Varmint hunting is the most underutilized tool for big game hunters. There, I said it, and I’ll defend my position with a list of benefits that will make you wonder why you haven’t tried it before. 20 years ago in America, we went crazy as Best of the West episodes first aired on cable. When those guys started dropping mule deer and elk at 1,000 yards, I remember frantically calling my friends and telling them to turn the TV on to see this inconceivable footage. While the emphasis of these shows was on the cutting-edge gear, there was something else behind the scenes that enabled these unbelievable shots to happen. The key was unprecedented amounts of practice.
I love dreaming about gear as much as anyone, although we all know that none of it matters until you learn to use it. Most big game hunters have never thought about paying to hunt varmints, but I would argue that you can’t afford not to. Let’s dive into the specific type of hunting I have in mind, then I’ll list off the numerous ways this ridiculously fun exercise can make you a better shot when big game season rolls around.
In central and eastern Oregon, we have pockets of alfalfa fields amidst the high desert that are overrun with sage rats. With thousands of these burrowing rodents in each field, farmers are forced to either use poison or have hunters pay to shoot them. Other western states like Montana and Wyoming can give you a similar experience with prairie dogs. When you think of preparing for that next trophy hunt, here is a list of reasons why you should also be thinking about varmint hunting as a way to give yourself an advantage.
Sage rats are small targets, but offer shooting opportunities from near to far.
Shot opportunities.You will find ground squirrels that pop up 20’ outside the car window, or you can aim at them as far away as your heart desires. The majority of your shots will be between 50-150 yards. Not far you say? Try hitting a critter the size of a chipmunk, that moves around every couple seconds, at 150 yds, with a .22 LR. Rather than just spray and pray, concentrate on your breath and trigger squeeze with the same intention you would give to a deer. Practicing on live targets incorporates the movement and sense of urgency that mimics a big game hunt. It’s difficult to get accustomed to this type of pressure with static targets. Where else are you going to get this skill building practice, with real ammo, on a moving target, 500 times in one day?
Bring anything. The coolest part about shooting in the desert is that there are almost no rules. Obviously, don’t shoot towards a house or farm equipment, but otherwise you can shoot anything you bring. While you’ll do the bulk of your blasting with a .22, why not throw your big game rifle in too? After you’ve eradicated all the close rats, break out your long-range rifle and practice on the clueless ones on the other side of the field 600 yards away. Sometimes you can get lucky and find a rancher with piles of stones that will be home to rock chucks. These yellow-bellied marmots are much bigger at about five pounds, and they can be difficult to find. I think of them like a trophy that I challenge myself to hit at long range with a 53 grain V-Max out of my AR-15.
Getting a rock chuck was a real bonus.
Shakedown your equipment. Waiting until fall to use your sparkly new gear for the first time is asking for trouble. On this trip, I experimented with using the Spartan Davros head for a shooting support on the truck window. Don’t worry, I’m not a gangster planning a drive-by, I am a quadriplegic with a permit to shoot from a vehicle. When I clicked the forend mounted adapter onto the Davros and took my hands off the rifle, the whole assembly would droop over. It turns out the ultra-light spotting scope mount I had doesn’t grip the window tight enough. Luckily, I had a bigger spare that I could swap out. Working out the kinks of your entire shooting system now and finding any potential problems could save you from a stupid mistake that costs you a buck or bull later. How many rounds have you put through your rifle since you last modified your setup?
Varmint hunting gave the chance to do lots of shooting, which revealed a problem with my spotting scope window mount.
Avoid the rush.When you start shooting early in the year, it allows you the flexibility to make new gear orders without running into shipping problems. My brother used an Ascent tripod to make some impressive 200 yard shots with his 10/22 on this trip. He fell in love with the versatility that three different leg pitches gave him. Brad sent rounds downrange from the sitting position, then splayed the legs all the way out to get rock-solid prone. Since he was able to figure out this was a piece of gear he needed to purchase in the spring, now he can avoid all the supply chain headaches of ordering last minute. Why add stress to your big game hunt if you could figure it out months beforehand?
Practice the same positions you will encounter later in the mountains.
Brad took advantage of the Ascent tripods ability to splay its legs out to make some impressively long shots with a .22 LR.
Affordability.The best part about this type of training is the cheap cost. Over the last six years, I’ve happily used LD Guides in Burns, Oregon. While many outfits stick their guests in elevated platforms, we have always enjoyed it when you get the option to drive around the edges of the field by yourself. This gives you the freedom to practice from the same positions you would use during the fall. I challenge you to find any other shooting course or school where can you get so much trigger time for around $200.
I truly hope you buy that next piece of innovative gear, and draw that long awaited tag. Make the most of the upcoming opportunity by incorporating an annual spring/summer varmint hunting trip into your training schedule. If you drill good techniques into your muscle memory by hitting hyperactive sage rats, then imagine the confidence you’ll have for shooting big game.