In this post we cover the biology of the timber wolf, the importance of the harvest and how to improve your chances.
By Laura Douglas
Growing up we hunted to fill our freezer and so for us the hunting season ended after bow season closed for deer and didn’t reopen until the start of the bear season in late summer. We’d harvest what small game and fish we could but the big game season was what kept the freezer full.
Around here we don’t generally eat fully carnivorous animals (except fish of course!). Meat from predators can have an awful smell/taste, are full of parasites and lets be honest, it makes some a bit squeamish eating an animal that resembles their beloved pets. BUT we do eat the meat from other predators (bear) regularly and we never want to waste so we’ll be giving any harvested wolves a try - If its palatable we’ll stock up our freezer; if it’s inedible we’ll use it to bait.
As we grew older, we started to really listen to the trappers talk and our parents continual stream of life lessons on the importance of patience, the basic biology of the animals we harvested and the impact of large roaming packs to our hunting grounds. Predator-prey interactions and the importance of wildlife management became more than a concept our mentors had told us about. Wolf hunting became our winter adventure.
In Ontario, you can find both the eastern and western wolf but in our hunting grounds, we only have western wolves. The western wolf is better know as the gray (or grey) wolf or more commonly to us, the timber wolf. The timber wolf is the largest of the wolf species standing approximately 2.5ft tall and weighing over 80lbs however around here timbers can reach upwards of 100lbs. The wolf has a broad snout and rounded ears and these, along with size, are key characteristics that can be used to distinguish them from coyotes (pointed ears and narrow snout). Cross breeding between wolves and coyotes are becoming more and more common so fortunately, our tags covers both wolf and coyotes.
Timbers are usually mottled grey/brown in colour but we’ve seen wolves be pure white or all black. Females may be smaller is stature but their coat grows out thicker, more even and lasts longer into the spring when they give birth. Like most canines, wolves have a dual coat which keeps their heat in and the cold out. Their coat is part of what makes them such successful hunters in the winter so don’t avoid hunting on those extreme weather days.
Large paws with extra fur and webbing between them help a wolf stay above the snow and can help you more easily track a pack. Look for the track that’s 3-4” a track that follows a determined path. Adult wolves have a purpose when they walk so look for track that follow a determines path; domesticated dogs tend to meander and have no set path to their tracks. Wolves can catch a scent kilometres away and can hear 2-3 times that distance so while you want to set up in an active area in the core of a territory, you don’t need to set up right on top of the packs current location. Look for tracks and set up where you see lots of activity and the pack will return in time.
During the winter the pack will be expanding it’s travel to seek out more prey which have to travel larger distances for food.This is what we refer to as a roaming pack, which can cover hundreds of km in a day. Packs stay closer to the core of their territory come spring/summer because the prey don’t need to travel as much because food is easily accessible once again. Packs are highly territorial and lone wolves often avoid detection in a packs territory by remaining silent and avoiding the pack. Wolves will kill any non-pack member if they see them as a threat. A new wolf only approaches if they want to join the pack (as a juvenile) or to challenge for alpha. This is why calls work to bring in a pack, you become the lone wolf intending to challenge.
Wolf packs contain a mixture of wolves from adults through to pups but you’ll likely never see the pups, especially not at a bait site. The pack is structured with an alpha pair (the main breeding pair) and then a mixture of less dominant adults, juveniles and yearlings. Keeping an eye on your bait is key, the feeding order will quickly distinguish the dominance in the pack as the alphas always eat first. Pairs mate in the late winter and have their pups in the spring, and while the alphas are the main breeding pair, other females in the pack can produce litters and females rarely go unmated. Take a female when you can, as a pack often contains multiple males that may not be mating at all.
Predator vs. Prey
Understanding predator/prey interactions is important if we want to continue harvesting prey. Feeding our families with deer, moose or elk means we need to understand and harvest predators as well. For most animals harvesting a large male is best as it reduces our effects on the population and you’ll definitely be able to harvest more resources. Females are always the limiting factor in a populations growth, this is also why cow/calf season opens late in the year and why antlerless deer tags are hard to come by. However, for wolves we are aiming to reduce the population so put your sights on the female of the pack.
Wolf packs are responsible for killing up to half of the yearly big game animal populations (moose, deer and elk) and the success of next years hunt depends on previous years population health. Meaning if the wolves were successful in winter the prey population in spring will dwindle but the wolves are able to increase reproduction. Then in the following years, with a lower prey population, you will see less success in the wolf population and likely some will die off, resulting in the chance for increase reproduction in moose populations. Now, life is never this simple and other predators, weather, disease and us as hunters play a large role in this interaction as well.
Seasons play a large role in how the pack will feed and winter is their most successful time. Winter is tough for prey animals with deep snow covering their food plots, making it harder for them to feed and walk. As a result large game need to continuously move to find new vegetation in order to survive and the effort is exhausting. Wolves with their large paws and thick coats are not bothered by the snow and use less energy travelling through it. The deeper the snow and the colder the year the better the wolves do.This will change when the powder gets too deep, the wolves sink and can’t keep up a chase. On warmer years and closer to the spring, you may have more success with baiting as the wolves are less successful on their hunts.Colder years or in the dead of winter the wolves are more successful so you may have a better shot at calling them in.
Hunting the Hunter
Check your WMU as some have a wolf hunting season that is open year round, some have a limited seasons/tags and in several areas there is no season.This is especially important near Provincial parks in Ontario where the Algonquin (eastern) wolf is now protected. You might be able to bait to bring in a wolf but this isn’t always possible. If baiting is illegal in your area or your bait isn’t hot or if you’re in the back country and couldn’t be bothered to carry a half a cow in with you, then calling is your go to.
