Instead, Dunstan was betting his hand on coyotes. And as the winner of The Trapper & Predator Caller’s Desert Southwest Predator Sweepstakes, he’d already struck it lucky once. Now, Dunstan was playing for double or nothing. And this time, he had an ace up his sleeve — 1997 World Predator Calling Champion Al Morris.
When Morris — an imposing Hunter’s Specialties pro staff hunter known for killing record-book elk and stacking up coyotes — fetched Dunstan and me from the Reno, Nev., airport, he was ready to scream and howl. We quickly put the bright lights and ski-slope bunnies in the rear-view mirror, and headed for what Morris called “the rest of Nevada.”
Five miles out of town, I was ready to bet my rifle we were going to kill a coyote on our first stand. The sage-littered terrain screamed “COYOTE” with as much subtlety as the Reno billboards we had just left behind.
I smiled confidently as I peered out the window. But I held my tongue. No need to jinx our hunt.
Hunting Along the Way
After a comfortable hour pointed north aboard the yellow-and-green H.S. truck, Morris announced that it was time to “stretch.” And as long as we were stretching, we might as well make a stand.
“We’ll work the bugs out and be ready for the second stand,” Morris explained. “It’s awesome. We might even get lucky right away.”
Dunstan and I flanked Morris on the mid-afternoon setup under sunlit skies, tickled by a slight breeze. He howled and squalled. We scanned. Somewhere in the sand, a defiant coyote trumped us with disinterest.
Finally, Morris folded, knowing we’d reload to play a better stand.
As we stepped out of the truck to make our second setup, a pack of coyotes yipped and barked.
“That’s a bad sign,” he said. “They probably saw the truck. Let’s make the stand anyway. I used to think it was a lost cause, but now I figured out how to make them come in. It doesn’t always work, but it works often enough that it’s worth a try. At least we know there are coyotes here.”
After Dunstan and I were in position to shoot, Morris served a smorgasbord of excited coyote pup sounds, howls and challenge barks across the barren, broken brush.
A coyote, likely the pack’s alpha male, barked twice, seemingly scolding Morris for his misplaced outburst and commotion. Fur flashed through the maze of twigs as the coyote closed the gap, but then halted.
Close call. But not close enough. Show over. The coyote sang no more.
Our third stand was atop a badger-hole riddled sand dune overlooking a flat. Just as Morris completed his first series of calls, a vehicle pulled behind the H.S. truck we’d parked on the side of the road 100 yards behind us. When the occupants got out and took an interest in the contents of Morris’s truck, we aborted the stand.
I was nervous as Dunstan and I emerged from the brush carrying rifles to confront our visitors. The men, a pair of county sheriff’s deputies, wore sidearms. Two each. With plenty more firepower lurking in the off-road cruiser. I’ve never seen more heavily armed police. The law sized us up, but turned friendly when they became convinced we were nothing more than a trio of law-abiding fools trying to kill coyotes. In fact, they shared suggestions as to where we might have the best luck, even supplying landowner names. After 10 minutes of shuffling gravel beneath our boots, the officers departed in search of bad guys.
“Good luck,” one of them called out as they drove away.
I almost blurted mindlessly, “You too.” But I caught myself. In some situations, the less said, the better.
The next stand — our last for the day — was much less noteworthy. No cops. No coyotes, either.
To the Alkali Flats
Nevada and Northern California had a wet winter in 2006. Areas that Morris was accustomed to traveling to call coyotes were rendered impassible. The area’s alkali flats — normally hardpan — held standing water in many places, with impenetrable mud surrounding the pools. Morris had killed plenty of coyotes on the flats, but hunting them wet was a new experience.
Our first stand of Day 2 was on high ground near a gravel pit. I took a spot overlooking a flowing creek bed, wondering all the while what I’d do if a bobcat snuck up the draw. I’ll never know. I can’t say what might have gone down had a coyote emerged either. Didn’t happen.
Morris drove us to an alkali flat. Water squished beneath our soles as we ambled for a pair of trees at the edge of the higher cover. Our boots trampled another substance — rabbit pellets — on just about every step. But the feces wasn’t limited to little round balls. Coyotes had left calling cards, too. Dunstan pointed out a trail of predator tracks as we slipped into our gunner mode.
Three stands on the flat had Morris mystified.
“I’ve killed a lot of coyotes there,” he said. “I think all that water might have forced them to higher ground. But they’ve been here. Let’s go up higher to get away from the slop.”
Dunstan and Morris went up a treed gentle slope, leaving me lower and around a bend in the road to cover the side.
Three minutes into the calling sequence, I heard a loud “Woof!”
I knew Morris was trying to stop a coyote. I anticipated the crack of Dunstan’s rifle as I intensely searched for movement.
A minute later, Morris resumed calling. Several minutes after that, my partners walked down the hill.
The coyote had skirted the top of the hill and popped over the ridge directly behind Morris and Dunstan. When the coyote winded them, Morris estimates it was only 15 yards away.
“I didn’t know he was there until I heard him turn to run,” Morris said. “I tried to stop him and I reached for my shotgun, but it wasn’t there. I said, ‘Right here! Right here!’ Eldon spun around, but the coyote was gone.
“I purposely sat up higher on the hill so a coyote couldn’t get behind us without being seen. He came to the one little spot where we couldn’t see him. Coyotes are uncanny like that. He was real lucky I had the video camera and not my shotgun.”
