The Art of Scouting for Predators

If you’re setting up shop and calling before you've thoroughly scouted a property, you’re probably doing it backward.

The Art of Scouting for Predators

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” A similar point can be made about coyote hunting, maybe not to the same extreme, but if I’m given a fur season to hunt a farm, I will take plenty of time to scout it out.

I tend to try to figure out a hunting problem with my feet, and that ends up putting a lot of miles on boot tread. Those many miles started as a way to vent my frustration. Then one day after getting permission to hunt a large tract of picture-perfect coyote country I thought, “I am not even going to consider blowing a call here until I have given it a good thorough walk.” Then it hit me that all the years before I had been doing it backward. I used to walk in, find the first spot that looked good and start wailing away, then walk the whole place over scratching my head trying to figure out why the first stand didn’t work, as opposed to walking the whole place over first, identifying the best places to call from and returning when the conditions are correct.

Another point to this is those of us east of the Great Plains don’t enjoy the luxury of vast amounts of public land to hunt, and we must make the most of the properties we can hunt. Most callers have a different number, but for me it’s usually two times calling a spot per season, three at the most. Maybe that’s excessive caution on my part, but it’s what works for me. If I’m only going to call on a place twice in a season, make no mistake about it, I’m going in prepared.

What Makes a Good Farm?

The simple answer is cover, which can take many forms, and is also relative. The best farms in any given area are the ones with the best cover. For example, if an area is largely farmland with scattered and broken tree lines, the section with the most and/or the thickest tree lines would be the one I would look to gain permission to hunt. In areas that are more open, look for farms with the deepest, wooliest waterways. In landscapes with bigger timber, start looking in the opposite direction. Instead, look for small, protected fields away from roads and surrounded by timber.

Properties with CRP or any other type of prairie grasses are not to be ignored. Native grasses, whether natural or planted, is comparable to a person having an apartment in a grocery store for a coyote. Mice, rabbits and birds all call it home, and deer love long grasses. Beside the food provided by tall grass, coyotes love to hang in a place where they can disappear in a step or two. Overgrown or unkempt pasture often hold game and therefore coyotes in a similar fashion.  

A good alfalfa field holds mice and other coyote candy better than any other crop and does it year-round. Farms with alfalfa and cover of any type around are almost sure to be spectacular. About half of the properties I would call my best spots have alfalfa on them or near them.

Prove Coyotes are There Regularly

The first task that must be completed while scouting a new farm is simply to prove coyotes live there. I have scouted and hunted many farms with coyote tracks and no coyotes. Coyotes roam vast territories, especially at night, and regularly trespass on the home turfs of others. Finding a set of tracks is a good start, but that’s all it is.

I like to start on a travel corridor, something like a farm lane going into the middle of the section or a back pasture. Coyotes use these regularly in their travels and are a great place to look for sign. I’m looking for tracks, pee scratches, digs and, in my opinion the holy grail of coyote scouting, poop. Aside from bumping a coyote, which can tell a lot about their habits in the area based on time of day, scat is the most consistent indicator of coyote residency for me.   

One old dried up piece of scat means little to me, several with some fresh and some old and some in between is the best-case scenario. The same holds true with the other types of sign as well, the more the better. Aging it will depend on the recent weather but, in any case, finding sign in large quantities and mixed age is the best. 

This was the case for a buddy and me just the other day. We walked about 600 yards down a farm lane to do a little calling and test a new tactic. We found a plethora of scat, around two dozen droppings on the lane varying in age from hours to weeks. About a half hour later we carried a coyote back up the lane. Coincidence? I think not.

Any area that condenses wildlife traffic is a great place to look for sign. Creek crossings, such as bridges, fords and culverts, are used extensively by all wildlife in the area and are a perfect place to look for sign. Tree line openings and pasture gates work well in a similar way to creek crossings. Joseph Glidden should be thanked by predator hunters as his barbed wire gives up a lot of coyote crossing points by the tuffs of hair it hangs onto. Lastly, timber funnels aren’t just good for whitetails, everything else gets compressed into a funnel as it travels through. Predators are no different.    

Finding the Territory Core and Bedding areas

Let’s say while scouting a new place the search for sign went well and plenty was found to prove a few resident coyotes. Now my focus goes to finding the territory core and bedding areas. The territory core is the most remote part of the section with good cover and the least human activity. It’s an area were coyotes feel comfortable. Bedding areas are fairly self-explanatory, look for the thickest, wooliest patches of brush in an area.

Identifying the territory core is best done in the field while looking at satellite imagery and the landscape directly. The satellite imagery shows the overall landscape and where the little hidden hayfield or patch of CRP is located while the eye gives perspective on the size and the thickness of any cover. If there are any fields surrounded by timber or tree lines in the section, there would be little doubt that it would be part of the territory core. The territory core is generally the middle of the cover in an area. Nothing is absolute, but there will almost certainly not be any roads in the core and, for that matter, probably not within a quarter mile. For some perspective, the area in a section where coyotes are truly comfortable is rarely larger than a 500-yard circle.

Bedding areas are a much simpler concept; they are the thickest areas inside the territory core. Brush piles, areas of tall grass and briar-chocked thickets are a few examples of what to look for.

