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Starting Out Cold in Calling Coyotes (A Retrospective)

by Don Smythe

About three years ago now, I was suddenly seized by the idea that I would no longer be confined to the short seasons and limited opportunities of the big game and bird hunter. Nooo! I would free myself from my winter dungeon and quickly become the scourge of the local (Eastern Oregon) coyote population. I didn't have a clue what was in store for me.

Oh I had killed a few coyotes over the years, mostly while deer or elk hunting, or the occasional "drive by" shooting while I was out scouting for deer or elk season and happened to have a rifle handy. In fact these episodes were what had duped me into thinking that this would be a pretty straightforward process. After all, if I had killed coyotes when out on another mission, just imagine what I could do if I concentrated on them. Now I look back on those thoughts with a grimace and a shudder.

As one much wiser in the ways of the old coyote has said, "Coyotes are Hard to Kill," and that is not just a reference to their ability to take a hit and suddenly become animate again. They are hard to kill also because "you gotta see em if you want to kill em."

I asked around amongst my hunting buddies and people at work. Had they ever killed a coyote by hunting or stalking them? One guy told me "You might as well try to stalk a ghost." Well then," I wondered, "how do you get the thing close enough to shoot?"

"Get yourself a call, go sit out in the brush and make like a dying rabbit and they'll come right to you," he said.

Once, long ago, while acting as retriever for my uncles and brothers, I was down in an overgrown, dry irrigation canal and I saw my Uncle Chock's old bird dog "Joe" catch a jack rabbit, and then run just enough ahead to keep us from taking the thing away from him. I'll never forget the mournful, forlorn sound that rabbit made as long as I live. Thinking back on that episode I was convinced that I could make that sound if I could find a proper call.

That night, after work, I trekked on down to my local Bi-Mart store and purchased a Lohman rabbit call for $7.95. It was of the "closed reed" type (as I later learned). Fortunately for me, I didn't know that there was any other kind. That night, accompanied by my little Boston terrier bitch, Lilly, I sat out on the front porch and unwrapped the call and gave it my best shot. Lilly laid her ears back, humped up her back a little, and shuffled through the doggie door into the house. I figured, "she's going in to get everyone up and bring them out to listen to this virtual coyote calling rhapsody that I'm performing," but she never returned. Every evening I entertained myself with practicing on the call anxiously awaiting the week-end, and my first called-in coyote.

Early Sunday morning, while it was still dark, I let myself through the gate onto a co-worker's 160 mountain acres and waited for it to get light enough to shoot. I sat on the ground behind some brush where I could see a small stock tank where my friend had told me she often saw coyotes. I no more than sat down when coyote howling and barking broke out from three different directions, with me in the middle. I shivered in anticipation as I reared back and fired off my first series on the call. The woods became very quiet. Oh boy, I thought , they are coming on the run. I quietly let the call dangle from its lanyard and picked up my rifle, a nice little Browning .22 Hornet, in anticipation. This is just going to be too easy!!

About two hours later I finally admitted to myself that if they hadn't come in yet they probably weren't coming. I decided to move my position about 300 yards, across the access road and adjacent to a small clearing on the other side. I spooked a small herd of mule deer just as I cleared the road and they bounced off about 100 yards and looked back at me. As I walked closer to the spot I had picked out I continued to keep my eye on the deer. Suddenly aware of something to my front I looked and there were two half grown coyotes wrestling and tumbling in the grassy opening, not over 20 feet away. As I raised my rifle one of them lit his afterburners and was in the brush so fast I couldn't track him but the other one just flattened out in the grass on full alert, with his ears back, and fixed me in a stare with his yellow eyes. He made a rather unfocused image in the 6 power scope as I laid the cross hairs between his eyes and shot. That coyote went from zero to 40 in about 1/10 of a second and was in the brush so fast I began to doubt whether there had truly been a coyote there. Upon examination there was no sign that I had hit the animal. I didn't realize at the time that at 20 feet my line of sight was at least 1.5 " above the path of the bullet and the little Browning didn't shoot tight groups anyway. I probably hit the ground a couple of inches in front of the pup's nose. I moved, sat and called until it got dark, never moving more than 200-300 yards. I called in nothing. No birds, dogs, deer, rabbits, nothing. This was about the middle of August and this same scenario was played out again and again throughout that year until the following Spring. I went every weekend, at least one day, and never called anything. It began to occur to me that my technique might not be quite up to par.

