10 Hard-Hitting Predator Rifles for 2015
February 19, 2015
The coyote practically shined, nearly white and glaringly obvious sitting in the deep yellow grass 200 yards away, watching me work the Knight & Hale jackrabbit call. Busted. How had he gotten there unnoticed? It was unclear if he'd just sat up from a bed or snuck in on me, but he was staring right at me.
Hate it when they see you first, particularly because I was not hidden to speak of, sitting in a dirt hole depression made by cattle on the edge of the field. It was just one of those spots, where in order to get positioned so you could see any distance at all, you were going to have to be in the open. Good camo and stealth would have to compensate.
But they didn't, and here we were. Before I could get on him with the gun, the coyote stood and started walking left out of the huge field toward the edge of the timber. My partner, Scott Grange, was back behind me a few hundred yards out of sight up in the timber, watching an old logging road.
I hoped the coyote would either hit the edge of the field and then keep coming to the call, or cross that road in the woods and Scott would smoke him.
Something about the way he sped up and broke into that rolling coyote canter told me he was spooked, though. And here I'd come to Alberta hoping to find dumb, underhunted dogs.
That's the tough thing about using a hand-held mouth call without a decoy. They are going to see you, you can only hope it's too late for them.
Turned out it would be a good thing I hadn't shot at that coyote, because I would have missed out on one of the most intense moments in a long hunting career. But I was about to get a painful lesson in sticking to your guns, so to speak.
Starting back on the call, I blew a pleading effort to get that coyote headed back my way. Minutes passed, and nothing was visible except the trees and brush where he'd disappeared a few hundred yards down the edge of the field.
Then my eyes caught motion a little further down the field, something moving through the brush. He was coming back! Wait, were there two of them walking end to end in the brush?
The animal stepped into the field edge, and turned its face my way, the afternoon sun striking the large dished out huge white cheek areas. WOLF! It had looked like maybe a pair of coyotes slipping through the deep cover because it was just so long.
A smarter hunter would have kept calling, but I quit to get on the gun. Mistake. The big gray wolf walked right out into the field, right at 300 yards or so, looked my way, then lost interest and started angling away from me, toward some distant cattle. Shooting off my Sitka backpack, which I'd stood on end to use as a rest, I doped the wind and started to squeeze the trigger.
The fact that the gun in my hands was a .22 centerfire, and that I was shooting at a wolf in the wind at 300 yards with a 50-grain bullet, was cruel and not completely ironic. It was a fabulous gun, a Winchester Coyote Light, built for killing predators and awesomely accurate. But this was the wrong type of predator.
A month earlier, my buddies at Winchester said we'd be going on a waterfowl and coyote hunting extravaganza in Alberta, with an outside shot at a wolf. Way, way, outside shot. A large group of writers was on the hunt sponsored by Winchester and Zink goose calls, and WILDFOWL magazine's Canada writer Brad Fenson had helped organize it.
When told I would receive the .22-250, I remarked to the guys at Winchester that I wanted a .25-'06, .260 Remington, 6.5 Creedmoor or at the least a .243 if wolves were a possibility, and also because it is bear country. The .22-250 will surely kill a wolf easily to 150 yards with good shot placement and the right bullet. The wolf is strong, he fights for a living, gets kicked in the head by moose — a supremely tough animal the size of a small deer — and I would not want to shoot at one at 300 yards in the wind with a .22 centerfire. That's just asking a lot of a 50-grain bullet.
But I was told the two-fifty had already shipped and it was what they had in stock, and that we'd be primarily killing coyotes. Fenson, a wolf killing veteran, remarked that without any baits out, and long before winter (it was October), a chance at a wolf would indeed be a long, long shot, the Detroit Lions making the Super Bowl, but that with so many hunters in our group, he thought somebody would probably have an encounter.
As editor of Predator Nation, I got to go out with Grange, who is a coyote killing machine from way back, a guy who used to travel the west during weekends while in college, returning with a truckload of pelts to help pay for school. Every time I get to hunt with Scott, I learn a ton. On this day we'd made four sets with no luck, and now it was my turn to call.
And here we were, me and this monster grey wolf. I breathed deep, and almost rushed the shot, caught myself, blew a pinhole and squeezed the trigger, fudging a few inches left for the wind. The wolf appeared to flail like a well-shot animal does on the ground'¦but he never really fell during the flailing, never really lost his feet before spinning left and running into the timber.
I'd been elk and deer hunting in the weeks prior and went into automatic kill mode soon as I saw the wolf, forgetting that I held a .22 centerfire in my hands, not an adult rifle. In hindsight, I should have aimed at his head, given the lightweight, non-bonded bullets we were using.
Scott walked to me, after the shot, thinking I'd zapped a coyote, and his jaw hit the ground when he heard about the wolf. We were pumped walking over to where he'd disappeared. About halfway there, I realized I was probably in trouble when the wolf didn't hit the dirt right away.
Even if he was hard hit, because of the caliber, we were looking at a tiny entrance hole and no exit wound. There would be little or no blood. If we didn't find this wolf piled up within 50 to 100 yards, we might be screwed; another premonition that proved true. We searched for hours, fantasizing about finding the wolf, something two predator hunters wanted worse than anything. Nada.
Four months later I headed back to Alberta, and believe me, it was not a coyote pop gun in my hard case. On that first trip, talking to Fenson back at camp, he sympathized with me and said the Canadian guides he knows love the .270s for wolves, particularly the .270 WSM. "You were undergunned," he said.
On the second trip, we would be hunting over bait. At camp with guide Greg Dussome, we watched some thrilling videos of wolves coming in to baits. White ones, black ones, just stunning creatures to see move in and chase the ravens off. And the wolf gun debate came up.
