Op-Ed: Hunting Midday Late-Season Predators
About the only thing I really and truly hate more than getting up in the cold pre-dawn darkness when the temperatures are hovering near zero or below are people who actually enjoy getting up at that unholy hour. It’s amazing with this intense dislike for climbing out of a warm bed and into the cold, cruel, stygian blackness of the outdoor world, that I spend about 75 percent of the year arising in the dark to pursue some form of wildlife with gun, bow or camera.
I always thought I was smarter than to get in such a predicament. But a love of the outdoors, hunting and chasing critters, predators in particular, can often override common sense and the comfort of a warm bed.
Most wildlife species, including predators and the prey species they eat, prefer early morning and late evening hours during most of the year for several reasons. During the warmer months of the year, critters are quite naturally more active during the cooler hours of early morning and late evening because they are more comfortable. Even more importantly, almost all animals dislike the bright, harsh, sunlight of mid-day because the extreme contrast between light and dark makes it more difficult for them to detect danger as readily. The vision receptors of predator and prey alike are designed to work best under low light, low contrast conditions so they are naturally more active during the period when their senses are at their most acute.
Fortunately, Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom gives predator callers a break during the mid- to late-winter months when the weather is at its coldest. At that time of year, prey species down to the smallest vole and meadow mouse are fighting the cold and snow in their daily endeavors and for their very existence. Fighting for comfort as well as survival, they take full advantage of every method possible to conserve vital energy. Instead of starting their foraging and feeding at first light as they do during the warmer months of the year, these adaptable creatures stay bedded until the sun warms the frigid air and provides some solar heat to be absorbed by their fur and feathers. It’s only natural that predators time the major hunting activity of winter days to the time of day their targets are most active.
When the fur prices were up and I was hunting coyotes and trapping full time, I put out horse and steer carcasses for bait to draw coyotes. I chose locations where I could glass the distant baits from the road with binoculars and spotting scope. If there were coyotes on the bait, I would sneak into a prepared shooting location and unleash my .220 Swift to add another pelt or two to my fur collection. I was normally on the road at first light and it was common to check baits early and not have any predators or even scavenger birds working them. Checking these same baits again at midday often produced fox, coyotes and the occasional bobcat.
During mid-winter, a major portion of the predator’s diet consists of rodents of various shapes, sizes and species. When snow blankets the landscape, rodents burrow into the insulating snow and build their grass nests. During mid-day, the sun’s radiant heat warms the nests and makes the little beasties active and noisy. The warmth and dampness also cause the nests to release a lot more scent through the snow to the surface. This abundance of scent and sound makes it easier for a hunting fox or coyote to locate its next meal under the snow, thus they often spend the warmer part of the winter days scouring the meadows and fields looking for an easy meal.
When the nighttime temperatures dip well below zero, the predators tend to seek cover in dense weed patches, brushy draws or thickets or under dense stands of trees where the cold is not quite so intense. As soon as the sun gets up in the sky and its warming rays hit the open hillsides, these four-footed hunters will be out and about enjoying the warmth radiated off the snow-covered ground. Once they get a full belly, they are going to find a spot where their dense winter’s fur can continue absorbing the sun’s warming rays while they enjoy an energy conserving siesta.
When I first started calling fox and coyotes in the Midwest and prairies of the Dakotas, one of the reasons for my high calling success during such winter days was that I combined spot-and-stalk hunting with calling. I’d cruise the back-country roads cutting for fresh tracks and glassing likely looking areas for hunting or sleeping predators. Once I located an animal, I’d find a good location and try calling the critter in close for a shot. By using that method, most of my calling stands were within easy audible range of my quarry; essential to high success with any predator calling.
Over the years, I have called in many coyotes, fox and bobcats from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. That’s proof positive that Mother Nature has a soft spot for predator callers!
So, when the mercury in your thermometer bottoms out during frigid winter nights, and the early morning temperatures make the outdoors unfit for man or beast, relax, sleep late, have a good hot breakfast, an extra cup of coffee and wait for the late-rising winter sun to gain full warmth. Then don your camo clothing, grab your trusty varmint rifle or shotgun, predator call and head for your favorite predator calling area.
Chances are, the local predator population is following the same schedule and should be ready for action about the same time you are.