"Coyote, coyote, coyote!" hissed my hunting partner Ben Planter.
"Where?" I whispered back.
"Coming straight in."
Scanning left to right, picking apart the hardwood trees and corn stubble, I'd be damned if I could spot him. Embarrassed, I whispered back, "I don't see him."
"He is right in front of us!" Ben almost screamed. I could tell by the stress in Ben's normally calm voice that the song dog was close. Then I saw him, how I missed him before is anyone's guess. He was trotting full steam through the corn stubble right along the edge, way closer than I was looking, coming on a string to our position. Before I could make a move to shoulder the rifle, the coyote veered off into the brush to cut downwind.
I slowly shouldered my rifle and waited, hoping he would come back out, but he never emerged. I was sorry to say that was the last we saw of him. I am always disappointed to not capitalize on a hard-earned opportunity, but on this Midwest hunt it was our 14th stand without so much as even hearing a coyote. To say I was frustrated with the country east of the Mississippi would be a huge understatement.
Talk to any coyote hunter and sooner or later the topic of killing eastern coyotes comes up. Theories abound about how to most effectively hunt them, and the question always arises: Are they tougher to kill than western dogs?
After spending most of my life in the West, hunting coyotes across a fair stretch of it, and later being uprooted and replanted in the Midwest, I can say without hesitation that killing eastern coyotes is significantly harder. It has been my experience you have to bring your "A" game, as well as a few tricks for good measure.
Coyotes are coyotes right? They have to feed, they are opportunistic and respond to calls - so why is hunting them so vastly different from coast to coast? I think it is for a variety of reasons.
To begin with, I don't believe the population density of coyotes across the Midwest is as great as it is in the West. Sure, there are some isolated exceptions, but on the whole, coyotes are a recently expanding species to the croplands, and they haven't reached population capacity yet.
And while hunters and farmers in the bread basket of America think they are "overrun with coyotes" because they hear them at night, or see one run across a road once in a while, it is nothing like many areas of the West where over a dozen are seen in a day just driving around.
Since eastern farmers and hunters are not as used to seeing or hearing coyotes as guys in the West, having an encounter, even infrequently, makes it seem like the numbers are higher than they really are.
Next to a lower population density, there is another factor at work — the prey base. Compare the available food sources both in the East and the West and you see a totally different scenario. The West has mice and some rabbits; the East on the other hand has mice, cottontails, lots of road-killed deer, plus tons upon tons of other food from turkeys to squirrels to songbirds.
Walk through any Midwest wood patch and see if you don't agree; the amount of food for a coyote to eat is staggering. Because of this abundance of nutrition, coyotes are just plain stuffed in the Midwest compared to out West. And a full coyote means a much less responsive coyote.
A predator's caloric needs influence how far they will range in search of food. This is a phenomenon even seen out West when the situation is right. When the weather is mild and prey is relatively abundant coyotes are less likely to travel very far in search of food. However, when the weather turns cold, and prey gets tougher to find (such as when the earth is covered by snow) coyotes will come for miles to a call.
Coyotes with PhDs
Next to lower overall numbers, and higher food densities, I believe the final thing that makes eastern coyotes tougher to call is their heightened level of awareness through an increased interaction with humans. Eastern coyotes have adapted their behavior in the more densely populated areas than they have out West through necessity.
Even though they are not hunted as hard by dedicated predator hunters like they are in the West, coyotes have two serious factors to contend with. The first is education through chance encounters. The population density of people in the Midwest is far greater than the West, and coyotes are always a target of opportunity from a farmer on a combine to a deer hunter sitting in a treestand.
Simply put, if a coyote is seen it often gets cracked at - this is the same from coast to coast, it is just more likely a coyote will have a random encounter with a human in the East.
In addition to being furry targets of opportunity, eastern coyotes are now also being targeted by hardcore predator hunters. Predator calling is booming in popularity and is becoming a new-found off-season sport for many Midwest and eastern deer hunters.
