Color-Coded Fox Hunting

While their appearance is similar, red and gray fox are as different as day and night.

Steve Frye and his hunting partner weren't doing so well on a cold night in central Pennsylvania a few years ago. They were off to a late start, and the handful of stands they tried didn’t produce a single predator. Then, with time running out and any hope of success fading, the two hunters pulled up to another spot, parked their vehicle and walked through the chilly darkness.

“You know how you have a good feeling before you start hunting? I just had this feeling we were going to do well at this spot,” recalled Frye.

Within minutes, he and his friend had two gray fox on the ground, a pair that came into shotgun range on a dead run. Instead of celebrating, however, Frye played a hunch and left his electronic call on and the volume up. It was a good move. Less than a minute later, two more grays lay on the ground, again, the result of two quick shots from Frye and his partner.

It wasn’t the only time Frye has scored doubles on fox, but that night was the first double-double. He’s also dropped two reds in a single spot on another hunt, but both were, he admitted, ambushed instead of called in to gun range. In fact, during the course of his predator hunting career, Frye has never pulled in two reds at the same time from a single stand. That’s the way it is with reds and grays. Both are fox, of course, but they’re completely different animals.

With nearly 20 years of predator hunting under his belt, Frye, who lives in the fox-rich country of central Penn­syl­vania, has learned how to adjust his stand locations and calling tactics to target one species or the other. When all the pieces fall together, he can score big, taking as many as a dozen grays or a half-dozen reds in a single night.

Habitat Matters
When Frye wants to target gray fox, he seeks out thick cover, often so thick it’s virtually impossible to walk through—places such as regenerated clear-cuts, pine plantations and other areas of thick, young trees are prime gray fox country. He also finds good numbers of grays in swampy terrain and deep woods, although mature hardwoods tend to hold fewer predators because they have less food and cover for small mammals and birds.

“If I’m calling red fox, I’ll hunt farmland that has lots of crops, pastures, brushy fencelines and maybe some smaller woodlots,” he explained. “Dairy farms are great red fox habitat, I rarely find reds in gray fox cover and grays in open country.”

Of course, thick cover can be found adjacent to cropland and pastures, and it’s not out of the question to call in a gray and a red from the same stand or at least on the same property.

Reds and grays do have some similar characteristics. Both prefer to travel under the cover of darkness, and Frye typically won’t start hunting until an hour or so after sunset. He favors dark, moonless nights, but he won’t hesitate to hunt any chance he gets. “I don’t like bright, moonlit nights because it makes it easier for fox to see me, especially red fox because there is usually much less cover,” he said.

Hard-Charging Grays
When he does focus his efforts on gray fox, Frye will use a sort of run-and-gun approach, hitting lots of spots and giving each only about 15-20 minutes before he picks up and moves to a new spot. How far he travels between stands depends on several factors, including weather, terrain and the overall size of the property. Bigger farms allow him to space out his stands, but if he only has 20 or 30 acres to hunt, he won’t move quite as far, maybe just a hundred yards or so.

“If it’s hilly, I might just go up and over one or two hills before I start calling again,” he said. “Also, if it’s breezy, I’ll move less than a hundred yards and try again, especially if I’m in an area that looks real good.”

No matter how far he travels, he typically won’t wait too long before he moves. Grays are notoriously reckless, charging in often within minutes of the first sound of food—sometimes within seconds.

Frye recalled one gray that was not only in his face, but on the ground from a single shot of his shotgun in 14 seconds. That’s why he gets completely prepared before he flicks on the switch of his call and his spotlight. He already has a seat picked out and he has his gun on his knee and his finger on the safety. He favors logging or ATV trails and small openings within the thick cover. If there are no openings or trails, he’ll get right on the outside edge of that cover.

Frye’s favorite early season gray fox call is a fox pup in distress sequence from either a FoxPro or a Knight & Hale eCaller electronic call. However, as the season progresses, he stops using that call, not only because young fox have grown, but because other hunters might still be using it. Grays can be reckless at times, but once they get educated, they can be just as skittish as a pressured whitetail.

“I’ll switch to some other food-type call, like a wounded rabbit,” he said. “I’ve even called in quite a few with a prairie dog distress call and a sage rat distress call. We obviously don’t have prairie dogs and sage rats where I live, but I don’t think the specific call is as important as using something that sounds like an injured animal that might be an easy meal.”