Sometime, around the beginning of 1997, I learned that it was legal to use an electronic caller for coyotes in Oregon. I immediately got some outfitters catalogs and began to try to find a suitable calling machine. I found an ad for Johnny Stewart wildlife callers and tapes and immediately ordered a JS512 caller (with the mid-range speaker) and three tapes. The tapes were Gerald's Super Jack, Bleating Fawn, and Adult Cottontail. I impatiently sat back and awaited the arrival of the big brown truck. Finally it arrived and I opened the package and sat down to read the literature that came with it.

The tapes, I learned, were of actual animals in distress. I formed a mental picture of a room with a large table, where men dressed in white lab coats, carrying tape recorders, systematically locked bunnies down in a vise and then pinched them with pliers or ice tongs or the like while gleefully recording their tortured cries. I could hardly contain myself until I got to try them out.

Playing the tapes in the house got the opposite reaction from old Lilly. She was in the back yard the first time I played it. She came busting in through the back doggie door, slipping and skidding down the long tiled hallway, and stuck her nose in the speaker cone. "Oh Boy!" thought I, "This is going to be too easy."

The first of August found me headed back up the highway to friend Margo's little piece of paradise just outside the town of Meacham. In addition to being armed with the electronic caller, I had also become more sophisticated in the ways of camo, and was outfitted in a surplus field jacket over my bright blue shirt and jeans. Those Dr. Martins Cherry Reds probably didn't add much to my concealability either but were all the boots I had at the time. (Concealing me is like trying to conceal an elephant in a wheat field anyway, being 6'2" and over 300# I'm not the easiest guy to shop for).

I set up in view of the stock tank again, settled in the willow brush, and started the call with the Cottontail tape. I can tell you that sitting there listening to the pitiful sounds of that poor rabbit enduring unspeakable suffering at the hands of G. Stewart and his henchmen just about brought tears to my eyes. I would have cried too, but I was afraid it would fog my scope, so I put the old Clinton bite on my lower lip and just endured it along with that poor cottontail and braced myself for a coyote stampede. But I felt his pain. About one minute into the tape I heard two coyotes, from different directions, bark sharply. Oh man I thought, here they come.

After playing both sides of the tape twice, I decided that if they hadn't come yet, they probably weren't coming. I stood up to move and as I bent to lay my rifle down I detected the huge golden eagle, sitting on a big stump, about 30 yards from me. He was staring straight at the call. Things were looking up.

In retrospect, I may have been a little bit optimistic. Things went on like this through the Fall and Winter, into early Spring, and I called no coyote, fox or cat that I saw. I called in multitudes of ravens, magpies, hawks, owls and a couple more eagles.

In the Spring of 98 it dawned on me that I might need a little advice on how to do this stuff if I was going to be successful. I bought more Camo and went to the library to look for books on the subject of predator calling. Dry hole! Not a single volume on the shelves offered me any advice, and advice I sorely needed.

I bought a Ruger 77 in .22-250 and a couple of boxes of Remington 55 gr. pointed soft point. I bought a cheap scope for it and sighted in. Not bad; minute of angle shooter (I didn't reload at the time).

My search for information continued and I became highly frustrated trying to find someone to help me pull it all together. Everyone I talked to that told me they knew what they were doing; and they all turned out to be full of BS. None of these experts ever wanted to go out and show me even though I offered to pay the expenses (Now that I think of it I never saw one coyote that they killed either).

