Fox Sightings on the Rise

I’ve always appreciated catching a glimpse of a fleeing red fox. There’s just something about their sleek, brightly colored appearance that has fascinated me ever since my youth.

I grew up on a farm and like most farm boys you were expected to “help out with the chores” beginning at an early age. I think it must have been about the ripe old age of 8 years old or so when my nightly task after school was to chase the cows home from whatever pasture in which they were found grazing. So, after school I would set out with my three canine accomplices (Poochie, Queeny and Sharky) to complete the necessary task.

I distinctly remember one night in particular as if it happened only yesterday. The cattle on this evening happened to be in one of the far pastures which meant about a ½ mile journey to and from the barnyard area. Most nights I would just take the dogs with me and the cows, knowing the routine, would willingly head for the barnyard.

Well, this night was a little different. I was walking on one of the well established cow paths sort of daydreaming when suddenly I was face to face with a critter that I knew instantly was not one of my dogs. Truth be known, the red fox was much small than all of my dogs…but in the mind of an 8 year old it could have just as well been a bear. Both of our eyeballs—at the sight of one another—were likely as large as golf balls.

The fox bolted in one direction and I bolted in the other direction—heading home. That night I remember running so fast that I actually beat the cows home. I soon came to the realization that I didn’t really chase the cows home each night…they were simply conditioned to see a young boy with his dogs…and they used this to prompt them to head home for “the good stuff” that dad would throw in the feed bunk.

That night I described my hair-raising experience to my father informing him that there was a wolf out in the pasture and that a young boy should not be chasing cows out there. Of course he laughed, and used the experience to do a little teaching about nature. Soon he had me convinced that it was not a big, bad wolf I had seen; rather, it was a red fox. Absolute proof came when he showed me a picture from a book and I confirmed that was the culprit causing shivers to run up and down my young spine.

Ever since this memorable day over 30 some years ago I have held a special place in my heart for red fox. I’ve trapped fox…I’ve hunted them…but most of all I have appreciated their existence in the ecosystem. Sure, they’re a predator and they can do some not-so-good things to our pheasant and duck populations during nesting season, but nature is not always kind that way and we must accept it. When populations get out of control that is when trapping and hunting play a vital role in wildlife management.

In recent years the fox population here in southeastern Minnesota has been what I would say was somewhat depressed. I could go a couple years between occasional sightings which was unusual. Typically, I would see them either in a road-kill state or running from one side of the road to the other during my travels. But not lately. “Mr. Red” has been a hard customer to find…and probably for several reasons. By no means is this scientifically deduced, but I think one of the big reasons the red fox has become so scarce lately has a lot to do with the population boom of the coyote. Twenty five years ago there were few coyotes to be found in this part of the state. Today, however, the coyote population is way out of control and it’s certainly suppressing the fox population to points where they are hardly seen anymore—at least until this year.

The Red Fox has a cousin, of sorts, the gray fox which to some extent can also be competition. It seems in areas where gray fox are quite prevalent the red fox population tends to be more suppressed. While red fox tend to prefer the more open meadows and fields, the gray fox, on the other hand, is more of a woodland dweller. In fact, one of the gray’s capabilities has been noted that it can climb trees—you will never find a red fox displaying this sort of behavior.

Indeed, during the past week I have seen three live reds and two dead ones lying along the road. I can honestly say that I have not witnessed this many fox during the past five prior years…so obviously the population must be on the rebound. Like most animals in nature, fox populations tend to run in cycles…and according to one of my old trapping manuals it stated that typically fox populations peak during years that end in “5.” If this holds true, then the next couple of years could be banner years for those of us who fancy seeing “Mr. Red.”

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

Why Not Purchase a Wildlife Food Plot

It’s no big secret how a corn field is like a deer magnet in the late fall season. This is particularly true during the end of the harvest when unpicked corn fields can be quite hard for wildlife and hunters to find. But to the smart hunter, he can help create some of his own opportunities by simply using these food plots carefully and strategically.

A few days ago I was talking with my friend, Jeff, who explained to me that he bought a cornfield with a few of his hunting buddies. My immediate reaction was “you did what?” “Yea,” he said, “we talked a farmer into leaving a patch of corn near the woods where we hunt. We paid him $300 for about half an acre.” Essentially what Jeff and his friends did was pay the farmer to leave the corn in his field unpicked until spring. Jeff told me he didn’t really know if that was a good deal for the farmer or not, but he seemed satisfied.

Well, after hearing that I sat down to do the math. Assume a farmer averages 175 bushels of corn to the acre. I think that is a fair estimate as some fields are more fertile…others are less so. Then figure corn at about $2.00/bushel (this is a good estimate because even though a farmer could likely contract for a higher price…he experiences some savings by not combining the crop and having to haul it to market).

Jeff’s little purchase set him back $300. But the farmer was all smiles because for his ½ acre plot he could have realized maybe 90 bushels of yield that at $2 would have made him roughly $180 in the market. Getting $300 for the opportunity cost of not harvesting $180 worth of crops was a good deal…I dare say for the farmer, for Jeff…but most importantly for the wildlife in the area.

