First Fox

Anytime you can hunt with Larry Morrison, say YES.

I had hunted with Larry Morrison once before, so when an email from Larry's daughter, Gail, asking whether I was interested in coming down for two days to hunt, not a whole lot of thinking was involved.   Yes, yes, yes!

The first few days of February slipped by, with the weather shooting into the 60s and even 70s – terrible weather for red fox. In weather this warm, a red fox is more likely to be out in the sun than underground huddle below ground in the dark.

The day before the scheduled hunt, however, the weather took a turn for winter -- the temperatures crashing and a promise of ice, snow and cold rain in the forecast.  A woman from North Carolina who was supposed to come up and go out with us cancelled the night before the hunt, but Larry was not put off by the weather and neither was I.  North Carolina's loss was Virginia's gain, and I headed out early Thursday morning, a light rain falling and the rumored ice and snow nowhere to be seen.

Larry Morrison lives north of Baltimore, in an area of rolling hay and cornfields broken by hedgerows, creeks and small patches of woods.  It’s ideal ground for groundhog, raccoon and possum, and Larry thinks he may be in the middle of the best fox country in the nation.

He’s probably right.

Red fox is probably not native to North America. In all likelihood, it is an immigrant -- like almost everything else, from dandelions to tumbleweed, cowboys to horses, cattle to d fences, pigeons to starlings. There some controversy about fox, however: some folks say say a small population of native reds existed prior to European arrival.

Whatever, the case, native or not, the red fox -- vulpes vulpes -- rare enough prior to colonial times that the British imported them for fox hunting to hounds. The Gray Fox, native to the rocky hill of Appalachia, is impossible to chase with hounds as it simply scampers up a tree, much like a cat or a raccoon. The British saw no sport in that, so red red fox were trapped in Europe, brought over, and released here in the colonies. With almost all the wolves, panthers and bobcats already shot out in the East, and increasing amounts of forest falling to field, the Red Fox found life in North America close to idea. Today, there are more red fox in the U.S. than there ever have been -- and more raccoon, possum and groundhog as well.

Terriers hardly make a dent when compared to other top predators such as the Cougar. No, not the big cat -- the Lincoln-Mercury on the highway. Counting roadkill can teach you a lot about what's really killing wildlife in America -- urbanization and suburbanization. Today more animals are being killed by surveyor stakes than by hunters of all kinds.


Larry was already up and outside when I arrived at his place, and an unexpected benefit awaited -- one of Linda Morrison's endless breakfasts of eggs, hot biscuits, sugar-cured country ham, steaming grits, and fresh coffee.  If food gets any better than what Linda cooks, I haven't found it yet.

We left the house at about 10 am -- full of food, and a zip lock back of fresh biscuits with huge slabs of country ham tucked in between.  Sailor and Que (pronounced 'Key"), Larry's little Jack Russell, were in the back, the cab window slid open to give them a little heat.

With bluegrass music on the tape deck, we rode out to hit the first farm of the day.

We were after fox and raccoon, as Sailor already had her certificate on groundhog. Larry explained that he never dug on fox if he could possible help it – it permanently ruined dens and was almost entirely unnecessary provided you had a good small dog that would bark, and you didn’t stomp around and talk too much above ground. People that were digging on fox were just doing it wrong. Fox are easier to bolt that groundhog – the trick is simply to let the dog work and to not make a circus out of it. A good dog will bark, not grip, and a dog that barks can bolt the fox if you'll only let it.

That sounded right to me. I mostly hunt groundhogs alone, and had discovered that if I placed my border terrier far back away from the hole, and avoided walking around topside too much, Sailor can often bolt a groundhog out of a den in just a few minutes.

When more dogs and people are added to the mix, however, the chance of a bolt dropped and a dig is more likely the order for the day. The hotter the weather, the more likely I was to hunt alone in order to avoid a deep dig.

As we rolled on to the edge of a large field, Larry instructed me to close the truck door as quietly as possible. We didn’t want to spook any fox that might be laying out in the sun. We headed out with no bar and no shovel – the goal was to bolt a fox and that’s all we were prepared for. If anything heavier came up, we could always go back to the truck.

