Hunting the Competition: Predators in Alaska
by Steve Meyer
The vapor trail from the 55-grain Nosler Varmint Ballistic Tip bullet was clearly visible in the dazzling light of a cold and clear February afternoon. The scope, turned down to 16X, and the mild kick of the .220 Swift made riding the recoil and seeing the shot particularly easy. Like following the path of a miniature jet fighter, I could see the shot would miss just before it impacted and the plume of snow dusting in front of the coyote was of little comfort. Recognizing I had misjudged the range at 325 yards, I ran the bolt of the Ruger M77 Varmint rifle and followed the coyote as it began to trot straight away from me.
The aforementioned was not the result of what seems to be the primary method of hunting predators in Alaska; that is calling them in with various types of predator calls, mostly dying rabbit or similar sounds. The truth is, despite many an hour spent calling with various mouth calls, and with an electronic call, I’ve never had much success. There have been some times when I found tracks in the snow that evidenced a coyote coming in and then turning away. I’ve had several circle around me at night, I could hear them and caught furtive movement in the shadows but never enough to get a shot.
The calling has been in good coyote areas but I just have notbeen successful. This has involved snowshoeing miles into areas that are closed to snowmachine travel and that show obvious signs of coyote activity—all in frustration. I have had some great times with owls and hawks coming into the call. The swoosh…followed by wingtips picking up speed as they realize their mistake in nearly landing on my shoulder is exciting and always leaves me wanting for a camera.
I keep telling myself I am going to get a FoxPro with a remote and one of these days I will. These calls seem to be state of the art with very good sounds and also have the ability to couple adecoy with the call, which seems to be a real bonus in trying to lure these extremely intelligent animals. But in the meantime there are other methods that work, and provide a good many hours outdoors during those lulls when ice fishing is slow or waiting for snow conditions to be right for ptarmigan hunting.
“Be where they want to be.” This is something we say in duck hunting that inevitably holds true. If you are hunting where the ducks don’t want to be, they aren’t going to be there just because you wish it so. Which means you have to figure out where whatever you might be hunting wants to hang out, or perhaps more aptly, what country they want to roam. In the case of predators in the winter it isn’t particularly difficult as tracks tell the story.
Probably the best time to establish some known areas is just driving around rural areas after a fresh snow. Make note of where the sign is and where it isn’t. Seeing tracks obviously means the animals were there, seeing them in the same general area on subsequent outings means they are frequenting the area. Tracks show what they are doing, what they are hunting for, and if you are out enough, will give you some idea of their patterns. Seeing fresh tracks in last night’s snowfall means you got there too late. But it also means the area will very likely be revisited sooner than later.
Coyotes have a home range that is subject to availability of food, but generally speaking, they range about a ten-square-mile area. Lynx seem to have a wanderlust that will take them up to a hundred miles, roaming through areas where prey is abundant. Seeing lynx tracks on any given day only confirms their presence and waiting for one to show in the same place is probably going to be a long wait. On the other hand, I have routinely seen lynx in some areas where hares are very abundant. Still, you get the idea, finding their tracks means you have found an area they want to be, the first part of the battle.
Typically, cats are going to be in areas with healthy rabbit populations, if rabbits are on an up-cycle. Lynx also prey heavily on birds, including grouse and song birds. Coyotes will also frequent good rabbit country. Those brush/deadfall-choked areas along roadways, seismic trails, firebreaks and power/pipeline trails are all good bets to check. A proliferation of rabbit tracks immediately after a light snowfall tells you there are many around. Old snow may show lots and lots of tracks but if a week or two has passed since the last snow a couple of rabbits can make a lot of tracks. The thing about coyotes that is much different than cats is they will eat things that would give a hyena the dry heaves. They are known for their ability to survive virtually anywhere and part of that is due to their willingness to subsist on whatever is available. But if there is a day-in, day-out food source for coyotes it has to be voles, shrews or what we generally refer to as “mice.” Open areas with grass growth are always good sources for mice, as are creek banks and lake shores. Many an afternoon has been spent sitting behind binoculars watching coyotes “mouse” in open grassland country. They jump in the air and pounce on their tiny prey and often come up swallowing an afternoon snack.
