Coyotes are omnivores and opportunistic predators. They travel alone or in small packs, hunting and foraging mostly at night and covering miles of ground in search of food. Nose to the ground and ears perked to scan the landscape as it passes, they remain alert to react quickly on any feeding opportunity or danger that arises.
When the high-pitched bleat of a fawn in distress sounds out across a hayfield on a muggy summer morning, you can bet nearby song dogs will move in quickly for the kill.
That’s exactly what coyote hunter Jeff Murphy, of Rayle, is counting on. As soon as turkey season ends, Jeff hits the woods in search of coyotes. He utilizes different types of decoys and calls to bring in hungry ’yotes, but in the summer months, when whitetail fawns are on the ground, you can bet his go-to tactic will involve a spotted coat, large black eyes and a little wet nose.
At no other time of the year is such a large protein package so readily available to coyotes. You can bet they will take advantage of and devour a helpless deer fawn straying even a short distance from its mother.
Killer in the Woods
The jury is still out on whether or not coyote predation has an impact on whitetail populations statewide, but there is no doubt coyotes eat fawns… a lot of them.
Steve Ditchkoff, an associate professor at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has some predation information hot off the presses from a study one of his graduate students conducted over the last two years in southeast Alabama.
Working toward her masters degree, Angela Jackson radio collared newborn fawns to determine survival rates and causes of death of fawns. Fifty percent of the fawns in the study were killed by a predator within the first 40 days after birth.
There were 14 fawns collared. Six of them were killed by coyotes. One was killed by a bobcat. Two others died of unknown causes. That means about 64 percent of the fawns didn’t make it to six months of age, and coyotes were responsible for at least 67 percent of those deaths.
“Coyote predation is driving recruitment below what it would normally be,” said Steve. “We don’t believe that this is the case everywhere, but we do believe it is the case in some locations.
“What we have here is at least 50 percent predation. Now that sounds like a lot, but understand that in a healthy population only 41 percent of fawns are making it to six months of age.
“If somebody says coyotes are killing 50 percent of the fawns, people freak at that number. But, the reality is that in a very healthy population only 60 percent of those fawns are making it to six months of age, anyway.”
If coyote hunters take anything from the results of the study, it should be that song dogs love eating fawns. What might come as a surprise is that fawns are most susceptible to predation once they are up and about, not when they are all but immobile for a couple of weeks after birth.
“Between four and 40 days of age is when all our predations took place. But really what we’re finding in all of our studies is there’s a lot of predation in weeks three through six,” said Steve. “What happens is, the fawns are very susceptible to predation when they’re first born just because they’re so immobile. But it’s that immobility and that hiding that they do — everybody’s familiar with the fact that a fawn will just lie there and you can approach it — that actually helps the fawn at that time. It’s during weeks three and four, when they start getting up and following mother a lot more that they become visible to predators, but they can’t outrun predators at that time.”
As soon as fawns start hitting the ground, fawning tactics become very effective for coyote hunters.
Predator Becomes Prey
The fawns where Jeff hunts in Wilkes County start showing up in June, but he begins using his fawn decoys and calls in late May.
If you have the determination to battle mosquitos and the equipment to hunt at night, coyotes will be most active at that time, but getting a spotlight on a coyote can be tricky and night-vision equipment is expensive. Jeff prefers hunting mornings and evenings. He places his decoy sets almost exclusively on fields because of the increased visibility both for the hunter to see the coyote and for the coyote to see the decoy.
Cut hay fields or food plots are the perfect ambush points.
“Coyotes don’t like to come into high grass because they can’t see,” Jeff said. “This time of year, people are cutting hay. Set your decoy out there 75, 100 yards out in the field and back off where you can see left and right. A lot of times you’ll catch them coming in. Once they get to that field, they’re going to stop and look. Then they’re going to come.”
Scent control and cover are more important for coyote hunting than any other type of hunting you’ll do in the Southeast. Jeff said the sharp senses that make coyotes such good predators also make them good at avoiding predators. Camo should be head to toe, including a face mask and gloves, and if there is a blind, some hay bales or a thick fence row to use for cover, take advantage.
Often Jeff hunts with a partner. One will carry a 12-gauge loaded with buckshot. The other will carry a scoped rifle in a smaller caliber like a .222, .204 or .243. The rifleman should take an elevated position if possible for increased visibility and longer shots. A ladder stand left over from deer season is perfect. The shotgunner should sit in ground cover, ready for fast, close-range action if a coyote pops out. This can be especially important if you’re using hand-held or mouth calls, because a coyote is likely to come straight to you.
On a typical morning hunt, Jeff parks the truck at the gate before dawn, sprays down liberally with a scent-killing spray, fires up his ThermaCell, dons his turkey vest and walks in as quietly as he can. In his vest, he carries all the essentials — knife, gloves, headnet, calls, etc. — but he also packs his collapsible Flambeau Foam Fawn Decoy and his MAD Minaska Series electronic game call, which is remote operated and can be loaded with a number of different predator calls.
