Dog Days of Winter

Its cold, single digits cold, the kind of cold where you inhale through your nose and feel the inside of your sinuses freeze. The night sky is clear and as I look up at the constellation Orion I can he him laughing at us. The “pisst” of a freshly cracked beer turns my head, my buddy Chris shrugs his shoulders in silent apology. I unload my shotgun, grab a beer, and say “what the fuck are we doing?” Chris whispers “I don’t know man this was your idea.” We laugh grab our stuff and head back to his house to finish a very cold 12 pack of cheap beer. My first attempt at coyote hunting was over, just as fast as it began.

Earlier that day I  found myself staring out the window thinking, I should be hunting. It was a perfect day, clear and cold, with a little snow on the ground. The problem was it was late February. Deer season in NJ ends sometime in January, small game mid February, and Turkey Season doesn’t start until April. If you’re a sports fan it’s like the first Sunday after the Super Bowl you find yourself asking “now what?”. Then sometime during the daily ESPN check in on pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training you remember hockey. Yeah I know there is basketball too, but I’m a short dude, after Muggsy Bogues I had no basketball players I could relate to. Besides basketball never seem to make sense to me as a winter sport.  That was my mind frame, checking to make sure I had my tag applications in for next season and studying turkeys, and then I remembered hockey, or coyotes rather.

I have been coyote hunting before, well that’s not entirely true. Like most hunters if you’re on a hunt for deer, turkey, or anything, rabbits, doves, whatever, and a coyote shows up, you are now on a coyote hunt. Coyote hunting never really closes, from January 1st until the middle of March you can literally hunt them 24 hours a day during the permit season. Through out the rest of the year you can hunt them incidentally while hunting anything else. So the only reason there is a time of year you can’t hunt coyotes is because other seasons close. I made that confusing, from early September until mid March you can kill a coyote in NJ. Better? So I have been hunting and I have seen coyotes while hunting, but I have never set out solely for coyotes.

My first run in with the animal came when I was 10 or 11. My dad was shadow hunting with me , meaning he was right behind me on a deer stand, so I had to be young. I only remember my dad hunting with me like that a few years. As a young hunter you want nothing more then to be old enough to hunt alone, you yearn to be able to share your own story with the old dudes without your father chiming in with “quit your bullshiting that deer was in the next county by the time you shot”. Each year the old man moved further and further away, 10 feet one year, the next 50. Until one day as I sat down readied myself against a large oak tree preparing for the deer drive, I looked up and watched my dad walk out of sight. I was alone. I was scared. I wanted nothing more then to have him right next to me in that deer stand and every deer stand I’ve sat in since. Back then the only deer hunting I did was drives, a type of hunting where half the hunting gang would walk through the woods (the drivers) pushing deer, or driving them, to the other half (the standers or sitters). The drivers in our gang would often yell a long YoooOOO! followed by a short YO! This would confuse the deer and keep them running straight and it would let you know where the drivers were. Much like a coyote pack screaming through the woods the deer knew we were coming but couldn’t tell which one of us were closest. Along with deer being pushed out of the woods would come turkeys, bears, sometimes pheasants, really anything afraid of a human. Your adrenaline would race with the sound of sticks breaking or leaves rustling without knowing what was coming at you from the brush. Is it a squirrel? A giant buck? It’s remarkable how similar the sound of a running squirrel and a running deer are. At that time I had seen coyotes before in magazines and books, one dead as well, laid out at a hunters feet. Never face to face, and never running at me full bore from the brush. My dad saw it first, with a tap on my back he whispered “coy-dog get ready”. I had no idea what he meant, what was I getting ready for and what was a coy-dog?  I whispered back “what?” my dads reply didn’t clarify anything for me “SHOOT”. Shoot? shoot what? As I turn back toward the area my dad’s eyes were fixed I saw it, a black and blonde dog that sort of looked like a wolf. As the animal ran by I heard my dad yelling “shoot shoot” I still wasn’t entirely sure he was talking about the dog. I turned back to the old man “but that was a dog dad” he shook his head in disappointment with the shot gone “that was no dog, that was a coyote.” I should clarify, coy-dog is a bit of a misnomer, it leads one (11 year old me) to believe this animal was half coyote and half Labrador. In reality coy-dog is slang for coyote, along with cry dog, plains wolf, prairie wolf, yodel dogs, song dog, coyot (pronounced ki-yot), and I’m sure many many more. They vary in color from black, blonde, red, grey and a combination of all due to a mutation in DNA. These are called color phases. The same color phases are found in grey squirrels and black bears, which seems strange since a black colored squirrel is still technically a grey squirrel and a blonde colored black bear is still a black bear. So no matter the name and no matter the color they are all coyotes and they’re no dog. I didn’t feel bad about passing on that coyote, in fact for years, to myself, I would say “why the hell would anyone shoot coyote?”

