Vapor Trails in Cap Rock Country

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

Orchard grass or alfalfa. As goes the price of feed, so goes the price of beef and lamb and the cost to keep of course, a horse.

According to Rick Byrd, of La Pine Feed, orchard grass is going for $10 an 85-pound bale these days. Alfalfa is running $18 for a 160-pound bale. Each year, the cost varies according to the supply and the demand.

If the mule deer out in the fields near Silver Lake were any indication, demand is high. They streamed down out of the junipers to spread out across the fields in bunches of 20 to 40 animals between the irrigation wheel lines, nibbling at the green showing between last year's dried-out stalks.

Other critters had their eyes on the commodity.

A sage rat streaked for his hole, head low to the ground. Another stood on his haunches like a picket pin, about eight inches high. They were hard to see at first, blending in with the dried stalks. But then a darker patch would show against the grass, the cheek and head of a squirrel, a target no bigger than a silver dollar.

Charlie Lake lifted his 10x Leupold binocular. "They're all over the place." Dave Wilcox lifted the lid on his cargo carrier and handed out the hardware. Fourteen-year-old Sam King was supposed to start out with an old single-shot Savage with open sights, but he cast a favoring eye across my Trijicon-topped Ruger 10/22.

Since I toured their Tualatin factory for the first time seven years ago, I have been using Warne Scope Mounts on my rifles. When I ran into Charlie Lake at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas last January, we decided we should try to do our part to keep the cost of hay affordable. I called Russ Scott at Lake in the Dunes and we set up an early April hunt.

We settled in with an irrigation line at our backs to shoot north and south. Lake propped his Tactical Solutions .22 on a tripod and dialed the elevation up to compensate for shots that would come between 75 yards and 225. Wilcox used the back of a camp chair for a rest while Sam and I opted for shooting sticks. I started with the bolt action CZ 17HMR.

For a few moments nothing moved, save the tops of the grass. From each mound, trails radiated into the field like wheel spokes. There. A sage rat, crouched in a furrow, his back brown against the yellowed livestock fuel, magnified to 6x in my scope.

Safety to 'fire.' Crosshair on squirrel hair. A puff of Silver Lake soil drifted away on the breeze and the squirrel dashed for his burrow.

Several months had passed since my trigger finger had spent this much time caressing the quarter moon. Muscle memory returned and eyes adjusted to calculate the effects of wind, distance and gravity. After 50-some empties lay spent, I switched to my scoped Ruger Charger 22. The bigger bullet bucked the breeze better, but the handgun took more concentration to score at long range.

After a hundred rounds, I switched back to the CZ and felt my groove coming back.

By my calculations, we saved 2,503 pounds of hay. You'll see the savings in the meat department.

It was two weeks later that I got a thank-you in the mail. It was from the landowner whose property we'd hunted near Silver Lake. We read the letter on the road to Burns.

He explained how much damage the varmints had done to his crops and how necessary it was to keep them under control if he expected to take any orchard grass to market. Producing a crop that was certified organic, he could not use chemicals to control the critters. His best option, he said, was a hunter with a rifle.

Burns and Beyond

Out in the desert, south and east of Burns, hot water bubbles up out of the ground. A cluster of buildings surround a clean, dark pool – Crystal Crane Hot Springs.

After a plateful of steamed oysters and three helpings of Camp Chef Dutch oven cobbler, I stepped in, felt the gravel beneath my feet and the warm water creep up to my neck.

Wind blew in out of the sagebrush and pushed the steam in big rolling clouds out across the parking lot, out across the sage.

From their base at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, Justin and Nikki Aamodt, of Diamond A Guides, operate hunts for coyotes, badgers, ground squirrels, rockchucks and other varmints. They lease hunting rights from ranchers and farmers that create a win-win-win-win situation for the outfitter, landowner, hunter and consumer.

We eased into the fields when the morning sun was well up, a parade of pickups behind an old Chevrolet with a framed platform on top. After a few minutes, we saw the ground begin to move, here, there and there as sage rats popped out of their dens. We shot for a few minutes then Justin called my attention to a canyon a half-mile distant.

The badlands reeked of rockchucks. Varmint trails spidered into the alfalfa and the crop was damaged for hundreds of yards.

It's not easy to sneak up on a yellow-bellied marmot. In the cap rock, chucks own the high ground.

We made our approach from the west and eased into the canyon up the bottom of a wash. Aamodt spotted the first one and I saw the next, a patch of russet hair against gray rock.

We flipped and I won the toss. Two chucks fed out into the open on a grassy slide. I thumbed four rounds into the Remington, snugged it against my shoulder, dialed the Leupold to 7x and sought leg holds for the bipod. 250 yards or more at a steep uphill.

My bullet spanged rock. Chucks scrambled for cover. Now I had the range. When Aamodt spotted the next on a rocky outcrop, I held nine inches high and six inches left to compensate for the wind, squeezed.

The next one showed himself on a black chunk of lava. And then we spotted another on a slide studded with white boulders.

It was Allen's turn. Kallel leaned back and cracked the rifle. He pushed a bullet into the chamber and closed it. Now he leaned forward, into the rock, into the rifle, solid on the bipod, on the boulder.

"See that white slide? There's a cave below that flat rock. The chuck is right above that." Justin Aamodt locked into his binocular with both hands and put a finger in each ear.

We were both looking over Allen's shoulder when the bullet left the rifle. At 4,000 feet per second, the air parted around the tip of the bullet and vapor shimmered in its wake. All the way to the chuck.

Populations of Marmota flaviventris, absent well-drained fields and major food sources, don't usually grow out of balance. But to a rancher or a farmer, making a living on the land, colonies of rockchucks, a.k.a. yellow-bellied marmots, can cause no end of trouble. A burrow might run 10 to 70 yards and go 25 to 35 feet deep. Chucks consume a considerable amount of a farmer's crop. Burrows and mounds cause enormous damage to harvesting equipment.

In the past, poisons were often employed to keep chucks in check, but if a farmer wants to maintain a certified organic status, the best option is a hunter with a rifle.

Gary Lewison

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