By Freddie McKnight
For several months, I’d been impatiently waiting to call this location. I knew my chances of success were limited until now, when the arm of the lake had finally frozen, providing the perfect pathway for predators to respond from the opposite hillside to my call.
I eagerly grabbed my gear from the bed of my pickup, slid halfway down the bank and set up with the call at my side. After giving the area a bit of a rest, I pushed the play button to start the show.
Slowly, I scanned the distant hillside for signs of life, then lowered my light to see if anything was sneaking across the ice.
No furbearers showed during this session, but the location proved to be a great spot a few nights later as a pair of gray foxes bounded from the thicket and across the ice. Had the water not been frozen, I probably would have never collected that pair of pelts, but the experience is a great example of how predator hunters must deal with constant changes.
After the Crops Are Gone
Predator hunters must adapt to constantly changing conditions. One of the most prevalent changes is dealing with the loss of crops in the fields. After farmers harvest crops, it becomes much more difficult to call a wary predators across vast areas void of cover. And when the farmers remove crops, they take away a food source for predators and prey alike. Be aware of the next most likely spot prey animals will key in on — essentially the next available food source — to devise a hunting strategy.
Most agricultural crops are harvested fairly early in the predator-hunting season, from September through November. In the East, animals typically fall back on what Mother Nature has provided for them. Usually, predator hunters must shift focus from the fields to the forests where cover and food can be found year-round.
Hunting woodlands might seem like a daunting task, especially in a large block of timber. Dissect the block of trees, much like you would a field, when deciding where to set up. Predators use the wind to their advantage, so find travel routes on top of ridges or in hollows where furbearers will expend the least amount of energy during their travels.
Snow can help you determine the best locations, but with a lack of the white covering, look for tracks and scat. In the heavily forested areas of the East, logging roads, pipeline and powerline right-of-ways and hiking trails are preferred travel routes. The intersections of two of these travel lanes can be great calling locations.
Change in the Woods
Woodland environments also experience changes predator hunters must anticipate. Leaves falling off of trees allow more light into the once-darkened forest floor.
My experience has shown that for the first week or so after this happens, the critters are more cautious than normal, especially when responding to a prey-in-distress call. With time, they become accustomed to the change and resume normal routines. Still, many species stick close to heavy cover for escape purposes, rather than traveling through wide-open timber.
Woods can change in other ways — some good, some bad. Major storms moving through an area can bring high winds and heavy precipitation. I have seen areas that looked as though a tornado touched down and uprooted every tree. Given time, these areas will become a mecca for all types of wildlife, and you can expect predators will be attracted to these sites.
Heavy rains will overflow the banks of all kinds of streams and rivers, washing away shorelines and depositing debris along the high-water mark.
Prey animals displaced by rising waters can be put into a strange environment depending upon the size of their normal territories. Predators, such as foxes and coyotes, as well as hawks and owls, have been known to stage just ahead of the rising water and wait for prey such as mice, snakes and rabbits to be forced out of cover so they can be easily caught.
This situation is similar to farmers cutting hay or other crops and pushing out the prey. In either case, it seems to signal a dinner bell for predators. They are short-term opportunities, so hunters must be there now, not tomorrow, to take advantage. Setting up and using a prey-in-distress call can bring results nearly unheard of at any other time of the year.
Timber sales are conducted on both private and public lands at nearly all times of the year. While it can be frustrating to lose good hunting locations because of logging, forest facelifts can also create new hotspots.
I know from years of trapping experience that the abandoned logyard is the key spot to the entire area. Usually, loggers will have pushed up a pile of tree limbs, bark and other debris to one area of the clearing. It becomes instant cover for any prey animal pushed from the cutover region, providing an instant attraction to predators.
Playing the wind direction and setting up to call or placing an electronic caller in this key spot is the best alternative. Most responding predators will use the incoming network of logging roads to approach what they think is an easy meal. The shots will usually be quick and at short range, so a scattergun loaded with a magnum shell is a good choice.
Snow Affects Behavior
Winter weather probably provides the biggest change for predators and predator hunters. Dealing with snow can be a blessing or a curse. Lines of sight are improved in the woods, and scouting is easier with snow cover, but predators can also use these conditions to their advantage.
I have used snow as a scouting tool. Returning to a calling location and making a wide circle around the area has revealed the predators that responded to the call, yet failed to come into sight. Sometimes they have crossed my tracks and spooked at the smell. Other times, they have circled downwind and caught my scent. It is a humbling experience that teaches you to cherish every predator you manage to bring home.
While any snowfall brings changes, the type and depth of the snow also plays a vital role in what and how you should hunt.
If the snow is deep and fluffy, I concentrate on red foxes and coyotes, rather than the gray foxes of my region. Grays have much shorter legs, and will often den up for three or more days after a deep snow. They will simply wait until a crust forms on the top of the snow, which allows them to travel better, or until the snow packs down or melts to a lower height. With heavy fat reserves, gray foxes have been known to hole up for longer periods. However, when there is a break in the weather, they will be on the prowl in force.
Reds and coyotes don’t have the luxury of a long-term fat supply, and must hunt to survive. With the fields and open woods covered in snow, look for the holding cover of prey animals as the most likely areas to call. Key in on clearcuts, evergreen thickets and CRP lands.
After you find several of these locations in one area, piece together the most likely travel routes the predators will use to go from one to another. Knowing where the predators are most likely to approach allows for higher-percentage setups.
Call Them Across the Ice
Ice forming on ponds, lakes, rivers and streams creates a new travel route for animals. I have followed tracks to learn more about my intended quarry, and I’ve found that animals use ice as hunting and travel areas.
You can add appeal by building small piles of wood along shorelines as attractors and places prey could hide.
Remember, ice that will hold a predator might not hold you. One Pennsylvania fox hunter died last season after falling through the ice when trying to retrieve a fox he had shot on a lake.
Winter Warm Spells
Melting snow can provide a great time to hunt. When a warm spell hits, animals of all kinds seem to get out and enjoy th e warmth. Melts might be the best short-term hunting situation of all, and you don’t want to miss them.
I’ve experienced winters where calling has produced little action during deep snow and cold weather, only to see a couple dozen predators in the same locations after a warm spell has hit. Keying in on cover that holds winter raccoons, I’ve been able to make multiple kills during winter warmups.
One hot location is a barn used to store hay. The lack of activity around it allows these critters to den up during the cold spells. When warmer weather arrives, as well as the mating urge in late winter, the masked bandits get busy.
Food is foremost on their minds, as they have depleted fat reserves. A mating call or an animal-in-distress call can produce a lot of action in short order.
The melt-off in the woods signals a change for the better for other predators as well. As the snow recedes, foxes, coyotes and bobcats will travel longer distances to investigate calls. They might be warier than normal because it’s late in the season, but their stomachs might overrule survival instincts.
Adapt to Change
Changes are always going to be a part of the predator hunting experience. Most changes in the calling arena are predictable. Hunters who understand the patterns and adapt to the conditions will take more fur.
Freddie McKnight is a trapper and predator caller from Shirleysburg, Pa.
No matter what the circumstances are, a predator hunter is better off with an electronic caller he can rely on. The new ICOtec GC300 is a great option for any hunter’s arsenal. The e-caller is as compact, durable and effective as top-of-the-line electronic callers, but it is also very affordably priced at just $69.99.