by Mike Arnold - Thursday, January 26, 2023
By the third and final day of hunting South Carolina’s Piedmont, we still hadn’t bagged a coyote. I could taste my impatience to get a clean shot at one of these elusive predators. As we settled into yet another well-designed hide, my buddy and guide Ron remarked that this site looked more like a bobcat area than coyote. Let’s go somewhere else, I thought to myself. This is a waste of time. Luckily, I wasn’t making the decisions that day.
I had spent two days hunting coyotes with my buddy Ron Differ and had nothing to show for it but achy knees. But even my lowered expectations on day three couldn’t keep us from being excited as we walked away from Ron’s twin-cab truck and into the pine forest. The muddy, narrow track between the rows of pine trees looked like a coyote highway. It was wall-to-wall with coyote tracks and so much scat—much of it fresh—that we had to be careful where we stepped. We were giddy with the expectation that hungry coyotes soon would be in our sights.
Ron obtained permission for us to hunt this land from a local hunt club whose members would be happy to see us reduce the number of predators putting pressure on its whitetail deer population. Before Ron had begun hunting coyotes here, the number of fawns club members spotted each year was almost zero. Now fawns were a regular appearance in the area’s spring landscape. Even so, Ron assured me that there were still plenty of predators in the vicinity, and the signs and tracks all around us bore out this truth.
In fact, coyotes were doing extremely well across the United States, including in more urban areas. Maybe too well, as witnessed by the waning populations of key species like deer, rabbit and turkey in many places, not to mention the more personal losses of unguarded livestock and household pets. It wasn’t always this way. For the past 10,000 years, the coyote’s range was more limited to the arid Southwest U.S.
With huge migratory swaths created by conversion of forests to open farmland, and the simultaneous decline of wolf populations, there was nothing to stop the coyote from inhabiting new territory, so much so that over the past 120 years the species expanded to near-complete habitation of North America. From a first sighting in 1978, the S.C. coyote population has exploded to an estimated 350,000 animals. This is no surprise considering that coyotes produce four to seven pups per litter after only a 60-day gestation and that pups have a full-set of adult teeth six months after birth. It is no wonder that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies coyotes as being of “Least Concern.” It is also little wonder that hunters, ranchers and pet owners are worried by the impact these efficient predators have on native and domestic animals alike.
I carried a rifle Ron loaned me because I didn’t own a proper “varmint” gun. It was a trusty Ruger M77 in .22-250, equipped with a Vortex 6X-15X Hunter-Shooter riflescope and stoked with hand-loaded ammunition topped with 50-grain Hornady V-Max bullets that zipped along at 3700 fps. I had the perfect predator hunting package.
Upon reaching that day’s first hide, a.k.a. a “set,” Ron and I went into our now familiar drill, setting the stage to attract a coyote’s attention. At a minimum, a good set has three main elements: It is in an area where coyotes might have their dens or lie up for the day while they wait for their nightly hunts; it has a place for the hunter to hide from an incoming predator; and it has an open area that the predator will cross, giving the hunter a chance for a shot.
In the open vistas of the Kansas prairies or the rolling hills of arid Arizona or Wyoming, such sets allow the hunter to see for miles. Not so in this South Carolina pine-scrub habitat, where an open area the width of a basketball court is considered huge.
We spent time at many different sets over the days. At some, we would put out a decoy, a piece of rabbit-gray faux fur suspended about a foot off the ground by a wire attached to a vibrating base that served to distract the predator from the waiting hunter. Mostly, we relied on the effectiveness of Ron’s FoxPro Shockwave electronic predator call. The shape of its four-speaker assembly reminded me of a large, top-handled flashlight. Ron could dial up everything from owl hoots to bear growls to mountain lion screams to distressed bird calls—100-plus sounds recorded from actual animals.
Ron used a remote control to switch between the calls that would attract our predator du jour, such as rabbit in distress or coyote howl. An observant and patient hunter, Ron had taken dozens of predators since moving to South Carolina less than a decade earlier.
