Use fox calling research to take more fur this year

A fox-calling study conducted in the 1950s can help you call in more fox today.
Use fox calling research to take more fur this year

Some of us are old enough to recall ads in Outdoor Life for the “Alaskan Deer Call.” We would read the ad and commence arguing whether it really worked or if it was merely a novelty like the “jackalope” mounts advertised on the same page. Either way, most of us were too cheap and distrustful to send money through the mail to buy one.

These days, it’s easy to assume we’ve always had buck-grunt tubes and compact electronic callers for predators. But for the most part, such things are relative newcomers to modern hunting. Yes, some guys have long used handmade calls to trick predators, but most of us didn’t try them until stores were forever stocked with camouflage, riflescopes, hand calls and digitally programmable callers.

To glimpse what predator hunting looked like a mere half-century ago, consider a study titled “Fox Calling as a Hunting Technique,” which was published in the April 1961 edition of the Journal of Wildlife Management. The study’s authors, Marius A. Morse and Donald S. Balser, worked for the Minnesota Department of Conservation and conducted the scientific study in hopes of elevating red and gray fox from the “vermin” class to the “game animal” class.

Morse and Balser figured they could expand hunting opportunities if they could scientifically prove to hunters that it was possible to bring fox to the call. Remember, predator hunting wasn’t widespread back then. In fact, deer hunting in the late 1950s and early 1960s was not the dominant activity it is today. Hunter numbers in that era were about half what they are today, and small-game hunting for rabbits, squirrels, waterfowl and upland birds was more popular.

As an aside, let’s concede that Morse and Balser weren’t the first people to elevate the fox’s status and buff up its image. Canute The Great, a Viking warrior and English king, reclassified fox from vermin to “Beasts of Chase” around 1000 A.D., and by the 1300s, English royalty kept foxhounds and huntsmen who specialized in fox.

Fox For The Masses

To help make the red fox and gray fox more popular and accessible to the masses, Morse and Balser sought to develop new techniques using various predator calls and study how fox responded to them. They systematically called from ground blinds and elevated locations year-round during all types of weather to document how often fox investigated the sounds and whether response rates varied by air temperature, wind speed and barometric pressure.

Morse and Balser began their research with a portable “high-fidelity” record player borrowed from the old Animal Trap Company of America and a squeeze-bulb “calling device” from the Lake Superior Outdoor Specialties Co. of Duluth, Minnesota.

And they acknowledged they weren’t predator-calling pioneers. They noted that J.R. Alcorn documented using a handmade distress call, a squeak call and a howl call to shoot coyotes in 1946; that the Burnham brothers of Texas used reed-type mouth calls to lure wolves and raccoons during the late 1950s (according to outdoor writers in three hunting magazines); and E.J. Linehan of Texas and Rod Cochran of Ohio used reed-type mouth calls and artificial lights to shoot fox at night.

The authors also noted that A.T. Loring (1946) and F.R. Martin (1958) wrote about using the hand-squeak method to call fox with success. They also reported that “a tolling bell brought fox effectively,” according to outdoor writer Mel Ellis in 1958.

Morse and Balser conducted their fox-calling study throughout Minnesota from February 1958 to March 1959. However, they spent 75 percent of their time in the hilly, heavily wooded dairy country in the state’s southeastern region, where fox populations were highest.

Let’s Try Plan B

Their original plan was to build their study around the portable, battery-operated, high-fidelity record player and its amplifier, which blasted rabbit distress cries from its loudspeaker. Being good scientists, they wanted to use something that consistently made the same standard sounds so they could measure and compare other less-controllable factors to make objective observations. Unfortunately, they had to abandon the record player after seven months and conduct the rest of the study with manual and reed-type calls.

Although calls broadcast through the loudspeaker carried about a half-mile over open, level ground, only 10 percent of calls made with the hi-fi record player attracted fox. This was significantly below the study’s overall success rate of 14.4 percent of 401 calling sessions during the 13-month study. Although little attempt was made to kill animals responding to the calls, a session was generally judged successful if it attracted a fox into view, or if fresh tracks in snow revealed a fox sneaked in undetected.

