Chasing Chucks and Stalking Squirrels
The months of March, April, May and June are Idahoís informal squirrel and Ďchuck season. At this time, Columbian and Townsend ground squirrels are emerging from winter dens, feeding on spring greenery, breeding and raising litters, and in general chasing around above-ground to provide excellent springtime hunting.
by Lewis Watson
Much larger yellow-bellied marmots (rockchucks) are doing the same in low-elevation rockpiles pretty much statewide. In far north Idaho, Eastern woodchucks are said to frequent open meadows, while giant hoary marmots populate higher rocky areas of east-central Idaho. As scorching summer weather dries out their nearby food sources, all these species stay underground more, coming out mostly early and late in the day. Rockchucks in particular tend to "aestivate," or summer-hibernate, until early autumnís brief greening-up period. The point is, if you want to go squirrel and chuck hunting, from now till late June is the best time.
Write a Rockchuck Cookbook:
"Varmint shooting" (especially with high-powered centerfires) can provoke considerable anti-hunting sentiment. "Why shoot the poor things?" non-hunters plaintively ask. "You donít eat them, and itís unfair to shoot anything from so far away."
In the first place, rockchucks can be eaten. Iíve done so, and theyíre delicious -- far more tasty and tender than wild rabbits; meat texture is more like beef. Another hunting motive is that uncontrolled squirrel and chuck colonies can decimate alfalfa and other farm crops. Squirrels in particular riddle pastures with countless holes and dirt mounds that can break livestock legs and jar a tractor-driverís teeth loose. Rockchuck denning areas stink with flies and droppings, and chucks are known to be a primary host of ticks, sometimes carrying deadly Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Finally, squirrel and chuck populations can grow explosively if unchecked, so hunters are providing a public service in holding down rodent numbers and spread.
The Rimfire Plinkers and the Hotshot Centerfires:
Idahoís spring varminters break into two groups -- .22 rimfire plinkers and the big-boomers who mostly use hotshot centerfires like the .222, .22-250, and .220 Swift. Each approach has its own "flavor," stalking methods, and specialized equipment. I personally enjoy both of these varmint styles, though I know several high-velocity enthusiasts who puzzle and snicker over my grown-man fondness for rimfire plinking of ground squirrels and rockchucks. To each his own.
If you want to burn a lot of ammo, rimfire or centerfire, go after ground squirrels. These 10-inch "picket-posts" live in loose concentrations of a dozen or more per acre, usually in rolling, soft-earth meadow areas. Deeply-eroded ravines and loose rock piles are other good denning locations, as are abandoned farmhouse and barn foundations.
Pups are Emerging From Dens From April On:
Depending on elevation, ground squirrels breed in March or April, with litters born about a month later. After another month or so the pups emerge from dens, and Idaho fields and hills everywhere seem to be crawling with the whistling, scurrying little creatures!
From this population high-point, disease and predators take their toll. Numbers seem to recede by late summer -- partly because crowding and food scarcity force some squirrels to migrate short distances to new areas, thus spreading their range.
Your Shooting Ranges:
Practical squirrel range for a .22 rimfire is around 50 yards, though I hunt with a 13-year-old who for a time wiped the old manís fading eye with dramatic 100-yard shots. Such long range show-offery isnít sporting, I told him, because you canít reliably place your shots in the vital forward half of your target, and even ground squirrels deserve that much. The lad shows promise, or maybe competitive finesse -- he now stalks quite close to each squirrel and usually beats me in number of squirrels bagged per day!
Using Bipods and Binocs:
On such small targets a quality 4X scope will greatly improve your shooting average, even at close rimfire ranges. As with autumn deer and elk, I try never to shoot from a wobbly standing position, though target angles and tall grass often prevent sitting and prone shots. Another item of great value to both rimfire and centerfire varmint shooters is some kind of rifle bipod. You can buy bipods (hinged and extendible) and attach one permanently to your gun forearm, or you can make a simpler and cheaper rest with two lightweight sticks about 3í long. Bolt the sticks together 4" from their ends and drive small finishing nails halfway into their opposite ends to grip the ground better. Upon spotting a squirrel, hit the ground with you fanny, spread the sticks to the best shooting elevation, and brace your rifle forearm in the upper fork. Bipods or shooting sticks provide great stability, much better than knee-braced elbows or a nearby rock, which usually isnít nearby enough!
Almost as important as your rifle in spring varminting is a pair of quality binoculars. Good optics help locate far-away squirrels, count their number, spot exact den sites, and plan effective stalk routes. You can save a lot of aimless rambling by glassing a canyon first, and high-resolution binocs are a joy to use in themselves at any time in the outdoors.
