Holy grails are few are far between in the varmint hunting community. We don’t have scoring methods and clubs to measure how successful our hunts are. Instead, we gauge our success on factors that matter only to us. To some, it is sheer numbers of animals taken and to others it is the sum total of just the enjoyment of a particular hunt. Now that I am older, I tend to fall into the latter category, but every once and a while all the stars align and a hunt takes place that brings me back to measuring my success by the sheer numbers of varmints taken. This was one of those hunts.
I have been reading about Northeast California ground squirrel hunting for years. In fact, I had planned a few hunts up that way over the years, but they never came to fruition. Finally, after years of drought and loss of a huge swath of Southern California to “lead-free” only, I decided that this year would be the perfect time to make the 10 hour drive north and hunt the fabled fields of Modoc County for the Belding’s Ground Squirrel.
After much planning, I arranged for myself and two of my hunting buddies to travel up to the area in the beginning of March. I had been watching the weather and was aiming for a break in the recent snow storms that were finally hitting the northern part of California. As the date approached, I realized that weather was not going to be a factor and it was time to get serious about preparing.
I decided on taking a handful of rifles that I had not had the opportunity to shoot in a while, due to the lead-free restrictions in my normal hunting areas. Along with some of those rifles, I was going to bring a rifle chambered in my new favorite caliber, the 17 Winchester Super Magnum. I debated on bringing my Savage B.MAG, but the thin barrel would certainly cause me headaches if we came across the large populations of ground squirrels that I was expecting. I settled on my Contender Carbine, with the 23″ MGM semi-bull barrel and the trusty 20 grain bullet offering from Winchester. This rifle, along with my CZ Model 527 in .17 Hornet, my CZ Model 452 in .17HM2 (Mach2) and a couple of other standbys, would surely cover any shooting situation I ran into.
I packed my truck and left my house early Monday morning, just as a storm was moving through Northern California. My hopes were, that by the time we reached the areas we were looking to hunt, the storm will have blown through and we could enjoy sun and warming temperatures the rest of the week. Because this was a first time hunt, we also only planned to spend a couple of days shooting, while also checking out the area for a future hunt in May. I met up with my hunting buddies, Jim and Tom, in an area outside of Independence, California. Because most of my rifles were sighted-in with lead-free ammunition, I wanted to re-sight-in with my lead ammo. After completing my sight-in, we hit the road, pointed north, for the long drive to the hunt area.
As we approached Mammoth Lakes, CA, I could see snow coming down on the mountains and down near the highway. I shifted into fourth gear and pushed ahead, hoping the snow would not shut down the highway anywhere between us and our destination. Thankfully, by the time we hit Gardnerville, NV, the sun was out and the clouds were breaking up. The road was clear from here on out and it was only a matter of time before we got to the spot.
We finally arrived at our location while the sun was just going down. The valley was teeming with wildlife, Antelope, Geese, Ducks, Deer and NO GROUND SQUIRRELS. I wasn’t too worried, but it still made me question myself a bit when we finally hit the motel and settled in for the night.
Day one: The next morning we woke up to an ice covered world. All the moisture in the cold air created a thin sheet of ice over everything. We warmed up our vehicles while we packed them up with our guns and ammo, then hit a local spot for breakfast. Afterwards, we contacted the ranch manager who directed us to a particular pivot where he said were a ton of ground squirrels. As we drove into the area, there were ground squirrels running across the road every 100 feet or so. At first, I swerved a bit to avoid them, but as I picked up speed, I let fate take over and ended up killing my first squirrel as he dove in front of my truck’s tire.
Jim and Tom set-up near the road we took in and I headed past them about 500 yards to set-up shop. While pulling out our benches and rifles, we could see 100’s of ground squirrels moving through the alfalfa field, popping their heads up to see what we were, before disappearing back into the vegetation to feed. It was still cold, so my fingers were numb, but everything immediately went into slow-motion as I was trying to set-up my bench, pull out my bags, binoculars, rangefinder and counter, then finally pull out my rifle and ammunition. Excitement had set in and I knew this was going to be a day where sheer numbers would be my goal for the day. It was about ten o’clock in the morning when I finally settled in for my day of hunting. Little did I know that I wasn’t going to stop shooting for the next 7 hours!
I started the day off with my Contender Carbine chambered in the 17WSM cartridge. It was a bit windy and I felt that at the range the ground squirrels were moving, it would be the perfect round to eliminate any of them within 100 to 250 yards. This turned out to be a great decision, because the little 20 grain bullet performed perfectly at the ranges I felt comfortable shooting. My hit to miss ratio stayed steady for most of the day, with my hits far outnumbering my misses. Because I had my rifle sighted-in for a zero at 200 yards, it was a matter of holding dead-on for most of the ground squirrels and hitting my target caused explosive results! I had blow-ups, with the squirrel being launched into the air even out to 175 yards! The performance of the cartridge was devastating and resulted in almost 100% instant kills.
Jim and Tom had an excellent day as well, with the shots happening at an almost steady pace of one shot about every 30 seconds or so for most of the day. Jim was shooting his .17-23 SMc, the cartridge developed by our friends Mic McPherson and By Smalley (he also brought along a .17VHA) and Tom was shooting his Ruger 77/22 K-Hornet.