So how does one go from passing on a shot to deliberately setting out gun and call in hand to put a shot on one? I’ll tell you it wasn’t for some moral or ethical change. I suppose it’s what I’ve learned about an unchecked predator population and what I’ve seen, or have not seen. Normally I find the “population control” argument to be bullshit, for the most part. I can hear other hunters right now saying “go fuck yourself”, just hear me out before you plan to spit your Beechnut chew in my eye. The reason you hunt isn’t to control populations, you know it I know it and anti hunters know it. Population control doesn’t get you out of bed at 4am when it’s 10 degrees out. You don’t fondly look back at hunting with your dad or grand dad and say “boy we really kept those whitetail numbers down that day” The truth is the argument leads people to believe that hunting can “over control a population”. In fact hunting hardly puts a dent in populations. If population control is your number one reason to hunt, you’re doing a shit job at it. Also if it’s not your number one reason to hunt then why is it your number one  argument with a slightly out of shape women named Helen with a “let me speak to your manager” hair cut from Lodi on an internet forum for save the bears?  Mother nature has ways to control populations better then us with our 12 gauges anyway. Although her ways are heinous, with being eaten as the best death a wild animal can hope for. Wildlife doesn’t die of old age it just doesn’t happen, I’m sorry old Walt Disney lied to you. If it makes you feel better he made a fuck load of money doing it, so there is that. The truth is your out there for food, family, tradition and most importantly you enjoy it. There’s no shame in that. That said I do feel we as humans have an obligation to “try” to control populations whose exploding numbers are solely because we exist. There are right now more whitetail deer in the US then there were when Henry Hudson sailed the… well the Hudson River… they named it after him. The whitetail have our agriculture to thank. The coyote has our extermination of the Grey Wolf (black wolf? still a Grey Wolf. weird right? unless it’s a red wolf ) to thank.

At the time the first European stepped foot on the soil of the Americas, coyotes were found from the south western US to Mexico. The short story is as we pushed west the coyote pushed east across the Mississippi, south to South America, North to Alaska, and further west to California. As we exterminated the wolf, the coyote found itself the top canine predator, and on the top of our shit list. The wolf’s dependence on it’s pack made it an easy target, poison one and poison the the whole pack. That’s right they were poisoned, government hunters didn’t kill for food. The coyote on the other hand, like humans, can live and thrive in both a pack and alone. There are many other reasons the coyote avoided extermination and flourished. Many of which have to do with thousands of years of evolution. My point is we can’t control coyotes and I’m not hunting them to control them.

My buddy Bill and I are sitting back to back in the middle of a large field. The moon is full with a few inches of fresh snow under our asses. My new electronic predator call sarinads us with the screams of dying rabbits. This my second attempt at coyote hunting and I’m not sure but this might be Bill’s first time. If this is sounding a bit homoerotic I’ll clarify with my next words. I lean forward a bit and whisper back to Bill “hey dude this is kind of feeling a little gay.” Bill whispers back “This is what Rick said to do.” Rick is Bill’s older brother and one of the best hunters either of us know. He had been out coyote hunting before and gave us some tips but right now I jump forward again and say “I think Rick is fucking with us.” On that note we both jump up. We bust Rick’s balls a lot while hunting and he tolerates us, if this was some sort of revenge he got us good. Busting balls is an important part of hunting. It’ll keep your mind off the cold, the wet, and especially the exhaustion you feel from hiking all day. I picture a coyote pack much in the same way nipping at each others heels to keep going. Howling and yipping as they climb a mountain that would kill you if you weren’t hunting. Faking a good time while you’re all miserable keeping moral up. We set up three more times that night and nothing came in. Our next trip out lead to the same success rate. It was mid March by now and coyote season was over. If I was going to kill one it would have to wait until fall.

Opening day of archery deer season came quick. I remember years of walking to my tree stand alone before first light chilly from cold and shaking from fear. Lately the cold isn’t an issue. The thirteen different black bears on my trail cam on the other hand have those old school fears itching at my heart rate. I even had a few snap shots of a coyote. In those first few weeks of the season I saw plenty of deer and I saw plenty of black bears, but it was the coyote that stood out.  I watched him that first morning in a swampy meadow about 200 yards out. In my mind he was young and I imagined he had not been on his own very long. I watched him on a number of mornings and evenings I was in my stand, out in that same meadow, pounce mice, chase squirrels, weave in and out of the tall grass after gods know what. I watched him walk right by a bedded turkey and I even watched him get run off by a rutting buck hot on a doe. My guess was this was his first hunting season alone, he was excited and afraid, his father trotting further and further away until now where he was all alone.  Then one afternoon he came out of the meadow nose to the ground and into the hardwoods where my tree is. He was on something and never once put his head up, he walk right to my 20 yard mark, a single rock in the woods. I whistled and he stopped. He looked straight up at me in my tree stand, I was at full draw. My 20 yard sight was fixed on his vitals. This is what I was after all those times out in the cold with my buddies, a coyote, coming in on a string. This was redemption for those skunked nights out, the disappointment beers, the laughs in place of gun blasts. I heard my dad’s voice saying shoot in my head once again, this time I knew what he was talking about. I then dropped my bow and shot straight into the ground. The coyote jumped a little and stood there a second, I tipped my hat to him as he trotted behind my tree, I heard him growl a bit from the brush and he never came back.

Was this the same coyote all season? Probably not. Will I ever shoot a coyote? Maybe? I don’t know. I’m not against coyote hunting, I do feel they should be managed. I know the narrative (at least in hunting circles around me) is that coyotes kill deer, and I’m sure they kill fawns when they can, but I don’t subscribe whole heartedly to that. The science says black bears have a bigger impact. I do feel that rabbit and turkey populations need a checked coyote populous. Am I the guy for the job? I honestly don’t know. I don’t see the coyote as a competitor or a nuance. I don’t see him as a Walt Disney character or spirit animal. I see him as another hunter, laughing with his buddies in the cold, learning from his father in his youth. He is a hunter.