Predator hunting: the perfect wintertime pursuit
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When other people are winding down and getting ready for bed, Rick Comport is just getting started.
The approach of night means gathering up his calls, firearms, lights and other equipment and going predator hunting. Coyotes, foxes and bobcats get his attention. They vary in how difficult they are to hunt, but all are fun.
“I enjoy it. It gives me a lot of extra time afield, which is always a good thing,” said Comport, a 52-year-old from Mars who serves as southwestern Pennsylvania director for the Pennsylvania Predator Hunters Association. “And there's never a time that I go out that I don't learn something.”
Predator hunting is, with some animals, a growing sport.
Coyote hunting in particular has taken off. Last year, about 67 percent of the 32,202 coyotes harvested in Pennsylvania were taken by hunters, according to Game Commission furbearer biologist Matt Lovallo. The rest were trapped.
When it comes to foxes, though, the story is different. They've been common all across the state for decades.
“They're all over the place, even in people's back yards, and they have been since at least the 1970s,” said Terry Lake, of Rochester, who until this year ran a fur buying shop in Beaver County. “But for whatever reason, fox hunting has never really been popular around here.”
The numbers bear that out. Only about 19 percent of the 68,214 red foxes and 29 percent of the 19,380 gray foxes taken in 2011-12 were taken by hunters as opposed to trappers. All predators — coyotes, foxes and bobcats and, to an extent, even raccoons — can be hunted using similar techniques and equipment, Comport said.
He hunts them all with a .223-caliber rifle loaded with 55 grain soft points mostly, though he sometimes uses a 12-gauge shotgun with 3.5-inch magnum loads of #4 buckshot in heavy cover. He carries a red handheld spotlight for scanning field edges and has another mounted on his gun for shooting.
He also carries an assortment of single- and double-reed, diaphragm and electronic calls. The trick in using them is to pique a predator's curiosity, he said.
“You've got to play with their minds a little bit,” Comport said. “They're predators. You've got to let them hear your calls and then let them hunt it. That's what they do.”
His method is to go to a spot he's scouted previously in daylight, one where he's found lots of signs like tracks and scats. Fields bordered by woods and brushy areas likely to hold lots of rabbits and mice are good, especially if they also have water and cover. There, he sets up, factoring in the wind.
“A fox or coyote is always looking to get downwind of any sound and work their way in. That's why you always have to pay attention to your scent cone,” he said.
That's also why he likes to hunt with a partner, if possible. It's easier for two people to watch for incoming predators than one, he said. When it comes to calling, he sometimes will try a particular spot for up to an hour.
“I start calling with a bulb squeaker in case there's something close. I don't want to blast them out,” he said.
After three or four minutes of that, he sits quietly for an equal amount of time. Next, he uses a rabbit or bird distress call for five minutes or so, followed by 10 minutes of quiet. Five minutes of distress calling with more volume, more quiet, then five minutes of a fox distress call, some coyote howling, then more distress calling, with some quiet times mixed in, wrap a set up. If nothing responds in that time, it's off to the next spot.
Getting predators to respond is one thing; getting them to come within gun range is another. Gray fox are the most likely to come charging in to a call, he said. Red fox and coyote are more finicky and more likely to survey the scene. Do things well enough to pull any of them in the bag, and it's quite the rush, he said.
“Once you call something in close enough to be able to shoot it, you're hooked,” Comport said. “It's addicting.”
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