Dateline: 18 May 2006
Hardly a day goes by that my two youngest sons are not stalking woodchucks in the fields around our home. They typically hunt alone. Sometimes they go together, though with only one gun.
James (age 11) has bagged two woodchucks thus far. He brings them home, skins them, loops twine through the nostrils, and hangs the pelts on the side of the chicken coop. They are, essentially, trophies. Robert (age 15) cuts the tails off the woodchucks he gets and puts them on a rafter inside the chicken coop. Our chicken coop is the closest thing we have to a barn.
The boys use a .22 rifle with a scope to do their hunting. But last Saturday Robert asked me if he could use my 20-gauge shotgun. He has his own shotgun but he likes his dad’s better. I consented with the usual admonition to be careful and take good care of my gun.
A short while later, I’m on the computer in the upstairs bedroom (a.k.a., the current international headquarters of Whizbang Books) and Robert yells to me: “Hey Dad, come and see this woodchuck I shot!”
He does not usually call me to see a woodchuck he has shot so I headed right down. As I walked into the back yard, Robert was standing over the carcass and exclaimed, “You got to see this. It looks like a missile went through it!”
And so it did. The exit hole through the poor animal’s neck was the diameter of a baseball. That's what a slug will do.
Robert explained to me that he “belly-crawled” up closer than usual to shoot the critter. When it turned its head away from him, or dropped low to browse in the grass, he crawled closer. When the animal sat up to look around, Robert froze.
Within the next couple of hours, Robert shotgunned two more woodchucks and carried them home. Marlene was away on errands so he lined the blasted animals up on the back lawn to show his mother when she got home. As you might imagine, Marlene was thrilled to see that!
Later in the day, with the sun setting, Robert asked me if I wanted to go woodchuck hunting with him, this time with the .22 rifle. I have watched in vain at the side of a field for woodchucks to show themselves with Robert but that was years ago. I have never truly hunted woodchucks with him before. He has learned from friends and through his own persistence. I figured it was about time I accompanied him on a hunt, especially since he has been so successful at it lately.
I followed my son into the woods behind our house. We headed down into the gully. We crossed the stream where Robert and James had laid several flat rocks to make a dry walkway across the shallow but wide waterway. Up the opposite bank, over a well-worn path in the dense brush, I followed.
He was wearing sneakers, jeans, a white t-shirt and a camouflage “boonie” hat. The rifle was safely held in his hands. He was moving swiftly, deftly, quietly, confidently, and effortlessly. I realized I was falling behind. Gone are the days when I have to slow down or wait for my children as we walk in the woods. I picked up my pace.
We emerged into a long, rolling field divided into alternating strips (about 100 feet wide) of hay and bare soil that has been prepared but not yet planted. We are walking slowly through a hay strip. The grass is about a foot high. The ground rises ahead of us. He is walking tall, looking to see what comes into view over the top of the rise.
He stopps suddenly and I do the same. I look where he is looking. For a split second I see the dark brown outline of a woodchuck head before it drops down, out of sight in the grass. Robert crouches down and I do the same. He walks, bent low at the waist, around to the side, flanking the burrow hole where the woodchuck was. I stay put and watch.
He sits down about 20 yards from the hole. His left elbow is resting on his knee with the hand above supporting the front of the gun. A bullet is in the chamber. The safety is off. His other hand is on the trigger. He is watching through the optical sight.
My son is in the green grass, silhouetted against the backdrop of farmland. The setting sun is shining golden through a break in the clouds. Redwing blackbirds are flying and calling in the field behind him. There is a barn and silo beyond. In the far distance, the other side of the valley rises, darkly wooded, with a smoky wisp of low cloud drifting by. I wish I had a camera to capture the scene but, lacking that, I survey the image and consciously burn it into my memory.
After some time passes, Robert walks up to the woodchuck hole and waves me over. He tells me that the animal will not come out any time soon and we continue slowly through the field, scanning ahead, watching for the outline of a woodchuck head, amidst a terrain full of dark outlines.
We are walking along a section of the field where bare earth and grass adjoin. There is a shallow furrow at the juncture. The fitted and rain-packed soil is easier to walk over than the grass was. Robert continues to be the point man.
All of a sudden he stops and takes a step back in surprise. A bare moment later I see the woodchuck directly ahead of us. It is running as fast as a woodchuck can run directly toward us! It is maybe 30 feet away and closing fast. By the time I see the animal and realize what is happening, Robert has the gun up and is aiming. He fires once. The woodchuck’s head instantly drops to the ground and all forward motion ceases.
As we walk up to the animal, it’s back legs are straining slowly, reflexively, as the last bit of life ebbs from its body. Robert reaches down, grasps a handful of fur on the critter’s back, lifts it off the ground and lays it over. It is almost motionless. He comments to me that it is a big one. We look closer to see where the bullet hit. I am surprised to see that it entered the creature’s head just below its nose. Whjen it is fully dead Robert uses a jackknife to remove the tail. He stuffs it in his pocket. Then he picks the animal up and carries it to a big burrow hole about ten feet behind us. He positions the lifeless animal half in and half out of the hole so it’s out of the way but Turkey vultures can still get to it. That’s what he tells me.
I ask Robert if he has ever had a woodchuck charge him before. He tells me no. I’m utterly amazed at how instinctively and accurately my son reacted to the charging animal. I’m also surprised at how calm and matter-of-fact he is about the whole thing. I feel like I am in the presence of a master woodchuck hunter. I am, frankly, in awe of my son.
Before we start walking, looking for the next woodchuck, he hands me the gun: “Here, you can shoot the next one.” I tell him, “Thanks, but I would rather watch you!”