Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Predator Hunting - Down on the Farm

This one is dedicated to my Indiana hunting buddies.. And of course, Frank W. James, for the generosity of his land. You guys are the best!

My first night time predator hunt. 1996. A small farm in the Southern Plains where I lived on about 50 acres. Coyotes were increasing in numbers, I'd found small fragments of remains of more than one small fawn, a cat or two, close to the house. When some killed a neighbors small dog after they had chased the terrified animal to the front porch in broad daylight, where his kids watched it being torn apart from inside the house, it was time to do something. Eradicate the coyotes and you are overrun with mice; I am well aware of the checks and balances in nature. Yet there were more coyotes around than there was small prey for and they were hungry enough to take prey on a front porch, it was time to cull the group a bit.

I'd seen them close to the farm house. Down in the south, we had predators, though none large. Though you more often hear a coyote than ever see one, they get bolder as they get used to living alongside we humans. I'd seen them trotting along the edge of the fields, through snow that clutched at their empty bellies, heads cocked, eyes forward, using instinct, tooth and sinew to find that one small morsel there breathing under the snow, trying to hide for its life, a small shivering rabbit, wishing as desperately not to be eaten alive as the coyote desperately wishes to consume.

I'd even seen them right at the edge of my yard, Just one, a scout looking at me from a tree line far away, and then leaving with a quiet yip of warning to his fellows. On his face, a canine smile of mockery. Not a smile that hints of internal laughter, but a laughter as mirthless as the smile of the Spinx, amusement as cold and hard as the ground. Was he alone? I was not to know. Only one had made itself known. Then one morning, right off the driveway as I opened the back door to take the mail out, a blurred commotion, a high pitched, soft pleading scream that broke the lie of safety. A cry that caused me to turn towards the sound as for just a second it sounded like a child, before I recognized the sound. I looked torwards the brush that lined the road on which the cars and school bus would lumber in the mornings. I saw something darting quickly, a dark shape, too small to be human, too quick for me to catch a good glimpse. There, in the ditch, a small white form, a jagged tear in it's furry throat, rabbity legs twitching in the remembrance of life.

After getting the supplies I needed, I got my Remington and alerted my neighbors as to my intent so there would no wanderers on my land that night, except for the four legged kind. I checked my local and state laws. The regulations for night predator hunting, and using spotlights vary. My husband was off crop dusting over in Arkansas, working the rice for a few months. Like most things on the farm, I'd need to take care of it myself, not knowing when he'd return. I had a husband, but I fought my own battles and cleaned my own weapons. I had to, out here away from the comforts of city life.

I had hunted in the past as darkness fell, during whitetail season, the sun setting just as I finished up in my stand, but I had never set out before to purposely hunt at night. This was a different type of hunt for other reasons as well. Not to put food on the table but to purposely take the life of something that took life from this land without remorse.

The sun was completely gone at this point, that slow sun of this area, reluctant to leave. I readied my gun in a land gone dreamlike, familiar yet strange, like dreams of falling by the surefooted. The field I had walked through many times was shadowed, darkness seeping into the corners of the small patch of land, as water into a lifeboat. When the first yips of the coyote echoed, I drew my jacket close around me and eyed the distance to my truck cab.

Now I knew I was in no danger from the coyote or his brethren, but I was in his world. To my eyes, his world was dark, every noise I make a threat or a promise. Where he could see, I was blind, where he could smell, my senses were mute. What he could hear eluded me completely. What drew him in, was as old as time and as uncaring. While I had intellect and size he had the grimness of infallibility, instincts honed through generations of survival in an ever dangerous land. Despite the scientific part of my brain telling me that logically I was in no danger there are primal forebodings that stir softly in our blood. Times, despite logic, that cause a less than subliminal sense of something lurking, watching. Something that stalks quietly, closer to our world than we want.

I'm aware of predators and prey. During a whitetail hunt way out in the wilderness, I got my buck right at darkfall. Even with a shot straight through the heart, he bounded out deep into the woods. I went to track him, knowing that those I hunted with would hear the shot and come to help. We'd have to haul him out with all terrain vehicles as I was near a mile from my fellow hunters and much more than that to the cabin.

When I finally got to where he lay, the white tail a small sign in the deepening pool of blackness, I stood, hairs rising up along my forearms, my breath hot in my chest, despite the snow and the cold. I wasn't alone. Something instinctual kicked in and I stopped in my tracks. There, crouching over the remains of that magnificent 12 point buck was a dark shadow, merged onto my kill, hunched over the ribcage, dark on darkness where I couldn't tell where one shadow began and another ended. Something uttered a deep throated growl at me. A warning. This was not some cute woodland creature from a television cartoon. The stench of something primordial was in the air, more than blood, less than my suddenly dry mouth, and I knew that I had somehow in that moment slipped a rung on the food chain.

Shooting at it in near total darkness would only have pissed it off, so I slowly backed away and let whichever predator had found my buck have its due. I'd taken something that, in the realm of his basic instincts, was not mine to take, therefore, with bigger teeth, he would take it from me. I carefully made my long way back to the safety of the house, the fear seeping out of me like the deer's blood onto the snow. For it was when I stared into the flat eyes of something wild, something bigger than a coyote, that I realized that this seemingly sturdy body, that serves me subtlety and so well, is only so much meat, and my thoughts and life history would only be a night's sustenance to some creature of the night. . . or to fate.

So years later, in the darkness out in my farm field, those thoughts came back unbidden. But my state had no large predators of the four legged kind so I settled down to wait. I'd have preferred a stand, but from the ground in this landscape that sloped down towards the creek I could see pretty well.