Experience also told Ron where a predator might appear in each set depending on ground cover, wind direction and the placement of the caller. Coyotes often make a circuit around the sound of the call box to literally sniff out the situation. We had doused ourselves with odor-reducing spray, but even so, it was best for us to use a box blind to contain our scent, or a tree stand to send it sailing along with the wind 20 feet off the ground.
Even though everything seemed perfect at Set No. 1, no coyotes made an appearance in the time Ron had set aside for the first stand—45 minutes. In fact, none showed up at any of the next three seemingly picture-perfect sets, each spaced within a mile or so of each other. Ron’s conclusion: no coyotes in the vicinity.
Maybe we scared them off when we arrived, or they were elsewhere making their rounds. The observations by predator hunters like Ron suggest that if an animal is going to appear, it will be because it is relatively close to the set. Otherwise, it cannot hear the call, or it ignores the call because it’s too far. Ron rarely must wait longer than 20 minutes for a predator to appear after he starts calling. But, because he has had the rare event of an animal coming in after 40-plus minutes, he stays 45 minutes at each set.
Ron and I were beat from carrying our gear in and out of the first four sites by the time we arrived back at the truck for lunch. We were both lost in our thoughts as we ate the roast beef and cheese wraps Ron’s wife, Nina, had kindly put together.
My mind kept turning to my mom, who had been ailing for some time now. As a young woman, Mama really wasn’t an avid hunter, but she went anyway because she knew it was the one sure way she could spend quality time with her husband and two sons.
I smiled at the recollection of one September afternoon when she and I had crouched in a stand of sunflowers waiting for the flight of mourning doves to begin. The aromatic vapors from the steaming hot sunflowers seemed to penetrate through my pores and into my bloodstream, making me lightheaded as we knelt and sweated in the West Texas sun. Shortly after we arrived, a pickup entered the property down a dirt road that ended next to a bucking-horse-motioned oil pumpjack. When the truck rolled to a stop, two overweight men in camouflage baseball caps slid out and proceeded to blast away at a dove flying in our direction. Their shot pelting down around us didn’t sit well with Mama, so she stood up and emptied her autoloader at such an angle that she dumped three loads of shot near the men and their truck. I’ve never seen two guys move quicker as they threw their shotguns into the pickup and tore back up the dirt road.
Ron and I made our way to Set No. 5 of the day. By the time we arrived, the morning’s perfect weather conditions had disappeared. In place of a quiet woods, a mini gale now buffeted us, turning the surrounding treetops into a noise chamber. My spirits dipped as I surmised that coyotes would be much less likely to hear our calls. And, even if they did, how likely were they to leave their warm hiding places under these conditions?
As Ron began to set up, I surveyed the set. We had a well-constructed box stand to sit in, complete with shooting windows on all sides and folding chairs with padded seats. Unfortunately, we looked out onto a lowland glade with limited visibility. In our line of fire were scattered hardwoods, tufts of long grass and hummocks from fallen trees. A deep streambed meandered in front of our hide, reducing further the amount of room that a predator could occupy.
Ron entered the stand after setting up the call speaker 10 yards away on a small hummock next to the base of a hardwood between us and the streambed. Ron cranked up the coyote caller and remarked that this site looked more like a bobcat area.
He was right. In the Southeast United States, bobcats prowled in highest numbers in just such habitat—bottomland forests and wetlands. Like coyotes, bobcats are classified nationwide as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, with populations on the increase in South Carolina’s Piedmont ecosystem where we were hunting, but found in highest densities in the state’s lower Coastal Plain.
Let’s go somewhere else,” I thought to myself. This is a waste of time. Luckily, I wasn’t making the decisions that day.
As the electronic box screamed on, I asked myself what Mama would have said if I were able to share with her my frustration. She could be very gentle at times, but I suspect her response would have been something to the effect of: “What are you complaining about? You are doing something you love with a great friend who is working his butt off to make you successful. After all, it’s called hunting, not shooting, so, quit your whining.”
