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    Predator & Prey

    Reading Sign

    The minutes passed like hours as I sat through English class, waiting for the conclusion of another school day. My instructor’s high-pitched voice faded as I gazed lazily through the classroom window and noticed a slight hint of snow against the somber October sky. It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. Actually, I found it tolerable – except during the fall, when my mind was cluttered with much more important matters, such as the the

    Successful coyote hunters keep one eye to the ground when on the hunt.
    Successful coyote hunters keep one eye to the ground when on the hunt.
    3-mile trapline extending from Muskeg Bay east along the lakeshore.

    I cut my fur-trapping eyeteeth exploring that vast shoreline near my hometown in northern Minnesota, matching wits with the mink, ermine and muskrats that occupied the riparian environs. Unraveling the mysteries of how these secretive critters spent the lion’s share of their time and where to precisely place each Victor trap from my limited supply occupied my thoughts day and night.  As I explored the frozen lake edge each day, I grew more and more fascinated with the apex predators – red foxes, coyotes and even gray wolves – that combed the water’s edge at night hunting for prey. Signs of their passing were evident in tracks, scat and sometimes the remains of a successful hunt if I looked hard enough, and I learned a lot about all of these animals’ behavior by unraveling the clues they left behind.

    It was this early education in scouting and reading sign that served me well as a novice fur trapper, and later as a predator hunter. I know a lot of fur trappers, and I can tell you that to the man or woman they are among the best hunters I know, because of their ability to effectively scout and read animal sign. It’s one of the biggest keys to putting more fur in the truck, whether fur trapping or fur hunting. Wasting time on grounds that are void of target animals is counterproductive. We all have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of property to hunt, and it makes good sense to concentrate efforts on those honey holes that are going to produce the best results. The best way to do that is by thoroughly scouting an area, and reading sign is arguably the most important component.

    Reading sign is part science, part art. The science requires the hunter to identify sign, judge how old it is and determine frequency. Is this a core territory or is the animal an interloper? Coyotes, as an example, are very territorial, especially during the mating and pup-rearing season. They establish territories and aggressively defend them. They do this through visual, audio and olfactory cues. It is also important to be able to distinguish sign from one species vs. another. More on that later.

    The art component hinges on experience and repetition; the ability to take what you know about sign and apply it to a specific situation and location. Veteran hunters acquire a

    There are many great resources available – print and online – that will help fur hunters learn to identify animal sign.
    There are many great resources available – print and online – that will help fur hunters learn to identify animal sign.
    “feel” for what the sign means based on past experiences, and by internally visualizing how target animals utilize the landscape based on its topography and resources.

    Where will they hunt? Where will they hide? Where will they travel? These and other questions can be answered through reading sign. Take a lesson from the fur trapper here. He uses his knowledge of animal behavior and his ability to read sign to quickly assess the fur potential of a property and how to exploit it – target animal densities and travel routes based on food and water sources, bedding and escape cover, choke points, etc. He sifts through the available data and then applies his skills to select specific trap locations where he will manipulate a fox, bobcat, coyote or other fur-covered critter to step on a cleverly hidden 3-inch trap pan. As a fur hunter it’s not necessary to be as precise, but the premise is the same, and scouting and reading sign is the key to getting the most potential from a property.

    An example: One key indication that a mated pair or family group of coyotes has staked out a territory is the presence of scat on roadways, such as those grids that dissect large ranches in the West or gravel county or forest roads common east of the Mississippi River. Because it is easy for coyotes to travel these roads at night and the scat they deposit is very visible, it is an effective means of marking the boundaries of their territory and establishing ownership.

    Coyotes also use audio response to defend their territories, in the form of aggressive howling and barking. As with all canines, coyotes also establish urine posts. Much like a dominant white-tailed buck will create a scrape as “Communication Central,” coyotes utilize scent posts to communicate their presence to other coyotes. A hunter can obviously gain a lot of intel about the whereabouts, population density and distribution of coyotes on a property by properly reading these visual, audio and olfactory cues – which will be invaluable for developing a

    All predators leave telltale sign that indicates population density and travel patterns.
    All predators leave telltale sign that indicates population density and travel patterns.
    game plan and selecting specific calling locations.

