The California Varmint Callers Association


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Ray Gauthier

What is a varmint? Defining the parameters of what is and what is not a varmint is not necessarily as easy as it may seem. Webster's definition of a varmint is; any undesirable creature, and Funk & Wagnalls defines it as; any person or animal considered as troublesome. There is a lot of room for our own interpretations here.

What is varmint hunting? This question is often asked by a non hunting friend or acquaintance such as the waitress in the all night cafe you may visit on your hunts, or your next door neighbor. I suppose any one that hunts any undesirable or troublesome animal is a varmint hunter. That leaves us with another problem. What animals are undesirable and or troublesome? This is where differences in opinions really come into play. What I consider a troublesome animal, another may see as cute and lovable. This is where you may have significantly differing opinions with your neighbors. Especially if you live in an urban area and you are varmint hunting there.

Every state seems to have its own ideas of what, when and how we may hunt a particular species. I have not yet found a hunting regulation booklet that refers to any animal as a varmint. Not to say some states do not have a varmint category, just saying I have not found one. The states have a variety of classifications for critters you and I are likely to consider ordinary, everyday, run of the mill, undesirable, varmints. Therefore! How can we as varmint hunters be expected to have a consensus of what is and what is not a varmint? Now you know and understand fully what a varmint is. Right! Lets just say, if you think it is a varmint, it probably is.

Generally, varmints include predators of the smaller sizes. Bears are large enough that I think of them as dangerous, not varmints. Other critters that may fall in the varmint class include various small game, fur bearers and non game animals. These usually are grass munchers, hole diggers or just some obscure species that is fun to shoot.

I don't really want all the bunny huggers and bambi lovers on my case for including their favorite furball in my list of varmints, but, that is likely to happen even if I don't put it in writing. In North America there are several animals that hunters, farmers and ranchers seem to naturally consider varmints. Each region of the continent seems to have different varieties of varmints, so, your list may vary considerably with mine.

Varmint hunters generally consider the following animals varmints. This list may not include some of your favorites and may have some that are not varmints by your standards. Some of the more rare or obscure creatures are left off my list because they are not often sighted or taken by varmint hunters or maybe I don't have a clue of their existence. Coyote, fox (all varieties), mountain lion, bobcat, lynx, badger, wolf, and wolverine are the predators. Also in this category I like to include stray dogs and cats, as they survive (if they survive) by assuming their old predatory ways. The exception to this are the inner city strays that feed out of trash cans, and, we must assume hunting is not popular within the city limits.

The rodent varieties include; raccoon, porcupine, beaver, prairie dog, ground squirrel, rock chuck, ground hog, nutria, muskrat and all sorts of dump rats. I am sure there are a bunch I missed, but, you can add them to your own varmint list. In the bird category are; crows, ravens, starling, grackles, magpies and a bunch more. The extent of this part of the list could be nearly endless.

Most states regulate hunting of mountain lions as big game. Others like California, go to extremes and allow NO hunting of the big cats. Misguided as this may be on the part of the voters in that state, it is the law California hunters must live with. The shame of it is, this is a very poor method of wildlife management, and the toll is beginning to show among the mule deer, livestock and joggers wearing Nike's. Any varmint hunter that can call in and take a cougar has a wonderful prize indeed. The cougar has no natural enemies in the lower 48 other than man and an occasional grizzly bear. When the populations of predators are managed improperly other species of wild life and domestic animals suffer unusually high depredation.

Coyote: I imagine there have been more pages of print published about 'ole wiley' than any other critter on my list. For most hunters, a more intelligent prey will never be pursued. A hunter that learns to successfully hunt coyotes in the daytime has acquired hunting skills usable in any hunting situation. I specify daytime here because night hunting is altogether different. I do not consider the shooting of an occasional coyote seen crossing the road as hunting. More often than not, those opportunities arise while engaged in some other activity. A rancher in Texas may consider it his duty to have a rifle ready in the truck for such opportunities. He is just doing his job and shooting the vermin, not hunting.

The range of the coyote has extended to all regions of North America to varying degrees. By far, the densest populations are in the Western US, South central Canada and most of northern Mexico. Some areas of the Eastern US have populations that compare with those out west. If the populations are not great in your area, wait a few years. The range of the coyote is continually growing. If you can't wait, check with your state Fish and Game officers or those in a nearby state.

Fox: There are several varieties of fox found across this continent, Red, Gray, Arctic, Cross and Kit or Swift. Most are considered as fur bearers to one extent or another and all are varmints in my dictionary. Of all the predators this is possible the most frequently taken, either by hunters or trappers. I don't care how many times you may have heard "Sly as a Fox" don't believe it. These have to be the dumbest of the predators. Smarter than most of us, but, still dumb!

