Want a twist? Try woodchuck archery
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., July 23, 2005.)
Now that summer is in full swing and woodchuck love has produced lots of young naïve whistlepigs, why not improve your archery skills and stalking ability with a summer safari in the short grass? Yes, golf courses and lawn work beckon. But a worthwhile diversion is a tour into fresh-cut hayfields to target the farmer's nemesis -- those 7-pound grass-eating machines.
Improve your stalking expertise and test your skill on live targets at various ranges.
Almost any rifle will do, from the humble .22 rimfire (or the pipsqueak.17 rimfire) to high velocity loudenboomers. The rifleman's objective is to gain practice at holding, breathing, and squeezing the trigger.
But, for once, try the challenge with a bow. The hunter choosing a bow chooses a handicap. But while sacrificing the ability to reach out and touch groundhogs in the next township, you'll improve skills that will serve you well in deer season when it's most important to make a clean kill.
You won't get many shots with a bow, but you'll improve your stalking expertise, test your skill on live targets at various ranges, and even attempt shots beyond your known ability -- something you wouldn't dare to do on deer. (A warning: without the proper tip, arrows will burrow under the grass. If you lose an arrow and it ends up puncturing a tractor tire or baled with the hay, you'll lose hunting privileges with that farmer.)
Even though woodchucks are everywhere, it is not easy to get close enough for a bow shot. To better your chances, keep in mind that when a woodchuck sees you, it knows you're a predator unless it's habituated to humans. Every predator -- wolves, cats, hawks, humans -- has eyes on the front of its head for better depth perception, helping the predator to estimate distance. Every prey animal -- deer, mice, squirrels, woodchucks -- has eyes on the sides of its head, giving it the ability to see almost a complete circle, except for the area directly in back of its head. When prey animals see a creature with eyes in front, they recognize it as a threat.
To defeat the sharp eyes of a woodchuck and get within arrow range, a skilled stalker must carefully consider how to approach unnoticed using terrain and cover. Here are five situations that offer stalkable conditions -- and all of them are challenging.
1. Hunt the hay bales. Those big, round bales create a good setting for stalking woodchucks. Sometimes you can approach to within 25-30 yards of a woodchuck by keeping a big bale of hay between you and him.
2. Where old barns and outbuildings are sometimes off limits to high-powered rifles, the archer might be welcome because woodchucks can eventually destroy foundations. Get to know the habits of the groundhogs that populate these places so that you know when they're out, how far they get from their dens, and which direction gives you the best approach.
3. If you know any property where grass, goldenrod and sumac grow, and someone mows trails and lanes through it, it is an ideal setting for stalking. The more curves and bends, the better. Sneak along slowly and quietly, and sooner or later you'll find yourself within archery range of a chuck that is looking the other way.
4. Along the edges of hayfields are plenty of woodchuck holes. When the chucks are feeding in the field, maybe 10 yards from the edge, keep about 10 yards into the woods and you'll have one of the easiest shots, especially when the woods are heavily shaded. It will be more difficult for a woodchuck in bright sun to see into the woods, and a chuck feels safer from that direction since that's where he'll seek the protection of his den.
5. Not least is the fencerow. Where fields are separated by a fence with brush growing along it, you can sometimes approach unseen using the brushy fenceline as cover. Before beginning the stalk, pinpoint the chucks you see in relation to the features along the fenceline. Then stalk that spot from the opposite side.
Undoubtedly, you'll find other settings that offer good stalking opportunities. But always ask permission of the landowner, always wear a fluorescent orange hat whether you're hunting with a rifle or a bow. Then when deer season comes, always add the vagaries of the wind to your strategy.