Coyote: NY’s Top Dog

By Spider Rybaak

Jerry Donegan checking messages as his “pet” coyote looks on.

One of the nicest things about fishing is it exposes you to nature’s menu of wonders. Take night fishing for walleyes at Oneida Lake’s Phillips Point. Jutting into Three Mile Bay/Big Bay Wildlife Management Area, it’s ideal for surf fishing. You arrive in the early evening, wade out as far as you can and start casting. Before long, the sun goes down, taking the wind with it, ironing the lake into a smooth undulating sheet spotted with stars…sometimes the moon.

Casting out into the sparking night, you reel in your line, dreams of walleyes swimming through your mind. But there’s more in store than just what meets the eye: the night’s song of frogs croaking, fish splashing, deer foraging…and coyotes howling.

That’s right, coyotes. The state’s loaded with ‘em; between 20,000 and 30,000 according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Not to worry, though; they’re not all in one place. Requiring anywhere from 5 to 20 square miles of home range, a family of coyotes (parents and the year’s offspring) is very protective of its turf and runs off interlopers.

“Back when my dad started hunting em’ they called them coydogs,” says Jerry Donegan, “which is reasonable, because they looked like a coyote/dog mix.”

“But they’re not hybrids,” claims the Caughdenoy native. “In fact, they stick with their own kind and would rather eat dogs than mate with them. One of my neighbors lost his dachshund to one in his own backyard a few years back. He managed to get the coyote to release the dog but it was curtains for the pooch.”

NYSDEC agrees with Donegan’s assessment, classifying the state’s current top dog (fox used to hold the title) as a distinct species. Called the Eastern coyote, it’s fully 30% larger than its Western counterpart, a size differential some attribute to the species mating with Timber wolves. According to this story, Wiley Coyote’s relatives started moving east to take advantage of the vacuum left when the forces of civilization wiped out our timber wolves. While trekking through the Great White North, they ran into timber wolves in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, and those lucky enough to survive the encounter mated; the rest is history, as they say.

There’s several ways to skin a coyote.

Donegan prefers to go for the critters in organized hunts. He and his buddies start out by searching places like Three Mile Bay/Big Bay and Klondike WMAs for fresh tracks. When a set is located, cell phones lead the hunters to the spot. They put dogs on the scent, and then spread out, searching for clearings in the woods where they sit down, wait…and hope. It can take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours for the dogs to get the coyote up and running, and pointed in the direction of the hunters.

“Dogs baying while running toward you send adrenalin rushing through your body,” Donegan reveals, a flush of excitement spreading over his face. “And when the coyote appears, coming right at you…it’s the greatest!”

Some guys like to hunt the beasts one-on-one. Decked out in camo, surrounded with masking scents, they sit motionlessly, calling them in by imitating the distress calls of fawns, rabbits, even puppies.

Coyotes take to huge woods like ticks to dogs, and all of Oswego County’s WMAs support them.

However, patches of woods will do when large forests are few. If you like hunting closer to the beaten path, landowners are generally willing to let you on their property.

Donegan thinks “the reason folks are more open to coyote hunting is because they’re so abundant. Seeing populations of small game like pheasants and rabbits in decline, a lot of farmers blame coyotes and are more than happy to allow you to hunt them on their property.”

Coyote hunting season runs from October 1 to March 31. There is no bag limit and they can be taken day or night.

Jerry and wife Ellen holding coyote pelts.
Coyote country.
Robert Donegan with a toothy coyote skull.