Photo by Benjamin Lehman, Unsplash.

February 1, 2023

Top Five Reasons to Give Furbearer Hunting a Try

Illinois may be known as a premier deer hunting state but there are some compelling reasons to diversify your hunting repertoire. Small game, such as squirrels and rabbits as well as waterfowl and upland game birds, can offer some exciting and fast paced hunts. If you really want to try all that Illinois has to offer, you need to look at the interesting and diverse array of critters known as the “furbearers.”

Furbearers with a hunting season include coyote, fox, bobcat (Note: You must draw a bobcat permit in order to pursue bobcats.), raccoon, opossum, woodchuck (actually a game mammal) and skunk. In Illinois, hunters primarily target coyotes, foxes and raccoons when hunting furbearers. Here are our top five reasons to give furbearer hunting a try this winter.

1) Increase Your Outdoor Skills

A snow path with animal tracks leading off into the distance. A person's booted foot is to the left for size comparison of the tracks.
Note the “egg” shape of the typical coyote track. Photo courtesy of the author.

There is considerable overlap in skillsets between successful coyote hunters and successful deer hunters. Both deer and coyotes rely on their excellent nose as a primary defense and prefer edge type habitat. Mature bucks are known to be cautious but think back on your own experiences—have you been within 30 yards of more 3.5-plus year-old bucks or coyotes?

Coyotes often pick the same kind of bedding areas that mature bucks do. Both try to maximize the ability to monitor the surroundings using a strategic location. Usually, this means using topography to get a diversity of air currents into their nostrils. A nice brushy leeward ridge is the coyote equivalent of the Holiday Inn.

Coyote hunters, just like those after big bucks, are wise to consider the wind and topography in each setup. Like deer, coyotes will usually try to swing downwind of the caller, if able. Topography influences airflow and may need to be considered in Illinois’ hillier areas. Those in the central portion of the state can look up “topography” later, but it’s of no real concern to you.

Most coyote and fox hunters will use a smaller caliber rifle, such as .17 HMR, .22 Magnum, .204 Ruger, .220 Swift, .223 Remington or 5.56 NATO, etc., when able to do so. You can check site specific public land regulations at Hunt Illinois. With coyotes being smaller and nimbler than deer, becoming a good shot coyote hunting makes you an excellent shot on bigger game. I am convinced that “being a good shot” boils down primarily to learning how to get steady in the field.

Whether its raccoons, coyotes or deer the shot process is the same. People who pursue the first two get exponentially more shot opportunities than deer only hunters. Reminds me of an old saying about how you get to Carnegie Hall.

2) Spend More Time in the Woods

The furbearer hunting season goes into mid-February, and even longer for coyotes. Once all the deer only hunters leave the woods, public lands can get downright lonely in some places.. a pleasantry usually reserved for the private land holders.

A hunter in camouflage gear sits with his back against a tree and his firearm resting on his lap. The hunter brings up a call to his mouth and attempts to create sounds that bring his quarry closer. In the background is a woodland.
You can find mouth calls to simulate coyote sounds and rodents in distress at most sporting goods stores. Photo courtesy of the author.

Don’t forget about the “time of day” factor when it comes to hunting furbearers. In today’s busy world, you hunt when you can. If your free time happens to be primarily in darkness, fret not. Hunting for coyotes and foxes as well as raccoons can be done, and may even be more productive, after nightfall (season dependent). The woods are a different place at night. Its nice to get to see the familiar become new again.

For many of us, being in the woods, fields and marshes is a much-needed time to reset. Being indoors all the time is not natural nor healthy. After decades of semi-scientific research, I can confidently say there is a direct correlation between my own personal sense of well being and how much time I spend outside in nature. Disclaimer: I am not a doctor.

I am no more a mathematician than I am a doctor but it’s a simple formula. More time in the woods leads to more exciting experiences. If you are observant, more time spent in pursuit of game means more skills and more education. All that adds up to more “luck,” when plugged into the proper equation.

3) Obtain The Coveted Private Land Permission

More than 96 percent of Illinois is privately owned. That doesn’t leave a lot of meat on the bone for us public land hunters. Every public land hunter who has ever come up to trucks in the lot dreams of acquiring sole permission on a private tract. This is the proverbial “unicorn” for a transplant like me.

