Sandhill CoyotesBy John Barsness
To many of the sophisticates living in cities along America’s east and west coasts, the Great Plains of the central United States are “flyover country,” an empty expanse of flatlands where nothing much happens. To coyote hunters the Great Plains are the center of the universe – and the Sandhills of Nebraska might be the epicenter.
The new Thompson/Center Dimension, a switch-barrel bolt-action, shot well during sight-in the evening before the hunt.
What makes the Sandhills so special? They’re the biggest area of sand dunes in North America, covering a quarter of Nebraska. From the window of an east-coast jet heading to California, the dunes look like tan or green ocean waves, depending on whether the flyover takes place during spring or the rest of the year.
The Sandhills soak up water like a giant sponge, most of it ending up far underground as part of the Oglala Aquifer, the huge underground lake extending from South Dakota to Texas that waters a quarter of America’s irrigated crops. The surface of the dunes, however, dries out quickly, because of drainage and wind. Most of the vegetation is tough native grasses, and the only economic use for the grass is cattle grazing. As a result the Sandhills are remarkably free of humans, but have plenty of cattle and wildlife – including, naturally, coyotes.
The short grass allows coyotes to be seen from a very long way, unlike other parts of the plains where sage and rabbit brush can hide a wild predator all too effectively. The rolling landscape also helps. Often a coyote can’t see the caller until it pops over a dune inside 200 yards, and a few spiky yuccas grow in the sea of grass, providing cover for camo-clad humans.
In mid-February of 2012 a bunch of coyote hunters converged on a few ranches in the western Sandhills. Some were professional predator hunters, either full-time or part-time, and some were hunting and shooting writers invited to field-test rifles, optics and ammo. Some drove, while some of us flew into Rapid City, South Dakota, since the Sandhills are a long way from most civilization, including airports.
On the drive down from Rapid the flyover hunters traveled through the western end of Badlands National Park, where we saw where some of the sand in the Sandhills originated, cruising through the irregular castles of another variety of northern desert. We arrived at Spring Meadows Ranch with just enough daylight left to check-shoot several Thompson-Center Dimension switch-barrel rifles and Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport ARs, all equipped with Simmons Predator Quest 4.5-18x scopes.
Coyotes showed up brilliantly in the February sunlight.
The T/C Dimension I grabbed had a 223 Remington barrel, and the first shot at 100 yards landed a little under two inches high. The next two shots almost touched each other about ľ" lower. “That’ll do,” I said, getting up from the bench to let the next guy shoot.
The next morning I was paired with Luke Hartle of North American Hunter magazine, and guided by Les Johnson of the Predator Quest television show. Les is a Nebraska native, and has won a number of big coyote-calling contests over the years. In 1999 he took the “triple crown” of competitive coyote calling – the Midwest, National and World Championships – the only hunter to ever take all three, let alone in one year. It didn’t take long to figure out why: Les moves fast, not wasting any time getting set up, and he’s hunted the Sandhills for decades.
The first setup was on a sidehill overlooking one of the scattered, shallow lakes between the dunes. The lakes are normally bordered by cattails and, sometimes, a little brush and timber, fine places for coyotes to bed, and the taller grass around the lakes is full of mice, birds and other edibles.
We spread out across the end of a dune between two draws running into the lake, me on the left side of the dune, Les in the middle (alongside his brother Jeff, videoing the hunt), and Luke on the right side of the ridge. A very slight breeze eased into our faces, and the early sun rose just above the horizon behind us, illuminating the lake and the hills beyond.
We could see a long, long way – and I knew exactly how far, thanks to the Bushnell Fusion range-finding binocular hanging around my neck, one of the optics the writers were testing. This particular 10x42 Fusion, however, was my own, and had already been field-tested for a year and a half in various parts of North America. I’d grown very fond of its handy combination of a very good binocular and superb rangefinder, all in one package. The lenses soon revealed a pale dot on the far side of the lake – a coyote glowing in the sunshine almost like a morning star, but moving far more erratically. According to the Fusion the range was just over 600 yards.
The coyote stopped to look our way whenever Les called, then continued hunting through the reeds and tall grass. Evidently there was too much food available along the lake for Les’ wails to be really interesting, and it continued to hunt its way around the lake and up a tall sand dune, where it met up with another coyote. Soon both disappeared over the ridge.
By the end of the hunt two dozen coyotes had left the Sandhills.
Well, dang. Les and Jeff started to stand up – and then suddenly sat down again, backs toward me. Les started squeaking quietly, and then a shot cracked. Jeff continued to video for a few more seconds, then both Johnson boys stood up, grinning. Yet another coyote had appeared a few hundred yards away, coming around the opposite side of the lake, trotting and pausing until it ended up within 150 yards of Luke and his rifle. He put a 50-grain Hornady V-Max in the right place and the coyote dropped instantly.
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