How To: Winter and Pre-Spring Predator Hunting, Calling, and Calls
For most outdoorsmen, the worst time of the year has officially arrived. Their favorite hunting seasons have either already closed or on the verge of doing so, and the weather is about as bad as it’ll get all winter. Welcome to the winter lull…
If you’re one of the many feeling the weight of this mid-winter and pre-spring funk, we’ve got good news – all hope isn’t lost. There’s a light in the proverbial darkness you’re experiencing, and we bet it’ll really put some pep back in your step.
Predator hunting has continued to grow in popularity, which isn’t surprising. Given the large populations and generous limits in most states, it can easily be a year-round pursuit. But the brutal cold and harsh weather that accompany the heart and later parts of winter, especially through the months of January and February, make this one of the best times to predator hunt, without question. Why’s that?
Hungry Country, Active Animals
As winter drags on, everything gets hungrier. Like other wildlife species, coyotes, foxes, and bobcats not only need more food to survive the worst of winter, but they must work increasingly harder to find it. This takes a toll on the animals physically, sapping their caloric reserves and making them more and more desperate for an easy meal.
Their struggle to find food and stay fed is a prime reason predator hunters are so successful during this time of the year. In winter, and even into early spring predator calls that mimic key prey species like rabbits, coons, fawns, and even cats are extremely effective. If predators sense the prey is in distress and will make a quick meal, it’s even better. These calls are likely to produce aggressive, instinctual responses and draw animals within shooting range quickly.
Consummation is King
During mid- to late winter, coyotes begin their mating season. This occurrence makes these predators more responsive to coyote calls – yips, whines, barks, howls, and the like – in addition to the distress calls mentioned previously. Because they naturally become more active during the breeding season, many are already on the move and will have an instinctually territorial reaction to sounds they think are other coyotes infringing on their turf. That, coupled with the fact that these predators are curious by nature, gives predator howl hand calls like The Alpha a good shot at bringing them in close enough for hunters to connect.
Whines and yelps, female invites, male challenges, or a combination of pairing calls for example, are likely to appeal to coyotes during the breeding season. Given they’re not too aggressive, they can trigger a variety of responses – from territorial, protective, or even hunting behaviors. When using these vocalizations, it’s important to keep your focus on nonaggressive sounds, so keep from intimidating your targets and scaring them off altogether.
Of course, the way a predator responds to calls and other attractants is a direct result of the previous contact it has had with other hunters and other callers. Often, coyotes that receive consistent pressure from humans will be slower to respond to calls, taking their time and warily approaching (if they decide to do so at all). Young or otherwise unpressured predators, on the other hand, can be bold in reaction and approach, usually responding quickly to what sounds like their next opportunity to eat.
As winter progresses into early spring, nutritional needs increase for pregnant females or in some early cases pups start dropping. During this time and later into spring coyotes can be extremely detrimental on game animal populations, including whitetail fawns and turkey poults.
Our Favorite Predator Calls
A few of our go-to predator hand calls, the Coon Squaller, The Alpha, and Distressed Rabbit, are perfect for wintertime predator hunting. When food is what predators need most, we’ve seen both draw in coyotes, foxes, and even raccoons within 150 yards, and believe us when we say that it made freezing our tails off all day more than worth it. These easy-to-operate calls deliver true-to-life sounds that get the job done time after time!
The Coon Squaller – a great call for attracting raccoons and predators. Keep your land free of pesky animals and your deer herd thriving with this high-pitched weather resistant predator call.
• High-pitched squall of a raccoon
• Attracts both raccoons and predators
• Molded ergonomic compact design
• Made in the USA
Distressed Rabbit – Producing lifelike rabbit in distressed, the Distressed Rabbit is great for close or long-range calling. Compact and weather resistant, the Distressed Rabbit is easy to use for all hunting conditions. Made in the USA.
• High-pitched distressed rabbit
• Close and long-range call
• Molded ergonomic compact design
• Made in the USA
The Alpha – A traditional open reed howler with a wood barrel, helps this call product coyote barks, howls, and pup in distress sounds. A great overall predator call, this will quickly become your go to predator call to keep your deer herd for the fall.
• Open reed coyote howler
• Wood barrel with bell end for maximum volume
• Produces coyote barks, howls, and pup in distress sounds
• Made in the USA
Scouting for Predators?
Yep, that’s a thing. In February, the chances are good the ground is covered in snow, so why not take full advantage of it? If you’re going into an area blind or have never hunted predators before, scouting will tell you if there are even any in the vicinity – after all, why spend your time slowly freezing to death on that exposed hilltop if there aren’t any? Snow makes it easy to find tracks and droppings. If you’re proactive in your scouting (getting out shortly after a storm has passed through), you’ll know the sign you’re finding is fresh and that predators are nearby as well.
