“Last year, shooters took 40,000 rats out of these fields. We still have too many.” With the rancher’s words ringing in our ears, we followed a dirt track through the alfalfa to the top of the ridge and parked on the skyline. From where we stood, we could see the tops of the Ochocos, surrounding our little valley. The field of green rippled in the wind like waves on an inland sea.
The well-watered grain stood knee-high, great cover for the Belding’s ground squirrels that the ranchers call sage rats. But difficult for us. Maybe we could spot them if we hunted from above. Dave was walking ahead, carrying his new 17-caliber rimfire. On the shoulder of the ridge, he stopped and lowered himself to the ground.
Below us, the alfalfa had been eaten down to bare ground. At least ten acres destroyed by the squirrels. They had a good start on another 20 acres. The ground was riddled with tunnels. Here and there, squirrels stood like miniature bowling pins, or chased each other along the irrigation dike.
Dave extended his bipod and went to work, his adjustable scope dialed up to the maximum. Sitting beside him, I watched through binoculars.
Dave rolled the first strike while I unlimbered my rifle. As our guns began to speak, the squirrels ducked into their holes. There. A head poked above the top of a mound, eye and head visible.
The big-game gun was very accurate on small targets. Dave watched me make the first shot. At 100 yards, I missed by a whisker, throwing a plume of dirt into the air. That was my last miss for a while.
There’s nothing like small game shooting to tune your accuracy. Your muzzleloader is not the ideal varmint rifle, but the practice will help you during fall’s big game hunts.
Contrary to what some people believe, muzzleloading rifles can be very accurate. But before you prove it in the field, you need to spend time at the range. When I purchased my latest front-stuffer, I headed straight to the Central Oregon Shooting Sports Association (COSSA) range, 23 miles east of my home in Bend. I was told that the gun could place a three-shot group within an inch if I did my part.
I found that doing my part took a little bit of care between shots.
When sighting-in, you must wipe your barrel between each shot. I keep an extra rod beside me. After each shot, I wipe the barrel with a clean, damp patch. When I’m shooting a blackpowder substitute powder, one or two passes with a patch is sufficient to ready the bore for the next shot.
If you target shoot with a fouled barrel, you need to hunt with a fouled barrel. The day before the hunt, I simply fire a half-charge and bullet into a safe backstop and wipe the barrel with one clean patch.
When using blackpowder substitutes, you may leave the barrel fouled for the duration of the hunt. When using blackpowder, you’ll need to clean the barrel every evening. Your fouled barrel will give you consistent velocity when the shot counts.
Anytime you break in a new rifle, it’s a good idea to wring it out at varying distances. On the ground squirrel shoot, shots ranged from 20 feet to 250 yards. Halfway through our shoot, I started using the sticks. If you’ve never shot from sticks, you ought to try it. Shooting sticks can make all the difference when you have to make a long shot at the end of a difficult stalk.
You can make your own from a pair of sturdy dowels. Mine are ¾-inch diameter and 48 inches long. Sharpened at the bottom ends, they’re bound with a leather thong about six inches from the tops.
They can be used to form a rock-solid rest by pushing the pointed ends into the soil, spread apart to form a V at the top. Using your off hand, you steady the sticks and cradle the rifle in the web between thumb and forefinger.
Whether you’re shooting targets, varmints or big game, follow the fundamentals. Then teach yourself to use the shooting sticks. Your rifle will deliver, if you do your part.