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Wintertime varmint hunting


The Outdoors During The Long Winter Months...





Because coyotes tend to circle downwind of the calling, the author prefers calling during daylight hours, it is much easier to be scented by an approaching varmint without you ever seeing it, after dark. Kenny Darwin photo

January 01, 2008
This winter Michigan hunters will be allowed for the first time to use a raised platform or treestand to hunt coyotes and foxes, and I'm looking forward to applying this new technique. It adds a different and helpful equation to a very challenging pastime, and winters just wouldn't be the same for me without my annual varmint hunting excursions.

The "varmints" I'm referring to are primarily the fox and coyote, and my home Thumb area has its share of foxes (both gray and red) and coyotes to keep an avid varmint hunter occupied for a long winter's stretch. My preferred method is using various calling techniques, and my most productive daylight timeframes are right at daybreak or near sunset, although I've called varmints in at high noon as well.

I've long used mouth calls imitating a shrieking rabbit, and I carry at least two spares because during subzero moments, I've had calls freeze up on me at inopportune moments. Because fox and coyotes tend to circle downwind of the calling, I personally prefer calling during daylight hours instead of after dark, because it is much easier to be scented by an approaching varmint without you ever seeing it, after dark. Because of this circling aspect of foxes and coyotes, I prefer to work with a partner (which I like to refer to as a "tail-gunner"), and have this individual set up 50 to 100 yards (depending upon terrain and cover) downwind of my calling position. Often times it will be the tail-gunner who gets the shot.

Because I frequently find myself varmint hunting alone, I had always been tempted to purchase an electronic caller, which offers the advantage of being set up and away from the hunter, and such would certainly be a great aid during solo hunts. A couple years ago I took the plunge and now have a Johnny Stewart electronic caller with all the bells and whistles.

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This electronic caller has speakers that can be set up in tree limbs for more range and it comes with a remote hand controller. Strategically setting up (this is where I think a treestand will be very effective) a ways from the calling sequence doesn't pose a problem in this manner.

I also use a furry battery-operated decoy (Cabela's) that creates visible motion and an authentic focal point for an incoming fox or coyote.

Whether I'm using a mouth or electronic call, I will know things are sounding right when hawks and owls land in trees nearby, as they are interested in an easy winter meal as well. Crows may also come in expecting leftovers from a predator's kill. Winged predators coming on the scene will be a good sign you are putting on an authentic display of a rabbit's deep distress, so when they show up, start looking for the four-legged predators.

Because foxes and coyotes are sharp-eyed, it pays to dress for the occasion. I wear a variety of regular camouflage when there is little to no snow, and I swear by snow camouflage when there is a lot of snow. Ever since I purchased a set of snow-camo pants and hooded jacket I've been very impressed with its capabilities for a wide variety of winter hunting applications, including late-season deer hunting. Made by "Natural Gear", it has infusions of brown color on white to break up your outline (more so than a solid white) and I refer to it as my "ghost suit." Constructed of strong and quiet cotton, I simply pull it over my layers of wool hunting clothes. (I also wear a hunter orange vest or hat as it is required by law.)

Good camouflage garments do their best when a hunter readily blends into available cover. While high vantage points can be beneficial for varmint calling, hunters should avoid skylining their profiles. Always try to have adequate backdrops, and often what cover is behind you is more important than what is in front, to conceal your location. When available, I like a big tree trunk to sit against, not at all unlike turkey hunting. I also frequently use a camouflage umbrella for setting down in front of me for a very quick blind in more exposed areas (I learned this helpful trick from noted handgun hunter Larry Kelly, of Mag-Na-Port).

Like turkey hunting, I'm often a bit of a rover ("run and gun") when I'm calling varmints. I rarely call more than 30 minutes when my quarry is foxes and coyotes (I call longer if I get a gut feeling to do so). If they don't show up in that amount of time, I assume they either haven't heard me, or they have sensed my presence. I prefer to do my roving on foot (often this entails snowshoes), as I don't believe an ATV or snowmobile engine being turned on and off in the near vicinity of wary varmints will be helpful.

I've also stood up from a long calling sequence and had a varmint that was cautiously moving in flush from nearby cover, so you never know. I've also spotted varmints when I was roving to a new calling site, which then turned my walk into a stalk, which is quite challenging in its own right. I spotted and stalked in once and arrowed a red fox that was napping on top of a rock pile, and felt quite a sense of accomplishment in doing so.

A helpful piece of equipment I frequently use is a fleece hand muff (Cabela's) that straps around my waist, in which I keep a chemical handwarmer. This keeps lightly gloved shooting fingers warm, as well as it is a good place to quickly thaw out a frozen mouth call. Binoculars are a must, and I carry mine affixed to my chest and out of the way with the "Bino-system" by Crooked Horn Outfitters. I've found using a binocular, even in heavy cover, is an essential tool for daylight varmint hunting.

Often times, fox or coyote encounters are in heavy, close cover, where the best hunting arm is a shotgun. My favorite varmint shotgun is a sling-equipped, 12ga over and under Spartan (marketed by Remington) with my favorite 12ga loads being (3 inch magnum) BB or #4 buckshot. Shotguns using buckshot may do the job out to 50 yards (I've heard Heavi-Shot has new varmint shotgun load that offers phenomenal long range performance, that I'll probably field test this winter). Normally I've had better results when the range was kept to less than 40 yards. The key is to properly pattern the selected load and shotgun to determine the effective range. (Reminder: Buckshot loads and center-fire rifles or handguns are not legal for varmint hunting after dark.)

For more open country varmint hunting encounters, nothing beats a rifle (which is legal to use for varmint hunting throughout the state, including in southern Michigan as well). My favorite varmint rifle is a lightweight, single-shot T/C Contender Carbine in .223. It is topped with a compact 4X T/C scope that has a lighted crosshair. Switched off, it is a normal scope, switched on, it is a red affair that is a dream to use in low light, and I've found the .223 to be an ideal round for this environment.

I've also used a variety of muzzleloaders (both rifles and shotguns) for varmint hunting, as well as handguns and bows and arrows. The options truly relate to the hunter and his or her most preferred hunting arms. When it comes to archery tackle, I use the same arrows and broad-heads that I use for deer.

Varmint calling is a great way to enjoy the outdoors during the long winter months. In fact I always look forward to the time when I can don snow camouflage, and match wits with an ever-wily fox or coyote.

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