Unlike the majority of the hunters in the West, who for the last 50 years have learned how to call coyotes - a skill often passed from generation to generation or among hunting groups - Midwest hunters are still in their calling infancy and educating a lot of coyotes in the process. Lots of guys are hitting the woods each winter trying to call 'yotes without a lot of luck.
Spooked once, a hunter may get another chance, spooked twice and it is highly unlikely that a coyote will be called again. And it's simply the unavoidable nature of the game; you're going to spook a lot more coyotes learning how to do it then when you have it mastered.
Top off the larger available food base, the lower population and the wariness level due to human interaction, and there is one final reason eastern coyotes are tough to kill, and that is the terrain itself.
It is simply much tougher to hunt wooded or agricultural land than it is to hunt the barren landscape of the West. It's a simple matter of visibility. In the West, there are many places where a coyote can be seen approaching a call set thousands of yards away, and the places are few and far between where a coyote can effectively circle downwind and completely defeat a competent rifleman.
But in the Midwest and East, poor visibility sets are the norm not the exception. Because of this, I believe many more coyotes are called in than are ever seen. It is so easy for them to follow a brushy fence row, sneak through the hardwoods or stealthily work through an uncut corn field to approach your position and never be seen.
Simply put, when eastern hunters think they aren't calling anything in, I would suggest many times they are, but are never seeing them as they were scented and the coyote slunk away unnoticed.
How To Overcome
I don't claim to be a Midwest coyote assassin, but here are a couple of hard-won techniques I have figured out to increase my success. The first step is to spend an inordinate amount of time locating the perfect calling sites and simply avoiding spots that are marginal.
In the West, while choosing a quality-calling site is helpful and a good idea, I don't think it is critical. In the Midwest it absolutely is. Out West you can set up on nearly any small hill and have a pretty good chance of having a decent vantage point - over the years I have set up on many marginal, but expedient, western spots and killed coyotes.
Even if a coyote comes in from downwind, often a long rifle shot can be taken before he cuts the scent stream. This is not so in the Midwest.
Due to the dense foliage and relatively flat terrain, seeing any distance is pretty tough, and coyotes can sneak downwind easily. For this reason, site selection is absolutely critical. You have to call from places where it is nearly impossible for coyotes to get downwind. Large rivers and lakes help in this regard.
Set up so they effectively block the downwind side. Since wind switches often, have multiple places like this so no matter what the wind is doing you don't have to make marginal stands. Other options that can help are large cut corn or picked bean fields; while they won't stop a coyote from getting downwind, they at least will allow you to spot a coyote and hopefully get a shot before he bolts.
The next biggest game changer is using coyote vocalization. Nearly every coyote hunter (East or West) uses prey calls, so if a coyote has been educated, most likely it has been with some form of a rabbit in distress call.
In addition, as previously mentioned, coyotes are not always as hungry in the Midwest, so playing off an instinct greater than hunger makes a lot of sense. Vocalization plays to territorial, protective, as well as mating instincts; done at the right time, under the right circumstances, it can be absolutely deadly.
Jumping back to that missed opportunity at the start of this story, the eastern coyote we called in on that 14th stand was the first stand we tried using vocalization. It worked when all the prey calls had failed. Even though we didn't kill the dog, it showed the methodology was sound. So the following day we used strictly vocalization, namely female invitation howls and picked our sites very carefully.
Of the eight stands we made, we managed to call in two more single coyotes, one was an easy shot that was missed, the other was an even easier shot that we killed. Going two-for-eight is nearly par anywhere out West. I have done much better in some places and much worse in other western regions, but it's a ratio I am more than satisfied east of the Mississippi.
Don't let anyone tell you that coyotes in the Midwest or East are pushovers, they are anything but. However, stick with selecting the best possible calling sites, switching up the calling to incorporate some vocalization and you can definitely change your luck for the better.