Rustling Up a Fox
It could only be the Central Tablelands where fields of crops blend with the horizon and the landscape appears like freshly prospected gold.
A nice story by Tristan Reid
I have been coming to this farm my entire life and have seen it through the good years and horrendous drought. The farm is where I learnt to shoot. It is also where I have my earliest memory of foxes. One night, years ago we were being chauffeured through the property and we passed a dead ewe and lamb. After a few minutes we drove back past and noticed that the lamb was gone. The farmer took a spotlight to the field and after a few seconds orange eyes turned back from the darkness, only to dim and vanish. One decade later the drought was broken and I returned on my of my frequent trips, to relax and lend a bit of hand. With the drought obliterated a plethora of small game has exploded back into life. A joy for my friends and self but constant frustration for the farmer. This trip would be different. We (my hunting partner and I) had bought two new tools. Alex’s antiquated but beautiful side by side BSA 12 Gauge and simple $1.50 fox whistle.
Before embarking on our first crack the foxes I took ten minutes to get the feel of the whistle, making my best impression of a rabbits cry. Confident in my ability to call we headed for hilly country by the standards of the central west. We followed a fence line to where I knew at the foot of the hills to be an enormous rabbit warren and where on my last trips rounds I had startled an enormous fox. We sat on a crest looking down at warren but it was impossible to see anything through the waist high grass. We continued slowly along the fence, approaching the warren. Without warning enormous rabbits, the size of hares, leaped up in all directs. I looked up the hill as more bunnies leapt away but my amusement turned to horror as I saw three foxes slinking away in different directions, no further than 30 meters away. Alex aimed the BSA at a retreating fox but the No.3 shot was inadequate and pellets kicked up the dirt around the fox as it continued on unaffected. Alex turned and something about “shouldn’t of taken that”, which I scarcely heard as I spotted one fox, a juvenile, watching us from a rocky outcrop. We both sat down slowly and in our heavy camouflage, in waist high grass we waited hoping it wouldn’t follow the elders. It was turning its head backwards nervously as I reached in my pocket for the whistle and gave it its inaugural blast. The call immediately took its attention. Its head cocked curiously to one side. It stood for a long time staring and when it looked like its sense of flight would overwhelm it I gave the whistle a blast. It took some teasing but the promise of an easy meal overcame its timidness and without warning it barrelled down the hill towards us. It ducked under a digging in the fence and Alex rose up smoothly and took the shot.
We returned for a hunt even more exciting than the previous days. With two foxes at large we took a different approach to the same area. We started whistling further away, on the next ride down from the fence. Immediately a curious rabbit bounded up onto some rocks, ears stretched out high trying to find the source of distress. I gave a whistle every 30 seconds for about 3 minutes, waited, repeated this a few times before moving on again.
(While I won’t be so bold to call myself a seasoned caller a fairly self-evident and practical system emerged for us. Wait, whistle, move. Wait: in your spot, settle in and get completely comfortable. (Not sitting on any awkwardly posited rocks, more on this). Whistle: Whistle approx. 30 seconds apart for 2 minutes with a short break then repeat for about 10-15 minutes. The foxes seemed to come almost straight away or after about 10 minutes. Move: Stand up slowly, gun at the ready for any unseen fox and move into your next wait. A good view, downwind from where you think they are likely to come (more on this too) from or where you want to look)
We approached the prior day’s fence from the other side of the hill. I whistled. Right on the 15 minute mark we were both thinking it was time to move. The ominous sound of rustling grass changed my mind. There are plenty of snakes on the farm, one trip past I almost stood on a brown and 90% of the of my few snake encounters have been through hearing before seeing. I looked to my left and froze. The unmistakable outline of a fox was encroaching on us from upwind. I’m sure it saw our shapes but didn’t quite know what we were. I slowly raised my camera to try for an exciting “in the moment” photo. I clicked the camera, whispered “Get him” but as Alex was sitting on my right side and there was no way for him to take the shot across me. He stood up as quickly as he could but the fox was off. I flipped the scope caps up off my Tikka (.308), cycled the bolt but I caught of glimpse of him darting over the crest of the next ridge.
Disappointed we decided to try to follow him up as he was heading into an area we’d yet to comb through. We sat down on a rocky outcrop with a full view of new fields. We settled down and I gave the whistle a blast with immediate results. A fox (most likely the same one) exploded from grassy cover, a little further down the same hill we were observing from and was running into the fields. It disappeared behind a large rocky out crock at the base of the hill. Feeling lucky we decided to follow him up again. The wind was blowing quite strongly and straight into us providing the perfect noise/scent cover. We came to base of the rocks and circled around the right side of the mound coming from the rear of the outcrop. Alex was in front going slowly as he raised a hand to stop. I took one more step forward, on tippy toes, to see what he saw. The fox had circled around the base of the mound and was looking back up at the ridge towards where it had heard the calls, its back completely turned to us. The heavy thud of the BSA rang out and we were left with a gorgeous fox with rich colours (pictured). Following up a fox during and getting the result was an experience I’m sure won’t be soon repeated.
We had two more semi “successful” hunts. The whistling aspect performed admirably but bad accuracy (and luck) on my part was to blame for lack of foxes. Importantly valuable lessons were learnt.
We were explored other hills and found an area with lots of rabbits and rabbit carcasses. A good sign considering I’d not ever hunted in the area. We set up on the hill at the base of a tree overlooking fields and started the call. On the second blast a fox was trotting confidently along a distant fence well over 200 meters away. It was heading straight for an open gate, a good sign this fox was well established and knew exactly where to go. The fox disappeared behind distant trees and we used the cover to move down to a closer position. We set up, blew the whistle and he came back into view. To my great disappointment he moved upwind from the call again putting Alex on my right side. It was an large, old fox and as it closed in it caught our scent and instantly broke off. He was out of shotgun range and I scrambled to set up the Tikka, struggling to find it in long grass. I saw the ears pause, his head turned back for a moment. I aimed, fired and he flipped up in the air. He wasn’t hit. He was sprinting as fast as his legs could carry him. In hindsight shooting from above it and sighted in for 100 meters I can only guess I overshot.
My final effort was a solo effort before heading home for Christmas. It was a good reminder that if you break a your rules can expect to fail. It was a long slow creep along the entire ridgeline, stopping at every hill heading back to where we took the first fox. I sat down after a full few hours of whistling. The weather was drizzly and it was windy. Slightly dejected not to have seen anything I gave a half-hearted whistle but hadn’t taken the time to settle down. After the second round of whistling I shuffled uncomfortably and heard something crashing through the grass behind me. I turned around and fox leapt over a log, skirted over the lip of the hill and was gone from sight. I tried to follow to follow it up and saw it sitting on a distant fence line looking straight back at me. It slunk through a hole and disappeared into the fields.
Although the fox is humble in stature I cannot recall such an exhilarating hunting experience. With ample hideaways and a vast knowledge of routes to approach from and escape to you are very much in their territory. Actually seeing the animal and speaking to (in a fashion), seeing it react at every to every sound and motion, is a marvellous experience. Until now my experience with foxes had been one slightly detached from the environment, mostly from the back of a Ute with technology swinging the advantage in our favour. Although spotlighting is a crucial tool for pest control this was an intimate experience. Whistling works wonderfully in pairs and could be an excellent way to introduce complete novices to hunting, given that they can activity participate in the hunt. Now I have drilled my whistle so it can hang around my neck from when I go bush.