March 18, 2021
One of the things I like most about predator hunting is that it’s never a certainty who’s going to show up for dinner, or a midnight snack. Most of us hunt habitats where a hierarchy of various predators occupies the landscape. In the East and South, there might be a mix of red and gray foxes, coyotes, bobcats and raccoons. In the North, gray foxes are rare or nonexistent, but wolves and lynx might be added to the equation. In the Southwest, the odd lion (or territorial javelina) might show up when the “Dying Rabbit Blues” lights up the landscape. It was the same when I used to do a fair amount of fur trapping. While most of my sets were designed for specific furbearing species, I learned to expect the unexpected—foxes and bobcats in raccoon cubby sets, coons in canine dirt hole sets.
And while it’s possible to target specific species when calling within specific environments, there’s always occasion for the unanticipated visitor. I once called in and killed a bobcat at high noon on a wide-open grassy flat in the Arizona high desert, a place usually inhabited by lions, gray and red foxes and is dominated by their mortal enemy Wile E. Coyote. I also called in a wolf when hunting coyotes on my home stomping grounds in northern Minnesota. In fact, I’ve quit hunting coyotes at night up there because of the strong probability that a wolf might show up. Northern coyotes are large and well-furred, and at night it’s often difficult to distinguish the difference between a young-of-the-year timber wolf and what the locals refer to as brush wolves (coyotes).
But why even worry about who’s coming to dinner? It’s all good, right? We are all equal opportunity predator hunters, right? Well, yes and no. Sometimes there’s a good reason to target specific critters. For example, Western bobcats averaged $403.50 at the latest Fur Harvester International Auction, while Western coyotes sold for a quarter of that at $100.43 (Editor’s note: Due to the ongoing pandemic, fur auctions were suspended in 2020. These prices are from the FH 2019 late fall auction.) So, do the math. Wouldn’t it make more sense for hunters living where both species are prevalent to target bobcats rather than coyotes—to concentrate their efforts on those habitat niches where they would be more likely to encounter the cats? Or to target coyotes rather than red or gray foxes—which bring a yet lower price?
Or what about targeting depredating coyotes? There are those times when coyotes are hunted “out of season” because of their detrimental impact on livestock and big- and small-game species—a good reason why they can be pursued year-round in most states while there are limited seasons on other furbearers. In this case, hitting those honey holes where coyotes are most likely found while avoiding non-target critters would be the best approach.
Plan Your Attack
So there are two approaches the non-discriminant or discriminant predator hunter can take for hunting the mixed bag and each requires its own strategy. Approach No. 1: Setting up in anticipation of the mixed bag—and embracing that probability. Approach No. 2: Targeting a specific predatory species where two or more exist. The former requires a generalized approach to stand and equipment selection while the latter requires a more focused ground plan.
Before diving into these two options in more detail, there are some key factors that impact both in regard to animal behavior and how predators use the landscape. Hunting behavior varies between predatory species. For example: Some work the night shift while others commonly hunt during daylight hours—or at least during those crepuscular hours prior to sunset and after dawn. In the West and Southwest, coyotes often prefer open spaces, while bobcats and gray foxes are more likely to gravitate to more marginal, heavy cover—avoiding those places where coyotes hang out. In the North and East, coyotes commonly frequent the big timber while red foxes hunt and hang out around small farm pastures, sloughs, and the outskirts of town—again, avoiding coyotes. And while all of these critters likely share common food sources, their approach to filling their stomachs is often different. Cats, for example, are visual hunters, using their keen eyesight to detect and stalk their prey, while canines depend primarily on their noses.
Hunting activity can also vary from animal to animal within the same species based on a host of factors. For example, coyotes in remote regions might hunt during the day while coyotes that occupy areas close to human settlements might hunt only at night. Scarcity of food can also influence when predators hunt. They might be more prone—desperate, even—to hunt during the day if prey is hard to come by. Knowing where target animals spend the majority of their time, when they are most active and how they hunt will provide the information needed to apply either of the aforementioned hunting strategies.
Let’s first look at hunting the mixed bag—which is my favorite method because of the element of surprise it can provide and the likelihood that I will put more fur in the truck by the end of the day (or night). But as I mentioned earlier, this will take a generalized, big-picture approach to predator hunting.
When hunting areas where two or more predatory species might be encountered, I select calling locations that have the potential to produce any of them. Rather than setting up in the middle of a vast grassy flat or expansive pasture where only coyotes hunt, I would select a calling site closer to cover where more secretive species such as bobcats and foxes hang out. This might be on a field edge close to a deep ravine, brushy creek-bottom or dry wash, etc. If I’m hunting an area where coyotes and red foxes share the landscape—say, North Dakota—I crowd a cattail slough where red foxes seek refuge from those coyotes that are cruising wide-open CRP or agricultural fields. This is especially effective when hunting at night, when coyotes are actively hunting these open expanses. But by hunting closer to cover, I’ve doubled my odds of encountering fur or even tripling it if coyotes, foxes, and bobcats inhabit the area.
