March 01, 2017

A fast growing winter pastime is hunting for fox (both red and gray), coyote and where legal (refer to the MDNR Hunting Guide), bobcat. This is referred to today as “predator hunting”, but being old school, I still tend to call it “varmint hunting”, and whatever you wish to call it, Michigan offers excellent opportunities. Near my home in the Thumb, this means strictly for fox and coyote because the bobcat hunting zone is further north. Whatever method you use, predator hunting is extremely challenging, and a great way to enjoy the wintertime outdoors.

One of the oldest forms of predator hunting is using hounds, and this is a time-honored method steeped in tradition which goes back eons, with dogs and humans working constructively together. It is by no means a slam-dunk affair and a case in point is a hunt I was on near Rogers City. The hounds were pursuing a bobcat in a dense cedar swamp and I was thrilled to the core when I could hear the baying of the hounds coming my way as I intently watched the gaps in the cover as the sound of the dogs came ever closer. Pretty soon I spotted the dogs passing through the gaps as they went right on by me, and I never did see that bobcat. There is no question in my mind that it was like trying to spot a wisp of smoke whisking through the shadows. Such happens, and I do thoroughly enjoy listening to the hounds “singing”, which is always a major part of this atmosphere.

Using calls for luring predators into range is no doubt becoming quite popular these days, and electronic callers are clearly moving into the forefront in this regard. The electronic caller was pioneered by Johnny Stewart back when using old-style records and a portable record player (with a big funnel-like speaker) were the norm. This would allow recorded calling sequences to be used and hands to be free (for shooting purposes) and was definitely convenient for hunters not wishing to deal with mouth calls.

This in turn would eventually lead to more durable tape-cassette callers later followed by the present digital callers which are even more durable, versatile and compact than ever. A fact that I appreciate about an electronic caller is that the very authentic calling sequence (of which there is a wide and amazing variety to select from) can be placed away from the hunter per a remote system, which is certainly an asset when sharp-eyed predators are incoming and homing in on the calling.

For those wishing a true hands-on experience, mouth calls are still as popular as ever and I must admit they remain my favorite. A key to remember is that during frigid weather it pays to keep a spare mouth call or two tucked inside your coat, because the moisture from your breath can cause the call being used to freeze up and become useless until it is thawed out (been there, done that and the freeze up can happen real sudden like). One call I always have on hand is a rubber “squeaker” that simply requires squeezing, and it has more range than might be assumed, and truly sounds like a rodent in trouble. It is often the first call I use before trying others.

Whether using electronic or mouth calls, it never hurts to use a decoy that can add a little realism and a visual focus point for an incoming predator. When I’m using a rabbit in distress call, I often have a battery powered (and fuzzy) decoy that wobbles around on a stick, and it is an addition to the setup that doesn’t hurt. It also pays to remember that in regards to foxes and coyotes, they will often circle to the downwind side of the calling to assess the situation before committing.

Coyotes, they will often circle to the downwind side of the calling to assess the situation before committing. MDNR photo

I can remember when some hunters thought 15 minutes was enough time to call before moving on to another spot, but I’ve found it pays to stick to it a half hour at least and sometimes much more, a gut feeling sort of thing. A major goal of my predator hunting trips up north (in the bobcat zone), is to successfully call in a bobcat, which seem to take forever to respond, a fact that I understand but thus far seem to never have enough patience to accomplish matters. I can remember calling for over an hour, and when I moved I discovered tracks in the snow of a bobcat that had finally decided to come in but I had spooked it.

When it comes to wintertime predator hunting/calling, I do appreciate a fresh snowfall that lets me know a predator making tracks is possibly still in the near vicinity, as this can up the odds, sometimes anyway. I can remember after one snowfall, spotting fresh coyote tracks crossing the road and leading into a local CRP grass field I had permission to hunt. I circled on foot along the outside of the tall grass to the downwind side of the field and sat down against an apple tree in the fencerow, and began calling.

My assumption was that the coyote would most likely come out of the tall grass and into the open field in front of me to scent matters downwind of my calling. I was using a mouth call to make “rabbit in distress” calls and was wailing away when I got that strange feeling something was right behind me. I slowly turned my head and looked right into the face of a large (at petting distance they all look large) coyote sitting quite calmly with its head cocked over to the side in that quizzical canine manner. I believe it wasn’t quite sure about how to tackle a rather oversized “rabbit”. This coyote had come straight in with a tailwind to the calling (so much for assumptions).

Well folks, when you are that close to a critter, you can actually see the reality lights turn on in its eyes, and I’m pretty sure it can see them turning on for you too! The coyote performed a sudden twirl and disappeared back into the tall grass before I could turn enough to bring my rifle into play, and nearly choking on my mouth call didn’t help any either.

Calling and using lights at night has been legal for fox and coyote hunting for some time now (I personally prefer calm and clear full moon nights, minus any lights). Several years ago, elevated stands (including tree-stands) became legal for daylight fox and coyote hunting, but it is not legal for nighttime hunting. Hunter orange is now not required when a predator hunter is stationary, but must be worn when the hunter is travelling afoot. It is also not required for nighttime hunting (refer to the MDNR Hunting Guide for actual times).

In 2016 #3 and # 4 buckshot became legal for nighttime fox and coyote hunting, and more recently) centerfire rifles .269 caliber or smaller, were also included for nighttime hunting on private lands only in the Limited Firearms Zone (which includes the Thumb). Prior to this only birdshot in shotguns and .22 caliber or smaller rimfire rifles could be used for nighttime fox and coyote hunting. For a fact, centerfire rifles (and buckshot too) have always been allowed for predator hunting in the Limited Firearms Zone during daylight hours.

Night vision systems and laser sights may be used for nighttime predator hunting as well.

When it comes to a calling setup, avoid sky-lining yourself and pick a location that breaks up your outline (a large tree trunk nearly the width of my shoulders works for me whether I’m sitting or standing). Camouflage clothing that matches the environment is invaluable and when it comes to snow, I’ve found both solid white and snow-camo work equally well. The same applies to the locally made Lucky’s portable ground blind ( specifically designed for predator hunting with its low profile.

Something I’m going to try this winter is using more coyote vocalizations which might do the trick during the fast approaching coyote mating season. Another avenue is to use a turkey decoy, and do some yelping with a turkey call (I’ve had both coyotes and foxes stalk in on my hen decoy while spring turkey hunting – so it is a natural sound they clue in on). Something new and different might be the thing to employ with sometimes call-shy coyotes. As can be the case, with more hunters pursuing them these days, some coyotes (and foxes too) get a bit educated.

One thing is for certain, predator hunting is a great way to spice up a long winter. It is quite literally “the other season” I look forward to each winter.