So, what went wrong with the record player? Morse and Balser wrote that its “comparatively low success was believed due to record background noise, the difficulty of maneuvering the machine into position, and the poorer vantage point resulting from operating it on the ground.” After all, this was long before remote controls, not to mention the difficulties of weather variables and leveling the record-player so its arm and needle could operate.

After giving up on the record player, the researchers turned to seven commercially made reed-type calls and found them all effective in calling fox. They also liked their squeeze-bulb call, which produced a “sharp, resonant squeak that showed great promise, particularly for close work.” They reported four cases in which a fox hesitated at various distances after responding to a louder reed-type call, but then came within 50 feet after hearing the squeeze-bulb’s squeak.

Tips To Success

They also reported three consistent factors for boosting success rates: calling during the final three hours of daylight, hunting on days when winds were 3 mph or less, and avoiding detection while approaching calling sites.

“Twenty percent of the calls tried during (the final three hours of daylight) were successful, and 60 percent of all successful calls fell within this period,” they wrote. Further, although they tried only 12 nighttime calling sessions, four were successful.

Regarding weather factors, they found success rates dropped progressively as wind speeds exceeded 3 mph and that a rising or steady barometer increased calling success, while a falling barometer decreased success.

Here are some other findings from their study:

  • Callers must approach their calling site quietly and cautiously while walking into the wind, and use the woods edge or brushy fencerow or windbreak for concealment.
  • Fox spooked immediately when crossing a caller’s fresh footprints.
  • High ground commanding a good field of vision is most desirable.
  • The caller’s skill in manipulating the call is important. “The rabbit distress call must have ‘feeling’ and sound realistic,” they wrote. “The novice caller should become familiar with rabbit cries in the wild and should also work with an experienced caller.”
  • During successful calling sessions using a distress call, fox usually respond quickly. Of the 73 fox called in during the study, 74 percent responded within 10 minutes, and 25 percent responded within three minutes.
  • 75 percent of responding fox approached to within 50 yards of the observer, and 50 percent approached within 50 feet.
  • Of the six occasions in which the scientists watched fox hunting mice, only once did they attract the fox with a rabbit-distress call.

Not surprisingly, after concluding the research project and writing it up in the scientific journal, Morse and Balser concluded that fox calling provides recreational benefits.

“Fox calling is recommended as a useful technique for luring fox to observers or hunters, and has great potential as a sport,” they wrote.

Granted, all of this might sound like basic fox-hunting tips today. Fifty years ago, however, it was considered scientific insight; perhaps even profound. And so we learn.


Time Intervals Required For Fox To Respond To Calling

Minutes Before Response Number of Fox Responding Percent
0-3 18 24.6
4-5 21 28.8
6-10 15 20.5
11-5 8 10.9
16-20 4 5.5
21-25 1 1.4
Over 25 minutes 1 1.4
Undetermined 5 6.9

Meteorological Effects On Fox-Calling Success

Weather Factor Number of Calls Percent Successful
Wind Velocity
Less than 3 mph 193 20.2
3-4 mph 98 11.2
5-10 mph 85 8.2
Barometric Pressure
Falling 49 12.2
Steady 115 21.7
Rising 30 23.3
Below 0° F 18 16.6
0° to 15° 30 16.6
15° to 30°  76 15.8
30° to 45° 110 12.7
45° to 60° 60 16.6
60° to 75° 81 11.1
Over 75° 26 19.3

Effect Of Cover Density And Human Activity On Fox-Calling Success

Environmental Factor Number of Calls Percent Successful
Cover Density
All directions with partial or full concealment 189 14.3
One direction open 59 10.2
Two or three directions open 139 14.4
All directions open 14 35.8
Nearest Road or human habitation
Less than 1/8 mile 89 18
1/8 to 1/4 mile 101 9.9
1/4 to 1/2 mile 181 13.8
Over 1/2 mile 30 23.3


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