Thanks to the prevalence of electronic calling devices, anyone can become a decent coyote caller with the press of a few buttons. But if you really want to step up your game, you need to first understand what makes these dogs tick.
1. Prey Distress
Coyotes are nature’s great omnivores. Studies of stomach contents have found that coyotes will swallow almost anything that they can get in their mouths, including rocks, plastic packaging, harness buckles, and even the occasional rabbit. Knowing this, it doesn’t matter much which sort of prey distress call you use—most modern electronic callers offer everything from a whitetail fawn to a house cat—as long as you set up within a coyote’s earshot.
The manner in which a coyote approaches a distress call depends on its security level, which is influenced by its latest experiences. An unpressured coyote will often come in quickly and boldly to almost any distress sound. A pressured coyote, however, will take much longer to approach a call. He’ll wait downwind of the sound before slowly slinking in, wary nose to the air.
In 2005, a predator-research biologist gifted me with a major opportunity when he invited me to call coyotes for him at the Idaho National Laboratory research area, where he was studying a large number of GPS-collared coyotes. Every six weeks the coyotes were trapped, whereupon their collars were fitted with fresh batteries, and the tracking information in them was downloaded and reproduced in a computer animation. These dogs were extremely pressured.
Upon hearing the initial prey distress cries, the test coyotes would usually run to a downwind position without exposing themselves and remain there until we left. They would later approach our stand area to investigate. One wary old alpha pair (the male was 10 years old) waited 17 hours before approaching the calling location, and then spent 45 minutes at our stand site sniffing around.
The takeaway? One of the biggest mistakes you can make with a distress call is leaving a location too soon. Spend at least 30 to 45 minutes on stand.
Another important factor is the time of day you target coyotes. Only 10 percent of respondents in a recent poll of about 1,400 coyote callers said dawn was best. More than half the hunters chose 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., followed by 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then dusk, each of which got about 20 percent of the vote.
Les Johnson is perhaps the best coyote caller in the country, and he relies entirely on prey distress calls. He prefers the half hour just before dark.
“I think predators that have been laid up all day and maybe didn’t have a chance to fill their belly during the previous night’s hunting might be willing to come investigate my sounds as darkness falls,” he says. “Darkness is a huge safety net for a predator.” Johnson has developed his own line of open-reed and closed-reed hand calls, and uses a wide variety of distress sounds depending on his setup. His go-to call is the long-range Ruffidawg jackrabbit distress call.
2. Whines and Yelps
These nonaggressive vocalizations—often made by pups—are probably the most effective sounds in a coyote caller’s repertoire because they trip so many behavioral triggers at once. With the press of a button you can target social interaction, territorial instincts, and protective maternal/paternal instincts. At certain times of the year, a case could probably be made that you’re appealing to their hunger, too, since several studies have documented coyotes cannibalizing pups.
My son Tyler and I use whines and yelps on almost every single stand. During denning season (March through May), when family bonds are strongest, it is the most reliable sound you can use. But these sounds are just as effective during the recovery and mating seasons, approximately September through January, when the puppies have grown, family bonds are more relaxed, and the group is less cohesive.
One of the most aggressive approaches we have witnessed was from a coyote that began bark-howling at Tyler’s puppy yelps as soon as he began the series. The coyote came in from 80 yards back in the brush with the hackles on his shoulders and hips raised, barking so hard that his feet bounced off the ground.
Before switching to a different sound, we’ll increase the volume and intensity of the whines and yelps for three or four series in order to reach out to distant coyotes. This has proven extremely effective in all seasons and geographic locations, and at any time of day.
Coyote call guru Gerald Stewart suggests adding more elements to your setup when using whines and yelps to reel a coyote in close. “You’ll get a coyote to fully commit if you add an attractant scent for his nose and a moving decoy for his eyes,” Stewart says. “But don’t overdo it with these other tactics, because an educated coyote will catch on to them quickly.” Stewart also says to diversify your calling with howls, yelps, and distress calls to bring coyotes running in.
