Make a Hole in One!
By Gary Lewis
This time of year when snows are receding and spring is on the doorstep, the thoughts of thousands of Oregon sportsmen turn to the same thing. Golf!
They'll don a polo shirt, funny pants, a driving glove and shiny white shoes, then head to the links. The green of the grass, the puffy clouds against a blue sky and a little white ball driven from tee to green for 18 holes. Most duffers will be happy to hit par on a single hole, but a few lucky players will hit a hole in one.
Out on the dry side of the state, there are plenty of golf courses, especially in places like Bend, Eagle Crest, The Running Y Ranch, Redmond and Sunriver. But not far away, on green fields of alfalfa from the Columbia to California and from the Cascades east to the Snake and the Steens, you can drive a bullet instead of a ball. Instead of pulling out your seven-iron, reach for your shooting iron.
The Belding's ground squirrel is a short-haired, thin-tailed critter with a taste for alfalfa, subterranean cover and a penchant for procreation. In a large colony of squirrels, you'll see mounds of earth heaped up at the entrance to the den and trails leading hither and yon into the crops.
Burns resident, outfitter Justin Aamodt has made it his business to find solutions for ranchers beset by the little critters. “They tunnel and weaken the soil, he said, "and make mounds that cover potential crops. Often, the mounds are high enough that when the rancher cuts his alfalfa, the dirt and rocks can dull or break the blades on his machines."
One rancher had so many squirrels living on his grain that he plowed up his fields to get rid of them, missing two cuttings of alfalfa and the sale of 600 bales.
However, the varmints are a part of the food chain and populations shouldn't be eradicated. Safety-conscious hunters, who pick up their brass and don't drive on crop fields, can help control rodents so that landowners won't choose to resort to poisons.
A variable scope is a big help and shooting sticks can make the difference when every little bit of accuracy counts. Often the quarry is almost hidden behind a mound of dirt, leaving you a target no bigger than a silver dollar.
Binoculars can help the spotter direct shots. For the young shooter, looking forward to his or her first big game season, the practice is invaluable.
Yellow-bellied marmot, whistle pig, whatever you call him, a rockchuck provides big game hunting excitement in a small package. Growing as large as 10 pounds or more, these furry rodents make their home in rocky outcroppings or rock piles, leaving them only to graze on nearby vegetation.
Rockchuck populations, without grain and grass, irrigated and cultivated by humans, do not grow out of balance. They live in small groups and are kept in check by hawks, coyotes, foxes, and bobcats. But give them an alfalfa field and the marmot armies will tunnel, weaken irrigation dams and multiply rapidly, decimating crops, and competing with cattle and horses for food.
Rockchucks, like to graze in the open, but prefer borders for their dens. Fence lines or pasture boundaries offer the raised mounds of earth that rockchucks like for visibility and proximity to forage.
Wonder if rockchucks are nearby? You can find their droppings on rockpiles and large holes in the pasture. Big enough that a galloping horse can put a foot down one and break a leg.
Getting within range is the hard part. As when hunting larger animals, check the wind before beginning your stalk. Shots are likely to range from 50 yards to 250 yards or more.
You may find good shooting in February or March, but April and May are the prime months. By mid-June, the grass and crops may be too tall.
The badger, a member of the weasel family, is on the prowl wherever other ground-dwelling varmints are abundant. Small rodents, snakes, birds, insects and eggs are on the daily menu of this solitary animal.
A male badger, which can weigh up to 20 pounds or more, will range far and wide, covering a large territory that may take in a square mile of ground or much more, depending on the habitat. It is a largely nocturnal animal, but in areas of little human activity, you might see a badger during daylight hours.
For a badger, home is wherever it happens to be when it's time to rest. It will simply dig a burrow and crawl inside. In less than a minute, it can be underground. For this reason, if you've found a badger's territory, you will find dozens of empty holes in banks close to water sources and squirrel colonies.
Many badgers are taken each year by small game hunters. Your best opportunity will be in the morning before the shooting starts. Keep an eye out for a badger on the move, headed for its hole.
Badgers will respond to a call, but are not likely to travel far to reach the caller. Successful badger hunters stay on the move until a badger is spotted at long range then set up to call.
When using a call, focus on sounds made by easily-caught ground dwellers like ground squirrels. A squirrel, prairie dog or woodpecker in distress may bring a badger on the run.
In the Alfalfa Arsenal
Many shooters have turned to the 17HMR. It is quiet compared to most centerfire rifles, but it can reach well beyond the range of the 22 rimfire. You can see the impact. There's no recoil and it's accurate out to 200 yards. The only trouble with these light bullets is that they're vulnerable to the effects of a stiff breeze.
Moving up to a centerfire can help you buck the wind. For something different, try the 204 Ruger. A 223 or a 22-250 pushing a 40-grain Ballistic Tip can extend your reach when a badger emerges on a faraway field.
Whatever hardware you choose, there are diggers of all types on eastern Oregon's ranchlands and public lands. Don't let your poor score on the golf course get you down. Go out and make a hole in one.