Coyotes have spread across North Carolina and that means trouble for family perts, some wild game, and year-round varmint-hunting opportunities.
|Photo by CRAIG HOLT|
Wide fields of vision are what coyote hunters look for, but the wily animals will get downwind of calls and callers, so sometimes two hunters may be the best idea.
Well, about 20 years ago North Carolina fox hunters wanted a better quarry to chase than red and gray
foxes, so they imported a few coyotes and put them in fox pens. They got their wish — better “races” for their hounds. But the rest of us now have coyotes out the ying-yang.
“Yep, they’re everywhere,” said Perry Sumner of Goldsboro, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Program Coordinator for Fur-bearer Surveys and Research.
The WRC never has changed its ban regarding importation of non-native flora and fauna into the state. But fox hunters, after importing coyotes for years, went to the General Assembly and had a 2003 statute enacted that allowed them legally to hold the animals in fox pens. They basically told legislators the state already had plenty of coyotes, so why not allow them to keep the animals captive in pens? They also told the lawmakers wild coyotes now could be trapped, and they had the pens to hold ’em.
The problem was many of the wily creatures, placed into pens designed to contain foxes — not coyotes — had escaped. Plus there was some migration of the animals from Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina.
“In 1980 we didn’t have any coyotes to speak of (in North Carolina),” Sumner said. “The only ones we heard about somebody had released (a pet coyote) or they’d escaped. Then from 1983-86, we started hearing about more of them in Beaufort, Hyde and Washington counties.
“I did some mapping studies of eastern N.C. areas with high coyote populations and correlated them to locations of fox pens. Where there’s fox pens in the east, there’s high concentrations of coyotes. At one point I could take a map and put pins in it where there were hunter-killed coyotes and fox pens; they also were clustered together.
“So it was pretty obvious how coyotes got started (in North Carolina). As time went on, two things started happening — coyotes began to expand their territories, then during late the 1980s and early ’90s, they started to move into western (N.C.) counties on their own, expanding from Virginia and South Carolina. We didn’t have ’em in the middle of the state, but as as time went on, it all ran together.”
So now that coyotes in North Carolina are out of the bag/pen, what’s the likely result?
Sumner said he isn’t sure coyotes in North Carolina will create long-range ill effects for wildlife populations. But two things are certain — your neighborhood’s cats and dogs may be living on borrowed time and coyotes are here to stay.
But are they harmful to deer, wild turkeys and small game populations?
“Well, to individuals, I’d have to say yes, but I don’t think they’re harmful to any specific game population,” Sumner said.
“They are certainly gonna reduce red foxes, which is probably something the fox hunters didn’t know. Coyotes will kill every red fox they find. They aren’t so tough on gray foxes, probably because grays can climb trees.
“When they get into the suburbs, people are probably going to be missing a few dogs and cats. Coyotes especially like to eat cats.”
He pointed out coyotes are omniverous — they’ll eat just about anything.
“They are opportunistic,” said Sumner, who did a graduate-level research paper about coyotes at Mississippi State University. “If there’s road kill, they’ll eat that. If they happen to catch a rabbit or field mouse, they’ll eat that. But I’ve seen them eat everything else, including corn, acorns, persimmons, grapes, watermelons and insects.
“I’ve seen ’em stuffed full of grasshoppers.
“A big thing is during deer season you’ll find a lot more deer in them, probably from dumped (deer) carcasses and road kills.”
One worry of hunters is coyotes’ predation of wild turkeys.
“I don’t think they hurt turkeys that much, unless they’re preying on turkeys that might not be well established at certain areas,” Sumner said. “One thing coyotes do that probably benefits turkeys is they eat critters — opossums, raccoons, red foxes — that destroy turkey nests (by eating turkey eggs).
“The biggest problem for turkey hunters is coyotes interferring with spring hunts (coming to hunter-generated turkey calls).”
Most coyotes are taken in North Carolina by deer hunters, Sumner said, not varmint hunters.
“Coyotes are most likely to get shot when they walk in front of a deer stand in this state,” he said.
The WRC’s last mail survey of randomly-chosen hunters indicated most of them had either shot a coyote or knew another hunter who’d shot a coyote while deer hunting.
“Very few deer hunters (who answered the survey) hadn’t killed a coyote or didn’t know of somebody who had,” Sumner said.
