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Keys to Successful Predator Calling
By Major L. Boddicker

Key #7 - The Senses, Generally Speaking

Sensory systems (smell, taste, touch, hearing and seeing) work like an old John Deere slip-clutch tractor: as the clutch lever is first pushed, no movement happens; then it engages, but slowly; responses and sensing accelerates; then it is fully engaged and the tractor moves at full speed.

There are millions of tiny particles in the air. Each one carries an odor factor from almost zero to one. As the nose and its millions of olfactory (smell) receptor cells bring these particles in, the receptor cells capture and evaluate them. When enough receptor cells confirm the odor, a signal goes to the brain that registers and interprets the message, and the critter recognizes the odor and responds. Most odor molecules are in very small numbers and in huge variety, so the sensory cells test them but do not react because for each chemical particle there is a threshold, a minimum amount of the particles that it takes to make the receptors trigger a signal to the brain. That signal says what the particle is and how much there is.

If each olfactory receptor sent a message for each particle, the brain could not process all of the information. When odors are in a mixture, the strongest odor dominates.

When you pick up a skunk odor that is faint, you have pulled in enough skunk musk molecules to trigger the awareness behavior. When you get blasted in the face with skunk musk, you vomit, and other behaviors kick in based on the overwhelming sensory input into your brain and the behaviors that are triggered from it. In fact, you automatically respond to those overwhelming skunk musk molecules. Escape, vomiting, and eyes watering and burning follow the blast, and you can't do anything about it.

With all of the senses in mammals, the mechanisms are similar. At first, the sound, odors, touches, tastes, and sights are weak. The predator may or may not get enough of them to trigger awareness of it. When the stimulus gets stronger, or it stays longer to the point the animal becomes aware of it, the predator may or may not react to it. It might react to it without being conscious of it, or it might adjust its behavior as a result of it.

The predator might become aware of the stimulus, but because of other reasons, from other sensory input, might not react. The behavior its mind indicates that it should do might be over-ridden by other senses.

For example, the donut shop blows its exhaust out, and the wind blows those odors down the street. You are three blocks away and are pulling in those odors. They are too diluted in the air for your nose receptors to trigger the awareness thresholds. But you might suddenly begin thinking of how good a donut would be.

Then you get two blocks away and your receptors become full of the great sweet smell. Your mouth waters; you think of what a nice advertisement that exhaust is. You are thinking donuts all the way up to the door. Then you see your wife wagging her finger at you in your donut-focused brain and you say no, remember the Atkins Diet; so you keep on walking, still lusting after that donut!

Calling sounds work that way. Way out—1/2, 1, or 1½-miles away—the predator can hear, but the sensors do not yet refine the sound waves. The predator may or may not decide to come, or decide what the sound is. The closer the predator is to the sound or the stronger the sound waves, the more discriminating it can be, and the stronger the response can be.

Practically speaking, that is why coyotes howl at sirens: they hear a very high-pitched, quivering sound. It is strong enough to trigger their howling response, so they howl. In fact, they may have to howl unless there is a heavy override, like someone shooting at them.

Predator responses to calling are the same. Predators are instinctively programmed to come to those sounds unless there is an override, like previous bad experiences. They may have full bellies so are not hungry. They might have a stronger interest like breeding behavior. One never knows when calling whether there are no predators within hearing range, or one of the override factors are working to keep the predators from coming. That is why it is necessary to have a variety of sounds to tickle several behaviors.

Sounds are not the same to a predator's ear. Some sounds stimulate the feeding behavior; others trigger curiosity, breeding, fear, or territorial behaviors. Learn to play tricks with your calling sounds, and modify when and where you use them, to increase success.

There is no law against using a rabbit distress sound for ten minutes, then a puppy ki-yi call, so that two different behavior triggers are teased in coyotes or red fox. Or, use both a fawn bleat and cub squall for bear. A mouse squeak and chicken cluck combination works for red fox.

Great callers use psychology on the predator by mimicking situations with which predators are familiar. I once witnessed a coyote catching and killing a cottontail. I was fumigating prairie dogs east of Longmont, Colorado, early on an August morning. Coyotes in that country are used to people and are not much afraid of us. An old, scruffy coyote ran along a fence about 40 yards from me. It came from behind me, passed me, then took a hard dive to the left and disappeared into some tall grass.

A cottontail almost immediately let out with three low-volume squalls. The coyote came out into the open about 50 yards ahead of me and laid down chewing on the rabbit. The rabbit was still alive and made several feeble attempts at escaping while the coyote played with it. The coyote played with it perhaps two minutes and the rabbit squalled twice, three squalls each time in those two minutes. The coyote picked the rabbit up, bit down hard and gave it a sharp snap, then loped off.

