Sly as a fox: a peek inside the mind of a master predator hunter.
"Besides," he continued with a smile, "with that pump gun stuffed with those 3-inch BBs, you're the nastiest thing out there in those woods" Good ol' Dad. He always did have a way with words.
And he was right. Our hike across the ice-covered beaver marsh turned out to be an easy walk. Arriving at the snowy hump that was a decade-old beaver lodge, we separated. The plan was for me to do the calling and look north while my father would cover the ground to the south and east.
The squall of the cottontail in distress split the 10-degree air like a cold chisel. Thirty seconds of high-pitched cries, then silence. No artificial light was necessary, thanks to Mother Nature's illuminating contribution of both snow and moonglow Another 30 seconds of squealing was followed by another period of quiet.
Without warning, the night was shattered by the crash of my father's Remington 1100. An eerie silence followed, a quiet that was soon broken by Dad's, "Over here, Jake." A handful of tentative steps later I was kneeling at my father's side helping admire the prime gray fox at his feet.
"Stood out plain as day against the snow," said Dad, shouldering his prize. Even in the darkness, his ear-to-ear grin was unmistakable. "Ready for some hot coffee?" he asked, turning toward the truck and his waiting steel Thermos. A cup of coffee never tasted better.
To many outdoorsmen there's nothing more exciting than the adrenaline rush that comes with changing one's role from hunter to hunted. And that, in a nutshell, describes predator hunting. By his own admission, a man named Tad Brown loves nothing more than totally immersing himself in this wild role reversal. He is enthralled with the challenge of going one-on-one with some of North America's most wary game animals.
Brown makes his home in Preston, Missouri, which rests in a beautiful, rugged little piece of the Midwest known as the Missouri Ozarks. Here he serves as the manager of product development for MAD Calls, a position that allows him to experiment with an incredible variety of predator-related gadgets. Brown, 42, has been trapping since the age of eight, but for the last two decades he's turned much of his attention to the Show-Me State's phenomenal predator population.
Today, Brown stands as one of the nation's foremost authorities on the hunting of furbearers such as coyote, fox and bobcat. He readily admits that his expertise in outsmarting these wily critters wasn't always what it is today.
"My first successful predator hunt? Well, an old man had an old Burnham Brothers record player. It was a regular 45 record. I went to school with his boy, and one afternoon he said that he'd take me and his boy hunting. And I remember that my friend was going to operate the player. The old man went to the left and I went to the right. Well, by the time I got over to the log they told me to go to and sat down, the boy shot. He had called in a coyote and killed it. And I was hooked," Brown says.
"Well, I couldn't afford a record player," he continues, "so I went on down to the hardware store and bought the first predator call I could get my hands on. And I just kept trying and trying and trying, and then one night in the moonlight, me and a buddy called in a gray fox, and I killed it. I was really hooked on predators after that."
Today, some 25 years after witnessing the role of predator disc jockey under those starlit Missouri skies, Brown tours the Midwest and points east presenting the latest in fox hunting tactics, strategies and innovations. Recently, I caught up with him at his home in Preston, and he was kind enough to sit for an interview that covered not only Fox Hunting 101 but also became a crash-course doctorate in foxology.
First, I wanted to know if there's any significant difference between hunting red foxes and gray foxes.
"A gray fox, to me, responds to anything well--rabbit distress, bird distress sounds, loud calling, soft calling. But I do seem to have better luck with reds. They seem more cautious to me," he says.
"If I think I'm calling specifically to a red fox, I'll start out with a low, coaxer type call. And often times all I'll use is that coaxer call," adds Brown. "I have called in reds unexpectedly using a regular predator call; still, when I'm specifically focusing on reds, I use that coaxer call and have better luck."
Brown also notes that grays seem to be a little more aggressive whether they're coming to a call, hunting on their own, defending their territory and the like. Reds coming to a call seem to be a little less aggressive.
"They seem to take a little more time coming," Brown says. "They'll approach a call much slower and real cautiously."