Early Spring of 1998 the office hooked everyone up to the Net. They should never have done that!! Search engines, word search, COYOTE/Hunting/Calling. Whammo! Page after glorious page of fascinating information on COYOTES. I learned the scientific name. I learned their breeding cycles. I learned about their resistance to being wiped out by poison, airplane shooters and (this surprised me not at all) sport hunters. I was in cyber heaven.

One lunch hour I was reading through the hits and ran across The California Varmint Callers Association page. This was just too good to believe. I took the rest of the day off and just read and copied article and story after article and story. The last one I read seemed so honest and straightforward that I was immediately struck and fascinated by it. It was titled "Calling Coyotes, by Vic and John-Henry." There was also a hot link to thier web site, Vic and John-Henry's Coyote Calling Page. I pointed at the sucker, hit the mouse button and found myself in "Coyote Nirvana." I read every article twice and then copied the whole thing to take home and study. The sheer joy of it was too much; stands, firearms, wind, calls, dogs, camo; on and on it went with pictures and humor and the heartfelt and easily discerned enthusiasm of guys who had been doing it for many years. I was immediately enthralled.

Next I sold the Ruger and bought a brand new, shiny, engraved, beautifully stocked Remington M700 chambered in .17 Rem. Feeling as though I were undergoing a rite of passage, I took it home, went out to the shop, and camoed it and the Leupold Vari-x III scope atop it with Cabelas 4 color spray paint. I was committed. I ordered a camo face mask, gloves, hat, T-shirts, and coveralls. Then I found a pair of Georgia Trekker camo boots (get this) with camoed soles so the old coyotes can't even detect your big ugly self when you're sitting on your butt with your feet waving in the breeze. I got myself a yard of camo cheesecloth so I could cover up the JS 512 when I played the rabbit torture tapes. This was just all too cool! Finally, I ordered myself a Jack Russell terrier pup from a breeder that still breeds 'em to go down the hole after foxes, which I thought might make the perfect decoy dog.

Oh Yeah! This was just going to be too easy!

When I had assembled all of my gear, I came down out of the mountains and secured permission to hunt on some of the local cattle and sheep ranches. It was sagebrush and juniper and greasewood country, and it looked a lot like some of the photos on the "Coyote Gods" web page. I started calling twice a week; all day long, but I didn't call anything except the birds.

One day I noticed that the web page said e-mail me if you have any questions. I sent John-Henry an e-mail about the use of decoy dogs and got an immediate reply. John-Henry was very helpful, with a head full of experience and creative ideas about the use of dogs in calling.

After giving the thing some thought for a couple of days I sent John-Henry an e-mail and asked for a guided hunt in Arizona in the fall. I had to go to a meeting in Colorado Springs in October and I wanted to hunt with him and Vic for 4 days after the meeting. John-Henry answered me back that they could accommodate my request, although he warned me that it was early to call in Southern AZ; between the wind and the heat the pickings would probably be slim. I was on fire to go, though, and I started planning for the trip. This time I knew I would get to shoot a called coyote. These guys will know what to do.

I arrived at the Tucson airport early on a Tuesday morning, October the 13th. It was hot!! About 95 in the shade and there wasn't any……. JH was supposed to meet me at the gate, but he had a little delay and I was just taking my rifle case off the carrousel when I heard this friendly western drawl behind me speaking my name. There he was, JH himself, with boots, a big old western straw hat, and a holster for a small revolver on his hip. We shook hands and he helped me carry my stuff out to his truck, which was being guarded by the Evil One (Micky, his Airedale terrier). A short hour and a half and we were out in the desert back of Bowie, Arizona.

I'll tell you, boys; it was a sheer joy to hunt with those two. You'll never meet another pair like that. They had us all set up in a little dry wash, with shade, and I had my own tent with a mattress. You should have seen John-Henry's tent. It looked like it had been custom made for Mickey Rooney. I don't know how he slept in that thing, maybe in the lotus position.

Vic is a true gentleman and had voluntarily taken on the cooking chores since JH had given him a glazed stare when he had asked him what they were going to feed me. It was great! Steaks grilled over mesquite coals, with roasted chilies, warm tortillas and some of the best beans I've ever eaten. I even got hot coffee and muffins at the break of dawn as we took off to call. (John-Henry thought that was a bit much).

