I kept peering out the kitchen window toward the garden to see if I could catch the varmint in the act.
ILLUSTRATION: HOWARD CRUISE
As MOTHER's gardeners found last summer, when a ground hog raids the plot you need ground hog control, something's got to go!
Managing Crops and Ground Hog Control
I never dreamed I'd get excited about shooting a ground hog. For that matter, I never dreamed I'd ever try to shoot one. Oh, I used to strap on my toy six-shooter and cowboy hat when I was six or seven and go hunt birds or rabbit with my dad. (I was really the retriever—still, I'd always pull out my gun and bop the prey over the head before handing it to Dad.) That was about the extent of my involvement with firearms. After all, for 10 years I was a vegetarian.
But we all change, and our ideals occasionally have to adjust to reality. After my wife, Susan, and I had lived in the country for a few years, I dropped vegetarianism altogether. In fact, I began to think that having a gun would be a good idea. I figured I could use it to kill homegrown meat animals, fire over the heads of any dogs that got into the chickens and maybe even hunt a few squirrels. It just so happened that MOTHER's editor, Bruce Woods, had a Savage over-under combination (a 20-gauge shotgun on the bottom with a .22-magnum rifle on top) that he wanted to sell. We worked out a deal, and I brought the weapon home.
Then Susan and I had our first encounter with that fabled garden raider, the woodchuck (better known in Southern circles as the ground hog), and I knew that having a gun was a great idea for ground hog control.
We had just moved to a new home way up on top of a mountain, at a spot my sister, Nan, had lived. Both Nan and our landlord warned us they'd often seen ground hogs. Sure enough, during my fall plowing, I unearthed two burrow entrances and spotted three more along the fence, hidden among the poison ivy. I knew trouble was ahead.
I bought some targets and began to practice. My sister looked on in dismay. She remembered the years when I wouldn't eat animals, much less shoot them, so she couldn't imagine me killing a ground hog. I did consider alternatives, of course. Fencing was out; burrows had been dug under the fence that was already there, so why put up another? A live trap might work all right, but I didn't have one of the contraptions. And since, as MOTHER's staff gardeners, our garden is our livelihood, we couldn't experiment with a lot of "maybe they'll work" home remedies. No, I decided that I had better go the sure, quick route.
So I waited for spring and the chance to put my new gun to the test. My sister smugly thought she'd moved away from ground hog country, but it turned out that she and her man, Seth, had gone from bad to worse. When they put in their family garden the next spring, they found out they shared the plot with deer, opossum and rabbit—as well as ground hogs. They borrowed my electric fence charger and put low and high lines around the garden. That seemed to keep most of the varmints out, but the ground hogs just slipped over and under the hot wires.
Seth bought a Havahart live animal trap, set it up and waited hopefully. Meanwhile, Susan and I were waiting nervously. Our spring crops of broccoli, cabbage and carrots were just coming on. We figured it wouldn't be long before we could expect company.
Then it happened. Some carrot tops and broccoli leaves were missing. The damage was so slight and spotty that we first blamed the chickens, so they were all either penned up or routed to the soup pot. A couple of days later, though, the entire broccoli patch was defoliated. Then the lettuce bed was hit. And right after that, our big field planting of green soybeans was mowed flat. Things were getting serious.
I kept peering out the kitchen window toward the garden to see if I could catch the varmint in the act. I made plans for a stakeout. I traded stories with my sister. She and Seth were losing pea, green bean, collard, cucumber, cantaloupe and even sweet potato plants to their omnivorous ground hogs—but none had stepped into their apple-baited trap.
I started shutting the dog inside and sneaking myself outside every evening at dusk. But Susan and I were just too noisy. The critter attacked only when we were gone; clearly, it knew the sound of our returning car. Seth and Nan weren't having any better luck. Seth rubbed his trap down with fresh walnut hulls to cover any human smell and baited it again with fresh apples. The race was on.
Our soybeans grew back, only to be mowed down two more times. And now a truly gloomy prospect loomed. Susan and I both had to be away from the farm for a few days, and I surely didn't want to leave a ground hog in charge of tending our plot. Susan left a week before I did. Her absence created the perfect opportunity for my stakeout: There'd be fewer people around to make noise and plenty of time to watch. I was determined that both the ground hog and I would be gone by the end of the week.
As the days passed, I kept the dog tied up and one eye on the garden. I even parked the car up the road from the house and crept down to try to catch the critter unawares. No luck. What should I do, sleep out on top of the garden shed?
The day before I was supposed to leave, I came home from town feeling weak and sick. I decided to take a hot bath in hopes it would make me feel better. I'd just gotten out of the upstairs tub, pulled my pants up and started drying my hair—when I looked out the window and there it was; a fat 'hog was grabbing a mouthful of straw mulch out of the garden and heading back to its hole. Adrenaline rushed through my body and flushed out my illness. My mind raced with thoughts. Where's the dog? Where's the gun? What should I do?
The gun was inside, but so was the dog. I figured that trying to make the dog stay in when the gun and I went out would create too much noise. So I decided to shoot from the upstairs window. I got the gun, then faced another problem. How should I shoot it? There are a lot of good things about having a shotgun/rifle combination, but the disadvantage is that you have only one shot of each type. I was far from being an experienced hunter and couldn't decide which shell would be best. The ground hog was 50 to 100 feet away. I could wait and hope it would come closer. That way I could use the broad-patterned 20-gauge shotgun to be sure of a hit and figure that, at that distance, the pellets'd penetrate the tough hide. Or I could shoot a .22 at it now and hope my aim was good enough to do more than wound it.
Suddenly, the 'hog made the decision for me. It moved farther away—within 15 feet of the den. I put the rifle on the .22-magnum setting, rested it on the windowsill, took a deep breath and fired. The woodchuck dropped right there. I ran down the stairs and out the door, gun in hand in case I needed to follow up with the shotgun blast. The ground hog didn't move. The bullet had gone right through the heart.
A week or so after that, Nan and Seth caught up with us—they trapped their first ground hog in the Havahart. They soon caught another. Then, as nature's wild fruits began to ripen, it became harder and harder for Seth and Nan to tempt ground hogs into their trap. Seth started sitting quietly under a walnut tree for three and four hours straight, a .22 rifle under his arm, until he, too, had dropped a crop raider.
Susan and I managed to get the first ground hog, but eventually my sister and Seth wound up catching the most critters. But I think that, ultimately, the ground hogs usually win. They'll either take your vegetables or your time and patience—whichever you choose to give up.