Story by David Condos
The art of calling and killing coyotes is competitive stuff.
Sometimes people cheat — bagging kills before a contest and then trying to pass them off as fresh at the final check-in.
So this year for the first time, when contestants gather in Kismet, Kansas, the three teams with the most coyote kills will each send one of their members to sit down for a lie detector test.
“We’ve never done that in the past,” said Bryan Garrison, who founded the Southwest Kansas Coyote Calling Contest five years ago. “I want everybody to be on the same page and it to be as fair as you can get it.”
The polygraph examiner will drive five-plus hours to give the tests on Sunday evening when all contestants present their coyotes at the Kismet Community Pavilion to be counted, weighed and inspected.
But Garrison says he understands that lie detector tests aren’t foolproof.
“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking,” Garrison said. “If you sat me down and started drilling me with questions, I think I’d fail.”
So any team that believes the polygraph misread its member’s honesty can pay $200 to have a second member tested and get a shot at redemption.
Coyote calling contests stem from the common practice of ranchers hiring local hunters to kill coyotes to protect their livestock.
A 2017 report from the USDA says coyotes accounted for 40.5% of cattle deaths due to predators nationwide. There are conflicting opinions among wildlife experts, however, as to whether killing coyotes actually protects livestock or just leads to larger coyote populations in the long run.
But Garrison said coyotes are largely viewed as pests by the farmers and ranchers he knows. When his neighbors in southwestern Kansas have coyote problems on their property, they call Garrison.
“I’ve been out three times this week,” he said. “The other night, a guy said, ‘I’ve got 50 coyotes in my yard at 3 a.m., and we can’t even sleep.’ And I said, ‘I’ll be out tomorrow.’”
The groups at Garrison’s contest have two days to find and shoot as many coyotes as they can. They use calls that mimic the sound of distressed rabbits, squeaking rodents and other coyotes to draw the animals within firing range. The team that brings the most coyotes back to Kismet wins, with total weight serving as a tie-breaker.
But keeping a coyote calling contest fair is a challenge. Even before he called the polygraph examiner, Garrison already added a number of rules over the years to crack down on the cheaters.
First, each contestant needs to write the time of a kill on a wooden block and zip-tie the dead coyote’s mouth shut around it. This gives Garrison a better idea of when rigor mortis set in, so he can work out the actual time of death.
“That’s how you know that somebody didn’t go shoot coyotes last week,” Garrison said. “If it’s new, you got to really want to get it out of there. It’s that tight.” Rigor mortis eventually passes, and the jaws loosen up after a few days.
Temperature core readings offer another safeguard against cheating. Garrison determines the temperature of each coyote brought to check-in and compares it to the kill time written on the block in its mouth.
“If I shoot a coyote at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday,” Garrison said, “that coyote should be way cooler than the coyote I shot on Sunday at 2.”
As long as they follow the rules, the contestants are free to chart their own path. They can use whichever type of coyote call they want. Garrison says electronic calls have gained popularity in recent years, but he still prefers a hand or mouth call because it requires a finer touch and allows him more flexibility to tweak the sounds he creates.
Callers can also hunt wherever they choose, as long as they have permission. Garrison says some contestants travel in from out of state for registration Friday night and then drive back home to hunt before returning on Sunday.
The winning team gets a cash prize that grows as more groups join and pay the $200 entry fee. But it’s not easy money, based on the serious hunters Garrison has seen in past years.
“If you couldn’t put up 10, 15, 20 coyotes in a weekend, you wouldn’t even think about winning,” Garrison said, “or even being in the top three.”
Even though coyote calling takes place outdoors, COVID-19 has still had an impact on this year’s season. One of the region’s largest coyote contests, presented by outdoors retailer Cabela’s in Oklahoma City, hasn’t announced a date for this year.
At the Kansas contest, which has drawn hunters from as far as Wyoming and New Mexico, Garrison will encourage face coverings and sanitize shared areas where the group gathers for registration and a shared meal Friday night.
Garrison said the contest’s registration numbers trail the previous year’s. That may be partly because of the pandemic. But he also said the lie detector may have kept away some serious hunters who don’t want to risk the stain of a false-negative test result on their reputation.
“I have some pros that I don’t have this year,” Garrison said. “And I think the lie detector kind of scared them off.”
But Garrison said the group that shows up this weekend will not only be part of the fairest contest he’s hosted yet, but also have the chance to connect with a growing community of coyote callers.
“The first year, nobody knew anybody. But now they come in, and we’ve all known each other for five years,” Garrison said. “My true goal with this contest was getting people out together to teach them something new.”
David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.