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Sage Rat Mania

By Tim Titus

Spring is in the air.  Sunny days and warmer temperatures mean one thing to the serious varmint shooter--sagerats!  Whether you refer to them as sage rats, potguts, squeakers or picket pins, these prolific ground squirrels are a plague to ranchers but provide seemingly unlimited targets for spring varmint hunters.   Every year more and more hunters learn of the benefits and fun of sagerat hunting.  Opportunities abound for all levels shooters regardless of age, experience or physical limitations.  Spring is Trigger Time for the sagerat hunter!

Sagerats, known scientifically as Beldings or Richardson Ground Squirrels in Eastern Oregon, are challenging targets not much bigger than the cardboard center of a toilet paper roll.  Varieties differ slightly in size and annual schedules with the Belding's variety being slightly smaller and earlier arriving above ground than the Richardson's.  What they have in common though is the ability to rapidly reproduce in favorable environments.  It just so happens that the alfalfa fields of South, Central and Eastern Oregon provide a perfect artificial environment for reproduction.

Alfalfa grows best in sandy soil types.  Tillage further loosens the sandy soil making for easy digging for ground squirrels allowing them to excavate their burrows easily.  In nature, ground squirrels only populate higher ground around meadow areas to avoid flooding their burrows but since alfalfa plants do not tolerate flooding, the fields and irrigation systems are only installed in well drained, higher areas.  Add to these factors a highly nutritious, well watered food source and you've created the perfect environment for populations to explode.  And, explode they do!  A mature alfalfa filed can support tens of thousands of these little varmints.  Other than tillage and poisons, hunting is the only means of control.

Beldings Ground Squirrels begin coming above ground in late winter.  The males are the first to arrive and the numbers continue to increase until the hay gets tall enough to hide them--usually in early to mid-May.  The first cutting of alfalfa in latter June sometimes offers shooting opportunities but by the first of July, sagerats are usually underground again for their summer quiescence which flows into the fall and winter hibernation.  The Richardson’s variety of ground squirrels surface somewhat later and go down later.

Sagerat hunting is a sport undertaken at whatever level an individual desires.  Since sagerats are a non-game species so an "Agent of the Landowner" has few limitations on how sagerats can be hunted when on private property.  Sagerat hunting is what you make it.  From wandering the fields taking targets of opportunity offhand to setting up in a portable chair with shooting sticks to elaborate trailers with swivel shooting benches or even driving the fields shooting from the window of a truck (check with the landowner before driving on fields), sagerat hunting is a sport of personal preferences.   Some shooters strive for the maximum number of kills, others are more concerned with their hit ratio and some just like to burn some ammo!  Many people hunt DIY knocking on doors and gaining permission to hunt and some take advantage of the relatively new industry of guided sagerat hunts to optimize their time.

Weapon choice is also a personal issue.  Rimfire rifles are the most common tool but centerfire rifles, handguns, air rifles and bows all have their place.  Shooting practice with your chosen weapon is one of the greatest benefits of sagerat hunting.  Trigger control, breathing and focus are necessary to hit these small targets making this a great way to practice for upcoming big game hunts or hone the skills of a young shooter.

Rimfire cartridges are far and away the most common rounds for sagerat hunting.  More .22 long rifle rounds have been burnt in the sagerat fields than any other.  The venerable Ruger 10/22 with 25 round banana magazines are common and make an entirely effective firearm particularly when outfitted with a scope sight.  The shortage of .22LR ammunition has caused some angst in the sagerat world.   Back in the good ol' days the .22LR made for an inexpensive round to feed hungry rimfire rifles.  Hopefully, the artificial shortage will soon end.

The .22WRM or ".22 mag." adds some reach and power over its little brother, the .22LR.  The bigger case results in around 50 yards more effective range.  It also has significantly more knock down power in the field.  The downside is the added cost of ammunition which also seems to be difficult to find.  Also, unless fed a diet of poly-tipped bullets, the .22WRM may be the worst rimfire in terms of ricochet potential.  Be careful of what is behind your target and understand that bullets don't always ricochet in a straight line. 

The .17HMR cartridge is an offspring of the .22WRM made by necking the parent case down to .17 caliber.  This may be the ultimate rimfire for sagerats combining a flat trajectory and "explosive" poly-tipped bullets that do a great job of anchoring sagerats.  Even many of the inexpensive rifles in .17HMR chambering produce accuracy that would have amazed us in a quality centerfire a few decades ago.   Sub-one inch groups at 100 yards are common.  Bolt action rifles and semi-autos are the most common. 

