Across a sage draw in the far southwest corner of Wyoming, two dogs and a coyote are quarreling. It’s an ancient argument conducted in two tongues with a common root, like “son of a bitch” and “bite me” shouted in French and Italian, minus the hand gestures.
This feud started when the coyote came running to the howls and dying-rabbit screams that Will Ross was making. He and I sat in the shadowed brush on the hillside and watched it lope down the draw below us in the morning sun. Then the coyote turned and climbed the opposite ridge, keeping to the high ground. Two of Ross’ dogs, one yellow, the other brindle, in turn ran up the slope, trying to lure the animal down. It came partway, but when the dogs turned back and crossed to our side of the gully, it stopped and sat down, its hide in late August already thick, ears rufous, chest pale, tail black tipped. The quarrel proceeded.
For an hour the dogs dashed up and back, taunting the coyote. But as fervently as the predator wished to chase them, something held it back. Maybe it had glimpsed our skylined silhouettes when we crossed the ridge, or maybe some vague hint of our scent swirled down to its position. Whatever the reason, it wouldn’t come closer than 300 yards.
After an hour, Ross concluded the coyote wasn’t going to be brought in and told me to try a shot. I rested the New Ultra Light Arms .243 WSSM on the shooting sticks, set the crosshairs of the Swarovski 3-10×42 scope solidly on the fringe along its back, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet sailed high and sent it running; pack members that we hadn’t seen suddenly appeared and ran with it. The dogs sulked back, and we took off our camouflage masks, folded our sticks, and hiked through the fragrant brush up the hill to the truck, the coyotes having won again.
Will Ross, 42, tall, amply mustached, former government hunter and current hunting guide, has seen his share of coyotes winning. Years ago he learned that to hunt them, you need an edge, and dogs were the one he found. Climbing the hill with us are his three dogs.
There is Whiskey, the oldest, a 7-year-old bobtail red heeler; Sam, the brindle, feral looking and 4; and Susie, 2, her yellow coat lending her a resemblance to some rough breed of Labrador. None of the dogs is large; all are female. Unlike in the world of human relationships, Ross finds these females more tractable than males. They are less likely to display aggression and drive coyotes off, yet they all possess a kind of mother courage that makes them incapable of backing down when defending themselves or the other dogs. Altogether, they’ve brought some 600 coyotes into fatal range of Ross’ .22/250 Ackley Improved. It’s hard to say if Whiskey came to the work naturally or grew into it. No such question hovers over Sam and Susie, since both are mountain curs.
The breed came from Europe with the first settlers of the South’s hill country, where they were used to bay game and guard homesteads. Daniel Boone is said to have hunted with them, and his were judged to be “severe dogs” more than able to “tackle wild animals.”
Mountain curs scent coyotes ahead, but their real value lies in their ability to decoy the predators into shooting range. Sometimes the dogs bring them in before Ross even has a chance to start calling. More than once, they have gone out and come flying back, a coyote in hot pursuit, all of them running right under Ross’ stirrups, the coyote completely oblivious to the presence of horse and rider.
What makes mountain curs arguably the best decoy dogs is their intelligence, spine, and singular fixation on coyotes. They treat a landscape devoid of the sight and scent of “prairie wolves” with the most profound indifference. Several times on my hunt with Ross, we set up and called at what looked to be likely places–the predator-hunting equivalent of blind casting–and Susie and Sam arced out in front of us, running a few hundred yards. If they found nothing that said coyote to them, they jogged back and flounced down beside us, as bored as debutantes at a church picnic. On the other hand, if they scented coyotes, the curs bounded fearlessly into the sage, yelping madly–a situation that the fiercely territorial predators found intolerable, making it virtually impossible for them to resist the urge to charge after the interlopers.
I’d seen the dogs interact with a coyote, and Ross told me how it could be when things really worked. There was the day when it was 77 degrees in the sage on an 8,000-foot-high flat, and he and the dogs kicked up coveys of sage grouse as they walked to the edge. Ross had located a den there the evening before, and he crawled the last several dozen yards to the rim to hide his outline. From that vantage point, he could see thick cover in the bottom where a creek braided silver through willows. Ross set up on the steep slope below the flat and made his rabbit call. Susie and Sam (who always work together, each protecting the other from getting outflanked) headed for the willows, while Whiskey waited with Ross, ready to run down for the coup de grace on a wounded coyote or to pitch into a fight if needed. In minutes a coyote ran out at about 200 yards to face off with the barking dogs, and Ross’ wildcat rifle dropped it where it stood. A second one came almost at once, not heeding its dead pack mate nearby. Another shot, another coyote; and then a third appeared, seeing and hearing only the mountain curs.
Whiskey was gone before the last coyote fell, clamping onto a carcass and tossing it into the air like a limp doll. Then Susie and Sam had to worry the remains, too. In a while they were done, content just to sniff at the pale fur. They had gotten what they had come for and had been gracious enough to allow Ross to be part of it, too.