Certainly I don’t mean for this to be a lesson in grain commodity economics, instead…I want to point out how a group of sportsmen pooled their money to pay off the farmer…and in exchange they just might have significantly improved their success for later this fall. This holds true for this group of hunters whether it’s for pheasants or during firearms deer season.

Consider how a small group of, let’s say six hunters, pooled their money into the example I described above. Think of how each of these hunters has potentially increased their chances for a successful late season hunt. Furthermore, this wildlife food plot will be around when the hunting seasons close providing food and shelter for wildlife all through the winter. In some areas, a food plot could mean the difference in whether or not the deer will even winter in that particular area. If there is no food or adequate shelter, they will likely go elsewhere to find it.

I think more sportsmen need to think about how a wildlife food plot could benefit the area where they hunt. Certainly I am not advocating hunting right where the plot is (akin to baiting), but just having the food near a parcel of woods could be a big boon in the number of wildlife sightings during the season.

A group of hunters, in fact, might decide to use the food plot as a refuge in effect not allowing any hunting in that area. The choice is really up to the sportsmen to decide. The bottom line is either way a wildlife food plot will serve as a “welcome mat” of sorts, for many different species of wildlife.

Food and shelter are two vital essentials to any wildlife species. The other big requirement is water. When you develop a management plan to incorporate these plots into your hunting areas you are bound to improve your success. Besides, what’s the worst thing that could happen…you give a little bit back to nature for the opportunity to take just a little bit. Like I said, how you use the food plot (to hunt or not to hunt) is up to you…but for a small investment you might just reap some big dividends toward your future hunting success.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

After All These Years Trapping Still Captures My Interest

Check back in the history book far enough and you will discover that in most states trapping and the fur trade was the impetus for exploration and eventual settlement. In Minnesota, for instance, records of the fur trade date back into the 1600s. Long before the lumber industry, minerals or agriculture drew settlers to the wilds of Minnesota, it was the fur trade that lured trappers to discover the riches of Upper Great Plains states.

I remember fondly how I first became interested in trapping. Fortunately, I grew up on a farm that had a small river meandering through it. During the summer months as a child, I would spend countless hours playing in the water catching chubs, crayfish and blood-suckers. I thought I knew everything about the river…but boy was I in for quite a surprise.

On one fall day I encountered my buddy, Mitch, in the river wearing hip boots and obviously doing something I was curious about. Mitch indicated to me that he was trying his hand at trapping…in particular he was trapping for mink and muskrats. I said WHAT? There’s no mink or rats down by the river. After all, I had grown up with this river in my backyard and if there were any such critters to be found I would surely have seen them with all the time spent near the river.

Wow…did I soon discover I had lots to learn about the outdoors. Indeed, it was trapping that peaked my interest in everything outdoors. I suppose you could say I cut my sportsman’s teeth, so to speak, by “laying steel” in the river in and around my family’s farm.

As I reflect back I truly believe that my experiences as a trapper helped develop my keen outdoor skills in ways I could not have otherwise gained them. Sure, in the beginning you make lots of rookie mistakes…and eventually you grow tired of finding empty traps each day. In time, however, you do your research and you learn about the proper ways to humanely catch these critters. Furthermore, trapping forces an interaction with the animal that is at a level higher than, for instance, the hunting sportsman likely ever reaches. Indeed, for a trapper to consistently succeed one must depend on much more than luck…it’s necessary to map out strategy by thinking like the quarry you pursue.

A good example of this is when I would trap for mink. You would imagine yourself as the mink and where his likely travel routes might be. You speculate when the mink is traveling along the riverbank under exposed tree roots, etc…and perhaps when he must enter the water to swim to continue the journey upstream. Sometimes, as a trapper you would make artificial “sets” that would be visible and attractive to a mink. Along the way every precaution must be made not to leave human scent or to disturb the area in some unnatural way.

During my high school years I was so into trapping and the outdoors that nothing in the fall could interrupt this activity. I was not real popular with the school football coach when I told him that no way was I participating in that after-school sport. I needed all the time I could get after school for tending to my trapline and processing my furs each evening for market.

My interest in trapping couldn’t have come at a better time, either. The heyday of modern trapping had to be back in the mid to late 70s when fur prices where at an absolute premium. It was common for raccoon to bring $40 to $60, male mink would commonly bring upwards of $45 or more, red fox were averaging around $70, and even muskrats brought $8 or more for quality pelts. Sure, this kind of money to a young high-school kid certainly looked attractive, but the real thrill for me was to outwit some very wary animals.

I’m proud to admit that trapping served as a great foundational experience from which I eventually branched off into many different areas of outdoor enjoyment, such as deer hunting, turkey hunting, etc. But as I reflect back on that morning when I caught my very first mink…on that particular day I was on top of the world with excitement. Coincidentally, the day I caught my first mink was also the morning when Mitch caught his first red fox with a dirt-hole land set.

Certainly much has changed in our world during the past 25 years. I’ve gotten older and I don’t have the same desires I once did to experience leaky, cold boots each morning. While trapping can be very challenging and fun, what most people don’t realize is its very hard work that is time-consuming. Yet, sometimes the price you pay as a youth is worth every bit of the experience and the fond memories for later in life.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.