    A good approach is to spend a night driving the back roads of a target area – public ground or private land where you have permission to hunt – listening for howling frequency and locations. Many times these excursions will pinpoint coyote concentrations, hunting grounds and travel patterns. Following up with on-the-ground scouting will reveal tracks, scratchings, droppings and evidence of feeding to further pinpoint the most heavily used segments of the property – and where to set up and call come morning.

    But let’s step back and take a broader look at this. Since most of us are equal-opportunity predator hunters, we don’t discriminate when it comes to which species of fur we pack out to the truck. That’s why, from a calling and hunting perspective, it’s important to know which furbearer species is most prevalent on any given property. For example, if sign shows that a cattail slough near town is a red fox haven and coyotes avoid the area because of its close proximity to humans, the hunting approach would be much different than if coyotes were the chief occupants of the slough. It would be ineffective – disastrous even – to use aggressive coyote calls in this case. That’s why it’s important to use sign-reading skills to determine a game plan for specific predators in specific locales.

    One hunt on a large sheep ranch in Texas provides a good example. While my buddy and I expected to see a ton of coyote sign on the sprawling ranch, that wasn’t the case. The property appeared to be completely devoid of what should have been the apex predator there. There was, however, an overwhelming amount of gray fox sign and we set up accordingly. Later, a conversation with the rancher solved the mystery. He had hired a trapper to come in and go medieval on the local sheep-plundering coyotes, effectively driving them from the ranch. The gray foxes ceased the moment and were thriving in this coyote-free zone. Had we ignored the sign and set up for coyotes rather than gray foxes, the outcome, several prime foxes, would have been quite different.  

    Now it’ time for a quick biology lesson. Because reading sign requires being able to identify physical evidence left behind by target animals – and their prey, incidentally – a fur hunter should own a rudimentary education in tracks and scat identification. Luckily, there are a great many resources available to help pave the way. My favorite books include: Tracks and Trailcraft by Ellsworth Jaeger; Calling Predators with Gerry Blair and Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus J. Murie and Mark Elbroch. Or, a quick internet search will also turn up a boatload of information and illustrations to get you started. Study the illustrations and compare them with sign found in the field. As mentioned before, this will help identify which furbearers are most prevalent on a piece of ground and where they spend most of their time.

    Back in the day, Gordy used his trapping skills as a foundation for a successful transition into fur hunting.
    Back in the day, Gordy used his trapping skills as a foundation for a successful transition into fur hunting.
    I once hunted an area in Arizona where a mixed bag of furred critters occupied the high-desert landscape. A closer examination revealed that each species preferred unique terrain features, based on food sources and escape cover; coyotes the mesquite flats, bobcats the brushy washes and gray foxes the rimrock outcroppings. Once my hunting buddy and I unraveled the sign, we could basically target each of these predators based on terrain types and set up accordingly. This is great information to have because calling each of these animals has its subtle differences. For example, when targeting bobcats it’s common to stay at each setup longer, sometimes up to an hour depending on the terrain, because they are often slower to respond than canines. Or, you wouldn’t use coyote vocalizations when targeting those areas occupied by gray foxes or bobcats.

    To unravel the mysteries of how predators utilize the landscape, hunters should have at least a rudimentary understanding of how to read animal sign.
    To unravel the mysteries of how predators utilize the landscape, hunters should have at least a rudimentary understanding of how to read animal sign.
    When scouting a new area, I work from the macro to the micro. By that I mean taking a broad overview and evaluation of a property followed by on-the-ground observations and then the selection of specific calling locations.  I most often begin by poring over a topographical map of the area and chatting with the landowner, if I’m hunting private property.  From there I’ll likely do a drive-by, looking for possible travel funnels, food sources and security cover. As mentioned earlier, if hunting coyotes I might take a pass through the property at night and listen for howling. From there I’ll conduct an on-the-ground search for tracks and scat, or any other sign that might indicate predator densities and travel patterns.

    There is direct correlation between successful scouting and successful hunting.
    There is direct correlation between successful scouting and successful hunting.
    By putting it all together, the savvy predator hunter can develop a solid game plan for optimizing success on any fur-rich property based on gathered intelligence and tapping into past experiences. This is best accomplished by understanding and implementing the art and science of reading animal sign.


    Wolfe Publishing Group