IN SOUTHEAST MINNESOTA -- Jerry Hanson lives in the Twin Cities but has hunted coyotes in this country for 20 years. His dad started him running hounds, though back then the prey was foxes. "Now the coyotes have run the foxes out," Hanson said. "The two won't live together. Coyotes will kill a fox."
As Hanson spoke, he and I were in his pickup. This was Wednesday, and we weren't far from the hunting cabin he stays in when he and his American foxhounds make the trip down here. Owned by a friend, the cabin comes rent-free with a wood-burning stove and a pretty good bed.
"I have to take a snowmobile to get to it, but that's OK," he said.
Hanson is a houndsman, an uncommon type of hunter in Minnesota these days. Time was when many farmers hereabouts kept a hound or two and let them run foxes at night. But a good hound today is a rare sight.
"These dogs need exercise and training," Hanson said, "and in Minnesota it's hard to find a place where you can run them."
It was noon, or nearly so, and a pair of Hanson's foxhounds had been trailing a coyote for nearly two hours. Despite the deep snow, they seemed still to be moving effortlessly, a fact confirmed by Hanson's handheld GPS, which tracked the dogs -- Thunderbolt and Lucky -- via the signal-sending locator collars attached to their necks.
"I'm not entirely familiar yet how to use this thing," Hanson said, his fingers fiddling with the gadget. "It would be better if I did."
Five hunters were in our bunch, some armed with shotguns, others flat-shooting .223s loaded with 36-grain Barnes Grenade bullets. It is, this method of coyote hunting, a social affair often involving this many participants, give or take a few.
Jesse Hadler is here from Lake City, Minn., with his two hounds, also Trapper Aesche from Frontenac, Minn., and Steve Schroeder, Reed Engler and Hanson from the Twin Cities area.
Some coyote hunters prefer to chase these animals without partners or dogs. A call is used, oftentimes that of a distressed rabbit, to attract a coyote to within rifle range. Then, if possible, the animal is popped, and just like that, if things go right, the hunt is ended.
"I prefer hunting with dogs," Hanson said. "For one thing, I like dogs. For another, I enjoy hunting with other people. Also, this way, the hunt takes longer, and I just like that."
Regardless the type of hunting, the effect on the coyote population is the same: zero, or nearly so. Capable, seemingly, of repopulating themselves to counter any threat, coyotes are overabundant throughout Minnesota, surviving on anything that is edible, and many things that are not.
Oftentimes a houndsman will look for fresh coyote tracks crossing a road and put his dogs to chase there. Maybe the tracks are fresh and the chase is in fact begun. But maybe the tracks aren't fresh enough, and the dogs never pick up a trail.
Or perhaps the tracks lead the dogs into danger.
"One time a coyote led Lucky through a yard that had fighting dogs," Hanson said. "They weren't pit bulls, but they were that type of dog. Lucky didn't come out of that too good. I had to bust up the fight and carry him out of there."
A vehicle and a tank full of gas are required for coyote hunting with hounds. A lot of miles can be covered keeping up with the dogs and, eventually, heading off a coyote.
"That's why I hunt down here," Hanson said. "I know the landowners and have permission from most of them to cross their land. There are a lot of places in Minnesota where I could hunt coyotes. But to avoid trouble, you really need to know the landowners."
For a long while, we had no visual contact with Hanson's dogs or the coyote they chased.
Then Aesche came by in his truck, reporting that he saw the dogs not far north of us.
Turning to me, Hanson asked politely: "Do you mind if I drive somewhat aggressively?"
"OK," I said. "Sure."
Whereupon we fishtailed along a backcountry road, hightailing it toward a long bend in the snow-covered gravel, through which we sort of drifted until the pickup's tires again gained traction, rocketing us ahead.
A half-mile farther along, we skidded to a stop in time to see a coyote fairly sprint across a snowswept farm field, 300 yards ahead of Lucky and Thunderbolt, who trailed gamely behind, tongues swinging.
Then, like a ghost, the coyote disappeared, offering no shot.
This chase could end various ways, Hanson said. The coyote might seek refuge in a brush pile, for a standoff until hunters arrived. Or the coyote might get away, running the dogs ragged in the process.
Or a hunter might make a killing shot.
"A coyote runs every night and is in great condition," Hanson said. "I believe a coyote could run 15 miles an hour for an entire day. He's really only about 4 inches across in the chest. And a coyote doesn't weigh much -- a big male is 35 pounds and a female about 10 pounds less. My foxhounds, on the other hand, weigh about 80 pounds and have greater lung capacity. But it's hard to get them in shape anymore to run all day. And the snow tires them out."
Soon Aesche was stuck in the middle of a field, his pickup held up by snow.
We seemed no closer to the coyote than when the chase began.
"We need to change dogs," Hanson said. "Lucky and Thunderbolt are tired."
Now Hadler removes two foxhounds from crates in the back of his truck and leads them on a leash toward a woodlot.
Hanson also breaks out a new hound, Annie, and leads her in the same direction.
Engler, Aesche and Schroeder position themselves strategically in nearby fields, their guns ready.
Hadler and Hanson free their dogs, and the coyote busts from the woodlot, lickety-split, opening its legs and using up country fast.
The deep snow seems not at all to bother the fleeing animal.
I hear what seem to be two shots.
Or maybe not.
Either way, the coyote runs unfazed across the white nothingness, no place to hide, the hounds in pursuit.
Jumping behind the wheel of Hanson's truck, I take my turn driving aggressively on country roads. My camera is my gun, and I'm trying to get close enough for a shot.
Two miles away, the coyote doubles back.
Experienced at this, Hanson, Adler, Schroeder and Aesche know intuitively the direction the coyote is likely to run.
"Like everyone else, a coyote is a creature of habit," Hanson says.
Nearly four hours have passed since the chase began.
The coyote crosses a county road, soon to disappear into another woodlot.
Waiting there is Hanson, a load of buckshot in his 12 gauge.
A squeeze of the trigger and the chase ends.
Retrieving the female coyote from beneath a tree, Hadler discovers that her right rear leg below the knee had been lost long ago, perhaps to an accident, or to an encounter with a trap or gun.
"She ran all that way on three legs," Hanson said. "They're tough animals. I respect them a lot."