The early bird gets the fox

Mark Ripley rises early to maximise his fox-shooting opportunities on some new ground after a snow fall.

Credit: DEA / ALBERT CEOLAN / Contributor / Getty Images

I woke up thinking I’d slept through my 4am alarm but in actual fact a quick glance at the clock showed 2.30am. For an hour or so, I dozed and contemplated the potential success I might have getting out before dawn as well as the finer details of where I would park the truck and how I would approach the steep bank I intended to watch over for foxes.

It was probably my body’s way of keeping in bed longer. But just before 4am I quietly slipped out of bed, gathered up my pre-set out clothing bundle off the floor, and headed for the bathroom to get ready before grabbing my gear and jumping in the truck, still half asleep. A quick stop at the garage for a coffee and I was off on the 30-minute drive to a newly acquired bit of ground.

It wouldn’t get light until around 7am so I’d get a couple of hours of night shooting in before dawn – something I was yet to do on this farm, so it would be interesting to have a look around with the thermal and see what was moving around at night.

Unfortunately we hadn’t had any fresh snow for a couple of days, so it would be hard to see any fresh fox tracks, but it would give me an idea of where most of the fox activity was on the farm.

By the time I pulled into the farmyard, I was wide awake and on the ball with my early caffeine hit. I parked the truck at the top of the track before the first valley as I didn’t want to disturb the area too much and I wasn’t going to drive down into the snow-covered valley.

I grabbed the .260 Rem and tripod from the backseat and walked down the track towards the steep bank and the neighbouring farm.

The farmer had mentioned he had regularly seen a fox at dawn on this first bend in the track, so I kept a careful eye out as I worked my way along the track – which suddenly seemed a lot longer carrying a heavy rifle than it did when I had driven it the week before…

As the track bends around and down into the valley, the first field on my right fell gently away for around 250 yards before rising again up a bank towards the next door farm at the top.

As I followed the track, I spotted something that was a little large to be one of the many rabbits around. I felt pretty sure it was a fox.

As I closed the distance towards my quarry, it slipped through a thin hedge ahead of me. There was a gateway there, so I figured that if I got to that I would be able to look along the opposite side of the hedge and should be able to see the fox.

Just as I got to the gateway, I bumped into the fox as it came up along the hedge. We both froze. Unsure what it was looking at, the fox decided to sit down and watch developments from only about 40 yards.

The appearance of fox tracks is of course the number one benefit of snow

As slowly as I could, I raised the rifle, but the fox wasn’t happy and turned back. But it didn’t go far, and foolishly turned back through the hedge the way it had come across the open field. 

At 50 yards, it made for an easy broadside shot and what turned out to be a vixen dropped on the spot to the hefty thump of the .260.

A quick look through the thermal revealed a second fox up on the far bank some 350 yards away, heading away up the slope following the sound of the shot. It stopped to look back several times before it settled down again and began nosing around on the bank. Before long it decided to venture back down the bank and finally on to the lower field.

It was still more than 250 yards away, so I gave it a few little lip squeaks and got its attention. It trotted in a leisurely manner towards me until I felt happy with the shot. With the rifle steady in the tripod, I lined up on its chest and waited until it stopped broadside for a second before squeezing the trigger. 

Another shot resounded across the valley, followed by a thump from 170 yards down the field where a large, stocky dog fox lay dead in the snow.

I left the pair where they were and walked further round the valley to a better vantage point before settling in to wait for the slowly lightening sky to turn to dawn.

I watched through the thermal as a third fox worked the bank just below the farm at the top of the opposite bank – but it wouldn’t stand still long enough to take a shot, so I continued to watch and hope that he would reappear from cover while I was still here.

Unfortunately it was not to be, and shortly before first light the fox appeared then quickly disappeared over the brow of the opposite bank.

Walking back through the valley, I noted the volume of fox tracks criss-crossing up and down the track and surrounding tree lines, showing that there was likely a good number of foxes working the area.

Shots from prone are where waterproof clothing really comes into its own

Their cat-like prints and fine lines between where their brush had periodically touched the snow behind them were regularly evident. I wasn’t surprised to see so many tracks given the number of rabbits out feeding on the banks and the continual sightings throughout the day around the farm.

Foxing in the snow is one of my favourite times to be out. Even in the dark on a moonlit night, it’s easy to see foxes out in the open against the blanket of snow – they can often be shot with just a standard day scope. 

We don’t often get snow down my way, and when we do it seldom lasts more than a couple of weeks, so this type of foxing is a rare opportunity. It also means the cost of snow camouflage isn’t really warranted, so I typically make do with my usual warm shooting clothing and use an old white sheet to make a kind of poncho to wear over the top.

As always, just like any other time of year, movement is more often what will give you away rather than colour. It’s also what will give away the fox, its darker colour making it stand out against the white backdrop.

Waterproof clothing is also a must when moving around in the snow. Once you get wet and cold, you’re far more likely to cut short your outing.

I’ve recently been using the Rekon tripod from Scott Country, which has quickly become my constant companion on foxing trips and will be a good asset in the snow as it allows for accurate shots from a standing position, meaning you don’t necessarily need to lie in the wet mush to take a long shot.

The ability to leave the rifle set up on the tripod will stop my hands freezing to the rifle – and it lets me keep my hands firmly in my pockets too, until a fox appears! Being made of carbon fibre it also makes it light to carry, and it won’t make your hands cold like a metal one would. 

Speaking of cold hands, a couple of years ago I brought a refillable Zippo hand warmer for under £30. They are really good and last for hours. Leave this in the inside pocket of your jacket and it will warm the body.

Neoprene-lined boots and warm socks are an obvious choice, as is a good quality jacket. For many years I’ve been a big fan of the Deerhunter brand, and recently I’ve been particularly impressed with a lightweight jacket called the Heat jacket, which as its name suggests heats the wearer by means of a thin, lightweight battery pack about the size of an iPhone, which sits in the inside pocket.

The jacket has three different heat settings, controlled from a button in another pocket of the jacket. It can even top up your phone’s battery in an emergency! 

Mark gets down low for a precise shot at 170 yards

As this is a lightweight jacket, it can also be worn under a heavier outer jacket in extreme cold. I also have a Deerhunter Rusky jacket, which is also very warm and ideal for cold nights sat in a high seat – along with a thermos flask!

I also find calling far more effective at this time of year, with much of a fox’s regular diet covered by snow and ice. Be it an electronic caller such as the Fox Pro or a mouth-operated call, it’s likely to be a very productive time to be out.

Setting yourself up in a high seat or well hidden spot in the early morning or late evening gives you a good chance to catch those otherwise wary foxes. 

Likewise, a regularly fed bait site will also quickly pull them in in sustained periods of snowy conditions. 

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Posted in Features, Hunting

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