The Dog Soldier, Steve Criner, on gear and strategies for calling and hunting coyotes.
By Jay Anglin
The first time I saw a coyote was on a family vacation sometime in the early 1980s while traveling through the Black Hills of South Dakota. To me, coyotes represented the wild west—a place where animals roamed free with little regard for the hustle and bustle of the humans they only occasionally encountered. I never imagined that one day coyotes would be common, live in close proximity to humans, and be considered a nuisance from coast to coast.
I killed my first coyote sometime during the late 1980s while chipping away at a limit of quail on a sunny November afternoon. I watched in amazement as my venerable Labrador dove into a dense patch of grass with a violent growl. To my utter amazement, a large coyote scrambled out the opposite side of the cover and turned to face my dog. I instinctively shouldered my shotgun and, before my dog got in the way, flattened the coyote with a single shot of heavy load of 7.5 shot to the head.
That may have been my first coyote, but it would not be my last. Not too long after, a friend and I started to hunt predators with more initiative. Foxes were plentiful then, and we did well on reds and grays, but coyotes were few and far between. When we did encounter them, they frustrated us with their intellect to no end.
That was 25 years ago. Since then, I have taken several with archery equipment while deer hunting, with shotguns when they attacked goose decoys, and, of course, when they sniped my turkey decoys. It seems coyotes are always there, watching and waiting.
Anybody who has spent time hunting coyotes knows these animals are very smart. Like other wild canids and cats, they are wary to the point of paranoia. Their craftiness is legendary, and they consistently make hunters look foolish—whether the hunters know it or not.
No longer relegated to the American West, coyotes are now common from Canada to Brazil. They have adapted to all types of habitat including urban centers such Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. My brother related a story of party-goers tossing pizza crust off a balcony in Hollywood to the clever coyotes waiting below. Not surprisingly, many coyotes have pushed the envelope of acceptable behavior; one walked into a sandwich shop in downtown Chicago a few years ago during the lunch rush.
Coyote hunting seasons are long and liberal. While some hunters consider coyotes strictly an incidental target of opportunity while hunting other species, a growing number chase coyotes full-time. Coyotes and other predators are great for filling the gaps between other seasons, and are often one of the only legal game species during cold winter months. Coyotes not only provide a challenging opportunity, in many places, they are plentiful and harvesting them is a very important element of wildlife management. Furthermore, most landowners want coyotes “gone” so it’s often easy to gain permission to hunt them on private ground.
Some hunters have taken predator hunting to a new level. One such individual, Steve Criner, is well known throughout predator hunting circles as the Dog Soldier; Criner hosts the popular program Dog Soldier TV and started hunting coyotes 22 years ago. You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who knows more about targeting these elusive canids.
“One of the biggest mistakes hunters make is they think it will be easy. Coyotes are dynamic survivors–they simply won’t tolerate mistakes and if you take them for granted you will fail. Hunters need to scout hard and pay attention to the wind just like they do when deer hunting,” says Criner. “In recent years it has become much more difficult to hunt these animals as hunting pressure has increased tremendously. There may be more coyotes than ever, but hunting them hasn’t gotten any easier.”
Clearly, stepping up your game is an important factor when hunting coyotes. Using the best calls and firearms loaded with quality ammunition should be standard operating procedure. Criner prefers the fairly specialized and extremely accurate Winchester Model 70 Coyote Light in .22-250 caliber or .243 Win., teamed with Winchester Varmint X polymer tipped 55- and 58-grain ammo, respectively.
“I’ll occasionally use a shotgun for close range stuff, but those two calibers are usually the ticket,” says Criner, who believes other rifle rounds such as the .17 HMR are too light for clean kills, while larger calibers such as the .308 are too heavy if pelt damage is a consideration. Regardless of what you use, be sure to practice with your chosen firearm and strive for clean, ethical kills.
I asked Steve what calling advice he had for hunters who are fairly new to predator hunting. His approach is surprisingly simple: “I use vocals year-‘round. I’ll cold call all day, but during bedding times I may move in closer to where they I expect them to be for a little extra coaxing. I like to howl, wait a minute or so, then follow-up with prey sounds such as a dying rabbit. Then I’ll do it again. After about 10 to 20 minutes, I’ll move to another spot.”
Coyotes are usually active during early morning hours, as well as late afternoon, and evening, and these are prime times to call for them. Where I live in Northern Indiana, frigid cold spells are my favorite time to hunt during the winter months. Many states allow predator hunting at night, and coyotes are often on the prowl long after the rest of the world has gone to sleep—especially when it’s cold.
Thermal-imaging optics are legal for predator hunting in many states (check local game laws where you hunt), and are great options that make night hunting easier and a whole lot more fun. Thermal rifle scopes such as FLIR’s ThermoSight R-Series have come down in price in recent months and represent the ultimate targeting system for hunting coyotes under any lighting conditions.
Flextone Game Calls produce a diverse range of predator calls and attractors. Criner has worked with Flextone to design the Dog Soldier line of calls, including mouth and electronic options. Using mouth calls for predators is fairly easy. To be perfectly honest, it almost seems a little comical the first time you belt out a dying rabbit screech or a series of coyote yips and howls.
While most predator hunters carry various mouth calls, an increasing number of them are using lightweight electronic calls such as the durable Flextone FLX Series remote e-callers. The FLX 500 and 1000 callers come with a remote control and are pre-loaded with categorized calls, though they are capable of storing hundreds of other audio tracks. Despite their tremendous volume and range, these callers are amazingly power efficient with AA batteries.
Hunting wary coyotes and other predators requires close attention to details. Plopping down at the edge of a field and randomly calling may produce results occasionally, but more often than not it’s an exercise in futility. Like any other wild animal, coyotes have their ways, and patterning them—where they live and when they are active—is critical to success. Any hunter would benefit greatly from getting serious about hunting these challenging predators. And using the best equipment and concealment will assure that nothing is left to chance.