In the Lower 48 and in the agricultural areas of southern Canada, coyotes are a nuisance. They are quite literally everywhere and good predator hunters will call half a dozen coyotes in a day without traveling very far. In Alaska, small farms or individuals raising various poultry, sheep and other animals also have issues with coyotes, and to perhaps a lesser degree, lynx. Knowing one of these folks may be a ticket to a good opportunity for a successful outing. But at best, the Alaska landscape does not support anywhere near the numbers that are found in more temperate climates and with more agriculture and ranching. Coyote populations in southcentral Alaska have increased in recent years and seeing them is no longer a rare or chance event. There are enough to have a reasonable chance of seeing one in a winter day of hunting. In recent past, coyotes have been identified as a significant predator on Dall sheep, all the more reason for taking a few out of the gene pool.
The method employed for most of my predator hunting these days is a fairly simple and economical concept. Spend a lot of time in areas that show prolific signs of coyotes. In other words, being where they live and at times they are likely to be out and moving around. Coyotes are very nocturnal and do most of their hunting at night, but there are times when they are out moving in daylight hours. Those cold, clear days when the winter sun is practically blinding bright are among the best to be out. Head out on snowshoes into semi-open areas where there are scrub-brush patches and remnants of long grass. These areas hold lots of rodents and make for prime opportunities to spot coyotes wandering on a bright sunny day. Another surprisingly good area to spot roaming coyotes are the beaches along Cook Inlet. Take a walk along nearly any stretch of beach and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much coyote sign there is.
Get into an area and find a good vantage point, preferably facing into the wind, and start glassing. High ground is virtually always an advantage, as not only can you see better, your quarry is not nearly as likely to spot you if you are above them. This is one reason the beaches are great for this type of hunting. A perch on the bluffs that mark the beach line of many miles of oceanfront in Alaska offers a commanding view of the myriad activity that takes place in this environment.
In open-country grassland, coyotes aren’t just mousing. They will lie down in front of snow drifts, out of the wind and in the bright sun and take a nap. Give the country some time to settle after you have stopped and then glass these areas thoroughly. Set yourself in a position that allows you to stay on the gun with minimal movement should the opportunity present itself. Coyotes see very well and they especially spot movement. This is one of those times when camouflage is worth the trouble. With good winter camo or over-whites you can disappear in almost any type of terrain or backdrop.
The sun on those winter days is bright and implies a warmth that just isn’t there. When the mercury says it is -17 the sun is only comforting in the mind. Heading out on snowshoes quickly turns the chill away and the sweat starts to dampen your under-layer. The cold starts to seep in even before you have your spot set up and when you finally get everything right, the shivers start.
Over years of a lot of snowshoeing and a lot of sitting in subzero temperatures, I have renewed my respect for down as the ultimate insulation…when it is dry; and subzero temperatures are about as dry as the desert. Down vests, jackets or pants can be compressed into a very small and light package, making them easy to stash in pockets on day-packs or utility vests. Upon reaching a destination, slipping a down jacket on under your camo over-whites is an instant relief from the cold. When you are ready to move, just pack them back up and move on. The lightweight padded chairs that are sold for attending cold-weather sporting events and sitting on bleachers work very well for sitting in the snow. They insulate and they provide support for the back while allowing a solid sitting position. Lying prone is without question the most stable position for shooting, and if you can do so with a command of the countryside and stay warm in the process, then do it. But this requires ground pads or extremely heavy insulated outer garments that are going to be very bulky and heavy to pack.
