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2000 words
Submitted by-
Rob F. Sanderson
724 Edgewater,
Portage, WIS

Sir Reynard Fox
Rob F. Sanderson

           Probably only one crafty member of the animal royalty has succeeded in not only holding his original habitat, but in some instances even extending his original range.

          This cagey creature is Sir Reynard Fox.

          Today in America he is present in the shadow of New York City and within the Los Angeles county limits, as well as in the northern forests, the wastelands of the south and the great deserts of the southwest. The traveler-naturalist will meet Mr. Fox anywhere from Central America to the Arctic.

          Foxes range in color from red and gray to blue and white. There are silver fox, black fox, cross fox and platinum fox. But with their pelts removed, only a naturalist-anatomist could tell them apart.

          In the United States, gray foxes range the southern stat and red foxes the northern states. This is a rough generality as gray foxes have recently become more plentiful in the north. In pelt and fur quality, red fox is superior to the gray, and the best red fox pelts come from northern New England states. Reds and grays aren’t compatible and when the grays move in the reds seem to move over.

          All over the country where the otter, beaver, wolf, martin, fisher and other valuable furbearers ranged once but have been gone for many decades, the fox flourishes. In recent years the Corn Belt states of Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana have had an influx in fox population that seriously menaces other wildlife.

          For several centuries in this country and many more in older nations, the fox has furnished sport and fur for gentlemen and frontiersmen alike, and so thorough has been the fox family’s adjustment to the activities of man, it appears they’ll furnish sport for an indefinite future.

          My great grandfather, an early pioneer homesteader in Wisconsin, found foxes plentiful on the frontier and sometimes quite a nuisance. Occasionally he declared war on the local fox population when these errants made depredations on his domestic fowl.

          Taking a half dozen number two long spring traps from a peg under the cabin eave, he built a fire, threw chicken feathers into the flames, and held the traps above the smoke by means of a long pole until all human and iron scent was irradiated. While the fire still burned he thoroughly smoked a pair of horsehide or deerskin gloves in the same manner. The traps were never handled without these gloves.

          The traps he set in a bed of chaff near fox tracks. Covering the traps carefully with chaff; he would leave them so set until the first rain or snow when he would venture out with his muzzleloader to shoot a prairie chicken or two. These carcasses he buried in the chaff between the traps while the rain or snow still fell, in order that any foreign scent or sign be eliminated. When he caught a fox he would re-smoke and move the trap to another location. Sometimes this type of set would yield several fox in one night.

          Ordinarily foxes live above ground, bedding down during the day in swales, brush piles, hollow logs, windfalls, or other shelter. But in the spring of the year when the snow melts and the sap begins to run, foxes select or dig dens in which to rear their young.

          This den usually has two entrances, with all the loose dirt pushed out a third entrance, which is then covered up or closed off. Thus there is no telltale dirt pile to reveal the other two entrances.

          When foxes where particularly bothersome, grandfather would send his four sons scouting along al the rail fences and through all woods and brushy ravines to find fox holes. In early May when all the discoverable burrows had been carefully marked, the Sandersons and the neighbors joined forces, dogs and shovels, and went fox digging on an appointed day.

          A fox den entrance has a gooseneck curve. A supple switch was run in to determine the direction of the curve, and ten feet back, a hole was quickly shoveled down to intersect the burrow. By the time the hole was down, others in the party had out long sapling poles which were run back into the burrow, usually fairly straight along its main stretch, until it hit another gooseneck.

          An equivalent distance in the same direction was then measured on the ground surface. Meanwhile the same procedure was going on at the other den entrance. If the general direction of the above ground lines indicated by the saplings in the burrow tunnel appeared to intersect in a short distance, a hole was dug straight down at the interstices, as both entrances led eventually to the den nest, or main room. If no intersection of the burrows was apparent, new pits were dug over every gooseneck in the burrow so the saplings could be re-inserted and a new direction bearing taken, until the convergence at the nest was indicated.

          As the fox den tunnels were usually six feet or so under the ground surface, this method saved a lot of backbreaking trenching following the burrow. As the cagey fox would dig down through the hard clay topsoil until they hit a light layer of sandy subsoil along which they could tunnel with ease, a single fox could tunnel (and would) back along the subsoil layer faster than two men with shovels could trench after overtake him.

          Where the two tunnels converged the diggers knew they would find the old foxes with their partly grown litter. Just before the pit dug from above reached the den nest, the roof became so thin it calved under the diggers’ weigh. One by one the buried foxes would waggle their heads up through the loose earth to be bopped by a swinging shovel or quickly shoved into a gunnysack.

          Often at least one of the old foxes would make good an escape by hiding in the tunnel adjoining the nest, until all humans were absorbed by the caving of the den nest, and then make a quick dash out. Often as not, too, they would be overtaken by a charge of double bees from the muzzleloader of some oldster too antiquated to help with the digging but who wanted to share the action.

          Those methods might seem pretty tough on the fox population but, oddly, they held their own for years. This may have been partly owing to unintentional re-stocking of the diggers themselves. It was custom for the youngest member of each family participating to sack a fox pup and take him home where he would be tied up as a pet. As the pup invariably chewed his leash, slipped his collar, or otherwise escaped, there was always breeding stock in the wild.

          In many parts of the country today foxes are run by hounds for sport. Sometimes they are chased by hounds and horsemen in daylight, and sometimes by the hounds only, day or night, for the music of the chase.