However, although not many Tar Heels target coyotes, they certainly provide an opportunity for year-round hunting. State hunting regulations allow them to be hunted at any time (except at night). And, yes, they’re wily. But wily or cunning probably doesn’t begin to describe how difficult it is to bag a coyote.
When asked how a coyote’s senses of sight and smell, its main defense mechanisms, compare to, for instance, a white-tailed deer, Sumner was quick to answer.
“Oh, I’d say they have about 1000 times better sight than a deer and hundreds of times better sense of smell than a dog,” he said. “I’d guess guys who like to hunt wild turkey gobblers would enjoy hunting coyotes.”
One of the most consistent central-N.C. coyote hunters is A.C. Marley of the E.M. Holt community in southwestern Alamance County. And he doesn’t hunt them all the time because they’re tough to draw a bead on, and he’s got other targets he likes better, particularly groundhogs.
The 61-year-old Vietnam veteran calls himself a “varmint” hunter, meaning he’ll take coyotes when given the chance. But he has tried to increase his chances by purchasing an expensive .223-caliber semi-auto loading varmint gun with a scope and support tripods. However, he only has had the chance to pull the trigger on eight coyotes during the last seven or eight years. He’s put seven on the ground.
“I mostly shoot groundhogs (woodchucks),” he said. “But some of the (cattle) farmers around here have given me permission to hunt coyotes. They’re worried about them killing (newborn) calves. One farmer said he’d lost four calves to coyotes, so I can hunt his land whenever I want.”
He’s noticed coyotes seem to move more following a moon-less or cloudy night, particularly after a night-long rain.
“Rain, wind and clouds mess with their hearing, sight and sense of smell, so they don’t catch as much stuff on nights like that,” he said. “So they’re hungry the next day and are likely to be lookin’ for a meal.”
Marley uses predator calls to pull varmints, such as coyotes and foxes, within range of his AR-15 rifle.
His most-effective setup is to find a field with open lines of sight. He’ll place a mechanical call combined with a moving decoy that’s activated by a remote-control hand-held device about the size of a TV channel-changer several yards from his ambush spot.
He prefers to use a Fox Pro electronic game-caller combined with what’s known as a “Jack-in-the-Box” decoy.
“The caller has a disk that’s got about 150 different animal sounds,” Marley said. Other animal sounds may be downloaded from the Fox Pro web site.
“The decoy is effective because it focuses a coyote’s attention on the movement of the decoy,” he said.
The decoy, which is stored for carrying inside a green plastic box that looks like a small ammo case, looks like Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap. It’s attached to the box by a stiff, vertical wire and is about 2 feet off the ground when ready to do its stuff. When activated, its furry tail twists and turns and is visible to predators. It also produces an internal mouse-squeaker sound that can be turned on or off via remote control. From a distance, the decoy looks like the tail of a coyote or fox that’s jumping around on a captured rabbit.
(The Jack-in-the-Box decoy can be connected to a Fox Pro caller and both can be activated via remote control. They can be ordered online at http://www.king-cart.com/cgi-bin/cart.cgi?store=apc&product_name=FOXPRO. Total cost is a little more than $600).
Combined with the electronic squeals of a captured rabbit (“the Fox Pro instruction book notes a coyote can hear the calls up to 700 yards away,” Marley said), it’s a deadly combination.
But Marley still takes great caution when he sets up at a field to hunt coyotes.
“The best situation is to get into a tree stand, if there’s one, and put the decoy and caller 75 yards away in an open field,” he said. “The coyote is going to see that movement, and he sure can smell you when he comes up on the sound from downwind.”
Obviously, hunters should be hidden downwind from decoys. Marley said it’s not a bad idea to have two hunters, one to watch the area near the decoy and one to watch downwind of the decoy setup.
Sumner agreed with Marley regarding the extreme wariness of coyotes.
“If you’re using a mouth (rabbit distress) call, and there’s nothing for a coyote to see to get his attention, he’s gonna circle you until he is downwind,” he said. “That happens 100 percent of the time.”
If the coyote sees or smells anything out of the ordinary, “he’ll just sit there,” Sumner said. “And if you make a sound within a coyote’s hearing, he’ll know exactly the spot where that sound came from; they can pinpoint your location exactly.”
