Fox hunters can have success despite changing nature of the game
Later on this cool but not bitter February evening, success would require filling the overcast night skies with loud cries of violent anguish.
To start, though, pathetic whimpers sufficed.
Cliff Martin turned off the headlights and eased his pickup truck next to the barn. The Ephrata man flipped on his red headlamp, gathered his gear and stepped over the wire fence and into the field.
Almost immediately to his left, red eyes glowed in the dark.
Fox furs on display
Some, chest high and placid even in the face of this late intrusion – the sun had gone down hours earlier – stared back without moving. They belonged to dairy cows.
Lower to the ground, though, others had flickered.
“That might have been something,” Martin whispered, scanning with his lamp.
He quickly set up his shooting station. It’s a surveyor’s tripod, modified with a bench rest-like structure atop it. That’s where Martin lays his single-shot Thompson Center, chambered in .17 Winchester Super Magnum.
Leaving it for the moment, he walked maybe 30 yards further into the field and set out his electronic caller. He doesn’t rely on it much. Martin uses hand and mouth calls most often, but will play the remote-controlled device in combination with them when terrain and wind direction dictate.
“I want them to come in downwind of the caller, not downwind of me,” he said.
That was the case here. So while it sang a mournful tune, issuing low, almost gentle, baby cottontail distress bleats more reminiscent of an infant fussing than one wailing, Martin worked a mouse squeeker by hand.
The subtlety of it all was too much.
A curious red fox, drawn to what it took to be wounded prey, came in, circling. Spotting it in his light, Martin let it close the gap, then whistled. The fox stopped — statue still for just the shortest of seconds — and the suppressed rifle murmured death.
Later, on another farm with the electronic caller belching out an eerie loop of choking, raspy, gargled tales of misery, he would get another.
Over the past decade plus, Martin has averaged about 110 to 120 foxes a year.
Those two were the 129th and 130th of this season. With a week left to go – the season closes on Feb. 18 – that’s already a personal best.
That’s even more amazing than you might think.
During the 2015-16 license year, furtakers in Pennsylvania – via hunting, trapping or both – took about three foxes each on average, according to the Game Commission. That’s been the case for five years running.
Martin is far surpassing that at a time when red foxes are – if hardly in trouble – at least less abundant and tougher to find than previously.
Coyotes are the reason.
Matt Lovallo, chief of the game mammals section for the commission, said red fox populations all across the Northeast have changed since about the mid-1980s, when coyotes erupted on the landscape. Those larger, canines sometimes out-compete foxes for food, he said. At other times, they prey on them outright.
That’s changed fox numbers, Lovallo said.
“Most biologists will tell you there’s a new equilibrium there,” he said.
It’s also changed where they’re typically found. Lovallo said red foxes are increasingly taking up residence “closer to farms, closer to suburban areas, closer to human activity.”
Hunters who likewise adapt can still do well, though.
Many pursue their quarry after dark. The first few hours after sunset can be ideal, said Andrew Lewand of Rochester, N.Y., a field staffer with FoxPro who takes about 35 foxes a season.
“That’s when predators are first starting to move and they haven’t eaten yet. They’re hungry after they’ve been holed up all day,” Lewand said.
“When it’s cold and they’re hungry, they’ll often come running right in.”
Many fox hunters know to do their calling in areas that offer a mix of brushy cover and food sources, too. The goal is to set up there in such a way that foxes reveal themselves as they invariably circle to get downwind of what they hope to eat, Lewand added.
What most don’t know to do, or don’t care or make time to do, is scout like Martin.
While he’s never added them up, he estimates he has permission to hunt 150 to 200 farms in and around Lancaster County.
He doesn’t hit them all regularly, or equally hard. He’s taken as many as eight foxes off one, spread over multiple nights; others he might get to only once a year, and harvest a single fox.
The key, he said, is having access, picking the one whose terrain suits the way the wind is blowing on a particular night, then hunting them correctly.
For him, that means setting up and calling using bird and rabbit distress calls. He calls for 30 seconds or so, waits a minute, then repeats it.
The calls start out softly, in case there’s a fox nearby. They ramp up in intensity the longer he’s on stand.
“I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but that’s how I’ve always done it,” Martin said.
All the while, he’s standing in the middle of fields.
“I like to see at least 100 yards around me, in every direction,” Martin said. “I want to be able to see them as they leave the brush to come out into the open. That way I have a little time to adjust if they come from a direction I didn’t expect them to.”
He’ll call from one spot on a farm – again determined by the wind – for maybe for 15 to 20 minutes early in the season, going to 30 minutes later. If he gets no action, he moves to another property a quarter or half mile away and starts over.
On weeknights he’ll go just a few hours at a time, so he can get some sleep before work. On Friday nights it’s not uncommon for him to hunt until daylight.
The pelts in his garage tell the tale of his success.
While few will match his take, Lewand believe more hunters should similarly try their hand at chasing foxes.
Predator hunting has grown, he said, largely because of coyotes. Hunters who stop there are missing out, though, he added.
“The fox just gives you a great hunt because they’re a lot of fun. They’re smart, a challenge,” Lewand said.
Martin knows. It’s why he hunts them to the exclusion of just almost anything else.
“I don’t know, there’s just something about it,” Martin said. “For me, I really enjoy it.”