WILE E. COYOTES
Dogs by themselves are no guarantee of finding or bringing in coyotes. A hunter first needs to cover much ground and do a great deal of howling just to locate them. The animals howl by their dens at sunset and in the early morning, gathering the pack for the night’s hunting at last light, and bringing them back to the den at dawn. (The old-dog coyote who calls like a wolf in the middle of the night is one who is on the hunt, miles from the den.)
Ross would voice his howls, and if he got an answer in the early morning, we tried to hunt that coyote. Dens are generally on the backs of ridges or in draws, and we had to get over and above them to set up without being seen. Once we were in position, hidden behind masks and gloves, Ross would begin the rabbit squalls. Susie and Sam would start at the sound, heads up, scanning the terrain, then running out into it.
It took about 12 minutes for a coyote to come to a call, Ross figured, with every minute past that seriously depressing the odds. Sometimes we allowed half an hour, but then Ross would make a kind of tweet on his call to bring the dogs back if they weren’t already beside us. Then we’d go look somewhere else.
On average, only one in eight setups brings in a coyote, and there are only so many you can do in a day. You might make two in the morning, maybe two more in the afternoon–midday being too hot for the coyotes– and then one on the edge of dark, howling to locate a den for the next morning’s hunt. Calling in the wind is pretty much a waste of energy, but in the short time I had to hunt with Ross, we gave it a try anyway.
One of our last hunts began when we came upon a Peruvian sheepherder on a mesa. The herder stood in his stockinged feet at the back door of his wooden wagon, smoke wisping from its black chimney. He told Ross in Spanish that coyotes had killed four of his sheep and pointed out their den to us, on a bluff to the south.
As we drove around to get above the den, we saw magpies in the air over the cliff, a good omen. When we got to where we had to start hiking down, we found the bad omen of a wind blowing in the wrong direction. There was no other way to hunt this place, though. All we could do was make our way down through the cedar trees and serviceberry bushes on the shale slope and hope the dogs would draw in the coyotes in spite of everything.
Setting up halfway down the bluff, overlooking a large brushy bowl, Ross made his first call and was immediately answered by coyotes all around us. Susie and Sam took off, shooting down into the scrub. In a few minutes Sam was back, flashing into view 80 yards from us, a coyote right behind her, visible for just seconds. Its desire to catch the dog couldn’t overrule what its nose said, though, and in an instant it turned and vanished into cover. The next time we heard it howl, it was half a mile gone.
All told I made eight setups with Ross in two days, and my luck was to have the coyote come in on the first one and for me to miss. I’d witnessed something of the aboriginal dispute between men’s dogs and wild predators, though, and it was nothing less than an honor. I suspect their arguments will carry on, and that I will join in again someday. I had to go, and Ross had to go on hunting. The dogs wouldn’t have it any other way.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
SMART GEAR FOR DECOYING WITH DOGS
Rifles and Loads When Ross is hunting for fur, he uses something in the .22/250 to .243/6mm school. For straight control work, he’d choose anything from his own .22/250 Ackley Improved to .25/06. He likes polymer-tipped bullets, on the heavier side–50 to 55 grains in the .22 calibers, 80 to 90 grains in the 6mms–for better penetration and stability in flight through wind and for possible longer ranges. A 4.5-14×50 scope, such as the Leupold VX-L, is powerful enough for him to dial out for distant targets, and the 50mm objective is not so high that he can’t throw up the rifle quickly to find the coyote.
Calls There are any number of good predator calls made by Circe, Cutt Down, and others, but one of his favorites is actually the Sceery Cow Elk Call ($20; 800-327-4322; sceeryoutdoors.net), which Ross uses to make dying-rabbit squalls. (It’s a matter of practice.)
For the ultimate in electronic calls, there’s the new Foxpro FX3 ($490; 866-463-6977; gofoxpro.com) with remote operation. The size of a large flashlight, it comes in three choices of camouflage and can be programmed with 32 sounds from a menu of more than 200 that includes not only “Coyote Pup Frenzy” but “Ugly Crow” and “Guinea Fowl Distress.”
Rests and Camo Coyote hunting takes a steady rest, and shooting sticks seem to work better than bipods attached to rifles. A good choice is Shooters Ridge folding sticks in the kneeling-sitting length ($30; 800-635-7656; shootersridge.com). The terrain out west calls for something other than deep-woods camouflage, and Conk’s Faded Sage lets you blend in (877-474-4557; conkscamo.com). A shirt and pants start at $94.
Guided Hunts For information on hunting coyotes with mountain curs, contact Will Ross at X-treme Outdoor Adventures (307-360-8309; xtremeoutdooradventures.com). –THOMAS MCINTYRE