Once you "graduate" to high-velocity centerfires, squirrel hunting takes on a very different character. Itís pointless to stalk to within 50 yards of targets when youíre talking about 3000-plus f.p.s. bullet velocities, sub-minute-of angle accuracy, and 6X-18X scopes.
With these high-performance cannons, ranges of 100 to 300 and even 400 yards are the norm. A vehicle can often be driven to within such distances of squirrel colonies, a full-scale sandbagged benchrest erected, and the local squirrel population decimated with fast-stepping hollowpoints without moving from the spot.
Play it Safe:
As with any shooting, make sure you have a safe backdrop for bullets Ďway over yonder, and never shoot over a ridge with a slug that may carry five miles!
With such loud weapons itís wise to drive away from settled areas before setting up shop. Be considerate and ask shooting permission from nearby residents, even if they donít own the land. A group of rockchuckers once opened up 200 yards from my rural home, and while I didnít fret over the bullets, the incessant roar finally made me ask them to leave.
Road-adjacent squirrel colonies are often shot out by late spring, but you can find plenty of action if youíll hike away from your car a bit. You canít carry a bench rest, of course, so bipods, shooting sticks, or a beanbag forearm rest laid atop a rock are all the more important for sustaining long-range accuracy. For off-road "hoofabout" varminting, good binocs become major time-and-energy savers. A 20-plus power spotting scope on a light tripod can be invaluable in placing and checking each shot.
The Practice Theory:
Some hunters like to practice for big game by potting chucks and squirrels with large caliber rifles. Since deer and elk are typically taken with one or two simple shots, Iíve never bought this "practice" theory, but if you donít mind the repeated recoil and racket of a .30-06 or some such, go to it.
You can handload light, though stubby, slugs in these bigger guns for super velocities and fair accuracy. You can also buy Remingtonís "Accelerators" -- a .22 slug set in a plastic jacket or "sabot" of whatever caliber. The light sabot falls away at the shot, and accuracy seems to vary with the gun.
Rockchucks arenít as all-around plentiful in Idaho as are ground squirrels. Centerfire shooters may bag four or five chucks from an average rocky overlook, rather than 20 or more squirrels. Rimfire plinkers are apt to surprise only one or two chucks at close range before nearby survivors scurry underground.
Still, rockchucks are exciting "big game" for spring varminters. If youíll keep moving around, a sizable daily total of these 4 to 12 pound animals can be bagged in better areas.
They See You First:
Rockchucks are well named. Look for them in, on, and around extended piles of rocks and boulders and around abandoned farm buildings. (Eastern woodchucks inhabit open meadows away from rocks.) Unless you diligently use binocs at considerable range, chucks will spot or hear you before you see them. At that point they often make an alarm-bark or chirp which is much louder than the shrill danger whistle of a ground squirrel. Whatever youíre shooting, youíd then best get into firing position because all chucks within earshot will be scooting for their dens. They may or may not stand erect or pop out of holes momentarily for a better or second shot.
Waiting Em' Out:
With a long-range rifle covering an expansive overlook, you can feasibly wait out chucks once theyíve denned up. Within ten minutes or so, one or more in that sizable area is bound to peek out again. If you keep hearing an alarm bark but canít see the critter, start scanning with binocs. You may pick up only a beady eye and grizzled brown head cussing you from 300 yards away, but thatís what high-velocity varmint cartridges are all about.
Rimfire plinkers might wait out one or two denned-up chucks from 50 yards away, but itís usually more productive to mosey along to another rockpile, using available cover and sneak tactics the whole way.
A few archers work over ground squirrels and chucks with blunt arrows, though jittery squirrels dodge a lot and rockchucksí typical environment is sure costly on shafts! Iíve lately taken up slingshotting on ground squirrels -- not much results so far, but talk about giving game a fair chance! Even telephoto camera fanatics will find chucks and squirrels a fine spring "target."
Give the Young Ones a Little Head Start:
This may seem odd to western varminters, but there is a growing trend around the country to establish closed seasons in early spring on chucks and ground squirrels. The rationale is that when one of these animals is shot at this time, its litter of denned-up pups is also destroyed. Probably few alfalfa-growing Idaho ranchers would be in favor of actually protecting these over-breeding rodents, but I personally tend to postpone my heavy-duty shooting until I spot a few young ones foraging above-ground. Call it soft-hearted middle age or soft-headed senility as you like, but Iíve enjoyed enough hunting sport over the years with squirrels and chucks that this small conservation gesture makes sense to me.