Bobcat: The most common feline across the continent. Primarily a night predator, but, often taken in the daytime. If you want a fine fur coat for your favorite lady friend, this is the one to have. These powerful bundles of claws, teeth, fur and curiosity are generally ultra cautious and you will surely call in many more than you see. If fur is your primary concern, then do your hunting with traps, not dynamite bullets. Expect to bring home lots of other vermin before you have sufficient hides from Bob and his buddies.

Mountain Lion: The largest of the American cats. In many areas of the west, a threat to mule deer populations and an unwelcome dinner guest to cattle and sheep ranchers. These guys can occasionally be called in, but, this is another friend you may never see sneak in and out. The traditional method of taking them is with dogs and then it's big game hunting, not varmint hunting in my book. When you do get one to come into a call, be prepared for some excitement. Do Not make a habit of using a mouth call in cougar country without someone watching the back door. You may be innocently calling for some other critter when a cougar arrives to liven up your party. After all, you are ringing his dinner bell! Just seeing one of these big yellow cats is a thrill to remember.

Wolf: Big dogs that hunt in packs and are hunted only in a few places around he continent. If you have an opportunity to call one in, enjoy the experience. It is a thrill few others will ever have. They do not come into a call as readily as other predators, but, with a little perseverance, it can be done.

Wolverine: These are the shy (and mean) loners of the predator clan. Even their own kind don't want them around, except for sex. This one has limited range and again only a few well opportuned hunters will ever encounter one of these forest dragons. Chances are any encounter will be a stroke of luck, good or bad, and rare even in areas they are considered well established. If you do get a chance to take one, make your first shot count. For certain don't piss him off, because they run, climb and dig faster than you can.

Lynx: Plentiful in Canada, Alaska and the northern regions of the lower 48. This is another prize that should be taken with pride by the varmint hunter. I have not seen one since I left Alaska in the mid 80's. But, I have not been in those regions much since the mid 80's.

Badgers: A short legged, ornery bundle of fur, teeth and the premiere post hole digger. These ground huggers are found in most regions of the country. I have not had the opportunity to bag one yet, but, a few of my friends have. They are opportunists that often come into a varmint call, especially at night.

One thing about hunting the above varmints, they are all predators. The most common method of predator hunting is to call the animal in to an ambush. As the animal is coming in, he is looking for an easy meal and you are it. This makes the hunter, the hunted! Remote recorded calls help keep the critters attention directed away from you in your hiding place, but, this is not a guarantee. Occasionally the prey may come visiting from a direction you are not expecting, and the ambusher is then the ambushee.

Non-predatory varmints number into the hundreds if you count down to the subspecies level. I will keep it a little simpler and list only the popular family groups. In most cases the non predatory animals do not respond well to the distress call of your favorite cottontail or jackrabbit. Occasionally an animal may visit out of curiosity, not looking for an easy meal. I have called in deer, elk, cattle, sheep, barnyard dogs and cats and often get buzzed by owls at night. Crows, ravens, hawks and eagles often come around. Sometimes they come in following a land based predator with hopes of cleaning up the remains. My experience is that most often they fly over, check things out then leave. If your call sounds that bad maybe you should leave too.

Rabbits and hares: The most hunted animals in America. There are cottontail and pigmy varieties of bunnies and hares or jackrabbits, mostly in the west. Among the hares are the Snowshoes up in the North. Maybe I should rephrase my earlier statement about the amount of press coyotes get. I do believe the bunnies get more coverage than coyotes. I will not get any deeper into this subject. If you hunt bunnies or jacks, you know more than I do. If you venture out West, don't be shooting up the Jackalope. They are an endangered species. I know, you are going to tell me that every shop west of the Mississippi has at least one on display or for sale. That is exactly why they are now endangered.

Prairie Dogs: The scourge of the plains states, hated by ranchers and farmers, loved by varmint hunters. In the last ten or so years these grass chomping, sand trap diggers have been the hot item for varmint hunters. They number into the trillions and Zortman Montana is the center of the universe, if you believe all you read. If this is your interest, get in touch with game departments in any of the plains or mountain states. I am told every western state has a huntable population except California and they have a law against PD immigration. I've heard the mountain lions ate them all before varmint hunting was fashionable. Be aware if you head for the PD towns, some colonies have been infected with a variety of the plague. You will want to have lots of ammo along on any PD hunt because you will be needing it. Wyoming requires a minimum of 1,000,001 rounds per licensed out of state hunter.

Ground Squirrels: Little guys and gals that come in a variety of sizes and names. The more popular ones out West are the Richardson and the California. Back East I hear they live in trees and have their own hunting seasons. That's what happens when you let them get too high of character. Out West you may find them most anywhere that grasses, rocks or dirt are available for food and shelter. This includes desert fringes, alfalfa fields, bean fields, ranches, foot hills and mountains. If there is a food source they like, you can find them there.

