As the Editor of Australia’s broadest and best hunting publication, I aim to have something for most hunters in every issue, from the youngster clearing out starlings or pigeons from a shed with an airgun, right up to the big game hunter’s sojourn to Africa.
I have partaken in hunts for quite a few species in Australia and New Zealand, but my affection is for hunting ferals and deer on my home turf. Of these, none has given me more continued joy and excitement than fox whistling.
I have been extremely lucky to be mentored by master hunter and fox whistler, Tony Pizzata, losing count of the days when we have left the vehicle at a convenient location and walked 10 or 12 km over a pleasantly tiring day, plonked ourselves down at 14 or 20 likely stands and brought home several redcoats.
In a way, it’s a lot like a game of golf, only you don’t often get three or more shots per “hole” and any mistake you make means no fox.
The fox is undoubtedly a pest in Australia and sheep farmers really need help come lambing season because they decrease the successful breeding rate substantially if their numbers aren’t in check.
Shooting them is generally undertaken as part of an integrated management program with baiting and spotlighting by most wool producers in an effort to stay in business.
A friendly fox whistler is a no-cost way for a farmer to get stuck into them and thin their numbers further; you just have to convince the farmer to let you have first crack at them, so you can have a bit of sport.
The number of times we have hit a property after a baiting program and had to work very hard for a few foxes has tempered our approach now, so you want to get in there early in the cycle.
When the pups are out wandering around Christmas and through to the breeding season in late June is prime time to get amongst serious fox numbers. It is from May through June however, that you will take the nicest skins as they will have produced the most luxuriant coat after the Autumn moult.
Cunning and guile are naturally associated with foxes but in reality, their motivations are pretty much like any animal and it is their curiosity and hunger that drives them to their destruction at the hands of a good fox hunter.
You will find however, that older, more experienced foxes, who may have been shot at before, are most worthy adversaries, and the whistler has to use all his guile and cunning to be on an even footing with them.
Now I will disclose what has worked for me, but be mindful that I have developed some practices that others in different areas may find ineffective. Nevertheless, my prejudices developed over a few hundred dead reynards have worked for me.
Firearms. I have developed a firm prejudice for centrefire rifles and against shotguns for a few reasons, but good shotgunners will no doubt disagree.
Why a centrefire? The semi-experienced fox will on occasion be curious enough to just sit out at about 70 or 80 yards looking at you, almost as if he knows you can’t get him.
On the cusp of breeding season, adult breeding foxes, while they may still be somewhat curious, do not seem to be driven by hunger and will either not appear at all or hang out beyond shotgun range.
It is for these reasons that my favourite fox whistling rifle is a light, compact CZ .223 Full Stock with a 2-8 Nikon M223 scope. If I am in more closely settled areas, I take
a Trail Boss load which sends out a 55gn Nosler Shots Soft point at 1800fps, it’s like a slightly beefed up .22 magnum and ranges a little bit better with more terminal energy, making it a good 150 yard proposition.
I just wind my turret up to 450 yards from a normal full house 100 yards zero point and I’m good to go.
Why not a .22 magnum, you ask? Because I always carry five full-house 55gn Barnes or Sierra Game King handloads for the possibility of a big pig, goat or deer showing up while out after foxes.
Once, when we made a mistake in stand selection, we walked across the likely fox approach direction and a vixen came in at a gallop. When she hit our scent on approach, she ran lickety-split back up the gully from whence she had come, stopping at just over 300 yards to have a spell and look back. One shot from the .223 at the chest-neck junction closed her account for good.
Readers will know I have been using a Savage Model 25 in .17 Hornady Hornet of late and it is a cracker of a fox cartridge, but that’s where it pulls up.
Anyone taking shots at larger game is dicing with the high probability of wounding and that’s not a nice place to go. It is for this reason also that I won’t entertain the idea of a .17HMR.
What’s in the Fox Hunter’s Pack? I carry a small backpack with a small fixed-blade carbon steel Mora knife and compact steel, a water bottle, couple of muesli bars, small first aid kit, spare ammo, breathable, lightweight rain jacket, headtorch, camera, fox whistles and powder puffer and a few large, folded-up plastic bags (Aldi are good).
A beanie is also good in case of cold snaps, providing greater warmth than its tiny weight and inconvenience.
Planning the Day’s Walk. If you can drive to a relatively central location around which you will be operating, then a vehicle placed there with some sandwiches, more drinks and a thermos will keep you going longer, harder and more effectively.
Whistles. The good old button whistle is a really great way to start as it requires very little skill to get a passable noise from and has worked well for generations of whistlers. Its major shortcoming is its range, particularly in strong winds and, as you are working into the face of the wind, you may not do as well under those conditions.
The Tenterfield Whistle is a step up in effectiveness from the button and produces a range of sounds from a raspy shriek to a gentle single note. It’s finesse-able, if you like and penetrates much further on windy days, thus more versatile.
It has one minus, from a new user perspective and that is that it takes some practice to get any note at all out of it. Once it is mastered though, it is second nature.
