Prairie predators

Secret strategies for successfully hunting down the wily coyotes, foxes and badgers of Western Canada’s grasslands

5Brad Fenson

At first glance, the open, rolling terrain of the prairies looks drab, and the scarcity of lofty vegetation leads many hunters to think there’s a lack of productivity. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The prairies have a diverse amount of wildlife, and the protein-rich native grasslands form the base of a food chain topped with several predators.

The lack of vegetative cover also leads people to believe they can’t get close to game. Over the years, I’ve found the complete opposite to be true. While hunting upland game birds, I’ve often had close encounters with coyotes, badgers and foxes—and that’s led me to develop some unconventional yet effective tactics for pursuing these prairie predators.

Prairie predators

4Brad Fenson

COYOTES

When actively searching for coyotes, I always observe the behaviour of other wildlife, as well as domestic animals. Watching deer is one of my favourite ways to locate coyotes, as deer do a better job than pointing dogs at revealing predators. Mule deer, for example, will stand still and stare at approaching coyotes, and mulie does will even rush in together to protect a fawn in distress. Cows will do the same when coyotes trot through a herd.

Calling is always a good option on the prairie, and if one particular sound or call doesn’t work, try another. There isn’t a hungry adult coyote that won’t come to investigate the hideous squeal of a cottontail, jack rabbit or mule deer in distress. A fawn-in-distress call, for example, will immediately draw coyotes on the hunt for deer. That said, one call might work better than others, depending on the season—or even from day to day—so if you don’t get results, try another call before moving on.

Coyote calls are the most productive in the open landscape. These yodel hounds are territorial, and adults are extremely protective of their daily haunts—challenge calls can produce some big dogs. Interestingly, a pup in distress will also bring the neighbourhood to attention. Coyotes are just as protective as other prairie wildlife, and they’ll rush in to rescue their young. It isn’t uncommon to get multiple coyotes coming to a pup in distress.

As for timing when calling or looking for coyotes, make sure you’re in the field for the first hour of daylight, as well as the last. Although I’ve shot coyotes at all hours of the day, more than half my yotes have come at dawn or dusk. These predators are more active and responsive during these periods, as they like to use the cover of twilight to venture in to investigate.

Prairie predators

2Brad Fenson

FOXES

Foxes behave more like cats than canines when they hunt and feed, and that makes them interesting to watch. With their finely tuned radar for locating and tracking prey in the grass or under the snow, they’ll leap high into the air and pounce on a mouse or rodent they can hear but not see. They’ll often clear the tallest grass or fenceline, making them visible for a brief moment.

The good news is, it routinely takes foxes a couple of leaps to catch their prey, giving you time to lift your binos. I’ve located more than one big red this way after seeing distant movement. You’d  think a bright orange coat would stick out like a sore thumb on the prairies, but foxes blend amazingly well. If they’re not moving, you’re unlikely to see them.

As with coyotes, I’ll observe the behaviours of other wildlife when searching for foxes. Again, taking advantage of what the animal is already focused on will almost always lead to a close encounter. One telltale sign that a fox is in the vicinity is the flushing of birds, especially sharp-tailed grouse. These game birds hold tight and know how to hide from most predators, so when they flush, you know a fox could be close at hand. And here’s the bonus: The fox will be so preoccupied with stalking its prey that it will be oblivious to everything else, including you. That means spotting a hunting fox at a distance can easily provide the perfect spot-and-stalk opportunity.

If you’re hunting in an area where you know foxes like to hang out, you can also use a predator call to make them show themselves. The sound of a mule deer in distress, for example, will typically send a fox running, as it will think a coyote is in the neighbourhood. Coyotes put the run on foxes whenever possible, and the two don’t often share the same hunting grounds. A pleading chicken or other bird-in-distress call, on the other hand, quickly lures in a curious and hungry fox. A mouse squeaker is also a good bet.

Finally, here’s my best advice for locating foxes: Search areas close to people. Why? With coyotes always hot on their heels, foxes tend to hang out closer to places coyotes avoid, such as farmyards. They’ll often create dens under granaries, for example, or hang out in dry culverts. South-facing ridges in large open fields, where foxes can easily avoid coyotes, are also hot spots.

Prairie predators

3Brad Fenson

BADGERS

I’ve shot many badgers over the years, and one of the best ways to home in on them is to watch for flying dirt. I remember once driving down a country road and seeing the terra firma spewing three feet into the air along a barbed-wire fence. At first I was perplexed, but it only took a few seconds to link the activity to a badger at work under the ground. I drove ahead a little, then parked and carefully stalked back to get closer without alerting him to my presence. The next time he poked his dirt-covered ears out of the hole to have a look around, it was lights out.

Ever since that encounter, I always watch for flying dirt when hunting badgers. I also look for signs of digging, especially after a fresh snowfall, when the black mounds of soil in the sea of white are obvious. Then all you have to do is wait—it will only be a matter of time before the badger appears from the hole. You can also use a gopher whistle to try to get him to rear his head.

Sometimes, the unexpected can also lead to opportunity when it comes to hunting for these prairie predators. One memorable encounter happened when my wife, Stef, and I were touring the prairie countryside on the hunt for birds, as well as badgers. I had just remarked that it was strange we hadn’t seen a badger yet when we turned onto a new trail and I spotted the biggest specimen I’d ever seen in my life.

Busy digging into the hard prairie landscape, the badger seemed oblivious to our presence. In fact, it soon become apparent that he didn’t care about us being there. We had a quick look through the binoculars and could see fat rolls in the brow of his face—he was definitely the boss badger for the area.

I grabbed my shotgun, racked in some predator loads and began to stalk toward him. I closed the distance to about 50 metres before he stared at me with a look of discontent. I knew I’d gone as far as he would let me, so I levelled the bead of my smoothbore on his forehead and squeezed the trigger. At the report of the gun, the badger slumped over without a twitch.

     
Alberta contributor Brad Fenson enjoys hunting for all manner of game.
     

Go to www.outdoorcanada.ca/predatorregs for links to the hunting regulations for coyotes, foxes and badgers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.