Red Zone Hunting

The concepts of "zone hunting" are presented.  This is a decision tree for the ambush hunter for the exact few seconds before the first shot is fired and the events that can follow.  Zones are used here to explain what to do when and why.  Rubrics for making better decisions during a rapid-fire hunt, when to shoot, when to follow up, and when to run are also described.  This article is for the most part about hunting success, closing the deal, killing, and picking up animals, but also describes other expectations and positive results.

If you are new to hunting, or new to hunting coyotes, and have questions about setups, firearms, camouflage, or calls, read the "Thick Cover" article first.  Red Zone Hunting is an article about shooting, killing animals and closing the deal, and doesn't cover other important aspects of setting up an ambush nearly as well as the other article.

These are original concepts by the author. The text, diagrams, and concepts are copyrighted and are not to be copied, reproduced, or reposted without permission.

Thick Cover Ambush Hunting for Southwestern Coyotes

Coyotes are usually classified by departments of game and fish as furbearers or non-game animals. Hunting them is unlike any other hunting in the United States.  Typically unregulated to any great degree, hunting coyotes usually requires only a license.  In many states, there is no mandatory season, lottery, tag, limit, or recovery.  In a few states, even the requirement for a hunt license is dropped for coyote hunters.  Take hides only if you desire to do so.  Please dispose of carcasses appropriately. Free from all but one constraint, it's hard to find more fun with a gun than luring a live coyote to flash through a target hole in the desert scrub brush.  The action is fast.  Not as fast as skeet, but fast.

What is the Red Zone?  The Red Zone is a term coined by the author to clarify some of the concepts used when discussing, planning, or executing the hasty close range ambush for coyotes in the desert scrub brush.  The red zone is the target area.  In theory, it's a circle on a diagram.  In reality, the red zone is a space in the brush where a coyote can run and a hunter can shoot.  The ambush hunt setup is modeled on the Cameroon waterhole ambush.  In Cameroon, the hunter is directly connected to the death of the animal by the spear.  The death of a coyote by buckshot is unique to this hunt.

A shotgun is a close range weapon, typically under 50 yards.  The hunter's red zone is a circle defined by the brush and the lethality of the gun and ammo.  The hunter should expect that many shots will be through brush.  The caller, the bait, also gets a red zone circle drawn around it.  The size of those two red zone circles depends on both the brush and the gun.  That is the Red Zone.  Inside the red zone, the hunter's movements are deliberate and marksmanship is expected.  Confidence is high. The hunter has to make all his shots in the Red Zone.

Red Zone hunting in the extreme is meant to exploit an unproven concept of coyote behavior, to wit: coyotes are more secure in heavy brush during daylight hours.  Does heavy brush make a coyote more secure?  How does one design an experiment to prove it? Preliminary observations reveal that coyotes in thick cover do seem willing to approach a sound's source well into shotgun range as described here.  Coyotes behave differently in thick brush.  If that weren't true, Red Zone hunting wouldn't work.

Why use zones?   "Zones" are more than circles on a chart or lines on the ground.  They define areas on the ground where action is immediately required.  No stand is perfect, but it's nice to have an action plan that fits the the terrain and brush and be able to more easily describe and analyze terrain and vegetation.  In the beginning, the stand defines the zones.  With practice, the zones define every stand.

In some instances, animals will approach and be seen, but never quite make it into a shooting zone.  Those animals are green zone animals and are not going cooperate today.  Those animals are going to run off and do more coyote stuff.  The hunter should feel good about every green zone coyote that runs off.   That hunter is a conservationist.  An added benefit of zone hunting is that when a hunter successfully applies zone principles, he will close the deal more often and leave fewer wounded animals behind.  That is good ecology too. 

The topic of ambush hunting in thick cover by enticing predators into a small visible space doesn't appear in much if any of the hunt literature.  Like others, I read magazines and collect a few books.  I've attended a few meetings, conventions, and campouts. There really is no recorded description of a single day of ambush hunting to be found.   At best, a rifle hunter described there might take along a shotgun too.  From the review of predator hunters' preferences at the time, the shotgun is never the primary weapon.  Speculating, maybe this kind of small space ambush isn't very popular with modern hunters because of the lack of visibility?  Or maybe a shotgun has too much recoil.  Calculations show that good coyote ammo can kick more than 30 times the recoil of a .223 autoloader.  It's hard to accurately speculate why an efficient and exciting method like this one isn't popular but those both sound like decent reasons. 

