Call them whistlepigs, woodchucks or whatnot, these eastern burrowers can provide good hunting – and meatier meals than rabbits, squirrels.
The groundhog is the most underrated small game animal in the country. We call them whistlepigs in northern Georgia, a reference to their calls and their food value. Groundhogs are good eating and there is a lot more meat on them than on squirrels and rabbits. Some folks boil an older one until tender and then put it in the oven. I simply cover it with barbecue sauce and put them in the oven. Whatever way you prepare them, they taste good and a 10-pound whistlepig makes a good meal.
These are fastidiously clean animals, as much as a burrowing animal can
be. They live on a vegetarian diet and weigh between 41/2 to 13 pounds
normally. They are everything you would want in a food source.
GROUNDHOGS ARE ACTIVE AT night, so early mornings and late afternoons are the best times to hunt them. They will sleep in their burrows during the heat of the day. These burrows are found at the edge of the wood line, against trees, barns and buildings, and in the sides of slopes where the entrance hole lets in less rain to flood into the burrow. They often are in the sides of drainage ditches.
Wherever they are, they come out to feed and to soak up the sun while
surveying their domain. They often remain near the safety of their hole
when sunbathing. Some people report that active burrows can be identified by the gnats at the entrance, but that is not true in my part of Georgia, where the holes are gnat-free.
Scouting is the best way to find these holes, as undergrowth can easily
hide them. The whistlepig’s habit of standing beside his hole makes
watching them productive. They leave the holes to feed on grasses, alfalfa (a favorite food), apples, and anything tasty a farmer is growing.
They move about on the ground like a short-legged piglet but leave faint tracks so that only a very expert tracker will be able to trail them. Not every hole will have a whistlepig, as burrows have multiple entrances and exits so they can escape from the coyotes, bobcats, red foxes, and badgers that prey on them.
A smart groundhog will have more than one burrow to escape to, as all the predators know they are delicious. In late August the maturing young
begin digging practice holes near the den before leaving home to start
their own lives. Because they are slow runners, the smart groundhog is never far from a hole. Those that venture far tend to get eaten, and they know that.
THE PREFERRED METHOD IS to stake out an area and pick them off from a distance after locating their holes. While a .22 will suffice for expert shooters, a larger caliber with good shot placement is recommended, for these are tough animals that can easily escape to their holes to die where you cannot retrieve your hard-won dinner. The .30 carbine and .223 are about ideal when used with fast-expanding bullets.
Any and every gun has been successfully used over the years, including shotguns and pistols. We aren’t talking big game here. The trick is to kill these tough little whistlepigs instantly before they can make a
dash for their holes. Head shots are preferred and anything outside of a
perfect head or chest hit will generally result in a lost meal, a situation that I would rather avoid.
This is a good time to practice game shooting with big bore guns.
While a .577 3-inch Nitro Express may be overkill on steroids (to say
nothing of the cost of that cartridge!), it is good practice with the gun you will be staking your life on if you hunt dangerous game. After all, you are also out here to have fun and this is one game animal that you can use anything on!
Because of the proximity of the quarry to its holes, you can shoot these
at long range or short range, whatever type of shooting you like. You can stalk them or set up blinds at short range, or you can position yourself as far away as you like for long range shooting.
Groundhogs notice movement and keeping still is the way to be unobserved. If they do see you and you become still, they may soon go on
about their business. Move only when their head is down feeding or they are otherwise distracted. Go slowly, softly and quietly. While wary, they are vegetarians and thus have to eat a lot.
That overriding priority means that they are soon back about the serious
business of eating so they will have enough fat to get through hibernation in the lean, cold months of winter. If you scare one and he darts into his hole, he will likely be back inside of 15 minutes, so sit tight and wait him out.
Change your position while he is in the hole because that is the first place he will look when he first peeps out. They are also curious animals. If an unusual noise is occurring nearby they will often pop out of their holes for a look. Music (but not talk radio) played a safe distance away from the hole so they do not feel threatened by the noise or even a swinging gong .22 target being rung can work to draw them out. Do not shoot until they are completely out of the hole. They will not come all the way out if the strange noise is very close to them. Music
should be soothing, low volume, and nonthreatening to inspire curiosity
and not apprehension. Stealth works better, though, and is a lot less trouble.
Just wait. The hungry varmint will soon come out if he is in that hole.
