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Max's Meanderings: My 2015 Oregon-California Varmint Patrol: By, Max Zeller, Prostaffer

My February 2015 predator hunting trip started out as it does every year, with a couple weeks trying to call in bobtailed cats near my home in the Coast Range mountains of western Oregon, followed by a quick trip over the Cascades into the Klamath Basin to call coyotes before crossing the border into California. 

With such mild and relatively dry weather descending upon western Oregon this winter, it didn’t take any added motivation to head out a couple days a week to call for the elusive bobcat.  The closer I got to my departure date, the more effort I put into my calling areas and the work paid off with a few nice cats. 

Two of the cats were called in the early morning hours using an e-caller and a small motion decoy.  I like using higher pitched distress calls (bird and squirrel sounds) to call in bobcats. 

The last cat taken was during the early evening hours using only an open reed hand call, again mimicking bird and squirrel distress.  It’s probably no surprise that all these western Oregon cats, and the many in the past as well, were all called to within 50 yards, some of which came in to within 10 yards.  Depending on the terrain of course, shotguns are my favored weapon in such densely forested areas with subsequent close encounters.  It always gives me confidence to hunt predators abroad when I can haul out a cat or two in my OPW Orion prior to my road trip. 

 

After skinning the bobtails and putting them on ice until my return, I crossed over the Cascades to hunt Klamath basin coyotes for a day.  When I reached my destination I was shocked at the lack of snow.  In February, it is not uncommon for me to be greeted by at least three feet of snow most years, but this year there was absolutely none and the daytime temps were in the mid-60’s.  I didn’t even hear coyotes sound off during the night which, again, is rare.  Early the next morning I was on my third stand belting out my best rendition of a lone female coyote invitation howl with some sexy whimpers thrown in for good measure.  Fifteen minutes into the calling session, a single yote was making a beeline for my position 150 yards out.  He was zig-zagging through the waist high sage, and I thought it was going to be slam dunk in mere seconds.  I lost sight of him for a second, and the next glimpse I had was of him hightailing it out of the county.  He must have gotten wind of me, even though the light breeze appeared to be directly in my face.  That was only dog I saw all morning so I packed up and headed down the long road through California. 

 

All my predator stops along the northern and central parts of California were uneventful, and the temps remained on the warm side.  By mid-day some areas were in the mid-70’s.  My bobcat and coyote hotspots produced nothing but early-hatched hordes of biting gnats.  By noon, I looked like I was the victim of the California measles outbreak.  It was time to head down to some of my favorite fox country north of Los Angeles.

I spent two days north of LA, and the temps remained very warm.  I knew most of the predators would be more active at night due to the higher-than-normal daytime temps, so I concentrated my efforts on the very early morning and late evening hours as usual, and left the mid-day hours to scouting new country.  Using my go-to bevel operated closed reed call and high pitched open reed calls (electronic calls are not legal to hunt California gray fox) I took two fine male foxes, both charging in to within 20 yards. 

I use my shotgun outfitted with a Heavy Shot choke tube and Heavy Shot ammunition exclusively in the thick chaparral country of southern Cal.   Gray fox are not shy, and when they commit to the call the action is fast, up close and personal---some have even run across my outstretched legs or sat next to me within arms length.  Head shots with the scatter gun is the preferred shot placement in most shooting situations.  Next stop,  southern California border country. 

 

I had several new hunt areas mapped out for scouting when I arrived at my brother’s house.  Every morning I was up before the family stirred and was in the hills of San Diego and Imperial counties well before daylight.  Several days of rain were a welcome reprieve from the dry and warm conditions making up another drought stricken season, but I have to say, in all the years I have hunted that country I can’t remember the vegetation looking so healthy.  The hills looked lush with green grass and the sage and other scrub brush were thick and vibrant.  I also noticed quite a change in the piles of gray fox scat. 

Every year, almost every pile I find is almost entirely made up berries and vegetative material, giving it a slight red/purple hue.  This year, I rarely found any fox scat that appeared this way---all the scat I found (which was more than ever) was black and consisted of animal matter.  I was thinking there must be a cyclical high in the prey populations for the fox and other predators to prey upon.  Other factors lead me to believe this theory. 

 

During my entire stay, I called in no coyotes or bobcats (and very few gray fox) using my prey in distress calls---another indication that the predators were well fed.  However when using pup in distress hand/mouth calls, the fox came running within a couple minutes.  The new areas I had mapped out were goldmines of fox activity and seemed to exhibit no past hunting pressure from other predator hunters.  I walked one 4-mile stretch of gated back-roads and had nearly ten fox come running into my lap.  Gray fox are very quick in their movements and very mobile, never stopping for very long darting through the brush.  I was able to take three with my scattergun.  Close range head shots assure a quick, humane kill with very minimal damage to the pelt which I later tan and use to make hats, muffs, etc.  During one calling session, I was positioned on a high cut bank overlooking a thick brushy draw.  I had only been calling for about ten minutes when I heard and felt small dirt clods rolling off the bank above me and hitting me in the back.  I slowly turned my head, and there was a fox sitting only five feet above me.  He just stared at me with his little head cocked to one side wondering why this weird human-shaped bush was moving and making fox distress sounds.  He soon figured it out and quickly disappeared.  The other new areas produced good fox populations as well, as told by the sign on the ground and the action on stand.  I took three more fox in these other locales, but called in three times that many.

 

In February, gray fox (coyote and cats as well) are, in many cases, pairing up ready for the breeding season.  When calling, it has been my experience that the more dominant and aggressive male gray fox will respond first to the call.  Even when the shot is taken at the first fox I continue calling, and a second fox is likely to respond---the shot from a firearm doesn’t seem to deter the other from coming to the call.  However, I always try to assess the situation and attempt to take the larger, more colorful male (again, usually the first to respond).  If the second fox (a female) responds to the continued calling I usually let her go by, hopefully helping to assure more offspring for future hunts.  Plus, it’s just darn fun calling them in and observing their behavior.

 

My brother and I attempted a bobcat hunt in the boulder infested hills bordering the desert.  Bobcats hunt the desert at night and use the mountainous rock piles as staging areas and shelters during the day.  The cats’ presence is observed by the toilets they leave along the transition between desert and mountains. 

I found several of these toilets during an earlier scouting trip, and thought it would be cool to spend a morning with my bro trying to call in a desert cat.  The plan was to sit up high in the boulder patches and call into the desert using an e-caller and motion decoy.  A coyote was even a possibility.   Unfortunately, the day we picked for the hunt was very windy with gusts that had us leaning sideways.  The calls could barely be heard and the motion decoy was ineffective, as everything else in the desert was swaying in the wind. 

However, the sunrise in the desert is always beautiful and time spent with one’s brother is always a plus.  The season for California cats and fox ends on February 28, so it was time to head home and dream about next year.




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