A woodchuck is a stocky rodent with a flattened head and a grizzled tail. Its fur is of value only to woodchucks, and its flesh offers little to delight the gourmet. It spends almost three-quarters of its life sleeping, and its major activity is eating. Yet this gluttonous sluggard is the only animal in the nation with a day in its honor.
Each February 2, according to legend, the coming of spring depends on whether or not the ground hog, as it is called in the South, sees its shadow. Feeble of intellect, it is unlikely that a woodchuck can tell its shadow from third base or spring from the dugout. But in the whimsy of nature, the beast is important in agriculture and in sport.
It is important because it is a nuisance. It causes losses of thousands of dollars a year in crop and property damages. This makes it fair game for sportsmen, who can have the fun of shooting wood-chucks, along with a sense of civic righteousness. From Nova Scotia to Georgia and westward to the Dakotas, the animals are so abundant that a hunter can reasonably expect at least a dozen shots, often more, in a single day. And because he seldom has to travel far from home to reach his sport, the chuck shooter's expenditure of time and money is trifling.
For these reasons woodchucking appeals not only to experienced hunters but to a great many beginners, including women. They find that a chuck shoot not only provides an opportunity to go along with the men but is rarely more strenuous—or uncomfortable—than a family picnic in the country. Woodchucks, like wives, prefer to be out only when it is fair and sunny. Locating their haunts calls for little of the physical exertion demanded by bigger and wilder game; and the calibers popularly used on chucks—.22 Rimfire, .22 Hornet, .218 Bee, .219 Zipper, .220 Swift, .243 Winchester and .244 Remington—are light enough for a woman to handle without fear of recoil.
Beginner's best training
"Once a woman or a child has learned to handle a rifle on targets," says veteran chuck hunter Robert Russell of Wantagh, N.Y., "the next logical step is hunting, and the logical game is chucks. They are plentiful and accessible and can be hunted without limits in spring and summer when other game seasons are closed. Woodchucking is the best training a beginner can get in gun handling afield, in marksmanship, game anatomy and in stalking.
"No matter how much practice on targets a beginner has had," Russell adds, "he'll still find shooting at game a completely different experience. First, he'll be a lot more excited than he ever was with a paper target, and he may forget some of the rules he learned on the range. In chuck hunting there is enough game around to condition a beginner to behaving sensibly and safely when he sees it. This kind of training carries over to all other hunting he'll ever do, whether it's deer or elephant."
Gerald V. Cosby of Rockville Centre, N.Y. has this to say: "Woodchucking also offers the novice valuable training in marksmanship on game. This doesn't mean you should skip all target shooting and take the kids right into the field. There is no substitute for a sound shooting foundation based on targets, but after a certain point, game is essential.
"Many beginners, adults as well as children, start out hunting with the idea that if they hit the game they shoot at, they are successful. But it isn't success when animals suffer painful and wasteful deaths. Hits are only successful when they are placed in vital areas and drop the animal instantly."
Chuck hunting provides youngsters with an excellent opportunity to learn the basic principles of stalking game. Although ground hogs have been described as having only enough intelligence to keep themselves alive, this is enough to make them a fair match for some hunters. What they lack in brainpower they make up in extremely acute eyesight and good nose and ears. A woodchuck peering out of a burrow can spot the flick of a hand at 50 yards, and once alarmed, is usually content to remain in its burrow until it thinks the danger has passed. This may be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour; but sooner or later, its insatiable appetite will lure it above ground. A seasoned chuck hunter can take advantage of the time to sneak into close-range shooting position.
"Many a beginner has learned that it is not quite as simple as just walking in and waiting though," says Russell. "Most of the time when a chuck slips back into its burrow, it goes only far enough to see without being seen. Then it takes careful stalking, with attention to wind and terrain, to sneak in close without driving the chuck all the way underground."
Skeptic about stalking
Critics of chuck hunting openly scoff at the idea that stalking of any kind is involved in the sport, and one skeptic suggests that shooting a chuck requires only "a rifle with two barrels—one to look through, the other to fire a charge that would kill an elephant—and care not to slam the car door getting out." For a number of varminters who have never taken a shot at chucks except with the aid of a 20X scope at 300 yards, this may not be far from truth, but many others (like Gerald Cosby) who make chuck hunting a family affair, insist close-range stalking and shooting is the only way to introduce wives and children to the sport.
"This does not mean," Cosby says, "that there isn't also a place for long-distance shooting with high-powered rifles and scopes. Chuck hunting is first and foremost a rifleman's sport.
"A serious woodchucker is never satisfied with his equipment, and he usually spends as many hours at the workbench as he does in the field. By the time he finishes taking apart and rebuilding his rifle, he's ready to start all over again on another one. He endlessly experiments in reloading ammunition. If he is not trying to achieve a more accurate load, he's striving for flatter trajectory. Chuck shooters have probably developed more wildcat cartridges than all other shooting enthusiasts put together, and even with hundreds on the market, they are always looking for something better. To this kind of hunter, a perfectly placed shot at 400 yards is as much a part of the sport as the woodchuck itself.
"But I strongly believe where beginners and especially youngsters are concerned," Cosby emphasizes, "they have to earn the right to shoot at long ranges only after they have proved they can hunt at close range without mechanical aids. My 11-year-old daughter hunts chucks with a single-shot .22-caliber field rifle—no scope, no rests, no heavy target barrel. Her single shot has got to count, and she knows the only way it will is if she gets in close and takes her time. By the time she is ready to make the transition to high-velocity, long-range firearms and telescopic sights, shell be an accomplished hunter."