To be sure, it’s a friendly rivalry.
But Nathan Wade and Steve Watts both know full well who has won their last five consecutive NASCAR pools. And the entire Oxford Centre coyote-hunting gang is more-than-aware Wade also outgunned Watts 6-5 in last year’s head-to-head battle.
But late Saturday morning, a shade southwest of the landmark known amongst gang members as ‘the red barn’, indications are 2013-2014 has opened up as a whole new ballgame.
“Well, I guess it’s 4-1 now,” Watts smiled after completing the back end of a personal ‘daily double’ on a running male with his scope-sighted .223.
The gang’s fourth coyote of the day had been an unexpected bonus just past noon, a surprise presented during an informal, celebratory post-hunt AAR (after action report) near the red barn itself. Buoyed by a solid three-pelt count, conversation paused as two of Robert Hird’s Walker/July cross foxhounds barked a couple of times, before opening up in earnest in the bush a scant couple of hundred metres away. Their enthusiastic eastward tonguing – ultimately identified as a fresh trail, rather than backtracking - galvanized the assembled hunters into action.
Watts’ return to a point north of a bush which had produced the second coyote of the day on a single shot from around 60 yards (“He came right out to me,” he explained as we strode into position) was rewarded shortly after by the appearance of number four streaking back westward along its northern edge.
Watts touched off a round as it flashed between tree trunks, and a second as it emerged from a brushy creek bed, before rolling it as it broke into open, worked corn stubble.
A productive day had begun just before 8 a.m., riding ‘shotgun’ in Nick Sweazey’s 1997 Ford Explorer, a nephew shared with Watts from a different family direction.
“This is the hunting I love best,” Sweazey, also an experienced deer and turkey enthusiast explained as the two of us searched for fresh coyote tracks along a country gravel road.
There is no shortage of coyotes in the area, their significant numbers a concern for both residents and sportsmen. The latter have issues with regards to their potential predatory effect on fawn deer and turkey populations. High coyote numbers, along with neighbourhood and family connections, may also contribute to the fact the Oxford Centre gang has found landowner permission comparatively easy to obtain.
Basically speaking, when fresh tracks are located, or failing that, prime locations chosen, hunting hounds are started, theoretically scenting and chasing coyotes from concealment. Based in part on their progress, hunters are positioned in prime blocking positions, based on additional factors including terrain and previous tendencies.
That basic outline doesn’t come close to describing however, what can evolve into a fast-developing, free-flowing and often frantic interaction which can cover several country blocks, and often end without a shot being fired due to factors including a coyote’s undeniably ‘wily’ and unpredictable nature combined with the number of potential exit points in a square mile.
In any event, harvesting a coyote is the ultimate goal of the exercise, but not necessary for its enjoyment, says Sweazey.
“It’s the excitement, trying to catch them, even listening to the dogs.”
As we paused to check out a cold – and old – set of prints, Sweazey’s radio squawked into semi-intelligible life. Hustling back into the vehicle and exiting in a spray of flying snow, we headed west, eventually taking up position covering a gut to the south-west corner of ‘The Hole’, an extended and productive combination of pine and hardwood trees, swampy ground and berry bushes.
“There’s a big dip – we usually ‘bump’ a coyote every time we put a dog in there,” Sweazey explained.
A myriad of fresh tracks suggested the presence of at least two coyotes, neither of whom were cooperating, according to both visual and aural data.
“I think over the years we’re shot all the stupid ones,” Sweazey commented in an aside. “That’s why they call it hunting, not killing.”
Motion along ‘The Hole’s’ western fringe kicked off a shared burst of adrenalin, but the older guy’s suspicions coyotes weren’t that tall and skinny-legged were confirmed as a pair of deer materialized, heading gracefully west before an appreciative audience of two.
Reports there was still a coyote ‘circling around in there,’ would ultimately be confirmed by Dave Mattson successfully ‘taking a poke,’ with his .270. As he and Watts made the retrieve, a general migration north along Old Stage Road ensued, based on the reality hunting with dogs also means chasing dogs who’d rather be running through the woods than returning to their boxes.
“They aren’t done hunting yet,” Sweazey noted.
Dog retrieval, an impromptu conference and plans to shift focus to the block encompassing the red barn complete, elements headed off individually in that direction.
“This is a good spot,” said Sweazey, as we settled in, in the fragrant vicinity of a chicken barn. “Now it’s a waiting game.”
On the plus side, a pause in the action provided an opportunity to pass along a little relationship reflection (‘happy wife, happy life’), to touch on past deer both missed and harvested, or the 468-pace coyote miracle shot Sweazey pulled off two years ago over the open iron sights of his .243. In between, encouraging reports of ‘tracks all over back here,’ ‘big track heading east,’ and ‘the dogs are loose here, tonguing,’ came to fruition with visual confirmation of ‘he’s heading south’ and ‘coyote across the field.’
The coyote in question hunkered down out of sight in a patch of bush to our right, allowing anticipation to build with the gradual appearance of a trio of trailing hounds.
“We should be seeing some action soon, here,” Sweazey predicted as a pair of the dogs entered the woods, optimism confirmed as the coyote was reported heading north through its heart. Watts, clearly visible a half-mile away beyond its northern edge, stiffened, pulled up and held steady.
A single shot rang out, followed by the welcome report: “coyote down in the field, here.”
The gang’s progress toward assembly at the red barn was delayed by another chase, concluded to the west, just east of the barn, courtesy of the hounds and Doug Ball. Its retrieval was punctuated by the unexpected arrival of candidate number four, Watts’ third in two days and fourth for the season, compared to Wade’s single.
“Nathan will be on you now,” Sweazey observed as the gang reassembled, his uncle good-naturedly absorbing the anticipated jibe of ‘coyote hog,’ from Mattson.
“I told Nathan, not fooling around this year,” Watts rejoined with a smile.
The gang typically harvests around 40 coyotes per season in the Oxford Centre area. Given current fur prices, maybe $40 a pelt, Saturday’s tally was significant in terms of production and pride, but basically a wash given the amount of fuel and ammunition burned by participants.
“It’s about the fun, something to do,” Watts explained, alluding to the significant hunting gap between deer and spring turkey seasons. “This kind of fills the void.”
The nature of coyote hunting is also attractive he said, combining fast-moving action with handling dogs.
“The excitement, the adrenalin, I guess,” Watts summed up. “It isn’t boring, there’s always something going on.”
As every Toronto Maple Leafs fan understands only too well, based on recent history, a three-goal lead can be a tenuous thing in the third period of a playoff game, let alone the hunting equivalent of the first period. If anything, Wade will be even more determined to make a comeback – but Watts wasn’t about to look a gift coyote in the mouth.
“It was all good,” he summed up, of a personally productive day whose group count was just two off the gang’s best ever.
“A coyote an hour,” Dan Hird interjected.
“Can’t really ask for much more than that,” Watts concluded.