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Wolf Calling 101
And this was no exception.
It was beginning to look like Danilo Moresco was actually going to get a chance at this wolf after all. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Wolves are a notoriously intelligent predator. Yet there we were, getting set up for a shot at the same wolf we had called in hours before. His shiny black coat glittered in the sun as he streaked toward our position, showing absolutely no signs of hesitation.
The young Italian hunter that I was guiding had expressed interest in harvesting a wolf from the moment he arrived. The area we were hunting was remote, even by Yukon standards, so it was unlikely this wolf had ever seen a human before. Still, what were the chances of calling the same wolf to the exact same location twice in one day?
Our first chance at him came soon after we reached the high alpine meadows above camp. Glassing through the holes the morning sun was burning through thick layers of fog, I spotted him in the open meadow. I quickly got the horses tied in a small patch of balsams and cut loose with a long string of rabbit squeals. He came without hesitation at first, but as he closed in on our position he seemed to sense trouble. Thinking back, I’m sure that he spotted one of the horses I had hidden in the balsam patch. Before Danilo could find him through his riflescope, he slipped into the willows and disappeared.
Coming back through that same area later in the afternoon, I was surprised to spot him again. With the horses well hidden and a good rest picked out for Danilo, I let out the first string of squeals. Just like our earlier encounter, the big canine came without hesitation. With the wind in our favour, we watched him come. Danilo was finally presented with an easy 150-metre shot when the wolf hesitated briefly as it topped a rise.
Wolves are a complex predator, with ultra keen senses. Because they are primarily a pack animal, a basic understanding of pack structure and their hunting and travelling methods will greatly increase your odds of success.
Large packs of up to 20 have been recorded, although an average pack is more likely to be seven to 10 wolves. Two of these will be the dominant breeding pair. The rest of the pack will be made up of non-breeding adults, juveniles and pups. February is the breeding season and the pups are born in May. Wolves are also very territorial animals and will defend their territories aggressively.
In northern Canada, territories are often quite large but the actual size largely depends on the number of wolves in the pack and the ungulate densities of the area. Throughout much of British Columbia and all the way up to the Arctic in northern Yukon, it is not unusual for these territories to be over 1,000 square kilometres in size.
The typical travel pattern for wolves will be a large circle throughout their territory. Like other animals, wolves will follow the path of least resistance. During the winter months, frozen water bodies and high, windblown ridges are favoured travel routes.
Careful planning is a must when you set up to call these elusive predators. While calling blind can bring success, a better strategy is to concentrate your efforts on areas that are most likely to hold wolves.
To better understand where wolves will likely be found, think about their diet. Studies show that moose are their preferred prey during the winter months. This doesn’t mean they won’t prey on other big game species like caribou, deer and elk; they will, but if moose are present that’s where you are likely to find them. Beaver are another important source of food. Scat analysis has shown that in some areas beaver make up the majority of a wolf’s diet during the summer months.
Once a general hunting area has been chosen, it is important to choose your actual calling locations with care. I prefer high points that offer good fields of view in at least two directions, with a prevailing wind in my favour. Sound carries a lot farther from these vantage points, as well. While calling in thick bush can be productive, solo hunters should avoid this practice during the spring and fall seasons. Bears will often come in to the same calls used for wolves, and they are often aggressive when they do.
Back when we had a spring wolf season in the Yukon, a friend and I set up to try our luck calling in a new area. We got comfortable in some scrub willows, overlooking a large gravel bar where we had observed a lot of wolf sign. We felt safe with the wide Yukon River behind us. As the first series of rabbit squeals faded downriver, a small, light-coloured grizzly bolted out of the thick bush on the other side of the gravel bar. She made a beeline for our position, in that long, ambling walk grizzlies are famous for. We immediately stood up from our hiding place and started waving our arms and yelling as loud as we could. Luckily she bolted back into the thick bush as quickly as she had come.
Once a location is chosen and you settle in and start calling, keep quiet. This is a lot harder than it sounds. After almost 30 years of guiding hunters, I am convinced more animals are spooked by noise than any other reason. Unnatural sounds like zippers being opened, rifle barrels clicking on rocks, humans whispering or other manmade sounds will put most animals on high alert. When a closing wolf hears them, they will spook into the next time zone. Remember their hearing is far superior to ours – sounds that are hard for us to hear, they can detect from great distances.
