Bill Gillen lives in southern Virginia where timber is big business and pine plantations are more common than crop fields and housing developments. If it’s not a pasture or a stand of mature hardwoods, you can bet the landscape is a clear-cut replanted with pines and an assortment of thick volunteer growth underneath.
"It’s great habitat. I do real well calling around cutovers. That type of cover is ideal for fox and their prey base," says Gillen.
The jungle-thick growth that springs up in southern pine plantations is exactly why the predator hunting is so good. Although timber companies usually plant fast-growing pines after they remove the mature pines or hardwoods, a wide variety of plant life springs up among the planted evergreens. Blackberries, grasses, honeysuckle, assorted trees and all kinds of succulent growth create outstanding cover and abundant food for birds and small mammals alike. Bobcats and fox follow.
Predators, however, don’t only use that early successional growth as a kitchen; they also use it as a bedroom. Pushed up piles of stumps and limbs create excellent den sites, and both cats and fox utilize the thick cover for mid-day bedding. That’s exactly why Mark Prudhomme won’t hesitate to call throughout the day.
"They are opportunistic feeders. They are certainly most active in the early morning, late evening and at night, but if they hear what sounds like an easy meal close by, you can bet they’ll come in to investigate in the middle of the day," he says.
The difference between mid-day predator hunting and efforts during low-light conditions has more to do with a predator’s sense of vulnerability than its desire to feed, figures Prudhomme. Daylight simply exposes them to their prey and to other predators, something no hunter, two or four-legged, wants. Still, says Gillen, fox and bobcats are more likely to respond to a call in the evening because they’ve gone without food for the entire day. It never hurts to try a mid-day calling session, however, especially if the weather is right. Prudhomme, who manages a private hunting preserve in South Carolina, says cold, overcast days are ideal, and if it’s been cold for several days in a row, that’s even better.
Both experts agree that as soon as new growth springs up in a clear-cut, predators move in, taking advantage of the prey base that also utilizes that new growth. Prudhomme walks roads and trails around the edges, keeping an eye open for scat, tracks and piles of feathers and fur that mark where a predator made a kill. So does Gillen. He’s a trapper as well as a predator hunter so he has a clear understanding of fox and bobcat habits, right down to their preferred hunting areas and travel corridors. That’s why he scores so often when he picks up a shotgun and predator call and heads out for an evening hunt. Gillen goes straight for the thick cover typical of replanted pines.
As those planted pines age, they start to shade out the thick undergrowth. The great bird and small mammal habitat starts to fade, and so do predator numbers. Mature pines, 15 to 20 years old and older, don’t produce the hunting opportunities of younger pine plantations, but timber companies often thin mature pines, taking out every third or fourth row of trees. That creates great small game habitat again.
The trouble with young clear cuts, however, is that they tend to be so thick and in many cases, so large, it’s virtually impossible to predict where a predator might show up. That’s why Prudhomme and Gillen favor openings adjacent to or within the thick cover typical of replanted pines. Roads made for logging equipment typically criss-cross a clear-cut, creating perfect hunting situations. Both experts like to give themselves as much of a view as they can, but often, it isn’t much. However, both agree that they take whatever the situation gives them.
"After a couple of years, the roads can get real thick with grass and brush. If they aren’t maintained, it can be tough to see more than a few yards, even on the roads through and around the clear-cuts," says Gillen.
That’s why he won’t hesitate to at least try hunting a spot if it looks good. He’ll choose a calling site that gives him the maximum view in at least two directions, even if it’s only for a few yards. The farther he can see the better, but that doesn’t always translate to an ideal set-up. It’s not a bad idea to scout the area during daylight and hang a piece of surveyor’s tape in the exact spot you want to call from. That takes the challenge of finding the perfect location out of the equation and allows you to get into an area as quickly and quietly as possible. If you can, scout a few days in advance so any disturbance can fade from a predator’s memory and keen nose.
The perfect situation, especially if he’s hunting with a partner, is one that allows Gillen to sit on the outside corner of a pine plantation on a trail or road that circles the tree farm, or in a field adjacent to the thick cover. In some cases, he’ll get in the middle of the short trees, but only if a well-maintained road allows him to get into the area quietly and offers him a good view. Intersections where two trails cross, allowing him and a partner to watch in four directions, is also a good place to sit and call.
