Published January 31, 2010, 12:00 AM

PREDATOR HUNTING: Calling all critters

Grand Forks predator caller and hunter Leo Marchel said the sight of a fox or coyote gets the blood pumping when it comes running at the sound of a well-delivered call, whether it’s the scream of a rabbit in distress or the howling imitation of a coyote.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Growing up near Brainerd, Minn., Leo Marchel had never hunted fox or coyotes until he moved to Grand Forks about 30 years ago.

Gradually, though, Marchel developed an enjoyment for calling predators and trying to draw them into shooting range.

Fox were most abundant the first several years, but an outbreak of mange in the early 1990s nearly wiped them out. These days, coyotes are more common, Marchel said, but the fox also seem to have come back a bit.

He said either critter gets the blood pumping when it comes running at the sound of a well-delivered call, whether it’s the scream of a rabbit in distress or the howling imitation of a coyote.

“Oh my, you can see them coming from 600-700 yards away,” Marchel said. “It’s very exciting — and especially the coyotes. They’re smart; they rarely just come hauling in. They try to get to you without being seen.

“They’re hunting you, so to speak.”

Tuesday night, Marchel is teaching a one-session course on predator calling through the East Grand Forks Community Education program. He said the beginner level course is designed for people looking to lure predators into shooting range, whether it’s with a firearm or a camera.

This will be the third year Marchel has taught the course, and it typically draws about 20 students ranging from teenagers to retirees.

The variety says a lot about the growing interest in predator calling.

“It’s about the least expensive sport there is,” Marchel said. “You just need some kind of a rifle or even a shotgun (or camera), and you can buy calls for $10 to $15. And there are plenty of places to hunt them.”

Still, Marchel says, he rarely has company when he goes afield, even though most of his hunts are within 50 miles of Grand Forks.

“There sure is a lot of talk about it, but I don’t see many people calling them,” Marchel said. “It seems like I see a fair number of people driving around, especially for coyotes, but I think I can only remember seeing one other person calling them.”

Cunning calculating

The challenge and sheer difficulty of getting a coyote to respond to a call could be one reason for that. Stuart Bensen of Erskine, Minn., said road hunters usually are disappointed, even if they take the time to stop and set out a high-tech electronic call.

“They’re not going to get anything,” Bensen, a conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said matter-of-factly.

He said hunting varmints, especially coyotes, is more of a challenge than hunting deer.

“They’re a very cunning, calculating critter,” Bensen said. “Not that it isn’t fun to hunt deer. But to me, if you compare a deer vs. a coyote, there’s no comparison. I get busted hunting coyotes far more times than I am successful. They’ll see me, smell me or hear me.

“They like to circle downwind, and all it takes is one whiff and they’re gone. And you don’t get them back again.”

According to Marchel, that cunningness makes playing the wind crucial.

“I usually don’t go if it’s going to be much more than 15 mph wind,” Marchel said. “I’ve never had any luck. If the wind is blowing, they can’t hear very well into the wind.”

And because of the predators’ habit of circling downwind trying to smell what’s producing the sound, Marchel said it’s also important for callers to set up in areas with good downwind visibility. A temperature of 10 below zero is about perfect, he said.

“You have to have an idea where they might be coming from, whether it’s a slough, a woodlot or even some standing crops they like to spend the day in,” Marchel said. “You have to shoot them before they get downwind.”

He said he’ll rarely call from a set, or location, more than 15 to 25 minutes before moving.

“If they’re not coming by then, typically they’re not going to come,” he said.

Marty Egeland, outreach biologist for the Game and Fish Department in northeastern North Dakota, said he learned the hard way just how keen coyote senses are several years ago while hunting near Watford City, N.D.

Coyotes were uncommon in eastern North Dakota in those days, Egeland said, so hunting them usually meant traveling west.

“I had a coyote coming in on a dead run about 200 yards out,” Egeland said. “I was lying prone and wearing all white camo and the angle wasn’t quite right. I think I moved the end of my gun 5 or 6 inches. Boom — the coyote busted me on a dead run at 200 yards.”

Egeland said he used to do quite a bit of fox hunting but got out of it after the mange outbreak. And as he got older, he said the idea of lying in the snow in subzero weather became less appealing.

These days, Egeland said most of his predator hunting is limited to incidental encounters while hunting deer or other game.

“It’s pretty knowledge intensive,” he said. “If you’re going to be calling coyotes, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Even guys that are good, you’re going to strike out far more than you’re going to have success.”

Whether casual or serious, interest in predator hunting seems to be growing, Egeland said, and license numbers from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department confirm the trend. Since 2000, sales of Furbearer or Combination (small game, furbearer and fishing) licenses have grown from 48,000 to more than 80,000 in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

By the numbers

When fox were abundant, Marchel said he’d regularly see eight to 10 in a day. Only about half would respond to calls, he said, but sometimes he’d see them from a distance and sneak up close enough for a shot.

As for coyotes, Bensen he’s had days when he called in three coyotes in four sets and days when he called 10 sets and saw nothing.

“I’ve talked to some guys that have had them come in at 10 yards,” Bensen said. “The last one I stopped at about 35 yards, but usually if they’re within 50 to 100 yards, I’ll take them.”

Marchel said February and March are probably his favorite months for predator hunting. As mating season approaches, he said the critters tend to be more aggressive.

“They get a little territorial, and if you can howl at them, sometimes you can get them to come in just to protect their territory,” Marchel said. “When you can get one riled up a little bit, they come in all bristly with that mean look on their face.”

Even with a firearm, that’ll get the blood pumping.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to