Some North Carolina hunters believe a mature whitetail buck is the most difficult game animal to hunt. Others think a wild turkey gobbler is a tougher challenge.
But neither of these targets match coyotes in terms of wariness.
With a sense of smell equal to deer, eyesight and hearing that surpasses wild turkeys and a deeply-wired dislike of revealing themselves to humans, the members of the canis latrans clan are ghost-like creatures, rarely seen or heard in daylight hours.
Yet they live among us in every habitat type.
Once rare in North Carolina, the coyote population has exploded, and today, coyotes cost farmers thousands of dollars in livestock losses. They regularly snatch dogs and cats from suburban yards. Hunting them requires dedication, a willingness to spend money and hours waiting, at night, using calls to lure them into gun range.
“It’s a challenge,” said John Alden of Iron Station, a town in Lincoln County. “I didn’t start hunting coyotes until eight years ago. I was unsuccessful at first, but I got hooked. Now I only hunt coyotes, not deer.”
His uncle, Mike Alden, instilled in him a love of being outdoors, as they hunted squirrels, doves, groundhogs, ducks, crows and deer.
“He taught me the fundamentals,” said Alden, whose first electronic game call was “an old Johnny Stewart tape player.”
“I killed three (coyotes) when I was at Western Carolina University. I spent all my extra time coyote hunting and read a lot of books about how to hunt them. I’m still learning.”
Later, his landscaping business put him in contact with property owners, deer hunters and clubs who hired him to create food plots. That gave Alden access to lands where he now hunts coyotes.
High-tech callers boosted Alden’s success rate. Today, he is one of the most-accomplished coyote hunters in North Carolina, having killed approximately 180 of the wild dogs.
During the 2016 Carolina Coyote Classic (704Outdoors.com), he surpassed most teams by bagging five coyotes in 21/2 nights. Most five- and six-man teams shot three to four.
“Coyotes do a lot of damage to farm livestock, and that includes poultry — they’ll eat biddies (chicks), ducks and calves,” he said. “But they also can really hurt wild game, including deer fawns. A coyote pack can take down a mature buck, and they love to get into turkey nests. They also kill and eat pets, dogs and cats.”
Alden said female coyotes often raise litters of eight pups twice a year.
“The average farm I hunt has six coyotes,” he said. “They mate in February and March. By September, the momma runs off her pups, so that’s a good time to hunt young coyotes.”
Even then, immature coyotes are super smart, “so the key to predator hunting is dedication and learning from your mistakes,” he said.
Alden is confident he played a role in changing N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission night-hunting rules.
“I attended all the public hearings in Districts 3 and 4 and fought for night-hunting,” he said.
In 2013-14, the Commission lifted a ban on night-hunting for coyotes and feral swine on private lands, except for five northeastern counties that also had red wolves. In 2015-16, the five-county ban was modified to allow daytime coyote hunting, and coyote hunting on game lands from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset was legalized.
Two approaches to hunting coyotes are important.
“You have to be aware of the wind at all times,” Alden said. “Coyotes can smell a person a mile away, especially if you don’t spray down your clothes and seats with some kind of scent killer. They also can hear a mouse squeak at 50 yards, and their eyesight is better than deer.”
One suggestion is to hunt upwind, which seems counter-intuitive.
“If you’re out in the open, and you have an electronic call, most of the time, a coyote will circle if you’re upwind,” Alden said. “In that case, you want to spray down good with scent killer.”
In one situation, however, he’ll set up a downwind ambush: when he faces woods where he expects coyotes to enter a field and has houses, a town or road at his back.
While hunting one night during the 2016 Carolina Classic 3 event, Alden and hunting partner Jesse Cadenhead sat on the ground in camouflaged chairs in the middle of a harvested corn field. They faced a woods line 300 yards to the southwest, and a busy two-lane blacktop and several houses with dogs outside were at their backs.
Alden placed a Fox Pro Inferno electronic caller with two directional speakers and Fox Bang technology — it automatically switches to a follow-up call, usually a fox-pup screamer, after a shot — about 75 yards from their seats and pointed the speakers at the woods. Factory-programmed with six-dozen calls, the Fox Pro can hold 200 sounds, including the popular dying rabbit, rodent squeak or fawn in distress. Alden chooses and activates sounds with a hand-held remote-control unit.
“Coyotes hear too many rabbit squeals,” he said. “I’ve been using a fawn-in-distress call, and they respond to that.”
Alden’s preferred calling sequence includes a vole in distress for three or four minutes, a pause of about a minute, then a rabbit or fawn in distress, another pause, then a bird in distress.
“But I often experiment (with calls) and use different sequences,” he said.
Alden also has a half-dozen mouth calls hanging from cords around his neck. He uses them when coyotes don’t respond to electronic calls.
“I sometimes use Fox Pro or Primos mouth calls,” he said. “They sound a little different than (electronic) calls.”
To pop a coyote — often at long distances — involves a little more than having good electronics. Must-have equipment includes a flat-shooting rifle, night-vision scopes and binoculars.
Alden’s favorite weapon is a 10-shot, DPMS Panther Arms AR-10 rifle — $1,500 to $2,000 retail — chambered for a 58-grain .243 cartridge, but hunters don’t have to break their budgets to buy a good rifle.
“I was shooting an AR-15 in .223, and that’s sufficient for coyotes,” he said. “I was just more comfortable with the .243. The .223 had an 11-inch drop at 300 yards, but shooting a 58-grain bullet, the .243 only drops 4 inches at 300 yards.
But scopes? Well now, that’s a different story.
The type of available light determines which scope he uses.
“On clear or partly-cloudy nights, I use a scope that picks up ambient light, a D760 night-vision scope,” he said.
If it’s cloudy or there’s no moon, he has an infrared illuminator scope that senses body heat through fog, dust, rain or snow.
Retail ambient-light scope prices vary from $3,700 and higher, while thermal scopes may range from $6,500 to $19,600.
“If it’s a really bright night, sometimes I use the infrared to pick up the eyes of a coyote,” said Alden, who carries thermal-imaging binoculars to scan fields and spot coyotes at long distances.
His AR-10 propels a bullet at 3,600 feet per second — the length of 12 football fields — in an eye blink. That means a coyote caught in his crosshairs doesn’t have much chance.
“The longest I’ve killed a coyote is 300 yards,” he said, “but my average shot is 100 to 150 yards.”
Cadenhead, on the other hand, carries a 12-gauge auto-loader shotgun.
“Sometimes a coyote will bust out running right next to you after you send out one or two (decoy sounds),” Alden said. “Jesse uses the shotgun on ’em. With a rifle you can’t (see a running coyote) up close.”
Those animals often are seeking mates or hungry, which makes them abandon normal caution.
Alden has three main tips for coyote hunters: wind awareness, changing calls and going to different areas.
“Paying attention to the wind is crucial to success,” he said. “Don’t let the wind blow your scent to places where you expect coyotes to come from. You have to get ’em into the open before they can circle downwind of you.
“Two, if one call isn’t working, change to a different call. Don’t keep hammering on the same sound.
“Three, if you kill two or three coyotes at one field, leave and don’t come back for at least three weeks. Coyotes associate calls (that lead to gunshots) to danger — if you hunt the same place night after night you’re educating them.”
That’s why Alden seeks farmers and landowners for places to hunt. With the proliferation of coyotes in North Carolina, even though hunting won’t eradicate the animals, it’s the best available solution.