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Thinking like a coyote
Champion predator caller Les Johnson spoke Saturday at the Wyoming Trapping Association Expo at the Fremont County Fairgrounds in Riverton. Photo by Randy Tucker

Thinking like a coyote: Expert predator caller wows, educates crowd at trapping expo

Aug 29, 2013 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

Growing up in the American heartland often produces cries of "there's nothing to do around here," particularly in teenagers and young adults. That cry didn't get far with a youthful Les Johnson and his grandfather, Herbert Fox Johnson, in tiny Edgar, Neb.

Johnson's grandfather had a profound impact on the youngster. The elder Johnson was one of the best hunters and trappers in the small midwestern community, and the tradition lives on in his grandson.

Les Johnson generally is regarded as the best predator caller in the United States, winning five national championships and placing in the top five more than a dozen times. He took his winning form to television, where he is the host of the popular outdoor program, "Predator Quest."

Johnson was the featured speaker at last weekend's Wyoming Trapping Association Expo in Riverton.

"I asked my grandpa what the smartest animal he trapped was," Johnson said. "He told me 'the coyote.'"

His hero

Johnson grew up trapping muskrats and small predators in southern Nebraska but had to wait until he was in his teens to go to the prime areas with his grandfather.

"When you grow up, you want to follow somebody and have them be your hero," Johnson said. "Until he could trust us not to tell where we were hunting and trapping, he didn't take us."

Johnson spoke to a crowd of approximately 200 at the Fremont County fairgrounds late Saturday afternoon.

"I'm a trapper by heart. I learned the tools of calling by looking for prime spots," Johnson said. "Trapping is an important aspect of wildlife population control."

Getting TV start

Johnson's television career started on the suggestion of his friend Don Hughes of Colorado Springs.

"He asked me, 'why don't you do a pilot episode?'" Johnson said. "Wild TV in Canada and the Sportsman Channel in the U.S. picked us up.

"I budget three days to do an episode. One of the biggest complaints is I make it look too easy."

Johnson's work doesn't come without controversy.

"People call you and ask 'why you would kill an innocent coyote?'" Johnson said.

An area of controversy much closer to Wyoming is his decision to not air any episodes involving a wolf hunt.

"One of the toughest things is when one of my sponsors asks me 'are you or are you not going to be killing wolves?'" Johnson said. "'If you air a wolf kill we can't sponsor you.'"

Johnson's first coyote competition came back in 1990 in Wyoming's Red Desert.

"We slept in the truck at the Rip Griffin Truck Stop then went out on the desert," Johnson said. "Anywhere you see antelope you should make a stand."

Fun in competition

How can hunters and trappers become better callers?

"The secret is to spend the time and call everything," Johnson said. "We all think we can understand them, but it takes a lot to understand a coyote."

Johnson had some fun with his competition back in 2006. Late in the morning, with 11 coyotes to his credit, Johnson decided to stop in Wamsutter and order some Chester Fried Chicken.

"I wanted everybody to see my pickup and think that we had given up," Johnson said. "We brought in all 11 coyotes in before noon. Competitions force you to learn to look at country in a different aspect."

Johnson is a television host, but he doesn't have a naturally extroverted personality.

"I took speech in college on Thursday night because that was party night, and no one would be in the class," Johnson said. "I was a very shy kid."

Think like a coyote

Johnson is an expert with a wide variety of calls that he produces and sells, but at Saturday's workshop he produced amazing sounds with just his hands and lips, to the delight of the crowd.

"Nebraska coyotes are tough. They make a mad dash when they break cover because there are section roads every mile and they get shot at all the time," Johnson said. "Calling with my hand brought in red fox, bobcats and a lot of coyotes."

Johnson calls his lip squeak the "kiss of death." He demonstrated the technique then told audience members that they should try the technique in parking lots if they noticed a dog in the back of a truck or in a vehicle.

"If you can get a dog to turn his head toward you with a lip squeak, you can get a coyote to listen too," Johnson said.

Johnson noted that the sport is changing. There are more coyotes than ever and they adapt so well they'll never disappear but there are hundreds of more people hunting now.

"It becomes a game," Johnson said. "You have to be creative, try something new, or change something."

Johnson always calls at a high volume.

"I call loud. This is a huge country," Johnson said. "The bulk of coyotes will come in eight to 12 minutes."

Location and "thinking like a coyote" are keys to the hunt as well. Paying attention to the wind and the direction a scent may carry are as important as the calling.

"Their eyes and ears will let them down, but their noses never will," Johnson said.

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