I knew they were in the area, in addition to the sightings I'd seen scat and tracks, so I needed to get set up quickly. Always a pilot, I knew which way the wind was coming from. A coyote’s sense of smell is highly adapted and they are notorious for circling downwind to gain scent advantage. so I positioned myself with the wind directly in my face. My face was covered with camouflage cosmetics. Human skin is highly reflective and coyotes will pick up on this, especially at night. My porcelain skin would look like a lighthouse to them. My clothing dark, my face a shadow, the flame of my hair, unscented, tucked under a cap.

The lure would be a rabbit in distress call. A call is the best way to go, but you'll want to practice first. With lungs 10 times bigger than a large jack rabbit, in my first attempt to use one I ended up sounding like a pig being water boarded. A lure to a predator is a small animal and a coyote can hear a small cry from a long way off. They are hungry but they are not stupid. The call is not constant, a long, loud, drawn out incessant wail might work for a spoiled two year old at the grocery but it does not work on Canis Latrans. But since I was alone, juggling gear, I used a tape that played in a small battery operated player, a recording well crafted and not just a constant bleat of animal in trouble.

There's a soft opening call. Silence, then another, more urgent, silence. Distressed wails and cries,.silence. I knew it would just be a matter of time before they moved in. The night was warm, yet my fingers were cold on the grip of my gun, blue steeled cold of a .223 Remington. Hunting predators with shotguns can be fun, but coyotes are tougher than you think and tonight I wanted more than my little Browning to shoot at the distance that might be needed.

The stars were bright, yet the only real light was the red lens covered light on my rifle. If you hunt alone, there are lights that mount on the scope and others that mount on the rifle itself. I'm not one for a lot of stuff mounted on my guns. None of my pistols have scopes or laser dots or anything, so I wasn't too keen on mounting a light on it. But I would be hunting alone, and juggling a light, call and weapon, at night, was going to be as awkward as a blind date. Fortunately, I found one by in Texas that was light enough that it would not hurt the scope.

As I waited, t
he only sound was the the piercing whine of insects playing in accompaniment to the distant percussion of distant thunder. A peek through the scope revealed only blackness, mocking me as I slowly and surely swept my range. There, in mid sweep, about 200 yards out, a set of close-set red eyes burning out of the night. There! Another set, as I got behind the optics. But I waited. Other farm and domestic animals in the night could be mistaken for predators. Shooting my neighbors cow would not be a good way to be re-invited for Sunday supper. During the daytime you can see your backdrop or what lies beyond the target. At night, this is normally not the case and I would not take off a shot until my target was clearly identified, though I was careful not to shine the line directly in their eyes, but just above.

There, a silhouette in moonlight, a third shadow emerging from the tall grass, along the creek line. I knew they would come in through there.
Coyotes will cross an open field, but only if there are not better options. There, under the light of an almost full moon, he turns away, all but disappearing, then turns back, the plaintive pleading of a dying rabbit too great a lure. He's not much more than a shadow on the ground but he is most definitely a coyote.

I hesitate for just an instant. Like the coyote, I am a predator, taking what I need to sustain. Doing what I have to to stay alive. Like him, I am alone even when I'm in my pack, dispossessed except for those times I am in the outdoors, for it is only the outdoors that feeds and nourishes me. I haunt the shadows of the wilderness that my own race continues to destroy. Yet, like the small field rabbits that are his prey, I just want to go about my way, unmolested, free to travel in sunlight or darkness without fear.

As deep blue shadows linger softly on the landscape, and my finger moves from ready to fire, I can't help but empathize for just that moment with both the coyotes survival mechanisms and a tiny animals cowering fear in this perilous world. A world we all could be snatched from at any time, seized from quiet survival into an explosion of pain. Our primordial past is closer than we realize. Watching us and waiting to pounce.

So I hesitate for only for a second, I drew up and carefully accessed what I saw through the scope, watch the movement of the eyes, their directing telling me which way he is going, a telltale slow drift to tell me he is still stalking, getting bolder. When he was 150 yards away, without movement, I slowed, and silently hit pause on the call, simply making a lip squeaking noise, kissing sounds through the mouth, using the back of my hand against my mouth for more volume, to coax him in. The kiss of death. 100 yards away, I touched the trigger and the Remington spoke for all of the small creatures of the forest, one shot broadside behind the right shoulder. I started the call again. Gunshots don't spook them. I got two more that night, before coldness took me back to my quiet country home.

Now, I no longer live on that farm, but the city is less than an hour away. Some say we are safer out here in the country, in these small towns of America. Despite the country setting, Mayberry-like town, and red white and blue speckled mailboxes, there is no truly safe place anymore, especially for a woman. Though there are certainly more crimes where more people live or where the the law-abiding are disarmed, the heart of evil roams equally at will through asphalt and country roads, through the bayous and in the blogosphere. Predators are among us, watching from a line at the corner market, waiting in the darkness of a rural parking lot, waiting for us to be human and make a mistake. Waiting for that sign, that manner, that tells them that you are un-toothed and un-fanged, a soft and tiny target for their cruel nature.

We think, as humans, we have dominion over the wild, especially when we are young and think we are immortal. But when we are in the wild places, be it a forest or the streets of a city, we are on the edge, an edge that is neither a humanitarian or lenient. The slow, the infirm, the trusting . . . perish. Those without sharp tooth or claw, those trusting of form, will always be prey.

On that night long ago, at least, there would a few less predators, on other days and evenings more would be hunted, until they moved back from our yards, away from our homes and pets. . . . but only for now. For they will come back. Predators will roam the roads and quiet plains of our earth as long as there is darkness, the derisive echoes of their voices carried on the harsh wind.

I looked around me, to make sure I am alone before heading back to the truck, the darkness cooling the blood, the field empty and quiet, except for the steady sound of a small wounded wounded rabbit, a ceaseless and unemphatic cry into the night.