Rat Camp 2016
Randy joked “you can feel the electricity in the air” starting hunt #2 for our eastern Oregon sage rat shoot. By the end of the day, that premonition held true as the hunt was ended early due to lightning. Driving back to camp gave time to reflect on the purpose of sage rat (ground squirrel) hunting, but more on that later. For me it all started on Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016, and a 6 hour drive across the state of Oregon to Crystal Crane Hotsprings, the destination for rat camp, hosted by Diamond A Guides. Pulling into the parking lot, I could see Randy and his trailer parked at the top of the hill where we would join. After I set up camp, the rest of the evening was a much needed, relaxing sit by the fire with good friends.
Wednesday morning started bright and early with a tasty breakfast prepared by Diamond A Guides, and shortly after, we were on the road to the farmer’s fields where we would be shooting. We had packed many firearms to engage rats at various ranges, and our selection included a few Howa rifles in .204 Ruger, Smith and Wesson M&P15, and some Colt Competition rifles. Unfortunately, we were informed early on that the day’s hunt would be rimfire only, so those rifles stayed in their cases. Luckily for us, we brought a few rimfire guns, and plenty of ammo. Our rimfire selection included two Savage 93 R17 rifles in 17HMR, a Savage B-Mag in 17WSM, a few Ruger 10-22s, a CZ 455 in 22WMR and the most ridiculous (awesome) ground squirrel gun there is, the Henry Mare’s Leg with a scope mounted.
Having never been on a guided sage rat shoot, the size of the trailer mounted shooting platform was a sight to behold, and quite impressive. The platform featured a chest high shooting bench that offered near 360 degree vision of the field. After the safety meeting, firearms were loaded onto the platform and shooters followed. As soon as everyone chose a spot, set their shooting bags or bi pods up and started loading magazines, the shooting began. Targets were plenty, and the excitement was evident in the first shots as many critters were still running around after bullets were hitting dirt.
It was evident to Randy and I that our guns needed a bit more dialing in. We had both zeroed our rifles at 100 yards, and as we began shooting, we were routinely hitting very high over the top of squirrels heads. After dialing our elevation down, it was far easier to use holdovers at longer ranges than estimating our impact at short range while holding low on the target. Sometimes range estimation could be difficult due to the alfalfa. Standing around 6 inches high, the vegetation would mask much of the squirrels bodies, leaving only their head exposed. After staring through a scope at little critters running around in a sea of green, a shooter can start to lose track of distance. When this tunnel vision happens, you find that you are shooting at what you believe is a close target, but in reality, it may be over 200 yards away. Taking some time to get off of the gun, and letting your eyes rest is important to keep your depth perception keen.
Sage rats do not sit on one spot for long. They are constantly on the move, peeking their head above the vegetation for a moment before scurrying to the next spot. When peering through a scope on maximum power, Sage rats can be difficult to locate. One thing I found to be effective was the use of a Warne Switchview. By using a Switchview on a Leupold VX3L 3.5-10X50, I could keep one hand on the lever, holding at 3.5 power while I scanned the field for targets. Then with a quick flip of the lever I could turn the magnification up to 10 for a shot opportunity. This style of shooting greatly increased my number of kills as I was not scanning empty areas of the field on maximum power with a narrow field of view.
Sometime around noon, the ground squirrels burrow for a few hours, giving time for us to head back to camp for lunch. Shooting would commence once again in the afternoon around 4 pm. The afternoon shoot would be in the same field, but in a different area to give a fresh view and sage rats aplenty. There was a ridge that divided 2 fields, and where the trailer was positioned, at the very front you could shoot both fields easily. This is where we were located, and we certainly capitalized on the abundant shooting opportunities. About an hour into shooting, the first lightning strike was spotted in the distance, then several more as an approaching storm was looming. The guides decided to call it a day with the approaching storm, no need to stand out in the middle of a field, 10 feet in the air with lightning striking around you.
Heading back toward camp, a farmer was riding across the field on an ATV, which looked to be a decently bumpy ride. I can just imagine a horse stepping into one of the large burrows created by the Belding’s Ground Squirrel. That would be enough to cause some damage to the horse, and potentially the rider as well. In Oregon, ground squirrels set up shop in alfalfa fields and eat to their hearts content, causing massive crop loss if not kept in check. While sage rats have many natural predators, in a sea of food where the ground squirrels numbers in the hundreds to thousands, there is only so much the birds and coyotes can eat. What started as a means to slowing damage caused by the ground squirrels has turned into a pastime for shooters of all ages. Sage rat hunting represents an opportunity to practice shooting skills on small moving targets, and not only is it helping eastern Oregon farmers, but its a heck of a lot of fun.
At the end of the day there were as many smiles as there were piles of empty brass, and that is a good day in my book. Click here for more information about Diamond A Guides.
To learn more about setting up your rat gun read: Ground Squirrel “season” is upon us.