Top Night Hunting Tips for Predators

Night hunting for predators can be exciting. Try these tips to help make your next trip a success.

Top Night Hunting Tips for Predators

Dropping a pair of bobcats like these, or coyotes, at night is challenging and fun. But use the author's tips to help ensure success. (Photo: Tim Hovey)

The moon had dropped out of sight hours before and the night had been a dark one. It was 2:30 a.m. and we had time for one last night stand before we were headed back. My buddy, John Mattila, was on the light, standing in the bed of my truck. He had done a quick safety rotation with the headlamp making sure all was clear. I had my Howa .22-250 cradled in my shooting sticks and I was sitting on the tailgate of the vehicle. I whispered “Ready?” and I watched the red orb strapped to his head bob up and down. It was time to start calling.

I grabbed my Dan Thompson PS-2 wooden closed reed call and filled the surrounding desert with the sound of blood-curdling death. As I called, the red beam of the head lamp bounced off the open terrain surrounding the truck. Even after close to 20 years of night calling, I still get a thrill when I see the red beam light up the desert.

I had just finished a second calling sequence when I noticed the red beam had stopped and was focused on a group of boulders 80 yards out front. John was bouncing the light up and down; our signal for the presence of a critter. I moved to the front, flipped the switch on my scope-mounted light and saw the glowing eyes immediately.

The bobcat was slowly moving down the rock face and coming our way. As the animal reached the desert floor, I lost sight of him for a few seconds. A few low squeaks on the call and his eyes reappeared about 30 feet to the left, peering through a desert sage. I placed the crosshairs of the scope on the cat’s exposed chest and squeezed the trigger. Our second cat of the night was on the ground.

The following morning, we drove out to the skinning tree and started taking care of the two cats and three coyotes we had killed the evening before. It had been an amazing night hunt, and we had seen animals on nine of the 11 stands we had made. 

While we skinned, John and I talked about the hunt. This was John’s first season hunting predators at night and I had to convince him that not every evening is as successful as this one. As we talked, I started thinking about my first night hunts and all the improvements I’ve made over the years. Whether it was new types of gear or better techniques, I always looked to tip the odds in my favor when it came to night hunting predators. Here are some of the basics that have put more fur on the stretcher for me year after year.

Regulations

Night hunting regulations differ heavily from state to state. Some restrict night hunting altogether. Some have restrictions on light voltage amounts, others have rules about mounting lights to your rifle. I know a few states that require that you contact your local sheriff’s office before you head out to hunt. Before you plan a night hunt, I’d recommend that you make sure you check with your state wildlife department on specific state and county requirements for hunting at night in your area.

Stay Safe

In my opinion, night hunting brings with it a whole different level of gun safety. Moving around in the darkness with a firearm on uneven terrain requires an established safety protocol that I make sure is followed specifically when I head out to swing a light. I remind my hunting buddies of the safety steps every single time we’re out. Different situations will call for different protocols, but here is how we handle gun safety during a night hunt.

After the truck is stopped, the lighter quietly gets out first, silently drops the tailgate and gets in the bed of the truck. I’ll use this time to do a quick safety check of the surrounding area to make sure it’s completely clear of campers, other hunters or structures. If I see anything other than open terrain, I get back in the truck and we find another spot. 

When I’m set, I gently tap the cab of the vehicle, signaling the shooter to exit. The shooter quietly steps out, slides the unloaded firearm out of the rifle case and makes his way to the rear of the truck. The lighter should use the spotlight so the shooter can easily see the path to the rear of the vehicle. The barrel of the firearm should be pointed in a safe direction while the shooter gets into position.

At the back, the shooter sits on the dropped tailgate, rests the rifle on an extended set of shooting sticks, barrel facing in a safe direction. The lighter will then light up the action of the firearm so that the shooter can load it. The safety is engaged until the shooter is ready to shoot.

When the stand is over, the lighter lights up the shooter to assist in the unloading of the firearm. The shooter declares that he or she is clear after the unload, and then reverses the process, securing the unloaded firearm and then gets back into the truck. Once the rifle is secure and the shooter is back in the vehicle, the lighter climbs out of the bed, closes the tailgate and we drive to the next spot.

Be Quiet

One thing I learned early on is that sound carries far better in the cool evening air than it does during the day. Predator activity increases when the sun goes down, so it’s very important to be as quiet as possible when preparing to call the night. All vehicle seat belt indicators, door and key bells are disabled long before we reach the hunting grounds.

Communication is kept to a minimum and a whisper; even inside the truck. Care is always taken to remove gear, such as rifle and shooting sticks, as quietly as possible when on stand. The clanking of your shootings sticks against the side of the truck or a heavily shut door alerts predators nearby of your presence. Any unnatural noise created while setting up your stand keeps nearby predators wary and will likely keep them out of range.

To keep things quiet in the bed of the truck, I lay a thick blanket down to hide the sound of the lighters feet as he or she scans the surrounding terrain. We also lay gear such as shooting sticks on the blanket so they’re easily found in the bed and quietly picked up at each stand. If you want to put more fur in the truck during night hunts, stay as quiet as you absolutely can before calling.

Stay Comfortable

As I’ve gotten older, I started to notice that I was unable to stay out as long as I had when I was younger. At first, I just attributed it to getting older, but I then realized I was getting physically tired toward the end of the evening. You wouldn’t think that the repeated efforts of climbing in and out of the bed of a truck and shining a light for 20 minutes can wear you out. However, if you add in the cold, the late hour and maybe several empty stands in a row, you may start to notice the weariness affecting you.

