As seen in the Summer 2015 issue of Hunt AK magazine!
Some hunters become captivated with a single quarry such as sheep or bear, and put their energy and resources to the pursuit of that particular animal.
I find pleasure in variety. I enjoy the varying terrain, different skills, and unique knowledge that are required to hunt the variety of game Alaska has to offer.
For some of us, hunting is not just an annual ritual. It is a life-style choice.
I am occasionally asked, “What do you do when it is NOT hunting season?” My happy rejoinder is that in Alaska, it is ALWAYS hunting season! For the sportsman willing to pursue a wide range of game, hunting season begins August 1st and runs straight through June, after which a short break is taken for fishing season.
One of my favorite varieties of animal to hunt is the predator (for the purposes of this article the term predator is applied to the Alaskan furbearers; wolves, wolverines, foxes, coyotes, and lynx). Predator hunting allows one to continue hunting between the major big game seasons in the fall and the spring bear hunting season. With winter in Alaska extending over 6 or even 8 months of the year, this is too substantial of a hunting opportunity to ignore!
Why Hunt Predators?
As hunters, we are familiar with the predator/prey relationship and how it affects population cycles. Some say that man is a latecomer, an outsider to this relationship, and that left to its own devices the natural world will find its own balance.
I do not subscribe to this line of thinking; it seems to me that it is the duty of man to stewards of the natural world, of which he himself is a part. Predator hunters can, through responsible harvesting, help prevent over-predation upon the prey species and be a part of maintaining a healthy, balanced eco-system.
While people have certain natural gifts and proclivities, no one becomes truly great at something without considerable commitment and practice. Predator hunting allows the
hunter to continue to hone his or her skills the year round. Predators also behave differently then prey, and so they require one to engage them in a different manner, which in turn encourages us to become more in tune with the animals we hunt.
Additionally, the generous bag limits for predators make it possible to pull the trigger quite a few times in a single season; the type of experience a moose hunter would take several lifetimes to achieve.
The Bottom Line
We hunters are used to equating hunting trips with spending money. No matter how you look at it, ours can be an expensive lifestyle. However, this is not necessarily the case with predator hunting. This is one of the few categories of game animals from which you can legally make money by selling their pelts. Either through the local fur buyer in your area, or shipping your furs direct to something like the North American Fur Auction, you can actually come back from a hunting trip with more money than you left with.
(scientific information provided by adfg.alaska.gov)
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes): Small enough to carry several in a back pack and valuable enough to make it worthwhile, the Red Fox is the bread and butter of the Alaska predator hunter. Plentiful throughout much of the state due to their adaptable nature and smaller size, they are able to live as easily in close proximity to civilization as they do in the far reaches of the wild. Habitat can range from brushy creek bottoms up to lofty mountain ridgelines. The best rule of thumb is to look for the food sources. Look for open fields with mice, brushy areas with good snowshoe hare sign, animal remains from a moose kill, beached whale, or butchered cow. Following a set of tracks after a fresh snow can be an effective method, as you can often find them bedded up in a sunny spot in the afternoon. Calling is very effective. The traditional rabbit and bird distress calls being the most common and effective sounds used, along with mouse squeaks for close range work. Fox can respond very aggressively to a call, but more often they tend to be tenuous in their approach, so calling for approximately 30 minutes is advised, to give them enough time to come in.
Coyote (Canis Latrans): In many states, coyotes are considered a nuisance animal. Alaskan coyotes carry a beautiful coat in comparison to their often scraggily southern brethren, and are well worth the time to hunt. Their numbers were in decline for many years, but parts of Alaska have seen a significant resurgence. They are particularly plentiful in the south-central region and the Kenai Peninsula. Coyotes are one of my favorite predators to hunt. They are bigger than most of the other predators we have, they often run in pairs providing a chance at doubles, they have beautiful coats, there yips and howls are music to my ears, and they respond so forcefully to predator calling. Having a coyote charge towards you at full speed with hungry excitement never gets old! It is usually only necessary to call for about 20 minutes for coyotes. Much longer than that with no action and it is probably time to move on.
