Dawn came quickly, frost hanging on the sagebrush and growing in my beard. At the first traces of shooting light, I pressed the button that activated the Primos Alpha Dogg electronic call placed 50 yards away down the slope, sending a series of locator howls drifting down the draw. To my delight, coyotes lit up in all directions, three different groups cutting the air apart with yips, howls, and barks.
A few minutes later, I followed up the howl sequence with a great sounding — to me, anyway — series of electronic jackrabbit distress calls. To my dismay, that was the last I heard of the coyotes, and none of them ever showed.
Coyotes today are more educated than ever. At first blush, it seems that hunters no longer need skill to call coyotes — quality electronic calls do most of the hard work. However, even electronic calls are losing effectiveness because every predator hunter in the country, from expert to rank amateur, is employing one, and coyotes learn fast. Traditional rodent and rabbit in distress calls — you know, the ones everybody tries first — no longer work particularly well in many areas.
So how do you successfully hunt educated coyotes? I recently visited with Al Morris — who, along with his hunting partner Garvin Young, has won the World Coyote Calling Championship three times — and picked his brain on tactics for call-shy coyotes.
The good news is that Morris doesn't believe any coyote is uncallable. But he rarely uses traditional distress calls any more, opting instead to use various coyote vocalizations. He believes that successful callers should become proficient with three tools.
"You can't go fishing with just one lure," he said. "I use a FoxPro, a diaphragm mouth call, and a hand howler every time. I'm trying to sound like multiple coyotes, and I accomplish it with multiple calls."
According to Morris, the question he hears most applies to coyote language. "How do I know what to say and when to say it?" folks ask.
His response: "Coyote vocalizations are simple, and I think that's what people get wrong — they think coyotes have a very complex vocabulary. Keep it simple. An Oregon study showed that coyotes use only 11 to 13 different vocalizations to communicate with. Howling does not have to be hard."
Morris is partial to non-aggressive male coyote howls and female yodels, and he pointed out the importance of understanding not only the rut, but also the gestation period and following pup-raising months. Typically, peak breeding occurs in February, followed by a 62-day gestation. For conversation's sake, let's say most pups are born mid-April, and they stay in the den for a month or more.
By July, pups are already learning to hunt, and their parents are very protective. According to Morris, at that point just about any pup distress call will draw attention.
In September and October, breeding pairs kick the pups out and push them out of the family territory. Winter and another breeding season is approaching, and they don't want their young competing for available food in their area, let alone the young kicked out by other pairs that wander into their territory. Adults become the opposite of protective and will come running to give trespassing adolescents a drubbing. So pup sounds are still a good choice.
Morris's year-round go-to sound is a wounded dog, specifically a pup distress or canine distress. That said, he does change it up a lot, usually using four or five different calls per stand.
Unlike many successful hunters, Morris isn't shy about sharing his favorite sounds and sequences.
"I start off with electronic male coyote howls," he said. "Then a female yodel, then a non-aggressive diaphragm howl. A few minutes later, I'll do a distress call, grey fox, something in distress. I go from that into coyote pup distress, pup screams, and finally pup death howls. The entire sequence takes about 12 to 15 minutes. I tell you what, that series triggers something in a coyote that seems to just make them come take a look."
Many hunters believe that coyote populations differ from region to region, asserting that dogs in the East present dissimilar behavior to those in the West and respond differently to calls. Morris disagrees: "As far as I'm concerned, a coyote is a coyote is a coyote — you've just got to have a full set of tools to consistently call them. It's really cool to go out there with a hand call, an electronic call, and a diaphragm call and get the reactions you can getâ€¦. It's really cool."
However, he pointed out that unpressured populations don't require nearly the calling proficiency.
"There's no reason to throw the kitchen sink at them," Morris noted. "If a rabbit distress call works, stick with it."
Importantly, when going into a new area, scout at night to learn where the coyotes are and move in to set up the next day.
"Drive at night, stopping every two miles or so to run a group howl sequence on your electronic call," he said. "Within three nights in a new area, I can tell you how many coyotes are there and just about what they are — old dominant males, groups, and so on."
I didn't come right out and ask Morris if he has a "secret weapon" sound — I didn't have to. He admitted without being asked that he's been working on mastering a female sound that he says some hunters are calling an "estrus chirp." He saw it on a hunting video — one of Randy Anderson's — wherein mating action is captured on camera, and the female makes some unique vocalizations. Seemingly, the sound brings out a very aggressive territorial response in coyote females.
I also asked Morris about his favorite calls. He's on FoxPro's pro staff, so clearly he leans on them heavily. He was candid in admitting that there are many good electronic calls on the market today but was staunch in maintaining that FoxPro has them all soundly beat in one critical area: coyote vocalizations. FoxPro's "Platinum Grey Fox" is a high-pitched sound that cuts through wind well, is particularly frantic sounding, and works really effectively.
For hand calls, I was interested to hear that Morris really likes hand-turned wood calls made in my home state of Utah by Kerry Carver, who also just introduced a rubber call that is "the most amazing call" Morris has ever used.
I'm pretty sure that coyotes will continue outsmarting me more than I outsmart them. But with at least three arrows in my quiver — diaphragm, hand calls, and a good electronic call — I'll stand half a chance on the call-wise song dogs of central Utah.
Morris offered a parting tip for beginners: "When you're starting out, don't be afraid to push the button, to blow the call. Try various sounds. It may not work today, but down the road you'll find a sound that will work, and it'll be dynamite."
The Advantage of Handmade Calls
One-of-a-kind, handmade mouth calls aren't just cool to look at — they offer several real advantages. First, they're individually tuned, so you won't get a call that "breaks" badly or just sounds wrong. Second, since the soundboards are handmade and every call is individually tuned, no two are exactly alike, preventing coyotes from "recognizing" the sound from previous encounters with other hunters with the same-brand production call.
These pictured (above) are handmade by Kerry Carver of Ephraim, Utah, and, according to Al Morris, work magic on electronic call-wise coyotes. Impressively, Carver sells his works of art at workingman prices: ranging from $20 to $40. From right: buckeye burl Ruthless Rabbit distress with brass inlay, cocobolo Pup/Female howler, and cocobolo Big Dog howler.