Until recently, the fall of the Ruger 10/22 Magnum rifle had left a void in firepower that required a significant investment to combine the attributes of the .17HMR with the speed of an auto-loading rifle.  Savage has recently stepped up with their new A-17 rifle filling a niche in an affordable package.  This new rifle was engineered from scratch to handle the .17HMR and avoid the safety issues that plagued the Ruger 10/22 Magnum.  At a street price of around $400.00, it provides a bridge to the gap left when looking at higher-end alternatives such as the highly accurate but expensive Volquartsen.  Ammunition, while more expensive, seems to be much more available for the HMR than the .22LR and .22WRM.

Another very efficient alternative to the .17HMR is its cousin the .17Mach2.  It is a standard .22LR case necked down to .17 caliber.  Although slower than the HMR, it is still a very effective sagerat round.  Unfortunately, it has not taken hold of the small game crowd and may be going by the wayside making ammunition difficult to find.

Stepping up from the .17HMR is a new rimfire round called the .17 Winchester Super Magnum.  This little speedster bests the 2550 fps velocity of the HMR by several hundred feet per second coming in at over 3000 fps.   This puts the rimfire shooter in the realm of the small centerfires without the need to handload ammunition.  While the ammunition is fairly available, it is even more expensive than the .17HMR but still significantly less expensive than factory centerfire ammo.  The power of the .17WSM is evident in the sagerat fields.  The report of the bullet striking home is audibly louder.  In the hands of a good marksman, this hot little rimfire makes shots over 200 yards reasonable if the wind is not blowing.

Centerfire cartridges for sagerats could fill another entire article.  But suffice it to say that any of the .17, .20 and .22 caliber centerfire cartridges all work well on sagerats.  The flat trajectory and acrobatics initiated by hot centerfire cartridges take sagerat hunting to a completely new level!  With judicious component selection, the handloader of the smaller centerfires can produce centerfire cartridges for the same or less cost than .17HMR ammunition. 

The .223 cartridge is by far the most common because of the number of rifles chambered for it and the prolific variety and relatively inexpensive ammunition.  Resist the urge to purchase the full metal jacket bullets however as they pose a high ricochet risk.  The .204 Ruger cartridge is another great sagerat round as is the relatively new .17 Hornet, an old wildcat cartridge brought into captivity by Hornady.  Larger cartridges all work fine for sagerats but choosing a cartridge with a smaller case capacity will keep your barrel cooler and reduce recoil enabling the shooter, to call more of his or her own shots and enable the shooter to see more of the action through the rifle scope.    

Speaking of scopes, optical sights are not absolutely necessary for sagerat hunting but are highly recommended.  Small targets sometimes partially obscured by stubble or hay make rifle scopes a big advantage especially if your eyes have passed that middle aged mark.  Huge objective lenses aren't necessary as the ground squirrels are only active in full daylight hours.  Match the magnification of the rifle scope to the cartridge.  A standard 3-9X scope works well on .22LR rifles.  Add more magnification as the range of your firearm and cartridge choice dictate.  Centerfire rifles may benefit from a variable scope with a top-end power of 14X, 16X or even 20X or more.  But, a shooter will appreciate a wider field of view when a target appears at point blank range.

Binoculars may come in handy if the targets are being elusive.  A spotting scope is rarely necessary.  The limited field of view of most spotting scopes and the fact that few rifles have the accuracy necessary to hit targets this size at several hundred yards make binoculars a better choice for most shooters.  Rangefinders come in handy when stretching the limits of any cartridge as does a ballistic table or ballistics calculator.    

Rests in the field, range from unsupported field positions and fence posts to a plethora of bipods, shooting sticks, shooting bags and even benchrest pedestals.  Use whatever you find necessary to get good solid shots.  Practicing with similar rests as your big game hunting equipment can pay off big next fall.  The muscle memory instilled through hundreds of field shots will make a deer or elk look pretty large when hunting season rolls around.

Whatever your approach and your equipment, consider joining the hundreds of shooters going sagerat hunting this spring.  Use whatever equipment you have available and adjust and refine it as you go along.  The shooting experience will increase your proficiency, you'll be doing the farmers and ranchers a favor and its a lot of fun in own right.    Add varmint and predator hunting to your calendar and discover that there's truly "No Off Season"!

Good shooting.

 

 

Tim Titus owns and operates No Off Season a predator, varmint and long range shooting gear store.  No Off Season also guides varmint and predator hunts.  Their sagerat hunts run from Mid-March through the first part of May near Crane, Oregon, "The Sagerat Capitol of the World".  No Off season's website is no-off-season.com.  Tim may be also reached by email at tim@no-off-season.com.  Remember, "No Crowds, no limits, no seasons...no bad days!"