We watched a local kill several with a .22-250, but he only shoots close and over baits, where you can take careful aim at reasonable range. Even still, the wolves he shot did a lot of flopping and some needed re-shooting.
I asked him why the .22-250, and he said it hammers them, and doesn't blow big exit holes in the fur. But he also admitted, like Greg, that while it will kill them, "you really wouldn't want to shoot one over 150 yards."
Enough said. It's not a wolf gun if you are not comfortable taking a longer shot. The coolest thing about the two-fifty is that they are so flat shooting, but guess what'¦everything is flat shooting under 150 yards. Why would you want to limit yourself? Let a monster black wolf walk because he's 250 yards out? Greg, for the record, wants his hunters using deer rifles for wolves. At the minimum, the .243 is a much smarter choice for a wolf hunter, and even still a little lighter than I like. All the .25-caliber and up guns are perfect wolf fare, not overkill. They are all light recoiling, fast and flat shooting, and will buck the wind much better than the coyote guns will.
Terry Denmon of Mojo Outdoors uses a .25-'06 on wolves, and it's tough to argue with that. Denmon says when he was hunting wolves in Ontario, the guides there also tell their clients to bring their best deer rifle because so many guys using .22 centerfires ("varmint rifles") lose wolves non-stop, wounding them and having them get away.
There is no denying the appeal of the .22 centerfires — they are fun guns to shoot. Most of us shoot them well because we aren't even thinking about recoil. Sure, the .22-250 works OK at close range with expert shot placement, but there is nothing it can do that a .25-'06 or a .243 can't do better.
Northern Indians kill moose with the .22 long rifle all the time, but that does not make it an ideal caliber. I killed a pile of coyotes with .22 magnum back in college. So what. I also shot at plenty of them at 200 yards and never cut a hair with that little gun. An old Canadian trapper killed many grizzlies with a .270, but that doesn't make it an ideal dangerous bear gun.
And there are others reasons to choose an adult rifle for wolves, at least in the north country. That local who'd been shooting wolves with the .22-250 told me he snuck in on one of his baits before light and to his horror the dawn revealed a monster grizzly sleeping on the bait!
A dangerous spot to be in with a toy gun shooting 50-grain bullets. Grizzlies are really not great about sharing their food sources, and had the wind not gone his way, our hero could have found himself between a rock and huge, claw-and-tooth covered giant brown hard place. Not a big deal if you have a .308.
While coyote and wolf hunting two years prior in British Columbia, I was told by one landowner that he was sorry, the best spot we had for wolves was off-limits. A sow grizzly with cubs had appeared and was chasing cattle, and the outfitter had decided me going in there to do animal-in-distress calls was pretty much suicide.
I was crushed, as I'd been hoping to get a wolf. Upon returning home, I received an email from the outfitter. Right there, where I was intent on doing all that predator calling, a giant rogue 850-pound male grizzly (that is freakishly huge for an interior grizz) had been shot killing cattle, along with his cute little wife, a 450-pound sow.
So, yeah, the outfitter saved me a savage mauling or worse, when my machismo had dictated I would have gone in there to call a wolf.
And on the Alberta trips, we learned that grizzlies got government protection in many areas, and like all predators, they lose their fear of man the moment you stop shooting at them. They are deadly and aggressive and will come out anytime its over 40 degrees for a few days'¦so it might be smart to carry a grown up rifle while chasing wolves.
The .270 WSM is perfect in that it is not an ideal bear gun, it is certainly capable of changing their attitude'¦at least compared to traditional sissy predator guns.
Which brings up the point. How much is enough? There is such a thing as too much gun. Dussome told of one client who wounded a wolf with a .280, a perfect wolf caliber, and came back with a .338 and missed four straight, obviously cringing at the recoil.
It takes real skill to shoot a .338 well, like learning to kiss while waiting to get punched in the mouth. There is a lesson here as well — the best wolf gun is the biggest deer-caliber gun that you can shoot very accurately. That means fast follow up shots, too.
One-shot kills and magazine capacity can be important too, because the wonderful thing about wolf hunting in some areas is that you just might get a chance for multiple kills. In fact the best wolf gun just might be a custom-tricked out AR-10 in .308 for fast follow up shots with no bolt gun noise of reloading, but they simply are not legal in Canada.
An accurate semi-auto deer rifle like the Sauer 303 would be a great choice, stateside. But we do tend to chase wolves in freezing temps, and no semi-auto is ever going to be as ultimately reliable in zero-degree conditions as a bolt gun.
A light caliber coyote rifle might be fine if you are going to sniper a wolf carefully under 150 yards, but in the real world you don't always get perfect shot placement opportunity, and in the case of wolves you may get a crack at a second or third one running or milling around.
Craig Boddington killed three on one stand last year, and Fenson killed five wolves with his buddy in one shoot 'em up! They dropped the alpha first, and the rest milled around confused. In that situation, there is no way all those shots are going to be perfect.
And while there is no arguing that you still need to hit vitals for a clean kill, there is also no arguing that a larger, bone-smashing bullet creates a certain margin of error for imperfect hits. If you do find yourself using a lighter caliber gun, make sure you have a premium controlled expansion bonded or homogenous bullet.
Like an archer friend of mine says: You don't need the bullet/broadhead that works when the shot is perfect, you need the one that still gets the job done when the shot isn't perfect.
And hey, it's not like we're worried about wasting meat on a wolf. Though if you know a great recipe we'd love to hear about it. There. We hope you enjoyed this excuse to go out and buy another gun.