“Hey, at least you called one in,” I consoled. “Things are looking up.”
Higher Ground, Higher Wind
After four more fruitless stands on another alkali flat with more rabbit and coyote sign than I’d ever seen in one area, Morris again decided we needed to go to higher terrain, if only to stop sloshing our pants with mud. Unfortunately, drier terrain also meant more wind exposure.
Morris guessed the breeze at a steady 15 mph, with gusts to 20 mph. We made our 10th stand of the day by dropping over a ridgetop and nestling into stiff weeds. The wind swept the howls and squalls away instantly, and ripped at our face nets for good measure. For the first time on this hunt, I doubted whether any coyotes were able to hear the sound.
In an effort to find shelter from the wind, Morris drove between two saddles. After we parked and walked, we set up overlooking a deep draw. Morris instructed me to face downwind, while Dunstan sat beside him looking into the wind. To increase the distance of his calling effort, Morris fired up a Johnny Stewart electronic caller.
Five minutes into the stand, I heard a kissing sound.
“Must have one close,” I thought.
Just then, Dunstan’s .22-250 pierced the Nevada sky.
I twisted in time to see a coyote running straight away and top the ridge 300 yards out. I hoped there had been a pair.
I impatiently sat through the rest of the stand as Morris kept the player running. When the squalling quit, I hustled over to Dunstan to get the scoop.
His sheepish body language spoke before words formed on his lips.
“The coyote stopped at 125 yards,” Dunstan explained. “I had a clean shot and had the cross hairs on her, but I thought, ‘She’ll keep coming.’”
After the coyote resumed its approach, Morris reassured Dunstan.
“You’ve got time,” Morris told him. “Just relax and take your time.”
At 100 yards, the coyote stopped again. Dunstan had to turn slightly to line the predator up. When he swiveled the rifle on his shooting sticks, Dunstan kicked one leg out, rendering the shooting rest useless. He would have to try a free-hand shot.
Meanwhile, the coyote continued to close ground. When it reached 80 yards, Morris told Dunstan to shoot because the animal was headed into a dry wash and might not offer a shot for much longer.
Dunstan fired, but his pill did not stop the coyote. Instead, the hungry ball of fur turned inside out and raced up the hill it had just descended, albeit with added urgency.
“I saw the coyote bounding away, then stop at 300 yards,” Dunstan said. “I couldn’t find it again in the scope, but it was too long of a shot for me anyway, especially on a windy day with so much sage in the way.”
Sage shouldered the blame for the miss at 80 yards. Morris thought Dunstan had a clear shot, but the coyote had halted behind a bush — twigs that no doubt saved its hide.
“I screwed up,” Dunstan said. “I should have shot at 125 yards when I had the chance.”
A Trip to the Dump
Four stands later, waning sunlight foretold that our next set would be the day’s last. A ransacked car sat next to a battered pickup truck, hidden by a low spot. Other litter — probably the result of teen gatherings — conspired to form a full-blown mess.
The unsightly dump served as an address for rodents, and tracks told us its clutter was certainly on the hunting circuit of several coyotes.
Although the wind was dying, Morris decided to use an electronic caller, which he augmented with mouth calls.
Three minutes into the stand, a coyote popped over a ridge 250 yards away. The interloper trotted toward our sound, instinctively beginning to circle to get directly downwind.
I scooted my backside to square up for a shot as the coyote stopped behind a sage bush. Morris lip-squeaked, re-starting the coyote. At 110 yards and almost downwind, the coyote stopped broadside to me with no obstructions.
I calmly readjusted my aim, centered the cross hairs and squeezed.
In disbelief, I tried unsuccessfully to reacquire the now-bolting coyote in my scope. Dunstan could not find the coyote through his glass, either.
I’d like to blame the miss on the rifle or another piece of equipment, but I can’t. I just blew it. It was a spectacular miss at one very lucky coyote.
The third and final day of the hunt can be described by one word: wind.
And I don’t mean just a steady breeze. By the second stand, the blow had reached a fury, ripping through the sage and all creatures in its path, including three predator callers who kept trying anyway.
To make matters worse, angry clouds spit snow and freezing rain. After a few stands of being pelted by ice pellets driven sideways by a 40 mph wind, we sought refuge in a valley between two mountain ranges.
Wind belted us there too, although it was less intense than on the exposed western slopes. On our 12th stand, a coyote howled in response. Morris saw it flash through the brush, but it never appeared. On Stand 14, I spotted another coyote as it circled Morris and Dunstan. Judging its course, I expected it to pop out right in front of Dunstan and Morris, who were set up on a berm 75 yards from me. It never did.
We later joked that the gusting wind probably lifted the coyote off its feet and blew it across the flat.
In two-and-a-half days, we made 35 stands in terrain that was loaded with coyotes. At every stop, we saw tracks and scat.
“The area we called has the highest density of coyotes I’ve seen anywhere,” Morris said.
We saw five coyotes and had them howl at two additional stands. And of course, we missed two very good chances.
“This is the toughest stretch of calling I’ve had in the past 14 months,” Morris said.
“I’ll bet that we couldn’t put out that much effort in such a coyote-rich area again without killing a bunch of coyotes,” I piped in.
But Dunstan wasn’t discouraged.
“I had my chance,” he said. “I just wasn’t lucky. I had a great time.”
Paul Wait is editor of T&PC.