DICKINSON, N.D. -- Though the snow glitters with ice, Kyle Kline crosses it in near silence.
Cutting a narrow path through the snow, he moves steadily across the windswept grassland, snow drifts at times swallowing his legs up to the knee. The morning sun is high-he's been hunting coyotes for a few hours now, and so far, has nothing to show for it but a single wasted bullet. Hunting is a patient sport, but the anticipation is high-something has to come through at this stand.
"(Coyotes) are the smartest animal I've ever hunted. I've hunted deer, elk-they're smart," Kline said. "They're scavengers; they're not like an aggressive animal. If you had a live rabbit, a wounded rabbit and a dead rabbit, they wouldn't even look at the two living rabbits. People joke if there's ever a zombie apocalypse, there'll be zombies and coyotes. They can survive anywhere."
That keen survival instinct makes them wary of obvious ambushes, and Kline knows that. He's careful to mind the wind, wanting to avoid his scent traveling toward his prospective prey. He'll wind around a butte, changing course at the drop of a hat if the wind doesn't feel right. Keeping out of sight and out of smell, he eventually reaches his stand and readies his rifle.
"The more stands you make, the more probability you make of killin' coyotes," Kline said. "If you don't see a coyote in 12 to 15 minutes during a tournament, you're just wasting your time."
Kline uses both hand and electronic calls to lure the coyotes in, but the real draw is the weather. Although the sun has been up for some time, the grass and fences are encased in icy crystal. In these low temperatures, coyotes need even more food than usual to keep their energy up.
"Yesterday the weather was perfect because we had a storm for two days," Kline said. "Coyotes are like us, they don't want to be out in that weather, so they are holed up in their den somewhere so they haven't eaten for two days. So yesterday, it was minus 15 and dead calm; they were out like crazy."
Kline works for Scheels, a sporting goods store in Bismarck, N.D., and he's well-equipped with insulated clothing, gloves and gear. The technology of outfitting has advanced a lot, Kline said. He recalled times past when cold temperatures would deter hunters from going out.
"The thing with gear is, you can be out there and you can hunt with gear that isn't the best stuff out there, but if you're not comfortable, you're not going to have fun," Kline said. "You'll be shivering, and you can't make a shot as good ... when I was little, when I remember going out with my dad, we would never go out when it was below 20 degrees. When we went out (this past) New Year's Eve, it was 34 below."
Ten minutes go by and Kline hasn't seen anything yet. Sweeping the horizon, something moves in the periphery. A speck of brown in the distance-not a deer, but the distinctive shape of a canine tail. As one coyote moves along a butte to peer toward Kline's call, a second lingers back, more cautious. He doesn't want to come too close.
"When they get territorial, I think they're easier to call," Kline said. "There's two easy coyotes to call-pups and territorial coyotes. Pups are easy to call ... guys will wait until the pups are born, then kill mom and dad, so the pups grow up with nobody to teach them anything ... so they'll respond to any kind of distress call, whether it's a mouse or rabbit or deer. They'll come running."
The closer of the coyotes pauses, sniffing the air. Kline peers down his sights. The air hangs still, and then-pop! A burst of suppressed sound, a rush of air. The further coyote slumps into the snow. The closer one immediately springs into motion, fleeing for the treeline. Pop! Another shot goes wide. The gun clicks-a momentary malfunction. The coyote risks one last glance back toward the hunter and then vanishes into the snow.
The other remains. His pelt is thick and healthy. Kline estimates its worth around $80-enough to pay the cost of the fuel for the trip. By day's end, he'll have taken four more coyotes, bringing them that evening back to Dickinson for the check-in at the close of the Coyote Classic hunting tournament.
The 16th annual Coyote Classic was underway Friday, Jan. 12, through Saturday, Jan. 13, bringing in hunters from all around the area and beyond to test their skills against North Dakota's winter. Conditions on Friday were ideal for the hunt, and the top team of 24 teams brought in 13 coyotes by themselves.
Aaron Anderson is from Regent, N.D. He and his partner took 11 coyotes the first day, placing themselves in the top three. He said he's been hunting basically since he could walk.
"My dad taught me everything from hunting to trapping to snaring," Anderson said. "I started hunting this tournament 13 years ago."
Despite his veteran status, Anderson said coyotes never cease to surprise him.
"The thing about coyote hunting is ... you never stop learning something new about the animal," he said. "Just when you think you've got them figured out, they surprise you."
Understanding the animal is integral to hunting them, and Anderson said he has great respect for the coyote.
"I have total respect for every animal I hunt," Anderson said. "Without them, I wouldn't be able to do the things I enjoy: hunting and snaring. If you hate 'em ... that's not the way to do it."
Anderson is driven by the passion and the challenge, the competition between man and beast.
"It's kind of a battle between you and them," Anderson said. "Who wins?"
He ended with 13 coyotes killed total, a result he said is probably the best he's done in the tournament.
"It went really well. I guess you just gotta keep pushing," he said. "When you start feeling tired, you just gotta tell yourself to go to the next spot."
Victor Roman used to live in nearby Dunn Center, N.D., and he'd come to take another crack at coyote hunting, a hobby he'd developed during his time in North Dakota working in the oil fields.
"It's a bit more casual. You're not hunting to fill your freezer ... it's more about the fur market," Roman said. "You're harvesting the furs."
Coyote furs are at a premium right now, and hunters can get prices well above $100 from a high-quality fur. This is a definite shift in fortunes. The tournament's founder, Jamie Olson, recalled when he first started organizing the Coyote Classic, you were lucky to get much of anything for coyote furs.
"I had one year where I averaged $3 for a coyote," Olson said. "I remember the first year, which was several years in, six or seven, we had a $16 average. Then it kind of creeped up ... crashed back down ... there was years and years and years where there was just no money to be had."
The tournament began out of a love for the sport-and Olson's desire to see a code of rules in place to conduct sportsmanship-and that passion remains evident in the worn, frost-flushed and smiling faces of the hunters as they sit back, tally up their kills and swap stories over a hearty bowl of chili.
"Until I can't walk anymore, I'll be doing this," Anderson said.