Coming across an indentation in the grass where a coyote bedded down is rare, so don’t be discouraged if you find none. Another way to locate possible bedding areas is to listen for howling at last light and try to pin down where it came from. If they howl early in the evening, one can be fairly confident they didn’t move far off the bed and will certainly still be in the territory core. If a coyote is bumped out of cover while scouting, especially in the middle of the day, take note of where it was when it was first spotted. It was likely in a bedding area when its nap was disturbed by someone wearing camo. 

Find Stand Locations 

Once the territory core is identified it’s time to start looking for stand locations. I like my stands to be on or within a short distance (150 yards) of the territory core edge. This is by no means a rule chiseled in granite, but works well as a general guideline. One of the reasons for this is I want coyotes to hear a call and be comfortable coming in to investigate. A coyote is not likely to want to get too close to a road or a house in order to do so. Another long-held suspicion of mine is that coyotes in the Midwest are rarely all that hungry. Deer, small game, rodents and songbirds are plentiful, and coyotes love to eat all of them. I just don’t think they have to move all that far for a meal. Getting a coyote to get up out of his bed to come in to the dinner bell is a lot easier if the sound is coming from 300 yards than a half a mile.

A good stand should be positioned on or within a short distance of the territory core edge.
A good stand should be positioned on or within a short distance of the territory core edge.

There are four main elements to a good stand location and the first is adequate cover for the caller and any shooters to hide in. Next is visibility; I like my stands to have the greatest field of view possible. Being able to see far is nice, but don’t let the desire for viewable acres push stands too far from the territory core and bedding areas. The third is an approach route for the hunters that doesn’t ruin the hunt before it begins. Coyotes are smart animals with senses sharper than we can begin to comprehend. The odds of calling one in after it has seen a human walking through its turf are slim to none. Approach from low areas using the topography and cover to keep out of sight and downwind of the territory core and especially the bedding areas. The last and most important element is a clear line of sight downwind for a minimum of 300 yards.

With these four elements in mind, look over the edges of the core area for anything that fits the bill. It doesn’t get much better than a tree line on a high point, but getting that lucky doesn’t happen on every property. Although it doesn’t have to be a tree line, any sort of cover on a rise or a knoll makes a great stand. It can be as minor as knee-high grass or a bush. Hay bales make great cover for stands anywhere, and bales on high spots are perfect. Old rusty farm implements retired to rot away on the “back forty” can make excellent stand locations as well. For stands on low points, such as creek edges or ditches, look for terrain features that form long concaves or “bowls” in the topography such as a clean-cut waterway. Junk or brush piles can be found on most farms and make a great stand location if they fit the four elements. Brushy fence rows are another point of interest along with trees or small patches of trees away from the primary cover.

Marking Stands

When you find a good stand location, take the time to kneel down in it for a few minutes, look around and survey the topography. Take note of the possible approach routes from the bedding areas for the coyote and from the road for the hunters. Assess what the proper wind direction would be and confirm there is a long enough view to prevent a coyote from getting a nose full of human scent before being seen.

Once you find a good stand and thought it out, it’s time to go find a few others but not before marking it in some way. Marking stand locations is an important part of scouting. Without the details recorded it would be easy to forget what the wind direction is supposed to be for example. Carefully document some key pieces of information either on a map or in a notebook. I use the On X app but a paper map works fine, too. I keep three pieces of information for each stand. The first is the number of hunters needed to be confident a coyote isn’t going to get in and out without being noticed. Second is what chair to bring in (I use two types of chairs when I hunt, either a regular height lawn chair or one of the turkey loungers that sit just an inch or two off the ground. Chair choice is dictated by available cover). Last and probably most important is the correct wind direction for hunting the stand. A simple code works well for this. An example of mine would be 2T ENE-SE, meaning two hunters in tall chairs with a wind out of east-northeast through southeast.  

Find and mark as many stands as possible on each property. It’s always good to have options, and more stands equal more flexibility.

Scouting Guns and Gear

I recommend carrying a rifle while out scouting. Spend enough time in prime coyote habitat and eventually a shot is going to present itself. I shoot a few every season while scouting. Shot opportunities while scouting usually fall into two categories: close and brushy or long. A chambering on the larger side of the varmint rifle spectrum is ideal, and lighter rifles are nice for toting mile after mile. I use a fat-barreled .22-250 for calling and a feather light .243 for scouting. Good binos come in very handy for checking out the neighboring properties or looking for bedding areas, or coyotes for that matter, and a rangefinder is a must for those long shots across a field. 

The On X app is a wonderful tool. I use it for marking stand locations, determining territory cores and marking other points of interest. The off-grid feature is great anywhere cell signal is poor. The features are great on a phone or tablet in the field and even better on a PC at home for digital scouting. Probably the best feature is the ownership information and tax address; it makes getting permission to hunt much easier.

Scouting paid off for the author with a winter prime song dog.
Scouting paid off for the author with a winter prime song dog.

The very last thing to do when scouting a new property is leave and don’t come back for a week or two. If a good, thorough scouting job was done, human scent should be everywhere and that can make for some very unhappy and extra paranoid coyotes.

How much difference does scouting really make in the long run? I really don’t know. I refuse to blow a call on any of my spots without carefully scouting them first and from time to time there on out. I do believe scouting makes a profound difference in success rates. I have no direct comparison but success rates on the properties I hunt certainly seem to be higher than the rates on properties I’m invited to hunt on with others.

The good Lord rewards those who hunt hard!

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