So, one might ask, what sort of gear does one require to go forth and hunt predators in the harsh winter environment they inhabit? Obviously the firearm is a critical element. Being a “gun guy” the shooting aspect of this endeavor is a significant part of the equation. I enjoy supremely accurate rifles and long-range shooting. For that there are plenty of rifles available that are suited to the task. The heavy-barreled Ruger M77 in .220 Swift mentioned at the start of this article is one of my favorites. Flat shooting and accurate, the Swift has a reputation for being the ultimate predator cartridge. But there are plenty of others. The .22-250, the .204 Ruger, the .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington all do a marvelous job for long-range predator hunting. There are supremely accurate rifles offered in these calibers by Remington, Winchester, Savage and numerous others. No commentary on predator cartridges would be complete without mention of the .223, or in military vernacular, the 5.56 X 45mm made famous by its government adaptation. Basically if you can think up a rifle in .223, it is offered by someone. The most popular are those made on the original Colt AR-15 platform. The refinement of these rifles and the accuracy they are capable of is astonishing to an old bolt-gun guy who never believed semi-autos would be as accurate as bolt guns. My personal preferences go to bolt guns and single shots with heavy barrels, but it is hard to go wrong with one of these modern semi-autos. The .223 does not produce the fantastic velocities some of the other cartridges do, but is still a viable 300-yard gun in the right hands.
Optics are at least as important as the rifle. A decent-quality scope in a variable power such as 4X12, 4.5X14, 6X18, or 6X24 is a good choice. I go for optics with no larger than 40 mm objective lenses. I want the scope mounted low on the rifle so I don’t have to lift my head to see through it. I am really fond of the Bushnell 4200 Elite series. They are very good scopes at a reasonable price. Binoculars are also extremely important. Looking through them for hours out of a day will suck your eyeballs right from your head if the glass does not suit your eye. Spend some time looking through them before you purchase. Short of paying the small fortune for Swarovskis, I have found the various models of Leupold, Bushnell and Nikon 10X42 glasses to be extremely good and easy on the eyes, and for under $500. I have a Nikon 550 Rangefinder in a pocket of my pack and it stays there until after the shot. Predators don’t make their living exposing themselves for long periods, and it is the rare opportunity that allows the luxury of ranging before the shot. But sometimes it is possible. For the most part having the rangefinder confirms the range estimated from years in the field.
A few years back Realtree introduced the Pro-Series line of reversible winter camo bibs and parka. These outer garments have a terrific winter pattern; they are fleece on the outside and very quiet. They do not have quite enough insulation for those really cold days of sitting, which is where down vests, jackets and pants that can be put on underneath are worth their weight in gold. Finally, having been snowshoeing the Alaska backcountry for the past 40 years, I have tried about every type snowshoe there is. Last year I spent the winter on a set of MSR Denali Ascent 9X30 shoes. They are hands-down the best snowshoe I have ever used. The bindings fit any size boot and go on and come off easily; they have serrations along the aluminum frame that make side-hilling easy, and they have a climbing step that allows one to actually climb snow mounds, mountains, whatever you come across with relative ease.
Folks often ask why one would hunt predators; after all, you don’t eat them. True enough, and I usually don’t hunt animals I am not going to eat. Predators are competition. Be it bears eating moose calves, wolves taking down caribou, coyotes eating lambs and duck eggs, otters taking rainbow trout or lynx eating grouse and rabbits, they compete for resources with those of us who practice hunting and fishing for what we eat. Inthat light, we take predators to balance out that competition. For me, it is never taken lightly and I won’t take any predator that I am not going to utilize in some way. For coyotes, lynx, wolves or otters, that means utilizing their fur. The fur on all of these predators is beautiful, warm and useful for all sorts of garments and bedding. Some take them for the fur trade and sell them. I don’t do that anymore but I use every furbearing animal I take. With that, I have a deep affection for these animals and have reached that point in life where I don’t take every animal I have the opportunity to. Sometimes it is just enough to watch them go about their business, wish them well and be pleased to have had that opportunity.
I took this one, though.
As the bolt closed after my initial miss, the coyote was moving straight away. This time the hold was perfect, as the trigger press sent another vapor trail at close to 4,000 feet per second, the bullet smacking into the upper right hindquarter and pressing into the “boiler room,” as the heart-lung region is referred to. The 29-pound female dropped like a stone at a confirmed range of 427 yards. For me, it’s hard to imagine a better way to end a cold winter day in Alaska.
Steve Meyer is a 40-year resident of the central Kenai Peninsula, an avid hunter, shooter, trapper and fisherman. Most days will find him afield with his English setter, Winchester. Reach Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.