I wrapped up at my office early, walked out of the building, and jumped in my car for the half hour drive to the airport. I’d been spending just about every spare minute of the last few weeks acclimating to my new job and moving my family from the cold weather of Indiana, to the frigid weather of our new home in Minneapolis. I’d been under a lot of stress, but as usual, the simple process of setting off on a hunting trip replaced the high stress levels with a sense of excitement. And this promised to be a great trip! A friend down in Texas had called and asked if I wanted to go hunt a couple of his ranches before he departed for New Zealand and his summer hunting gig (rough life). Don Steele is an outfitter that has over a million acres of land to hunt in West and South Texas during winter, then he packs up in spring to bring clients to the spectacular views and even more spectacular game of the Southern Hemisphere for their winter big game season. One thing Don and I have in common is that no matter how much of an opportunity we get to hunt the bigger stuff, varmint and predator hunting is still a passion. And for me it’s doing it with airguns!
In an effort to simplify my travels to the Lonestar State, I’d shipped my guns on ahead so they’d be waiting for me on arrival. The transportation Security Agency (TSA) has always been jumpy about passengers transporting airtanks in checked baggage, and insists on all fittings being removed so that they can perform a visual inspection of the empty tanks. In the past and with 99% of the TSA inspectors the guns themselves could be checked baggage if the reservoirs pressure gauge read empty. But in the last year I’d had two overly zealous TSA agents insist I disassemble the gun in an airport inspection room so they could do a visual assessment on the reservoir. Based on this, and the fact airlines charge so much for excess baggage, I’ve started to ship my guns through Fedex or UPS and have them held at a convenient local office for pickup. This approach has worked well for me thus far, and for the air supply I go online, find a local dive shop or paintball shop, and organize air tank rentals to be picked up on arrival. I’m getting this down to a science, however it does seem ironic that it’s less hassle to check my centerfire rifles and handguns than a 30 fpe pcp! Hopefully this situation will change in future.
It was a two hour flight down to Dallas, then a 3 hour drive west to Abilene, and another three hours further south to the first ranch we intended to hunt. Texas is expansive country and the properties we hunt are huge. As mentioned, Don has over a million acres of ranchland under contract for the hunting rights, with one of the ranches over 100,000 acres on it’s own! This is not ranchland in the sense of a cultivated farm, but rather stretches of thousands of acres with nothing more than a bunkhouse for the seasonal cowboys or wandering shepherds. I selected a couple of airguns to use on this trip: the Daystate Wolverine .303 was intended as my small predator gun to take bobcat, fox, raccoon, and ringtail cat. I’d used it on a few jackrabbit hunts and though I’d had good results on these big hares out to hundred or so yards, I was ready to step up the action on predators. I also had the Evanix Windy City .357 to focus on wild hog and longer range coyote. Perhaps of not so much interest to Airgun enthusiast, I also packed my .250/3000 centerfire, as we were going to attempt to call up a mountain lion (also called a cougar or panther) that had been killing sheep on one of the properties.
We started calling on the first ranch under less than ideal conditions, April is not as productive as hunting in winter, when animals are hungrier and food not so plentiful. But the real problem was that the wind was starting to blow, with gust in the 25-30mph range. Predators, especially bobcats, get very spooky when the wind is rattling the vegetation. I’ve seen things shut down completely when it starts to blow, and even in the best of times your quarry will be slow to move into the call. We had a couple coyote come in, but they would not close the deal, hanging up at a 150-200 yards. I took one of these with my friends .223, but was forced to give up on the airgunning front. We headed in to the bunkhouse with the plan to sleep for a few hours, then drop 300 miles south towards the Texas/Mexico border to another property, where low winds were predicted.
At any rate, the next day found us rolling into Don’s daughter and son in laws ranch in the late afternoon. We unloaded our gear and made room in the truck, the son in law Tony was going to join us, and quickly got everything sorted out. He manages this property, which is in the business of raising genetically superior whitetail deer that are sold for breeding stock in areas where the deer are at the shallow end of the gene pool. When you have deer on the property worth many thousands of dollars, tolerance for predators goes down quickly. They have had problems with both coyote and bobcats killing fawns and have been trapping and calling pretty aggressively trying (without success) to eradicate them.