Some callers swear by low-volume, two or three calls per series deliveries, as authentic as the incident I witnessed. They do very well also. Others like loud, long series of more continuous and exaggerated rabbit-like squalls. I have tried both and use both. I start out authentic and end up authentic, expecting predators in close to respond. If no predators are in close, the sound waves have to be of enough volume and force to hit their hearing thresholds. To make their ears work at 1½ miles takes some strength, so I give it to them.

My favorite rabbit squall sequence is as follows: wwhaa…wwhaa…wwhaa. At 50 yards my partners can hardly hear it. Five minutes into the series, I am really laying into the call, trying to get enough power to rattle the predator's eardrums out at 1.5 to two miles and flip its switch on. I repeat the wwHAAa…wwHHAAa… 8-12 times nearly as hard as I can blow it. Then I back off to a more realistic range. The same goes for puppy whines, ki-yi calls, fawn bleats, and others. Yes, it is a natural delivery, but not an exclusive natural delivery. A lot of my successful calls are greatly exaggerated and loud.

Have you ever played with a dog to try to get its confidence? When I was in South Africa in 1987, my friend, Peter Schneekluth, and I visited a grape and sheep farm in a rough neighborhood. It had lots of blacks stealing and killing whites, during apartheid. The farmer we visited had vicious Doberman pinschers, trained to attack humans. They were fierce.

When we arrived, we stayed in the truck until he locked four of them up. They had all run up to the fence, propped their front feet up on the fence and snarled and barked at us.

He kept one dog with him. He warned us to not attempt to shake hands or touch him, or the dog would attack. We introduced ourselves, had a short chat, and then went into his living room. He poured us some excellent wine, and then he sat down. The dog faithfully lay down at his feet and looked at me. The farmer said that the dog was strictly a one-man dog and had never warmed up to anyone else. He wanted it that way.

Whether it was the Carman Canine Call lure on my shoes, or coyote estrus urine extract on my skin, the dog was really interested in me. So as I talked, I teased the dog with a slight, quick movement of one foot then another, then I pulled air through my teeth and tongue, never looking directly at the dog. The Doberman could not stand it; it started wagging its tail and inching toward me. It would look at the farmer to see if he was going to swat it, then scoot closer to me. In about five minutes, it had its head lying on my ankles, smelling my shoes. The farmer watched in good humor as it happened. I scratched the back of the dog's head with my other foot, then reached down and scratched its head, play-biting its head and face with one hand. The vicious dog was my buddy. The farmer couldn't believe it. So I explained it to him.

You tease predators by how you play the sound of your call, with changes in notes and pitch, skips in the squalls, holding your breath, going momentarily soft, then hard, then harder, then backing off. Move the call and your head so it resembles the rabbit squalling while the predator is shaking the prey.

When you want to get the predator close for a photo or shotgun, then tease its eyes and nose too. There are great commercial decoys available of rabbits, fawns, turkeys, and deer. Some are electronic, others you can move by tying them to your foot with a cord and moving your foot to move the decoy. It doesn't take much. White and black chicken feathers wired or glued together hung from a low stake are a nice easy tease; or a mounted coyote or fox, or old white sock attached to a cord you reel in as the coyote sees you. Housecat hides, tame rabbit skins, etc. are useful decoys and tease the eyes. They can be hung from a stake 5-10 yards away from the caller.

Callers have many theories about cover scents. The primary theory is to use skunk musk, coyote urine, or some other strong animal odor to mask or to cover up human scent. There is a lot of evidence around that says that is highly unlikely. However, the skunk musk, coyote urine, or other masking scent might be of higher interest than the weaker human odor interspersed with the strong stuff.

The second theory is to use an attractive curiosity or food lure like rabbit urine, Carman Canine Call lure, mink musk, or other long-range lure that will appeal to their feeding or curiosity behavior and help attract them to a decoy or calling sound.

It is splitting hairs to discuss these as different. How much these odors contribute to success, I do not know. Frankly, as I have said many times, I rarely use scents when I am calling and try to manage my scent by having the air currents take it away from the predator, not toward the predator.

When predators hear the prey or other predators' sounds, they are expecting animals to be there. So some movement is expected. However, a 250# lump is not what they had in mind, a 3# rabbit was more their plan, or a coyote, fox, or raptor. Minor movement or slow, deliberate movement with dull-colored clothing is not a warning flag. Sudden, large, and trackable movements are a problem. So, wear clothes that you can move in without having color clashes. Also, keep arms close to the sides, and keep your movements slow and confined to the front of the body.

