By Joe Kosack,
Wildlife Conservation Education Specialist
Pennsylvania Game Commission
Interested in finding something new and different to try this winter? Coyote hunting may be just what you’re looking for, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“Calling a coyote into shotgun range is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in the outdoors,” said Perry County Wildlife Conservation Officer Steve Hower. “Catching one sneaking in the backdoor as you sit motionlessly waiting for it to come into range is right up there with calling in a trophy gobbler on a crisp spring morning.
“The action is often close. Your quarry is one of the most intelligent animals out there. And, if you do everything right and take a coyote, you’ll be hooked.”
The eastern coyote can be found in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Next to the black bear, it’s the state’s largest wild predator, weighing in at 35 to 55 pounds. Adult males have exceeded 60 pounds. They roam the big woods and suburban areas and everything in-between.
Opportunity and relative calm often dictate where they’ll be. They are masters at using cover and laying low and rarely miss chances for easy meals and fast-food.
Coyotes scavenge roadkills and root through litter along the edges of our interstate highways. They’re also fond of groundhogs and mice, and they’ll even scarf down a feral cat if the opportunity presents itself.
Coyotes do eat venison, but hunter gut-piles and unrecovered deer and highway kills provide more to coyotes than they take through deer predation. They also will eat wild grapes, field corn, apples, grasshoppers and even acorns.
In a word, coyotes are opportunists. They’re intelligent animals that seize the moment or the season and cash in whenever and as often as possible. But despite their fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants approach to life, coyotes can be located and patterned by people interested in hunting them. It’ll take some time and patience, according to Hower, but in the end, it’s all good and absolutely worth it.
“The best way to locate coyotes is to go to a remote area, cup your hands around your mouth and howl,” explained Hower. “If they’re nearby, they’ll normally respond to it. Your howl plants a seed in their mind that a strange coyote is in the area and they’ll either howl back immediately or even come to investigate.
“Sometimes coyotes come in quietly and without vocally responding to your howl. This is especially true if they’re close by. It can be quite a surprise if you don’t see one coming and it appears out of nowhere at close range!”
The best places to hunt coyotes are near areas where they spend their daytime hours. That’s why calling during daylight is best; it helps you identify coyote resting areas. They usually stay in the same general areas during the day, but those locations may change from one season to the next.
Another way to locate coyotes would be to look for sign such as scat and tracks. A snowy landscape will increase your chances of finding coyote sign. The problem with the scouting approach is that you may be decide, based upon sign you find, to hunt during the day in an area coyotes use only at night. So scouting can work, but locating coyotes through howling is far more effective in pinpointing their location.
If you scout for sign, Hower said, remember that coyote tracks are oval or oblong, about 2.5 to 3 inches long, and the middle toenails point inward. Fox and dog tracks are more rounded.
“The best time to hunt coyotes is during early morning or late afternoon hours, which is normally when there’s little or no wind,” explained Hower. “If you’re using a mouth call, it’s almost always better if there are two people; one calling, one ready to shoot. The hunters should position themselves about 30 yards apart with the shooter downwind from the caller. This is because a coyote will normally circle to approach the call from the downwind side.
The caller can use popular calls such as a rabbit squealer, mouse squeaker, or a fawn bleat to call coyotes into gun range. Hower said these mouth calls are effective, and an inexpensive way for hunters to try this increasingly popular pursuit to see if they like it.
“Try to educate yourself on coyote vocalizations, because they can vary. The howl basically announces or reaffirms a coyote’s presence in an area. Their very existence seems predicated upon establishing or defending territory. Coyotes also have challenge howls and howls to locate other members of their family.
If a coyote answers with a “woof,” or a little bark, it generally means it’s on to you and won’t come to your call. The more you learn about these vocalizations, the better your comprehension will be about how coyotes are reacting to your calls. The internet is a great place to hear and learn more about calls, but nothing beats trying to communicate with coyotes in the field.
“Both the caller and the shooter should be in full camouflage — including a face mask and gloves — and must remain absolutely still. If that coyote sees you move before you see it, it’s all over. It’s also a good idea to use a cover scent such as red fox or coyote urine or essence of skunk. Squirt a shot or two on a rock or tree trunk next to your calling position.”
There are all sorts of nuances in coyote hunting. No approach always works perfectly. No call is always best. Cover scents should be rotated. Experimenting is recommended. Try to work areas that are more remote. Set up quietly.
“I recommend a 12 gauge shotgun for calling because the action is often at close range and can happen very quickly,” Hower pointed out. “Use at least #4 shot. Most wild turkey loads will provide what you need.
“A good way to divert an incoming coyote’s ability to detect you is by using a rabbit, fawn or coyote decoy,” Hower added. “When they catch a glimpse of prey or another coyote, they become almost overwhelmed with taking it down. That fixation should provide the chance you need to make your move and take the coyote.”
Hower noted that there are other ways to hunt coyotes. He said hunting with dogs is becoming more and more popular, but added that you need good dogs, and possibly special transmitters and a lot of time. Chased coyotes will cross mountains into more remote or almost inaccessible areas, and roads, where dogs could be struck by passing vehicles.
Driving for coyotes can be effective, but there would have to be a lot of hunters involved. Hunting over bait (legal for coyote hunting in the Keystone State, but check your state’s regulations) also could prove worthwhile, but there’s no guarantee a coyote will come in during daylight hours.
In Pennsylvania, coyotes can be lawfully hunted with either a general hunting or furtaker license, and with few exceptions may be done so throughout the year at any hour. Exceptions are listed in the Pennsylvania Hunting and Trapping Digest.
“So, if you’re up for a new challenge and want to experience a cold-weather pursuit that truly will test your skills and mettle, then it’s time for you to try and get closer to elusive coyotes,” WCO Hower said. “You may never have cabin fever again!”
Historians and furbearer biologists who have studied the eastern coyotes often disagree about their origin. Most biologists believe that eastern coyotes are a result of crossbreeding between western coyotes and wolves and have established themselves in Pennsylvania over the past 100 years. Historians argue that our coyotes are the “wolves” that were here when colonists arrived.
Regardless of which theory is correct. One thing is clear. The eastern coyote is more than just a coyote. In 1991, Robert Wayne of the University of California and Niles Lehman of the Scripps Research Institute of California showed through DNA analysis that eastern coyotes have wolf genes. Recent research has reaffirmed this. But when did they interbreed? No one knows. No one probably ever will.
Interested in reading more about eastern coyote? Please visit the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us), click on the Wildlife dropdown menu, then select “Mammals,” and click on “Coyote.”