We were using Don’s humvee with a 2 seat shooting bench and calling tower mounted atop, and making a stand every half mile. The call Don likes is the FoxPro series, which has always been my go-to as well, as it has volume, high fidelity, and an extensive sound library. Lately I’ve also been using the Primos Alpha Dogg with good results. At this time of year we focus on distress calls, jackrabbit, cottontail, rodent, woodpecker being use most frequently. You never know what’s going to show up, but the cats, raccoons, and gray fox like the bird and rodent sounds better and the coyotes respond more constantly to the rabbit calls. We also mix it up with mouth calls like the mini-blaster, and we will “smootch” them in once the’ve moved in on a call. If the hunter leaves the electronic call blasting the predator gets close then hangs up secure that the screaming rabbit is still there, or they charge the call and figure out they’re being played when they come up on a hard piece of plastic rather than a warm furry meal. So when we get the predator coming in, we mute the call and start with a low volume kissing sound that imitates a rodent squeak. This will almost always bring your quarry in closer, with them looking for their quarry!
The gun I selected for this trip was the Daystate Wolverine .303 using the Emperor roundnose pellets. We were targeting bobcats, and I thought this would be a great gun for these medium sized predators. The first few sets were a bust, with nothing showing up. then a pair of raccoons charged in on the fifth call, then a coyote on the next (but it didn’t hang around) before going dead again. At about 3AM we were about to call it a night and decided to do one more set. About 30 seconds into the call we spotted a cat moving down the hillside towards us, that hung up in the mesquite and cactus about 70 yards away. I was zeroed at 50 yards, so held a bit high and squeezed the trigger, shooting right over it’s head. A latter walk through showed that I’d judged the distance wrong and the cat was 50 yards away, not 70. It is hard estimating distance at night in unfamiliar territory, and I regretted not packing my range finder in the rush to get on the road. We immediately started smootching (making a squeaking sound), but nothing. About 10 minutes later we caught the glow of eyes reflected from our red filtered lamps, the cat (if it was the same one) had moved about 150 yards to out right, and was about 60 yards from our position. He was walking and I couldn’t get him to stop, so I followed him through the scope and sent the pellet flying. It took the cat broadside and knocked him over, but after a minute of thrashing he got up and started moving. We waited a few minutes then climbed down expecting a nasty bit of tracking through the rattlesnake infested brush, but found the bobcat piled up in an opening about 70 yards away.
So after a few jackrabbit and prairie dog hunts I’d finally had the chance to use the Wolverine on the game I thought it was made for! I will say that for bigger stuff like bobcats and coyote, I think I’ll take the headshot when possible, especially if it’s much further than 50 yards. The Wolverine sends a large diameter chunk of lead downrange, but it is at the lower end of the power spectrum for predator hunting. For the smaller predator like fox and raccoons, I have no problem with body shots. This rifle is very shootable, it has a great stock desing for a “thumbs up” shooting position, it has a very nice trigger, and it is accurate! The high shot count (relative to big bores Airguns) is a plus; however I wish it allowed the hunter to trade off shot count for power. I’d be willing to give up 4-5 shots to get another 30 fpe out of it when needed. While the rifle is a jewel as is, that extra power would allow the hunter to reach out a bit further with a body shot.
We planned to drive to another ranch about 150 miles away the next day, where we’d camo up and get in some daytime calling. Calling at night is more productive, but doing it in daylight is the art of predator calling in my opinion. This is a ranch that Don started trapping many years ago, and he had two or three spots he thought might be productive and wanted to call. I set up on a hillside that gave me a great view in front, and with the light wind in my face I wasn’t concerned about what was behind me. Coyotes will circle around and try to wind the hunter, and it is important that you set up so that they have to come past you to get into that position. Bobcats are all about sight and sound, so the wind direction is not as important. About 15 minutes into the call sequence, I looked up to see another cat moving in through the prickly pear and mesquite, attention focused on the frantic woodpecker sounds emanating from the FoxPro. Don muted the call and let out a couple soft squeaks, at which the cat glided inside of the 50 yards range, which was all she wrote for that cat. I sent the .308 Emperor pellet flying, and it smacked home right between the eyes, dropping cat number two.
As night fell, we went down to a grove of live oaks bordering the remains of a stream (the droughts have been hard out here for a couple years). I swept a red filter light through the bare branches of the trees, not seeing anything. I’d been hoping for a ringtail or at least a raccoon, but nothing was looking back. I started lip squeaking and all of the sudden a pair of eyes came around the truck of one of the old trees at 70 yards distance and probably 30 feet up. We fumbled around a bit as we’d decided to shoot some video and Don had to be light handler and videographer both. But eventually we got ourselves organized, and I squeezed the trigger. The pellet smacked home dumping the masked bandit to the ground. Raccoons are tenacious animals, and I was impressed at how effective this shot had been in anchoring this big boar raccoon at a relatively long range.
This article first appeared in the British “Airgun Shooter” magazine in 2013