Lynx (Lynx Canadensis): The mysterious lynx is rarely seen due to its reclusive nature, preference for thick brush, and almost exclusively nocturnal traveling habits. With their pelts being the 3rd most valuable on this list (wolverine 2nd, wolf 1st), they are a very desirable game animal to pursue. Any of Alaska’s forested mainland can contain lynx. Their primary prey are snowshoe hares, so if you find the bunnies, you will find the cats. Waterways with good brush lines are often best. Areas with good ptarmigan or spruce grouse populations are also worth checking out. Cats respond well to rabbit distress calls, but they usually come in slowly, so you must be willing to call for up to an hour before seeing that slinking outline.
Wolf (Canus lupus): At the time of this article, wolf populations are thriving in Alaska, and wolves can be found across 85% of the state’s land mass. Despite the higher numbers of wolves in recent years, they still remain an elusive quarry to hunt. They are likely the smartest of all the predators, and they are constantly traveling within their territory, which usually consists of several hundred square miles, but can range as high as 1,000 square miles! Many hunters who have taken a wolf did so by chance while hunting some other big game such as caribou or sheep. Finding wolves can be difficult. Wolves do not generally respond to traditional predator calls such as animals in distress, though this does sometimes work. Wolf howls can be effective when properly applied, at least for locating a nearby pack. Successful wolf hunting usually involves using a snowmachine to find and follow fresh tracks until the hunter catches up to the pack, or locating a kill that will bring the wolves back to feed. Both methods usually require extensive time spent in the field. A third option in some areas is to follow caribou migration patterns. Where large groups of caribou are found, wolves are not usually far behind.
Wolverine (Gulo gulo): Wolverines are the unicorn of the hunting world. Those who have seen them in the wild are blessed indeed. Killing wolverines using any other method than trapping is a relatively rare event. This is simply due to their relative scarcity and nomadic, solitary nature. Wolverines can be found throughout Alaska, though they tend to keep away from civilized areas. Males have a range of 200-300 miles, while females have one of about half that. They are opportunistic feeders, catching and killing what they can, and subsisting largely on carrion and whatever else they can scavenge. Their powerful jaws can tear apart frozen carcasses and pulverizes bones. They are usually harvested by chance encounter, or by tracking on fresh snow by snow machine. If you happen to have one nearby however, it will respond readily to a rabbit distress call.
Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus): The Arctic Fox has always held a special attraction for me. There is something about that pure white coat that is fascinating and exotic. The arctic is a bit smaller than its red cousin, and is found in a much narrower region, being restricted to the treeless coastlines, though this includes country from the Aleutian Islands all the way up to Barrow. They are often plentiful when you find them, and will come readily to calls. Rabbit distress calls work best with mainland fox that have experience with rabbits. If dealing with Island fox, bird or rodent sounds that imitate their natural prey are better suited.
There are many products out there. The truth of the matter is, if an animal is nearby, and hungry, the type and quality of call is going to matter very little. That being said, there are some products that I do recommend. I always carry at least one simple hand call when I am in the field. The calls I prefer have a rubber body that is unaffected by the cold and quiet when it bumps against things. They use a variable pitch reed design that allows you to customize your sounds, ranging from mouse squeaks to rabbit screeches and much more in between. This style is also nice because when they freeze up on you (and they all do at times) they can be thawed fairly easily. Check out the calls made by Ed Sceery (AP-6 model), and Johnny Stuart (PC-9 Flex model). I have used both of these with good results. When I am purposely pursuing predators, I use an electric call. This allows me to sit still and watch for incoming animals, and to be quicker on the gun when they arrive. I usually place it about 30 yards away from my position, which draws the animal’s attention to a place other than my own. There are many options out there, and as with most electronics, you get what you pay for. The higher end models will have many sounds to choose from, but what I think is more important is speaker range, and build quality. While just about any of them will work, the Fox Pro series seems to stand head and shoulders above the rest. It is not cheap though, so I would hesitate to purchase it if you are just getting into the game. However, if you are serious about predator hunting, it is the way to go, and with a couple of lynx or half a dozen fox it will have paid for itself.