Marmots: Two basic flavors with variations to both. Back East they call them ground hogs, woodchucks or pasture poodles and out west we just call them rock chucks. The ground hog is another of the species hated by the farmer and acquiring permission to hunt them is not usually hard to get. These critters have had lots of words written about them and I have read a bunch of those words, but, I am not an expert on these post hole diggers. I have seen them many a time, but, never had the opportunity to poke a little lead fun at them. The rock chuck is another game altogether. These guys live in the mountains of the West and the more rocks, the happier they are. You won't find them in every valley or meadow out there. If you hope to hunt rock chucks you may need to do some scouting and research with the locals. My experience with locals is that they like to keep their best rock chuck populations a secret. Some are quite open with good sources, but for the most part, you are on your own.

Raccoon: A night bandit of the first order. Quite common in many areas of the country where there is an abundance of water. I don't know a lot about hunting techniques used for night hunting these critters in the South, but, it is common to use dogs to tree them. I lived in Alabama when I was a lad and thought my pals that chased them all night to be a bit off. I have had a few come to a varmint call down along the Colorado River in California and Arizona. They are best as coon skin hats! Just remember that you must kill and skin them first.

Nutria: Most often found along the gulf coastal region along the canal banks and dikes. They are a real problem for the dike maintenance crews in the New Orleans area and real popular among spot lighters. If you ever need your local canal drained into the surrounding fields, let a few of these vermin loose on the dike. I guess one might call them the prairie dog cousin in the canals. ( the two species are not related )

Porcupine: A rather sticky subject. Mostly found in wooded area. I say mostly because I often saw them wandering on the tundra up in Alaska, nowhere near a tree. I hear that the pioneers wouldn't kill a porky unless near starvation. They were so easily killed by thumping them on the head, they were considered survival food. Hey! That's what I heard.

Armadillo: Here is another post hole digger that the ranchers and farmers of the south dislike. This one looks like a football helmet on the run. Down in Texas they use them for speed bumps on any and all highways. I have traveled some Texas back roads that were more bumps than road, and always thought of the armadillo.

Rats: Any town dump worthy of the name DUMP has a hoard of them. Great targets for the kids to start on and the hard core varmint hunter could relearn a few things shooting these bits of hair and tail. Once upon a time, in my younger days, 'rat popping' was considered the thing to do after school (before chores). Now a days dumps are called land fills and routinely covered as they are filled up. The most common sight at the dumps now is a D10 CAT and a chain link fence. Dumps are a good place to find scavengers like coyotes for those that have dumps in the more rural areas.

Wild Boar and Feral Hogs: Plentiful in some areas and always a challenge. Occasionally will come to a varmint call, but, probably out of curiosity than hunger. They are tough to hunt and tougher to stop. In California pig hunting is becoming so popular it rivals deer for hunter participation. The majority of hogs in that state are on private land. Whenever you go, go well armed. Your .223 prairie dog popper is not up to the task.

Feral Goats: In some areas of the country they are a nuisance and fair game any time. Other areas they are not as feral as they may appear. In Texas they actually eat them and get good money from out of state hunters that want to hunt them.

Crows: Medium sized black pain in the ass. They are noisy, messy and farmers hate them for the crop damage they incur. I hate them for the way they tease me when I don't have a weapon handy. A challenging way to take these pests is with a long range shot, you know, 'reach out and touch' them. A shot gun, camouflage, crow call and decoys can also lead to an exciting day. If your are creative they can be taken with .22's or pellet guns under certain (safe) conditions.

Strays: The stray dogs and cats that wander the forests, farms and deserts. I save these for last. When I encounter a family pet gone wild or left to forage for itself I do everything I can to remove it. Not that I dislike cats and dogs, it is just that they have been domesticated so long they no longer have a niche in the wild animal kingdom. More often than not, they retain traits, such as not fearing humans. I was once challenged by a pack of small dogs while deer hunting in Florida. These were not large dogs, but, they were brave enough to take me on until the leader and another one bit on some 00 buck pellets.

There you have it, my dictionary for the novice varmint hunter. It is meant as a guide to fun, not an absolute, description of our favorite past time targets. I did not intend that any information be misleading, but, that is always a probability when I am at the keyboard.

Varminting is the most enjoyable form of hunting for myself and most of my friends. We like to hunt frequently and all those undesirable, troublesome critters make that possible year round. Big game seasons are limited and the amount of time and money expended on a few hunts each year seems such a waste. Especially, when one considers the time spent day dreaming of that one spectacular hunt next Fall. Besides, you can always continue your big game hunting when the season rolls around, and then you will surely appreciate the off season hunting you did.

We try to get out at least once a month between July and the following February for coyotes. Later in the Fall we add fox, bobcat and badger to the list. In the early Spring we are out for ground squirrels, prairie dogs and whatever else is acting undesirable and troublesome. We throw in a little friendly competition along the way and keep the hunting spirit alive all year.

If you haven't tried it yet, it is never too late to start. Try it, you'll like it!

Have a Safe Hunting Day.


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