After putting everything in order, and changing my clothes, we checked the zero on my rifle and took off to make an evening stand, Vic took me out and we made the stand near an old stock tank and corral where they had killed several over the months. Nothing came to the call but I was still busting with enthusiasm as we returned to camp in that beautiful Arizona sunset.

I was awakened the next morning about 4:30 AM with a coyote concert like I had never heard in my life. They were literally all around us and it sounded like a hundred of them. Oh boy, thought I, etc. etc.

We called three or four stands in the morning and the same every evening all week and it stayed hot and the wind blew hard every day after dawn. Lots of scat and other sign, but only saw 3 coyotes the entire four days. One running along the road and into the brush before I could get out and off the road. One checked Vic and I out from a ridge about 500 yds out, but never came in. And one that was coming directly to the call at a fast walk and then cut into the brush and up the side of a low bluff where it paused momentarily and I shot off-hand and promptly missed it.

Vic and JH were very upset but I wasn't. In those four days of hard calling I had learned enough from watching them to pull it all together and I knew that I was going to be successful at this if I just kept trying. They both graciously invited me back for a future hunt at a greatly reduced rate. Good people!

I finished out the trip with a night at JH's house and flew back home.

Back home I started to feel much more confident with my set-ups, and in the interim I and delivery of my new Jack Russell puppy. The pup is a whole story unto himself, and I hope to have the opportunity to write about him in a later issue.

This past Winter I saw more response to my calling; with tracks, fresh scat and markings on brush and my boot tracks where I had walked into the stand. It was obvious that I was getting a response but I had yet to get a shot at one. Then on February the 19th, 1999, the inevitable happened.

I was out on about a 100 acre patch of sage and greasewood near the ranch calving pens. I set up in front of a big greasewood about 20 feet down from the rim of a little bowl that was about 120 yards across. I strung out 75 feet of speaker wire and placed the speaker in a little juniper near the middle of the bowl and rushed back to my stool and set my rifle up on shooting sticks. I had the "Super Jack" tape in and it literally had not played for 10 seconds when I saw ears and the top of a head bobbing up and down on the opposite side of the bowl, below the rim, on the outside. He was running as he came over the rim directly up wind of me, and when he cut to his right and stopped, he presented a frontal chest shot. I settled the cross hairs on the juncture of his neck and chest, breathed out, held it, and squeezed the trigger. As the sear broke I held the sight picture in the scope and saw total nervous system collapse as that coyote crumpled to the ground.

I was totally stoked. My first coyote and it was sooo sweet after all this time to finally taste success. I remembered the wise advice to let the call play on and wait for others to come, but after about 5 minutes my hands were shaking so badly and I was so jubilant that I couldn't bear it any longer. With the call going and a thick fog starting to roll in off the Columbia River I jumped and hollered and danced around that little bush like a crazed druid calling forth his gods from the bush.

After I calmed down, I walked out to where he lay and it was a magnificent sight; a full winter coat, beautiful markings, and not a sign of any blood or other evidence that he had even been hit. I poked him with the muzzle of my rifle and got no reaction so I reached down and grabbed a hind leg and flipped him over. In that instant I was overwhelmed by the strong odor of skunk and my little terrier, who had been messing around digging a hole, suddenly saw the coyote and dove right in the middle of him. I just stood there as the little bugger gave that dead coyote "what for," and I alternately laughed and choked on the essence of skunk.

Apparently my first coyote had experienced a very recent close encounter of the skunk kind and now my dog was soaking it up like a sponge. My eyes watered all the way home.

It was a long road but I've had a wonderful time and met some great people along the way, and there is no turning back now. I have another appointment with the Coyote Gods this coming January and am already stoked from watching their great calling video and starting to hear of successful hunts on the 'Net.

Oh boy! This is just going to be too easy.

Don Smythe

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