By: Brent Miller, Senior Director, Northeastern States & States Program Administrator
In the pre-dawn hours on a cold and snowy morning in February about a decade ago, I prepared my rifle and gear for a day afield. This was far from the norm for me at this point in my hunting “career.” Typically, when deer season ended in the Southern Tier of New York, I put up my equipment, gave my hunting rifles a liberal coating of oil, and put them in my safe where they would likely reside until warmer weather broke in mid-spring and my appetite to visit our outdoor target range for some practice returned. However, this particular February morning had my father and I filled with anticipation, and perhaps a bit of nerves, as we prepared to embark on a new experience for both of us – participating in a coyote derby.
I had taken a few coyotes in years past, but always as an incidental harvest while deer hunting, never when I was deliberately targeting them. On some of the ground my friends and I hunted deer on at the time, our access came with a requirement that we harvested coyotes if we saw them. The sheep farmers who owned the acreage were understandably frustrated with the amount of lambs they lost to predation each year. I realized the seriousness of their problem when one morning I saw 5 coyotes spread out over a 3 hour sit, and I was happy to oblige the landowner’s edict to reduce their numbers a bit.
Specifically targeting coyotes is strikingly different and requires preparations that we were unfamiliar with at that time. My father and I spent many weeks reading about strategies and tips to prepare for our first foray into predator hunting. We purchased some predator calls, practiced running them, discussed setup strategies, weighed the pros and cons of different firearm platforms, and spent considerable time in the woods scanning fresh snow for tracks to zero-in on locations that would help improve our odds. In the end, we decided to focus our efforts on a piece of state land a few miles down the road that was mostly swamp and wetlands (now frozen) that showed great promise with coyote, fox, and bobcat tracks throughout the acreage. The habitat was thick, so visibility would likely be limited to see them approaching, and the likelihood of a brushy shot opportunity was high. Since we were running a two-man setup we decided my dad would take a 12 gauge loaded with buckshot and would stay close to the call. I would watch the downwind approach with a rifle in case they circled in behind us, as the warier coyotes are prone to do.
We left the truck, donned our snowshoes, and headed into the timber. A few hundred yards in we began our first calling sequence overlooking a lazy creek flowing from a beaver dam. No luck there, but our spirits were high as we continued hiking towards the state land that we were most interested in, following the creek to where it dumped into the swamp.
Upon entering the frozen wetlands area, we moved towards the center and found an uprooted tree which would provide a bit of cover. My father set up facing the upwind side with his shotgun and I moved about 20 yards downwind where I could pick out a few shooting lanes between the immature white pines that would give me roughly 100 yards of visibility and clean shooting. My father began the calling sequence – cottontail in distress, quiet at first, then increasing in volume once we were sure that no coyotes were in the immediate vicinity. Five minutes in and no action. We switched to pup in distress, which brought nearly instantaneous results. I heard what sounded like several dogs cracking ice as they worked through the pine thicket to my right. Then I caught a glimpse of fur at about 40 yards, but they were headed towards my father. About 30 seconds later my father’s shotgun barked loudly and the call powered down. I stayed seated for a bit, in case a coyote swung in my direction, but after another minute of no action I put my safety on, cleared my chamber, and headed towards my father to see the results. Not even 15 feet in front of him lay a beautiful, heavy-coated 42-pound coyote. Apparently there was a bigger fawn colored alpha dog that my father estimated to be some 60-plus pounds that stayed out of range while the smaller one approached the call. The one that lay before us came in at full stride with teeth bared and when it got within 5 yards it was offered a sampling of the finest buckshot that Remington had to offer.
Filled with a sense of accomplishment that all of the weeks of preparations and increased knowledge about this new method of hunting paid off, we packed up our gear and began the mile or so hike back to the truck. We didn’t end up going to the derby weigh-in – the potential cash prizes weren’t the key motivation for us on this particular day, and with the knowledge of a 70-pound coyote taking top honors the year before, we felt we were out of contention anyway. We spent the rest of the day caring for the pelt to make sure it was properly preserved, and reliving the experience. This would be the first and only time that we would formally participate in a derby, but coyote hunting in late January and February has now become a tradition for us, one that we try to make sure we connect on at least a few times a year to shake off the winter doldrums.
In recent years we’ve seen significant pressure from the anti-hunting community to ban such events in states all across the northeast. At the time of this writing there are five separate bills to ban various forms of hunting contests in New York alone.
We’ve already seen coyote contests banned in Vermont through legislation, and Massachusetts has banned them through their regulatory process. Over ten bills were active in the northeast region this year alone, including bills in Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York. Many of these efforts go far beyond just coyote derbies. The language used in drafting these bills is often purposefully broad and would also prohibit events such a field trials for hunting dogs, big buck contests at your local convenience store, and even less-formal wagers with friends over a hot breakfast and coffee for who will connect on the most ducks in a given morning.
The memory made with my father that day was a lasting one; our resulting yearly tradition keeps the memory alive and well, and provides another touchpoint in otherwise busy schedules to ensure we prioritize spending time together afield while we are able. I can’t help but wonder how many other hunters have similar experiences etched in their consciousness as a result of these events – and how many more will be deprived of such memories if the antis are ultimately successful in banning them.
The author with the coyote taken by
his father on state land in New York,
nearly a decade ago.