Electronic or mouth calls
This is a choice hunters have to make for themselves. Digital technology has given us electronic calls that make hundreds of sounds with the push of a button, yet mouth calls are still extremely popular with serious predator callers. Mouth calls take no batteries, are extremely lightweight and ultra reliable. If there is a downside to mouth calls, it would be that they do take some practice to master.
Electronic calls are much heavier but have the advantage of allowing the hunter to mimic exact sounds and to operate the call from a distance. This can be a big advantage in mountainous areas, where it can be hard to read the wind. Electronic calls are not cheap – expect to pay several hundred dollars for a call that will make a wide variety of sounds. And make sure electronic calls are legal in your province before you purchase them.
Scavenger bird calls
In the wild, nothing signals a kill like scavenger bird calls. Ravens, crows and magpies have an uncanny ability to find a kill. Often they are on the scene before the animal is even dead. They will sit in the trees around a kill, squawking like crazy as they wait their turn. Predators of all kinds will come to investigate this ruckus, because experience has taught them it means food.
Mimicking the sounds these scavenger birds make can be extremely effective. Since wolves tend to circle a kill before they approach, it’s a good idea to use this calling technique in areas with good fields of vision. This will increase the odds that you will spot a wolf before he gets your wind. With a little practice, hand-held crow calls can be used to fool a wolf into thinking a kill is nearby.
Rabbit distress calls have proven to be very effective at bringing wolves into range over the years. A few years ago, Joel Wilkinson gave me some insight into his success with these calls. Joel is a professional guide and outfitter here in the Yukon and has been hunting wolves with his father since he was a boy.
“Distress calls are my favourite when I am working a large pack,” Joel said. “They work for singles, too, as long as the wolf doesn’t know you’re in the area. Packs, on the other hand, come in quite easily. They seem to be competitive and race one another to what they think is a dying rabbit. In most cases, wolves seem to come in harder and with less caution to a distress call than they do to other types of calls; this is a bonus for me, since I am usually with a client.”
Howling wolves in can be extremely effective. They will come in slower and with more caution to a howl, but they will usually come.
Knowledge is power when it comes to howling in wolves. Your confidence in this technique will grow as you begin to understand why wolves come to the sound of another wolf.
Their strong territorial instinct is one reason wolves will come to investigate howls. Their survival depends on their ability to defend their territory against other wolves. Howling will often fool them into thinking another wolf is in their area.
While hunting, it is not uncommon for a pack to break up in search of prey. These solo wolves will howl once they find game. This brings the remaining wolves to their position. Astute hunters who set up and mimic that howling wolf can soon find themselves in a target-rich environment.
Wolf howls are generally done using nothing but your own voice. Some people are so good that it’s hard to tell their howls from the real thing. My oldest sister, Wanda, is the best natural wolf howler I have ever heard. Growing up on a remote cattle ranch in northern BC was a great place to practice – I can remember many times the whole family stood outside on a cold winter night, listening to her answer the long, deep howls coming off the mountain. The wolves would always come closer too, often coming right up to the pasture fence. Reaching that level of proficiency took her more time and effort than most of us are willing to give up. Luckily for us, these days we don’t have to.
The new wolf howler calls that are available make howling quite easy. I have both the ELK Inc. wolf howler and the Wolf Pack Calling System by Bugling Bull Game Calls. The Wolf Pack Calling System, like it’s name suggests, is a complete wolf calling kit. The package comes with the Alpha Howler and a Distemper Predator Call.
The Alpha Howler is incredibly easy to use. This is an open reed call with an adjustable tone selector that makes it easy to adjust the volume and tone of the call. While the ELK Inc. Wolf Howler takes a little more practice to master, it creates the widest variety of wolf vocalizations and most realistic-sounding howls of any call I have ever used.
With long seasons and liberal bag limits throughout much of western Canada, hunting these big canines is a great way to extend your season. Whether you decide to use a scavenger bird, distress or a howling call, stay alert and always expect the unexpected.
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