THE EVERYDAY HUNTER: A summer tune-up for deer season

If you’ve missed any shots at deer in the last year or two, you may have blamed your rifle, scope or ammunition, but it’s likely that none of those are the reasons for inaccuracy. It’s probably the fault of the guy who shoots your rifle.

If you plan to hunt deer this fall, now is the time to do something about that guy. Tune his shooting skills by heading to the woodchuck fields.

Some people advise making your deer rifle your woodchuck rifle. I don’t, mostly because it’s way overkill on woodchucks. A .30-06 is loud, punishes your shoulder and its bullets are much heavier than necessary to kill a woodchuck.

I recommend a rifle that handles much like your “loudenboomer” deer rifle, but shoots a lighter bullet. If you shoot a bolt action deer rifle, use a bolt action for woodchucks. Lower recoil is a plus. That might mean a .22 rimfire, but beware – .22 rimfire bullets ricochet more than others so make sure you have a good backstop and never shoot into rocks.

Or, it might mean a classic varmint cartridge, like the .223 or the .22-250. Those reach out to 300 yards and beyond – much farther than typical deer ranges. I’ve been using the tiny .17 HMR because it’s quiet, accurate, and its bullets tend to disintegrate when hitting the target – they don’t ricochet like heavier bullets can.

Check the trigger pull weight on your deer rifle and use a rifle with a similar trigger. The weight of the trigger can have a big impact on accuracy. Thanks to corporate lawyers, most new rifles today are shipped with fairly heavy triggers. If your rifle has a heavy trigger and you don’t want to lighten it, it should break crisply and cleanly.

Before hitting the woodchuck fields, shoot a few rounds at a target. You’re looking for headshot accuracy and a woodchuck’s head gives you little margin for error. Most deer are shot inside 100 yards and woodchucks are easy to find at that range (give or take). So, either sight in for 100 yards or know exactly where your bullet hits at that range.

Once you’re satisfied with how your gun shoots, knock on some farmhouse doors and request permission to thin their woodchuck population. Woodchucks may look cute and innocent, but these warm-blooded machines do nothing but eat, excavate and replicate. The alfalfa they eat costs farmers a little, but the cost goes way up when they dig holes and pile up the dirt. No farmer likes damaged farm machinery, wasted time from dulled mower blades and injured cattle from stepping in the holes.

On these hot, stifling mid-summer days, the best times to hunt them are mornings and evenings. Of course, you’ll never see as many woodchucks as there are. For one thing, they can easily flatten themselves to hide in grass that’s just a few inches high. Once mowed hayfields turn green again, you’ll see them when they lift their heads to periscope for danger. Binoculars are a must and good practice for using them in the deer woods.

It doesn’t take much strategy to hunt woodchucks, but you do need a plan. Don’t go traipsing out through a hayfield and expect much success. For one thing, woodchucks have an uncanny ability to locate their holes where they can spot danger from almost any direction. Besides, open expanses of field don’t harbor as many woodchucks as the tall weeds along the edges, the fencerows and the brush around trees or other structures. So, concentrate on those features and approach them from directions where you’re less likely to be seen.

Finally, here are the benefits. A live target doesn’t give you endless time like a paper target does, so you have some pressure to get the shot off. You’ll squirt just enough adrenaline into your bloodstream to teach you to cope with that. And succeeding under those two pressures gives you confidence that you’re going to hit what you shoot at.

I’m betting that if you send a few woodchucks to their happy grazing ground this summer, you’ll be less likely to miss a deer this fall.