Brown also believes reds have a tendency to circle and that they like open country. For that reason, Brown likes to station a hunting partner downwind to intercept a circling red--and that downwind guy is going to get most of the shooting.
The gray fox, on the other hand, works differently because of its more aggressive nature.
"I think that part of the reason gray foxes respond to a call better is that they're not as afraid. I mean, if a red fox is responding to a call and a coyote pops out on the scene, that red is gonna get the hell out of there. That's not necessarily true with a gray fox. He can climb a tree and climb quite well. He'll run in a bush or go underground. He's a brawler."
When asked whether he's found much of a difference between daytime and nighttime hunting, Brown says he prefers the cover of darkness.
"Over the years, I've had much better success at night. I think that nighttime is the fox's time, especially with reds. I think that the red fox is spookier and feels more comfortable under the cover of darkness
"The grays, well, they'll respond at daybreak and in the evening, but I've never had much success with grays during the clay," he notes.
To many predator hunters, particularly those just starting out, the question of calling--what sounds to use, how to use them--can be pretty daunting. Brown, who prefers manual calls over electronic models, has a few tricks up his sleeve that can help novice and expert alike.
"A bird distress is one of my favorites," he says. "You think of a fox, and you think of him eating a rabbit. In reality, he eats more small rodents--rats and mice and voles--than he does rabbits, and he also eats a lot of ground-nesting birds--especially at night."
And if you worry about animals getting call-shy, a phenomenon that Brown doesn't subscribe to, the bird distress call can really work.
"I think it's gonna blow your mind the response you get," he says.
Of course, successful calling is also about location, and Brown favors a natural blind adjacent to a harvested cornfield. For one thing, cornfields provide the mice, rats and other food that foxes prey on, and the blind provides added incentive for the foxes to approach.
"If you can find a little island of brash and logs and such around an agricultural field, you can bet that's going to be full of rabbits and mice and birds and such. And the predators know this," he says.
Brown is also a big believer in the importance of camouflage. He notes that while an animal such as a deer may not be spooked by a human if the person doesn't move, foxes don't behave that way at all.
"They'll step into a field, they'll turn and look at you, and the jig's up," he says. "Ninety percent of the time when they turn, look at you and you make eye contact with them, you're nailed."
To combat this problem, Brown urges hunters not to silhouette themselves--a common mistake he sees many guys make. The human silhouette, he says, is quickly recognized as a threat, and many times the hunter doesn't even know he's been spotted.
"I can promise you that the predator caller calls in and never sees much more game than he ever lays eyes on--and a hell of a lot more game than he calls in and harvests," Brown says. "And a lot of that has to do with where a man sits."
One of the things that can help hunters from being picked off by an approaching fox is to get the animal to focus its attention elsewhere. And that's where decoys come in. The decoy does three things: one, as mentioned, it diverts attention away from the hunter; and two, it gives the animal confidence that it is responding to a natural situation.
Using a decoy accomplishes one other important task.
"You can use that decoy to put that fox in a good shooting situation," Brown says. "It can help move him out into the open a little better, or it can simply bring him closer and into shotgun range."
Brown likes "subtle" decoys such as a small piece of rabbit fur or a handful of feathers thrown on the ground. Sometimes he'll hang the fur from a low branch or bush, but usually he'll just throw it on the ground. With foxes, especially the red fox, Brown thinks the signs of a kill--feathers, bits of fur, and the like--seem to be more alluring than the entire prey animal itself.
Note that Brown concerns himself with getting the animal in close and in a good position. That's because he's a big shotgun fan.
"Growing up, most of my predator hunting was at night in the moonlight, and because of the night hunting, I hunted with a shotgun 90 percent of the time. Nowadays, with this new ammunition and these new turkey chokes, it's amazing just how far you can consistently kill fox. My turkey gun is also my favorite predator gun."
Most hunters across the country have access to decent populations of foxes, and with the deer seasons soon to close--or, for the skilled and the fortunate, time to kill now that they've filled their tags--this is the perfect time to go after them. The furs are prime and the action can be fast. And now you have some insight from one of the best on how to take part in it.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2003|
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