Day two was almost a repeat of the first, with the exception of Tom and I shooting together and trying to get as much video as possible, while Jim hunted a local property with his Benjamin Marauder air rifle. I shot my Contender Carbine most of the morning. Then I switched out to my CZ Model 452 in .17HM2 for some chip shots out to 150 yards. Lastly, I ended the day with my CZ Model 527 in .17 Hornet. It was a blast reaching out with the .17 Hornet, but I found that the results almost mimicked the .17WSM (more on that in a future article). We all ended up with lots of ground squirrels and the realization of having to leave the next morning was starting to sink in.
Day three arrived and we packed up our vehicles with all of our gear and headed to breakfast. The plan was to stop on some new fields, shoot them for a couple of hours, then hit the road. Little did we know that this day would turn into a long day of shooting, with so many ground squirrels in some areas, it would make us blind to the fact that we had a 10 hour drive home! After spending some time speaking with a local and his friend about wildcats, shooting, etc, we got to our areas a little later than we had hoped for. I set-up by myself, in a large bowl that extended out to a hill in front of me about 700 yards and a road to the East of me almost 3/4’s of a mile away. The sun was high in front of me, so it made some nice ground squirrel silhouettes in some areas, while causing other squirrels to glow within the gold of the field. Again, I started with my Contender Carbine in 17WSM and started shooting right away. There was some old equipment near me, so I was careful to shoot around it and not cause any damage. The opportunities were abundant once again and I was steadily shooting a squirrel about once a minute from 40 yards out to 175 yards from my bench. After what seemed like 45 minutes, Jim and Tom rolled up and let me know it was more like two hours since we parted ways earlier that morning. I loaded up my truck quickly, took some pictures and verified distances, then hit the road heading south.
While heading south, we wanted to hit one more area that the ranch manager told us to look into. We pulled in and expected to spend about 15 minutes there, to get an idea of what the shooting was like, for our future hunt. However, all that changed when we started seeing waves and waves of ground squirrels running across the dirt road. It was like some kind of plague, with locusts being replaced with ground squirrels! Everywhere you looked, there were groups of them. One of the workers stopped and told us a good place to shoot, so we drove over and parked our trucks in order to investigate. That detour turned the rest of the day into a shooting frenzy with the three of us shooting in different directions at huge groups of ground squirrels! I pulled out the Contender Carbine and started making quick work of anything that was within 100 yards. The “pops” of each hit were coming from every direction, as Jim (with his Marauder airgun) and Tom (with his .22 Magnum) were connecting as much as I was. About the same time the closer ground squirrels started finally thinning out, the wind picked-up. This turned out to be no problem, even as I started to concentrate on squirrels at the 150 to 160 yard mark. I held a bit into the wind, but the 20 grain bullet handled it well and absolutely devastated those I shot at the edge of my area.
After hours of shooting, as things finally began to slow down, we realized we were in a predicament. The sun was about to go down and we were still at least 10 hours from home. So, after more quick pictures and verifying of distances, we began the drive home. We only made it as far as Bishop, CA before we had to stop for the night, but by the next morning, I was home. Sun/wind-burned, aching from leaning over a bench for hours, wrist hurting from breaking open my Contender 100’s of times and loads of empty brass everywhere, I can’t wait to get back and do it all over again!!
A video report is included below.
The 17 Winchester Super Magnum has been on the market for about one year. When it was first released, the only rifle available at the time was the Savage B.MAG. Although I and others have had great results from our B.MAGs, there were others that ran into some issues with their rifles. Soon, people on talk forums all around the internet were bashing the rifle and cartridge, insisting both were inherently inaccurate. After shooting 100’s of rounds during this trip, with kills ranging from 20 yards out to 303 yards, I believe I can say with some authority that the ammunition is accurate.
Let me explain again about shooting varmints such as ground squirrels, before I get an Inbox filled with ridiculous statements about being cruel to these “poor animals”. The Belding’s Ground Squirrel weighs about 3/4’s of a pound and is approximately 9 to 11 inches in length. We spoke with an engineer for the county who told us that 40 of these ground squirrels eat approximately the same amount as one cow, PER DAY! Even if that number is slightly high, if you factor in the 1000’s of ground squirrels per acre, then the amount of damage they do is staggering. Because most of these crops end up as food for livestock, the farmers cannot poison and risk a poisoned squirrel getting processed with the feed. Not to mention the damage they do to the fields, with their holes dotting the landscape as far as you can see, they are very destructive varmints. Besides, none of the ground squirrels we shot went to waste. In fact, the first ones to jump on our dead squirrels, were other squirrels, looking to eat the protein offered by their dead comrades! Whatever they don’t eat, gets gobbled up by the local raptors and Ravens. While I was shooting, I had Bald Eagles, Redtail Hawks and other raptors land and start eating the remains of my shots. Everything else is surely cleaned up by the predators that roam the area, such as coyotes, bobcat and badgers. The reason I am pleased when my shots cause explosive results, is because it typically means an immediate death with no pain felt by the animal. Varminters spend 1000’s of dollars to make sure their rifles, optics and ammunition are extremely accurate for this purpose. I don’t know any Varminter that takes pride in wounding an animal and causing a prolonged death. When it comes to eating them, no one does. They carry fleas that carry disease and many of the ones I shot had mange. Would you eat a rat? Unless you say “yes, I do, every time I catch one”, then I don’t want to hear about how I am somehow wasting this fine piece of meat. These are not tree squirrels and are considered vermin, so please discuss them appropriately.
NE California Ground Squirrel Hunt Report – 17WSM by: Eric A. Mayer