BY TIM HOVEY
As a kid, I can clearly remember the first time I ever heard the word, varmint. It was during a Saturday morning cartoon, out of the bright red-mustached and animated mouth of Yosemite Sam. From then on, I called every animal a varmint. Later I realized that though the definition itself is somewhat loose, as only some animals are truly considered varmints.
Typically, varmints are classified by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as any non-game animal that does not specifically have a season. They’re often considered wildlife or agricultural pests and aren’t normally covered under game laws. This usually means they have no specific season or take limit. However, to hunt varmints, you will still need a California hunting license.
In the areas I hunt, the varmint classification covers jack rabbits, marmots and ground squirrels. Since I normally hunt game animals during the season, I reserve some of the offseason to hunt animals in the varmint classification.
More active during the warmer temperatures of spring and summer, ground squirrels, marmots and jack rabbits will often seek out areas around agriculture fields that provide green vegetation. In and around farm
fields is where these animals find the necessary food requirements to reproduce in sometimes incredible numbers. These seasonal invasions usually put them at odds with farmers.
Marmots or rock chucks also seek out green pastures to feed on but will often take up residency in rocks or debris piles near a food source. Reproducing in the spring, adult marmots will excavate large burrows in these piles to have their young. As with most herbivores, the number of offspring is driven by food availability — the more food they find, the more young they’ll have.
Due to the crop destruction and ground damage created by the constant burrow excavation, most farmers gladly accept hunter assistance in controlling these crop pests. Some of my more memorable varmint hunts have been the result of asking a farmer if I could help him out. Really, all you have to do is ask.
These species are also abundant in wild areas and can be challenging to hunt. Marmots and ground squirrels will escape danger into burrows or holes. Setting up near these areas and waiting them out is an excellent varmint hunting strategy. Matching this field sniping with precision rifles can really sharpen your accuracy if you have the patience. Frequently, most ground dwelling mammals will establish colonies in close proximity to one another. Finding the right area will yield a fun shoot with multiple targets.
Following good rain years, jack rabbits can be abundant in desert and sage communities. Unlike ground squirrels and marmots, their defense against danger is speed. If they hear or see a predator close by, they leave the area quickly, often reaching speeds of over 30 mph. However, many times they’ll leave the immediate area only to check up and stop a short distance away. A set of shooting sticks and a scoped rifle can be the perfect combination when targeting jack rabbits.
As with any type of hunting, there are several cartridge options available that will readily get the job done. However, almost as soon as Hornady introduced the .17 HMR in 2002, I knew that this lightning-fast rimfire cartridge would be one of my favorite varmint rounds. It’s still a relatively cheap round to shoot and even with today’s limited ammo supply, the .17 HMR is available if you put in the time to search for it. Remember, even though you’re targeting non- game varmints, California requires you use non-lead ammo in any hunting scenario.
The .17 HMR ammo comes in a couple of different grain sizes. For the specific California requirements, I prefer Hornady’s non-lead NTX 15.5 grain round. This round has a muzzle velocity of over 2,500 fps and can be deadly accurate out to 150 yards. Ballistic charts for the heavier 17- and 20-grain options show equal accuracy, with a little bit more bullet drop out at distance.
Dedicated varmint hunters scout potential areas months ahead of time and are cued into ground squirrel temperature preference so they can determine when they’ll be more active. After a cold winter, ground squirrels and marmots will start to become more active outside the burrows during the warmer spring days. When the first warm days of spring arrive, savvy hunters can show up at their chosen spot, set up portable shooting benches and wait for animals to start moving.
I like to have several varmint hunting spots lined up for a day of shooting just in case. If one spot slows down, we can load up and head to another spot close by. This is especially true for farm fields where unexpected activity close by may limit animal movement or preclude a safe shoot. Having multiple locations to choose from will ensure a full day of shooting options.
Despite their varmint status, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have special regulations that may focus on the species you’re targeting. It’s always best to check with Fish and Wildlife to make sure you are following the current regulations. You may be unaware that certain wildlife regulations may change from year to year, and new ones are always being added. To keep your shoot fun and citation free, always check before you head out to make sure you’re up to date on the current California rules.
If you’re looking to sharpen your off-season shooting skills or you just want to keep your shooting abilities tuned up, zeroing in on a golf ball-sized target out at distance will definitely help. Multiple targets will help you work on that all important trigger squeeze and breathing control as well. Whatever your reason for heading out on a varmint hunt this year, the activity itself should certainly make you a better shooter.