Calling all predators

It’s no secret that the deer population in Maine has been on a downward trend for several years. While pockets of the state hold decent whitetail numbers, many rural and remote regions continue to see a decline in mature deer. A mild winter and abundant food sources this past year hasn’t changed that as far as I can see. One thing that has changed though is the ratio of predators to deer I see and hear on Tucker Ridge year after year. It’s time for us to get serious about predators.

Coyotes get a lot of the blame

Coyote1According to the Eastern Coyote species assessment released by MDIFW in 1999, the coyote is the top predator in the food chain here in Maine. The report notes that coyotes are opportunistic killers of prey species, meaning they take healthy animals along with the weak. It also means they may kill more than they can eat. Also, the average size of a male Maine coyote is 35 lbs versus a typical 24 lbs for Western Coyote, enabling them to bring down adult deer.

In a 1981 study conducted in Alberta, deer remains were found in less than 10% of coyote stomachs collected during the winter. In contrast, a 1995 winter study of Maine coyote scats found that 60% contained deer material.

Curiously, the assessment comes to the conclusion that starvation and wintering affect deer mortality more than coyote predation does. I’m not a biologist, nor do I discount the findings of the smart folks down in Augusta, but I know what I see and hear.

Coyote2Opening day of deer season I was perched in my tree stand long before first light, over watching a game trail that snaked along a ridge line. I had noticed plenty of game sign in the area including deer tracks, bear scat and a fisher that came to steal an apple from a tree 25 yards away as I was making final adjustments in my stand.

I started making some doe bleats to entice a buck, but to my surprise, the biggest coyote I’ve put glass on came in looking to kill that doe just 15 minutes later.

I shouldn’t have been surprised though. We hear several distinct packs of coyotes all along the ridge. At night we can hear the celebration of a kill. It can send chills down your spine when they are close and catch you off guard in the silence of the big woods. There seem to be more and more coyote every year and less deer.

Ask any deer hunter and they will tell you a coyote story.

Bobcats are deer killers too

Bobcat1Like coyotes, bobcats are also opportunistic killers. Averaging 3 feet in length and weighing in at around 30 lbs, male bobcats are big and strong enough to take down both fawns and adult deer. While snowshoe hare are the main staple of the bobcat’s diet, a 1984 study cited in the MDIFW’s 1986 Bobcat Assessment revealed that 40% of adult male bobcats had deer in their stomachs.

Bobcats are reclusive animals that thrive in habitats that sport rocky ledges, dense underbrush and woodland blow downs. That pretty much describes Tucker Ridge. Much of the preferred terrain bobcats use is also choice bedding area for Maine whitetails.

“Maine is near the northern edge of the bobcats’ range. When the temperature drops below 46′ F, a bobcat has to increase its metabolic rate (and therefore the amount of food it eats) just to keep warm (Gustafsen 1984)” notes Karen Morris, author of the MDIFW’s assessment.

To me that reads, “We have some hungry bobcats in Maine.”

MDIFW’s “Living with wildlife” bobcat page notes that these animals are “rarely observed in the wild”. I have no doubt that may be true in the more populated areas of the state, but here on Tucker Ridge we have a healthy population of them.

On Monday of the third week of deer season I was in a different stand about 300 yards away. I followed a similar routine as first light washed over the ridge and started calling for deer with a doe bleat.

Photo credit: Melissa Olesky
Photo credit: Melissa Olesky

Much the same as opening day, I was surprised by what came slinking in not 25 yards from my stand. A big bobcat moving left to right up the ridge, looking for a meal. These cats aren’t just in the deep woods though.

A neighbor down the road at the northern edge of the ridge sees bobcats moving through her property regularly. Just recently she captured a photo of an adult female with two young a couple hundred yards from the house. That’s two more bobcat than bucks she saw.

Hunting them

Night hunting is the most popular method for successful coyote hunters, while hounding for bobcats is the most preferred choice. These are the main reasons I haven’t pursued predators in earnest in the past.

While these methods are proven, my recent experiences tell me they aren’t the only way.

Coyotes use their sense of smell as the primary tool when hunting. Their vision and hearing are also remarkably developed. Bobcats are more sight and sound hunters. What these predators both have in common though are their choice of prey.

I keep a squirrel bag in the game freezer that I add to all year long. When snowshoe hare & ruffed grouse opened in October, I kept the carcasses after I processed them as well. I round out my bait collection with the viscera from the meat chicken flock that made it’s way into the chest freezer for the coming year.

A bucket with a plastic handle gets filled with bait and gets carried in to my hunt site, about 50 yards from my stand. I fix the handle in the up position and hang a squirrel tail from it so that during a gentle breeze, it provides a visual attraction on top of the smell.

I hunt from the tree stand and utilize those same doe and fawn calls, mixing in rabbit distress calls. Predators are smart for sure, but they aren’t going to think to themselves, “Wait a minute! That sounded like a deer and this here is snowshoe hare. Something is hinky.”

The calling gets their attention, the smell and visual seals the deal.

Let’s see more deer next year

So before you take down that deer stand consider predator hunting. If you decide to get after these deer killers, keep a couple of things in mind:

  • ANY bait site, not just bear baits, need permission on land you don’t own and require a 2 inch by 4 inch tag/sign with your name and address (Tree stands carry this requirement as well)
  • Get to know the differences between Canada Lynx and Bobcat and be sure you can tell them apart
  • If using a semi-auto rifle, you must have a magazine that is capable of holding no more than 5 rounds
  • Bobcats must be tagged by MDIFW personnel within 72 hours of harvest
  • Coyote hunting is open year round, Night hunting from December 16th through August 31st
  • Bobcat hunting opened December 1st and closes February 21st
  • Maine Hunting Laws can be found here

Be safe and shoot straight!

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