Baiting is a main strategy for us as it it allows us to easily set up and sit out of the elements on those extreme weather days. Baiting also gives us a chance to monitor the pack and all predator activity using trail cameras. We like to use scrap meat from our local butchers. We use 3 different ones so we’re always supplied. Preference is always for a full carcass as it keeps the animal eating at the bait site, and these are readily available just after the large game season. The longer into the season we get, the harder it is to access full carcasses. So we get anything from heads to hocks and of course we use whatever raw meat we get from our kitchens (it is prime ice fishing season at the start of the year). Scraps are easier to carry off, meaning less time for that perfect shot. However they are quick to eat so they’ll be back to get more.
The roaming pack is constantly on the move and it may take several days to get them in range to smell the bait. Place your bait in a well traveled area and re-stock it as needed, on occasion the birds will take down your bait before the pack finds it. At our sites, we use pine boughs to help visually disguise the bait and to slow down birds when they do discover it (some birds can still smell the meat). Boughs can be easily harvested right at your bait site and don’t hinder the chances of wolves finding the bait. We’d had several trappers tell us they use raw hides as it adds to the scent and deters birds that are incapable of quickly getting through or moving the long, heavy covering. (fun fact, this same tactic works for your garbage at the curb to keep birds from scattering it! Although, we use an old blanket so as to not attract more predators.)
Once our bait is discovered, we set up a blind at the edge of the clearing near our bait. This way we can get the best footage and can watch the interactions of the pack more closely giving us the best chance of getting a breeding female. As we get later on in the season, or if we’ve already harvested, we’ll move off the bait onto a travel route. The closer the wolf gets to a bait site, the more alert they become. So if you’re having no success, try setting yourself up along the travel route to the bait rather then right at the bait. We’ve read a few articles that discuss this as their most successful position so give it a shot (pun not intended!).
Wolves have excellent senses and are extremely smart animals so you’re not aiming to hide from a pack but rather to not be seen as a threat(awkward). You want them to feel at ease and not be deterred by you. If you’re not in a blind, keep some structure at your back and try to blend into your surroundings (wolves can spot blaze orange a long ways off). When possible get in a position that allows you to use a strong cross breeze for scent control. Bad weather days can also help with this as heavy rain/snow helps to dampen any noises you make and the scents you give off. While storms may deter most animals, wolves know it increases their odds of a successful hunt so they become more active, excited and focused on food and not you.
Being seen as a threat can be used to your advantage and help bring wolves in. To help locate the pack, start off with a few howls (yours or a predator call system). Lone wolves often slink silently through a territory so a howl signals an “I want in” or “I want to take over” challenge. Wolves rarely bark but the whine of a wolf pup can work to pique curiosity, if the pack is close enough.
Once you get a response, try switching over to prey calls to lure in the pack. We’ve had wolves come into our stands during big game season when we’re trying to call in a bull moose; nothing stands up the hairs on the back of your neck when a wolf howl pierces the early morning darkness. You want to focus first on large game so try a cow moose call, doe bleat or an elk call - whatever is appropriate for the area. If that’s not working, give distress calls for smaller game (deer fawn or rabbit). Using the call of prey will work the pack into thinking there is good food, a fresh scavenging opportunity, or (in combination with a howl) that you’re hunting on their territory.
Calling for us is a great strategy on a clear sunny day when our calls travel the farthest, when its late in the season, when we know the pack is on the move, or when we’re just getting antsy sitting in the blind. We do very little calling at our bait so our blind is not seen as a threat. It won’t take a wolf long to learn your howl and avoid it. Keep on the move and re-visit areas with lots of signs.Stay at each site for at least 30 mins but don’t stay too long (although we move after 45-90 mins, we only call for 30-45mins) if you’re getting no response. The pack may be far off so you want to get in range but the last thing you want to do is train them to avoid your calling site.
Whether you bait, call, sit, or roam to harvest a wolf, always be on the lookout for the best setup location. We like to pick somewhere with good visibility and site lines so we often work clear cuts, frozen lakes or fields. Set up with a good view of the bush line and get as high up as you can. You want to be able to spot a wolf before it sees you so make sure you have some structure at your back. A timber’s territory can be hundreds of square kilometres so it may take a while for them to find your bait or hear a call so be patient. Wolf hunting is not easy and to be successful usually takes long days and many hours in the woods trying different tactics to bring one of these majestic creatures into your sights. When you get one down, wait it out, this is a pack animal and another one likely wont be far behind.
As always keep educated, know what you’re hunting and ensure you’re harvesting the proper animal. If you don’t know, don’t pull that trigger.
This post is about educating yourself and while we provide some basic information. We are not experts in animal biology or monitoring programs and although we know our own regulations we don't know yours. Click to read more in our Animal 101 Series
Check your local regulations as there may be restriction or prohibitions on:
- harvesting predatory females with pups/cubs
- hunting/trapping certain species in your WMU or a specified areas within a WMU
- partial or complete baiting of animals
Most areas have monitoring programs for many different types of animal and its not uncommon to find tags on anything from hares to deer to wolves - Check out Ontario’s Provincial Wildlife Population Monitoring Program Plan
What to learn more wolves, how they hunt, their importance in the food chain and their re-introduction into the American wild. We like watching the Apex predator, Nat Geo’s America the Wild - Inside the Wolf Pack and BBCs Natural World - Wolf Pack (episode can be found on YouTube)