"You never really know where they will show up. One thing I do know is that once they hear you calling, they’ll usually head straight for the nearest road or path instead of walking through the middle of the cut-over. Roads are typically a lot quieter for walking, and both fox and bobcats like to sneak up on their prey, even if they think it’s a wounded rabbit. I pay most attention to roads, but I’ve had them come through the cover, especially if it’s a little more open underneath, and show up right in front of me," says Gillen.
Prudhomme agrees and he’ll climb into a tree stand if he has one available. Many southern deer hunters hang their stands on tall trees within or adjacent to cut-overs, which are also prime bedding and feeding areas for whitetails. In many cases, those stands will overlook a road that parallels the edge of thick pines. If that’s not an option, he’ll sit with his back against a stump, a clump of brush or anything else that will help break up his outline. Both experts are careful about full camouflage, making sure to cover their faces and hands as well as their bodies. Gillen does a fair amount of night hunting and he’s convinced that a predator’s night vision is just as good as it is during the day, maybe even better.
Both hunters use rabbit distress mouth calls. Prudhomme likes Knight & Hale’s Ultimate Predator Call and he’ll also use a mouse squeaker for cats that hang up in the thick brush or refuse to come into shotgun range. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to close the deal.
Gillen’s favorite cat call, however, is a yellowhammer woodpecker call, which imitates a bird in distress. For some reason, cats come in to that call more often and faster than they do to a cottontail squealer. Fox respond well to it, also.
"The absolute best call for grey fox where I hunt is a fox pup in distress. I’ve had numerous hunts where I called in two, three four in one stand. Once I called in three at one location and I got two of them," he recalls.
Although bobcats can take 30 minutes, or even more, to creep into a call, Gillen says fox typically come in fast or don’t come at all. He rarely waits more than 20 minutes once he clicks on his tape player or blows his mouth call. He lets the call run for two minutes or less and then shuts if off and waits. Five or ten minutes later, he’ll turn the tape on again then stop it after another minute or two and watch for another ten minutes. If nothing happens, he’ll pick up and move, unless he’s targeting bobcats. Prudhomme agrees.
"Cats definitely take up to 30 minutes or more, but I’ve had them come in pretty quick too," he says. "If I don’t get a response within 30 minutes, I’ll move a quarter mile away and try again."
Because the cover is so thick and cats and fox can show up from either a long distance or right in your lap, it’s critical to sit as still as you can. Gillen recalls many occasions when a fox would come in behind him, only to bust him or his partner as one of them tried to turn to get a shot. There’s not much you can do to avoid that, except set up with the wind in your favor. He’s also had numerous fox pop out of the thick cover only yards from the end of his gun barrel.
That’s why it pays to stay ready at all times. Gillen keeps his shotgun propped up on his knees ready to swing the barrel in any direction. He favors shotguns over rifles since shots tend to be close, and in many cases, the animal is moving pretty quick. He’s also concerned about pelt damage. Gillen skins the cats and fox and sells the hides at an annual fur sale along with those he traps.
"I like No. 4 or 5 shot and three-inch shells because it doesn’t tear up the hides too much. I shoot a full choke, so that shot size is effective on fox out to 40 yards, although cats need to be a little closer," says Gillen. "If I’m just targeting bobcats, I’ll use a .223 with a full-metal jacket bullet because cats tend to hang up farther out. The full-metal jacket won’t ruin a pelt like other bullets will, but you have to make a good shot."
Despite his diligence, he doesn’t always get his game. He’s had many occasions when a fox or cat came in and either busted him or stayed back in the cut-over. There’s nothing more frustrating, he adds, than hearing a fox slip through the thick cover only to stop short and start barking.
"That’s part of it. You aren’t going to get them all, no matter how good you are," he says. "If you don’t, though, you’ll have an even harder time getting him next time because he’ll know what’s going on."
Getting access to pine plantations can be difficult, particularly during deer season. Many are owned by timber companies and typically leased to hunt clubs. However, those clubs are often willing, even eager, to remove as many predators from their land as possible in order to help boost rabbit, quail and other small game numbers. Fox prey heavily on turkey nests and bobcats kill lots of young turkeys and even fawns. They might just say "yes" if you ask politely and assure the club members you won’t hunt deer or any other more popular game animals. Even private landowners are more receptive to predator hunters than they are to those who ask about deer hunting. Predator calling is still an untapped niche and one that few other hunters know much about. Get your foot in the door now. It won’t be long before the word gets out about how fun and challenging calling foxes and cats around pine plantations can be.