There wasn’t much that was keeping the moon from being full on the drive up to my cousin Luke’s house with my wife and two kids (one of which decided an appropriate course of action would be to scream for two straight hours from the backseat). I kept thinking that on that moonlit Friday night in late January plenty of coyotes would be up rambling around straight through the wee hours of the morning. The plan was to head out early on Saturday and cut some tracks. Then we’d put the dogs on the coyote’s trail and hope for some shooting.
Mother Nature (if that even is her real name) had other plans.
Sometime in the very early morning, while I was snug abed and dreaming of making a Hail Mary hero shot on a running coyote, it started to snow. And not those fluffy, pastoral flakes from the Coca Cola commercials you see at Christmas. No, this was the blinding, wind-driven variety of snow that makes you question your sanity at getting up and heading out hunting in it. And the wind-chill factors were in the negative teens, so that made it all the better.
On the plus side, most of our coyote hunting is done from nice warm trucks, and for the first two hours that is precisely where my cousin and I staked ourselves out. Eventually the wind let down and the white-out became nothing more than a snowy morning. Luke and I hopped out and went to find a couple of likely spots in a block of woods that often held coyotes, and as sure as it was wintertime, the dogs got on one pretty quickly. In some ways our coyote hunting operation (of which I am but a minor, very occasional participant) is a pretty sophisticated group. The dogs are GPS tracked, and we are in constant communication via private-channel radios. When the radio chatter and progress of the dogs made it clear that the coyote had gotten past the blockers and was in an adjacent block we made our way back to the truck. On the walk (or more accurately the slog through over a foot of snow) back to the truck the sound of gunfire and the radio banter indicated that the coyote had been cornered by the dogs and then killed, we made out for another hunt. The weather and the sign remained sketchy though so eventually the morning hunt was shut down. We bought some groceries for a veritable evening feast, and did one last cruise of some likely spots. Finding nothing we headed home.
After a hearty breakfast and a little family time with our wives and kids, Luke and I saddled up for an afternoon of coyote calling. If the morning hunt was a bit of a bust, our afternoon foray held promise. The wind had slackened, and the sun shone through a high ceiling of wispy clouds, and with a FoxPro e-caller we headed first to some old fields in the mixed hardwoods behind Luke’s house. After a half-hour of intermittent cottontail distress (and anyone who has heard that sound for extended periods knows how my brain was feeling by then) we opted to move on to another spot that had produced previously. Coyote and fox tracks peppered the fresh snow as we walked our way into the old corral, and as I settled into the leeward side of an old hay bale I was hopeful that this stand was once again going to draw an old coyote out for what he thought was going to be an easy meal. Minutes in and the wind both picked up the pace and changed direction to make our positions untenable, but we still hung in there, stinging wind and blown snow be damned. Frustrated, we talked about family and life in general on the walk back to the vehicle before sitting down to commiserate on the next course of action.
We opted for one long drive around a series of concession roads in Dyers Bay, and as we made one of our last runs down a back road we saw three distinct and fresh (we estimated no more than an hour or so old) sets of coyote tracks crossing the road from south to north. We parked up ahead and walked into a cedar thicket that provided cover from the wind, a natural background to break up our outlines and half dozen good openings to shoot through. It was our last stand for the afternoon and as good a chance as we’d been presented with all day. Just under an hour later we walked out cold and frost-nipped (not quite bitten, but not quite comfortable either) with a warm shower, some cold beer and some hot eats on our minds. Luke hosts a good shin-dig and when a bunch of other friends showed up, the party of chicken wings, French fries, cold beer and good stories lasted deep into the evening. It almost didn’t matter that all the men (and my three year old son) were relegated to the garage; we ran the deep fryer out of there and leaned against walls, old freezers, and each other as we told shameless lies to one another as our wives likely told unflattering truths about us to themselves.
Luke, his brother Dane, and I all felt no ill effects come the morning alarm, although some others that didn’t go hunting weren’t as lucky, and whereas Saturday had broken with a blizzard, Sunday broke deeply cold but with a high ceiling of thin clouds that exposed the thinnest ribbon of blindingly pink sunrise. When a person wakes up way too early on a Sunday to chase twenty-five pounds of clever canine, sunrises like that are their reward.
