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All Outdoors Steve Carpenteri
This is the time of year when the normal Mainer is content to snuggle close to the wood stove and get up only to make more hot chocolate and glance with a shiver at what’s left of the mercury in the thermometer outside the frost-rimmed kitchen window.
Luckily, Maine sportsmen are anything but “normal” in most regards, and a little January cold is not going to keep them from enjoying a little time in pursuit of “legal game in season.” Perhaps one of the most challenging of winter sports is predatory hunting, and the much-maligned coyote leads the pack of prized furbearers that can be hunted this month. Coyotes have been the center of controversy in Maine for decades and enough has been said about them to fill a book or two, but I have always been one who admired and respected them as a sporting adversary. I began hunting coyotes in Maine in the mid-1970s when they were not particularly abundant or widespread as they are now, and they had not yet reached the “hated” category that they now wryly enjoy. Plans to eradicate coyotes didn’t pan out, nor did the back-door bounty program that offered huge cash prizes to the hunter who took the most or largest coyotes by hunting or trapping. All of that stuff went out the window when sportsmen finally realized and admitted that coyotes were “here to stay” (a standard surrender phrase wherever coyotes exist) and that they actually have more value as a game animal than as a “varmint.”
Anyway, now we’re at the point where guides offer a variety of coyote hunts ranging from tracking, calling, hounding and baiting, and the list of clients grows each year. There are plenty of coyotes in our area and there are several guides who specialize in winter coyote hunts, too, but it’s not necessary to pay someone to hunt coyotes unless you know absolutely nothing about the sport and want to learn how it’s done. However, if you read the Rolling Thunder Express every week, you can find out how to put a nice, lush coyote hide on your den wall...for free!
The first thing to do is get ready to hunt. You’ll need to dress warmly in layers (because you will expend some effort getting to the coyotes, and that means being able to eliminate layers while you walk). Bring some chemical handwarmers (one for each coat pocket) and start them up before you leave home – sometimes you get a dud, and you’ll be none too happy to discover that two miles back in the woods!
You’ll need a small-caliber centerfire rifle or shotgun (or bow, if you’re so inclined) that you can shoot quickly and accurately. You can call coyotes to within a few yards if conditions are right, but expect longer shots (25 yards to 200 yards or more). Use ammunition that won’t ruin the coyote’s hide – light bullets or No. 2 or No. 4 shot.
Calling can be done from the ground or from a stand, but I recommend ground hunting because you can move around as necessary. Coyotes are abundant in Maine but they are not “everywhere,” as some would claim. You may have to hike over hill and dale for several miles before you get a response, and pinning all your hopes on a single stand site might not be the best strategy unless there are foods nearby (dead cows at a farm, for example) that would keep coyotes in the area for long periods of time.
Calls can be the simple, hand-held variety (which I use), or you can try the electronic type. The risk here is to play “coyote caller” and make too much noise. The goal in calling coyotes is to sound like a dying rabbit, which is a very attractive sound to a hungry coyote in winter. Real dying rabbits don’t sit there screaming their heads off for hours on end, however. One real good, loud squeal is about all they can muster in real situations, and coyotes know this. I utter one loud, anguished squall every 30 minutes or so and have had coyotes show up within feet of my position even though I hadn’t uttered a sound in close to half an hour. Coyotes make their living finding food and they will know where you are from the first squeak, so don’t overdo it!
The best places to hunt are secluded, open farm fields (the infamous “back 40”), river valleys, large swamps and extended clear-cuts. Hike as far away from human activity as you can, be there at dawn and dusk, and call loudly but infrequently – every 30 minutes is plenty.
Sit facing downwind because coyotes (and foxes) will come in with their noses to the wind. A rabbit, skunk or fox cover scent might help in some situations. Put a few cotton balls soaked with scent about 20 yards out on either side of your position. The easiest thing to do is put a scented cotton ball inside a plastic film canister and just place the open canister on a rock or limb nearby. It will do the job (hold the coyote’s attention) long enough for you to do yours.
When a coyote does respond to your calls, sit still and do not move – try not to blink, because the incoming coyote will spot your movement and disappear without a second look. The closer the coyote gets to your position the more suspicious he will be, so make your call, sit comfortably and keep your gun or bow up and ready to shoot. Odds are your quarry will show up suddenly and unexpectedly, right in front of you and staring right down your gun barrel. Foxes tend to come in furtively, sneaking from left to right, but coyotes usually come barreling in, sometimes howling and jumping with excitement the whole way.
Be patient, sit still and have faith. A lot of nothing happens most of the time while winter predator calling, but when a coyote does show up all the hard work, cold and snow seem to vanish from your memory. When you come face to face with a serious predator that’s essentially hunting you, it puts a whole new spin on things.
If you prefer, bring your camera and take pictures, but get out there and do something. Winter is also cabin fever season, and it’s a proven fact that sportsmen suffer least from that unique North Country malady. Remember, cold is just a state of mind!
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