column By: Gordy J. Krahn | November, 18
A patron at a small-town watering hole told my hunting buddy and me that the gun club had hosted a coyote calling contest a couple of weeks prior to our arrival, and the local canines were paranoid and suspicious. They were still responding to the call, but as soon as they got close to the source of the commotion and received no visual confirmation of a free meal, they lost their nerve. I’ve seen called tom turkeys do the same thing – expecting to see a hen turkey where there is none. We needed to do something quick to have any chance of salvaging our out-of-state hunt. We needed some eye candy.
A trip to Walmart – where I purchased a small stuffed animal, “Wolfy,” a tent stake and monofilament fishing line – solved the problem. Once on stand, the homemade decoy was propped up on the stake and I attached the fishing line. This allowed adding animation to the decoy from my hidey hole in a clump of brush. My partner tucked into a similar clump of brush 20 yards to my right, and I cranked up the e-caller.
It happened at the second setup that evening. A coyote broke cover, and instead of hugging the brush it actually turned on the afterburners when it saw the decoy. In fact, the coyote was so focused on that little fur ball it did not even flinch when my buddy raised his rifle, panned to catch up and tugged the trigger. That small toy had saved the day, and since then I’ve used various decoys – some store bought and sophisticated, some nothing more than a feather hanging from a string – whenever the circumstances called for one.
Predators use a combination of their senses – sight, hearing and smell – to fill their bellies and to avoid ending up in someone else’s belly. But I believe too many predator callers get overly hung up on sounds and smells and forget that predators expect to see a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That is, when they get close to the source of the sound, their eyes take over.
This is especially true when hunters wander into situations where the coyotes, foxes or bobcats have been given a crash course in human avoidance. Where there is considerable hunting pressure, it becomes more important to engage all three predatory senses, including sight. A decoy adds one more element of realism to the scenario the hunter is attempting to create – the visual confirmation of an injured prey animal to accompany those agonizing screams, and smells if the hunter chooses to use an attractant lure. It puts the predator more at ease, draws it out into the open and diverts its attention away from the caller/shooter, providing a few extra seconds to get the gun around and make the shot.
This is particularly true when hunting cats that, by nature, are largely sight hunters. Anyone who has ever watched a housecat hunt in the backyard has undoubtedly noticed how mesmerized they become and how much they key in on movement. While it’s the sound of a rabbit, rodent or bird in distress that initially gets the bobcat’s attention and lures it in to investigate, it’s been my experience that it will often lose interest if it does not receive a visual confirmation of what its ears are hearing. Trappers know that bobcats are sight hunters, and many hang a feather from a string at the trap site to catch any passing bobcat’s attention, motivating it to come in to investigate. From there, the lure or bait and the placement of the trap take over. The same is true of coyotes. These curious canines will often investigate anything new in their environment, such as a bleached deer antler or cow skull. I have successfully used both to catch a canine’s attention while trapping and predator hunting. Again, it’s using visual tools that make these sets more effective.
Predator hunters can apply these trapping principles by using visual attractants such as decoys. Decoys can be as simple as a stuffed toy or as elaborate as a mounted coyote or rabbit. Technology has also given hunters a wide variety of battery-powered decoys that create movement and can be used in tandem with an e-caller for creating the most realistic setups. There are even lifelike coyote decoys such as the Bird-X Coyote Predator Decoy that work in territorial and social situations. If the low-tech route is chosen, you can hang a tanned rabbit or squirrel pelt over a bush or tie a feather or piece of fur on a string to attract or divert the animal’s attention.
There are a variety of ways to set up when using a decoy. An option is to use one to focus the predator’s attention away from the shooter by using the decoy out near the speaker of an electronic caller, or off to the side when using mouth-blown calls. This will enable the shooter to get away with a little more movement – often giving him enough time to raise his gun and make the shot without being detected.
When buddy hunting, a decoy can be placed out front with the hunters sitting back-to-back to cover all angles of approach. Or, the second hunter can set up downwind of the decoy, especially in heavily hunted areas. Decoy or not, educated coyotes and other predators often circle downwind when approaching the call. I will say this: When using a decoy, I’ve noticed that once a predator locks onto it, it seems to forget about the wind and attacks – probably due to concern that its free meal is going to get away. This seems especially true of gray foxes that often boldly attack the decoy from any direction. Same as with any setup, it’s a good practice to have some kind of downwind obstruction like a river, swamp, cliff or thick brush to funnel the action out front.
A decoy can also be used as the visual equivalent of a mouth-blown coaxer call. When hunting coyotes, gray foxes or bobcats, I have used a hand- or foot-operated feather, rabbit pelt or stuffed toy to pull these critters in for a closer look, a trick I learned from Gerald Stewart back in the day. This works particularly well in tighter cover when hunting with a shotgun. Gerald would sit with a stuffed animal between his feet, a 10-gauge Remington autoloader at the ready. Should a critter come to the call but refuse to show itself, he would use his feet to wiggle the decoy, and more times than not those hung-up critters would become un-hung.
Some coyote hunters go as far as using actual stuffed coyote decoys (or an artificial equivalent) in much the same way deer and turkey hunters use decoys. In this case, they’re appealing to the social and territorial nature of the game. This is most effective during the mating and breeding season, when coyotes become extremely territorial and aggressively defend against intruders. So, use decoys in tandem with coyote vocalizations such as barks, howls and whines.
Obviously, the sight of a coyote at a kill will scare off smaller predators such as foxes and cats. Be aware, also, that this approach will often deter young and subordinate coyotes that might be intimidated by the decoy. That’s why it’s prudent to use a smallish decoy with a nonthreatening posture, much the same way deer and turkey hunters use young buck or jake decoys to arouse a territorial response from the mature animals they’re targeting.
Some uber-serious predator hunters take decoying to the graduate level by deploying decoy (tolling) dogs. Western predator hunter Mark Kayser is one of those guys. His border collie Sage is a regular companion while he chases coyotes in his home state of Wyoming. Interaction – some friendly, some not – between canines is common on the grounds they hunt and the territories they defend. They will investigate all intruders, including domestic cousins, and Kayser uses his dog to “bait” them in with a living, moving decoy.
“I use a lot of coyote vocalizations, and I do a lot of my hunting at dawn and at dusk,” Kayser said. “Coyotes have good eyesight, and even in that dim light and the sagebrush and grass, if she’s [Sage] out in front of me, they’ll see that motion and might come over to investigate.
“A couple of years ago I had a coyote that was circling wide, and it just wouldn’t come in, so I told Sage to ‘get him.’ She had seen the coyote coming across this huge reservoir, and she took off after him. The coyote saw her and stopped. My buddy shot, but the bullet sailed high. At that point, Sage and that coyote were locked on to each other and on a collision course. They were going to duke it out. The coyote kept coming – the shot hadn’t affected it. My buddy shot at the moving target but missed high again. The third shot hit the coyote right in the head. But what amazed us was that the coyote was completely unfazed by the rifle shots and was ready to engage the dog. This is a perfect example of how a decoy dog can be a benefit.”
Just like when using a coyote decoy, tolling dogs can also produce a negative effect. Young and subdominant coyotes might be intimidated by the dog and vacate the area rather than confront it. That’s why most decoy dogs are on the small side and just aggressive enough to engage coyotes but then tuck tail and run back to their owner. They seem to know what their role is – just like a good bird dog – and that is to provide their owner with a shot opportunity.
To eek the most out of each and every stand and every calling situation, it’s important that predator hunters use all of the tools at their disposal to slip by a predator’s defenses, including eye candy.