By Gary Lewis
When I was in high school, there was a guy that would just as soon beat you up as look at you. It turned out there was only one thing he liked better than to put a whipping on an underclassman, and that was to talk about his favorite band – the Boomtown Rats. Me and my friends quickly learned to develop an appreciation for music.
I hadn't thought about him or the Boomtown Rats for a couple of decades, but out in the fields near Crane, Ore., he sprung to mind.
I carried a 32-caliber muzzleloader and stoked it with round balls I'd helped to melt and mold. All around me, the rimfire rifles and small-bore centerfires spoke.
We were ankle deep in alfalfa, the ground beneath us tunneled and heaped. Beneath our boots was a major metropolis of vermin. Above the ground it was boom town.
I slid the long, slender rifle out of its red, fringed flannel rug and measured 30 grains of black powder into the barrel. Then I greased a patch, started the round ball and tamped it home with the ramrod. I pinched a No. 11 cap and slid it on under the hammer.
Shooting open sights, I'd have to be close.
We were on fields planted to alfalfa and orchard grass, on property leased for the hunting rights to Diamond A Outfitters. On this day, Nikki Aamodt had paired me with guide Seth Franklin. They call him the Rat Squeaker. He mimics many of the calls of the Belding's ground squirrel, that plague-carrier we like to call the sage rat.
He learned to call because a Sunday School teacher gave him a little plastic birdie whistle. "When I filled the whistle with water, it sounded like a squirrel," Franklin said.
With his whistle, little Seth Franklin found he could squeak sage rats out of their holes and pop them with a BB gun. And when he lost the whistle, he learned to make the rat sounds with his mouth.
"I learned it was something I could do when I could just see the top of a head and wanted him to show himself," he said.
Anyone paying attention soon learns that sage rats make a number of different noises.
"The babies kind of chirp at each other," Franklin said. That's one kind of call. It's a motherless juvenile whistle, a one-note kind of chirp."
Another sound is the disgruntled mother's insistent chirping - a series of six chirps.
The babies start to show in mid- to late April. When the babies are wrestling, they make a smooching sound, which is also the sound the adults use, calling to each other during the mating season.
"The rat-in-distress sound," Franklin said, "I make with a lip squeak. The stuttered warning whistle, I make with six or more chirps in series.
Franklin tries to coax the females out by appealing to their maternal instincts. "If you can coax them out with the sound of lost juveniles or a deadbeat dad coming with the child support check, you can get a shot."
These are sounds that can be heard anytime between March and June in the fields of eastern Oregon.
With my muzzleloader and my possibles bag along for fast reloads, Franklin and I walked away from the shooting platform in the long grass.
A rat popped up from one hole and scampered down another. I looked at Franklin and saw him purse his lips. He gave a quick, one-note chirp and the rat popped back up and exposed its head. I found the blade front sight in the notch of the rear, clicked the trigger and stroked the set trigger.
Franklin figured it was a lucky shot. "Prove it," he said. I proved it. Over and over.
We made a pretty good team. Franklin squeaking up rats and me putting them down. For good. For the good of farm crops and alfalfa prices and the price of beef.
When the wind picked up, I held "Kentucky windage" and shot them. Ask Franklin. I didn't miss. But it was time to quit before I did.
Shooting a muzzleloader is not the fastest way to clean up boomtown rats, but it is good for a hunter's familiarity with a rifle.
Learn to mimic a sage rat's squeaks and find your rhythm with the muzzleloader. With a little practice a hunter should be able to load and fire two or three aimed shots per minute.
As music goes, it's not bad. And with a small-bore rifle, you won't get beat up.