The best time of year to hunt coyotes is early fall (September and October). But February and March also can be good because that’s mating season and hunters can play on the animals’ territorial instincts.
“Anybody who wants to kill a lot of coyotes probably will be more successful in fall than late winter because you have a bunch of young coyotes who haven’t learned anything (about human hunters),” Sumner said.
“It’s a good thing they’re territorial ‘cause it’d be really hard to kill one if they weren’t.”
In fact, the veteran WRC biologist said territoriality is the driving factor in coyotes coming to electronic calls.
“I don’t think they’re coming in to get an easy meal,” Sumner said. “I think they’re coming in to investigate — especially if they see the decoy flipping around — to find out if a strange coyote has come into their territory.
“They’re very territorial.”
The best coyote hangouts, as for white-tailed deer, aren’t difficult to pinpoint, but they may be tough for hunters to access. If a hunter doesn’t have a cattle farmer nearby who wants some coyotes removed, the fringes of urban areas are the next-best spots. But that often means problems getting permission to hunt and being sure of shooting backgrounds.
“It makes sense if you think about it,” Sumner said. “(At a neighborhood) they can find an easy source of food — garbage, dogs, cats — most of the time; there usually aren’t any trappers; and deer hunters don’t usually hunt suburban areas.”
As an example, Sumner pointed to RDU Airport near Raleigh, a place that once had deer running helter skelter in front of commercial jets, often causing aborted landings.
“Coyotes are causing problems over there now, running across the runways,” he said. “It makes sense; they’ve got Umstead State Park right next door, and there’s all that development (housing projects) near the airport. It’s a good source for food and 100 percent protected (from hunting).”
Sumner said hunters who frequent cattle farms need to bag coyotes that are killing calves and not just try to remove 50 percent of the population.
“Where they’re hitting livestock, it’s been learned over the years the way to deal with them is to target the individual animals doing the damage as opposed to thinning the population,” he said. “If you kill 50 percent of the coyote population but leave the ones that are killing sheep or livestock, you’re not helping the problem.
“Certain ones tend to kill livestock.”
Wiping out coyotes totally is impossible, Sumner said.
“Out West they proved it,” he said. “They tried to wipe out coyotes at some places. But coyotes, which normally have a litter of four to five pups, will produce 12 to 14 pups if their numbers are greatly reduced.
“So by killing a lot of coyotes, you’re actually making them produce more. It’s kinda the way white-tailed does will have more fawns if there aren’t many deer in an area.”
A flat-shooting low-caliber rifle is best for coyote hunting.
“I started with a .243 Weatherby with a 3 1/2x14-power Leupold scope,” Marley said, “and used it for a few years until I got a Winchester .22-.250.”
But then Mike Bryant of Patch ‘n’ Ball muzzle-loading shop in Burlington got Marley interested in an AR-15 rifle in .223 caliber.
It wasn’t long before Marley bought a Rocky River Arms AR-15 and equipped it for varmint shooting. He added a black collapsible tripod and a 2X aiming-point scope. The semi-automatic with a 16-inch-long barrel has a clip that’ll hold 20 .cartridges.
“I like the clip because sometimes you’ll get two or three coyotes coming in; you want to be able to have a chance to get ’em all,” he said.
His best shot, Marley said, at a coyote was on the dead run, coming straight at him, at 100 yards. He made a 275-yard shot on a woodchuck, which is his longest varmint kill.
“The muzzle velocity is 2600 fps,” Marley said. “The 16-inch barrel has a 1.9 twist.”
At first he used Hornaday V-Max 55-grain .223-caliber bullets but now loads his own cartridges.
His AR-15 scope offers dead-on shots at 100 yards, a 2-inch drop at 200 yards and about a 7-inch fall at 300 yards.
“I got my (Serri) mouth calls (rabbit distress squeals) from an ad in Varmint Magazine,” he said. “I use a regular cottontail, a long-range cottontail, and a ’coon squeal.”
Marley, who shattered his right leg when he missed a tree-stand step after he killed his first coyote eight years ago, hasn’t hunted as hard as he once did. But he said he recently had gotten the bug to hunt ‘yotes a little more intensely.
“One thing’s for sure,” he said. “Any time I want to go, there’s plenty of them out there.”
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