The Silva Fox Whistle is the cream of the crop, in my humble opinion. Because of its larger size, it is like a super-Tenterfield in use. Producing a bi-tonal note and able to really shriek loudly if needed, it is truly the most versatile and effective of fox whistles out there. Its maker, Ron Kienhe, from Glen Innes, in Northern NSW, cannot keep up with the orders. Google Silva Fox if you want to order one.
Other lures, like electronic calls and reeded predator “squawkers” have their place and can be effective, but for sheer portability and a a seat-of-the-pants approach that brings home the redcoats very consistently, the old mouth whistles do the business.
TIME AND PLACE
If you think of what humans need for survival, ie water, food, and shelter and where possible, comfort, then you’ve got the formula for where you will find foxes.
While they will range a few kilometres from their beds, mostly at night while hunting and foraging, they will generally come back to their beds in the early morning.
While there, during broad daylight, you will have every chance of pulling them out of their beds to come to the whistle, that is unless they are so full and fat from their night’s efforts, that they can’t be bothered.
Look for piles of deadfall, blackberry thickets, or isolated stands of timber on hillsides overlooking running creeks or close to known rabbit warrens and you will be in the fox’s ballpark.
While they like to be near water for hydration, frogs and insects, they like their home to be well drained. They only really inhabit semi-permanent “dens” during breeding season.
If you have a good idea of the lay of the land through which you will be walking, you need to start at a corner into which the prevailing wind will be blowing. Work your way from one end of your area to the other, looking all the time for likely fox habitat. Remember to always work into the wind.
The approach. Tony Pizzata says the single most important skill in whistling is the approach and guess what, he’s dead right. Once you have identified a possible fox bed, cast your eyes around to look for some cover, like rock outcrops, bushes, trees or even clumps of tall grass and sit yourself in front of it, using its silhouette to break up your outline.
Ensure that you do not walk between the fox location and your stand, because when they hit your trail, they’ll reverse and burn the grass trying to get away. You should have a good view of a fox’s likely approach, so you are not surprised when he pops up right in front of you.
Experienced and wily foxes will not come straight to your stand. Instead, they will work their way to your flank, using as much cover as is available and you may be caught out when you cast a glance sideways to find him bounding away, having caught your scent.
Colour and Movement. Ensure that once you start whistling, you make minimal movements, only necessary ones like bringing a gun on aim. A pair of dark-coloured or camo mitts or gloves really helps in not drawing attention to necessary hand movements and shading your face or using a light face veil from the nose down will also assist in avoiding detection.
Otherwise camo, if worn, should break up your outline effectively. Imagine the different tonal values of light and dark in dappled shade under a tree and that may help in your selection.
If you need to move to scratch or come on aim, wait until your approaching fox is in a dip, behind a bush or otherwise distracted to do it.
Look behind you. On many occasions I have lost sight of an approaching fox or none has seemed to want to come to the whistle. When I have looked to my flank or sometimes even behind me, there will be a curious fox staring at me.
They fall into two categories in general. First is the canny old dog trying to out-wind his prey or opponent and the second is the half or three-quarter grown pup that is not schooled yet in the danger of man’s scent.
If you can move to take them out, particularly category one fox, then you are doing very well. This is where a shotgun will come into its own.
Oy vey! Now foxes are definitely not Kosher – they are pests. But to explain the Yiddish reference, when a fox comes barrelling in at you in a straight line and you don’t have the skill or freedom of movement to track him for a running shot (I know, shotguns are better in this instance), then a loudly yelled “OY!” will often stop them in their tracks for a few seconds, enabling you to take that shot.
If you time it right, you can be on aim at the spot where he stops and only have to make a minor adjustment to your hold to shoot him.
Ron Kienhe, the Silva Fox previously mentioned, swears by calling out a loud “CAARRK!” imitating a crow call. Ron maintains that the fox finds the crow call familiar and therefore less threatening than an unfamiliar Yiddish curse.
Stay put. Ok, you’ve just shot a fox coming from a classic fox bed and you’re congratulating yourself for outfoxing the fox. You stand up to go and retrieve your kill and WHOOPS! There’s another fox just about at your feet that you hadn’t seen, or there is one coming in from another blackberry bush further away. He sees you move and you are flat footed.
Once you have shot the first fox, stay put and continue observing and whistling. It doesn’t happen often but I have shot three foxes off the one stand on more than one occasion, where I have had a long, clear line of sight into the wind.
It kind of makes up for the stands where you don’t get any coming to the whistle. When the dust has settled, it’s most gratifying to have three foxes lying dead within metres of each other.
Whistling foxes is a hunting activity that can take as much or as little time as you can devote to it. I regularly go to a property to test loads and at the end of a few hours on the sandbags, I drive off for a kilometre, park and go to the same spot and whistle a fox more often than not. It nicely rounds off the day’s target shooting.
Otherwise, you can plan a good few days on large holdings, putting in solid walks and getting big numbers of redcoats.
That said, you can be out on an unsuccessful deer stalk or you could have bagged your stag and have some time on your hands. Get your whistle out and have a crack and add another dimension to your hunt while you do the farmer a big favour.
Just remember to always carry that whistle and you will rarely go home empty-handed. So get out there, be safe and always head into the wind.
above: Fox Whistler’s Guide Map
This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Sporting Shooter magazine.