Many coyotes have died 30 yards out from me where I have moved a gun from my lap to my shoulders, sighted it in, and fired while the coyote was looking directly at me. Just move in slow motion, no jerky movements.

If you use flags—fur or feathers—keep them at or under 18" from the ground. Objects over that height seem to put some coyotes on alert. Make the decoy so it is small, with color contrast, movable, but not large enough to be threatening.

Many predator hunters have the opinion that coyotes have rigid rules they always react to. That has not been my experience with coyotes. The problem with coming up with “facts” about coyote behavior is the amount of variable factors over which the hunter has no control. When a coyote does something, the observer can only interpret what he sees. The coyote doesn’t tell him why it did something.

When a coyote is observed 400 yards out coming up-wind toward the hunter, and all of a sudden it stops, turns, and dashes off, the conclusion is often that the coyote smelled the hunter. Maybe, maybe not. It could have seen the truck. It could have seen a glint from glasses, zippers, or scope lens, or it could have seen another coyote that was out of sight of the hunter that scared it off. There are scores of reasons why that coyote could have cut and run other than the hunter’s scent.

So, the hunter puts on skunk musk, goes out to the same stand, same wind, and a coyote comes in the same way, only this time it keeps coming and is shot at 60 yards. Does that mean that the skunk musk was the difference? No, the coyote could have been a different one. Whatever caused the turn-around for the first coyote may not have been present or did not chase the second coyote off.

The point is that predators are individuals, and will react differently than others at any given time. Not only that, they may act differently to the same set of circumstances at a different time.

Trapping smart coyotes was a great lesson in the unpredictable variations of wildlife behavior. Back in 1980, Stan Pilcher and I partnered trapping coyotes in eastern Colorado. It was sandhills country and was great trapping. Each morning we read what the coyotes did the night before.

We put in 200 trap sets over 400 miles of sandhills roads. Most were set in bare sand where the coyote’s behavior could be read when it checked out the lures. We used 2-4 sets in clusters with 4 to 8 lures used in combinations at the sets. The coyotes showed a wide variety of behaviors. One coyote would sometimes trot right through the middle of a cluster of lures and never break stride, no reaction. Two days later, probably the same coyote would trot through, pick out one lure and sniff it. Sometimes it was its last sniff. Sometimes it got lucky and missed our traps. One particular coyote trotted by a set every second day for 12 days. When a big weather front was on its way, the song dog could no longer resist, and we nailed it. Was it the same coyote? Truthfully, I don’t know, but it stepped in the same tracks every other day, same sized tracks. Why did it go for the lure? The “feed up” mechanism probably kicked in, triggered by the falling barometric pressure. Can I be sure? No.

You might compare an individual predator’s behavior to your own. Lots of times your behavior is predictable, other times it is not, and there is no particular reason for it.

Do predators get “educated” to calls so they won’t come in to calling? Yes and no. They might associate a calling sound with shooting, pain, fright, and danger and be real careful about coming in again. Or, they might not.

When I first started calling in South Dakota in the late 1960’s, a buddy and I got hooked and went red fox calling nearly every weekend. One snowy, dark morning we sat on a knob overlooking a large slough near Bruce, South Dakota. I called for 20 minutes and nothing showed up. When I got up to leave, there were fresh fox tracks in my last footprint! The fox had stuck its nose within inches of the back of my head, and I didn’t detect it.

The next Saturday, my partner and I sat in the same places. After 5 minutes, a nice red fox trotted across the ice and snow in a deeply cut trail. It got to 30 yards and both of us missed, repeatedly. The fox got off with six .222 rounds and twelve .22 RF magnum rounds after it. The following Saturday, same place and time, I sat down and called again, using the same rabbit call (I did not know any other sounds at the time). Here came a red fox, using the same trail. It looked like the same fox. At 30 yards, Charlie shot and missed. The fox spinned around and dashed off. Charlie’s next shot killed it.

Were there three different foxes, or just one dumb one that didn’t learn quickly?  It could have been either.

Several times I have shot at coyotes and missed, ran to the truck, driven around 2 or 3 miles of the draw the coyote escaped down, popped over the hill and called in the coyote I missed ten minutes before. The coyote’s tongue was hanging out and the markings were the same as the one I missed, so I was quite certain.

Be patient, don’t jump to conclusions, improvise, and try new tricks.

Tease predators by coming at them with a variety of stimulations to their senses—some strange, some familiar, some loud, some soft, some big, and some small. Tickle their behavior triggers: jealousy, curiosity, territoriality, hunger, and greed.

The whole point of being a great varmint caller is to out-fox the fox. The craftier and tougher the predator is, the greater the pleasure of nailing the varmint.

Next: Key #8— Calling Bears, Hazardous Duty