Leighton Wass grew up in Southwest Harbor and graduated from Norwich University with a B.S. in science education. He taught high school biology in Vermont for 33 years and also is a freelance writer. At 80, he continues to use the outdoors as his playground. Wass lives in Adamant, Vermont, with his wife Jane and two Labradors. He has a book coming out this spring, “Fly Fishing The Hex Hatch,” published by North Country Press.
For a guy who was surrounded by mudflats and seaweed growing up, my introduction to woodchuck hunting was an eye opener. It was early spring, not too far past mud season, and I had spotted a woodchuck with my binoculars lying next to its burrow.
After a slow sneak, using gulleys to stay hidden, I slowly poked my head over the brow of the hill. The chunky rodent was still there, chuck-napping in the sunshine. But every so often, he would slowly open a suspicious eye and then sleepily close again.
Using my backpack as a rest while I lay prone on the ground, I took careful aim with my .44-caliber black powder handgun. Boom! As the smoke cleared, I could see that the chuck was gone.
Approaching the hole slowly, the answer was clear. It was a clean miss. So it sometimes goes with handguns, even after a careful stalk to within spitting distance of a sleeping woodchuck.
I’ll skip all the foolish jokes and adages about woodchucks, but did you know that they climb trees, swim like Mark Spitz, sometimes are totally black and … growl?
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, there were more farms and pastureland and coyotes were rare. Woodchucks flourished and caused many headaches for farmers. Old-timers say it wasn’t that unusual for farmers to even call woodchuckers to help rid their pastures of the overgrown rodent.
Today, fewer farms and open fields, coupled with new farming techniques, don’t produce the same degree of woodchuck problems. Coyotes are now common enough to be seen lugging woodchucks to their dens, and even setting up ambushes at their burrows.
Yet horse owners and riders still fear chuck holes that could injure both horse and rider. And, man, can they do a job on a veggie garden. My woodchuck hunting partner once approached the owner of a farm to garner permission to hunt them. The owner was so happy about the request she almost plunked kisses on our cheeks. Her veggie garden had been woodchuck-demolished and this gal was not happy about it.
When is the best time to hunt woodchucks? There are typically three “seasons:” early spring, after the first hay cutting around June, and after the second cutting in August or September.
Early spring is favored by most chuckers because of better visibility and it’s before fishing and turkey hunting are beckoning. Also, after a long winter, it’s just a great feeling to get outdoors again.
In early spring the best time to see active woodchucks is during the middle five or six hours of the day after things have warmed up. For the two summer seasons, early morning and evening hours are most productive.
Why Handguns? Traditionally, woodchuckers have used long guns that reach out hundreds of yards, but there’s much more of a challenge to a handgun since getting close to them is essential. Let me tell you, they are no piece of cake!
A chuck hunter either has to stalk them or hunker down close to a hole and wait. Handguns of .22 caliber and up will suffice. A hunting partner of mine preferred his .38 revolver and .357 for chucks, while I used a .22 caliber handgun or a .44 caliber black powder — all with iron sights.
It’s critical to get permission to hunt someone else’s land, even if not posted. Landowners like to know who’s out there. Once you have permission to hunt, be sure to carry a crucial piece of equipment, a pair of binoculars.
In the spring, woodchucks love to loll around on rocks that are heated by the sun. I’ve even seen them sprawled out on a leaning fence post. Always glass first from a hidden vantage point. When making an approach to a likely woodchuck field, keep out of view by hugging woodlines or hedgerows, and use rolling topography to your advantage.
Once a chuck is spotted, plotting for the stalk begins. Remember, these high-strung herbivores are incredibly difficult to approach. Their senses of hearing and smell, as well as their ability to spot movement, is uncanny. I’ve seen high-flying hawks submarine them in a hurry. Also, be sure that the planned approach is into the wind.
Since a handgunner needs to get as close as possible to a target woodchuck, it often means “eating some dirt,” or doing belly crawls. With a .22 I don’t like to be more than 10-12 yards away when shooting, and slightly farther when using more firepower.
Another way to get close to woodchucks is to play the coyote role. Find an active hole, then lay and wait within shooting distance. Sometimes it’s only 5-10 minutes before the chuck’s head starts edging out of the hole. Other times, it might take up to 45 minutes, mostly depending on how much the chuck was spooked. For this to be successful, the gun should be in position, and with as little squirming as possible.
Personally, I don’t want to hunt and shoot an animal if I can’t utilize it in some way. Although woodchucks are quite edible (they are almost pure vegan), I have never eaten one, but those who have say the meat is somewhat similar to lamb. Gloves are advised when cleaning a carcass and glands on each back leg should be removed, as well as fat. The internet is rife with woodchuck recipes.
Two other ways to make use of woodchucks are saving the fur for fly tying and preparing the skull for a scientific collection. After skinning a woodchuck, I use either salt or Borax to thoroughly rub into the skin, then let it dry. There are plenty of fly tyers who would more than appreciate a prepared woodchuck pelt.