Jeff sets his decoy out from the field edge about 60 or 75 yards and puts the electronic call right next to it. He wants the decoy to be visible across the entire field but low in the grass where the coyote will be tempted to come in for a closer look. He also uses movement around the decoy to attract a coyote’s eye.
“It’s just something to take the mind of the coyote off of me,” he said. “I want him locked in on that decoy. Any kind of movement to distract him onto the decoy.”
He’s used motorized fur balls, turkey feathers on a string that blow in the wind and even fishing line tied to a bush in the field that he can shake from his position, but his favorite trick when using a fawn decoy is to thumb-tack a strip of toilet paper to the decoy’s tail. With a little breeze, it gives the appearance that the fawn is flicking its tail.
Once he sets his decoy up, Jeff sprays everything down with cover scent.
“Coyotes, they are so smart it’s unbelievable. I’ll walk around there about 2 or 3 feet from that decoy, and I’m spraying it, spraying it, spraying it to make sure it’s sprayed real good,” he said. “Then I’ll walk to my setup, and I’ll go around my setup 10 or 15 yards and spray that fox pee.
“I spray fox scent on limbs and trees around me, because a coyote can’t stand a fox, and vice versa. Most of the time a coyote is going to circle downwind. If they circle downwind of you and pick up that fox scent then they’re going to come in.”
Because of a coyote’s tendency to circle downwind, Jeff doesn’t even worry about wind direction when choosing where he’ll sit.
“It doesn’t matter to me which way the wind is going to blow because most of the time a coyote’s first instinct is going to be to circle downwind and see what’s going on,” he said. “You can fight their nose all you want to, but from what I’ve learned it doesn’t matter which way the wind is blowing; they’re going to come from downwind of you.”
With everything set up and the hunters in position just as it’s cracking light, Jeff waits. He waits at least three to five minutes while the fox scent spreads on the wind and the woods settle down around him.
Using a cordless remote to activate the caller in the field, he will start off with a soft fawn bleat at less than half volume in case there are coyotes nearby. If they are close, chaos can erupt.
Jeff said he’s had them show up in less than 10 seconds after hitting his first call. He remembered a hunt when he and a buddy had just settled in, hit the first call and had three dogs on top of them in a heartbeat.
“We called in three, and two of them died. I think we were there a total of 10 seconds from the time we got set up until the shooting stopped. Sometimes it can happen really quickly, in the blink of an eye, but sometimes it can take them 15, 20 minutes.”
Jeff was glad his buddy had a shotgun on that occasion, as the dogs were right on top of the two hunters. Jeff’s buddy busted one at short range with the scattergun, and Jeff sniped the other as it fled across the field.
Many times these eager coyotes that crash straight into a setup this time of year are young males, recently pushed out of the pack by their mother. They are not as wary as mature ’yotes and are learning to hunt on their own, which makes them easier to kill.
Something else that makes coyotes easier to kill is another coyote in distress. Jeff said if you’re able to shoot one out of a group, the others will often come back to check on their packmate if it is thrashing around and whining. If you made too good of a shot, and the dog flops straight to the ground, a pup-in-distress call can often bring others into range.
After a couple minutes, if the ’yotes don’t show, Jeff ramps up the volume and frequency of his calling.
“Some of them you’ll catch sneaking around the edge of the field. It all depends on how hungry they are and what mood they’re in. Some you’ll catch sneaking,” he said. “Some they’ll come forward and stop, ease forward and stop. Some will come in nice and lightly with their nose down. And some will come in like a thoroughbred race horse.”
If, after 30 minutes, the coyotes don’t show up, it’s time to move. Jeff won’t even bother walking and calling like some people do. He gets in the truck and drives to another field. He figures if there are interested ’yotes around, their ears are good enough that they’ll hear calls from a long way off.
One thing a coyote hunter should always expect when using a fawn decoy and call is the arrival of does. Jeff said he’s had a doe square off with a coyote to protect his decoy.
“She came walking all the way across the field at an angle and got to the decoy, and she was just staring down the decoy,” he said. “Next thing I know, she looks to her right, and up pops a coyote. They were within 10 or 15 feet of each other, and both of them, they would look at the decoy, then the coyote would look at the doe and the doe would look at the coyote. They were back and forth like that for two minutes. It was like, ‘Who’s going to make the first move. Are you going to charge this fawn over here?’”
Jeff’s hunting buddy took the opportunity to pop the coyote in the head from about 60 yards with his rifle. The dog flopped.
“When he fell, she walked real fast over to him. She started running around him and bucking up and down,” Jeff said. “I don’t know if she was stomping on him or what.”
The interaction between predator and prey can be exciting, and it can get even more interesting when a hunter steps in as the apex predator. Instead of sitting at home watching hunting shows and waiting for deer season, go rid the world of a few coyotes. You might just save the life of a future wall-hanger.