It's just common sense that abandoning the sniper's hide and long distance optics to go stand in the middle of head high brush with a shotgun is a stupid idea.   That judgement however is contrary to the evidence that continues to mount.

Getting back to the Red Zone, the tactic of ambushing prey at the waterhole is as old as dirt.

Pygmies hunting in Cameroon armed with a spear are said to be able to stand perfectly still for 30 hours over the waterhole.  They even use hypnotic plant extracts to enhance their experience.  The concept of their hunt, though rooted in oral history, still works now.  It has worked for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  Translating their hunt setup, spear hunting over a small hole in the jungle with water for bait - to shotgun hunting in a small hole in the desert creosote really isn't that far to stretch.  They have much in common. 

I was surprised that coyote hunt authors weren't writing about this kind of ambush tactic for the magazines.  There must have been something in the Varmint Hunter's Digest.  In recent years, a couple of articles from PX eluded to ambush hunting in the title, but never quite delivered.  Their thick cover  tactics for the most part put the author in a rifle firing position watching the edge of a brush pile where a coyote drawn to the call might be exposed for a shot. That is not the kind of hunting I'm writing about.  Theirs was an ambush of sorts, but it wasn't very Pygmy of them.

If success is the goal in this kind of small area ambush, where the hunter is set up in the middle of the brush, not in some distant sniper's hide, standing still is extremely important.  The pygmies know that. 

It takes concentration to scan over either shoulder effectively while moving very little.   There are less than seconds to acquire and fire.  Then, if the hunt guy kills one cleanly with the first shot, he must recover his ready position, keep on standing still, and keep on calling.  A time-spread multiple is always a possibility in this part of the world. 

Shooting moving targets, around and through scrub brush, even with the hardest hitting ammunition, all kills are not perfectly clean.  So as much as I like to stay in one spot and just stand there, some of the time it just isn't the smartest thing to do.  The first shot and any shots that follow are now moments of instant decision.  After that first shot, the hunter has to be ready to fire again or close the distance and finish the job, before any wounded animal can move off a few dozen yards back into the thick weeds and die without being found.  Standing still is only important until it's time to run and then the decision to run must be made quickly.  One of the keys to hunting successfully in the brush is knowing when to break cover and run as fast as you dare.

In the magazines, everything is a perfect shot and all that's left is the long walk and a Kodak moment.  In the video, modern editing is a great cure for lousy woodcraft and poor marksmanship.  In reality, predator hunting has generated some of the most spectacular misses to which I have ever been a witness.  Running is part of hunting.  I can write with some authority that the best thing anyone can do after the shot is get after it.

Running, hot-trailing a wounded animal by sight, turns out to be much better than tracking it later. If a wounded animal runs, get moving.  If a coyote doesn't die right on cue, the best way to close the deal is to shoot, shoot, run, shoot, run, reload, repeat.  Finding tracks on desert hard pan is always difficult.  Shotgun pellet wounds close quickly back to a pinhole and typically don't leave much of a blood trail either.  The best advice is - Never wait.  Keep running.  Keep shooting.  Always be prepared to run around the next clump of weeds, or the next, and fire again.  It's nice to pick up a one-shot kill, but it's just as good to chase one down and pick up the four-shot kill.  It would be great if every hunter could track as well as the Pygmies, but they can't.  It's all good just as long as the animal gets picked up.  Running after an animal and finding nothing, or losing a track 40 yards into the brush are the kind of experiences every hunter should do their best to avoid.

The ambush hunter with his limited view is definitely going to see less, much less into the distance, and many fewer approaching animals.  That isn't a bad thing.  Predators don't always come all the way to the caller in any kind of cover; they hang up.  Thanks to the brush, the hunter won't even see those most of the time.  However, if the unproven concept of Red Zone hunting is true, that coyotes are more secure in thick brush and are more willing to approach a sound's source much closer, the hunt guy may actually shoot more than a guy set up over open ground.

The diagram below shows a shotgun ambush set up in medium to thick brush for a western coyote.  The purpose of the diagram is to clarify concepts, aid in making some quick logical shooting decisions, and to limit the number of wounded animals that escape to die later.   The little hunt guy is standing perfectly still in the shade of the big suguaro cactus with his shotgun, its muzzle resting on the ground, and his backside facing any available brush for both shade and protection.  Hunt guy is aware of the sun, the wind, his scent cone, back trail, outline and reflections.   He might even have a moving decoy or squeeze a wheeze of stinky juice on the ground near the caller somewhere.