As we cruised the flats, my uncle came on the radio to call in a set of tracks in a likely spot, and just moments later I spotted the coyote trotting along a fence line to the south of our position. Getting out of the truck I walked into the property and slid a couple of shells into my .243WIN. The coyote popped out just about 200yards, and the call came over the radio not to shoot; at that point I had the crosshairs on his shoulder and I had to made a very tough decision not to take a crack at the old dog. Moments later Luke had put the hounds on him, and when he made his way across the road into another block, he eventually met his end at the rifle of another hunter staked out there. Not long after we had the hounds on a coyote in a cedar filled few acres that sat like a postage stamp on the snowy envelope of snow that had fallen between the local cemetery and a gravel pit. My cousin and I sat down in the snow next to a mound to the east of the cedar swamp and waited.
For nearly a half hour the wind driven snow needled our faces and did everything it could to break through our coats. One thing I’ve learned over the years of hunting with dogs (and this is generally true whether you are running coyotes or rabbits) is that when you think the dogs are close, the game is closer. So it was on that Sunday morning. As Luke and I stood, we could hear the dogs turn and the melodious cacophony of baying began to circle our way. Instinctively we both had turned to the sound, and I don’t know about Luke, but I found that without even thinking about it, both hands were on my rifle in anticipation of action.
And action is what we got.
We saw the coyote at over 200 yards and immediately understood that he was heading for the gravel pit just south of our position. On a sprint, or as much of a sprint as you can put on in deep, boot-sucking snow, Luke and I made to outflank the coyote; either seeing this or thinking better of his gravel-pit escape plan, the coyote began to run broadside to us at a distance that I estimated was initially just under 200 yards from our position. Luke and I turned and I assumed the position for a kneeling shot.
This is where those who have never tried to shoot a running coyote (that, incidentally, has the added incentive of a few dogs in his slipstream) will chortle at our perceived ineptitude, but Luke and I each put three rounds downrange at the coyote, and he found another gear with every report. Turning away from us and making tracks for the relative safety of the cedars, the coyote dodged Luke’s third shot as the bullet kicked a puff of snow up behind the now sprinting animal. I sent my third round out hoping that the hero shot in my dreams was a premonition of glory. It wasn’t. The dogs barely paused, and lustily howled and barked as they plunged headlong back into the cedar stand after their prey.
My spent brass was laying in one of earlier footprints, and I took off a glove to retrieve them and reload my rifle. Luke and I then dissected our failings and told palliative consolations to each other. Twenty minutes later the dogs had the coyote cornered. One blast from Tack’s weapon and all was quiet. The dogs stopped baying, and all there was to hear was the vicious January wind and a crackle over the radio confirming to us that that particular hunt was over.
We helped a fellow hunter pick up a piece of equipment that had fallen from his truck and with a glance at our watches and it became clear that our family duties, and a three hour drive home for me would have to lay low any further chases for us for the day. I dropped off my radio, and said my goodbyes and obligatory wife jokes to my friends. It had been a good weekend, and even though I only had a handful of spent brass to show for it, I felt successful.
There is a certain stealthy calm to deer hunting, and a distinct spring rejuvenation to be found in turkey hunting. Waterfowl hunting can be filled with decrepit weather, but also with the close quarters camaraderie of the blind. Each has a certain folkloric place in the hunting pantheon, and all are sometimes mythologized in a way that elevates the re-telling of the hunter’s exploits. But coyote hunting is different. There is spectacle and brash attitude in chasing the tricksters through the haunts that they know more intimately than a hunter ever could. There is a brawling, adversarial machismo in the way a dog runs down a coyote and a war-cry fierceness to the frantic baying of a team of dogs as they each try to get to their goal first. Even calling coyotes is loud, brutal, and impatient. The screaming and squalls meant to portray the death throes of a rabbit, the yips and chilling howls of challenge, even the simulated struggle of pups is all noise and urgency designed to bring in the reluctant, grey ghosts. If deer hunting is high church, and if spring turkey hunting is nature shaking off the long winter, chasing a coyote in the snow is a drawn out bar-fight in a freezing cold, snowy parking lot.
The people who do it well are utterly shameless about why they do it, and why they love it. There’s no rich duck-club snobbery, and no hushed whispers of awe. If you can follow directions, and are willing to get dirty, cold, and worn out (or all of the above) then you can do it too. And then you might see why hunters will spend hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on fuel, guns, calls, and clothes just to chase after a sometimes mangy, but always challenging wild dog.
And if you don’t get it, then at least you can say you tried.