Groundhogs can also be successfully stalked. I have done so and gotten within 20 feet of them but you had better be good at this game if you expect success by this method. They have a very keen sense of smell
so wind direction is always important.
GROUNDHOGS BREED IN MARCH and April and the female rears the young by herself. The pups are mature and able to be out on their own by the end of August, so hunting them between March and the end of August may leave young to starve to death in the den. Unless you are out to exterminate this food source, you should not hunt during these months for that reason.
The animals often dig a separate hibernation burrow, for they will hibernate from three to seven months, depending on the severity of the winters at that location. Obviously there’s no hunting then.
Most people are surprised to find that groundhogs are good swimmers and tree climbers when pursued or when they just feel like it. You may find them up in apple trees after the apples, or out in the field or in the garden. Wherever crops are, they are at one time or another.
They are also aggressive defenders of their burrows, using their long incisors and claws to good effect. While they might appear cute and cuddly, their aggressiveness makes them poor pets. If you think a pet squirrel can put the hurt on you fast, you ain’t seen nuttin’ yet! Remember, these things get up to 13 pounds or more and their incisors and claws put a squirrel’s to shame!
A LOT OF FARMERS really hate groundhogs and may welcome careful hunters. Care is necessary because the quarry is often found in extremely close proximity to buildings, people and livestock. You have to know where your bullet is going after it hits the target in many cases.
Groundhogs excavate about 6 cubic feet of dirt for each of their dens and they like to put them next to buildings. Taking 6 cubic feet of dirt out from beneath the foundation at a time is a very bad thing. Once under a house they can gnaw everything in sight, from heating pipes to screen vents, which they may take out to have more exits for themselves and allow entry for their guests, rats and mice. Coming up inside a corn rib or feed stall in a barn is common and rats and mice quickly follow, as a woodchuck hole is like the Holland Tunnel for rats and mice.
Of course being vegetarians they love crops and gardens and can make a huge dent in the harvest. That’s as bad as it gets for a farmer. Their holes are a serious threat to cattle and horses. Having to put down expensive livestock because of broken legs is a nightmare event.
Those holes and the excavations under them can also pitch a tractor over if the dirt gives way under it when on a slope, a rare but potentially fatal occurrence. These burrows are not as deep as you might imagine, with one study finding the deepest point to be 49 inches, with the burrow extending up to 30 feet with side chambers that may be from 14 inches high and 16 inches long and only 20 to 36 inches below ground. All these reasons ensure that the groundhog will never be held in fond terms by farmers. Anytime you can endear yourself to a farmer by removing pests as safely and unobtrusively as possible, you greatly increase your chances of them letting you hunt other game on their land. However, don’t be put out if they do not, as many farmers regard the game on their land as their own private food source and consider letting others hunt it as the same as taking food out of their children’s mouths. City folk don’t always seem to grasp the realities of rural living.
Sometimes a farmer may have one or two semitame wild animals about that they want to keep safe. He or she may deny their presence to deter the neighbors from coming after them. If that is the reason, the farmer will not tell you but also will not allow hunting. Men and women with bad experiences with hunters on their land see no reason to risk accommodating any more. Ever. Others simply do not want their privacy disturbed. The point I am making is to simply respect an owner’s decision not to allow hunting on their land and not take it personally. Remember that as the property owner, they have exclusive rights to the land, and the law backs them up to the hilt on this.
Also, legal or not, in my county I know of instances where trespassers have been shot at just for trespassing. Other trespassers in my state have simply disappeared. I also know of one family who would rob anyone they caught on their land. Hunting without permission can get a lot more serious in some places than you ever imagined.
ONCE YOU HAVE BAGGED your whistlepig, don’t waste the hide. I have always been able to find a use for any hide, whether tanned with the hair on or off. The American Rifleman magazine even ran an article titled “A Woodchuck Trophy” in the early 1960s describing how to make a bear skin-style rug out of a woodchuck! That’s a pretty small rug.
The stiff tail hairs of the woodchuck are also valued by fly tiers for making certain fishing flies. Be like the early settlers and use everything. Their motto was “Make do or do without.”
For those of you who are gourmet cooks, the woodchuck can make a first-class gourmet dinner. You can use most any of your fancy meat recipes just substituting woodchuck for the meat called for.
Personally I would rather shoot big woodchucks for a gourmet dinner than little squirrels and rabbits. If the rest of you disagree, that’s fine with me because that means there are more for me to eat.
STORY BY JIM DICKSON
PHOTOS BY SHUTTERSTOCK