By Lee Strawn
Imagine sitting at the edge of a field on a cold, clear night with plenty of moonlight. The new fallen snow and calm wind heighten your expectations of another good night of predator calling as you listen to a series of calls from the gray fox pup tape, and you strain your eyes in search of movement. Suddenly, after a minute or two of calling, your eye catches movement. A gray fox streaks from the shadows to within range and your gun cracks. After you recover from the temporary blindness associated with the muzzle flash, your reward is another nice gray.
Predator hunting, like any other form of hunting, requires planning, patience and persistence on the hunter's part to be successful. It also requires the proper equipment, a place to hunt, and a basic knowledge of predator hunting techniques.
Calls, clothing and other equipment are necessary to get started and will vary with personal preference. Calls come in many shapes and sizes, but are usually electronic or mouth-blown. The two most common types of electronic calls use tapes or compact discs. Some of these calls have a speaker and player built into one compact unit, while others have the speaker on a length of cord to allow the hunter to place the speaker away from their location. More expensive models are remote controlled, which allows the hunter to minimize movement while controlling tape volume and play.
Mouth-blown calls are usually hand-held tubes with a reed, or diaphragm calls similar to mouth calls used for turkey hunting. Both types require practice and knowledge of the sounds you should get from them, as well as the cadence you want to incorporate. Mouth-blown calls are more compact and easier to carry, but you may prefer the hands-free approach you get from electronic calls. Regardless of which type you choose, many sounds are available to fit your calling situation. For example, if you are trying to call bobcats you could use a cottontail distress or yellowhammer woodpecker tape. If it's mating season, however, you may wish to try a tape of a bobcat in heat.
Camouflage is an essential component of predator calling and most hunters own a variety of patterns. The pattern you choose will depend on the terrain, vegetation and snow cover. The important thing is to be covered with camo from head to toe and to be scent free. You should also be warm, dry and comfortable. A seat cushion or low stool is a good thing to have as it will increase your comfort level, especially on a bobcat set-up where you may have to sit motionless for an extended period of time. Other equipment to consider are decoys or scents. Red fox urine or a rabbit decoy may help bring the predator into range.
Locating a place to hunt will require some advanced planning. Numerous wildlife management areas throughout the state offer excellent potential for calling in a variety of furbearers . If you choose to hunt on private land, get permission prior to going afield. Once you've obtained permission, communicate with the landowner. Let them know when you are going to be there, and call them before night hunting to avoid any misunderstanding caused by gunshots heard after dark. Find out if there's any place you shouldn't go and if anyone else will be hunting. When accessing the property, don't damage any fields and/or fences and keep gates closed.
Remember, your actions will determine how long you have the landowner's approval to hunt. If you choose to hunt during nights with moonlight, find out where livestock may be and avoid those areas. After all, there's no sense of accomplishment when you call in the farmer's cows.
Scouting prior to calling will provide useful information and allow you to plan your hunt. Look for predator sign while rabbit hunting, bow hunting or during other trips afield. After a snowfall is an excellent time to look for tracks and learn travel patterns. If there is no snow, look for tracks in the mud or fur caught in fences. Fur identification will take practice, but will assist you in determining whether or not furbearers are present.
Culverts are another good place to look for sign. Bobcats often cross roads in low places where culverts are found and deposit scat or urine at culvert heads. Other productive places to check for tracks or scat are pond dams, intersections, log landings, fence corners or a gate in a fence row.
Once you have located suitable hunting areas, you'll need to decide when to go. Early morning and evening set-ups are good times to try on clear days. Overcast days, on the other hand, can provide exciting action all day long. It is illegal to use artificial light to take most furbearers in West Virginia (consult the WV Hunting and Trapping Regulations Summary for additional details). Therefore, night hunting is primarily limited to clear moonlit nights with snow cover or a heavy frost.
Weather may also play a role in deciding when to hunt for predators. Before or after a storm is a good time. Winds should be less than 10 mph, so predators can hear your calls.
Choosing a good set-up location will improve your success. Take advantage of any cover which provides good vantage points. Examples might be a hill overlooking an opening or a tree stand at the edge of a field. Other places to check are power lines, strip benches, field corners or anyplace a road enters one of these locations. Two person set-ups are a good idea, but be sure to establish safe shooting corridors ahead of time. As a general rule, predators will come in downwind, but expect anything.
When calling, more volume is not necessarily better. In windy conditions you will want to increase volume. If it's calm, you may want to start loud and decrease volume with each series of calls. Squeaks are sometimes all that is needed when the weather is calm. Your first series should last up to a minute, with a 20- to 30-second break to allow you to listen and to encourage the predator to approach. Each remaining series should get shorter and quieter.
The time spent calling at a set-up will vary, but a general rule would be 10 to 15 minutes for foxes and 20 to 30 minutes for coyotes and bobcats. Above all, remember to be patient and persistent. You won't bag a furbearer every time and you may even experience many unsuccessful set-ups. Keep at it. The memory of a fox overrunning your call or a bobcat stalking your location will quickly replace any memories of unsuccessful hunts.
Lee Strawn is a wildlife manager at Pleasant Creek WMA.