That’s not to say gray fox are, well, dumb, it’s just that competition for food is somewhat higher where they live and the fox that gets to the easy meal last will go to bed hungry. On the other hand, they do exhibit some head-scratching behavior. Frye recalled one gray fox that had to be shooed away from his remote electronic caller before he could take a shot. The fox came in quiet and was standing over the call before Frye figured out it was there. He said the animal circled the call a few times, trying to find the meal before Frye stood up, raised his gun and made a noise to get the fox to move.

“I’ve had quite a few grays come straight in from downwind like they didn’t have a care in the world, but I always pay attention to wind direction when I set up,” he added.

Stealthy Reds
Red fox aren’t quite as reckless as grays. In fact, they can be downright shy, refusing to close the distance at all. Frye has called numerous reds that simply sat down along the edge of a distant fenceline only to wander off for no apparent reason. A few will actually come straight in, but Frye has never had one rush in like many gray fox do. Others will close the distance, but only after some coaxing from a finisher-type call such as a mouse squeaker or some other subtle sound. In fact, Frye uses different calls on reds than he does grays. He’s had better success with hand-held calls such as Knight & Hale’s Triple Threat and his own calls, and he favors high-pitched sounds that imitate birds in distress or small rodents such as mice. One of his favorites isn’t even marketed as a predator call, but it works great, just the same.

“I use Knight & Hale’s pileated woodpecker call that is sold as a spring gobbler locater call,” he said. “I can actually change the pitch on that call and go real high, or I can use it as a pileated woodpecker, or something in between. I don’t think I have to imitate a specific type of bird or animal in order to call in either type of fox, but it seems like reds prefer higher pitches while grays like it a little lower.”

He admits that no two animals of either species is the same, and one red might respond well to a particular sound while another might ignore it completely. Of course, that’s what makes fox hunting such a fun and challenging endeavor.

Whatever call he uses, Frye starts by calling at a fairly low volume for about 20 seconds. If no red fox come in within the first 5 minutes or so, he’ll turn up the volume a little and try another 30- to 45-second sequence. He waits a little longer and gets a little louder each time until he’s certain he’s exhausted the spot.

Between each calling sequence, Frye will scan the area with his red-lens spotlight, paying close attention to any ground downwind of his location. Red fox are extremely careful about circling downwind, and it’s not out of the question to get busted before you even know the animal is there. That’s just part of it, admitted Frye, but a partner can certainly help reduce those blown opportunities.

“If I don’t see anything after 25 or 30 minutes in good red fox country, I’ll get up and move a quarter-mile or so and try it again,” he said. “If it’s real open country, I’ll try to go even farther if it’s an option. Early in the season, if there are leaves still on the trees, I won’t move as far because the sound isn’t traveling as far.”

Tag-Team Tactics
Whether he’s targeting reds or grays, Frye likes to hunt with a partner, not just because four eyes scanning the woods and fields are better than two, but because two hunters can carry different guns and get shots at close fox and distant ones. He prefers to sit close to his partner so they can communicate in whispered voices if they need to. However, Frye and his partner will face slightly different directions to keep an eye out for any fox that might try to slip in the backdoor.

The two-gun approach is especially helpful for red fox, which often refuse to come within shotgun range. Frye recalled numerous hunts where a red fox sat on its haunches well out of shotgun range for 10 minutes or more. Instead of waiting for the predator to close the distance, he instead took the shot with a .223 Rem., his preferred fox gun. Frye doesn’t wait that long anymore, because he learned the longer he waits, the higher the odds the animal will turn and run or simply wander off. “I’m going to take a shot at any red fox I can get, even if it’s a 100- or 200-yard shot because that might be the only chance I get,” he said.

Red and gray fox are different animals, but they do share many of the same characteristics. They’ll respond eagerly to the sound of distressed prey, making them the perfect quarry for hunters looking for an exciting off-season challenge. The similarities, however, end there.

What about daylight calling?
Western predator hunters have no trouble pulling in coyotes under a bright sky in prime conditions, but fox hunting in the daytime is an iffy proposition. Not only do many fox hole-up in underground dens in the daytime, those that don’t are leery of coming into the open under a bright sun. If night hunting isn’t an option, hit the thickets and fields during the last hour and the first hour of daylight, making as many stands as you can within that limited timeframe. If your area has a high fox population, there’s a good chance one will come in as it tries to beat the competition to the easy meal.

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