Coyotes are crafty critters.

These shrewd canines are able to flourish virtually in our back yards as well as in secluded wilderness. Their spine- tingling howls are often heard, but we seldom see them; they travel mostly at night, leaving behind only tracks in the snow.

But late winter is when coyotes breed, and February is the high point of their mating season. That means they are on their feet more often, even during daylight — especially the unpaired males — as they roam the countryside in search of a mate.

Also, coyotes always seem to be hungry. The colder the weather and the deeper the snow, the more difficult it is for coyotes to find food. November was brutal, with cold temperatures and above normal snowfall. But since then, the winter has been mild, allowing coyotes and other predators to easily move about.

A photographer can lure a hungry coyote into photo range by employing a call that simulates a prey species in distress.

The most popular coyote call imitates the despondent cries of a rabbit about to meet its fate. A coyote, hearing the commotion, thinks an easy meal is available.

A few years ago, on a crisp, sunny winter morning, I was driving the back-roads of central Minnesota, searching an expansive bog for a great gray owl — or for that matter any photo subject — when I spotted three coyotes walking along a ditch bank road cut through the bog.

They were roughly a half-mile away. The normally wary predators had no idea a human was watching them through binoculars. Eventually, the coyotes left the ditch bank and headed into the bog.

With my truck parked out of sight, I hiked the ditch bank, camera, telephoto lens and tripod thrown over one shoulder. When I came to an opening in the bog, I set up.

My plan was to use a mouth-blown call that simulated a deer in distress to lure the coyotes into camera range. I was hoping they would pop out of the heavy vegetation into the opening.

The three canines had a different idea. Within seconds of me blowing on the call, the coyotes appeared back on the ditch bank road and ran in my direction. When they moved to within camera range, about 30 yards, I touched the shutter on the camera.

In the cold winter air, the camera's shutter was loud enough to alert the wary predators. They stopped and stared in my direction. I'll never forget the look in their yellow, predatory eyes.

Then, in unison, they swapped ends and bolted.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.