We headed down through a pasture to two large stubble cornfields split by a long hedgerow of multiflora rose. The hedgerow had more holes in it than Swiss cheese. A few of them had the distinctive fresh dirt and kick out of recent fox habitation – we were on top of the first den within five minutes.

Larry pointed out that anytime you see new excavation this time of year, you can be pretty sure it’s a fox and not a groundhog, as the groundhog is too busy conserving energy, while the fox are focused on building their main den and satellite dens to which the pups will later be moved if circumstances warrant.

The dogs checked out the holes, but no one was home. We moved farther down the hedgerow, finding more holes, all of them vacant. We then headed up into the stubble field where small patches of snow and ice clung to the elevated mounds of dirt and depressions that signaled both old and new fox dens and groundhog dens.

There were three or four old fox dens in the field, and the more I saw of these dens, the more I realized the den I had located back in Virginia a few week earlier was indeed a fox den. Foxes kick out dirt in a flared pattern straight back from the hole, a very different pattern from the neat dirt mounds a groundhog will make. Also, from what I could see a fox den entrance tends to be oval rather than round, with the high oval entrance necessary to accommodate a standing fox exiting at full trot.

Larry confirmed what I had read – red fox dens are most likely to be on southern slopes in soft soil and with water not too far away. Most fox spend 10 months of the year hunting mice and wood rats in cornfields, curled up in the shade of the corn or in nearby hedgerows during the day, and stalking small rodents in the early morning and evening along the paths and runs. A fox will hunt a path or a row because he can do so almost silently. While wolves and sometimes coyotes will hunt in packs, driving and surrounding game, a fox always hunts alone and for tiny fare such as mice and voles. This is food too small to share, which cannot be driven, and which has incredible hearing. For a fox, stealth is everything.

As we headed across the fields, the dogs spooked a very large flock of Canadian Geese that flew off honking loudly and notifying everyone and everything within a half a mile that something was afoot.

So much for human stealth!

We crossed down into a creek bordering the fields, and again checked for more holes – this time looking for coon. A few corn cobs pulled into the hedgerows and all the way to the creek suggested coons had been around, but again all the holes we located were empty now.

As we walked up a hedgerow toward where we had started the day, Sailor entered a hole on the edge of a thicket of multiflora rose and started to whine and then bark underground. Que bird-dogged the location of the hole for us, and I took a machete to the rose in order to get in closer and see what it looked like. This was pretty clearly a groundhog sette – no dirt kicked out, and right in the middle of the multiflora. Larry and I waited for Sailor to come up for air, being very quiet so that she might come up and see if we were there. After about 10 minutes, Sailor did indeed reappear, at which point I scooped her up and we went back to the truck – no reason to kill ourselves in multiflora rose for a groundhog when what we were really after was fox and raccoon.


We loaded the dogs back into the truck and set out for a new location. The new farm had a corn stubble field on one side, and a pasture on the other, with the land sloping away in opposite directions, a loose hedge and a long row of trees topping the shallow ridge..

We parked the truck at the top of the hedge line and began to work our way down. Here too the holes were as thick as thieves. In places, it was hard to tell where one sette stopped and another started. The dogs sniffed the holes, but did not seem interested. Larry said one particularly large sette had two levels – an upper and a lower – and that some of these holes had been here for many decades.

We were about three-fourths of the way down the hedgerow when the dogs seemed to hit on a scent. Sailor sniffed several of the holes and then chose one of the six, slipping down into the ground like a silk scarf through a bracelet. Only a few seconds later she began to whine and then bark. Something was home! After a few minutes, Sailor poked her head out and looked at me as if to ask "What the heck is this thing in here?" I ordered her back in, mumbling to Larry that this was a little odd – she normally stuck to her work. A minute or two later, Sailor came out again and I ordered her back once again. Odd stuff this dog. This time she went back down and began to bark and whine like she was going to stick to it.

I ran up the hill to get the truck and the tools. If this was a raccoon, as seemed likely, we would need the bar, shovel and posthole digger in case Sailor couldn’t manage a bolt. As I ran up the hill, shooting the corner of the field where we had curved around its edge, I came across a classical fox den with a fresh flare of kick-out dirt on top. If the coon didn’t work out we would be sure to hit this den on the way back!