          In the north, foxes are shot ahead of slow trailing hounds. While gray foxes are not apt to run far, make small circles, and if not pressed too hard are sometimes shot rather easily; red fox are unpredictable.

          I remember my hounds running two gray fox all afternoon in a swampy area hardly more than a mile long and a half the wide. However the cover was very thick and the slick-operating fugitives stayed out of sight. It was growing dusk and I was about to call the dogs off when not fifty feet to one side of me a fox sneaked out of the thick cane break where the dogs were working after him, and he trotted across a snowy open swale. I gave him two barrels of 2’s broadside.

          Red fox, sometimes cutting neat circles or figure eight’s are just as likely to run clean out of the county in an almost straight line. Fox hunters in the oak-covered bluffs near my boyhood home usually sent a young lad, a good runner, along with the hound on the trail.

          For frequently a red would run several miles from where he was jumped, and then spend the rest of the day running around a small knoll or wooded patch with the hound a few hundred feet behind. But as soon as the lad approached, the fox would sense the presence of a human, desert the area and (everyone hoped) run back toward the hunters waiting where he was originally jumped. Fox love to play with a hound and sometimes cross and crisscross through a small woods so often that rabbit hunters the next day think there must have been a thousand dogs and foxes running through the woods.

          The only way to thoroughly learn Sir Reynard’s manners and habits is to follow his trail in the snow. You’ll learn his favorite haunts, how he hunts, what he eats, where he sleeps, how far distant he can scent food or danger.

          Early in the morning following a new snow during the night, I often meet white whiskered hunters with double barreled shotguns over their shoulders, intently looking for or following fresh fox tracks made just before dawn. The idea is to follow the fox to where he has bedded down for the day (fox are nocturnal hunters with few exceptions) and shoot him when he jumps.

          Favorite napping places are on south sloping hills where the sun shines warm all day. Black stumps, stone piles, or any other material that absorbs sun heat better than the shiny white snow, are the warmer and most preferred places. So on sunny days, experienced hunters approach such places with alert caution.

          On gray days a fox will keep out of the wind, if the weather is blowy. Ravines, small wooded patches containing brush, windfalls, are all good places. An old trapper friend of mine two winters ago had the good fortune to shoot three gray fox in a few minutes as they ran out of the same windfall.

          Gray fox prefer timber or swamps; reds are as much or more at home on open prairie or fields. An expert still hunter in northern Illinois tells me he shoots most of his fox in grassy swales out in open fields. His theory is that rabbit and squirrel hunters tramp the woods so often, disturbing foxes bedded there, that the animals simply get into the habit of selecting sheltered places out in the open where they are almost never disturbed.

          Gray fox climb threes with astonishing agility. Twice last winter in Arizona I was riding under tall cottonwood trees when I heard a racket in the branches above me and glanced upward to see a flash of gray fox fur run along a big hanging limb and jump twenty feet to the ground and run out of sight before I could turn sidewise in my saddle and unlimber my gun. They had evidently been sunning themselves, high above danger. Gray fox often take to trees when hard pressed by dogs, but must be approached with care by the gunner or will leap from the tree and race away. The tree must either be a large one with rough bark, or one with low limbs.

          For short distances, foxes are much faster runners than dogs. They can catch a fleeing rabbit among thick brush in a half-minute. But a fox’s endurance in limited and they are worn out by a long chase, if the dogs are fast and in trim with well hardened feet. We have all heard the tale about a fox’s tail getting wet in the rain or on a thaw day. Contrary to legend, fox are expert at keeping their almost waterproof tail dry. There are few exceptions.

           I remember one day in December hunting along the Wisconsin River bottoms on a six inch snow. A light skiff of snow had fallen the night before the day was ideal for a fox chase. The river had flooded in November and frozen a high-ice level all through the bottoms and over the islands; then the water receded to normal. The thick growth level, and so the snow that year fell not on the ground itself, but on the ice.

          Our dogs made continual losses when the fox ran to shelter under this high-ice level for several hundred yards, and we repeatedly lost time by making the wide circles necessary to pick up the track again where it emerged from the ice shelter.

          One time the fox seemed to have holed on a large island. We circled it with no success at picking up the track, and then each hunter started at opposite ends of the island, jumping hard on the ice to break it to the ground as we advance. With dogs and hunters apparently approaching on all sides and the falling ice echoing all around, the animal became panicky. We later found where he had made a flying leap from the high bank to the river ice at the side of the island where the main river channel, which never froze, flowed.

          He landed on glare ice covered with a skiff of light snow. There is no more slippery stuff in the world. A recent cold spell had frozen the ordinarily open water for a dozen feet from shore, and the river level had since then fallen, leaving the ice sloping out toward the water from the shore where it was frozen at a fixed level.

          Frantic scrambles did not prevent the fox from sliding slowly down into the rushing current water. His tracks came out on the other side of the open water, yards downstream where he easily got a foothold on rough anchor ice that had jammed frozen solid. The tracks of the baptized fox were full of water. They lead across the river into the opposite timber.

          Within an hour the dogs overtook the fox. His water soaked tail had frozen to a chunk of heavy ice in the sharp fifteen-above-zero air, and the dragging weight had quickly sapped his energy so that a labored trot was all the speed he could muster.


© 2003 Chronicles of Bob