I didn’t immediately feel 100 percent better, but my thoughts made me grin inside my camouflaged balaclava.
Ron did not depend solely on the electronic caller for sending out the predator-come-hither messages. He also used his handheld Burnham Brothers Mini Blaster to add complexity to the sounds coming from our set. The electronic caller had been sounding off for about 10 minutes when Ron let loose with his own dying rabbit imitation. After he called for 15 seconds, I watched out of the corner of my eye as he lowered his hand containing the sound-maker. I slowly turned to the right to look in the direction he was staring.
Just then Ron whispered, “Mike, there’s a bobcat across the stream to the right.”
I couldn’t see it. Ron reached over and tugged me to the left so that I could see around the corner post of the box stand. The bobcat sat on a fallen log across the stream. A sunbeam fell on the animal, making its brilliant, white chest and spotted front legs iridescent. The cat had its eyes fixed on the spot from which the electronic rabbit screamed its distress call.
Moving stealthily, I took my rifle, leaning in the corner of the stand, and raised it high enough to slant it through the front window. At the same time, I had to contort my body to the left and around the interfering post. In the process of trying to do all this, I banged the muzzle into the top of the stand. I cringed, but when I glanced at the bobcat, I saw its eyes still riveted in the direction of the call box.
I maneuvered my rifle barrel through the front shooting port and my sight picture materialized. There was just one problem: The camouflaged material at the top of the window had come loose and was hanging in front of the riflescope. I could barely make out the hazy form of the bobcat, but as soon as the crosshairs settled on the center of the white chest, I touched the Timney trigger. I saw the bobcat tumbling backward from the log and heard Ron yell, “You got it!”
I took a deep breath. Relief washed over me as the weight of discouragement and disappointment of the last three days instantly lifted. I couldn’t believe it. I had a bobcat—an animal I never expected.
For me, it was so much more of a success than bagging 10 coyotes would have been. Of course, I still wanted to collect a coyote, but this beautiful cat was enough predator for this day, this week or even this year.
We climbed up the far bank to reach our beautiful bobcat—a female weighing 18 pounds. She had not moved from where she tumbled. She had thick ruffs that framed her face, and huge paws that looked totally outsized for her small frame. After our photo session, we headed back up the trail, with me carrying our bobcat. Back at Ron’s pickup, we carefully placed her on thick towels in an empty space in his toolbox. That day’s temperature had not risen above 40 degrees, guaranteeing that the cat would cool down quickly, protecting the delicate hide.
As we headed back to Ron’s home, I turned on my phone and glanced at my messages. The first one was a text from my brother. I shuddered and let out a sigh. Ron asked if everything was okay.
I hesitated, swallowed slowly, and said, “My brother wrote me about 30 minutes ago to say that my Mama had just passed away.”
Ron’s face went ashen as he told me how sorry he was. I looked out at the passing South Carolina countryside and thought again about the tough, fun-loving, feisty, honest-to-a-fault woman who I knew as one of my heroes. I thought to myself of how happy Mama would have been to hear about the beautiful bobcat riding along with us in the back of Ron’s pickup.
Mama, I wish I could have shown her to you.
About the Author
Outdoor writer and hunter Mike Arnold has had more than 150 articles published in magazines including Sports Afield, African Hunting Gazette, Hunter’s Horn and Safari. Combining his love of hunting and conservation with his passion for science, he serves as a research professor of genetics at the University of Georgia. His new book, Bringing Back the Lions: International Hunters, Local Tribespeople and the Miraculous Rescue of a Doomed Ecosystem in Mozambique, shares the modern-day wildlife conservation story of Mozambique’s Coutada 11. It tracks the country’s progress from its poached-out days as a source of bush meat for starving villagers to the arrival of hunting outfitter Mark Haldane and his partners in the 1990s, who restored a unique ecosystem once decimated by civil war.
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