I rolled the truck down the hill, and as I got out Larry motioned to the hole with his hand and made a barking motion with his fingers – Sailor was still at it! I turned back to the truck to get the tools when Larry said, "There she is." I looked up to see Sailor, nose down, highballing it up the hedgerow in hot pursuit of something! I followed Sailor up the hill – she was really moving. Sailor reentered the ground at the very large two-level sette Larry had pointed out earlier. I moved the box around on top and located her about 6 feet down. "Welcome to Tora Bora," I thought.

I trotted down the hill to get Larry and the truck. I was just 20 feet from them when a large dog fox, cherry-red and with a huge fluffy tail flying behind, bolted out of the den and went flying across the field.

"Hey Larry," I yelled, "there’s your fox!"

Que had gone into the den again after Sailor had bolted the first fox, and found another fox in residence. When Que came above ground, she had a little mark on top of her nose – a little shaving cut. Later that night we’d find another even smaller nick underneath her muzzle where the fox had gotten her real quick, top and bottom.

After about 15 or 20 minutes of dead silence on our part, Sailor eventually came out of the Tora Bora den. This was a good thing – there was no way that fox was going to bolt again, having seen what was waiting for her topside. As for pinning the fox in this maze – that was unlikely unless Sailor could get her to go into a deep dead end, in which case we were in for a load of digging.

I grabbed Sailor as she exited, and we loaded both dogs back in the truck. The day beginning to get a little long, but we rolled off to one more location to try our luck.

Larry parked the truck at the start of a cut-through for a farm road. We got out of the truck, again leaving the tools behind. The road bank had quite a few holes in it, and scattered everywhere were shotgun shells. Larry explained that the goose hunters often used the banks on either side of the narrow dirt road as a kind of blind, shooting as the goose crossed overhead.

Larry pointed to several bruised bits of dirt on the ground – fox tracks. As we got to a bend in the road, he pointed to a few more fox tracks, these a little more distinct. "I’ve seen fox come right across the road here," he said. The dogs sniffed a couple of likely looking holes at the top of the bank, but both took a pass, and we headed around to walk the top of the bank and look for holes on the other side of the dense multiflora rose.

We were about a quarter of the way back to the truck when Sailor slid into the thickest part of the multilfora rose. There was no track -- not so much as a slick into the thicket. Whatever Sailor was after -- if anything -- she had either smelled or heard.

Within a minute, Sailor began to bay underground. She had found a den and someone was home!

Larry and I stood back and watched the multiflora, trying to pin down the sound, neither of us much interested in hacking our way into the middle to find nothing more than a groundhog den. Sailor stayed with it, however, and after five or 10 minutes we were pretty certain we knew where the den was, plus or minus 10 feet. The only problem was that it was a total mess in there with two or three big tree trucks and a riot or multiflora rose and and other thorns.

I pushed through a thin part of the hedge off to one side and dropped down into the road. As I did so, I realized we were exactly opposite the location where Larry had said he had see the fox crossing the road -- and where we had seen tracks only 15 or 20 minutes earlier.

I shouted the new to Larry, and we both stood back looking for the bolt. Sailor was still underground, still barking, but not quite so deep now. Then she was silent. A few minutes later, the popped out above ground -- we could just barely see her in the thicket.

Sailor went in and out of the thicket for another 15 minutes, reluctant to leave, looking for what had probably been her second fox of the day -- bolted unseen through the thicket.

At the end of the day, we rolled a huge perfectly white quart boulder into Larry's truck to take home for Larry's garden. This was a 300-pound rock, but we managed to roll her up into the truck using two digging bars and a set of posthole diggers as a ramp. The Egyptians had nothing over us!

That evening we settled in at Larry's house for another wonderful meal of thick steaks, mash potatoes, lima beans and peach ice-cream.

As I drifted off to sleep that night I was reminded of what great country we live in here in VA and MD. I was also reminded of how much greater it is with the Morrison's in it.  Larry's good humor, knowledge of critters and mind-map of the land he hunts is second to none, and at the end of the day you get the pleasure of better food and better company than anyone has a right to enjoy this side of the Pearly Gates.  Thank you Larry, Linda and Gail. You are the best.

      Sailor, at rest.
At the house, Arlington, Virginia.