March 23 10:23 AM

Tips to keep from getting 'out-foxed'


The author's favorite method of hunting the red fox is by tracking or calling. Rick Baetsen photo
February 01, 2009
Fox hunting in the Thumb is steeped in long-standing traditions. My first varmint hunting excursions as a kid, involved trying to outwit the local red foxes. Originally, the Thumb was the territory of the gray wolf, but clearing away the big forests for agriculture (as well the big forest fire of 1881), the habitat evolved into red fox territory. "Old Reynard" of legend fits quite well into the Thumb's open farm country that is interspersed with frequent woodlots.

The American red fox used to be classified as a separate species (Vulpes fulva) than the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes), but recent research has determined they are both one and the same critter, and are both listed now under the latter category. The red fox is a superb predator and can tackle some surprisingly larger than its size prey animals. A friend of mine was spring turkey hunting here in the Thumb when a red fox responded to his hen calls, and suddenly pounced on the large hen-turkey decoy with amazing ferocity. I've also had red fox respond to "fawn in distress" bleat calls.

My two favorite methods of hunting the red fox are, tracking right after a fresh snow, and calling (mouth or electronic). When tracking (I refer to it as "walking down" a fox), I sometimes work with a partner, and we trade off with one hunter trying to head the fox off at anticipated exits, as the other tracks.

When I've tracked solo, I've always been amazed at the twists and turns a red fox can take you on once it senses you are on its trail. I'll never forget the fox whose trail vanished before my eyes when I reached a plowed field. Only after careful examination did I discover its paw print on top of a sun-softened piece of exposed soil. The fox obviously knew I was following its tracks, and crossed the plowed field by stepping only on the frequent soil protrusions.

However, what caught my eye were soil particles cast on the snow when the fox removed its paw for another step, so I was soon back on its trail (but ended up being "outfoxed" in that particular instance).

My preferred firearm for fox when tracking is a 12 ga. shotgun loaded with heavy-duty shot such as #2 birdshot or BB (lead), because I've more often than not finally jumped old Reynard in the thick stuff with it usually being a running shot.

I've had my best results calling right at sunrise and just before dark, using rabbit in distress calls (and often a battery operated decoy for a focal point for an incoming fox). A rifle is frequently my chosen tool in this regard, with my favorite being a T/C Contender Carbine in .223. It is topped with a compact 4X T/C scope that has crosshairs that light up "red" when you turn a switch, and to me this combination is an ultimate lightweight varmint-hunting rig (center-fire rifles are legal for varmint hunting in southern Michigan during daylight hours). I also frequently use handguns for fox, with my favorite being an old Colt "Frontier Scout" revolver using its .22 magnum rim fire cylinder.

While I think the .22 (long rifle) rim fire can be on the light side for coyote, it will readily handle a fox. I have a new scoped semi-automatic Remington 597 that I definitely plan on trying out. The .17 caliber rim fires Mach 2 and HMR also have fox hunting written all over them. The beauty of the rim fire rounds is that they can still be legally used while calling after dark, which is a fascinating pastime in its own right. (The rim fire rounds will handle a coyote when very properly placed).

Another fox that can be hunted in the Thumb is the "gray". The gray fox is appearing more frequently on our local scene, and I employ the same methods for hunting it as above. However my tracking after grays has put me into the really thick and nasty cover, as this is its preferred habitat. It will also quickly go to ground when pressured, and has been known to climb trees. Of course it can't scamper up a tree like a squirrel or cat, but it can clamber up one if there are plenty of limbs, or a cant to the tree-trunk. This fact also gives the gray an edge over the red when coyotes are encountered, as coyotes will often try to kill a fox they can run down or corner.

There was a time when the coyote first became prevalent in the Thumb that I was worried about the red fox becoming nearly eliminated, but now I believe the red fox more often than not picks other territory and simply avoids coyotes, because they seem to move right back into a given area when coyote numbers appear down.

The gray fox has a courser pelt than the red, and thus doesn't usually fetch as much money at fur sales. Grays and reds run pretty close to the same size, and both appear pretty lean without their fluffy, fur coats. On an average, a gray weighs a tad heavier than the red. The record weight for a red is 15 pounds, and for the gray it is 19 pounds, but the average adult weight for either is only about 8-10 pounds.

It is not that difficult to determine whether the fox tracks in the snow are from a gray fox or a red fox. The red has fur on the bottom of its paw pads, and they appear more like smudges. The gray doesn't have fur on its paw pads, and such will be clearly defined. I guess because of the lack of fur on the gray's paw pads, their tracks will often appear smaller than those made by the red. Depending upon their gait, both the red a gray make tracks in an evenly dotted line, or in sets of neatly placed twos.

Both the red and gray have excellent eyesight, and while I usually haven't had the hunter orange safety color (which is required when varmint hunting) pose a problem, I know from experience that it doesn't take any fox long to recognize the human form. Where a deer might assume a stationary human is part of the scenery, a fox is just the opposite, and it pays for a hunter to wisely use proper camouflage, and in the case of calling, choose the spot well, and avoid sky-lining the human form.

Both the gray and red also have very keen hearing, and can even hear a mouse squeak from a distance of up to several hundred feet, depending upon wind conditions (which is why the hand-squeezed "squeaker" call can be surprisingly quite effective). Without question both the red and gray have an excellent sense of smell, and more often than not will try to move to the downwind side of a calling hunter when venturing in. The key is to see them before they see or smell you.

Fox hunting is still alive and well in the Thumb, although the coyote seems to be stealing all the glamour these days. Personally, I've always enjoyed fox hunting, especially for the red fox. Winters just wouldn't be the same without "old Reynard" wandering about his hunting range.

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