by Hunting Staff
If you are a hardcore hunter, summer is the one time you get a slight break. From the close of turkey season until the first day of early archery, there is a brief three-month lull where you can reacquaint with the family, get the house in shape and the yard mowed.
We’re about to change that. Our advice? Hire a yard boy, get a contractor, and take the family with you–the calm before the storm just ended.
As they say, there is no rest for the wicked. Here are the top six wicked summer hunts of which the staff at Hunting could conceive. Our requirements? Accessibility, affordability and loads of pure, unadulterated fun.
1) Bushels of Bushytails – Squirrels
The number of small-game hunters is on the decline. Nintendo has replaced the .22 as the approved form of childhood entertainment, and most hunters live in a world obsessed with mega-racked bucks–no longer small game. It seems we have lost sight of the little things and simpler times that make the woods such an enjoyable place to be. What a shame. However, it doesn’t take much to reignite the fire in the seasoned or start it in the youth, just a pocket full of .22 shells, an inexpensive rifle and a patch of hardwoods loaded with bushytails. As anyone who has ever gone after squirrels will attest, it’s damn fun. And now with more states opening earlier than ever (August is common throughout their range, and some states such as Kansas and Missouri open as early as May), squirrel hunting is the perfect off-season hunt.
Squirrel hunting requires little in the way of equipment, no high-priced leases or hardcore scouting. It is hunting rendered to its purest form. Grab a .22 rifle, pistol or, for the shakier among us, a shotgun and head to a patch of hardwoods. Many choose to sit and wait, allowing the woods to settle down and the squirrels to start moving.
In these ambush situations a squirrel call can also be of value. Any time of the day can be good, but mornings and evenings are prime. Other hunters still-hunt quietly through the woods, stopping and looking often, traveling little. Even if no squirrels are brought to bag, both methods are a great excuse to get out in the woods and look for deer sign. A more exciting (and often more productive) method is to use dogs. I hunted behind a firecracker of a Jack Russell in Missouri last summer. He and his partner, a large red mountain cur, made for a classic Mutt and Jeff combo bounding through the understory, treeing every squirrel in their wake. Afternoons were spent cleaning squirrels and catching gigantic smallmouth bass–I have yet to find a more enjoyable way to whittle away a summer day. –Mike Schoby
Budget Gear: Rossi .22LR/.410; $190 rossiusa.com
2) Dogtown-bound – Prairie Dogs
Paper targets are the path to better marksmanship–and they’re boring. If you must leave them briefly to give your soul a lift, visit Dogtown. Prairie dogs abound east of the Rocky Mountain front, where long expanses of short sage are broken by shallow, seasonal watercourses. Natural meadows and seeded pastures support sprawling colonies of these rodents. For the most part, ranchers want them gone. Their holes are hoof-hazards, and prairie dogs compete directly with livestock for forage. That said, some landowners have figured out that hunters will pay to shoot sodpoodles, and they’ve opened private pastures for nominal fees. You can find Dogtown on public grazing allotments, too.
Some shooters arrive armed for a major assault, with AR-15s or heavy bolt-action varmint rifles wearing powerful scopes. They set up on portable benches, use laser rangefinders and delight in shooting that’s so intense they must change rifles regularly or use water to cool their barrels.
I prefer .22 rimfire rifles. Rather than snipe at the dogs, I sneak up as if they were big game, using a sling and firing from hunting positions. A Leupold 4X gives me plenty of reach; a long shot is 75 yards. The .22 is cheap to shoot and easy on the shoulder. It’s not as noisy as centerfires, so I can fire it closer to farmsteads without irking my hosts. Hollowpoint bullets help ensure quick kills.
While I enjoy the walks that show me new country, some of my colleagues get their kicks from a shooting station that on good days soon surrounds them with .223 hulls. Some arrive with handloading tools on the tailgate. Distance matters. The .204 Ruger and .22-250 come out for pokes to yon ridge.
If you’ve not visited Dogtown, this summer is your turn. Schedule the trip for June if you can. There’s no need to rise early, but the best shooting is in the morning, as the sun warms the prairie. Cold and windy days put the dogs down.
That’s when you break out the paper targets. –Wayne van Zwoll
Budget Gear: Winchester 555 .22LR; $23 winchester.com
3) Pheasant Fling – Pheasants
Every fall, upland hunters regularly shed more hundred-dollar bills than my anemic little wallet can hold. That does not mean I don’t get the opportunity to down my share of pheasant and chukar. It’s true nothing beats the action of hunting native birds. The dogs working and the excitement of a wild flush are hard to top. However, there have been times when the cost for the limited number of birds was simply out of my reach. Not to mention the expense of breaking in a new hunting partner.
My solution was to find a buddy who trains dogs. For mere pennies on the dollar, I would get a few friends and we would chip in to buy the birds. My dog-training friend simply wanted to work his dogs for the upcoming season without the added expense of buying birds himself. For less than $50 each, we could hunt the better part of a day and all take home a vest full of birds–quail, pheasant, chukar, the choice was ours. To make it more enjoyable, we added a little twist.
Since planted birds do not flush as quickly as a wily native might, we often took our recurve bows with flu-flu arrows. Once the dog was on point, three of us would creep in. When the bird flushed, three of us in unison would loose an arrow, with about a 50 percent success rate for the group. And if we missed? No big deal; the pheasant or chukar often flew less than 200 yards and rehid, ready for a second flush. An hour later we would hunt them again. About one out of every four times the archers failed to do the job, a couple of youngsters with shotguns would run cleanup for us to keep the dogs from getting frustrated.