A few years back I added a padded barstool to the back of the truck during night hunts. The lighter can now comfortably sit in the bed and easily rotate 360 degrees, almost effortlessly lighting up the terrain. Since we started using the stool, we’ve been able to add another three to four stands to the evening hunt.

We also load up on hand and feet warmers, beanies, fur hats and warm jackets to keep us warm during the hunt. Nothing ruins a good time faster than a buddy who starts complaining about being too cold. Keep a thermos of something warm to drink in the truck and I guarantee you’ll be able to extend your evening hunt.

Moon Phase

My philosophy on moon phase for night hunting is simple; the darker the better. Moon phase is the first thing I check when I plan a night hunt. If the moon is full and will be out when I’m out, I don’t hunt. I’ve noticed that animals are more wary during a full moon when the terrain and everything in it is bright enough to see without a light.

A bright moon can cast a reflection off a shiny truck or windshield, signaling to an approaching predator to stay away. They hang up way out of range and almost never approach the source of the prey sound. They hunt at night and see exceptionally well in the darkness. Add even a little bit of light and there is no question that during a full moon phase, they will be able to easily pick you out as a threat.

A bright moon phase also makes your light setup less effective. With so much ambient light, it may be difficult to pick out a set of eyes at a distance using your spotlight. I’ve always found it easier to spot animals during the darkest phases of the moon, and I’ve noticed that they are more apt to close the distance when it’s darkest out.

Types of Lights

When I first started night hunting, I used a spotlight with a red lens that plugged into the cigarette lighter of the truck. It worked well enough but was too heavy, the beam too wide and we always ran the risk of running down the car battery during the hunt. After that, I ran a Light Force 170 or 240 light with a red lens for many years. The light was specifically designed for spotlighting animals, was light and very efficient. However, it also ran off the truck battery.

Two years ago, I decided to update my night hunting light system. After some investigating, I picked up a headlamp and scope mounted light from Wicked Hunting Lights. The headlamp has a variable switch so you can hunt under a red, green or white light, depending on your preference. The light is very bright, comfortable to wear and allows me to spend an evening night hunting, hands free.

The scope light has full vertical and horizontal adjustment, the same color settings as the headlamp and is amazingly bright. Both lights run off lithium ion rechargeable batteries and easily last an entire evening on one charge.

As far as colors, I have killed predators under a red, white, amber and green lens, and I’ve never really seen any difference in animal behavior with the varied colors. I believe any color will work for night hunting, but I have settled on red because that’s what I started with and that’s what I’m used to. It should be noted that shooting under any color besides white takes some getting used to. Colored lights wash out the image, making it difficult for some shooters to locate the animal in the scope. 

Types of Calls

While any type of electronic call will get the attention of night-roaming predators if played loud enough, I prefer the use of hand calls. I like that I can easily control the pitch and volume of the call without having to look at a remote and press some buttons. I also belive they are far easier to use when a critter is coming in. I can change up sounds instantly, lower the volume or simply stop calling all together depending on the behavior of the animal. I understand that these sound modifications are easily manipulated on an electronic call, but I like the ease and simplicity of blowing a hand call when I’m night hunting.

My calls of choice are the Dan Thompson closed reed series. They are easy to use and seem to provide me with the volume I like when hunting at night. Adjusting the amount of air moving through the call changes the tone and the sound instantly. I usually blow on the call for about 20 to 30 seconds and then rest for a minute. I continue this sound pattern for 15 to 20 minutes before moving on to the next stand.

Identify Your Target

I can’t emphasize enough that everything looks different at night. Whether it’s distance, objects or animals, things just look different when’s it’s dark out. The human eye, even under a colored spotlight, has trouble picking out details at night. This is the reason it is very important to positively identify your night target before even considering taking a shot.

We’ve had deer, cows, goats and even a one-eye mule show up to the call, interested in the screaming prey sound. At times, the lighter may have a better vantage point on the approaching animal. Whispered communication between the lighter and the shooter is essential before a shot is squeezed off. Our rule is that unless both the lighter and the shooter agree on the species identification, we do not shoot.

Coyotes vs. Bobcats

We’ve all heard how stealthy and cautious bobcats are when you pursue them during the day. They take their time coming in, use every bit of available cover to hide and sometimes just appear. I’m sure most cats go undetected during daytime stands because of their stealthy behavior. Conversely, coyotes often race to the daytime call with an almost reckless abandon and are easily spotted. Flashes of tan fur cutting through the sage indicate that you’ve fooled one and he’s coming. Because of these behaviors, predator hunters probably kill a lot more coyotes during the day than bobcats. I completely believe that this difference in response behavior makes coyotes easier to hunt than bobcats during the day. However, when the sun goes down and it gets dark, the tables turn.

At night, bobcat don’t change their stalking behavior. If I catch the interest of a cat while calling, I will see his eyes. It doesn’t matter if he weaves through the thick brush or peaks at me from a boulder field, his bright eyes give him away. Similarly, coyotes hunt the same way, day or night. As with daytime behavior, coyotes rarely stay still when coming to the nighttime call. I often see their eyes eerily floating out at distance as they attempt to circle downwind. If they reach your downwind, the eyes will go out, and you will never see them again. It is for those reasons that I believe bobcats are far easier to hunt at night than coyotes. If you’re looking to put some spotted fur on the stretcher, hunting at night will increase your odds of success.

When the days start getting shorter and the temperature drops, I start getting my gear ready for a nighttime predator hunt. I pay attention to the moon phase and start making plans with my hunting buddies. When it comes to chasing coyotes and bobcats, for me, nothing compares to the excitement of watching a set of glowing eyes coming to the call. If you’ve been thinking about giving it a try, stay safe, call loudly and above all, be prepared; night hunting will consume you.



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