3. Challenge Howl
The challenge howl is a misnomer. A challenge is an invitation to fight, to do battle, such as a monarch bull elk bugling at a satellite bull. Coyotes don’t do that. Biologists call this vocalization the threat-bark howl because it more accurately describes the intent of the coyote: to threaten and demand that the intruder leave. Now. Field observations have shown that coyotes (unlike wolves) will avoid fights whenever possible. A wolf pack will run down an intruder and kill it. A pack of coyotes will run down an intruder, make him submit, and then let him leave the territory.
For these reasons, callers should use this vocalization only if they know they are set up in a pack’s core territory. If a caller sets up near a den during whelping or denning season, the results can be spectacular. Having resident coyotes charge in on a close, loud, aggressive call rivals any approach of a rutting buck or strut of a spring gobbler. However, if you set up in overlapping home ranges and demand that every coyote within hearing distance leave, they probably will.
The key to locating a pack’s core area is to home in on their group-yip howls. Listen for a pack’s group howl night after night. If you are able to pattern their howling with some regularity, you should be able to determine their core area. Once you’ve plotted that on a map or GPS, study the terrain. Coyotes will typically hide out in the thickest, most secluded cover in the area. Make an educated guess and move in close before threatening the pack.
Many callers will break off a stand when a coyote bark-threat howls in response to their distress calls because they believe that it means the coyote has busted them and will not approach. That’s not always the case. The coyote may simply be protesting the source of the sound even if it hasn’t identified it. You can often get a barking, threat-howling coyote to expose himself for a clear shot if you wait him out and weaken your return howls, keeping them less aggressive than the coyote’s. Another tactic is to retrace your steps and then circle around to a different location. If the coyote doesn’t see or scent you, you can call him in to the new setup with whines and whimpers.
4. Group and Solo Howls
Coyote calling is a numbers game. You want to offer sounds that appeal to the largest number of coyotes without alarming or intimidating them. During 54 years of howling at coyotes across 22 states and Mexico, I’ve found that the most effective howl to draw them in is a lone howl that is low frequency, high pitched, and long. It announces the presence of an unknown, young, small, nonaggressive coyote that any other dog within hearing distance will be willing to investigate.
Louder, long-range howls are more likely to get howls in return, but they are less likely to draw a coyote in to your stand.
Knowing that, here’s a simple formula for success: Locate coyotes with a group-yip howl (the collective yowling that you have undoubtedly heard on calm evenings) and call them in to gun range with a lone howl.
Here’s why it works. In a Utah State University study, researchers recorded coyote barks and howls and analyzed them with a spectrograph. They found highly specific information encoded in coyote howls, including identity, sex, size, age, and even emotional state. Researcher Dr. Philip Lehner identified and described 11 coyote vocalizations, and he listed them in three categories: 1) contact: long-range howls; 2) greeting: whines, yelps, and low-frequency howls; 3) agonistic: warning and alarm vocalizations.
Most of those vocalizations are aggressive in nature. This is important to know because such vocalizations will alarm and/or intimidate most coyotes. Submissive coyotes will often retreat to their core areas after howls are broadcast and remain there until joined by another group member or until enough time has passed for them to call back or investigate. That’s the exact opposite of what you want your howls to do.
It is important to remember that coyotes will sometimes investigate the source of your group-yip howls, so don’t get caught unprepared.
Al Morris and his partner, Garvin Young, are the only three-time winners of the World Coyote Calling Championship. Morris’ key to success in the field is mixing up howling, distress calls, and yelps all during one set.
“In the last three years, I have doubled my success by starting with a howl, then using some prey distress, or using strictly howling with aggressive and nonaggressive coyote vocalizations,” Morris says. “I think if you’re not using a hybrid system, you’re only going to kill 25 percent of the coyotes you’re calling to.”