The topic of predator rifles has had enough ink spilled on it that I will not bother to go to in-depth for the purposes of this article. There are some basic principles to consider when selecting a good fur rifle, however. Since minimal pelt damage is desirable, a solid, non-expanding bullet that is traveling less than 3,000 feet per second is preferable. This is in stark contrast with the “varmint” hunters of the Lower 48 who are blasting groundhogs and mangy coyotes from many hundreds of yards away with little concern for pelt condition. Such pastimes have their own merit to be sure, but are not generally applicable to fur hunting in Alaska. Rounds such as the .223 and .243 are among my favorite all-around calibers, but there are many more serviceable options out there. Relatively long range shots, often at moving targets is the norm; you will want a gun and caliber combo that shoots flat and accurately. The margin of error on an animal such as an arctic fox is mighty small.
Follow up shots are sometimes necessary, so a repeating rifle is recommended, preferably with a bolt or semi-automatic action for optimal accuracy. In extreme conditions, I have found the bolt actions to be the most reliable, I have had pump and auto actions freeze up. I currently use an AR-15 in .223 and a sporterized Swedish Mauser in 6.5x55. There is also occasion for using a shotgun, i.e. in thick brush or at night. When using a shotgun I recommend 12 gauge with 3 inch shells loaded with #2 shot.
This is another topic that deserves its own article, and there have been many of them already written. Like the electronics, you get what you pay for. Follow the old adage of buying the best glass you can afford. Since predator hunting involves smaller targets at greater distances that are often in low light, a larger objective is better. I recommend 40-50mm. A wide zoom range is also advantageous, as it is as likely to encounter an animal at 10 yards as it is 500. I use the Vortex Viper HST 4-16x44mm scope and have been very pleased with this scope’s performance.
As with all hunting, the first three rules are location, location, and location. Do your homework and concentrate your energies on areas that will provide a high yield.
Be willing to do what others are not. Hike farther in, hunt during the middle of the week, climb that alder-infested hillside. Find the nasty spots. The out-of-the-way places.
When choosing an area for a set, consider wind direction, fields of fire, and the direction from which the animal is most likely to come. Predators, especially lynx will prefer to move through cover when approaching your set, so when possible, pick an area that has cover for them to use until they get within range.
Hunt at night. Predators hunt at night, why shouldn’t you? There are few if any other hunters out, and the animals know this, and are therefore less wary during this time. Visibility is a challenge but can be improved by going when the moon provides good illumination, waiting for good snow cover to reflect the light, and having high quality optics with a large objective to let in as much light as possible. Keep your zoom power turned down to its lower settings. Illuminated reticles are helpful as well.
Shoot your gun(s) often, and not just off a bench, but in field conditions. Know your ballistics by heart. Know your lead times for running shots at different ranges. Know how wind, temperature, and elevation will affect your bullet.
Study your target’s anatomy. Understand where the vitals are and how big they are. Know how big their stride is and how fast they move at a trot, lope, and run, for more accurate shot placement.
Dress warmly and in layers. Sitting for an hour in the dead of winter without moving is not easy.
Cut a square out of an old foam sleeping pad to use as a seat, this will help keep your rear end from getting wet and cold
Use camouflage. Predators are visual. White over-clothes for hunting is widely available and inexpensive. Get a set. White gloves, facemask, and boots are best as well. White paint or tape on your gun doesn’t hurt either.
Tape your muzzle. Use a small piece of electrical tape to cover the muzzle of your barrel. This prevents snow and debris from clogging it, and when you fire, the pressure will blow it free without affecting the accuracy of the bullet.
The best times of day to hunt are of course night, then early morning and late evening. But I have had success at every time of the day, so if you are already out, do not hesitate to hunt just because it is the middle of the day.
Right before and right after a storm tend to be particularly active times.
Buy a tail puller. They are usually less than $5 and are a god-send.
Carry equipment for skinning (knives, surgical gloves, cord for hanging the animal to skin, tail puller, game bags) with you in the field. If you are lucky, you may just shoot more than you can carry.
Research proper fur-handling techniques. Each animal is unique, and if you are selling your fur, there are best practices to be adhered to in order to bring top dollar.
When it is all said and done, it is mostly a matter of just getting out there and putting in the hours. So go extend your hunting season, collect some furs, and make a couple bucks. You might even see a unicorn. JW