Hunters who have regularly run dogs tend to have full freezers, too. At the end of the day, the birds were all ours and the family back home did not have to pick pellets out of supper. –Dave Dolbee
Budget Gear: Flu-flu arrow; $10 carbonexpressarrows.com
4) Beat-The-Heat Coyotes
They say coyote hunting is a winter sport. They are wrong. I started hunting coyotes during the summer months, not because I thought it was good; I simply just liked hunting them enough that I didn’t want to stop when the weather turned warm. Thankfully, with year-round seasons, in most states you don’t have to quit. What I discovered was summer months were every bit as good for calling as fall and winter (maybe even better), even if the pelts are thin. A variety of calls work well since pressure is light. Traditional prey-in-distress calls, as well as whipped-pup calls can do a number. Hunters find favor with both hand calls and electronics, but for maximum enjoyment, keep it simple. Leave the decoys and electronics at home, and grab a mouth call; the uneducated dogs won’t know the difference and you may want to keep the electronic ace-in-the-hole for winter when they are educated.
The biggest problem hunters face is heat. Early mornings generally prove most productive. Figure on two to three quality stands before the sun drives the chill out of the morning air. On rare overcast days, hunters may eke out four or five stands. Evenings are long, but success is generally had only at last light.
While summer days are unproductive, summer nights can be fantastic. Unlike the winter when night hunting is often windy with temperatures plummeting into the single digits, summer night hunting is short-sleeve weather and calm. Use red filtered lights to see in the darkness. More hi-tech-savvy hunters (with unlimited budgets) can use night vision scopes such as those offered by ATN or thermal devices by FLIR. –Mike Schoby
Budget Gear: Zepp Rattler; $20 markzepp.com
5) Hog Wild – Wild Hogs
Next to a rabbit, I cannot think of a more prolific game animal. A wild sow can have 15-plus piglets in a single litter and breed three times a year. Shotes can make great fare for the BBQ, but if you give it six months or so to put some meat on the bone, the hog will tip the scales at 200 pounds or more. For the trophy hunter, a mean-looking tusker adds excitement to any trophy room. For those on a bit more of a budget, a hog skull with a few inches or more of razor-sharp tusk sticking out is sure to be a conversation starter.
Most hog hunting is spot and stalk, so be sure to grab your favorite binocular. Good glass always helps, but for hogs, a $50 pair will get the job done in most cases. Tags (if required) are dirt-cheap, so be sure to grab at least a couple. The choice of arms is yours. Several years back I watched a young lady down a 250-pound tusker pulling a 42-pound bow with a cut-on-contact broadhead. Medium-caliber rifles will likewise get the job done. If you are a fan of bigbores, smokepoles or handguns, hog season is open to and favors all of them. In any case, shot placement is critical. I have seen a hog shake off a .357 Mag. to the forehead from a few feet, and I have recovered .300 Win. Mag. bullets from the plate covering the shoulder of a big boar. Mature hogs have a plate that may run up to two inches thick. I have learned from experience not to take a traditional broadside shot, and now I wait for a quartering-away shot. In this way, I can slip an arrow or bullet behind a plate and through the vitals. –Dave Dolbee
Budget Gear: Primos Hog Wild Call; $20 primos.com
6) Rockpile Bonanza – Woodchuck Hunting
You seldom see them anymore, those feature articles on woodchuck hunting that salted the pages of post-war hunting magazines. The halcyon days of wildcatting produced as many varmint rounds as big-game cartridges. The K-Hornet, .219 Donaldson Wasp and .22-250 came for the same purpose: to span rolling green pastures to reach distant rockpiles. Hoisting plump eastern woodchucks, riflemen of the day wore grins as wide as any successful deer hunter’s. Groundhog shooters brought many of the improvements in rifles, cartridges and optics that now benefit big-game hunters. Benchrest and 1,000-yard events owe much to these rodents.
The sport drifted west, where yellow-bellied marmots, or rockchucks, dig in next to alfalfa patches. Long shooting is the rule, though you can play big-game hunter and polish your stalking skills with a .22 rifle. Because ‘chucks are stout animals (weights can approach 10 pounds) and usually forage within sprinting distance of a hole, you’re better off with a .22 Mag. Use hollowpoint bullets. I’ve tried the .17 HMR on rockchucks and found it adequate but uninspiring.
Deer rifles suffice. Long ago in Vermont I sneaked up on a groundhog and killed it with a 180-grain softpoint from my iron-sighted SMLE, the only rifle I owned at the time. I gave the carcass to my hosts, preservation-minded people who no doubt recoiled at the violence visited on the hapless creature but gamely stewed it in a wine-laced sauce. It was delicious.
You’re better armed with a hot centerfire .22. For the classic experience, find an early Sako or Remington in .222 or a Winchester 70 in .220 Swift. The .22 Hornet requires a closer approach. Good glass is imperative. Old-timers used giant Unertls and Lyman Super Targetspots. Sleeker scopes with internal adjustments are improvements. Try a Weaver T-Series or a variable of at least 16X at the top. I often use scopes from Leupold, Nikon, Zeiss and Swarovski, though newcomers such as Trijicon offer exceptional value.
Beginning in May, woodchucks and rockchucks seek sun on rockpiles and south-facing bluffs and along stone fence-rows. Late risers, they also retire early. Mid-summer’s shooting can be slower, partly because ‘chucks learn about rifles, partly because the naive young have been picked off by bullets and predators. Also, ‘chucks are naturally less active above ground as the season wears on. –Wayne van Zwoll
Budget Gear: Savage Edge; $329 savagearms.com