Once you’ve found tracks, you’ll also have a better idea of whether predators are repeatedly visiting the area or just traveling through en route to another spot. For example, tracks that don’t veer from a single straight line probably belong to an animal that’s passing through. Those that follow a different pattern – stopping here and there near holes, cover, and other habitat preferred by small game and game birds – probably belong to one that lives somewhere close and is out looking for food.
In many cases and for the majority of states you might even be able to bait predators, in which case you can use tools like cell cams from Bushnell, to tell you when one has found its way in your neck of the woods. Remember to set the notifications to a text or instant notification in order to get out in time for a shot before they exit the camera location.
Know Where the Cows Call Home
Again, because life is hard and food is scarce in the middle of winter and pre-spring, predators are all about easy meals, even if acquiring said meals puts them right on our own doorsteps. Coyotes especially are known for sticking tight to areas with high livestock populations in hopes of having an opportunity at a newborn, injured, or dying animal. During calving season, coyotes and other predators also feed on afterbirth and nutrient- and milk-rich calf poop. It’s tough out there in the winter.
While smaller predators like foxes, bobcats, and raccoons are less likely to lie in wait for large livestock, they do have a taste for fowl. This makes farms and other areas that are home to chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys, or even wild birds like pheasant, quail, and grouse, great spots for doing some calling.
Our advice? Since predator populations tend to be high in areas where livestock populations are high, make hunting these spots a group effort. Using predator distress calls in these areas is likely to bring in more than one animal at a time, and hunting with a buddy or two ups your chances of making the most of each shooting opportunity.
Just In Case You Need Another Reason
Aside from it being a good break from the monotony of being stuck inside, predator hunting during the winter brings with it another worthwhile perk – predator fur is at its prime during this time of the year.
Coyotes, foxes, and bobcats are consuming as much food as they’re able to find, to ensure they have enough energy to function, hunt for more food, and stay warm. As you might imagine, a thick, heavy coat is vital to keep them protected from the frigid temperatures and seeing them through to springtime. This means hides from harvested animals are ideal for removing, cleaning, and selling to fur buyers or keeping for use in things like coats, hats, blankets, and other garments.
Here’s Our List – Have You Checked it Twice?
As with any hunt, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared with all the right gear before heading afield. A few things we suggest are:
Lots of Layers
It’s either the middle of winter or pre-spring, after all, and downright cold outside! So layer up – base layers, several insulating or down-filled mid-layers, a good jacket, wool socks, and rubber boots rated for extreme temperatures. Remember, you’re likely to be sitting all day (or at least most of it), so you’ll want to make sure you stay warm.
We know, we know, this one goes without saying. But with predator hunting especially and the distances you might be shooting, let’s just say it’s good to come loaded with a good number of extras in your favorite round. Our go-to for predators here at the Brotherhood? Hornady®, hands down!
Tools of the Trade
Yes, bringing along your favorite predator calls should also go without saying. But, if you’re looking to add a little excitement to your day, throw in a few decoys to try out too.
A Little Swagger
Because you’ll likely be a little chilly – not to mention excited and anxious to get a good shot off as soon as an opportunity is presented – we recommend packing a solid bipod into the field too. Predators are quick, wary, smart, and have killer eyesight. The moment they see you or feel like something might be up, you can kiss your shot goodbye, so it’s important to be set, stable, and confident when you let one fly. Swagger™ bipods are our top pick.
As we mentioned, predators can be drawn over great distances and take their time committing to their approach. A good pair of Bushnell® binos helps you see them before they see you and keeps you just as wary of their presence as they are of yours. Trust us, there’s nothing worse than accidentally spooking critters right before they make a beeline for that 100-yard mark!
We don’t doubt your range-finding abilities; we just know that some of us are better at hitting the nail on the head than others. We also know how frustrating it is to miss an animal – or worse, get a bad hit on one – at 150 yards only to later find out it was really at 200-plus. Do yourself and all your predator-hunting buddies a favor and tote along your rangefinder, just to be safe.
Don’t Forget About Skinning
Hides are prime this time of year and worth a little something too, remember? If turning a profit after having some fun interests you, bring one of Havalon’s Bone Collector Rebel edition knives along for your after-predator-hunting party. Designed under the watchful eyes of the Brotherhood, these knives feature a traditional drop point folding blade on one side and a Havalon® Quik-Change fitment on the other – making them ideal for skinning out predators of all shapes and sizes.