Diagram Copyright - November 9, 2012

Any stand is going to be a compromise of visibility, concealment, sun location, and wind direction.  The biggest difference, between this kind of ambush and any other, is the brush.  In Red Zone hunting, the thickness and location of the brush ultimately determine the specific tactics, visible sight lines, and the exact range to the black and green zones, not some hard number (even though the diagram shows the Red Zone at ~15 yards and the Black Zone at ~50 yards, those are suggestions, not set in concrete).  Always remember that moving the hunt guy's location ~50 yards in any direction changes everything.  Ranges and sightlines are something to consider at every potential stand location.

The pickup is parked in the green angle, downwind from the hunter, 60-120 yards away, far enough to be small or completely obscured by brush.  The green angle at the top of the diagram depicts both the approximate limit of the hunter's vision around the brush behind him without a lot of body movement and the hunter's scent cone downwind.  The hunt guy might assume that nothing comes from downwind all the way into the Red zone.  That would be wrong.  Some coyotes certainly do bolt and run off when their noses pickup man smell, but some don't seem to care.  The Red Zone goes all the way around, 360 degrees, in the diagram for a reason.  Some of the fastest action comes from the green angle, including some coyotes unafraid of human scent, and the hunt guy in the middle of it needs to be able to shoot 360 degrees too, coming or going.  That will take some footwork.

Everything matters.  The thickness of the brush determines the ranges for red, black, and green zones and it changes with every location.  Change the ranges by choosing a different stand location.

  • The primary red zone, ~15 yard circle around the hunter with 70-99% visibility.
  • The second red zone, a similar circle around the caller.  Visibility will be less.
  • The black zone.  The optional shot somewhere in the weeds.  From the edge of certainty to the area of zero visibility.
  • The green zone.  No shot.  Begins at the far edge of visibility and the end of lethal shotgun range.  Gun range depends a lot on the gun, ammo, choke, and the shooter.

With practice, the hunt guy will get much better setting zone boundaries that fit the terrain's features.

If visibility in every direction is good, choose a different stand.  The hunter should be relying on thick brush to give the coyote the security to approach into the red zone for a high percentage shot.  Good visibility in every direction is something to avoid.  Good visibility is bad.

If you are using less lethal shotgun ammunition to mitigate recoil, prefer a looser choke than full, or are unsure of the lethal range of your shotgun, choose thicker brush.  Thicker brush doesn't change the tactics; it just shrinks the ranges of the Red and Green Zones.

The ideal shot is a coyote running straight through the brush in the red zone at trot speed.  That is just one possible ambush, but is probably as good as it gets.  The opportunity for a shot can be over in two blinks of the eye.  Coyotes have been clocked at more than 40 MPH.

A coyote always seems to come into view in one of four ways.

  • Comes in from the front and appears as motion in the field of vision.
  • Appears from one side or the other at the edge of the field of view in the corner of the eye.
  • It blows by the hunter's position from behind as a complete surprise.  You might hear it running before you see it.
  • It pops out without warning anywhere, standing still or running at full speed.

Hunting in thick brush, the encounter is likely to be brief.  It is always best when the hunter sees the coyote first instead of the other way around.  The gun can be raised as the coyote travels behind brush.  If the hunt guy is exposed and the coyote is coming directly in the line of sight with the caller, sometimes it's wise to use stealth, take a knee if it can be done without being seen, and keep calling.  If the coyote enters from the side, at the edge of vision, turn your head slowly.  It will be hard not to jump or swivel your head in surprise.  Assess the range and cover and shoot.  If it blows through the hunt guy's red zone past his leg and into the the circle around the caller, it's probably already aware of danger. Llft and fire immediately.  Any shot may require a follow up.  Never lower the gun to see what you've done.  Check and reload.  Always be ready to shoot again or chase a wounded animal.

If at anytime, a coyote pops up in the zone, appears from seemingly nowhere, and is staring straight at the shooter, go for it.  Don't wait.  The shot will just get worse.  It's the rare coyote that stands still and stares while the hunt guy does his quick draw.  It will most often bolt as soon as the shooter moves, so be ready for a fast and erratic target.  Aim at the nose, not the root of the tail.

