tim kept the squalling sound of rabbit in distress coming from his mouth call.

"It's a bobcat," Tim said softly to me. "See how he's coming in a straight line to us. Telltale sign of a cat."

Watching the illuminated eyes of our visitor appear to float across the desert, occasionally disappearing then popping up again had a sinister feel. It looked as if some evil spirit was drifting towards us. After about 10 minutes of coaxing, we got the cat within 60 yards of my rifle. He had locked up and didn't seem to want to come any closer. I looked down my scope and felt good about the shot. BOOM! I looked through the scope and the cat's eyes were still there looking back at me. I missed. How could I have missed? Was this a bobcat or some apparition haunting the desert? Just as I worked in another round, the eyes disappeared into the darkness.

"Don't beat yourself up too bad," Tim said to me back in the truck. "You’re in good company, most hunters find it difficult to shoot accurately after the sun goes down. It takes practice to shoot precisely at night."

I appreciated Tim's encouragement, but I also had to somehow speed up my learning curve as I was on a short time schedule. I only had one more day and night of hunting in California before I had to catch a plane back to Chicago. The next day found us driving all around the feet of the Sierra mountain range and through the cactus fields below. Blank stand after blank stand made it difficult to keep a hopeful spirit. Thankfully, Tim and I have a similar sense of humor, and we didn't let our lack of hunting success stop us from cracking jokes and laughing between stands.

Finally, mid-afternoon, we had an area that produced a coyote. We had been playing dying cottontail on the Foxpro for less than five minutes when a big male came charging through the cactus in the direction of the call. I signaled Tim with a quiet whistle that we had an intruder. We both lined our rifles up in its direction, then it locked up at 70 yards. That distance was a chip shot for the Ruger .204 I was carrying, but where the coyote had stopped he was eclipsed by a small bush. I could see his face in the scope and his body language was telling me he was having second thoughts as to whether he should stay or go. I took the shot. Another miss. Tim followed the flash of running fur with a barrage of bullets from his AR-15. Nothing connected. This was becoming discouraging. I began shopping for tennis racquets in my mind.

That night as I stepped out of the truck and quietly closed the door, I loaded up my rifle and worked hard to shrug off the weight of failure and discouragement from the day. Just like Tim predicted, the animals we were after were on the move at night. Also, as Tim predicted, because of a high and almost full moon they all came in to the call but kept a distance from the truck. We were on our fourth stand of the evening and since we hadn't connected on anything I was struggling to stay focused. My mind was drifting off while Tim ardently scanned the darkness and worked his hand call. Abruptly, I was snapped out of my haze. "Two sets of eyes are coming in hard and fast at my two o'clock," Tim said to me, urgently.

I quickly and quietly moved myself under the beam of Tim's light. Sure enough there were two sets of glowing red eyes coming our way. Suddenly, the eyes starting skirting to our right.

"They're trying to wind us, definitely coyotes," Tim commented to me between series of squalls. Through my rifle scope, I locked in on one set of eyes as it floated across the desert landscape. At 80 yards I could make out one coyote's entire body as it dashed between brush and cacti. The varmint was running perpendicular to our position. Tim and I both started giving off low barks in an attempt to get our quarry to stop. Following a moving target through a scope in daylight is hard enough for me, but at night with only a red lens for illumination it seemed almost impossible. I had to make this work. All at once, the coyote stopped and looked in our direction. This was my one chance. I pulled the trigger. The coyote started spinning.

"Put another one in him," Tim said.

I quickly racked another shell in the chamber, zeroed in on the thrashing coyote and let another bullet finish the job. We took pictures and gave high fives while a sense of relief poured over us. The odds had been stacked against us, but we chose to ignore the whispers of failure and push through with dogged determination.

The next day as I was on a plane waiting for takeoff, I reflected on this trip. Because night hunting was a new game for me I lacked in some basic areas, yet Tim's years of experience gave me the confidence to keep focused even when it was hard to do. I learned that if I can mentally stay in the game, eventually success will come into rifle range, and I’ll make the shot!

Featured image: Tim Davis


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