A hunter in camouflage gear sits with his back against a tree and his firearm in his arms. In the foreground is a small furry decoy to attract his quarry. In the background is a woodland.
Electronic callers and decoys help save your voice and divert attention away from you. Photo courtesy of the author.

Calling landowners out of the blue or knocking on their door and asking to deer hunt has an abysmal success rate for most of us. Instead of leading with deer, you ask about hunting a less popular species, such as coyotes or raccoons, you may see that success rate rise like your interest rates.

On critters that landowners sometimes have nuisance issues with like the afore mentioned furbearers, gaining access to one property will often lead to others. If you end up getting a coyote and send a picture to the landowner, every farmer within 30 miles will see that picture the next morning at the diner. Some may ask for your contact information if they feel they have a need.

If the landowner is interested, perhaps they will tag along on a trip calling coyotes or running raccoons with hounds. Get your “foot in the door” and perhaps someday that hunting permission will expand to include small game, deer and turkey. It’s not a short-term strategy but in the end sometimes the tortoise wins.

4) Add Some Fur to Your Gear

Whoever decided that food was a higher form of utilization than warmth has never been out in single digit temps with 40 mph gusts. If that doesn’t clear it up, meet me at Chain O Lakes State Park (McHenry and Lake counties) in mid-January with just what you were born with and I will give you a choice: a fur coat or a steak?

Hunting for food is certainly a valid reason to hunt. The added benefits of reducing your carbon footprint by eating local and free-range meat apply equally when it comes to warming your body. Like it or not, amongst the apes we are the most hairless. We need some help when we stray too far from the equator.

A hunter in camouflage gear sits on the edge of a grassland. The hunter holds a small device in his hands. The device is gray with buttons, a screen, and an antenna. The hunter has a firearm resting in his lap.
Always start quiet and slowly increase volume on electronic callers. Photo courtesy of the author.

Obviously, there are other options to fur, just as there are other options to eating meat. That doesn’t mean they are good options. Have you ever investigated the materials and processing that goes into your favorite coat or hat? If you did, you would see how a hat made from a coyote or raccoon skin is about a as green as a hat can get.

A well-made fur garment could last up to three generations. No hat you can buy is warmer than a hat made from real fur. You end up with a piece of clothing that is incredibly warm, locally sourced, supports small businesses and has a story. When your child is wearing it 50 years from now, he or she can tell the story of how their parent got these raccoons from the creek down the hill. What piece of current gear do you have that is as cool as that? I’ll wait.

5) It’s fun!

Hunting for raccoons and predators such as coyotes and foxes can offer some exciting hunts. Both raccoons and coyotes have robust and healthy populations across most, if not all, of the state. With fewer furbearer hunters and trappers on the landscape than hunters of other species, opportunities are plentiful.

The fur market that has historically influenced the number of hunters and trappers has taken some major hits over the past few years. This leads to a great opportunity for you, someone new, to get involved. It doesn’t matter what the market price is if you plan to utilize the fur for your own personal gear.

There is nothing quite like the sound of some ‘coon hounds howling down in a creek bottom in the cold dark night. Seeing a pair of coyotes racing across a field towards your calling location is exhilarating as well. Either is sure to get the old ticker thumping about the same as when that target buck finally presents himself.

A researcher kneels near a coyote resting on a tarp on the edge of a woodland. The coyote has a collar for collecting data for research and a eye mask over its face to help keep the coyote calm during the researchers' examination.
Author with a coyote he trapped, collared and released for a study in southwest Wisconsin with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Photo courtesy of the author.

We at the Illinois Learn Hunt program offer Furbearer Hunting content to help get you started. Watch for in-person workshops, educational videos and podcast episodes that are all available for free.

Whether it is to increase your skills or just to spend more time outdoors, don’t look past furbearers as a new hunting possibility. The opportunity is there and its knocking, or barking, or chattering or whatever the heck a fox says. There are adventures to be had for those looking. See you in the woods.

Curtis Twellmann has been with the Illinois Learn to Hunt program since 2020. Growing up in north-central Missouri, Twellmann hunted, fished and trapped from an early age. This led to a wildlife degree from Northwest Missouri State in 2012. From there he worked as a field biologist for the better part of a decade in Nevada, Nebraska, Texas, Alaska and California. Then he spent about three years as the Assistant Furbearer Specialist in Wisconsin before starting with the Illinois Learn to Hunt program.

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