Coming or going, a coyote might jump, veer, turn hard, turn around and go out the opposite way it came in, or stop and stare.  A young coyote may even bow down and bark at the caller or a decoy.  After the first shot, a coyote's behavior in response to gunfire is often erratic and impossible to predict.  One thing is for certain, it will speed up if it detects trouble by any means, scent, sight, or sound.  It will move even faster at the sound of gunfire.  Passing through the scent cone or recognizing a human form, any coyote that is aware will be moving fast to get away. 

Remain vigilant from the beginning to the end of every stand.  A hunter should be ready to react at any second of every stand to a coyote's surprise appearance at any location inside gun range.  So the hunt guy is set up in the bushes, he calls, and a coyote runs through.  What should he do next?

Red Zone (close range) -  Lift and shoot any coyote in the red zone.  Fire and follow up.   What does it mean to follow up?  Shoot, shoot, run, shoot, run, reload, repeat until that critter is undeniably dead.  Try for a clear line of sight on the first shot, follow up shots in the clear if possible, through the brush if necessary.  Plan on chasing every coyote.  Hold your position only if a coyote goes completely limp.  After the first shot, be ready to follow up using the rubric below.

Was the first shot lethal?

  • If a coyote spins and bites the wound, shoot again, prepare to run.
  • If the coyote drops, but the tail flaps, wait, prepare to shoot again.  If the tail keeps on flapping, shoot and run.  If it quits flapping, reload quietly and continue to call.
  • If the coyote drops, but then raises its head at a later time, shoot again, prepare to run.
  • If the coyote drops and stays completely still, reload quietly, start calling again and add 8 minutes to the stand timer.

A coyote dead on the ground is worth much, much more than a several other animals 60 yards out and running away.  Always make the first coyote count.

Black Zone (intermediate range) - Most targets in the black zone will be intermittently covered by thick brush

  • Coming in from the front; let it come; fire at will. Closer is always better.  However, full frontal shots offer a small target cross-section.
  • Walking or running side to side offers the largest target.  Fire at the nose of a moving coyote or at the center of mass of a still target.  Follow up.
  • Comes from behind and runs past your position - fire and follow up immediately. Your shot pattern is no bigger than a fist.
  • Turning around or running away - fire at the nose. Follow up.  If you're not quick enough and it gets out of range before you can shoot, hold fire.

Green Zone (out of solid gun range) Hung up or going away near the black/green transition - the Green Zone is the "no fire" zone.  50 yards is about right.  60 is about the absolute maximum.  Much shorter if you're using light ammo, an open choke, or shooting through obstacles.  The gun is only as lethal as the sum of the pellets' energy and the pattern.  Do not shoot at the root of the tail of a distant animal and expect a clean kill.  Let these go.

Seeing a coyote at the edge of the green zone (50-60 yards) is always tempting, but it's a low percentage shot.

  • Target going away - pass on the tail shot; hold fire and leave this one for another time.
  • Broadside crossing -  Shooting at a still target, head and body profiled, is the best percentage long distance shot, especially when using a full choke and the heaviest ammo. Follow up immediately.
  • Standing head on - The full frontal shot is a much lower percentage.  Catches 2/3 less pellets than a profile shot?  Wait.  Call more.  The body language, coyote positioned to move forward, is in the hunter's favor.  Allow the coyote to move forward into the red zone or fire at a broadside target if the coyote turns to leave.
  • Walking back and forth staring at the call from 90-100 yards.  Barking.  The hunter is owned.  Use a better decoy.  Try another noise.  Bark back.  Release the hounds.  Break the stand and move.

A rifle hunter might consider barking or yelling to get a coyote to stop for a look.  At shotgun ranges, a coyote is most likely to bolt and run full tilt for safety at the first sound of trouble. It may never stop to look back.  Barking doesn't work very often and is not a good idea.  That rifleman's old axiom that they always look back doesn't apply either.  Even if it did work and the hunt guy were fortunate enough to see one stop and look back on a distant ridge line, the coyote would be completely out of shotgun range.

The ambush hunt, taken to the extreme, was for proof of concept - that coyotes are more "secure" in heavy brush.  No one really knows what any coyote thinks.  Standing out there in the brush trying to prove anything, they're like skeet.

Venn diagram |ven|
a diagram representing mathematical or logical sets pictorially as circles or closed curves within an enclosing rectangle (the universal set), common elements of the sets being represented by the areas of overlap among the circles.
ORIGIN early 20th cent.: named after John Venn (1834–1923), English logician.

The term "rubric" is used as a disambiguation, not for scoring.

Copyrighted original work by Gary Clevenger Dec. 10, 2012.