Specialize in Being General
Equipment and calling techniques also require a generalist bent—in the form of identifying common denominators and applying strategies that capitalize on a number of factors. Firearm/cartridge/bullet choice must cover a wide range of possibilities. On the extreme end, consider a hunt in Arizona rimrock habitat, where anything from a 160-pound lion to a 12-pound gray fox or 20-pound desert bobcat might answer the call. Obviously, no one cartridge/bullet combo is going to offer optimal performance on all three species. The key here is compromise.
While I would tend to muscle up if I were targeting only lions—maybe a .25-06 Rem., 6.5 Creedmoor or even .270 Win.—I would take a different approach if foxes and bobcats were also on the menu. Knowing full well that a .223 Rem. or .22-250 Rem. loaded with stout, premium bullets would easily rug out a lion, I would also feel more comfortable that, if bullet placement was precise, I would stand a good chance of salvaging a fox or bobcat hide should one show up. This choice becomes less critical in areas where only like-sized critters are apt to come in—say, bobcats and gray foxes. Here small-but-deadly cartridges such as the various .17- and .22-caliber rounds would get the job done—gravitating to the .22s if coyotes enter the equation. The bottom-line is to use the smallest cartridge/bullet combo that will anchor the largest predator that might show up while doing the least amount of damage to the smallest.
Same goes for calls and calling techniques—which require a middle-of-the-road application. Different predators respond to the call, well, differently. Felines—in cat fashion—take their good old time coming to the call, distracted by nearly every “shiny object” along the way. This means that when hunting an area where bobcats or lions might be part of the mixed bag, the patient predator hunter stays on each stand no less than 30 to 45 minutes or even an hour—knowing it might take that long for them to show. And with felines I generally call more constantly to keep their attention focused on me—taking only short breaks if I’m using a mouth call or leaving the e-caller running throughout the duration of the stand.
Coyotes and gray foxes tend to charge the call, and I rarely stay at a setup more than 20 minutes if the mixed bag lacks members of the cat family. Red foxes are somewhere in-between. Less bold than their gray cousins, they tend to approach the call with caution, hoping to avoid becoming collateral damage should a coyote be the source of the commotion.
Which calls are best when hunting the mixed bag? First, the obvious: Don’t use coyote vocalizations in areas where foxes or bobcats might be part of the landscape, because they will likely make tracks in the opposite direction. Stick with food sources and keep it simple. I look to common prey species such as rabbits, rodents, and birds, and since some predators (red foxes and bobcats) are more timid than others (coyotes and gray foxes),
I apply the same reasoning I used when selecting my mixed bag cartridge—compromise. I start with infrequent low-volume calling sequences that they will all tolerate and work the volume up from there if I don’t get a response in, say, 10 minutes.
Here are a couple of examples to get the deductive juices flowing. First let’s consider those $500 Western bobcats. Identifying those habitat characteristics these cats prefer—rocky areas with plenty of plant cover, riparian canyons, and brush-choked dry washes—is the first logical step. Scouting these areas will help decipher which predatory species are most prominent and where each is spending most of its time. While it’s still possible to encounter foxes or even coyotes in these habitat niches, the probability of that happening has been reduced. And since we know that bobcats are most active at night or those magical minutes after dusk and prior to dawn, this is when the feline hunter should be most active, too. Putting further knowledge of a bobcat’s hunting habits to work, a decoy, such as a feather on a string, might help entice these sight-oriented hunters into range and staying on stand for periods often extending to an hour is the order of the day.
Next, let’s think about those thieving, conniving lamb-, calf-, and fawn-killing coyotes. First, look to the food source. If coyotes are hitting a cattle or sheep ranch at night with regularity, for example, a viable plan might be to figure out their travel patterns and intercept them coming and going. I’ve had good luck setting up in the foothills a half-mile or more from a ranch before first light and catching the coyotes heading back to the loafing areas where they spend their days. It might even be a good idea to bait them with a dead carcass, since in this case it is the preferred food source.
Chances are good that if coyotes are frequenting a particular ranch other predators will stay away and coyote vocalizations are a better bet than prey-in-distress sounds, playing on their territorial and parental instincts. This is particularly effective during the mating and pup-rearing season when coyotes are extremely territorial, some of which falls outside of when fur is prime and other predators can’t be targeted. I’ve had very little success using rabbit, rodent, and bird sounds when coyotes are targeting ranches—feeding on afterbirth, still borns, manure, and such. And since the target species here is coyotes, there’s no need to worry about territorial barks and howls scaring off other predators.
When predator hunters set the table, they can select between two culinary approaches. Send out exclusive invitations that ensure only the social elite join the party—or offer up a smorgasbord and embrace the diversity of their guests. Either way, the reward is in dictating and capitalizing on who comes to dinner.