AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is the first installment in a series on varmint hunting during the offseason from game hunting.
You don't hear much about groundhogs these days. Some call this large rodent a woodchuck, but maybe more of us call him a groundhog. There was a time when this iconic little varmint got a lot of attention from hunters during the game calendar's offseason, and especially from the group that became known as varmint hunters. Varmint hunting brought about the term varmint rifle, generally considered to be guns that are flat-shooting, high-speed calibers capable of hitting small targets at long distance. Varmint rifles are often in the .22 caliber family, but not always.
First a few words about our special guest this week, the groundhog.
The American woodchuck, also known as a groundhog or whistle pig, is a large rodent and is found in most of the eastern and central United States and into Canada. For those of you keeping track of these things, his Latin name is Marmota monax. He belongs to the family Sciuridae and is in a group of large ground squirrels know as marmots. I am told he is found as far north as Alaska, although how he does much digging up there, I don't know.
Despite a chunky appearance, the groundhog is a good swimmer and an excellent tree climber, often escaping predators in this way. They have large, powerful front incisors, and they know how to use them. The dog that tangles with Mr. Groundhog better be ready for a fight.
When alarmed, they will often give a high-pitched whistle as an alert call to other groundhogs, hence the name "whistle pig." Groundhogs may be found in forested areas but are usually seen around open fields. They are ferocious diggers and often have at least two burrows; it is this burrowing — and a taste for garden crops — that gets him in trouble with us humans.
I have known many farmers and cattlemen over the years who really detest groundhogs, probably more for their destructive burrowing than for what they eat in the way of crops. Some studies suggest a groundhog may move more than two tons of dirt in digging a single burrow. When they dig this many holes around barns and outbuildings, hay meadows, farm machinery and livestock, you can see how most farmers are no fan of the groundhog.
Like I said back there, the groundhog was once the main quarry of varmint hunters, at least east of the Big Muddy. For several years, the groundhog has been conspicuously absent in much of his former range. We just don't have groundhogs like we used to, in my area at least. I have heard many theories as to why this is. If you ask most farmers in my neck of the woods, almost all will say it is because of the influx of the coyote. I don't completely doubt this, but something about it doesn't completely ring true for me. I just don't know.
As far as the shooting part of this discussion goes, once upon a time I traveled with some pretty fast company in the long-range varmint shooting world. These guys shot .220 Swifts, .22-250's, .243's and the odd .25/06. They could shoot a gnat's left wing off at 300 yards, and they shot groundhogs at much longer ranges than that. The farmers we visited loved to see us coming because the groundhog population was always diminished when we left.
Now before anyone starts to send a barrage of mail about how could you think of shooting a cute little furry animal, you will just have to talk to some of the farmers who have to deal with Mr. Groundhog. I guarantee they think of him as nothing but a destructive pest.
I don't really have anything against the groundhog, I know that at least once a year he is a celebrity in places such as Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — they call theirs Phil — and "Groundhog Day" is my favorite Bill Murray movie. You have to realize, though, he can sometimes be a destructive pest and must be controlled.
While the numbers are down on groundhogs, there are still enough around to go spend a summer afternoon glassing for them. Pursuit of this little varmint is still the best way to keep sharp with your deer rifle during the offseason. The occasional groundhog, along with some crows and maybe a bonus coyote — more on those two later — should keep things interesting.
Now pull that deer rifle out for a tuneup or dust off that .22/250 that hasn't seen daylight for a few years and go look for some whistle pigs.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.