General

Squirrel Hunting: Fun with Clothes On

Squirrel with a varmint grenade cartridge in its mouth

I consider myself fortunate to have lived in the time and place that I did. Access to hunting and shooting grounds were abundant and free. All the days I spent in the field shooting jackrabbits and ground squirrels were responsible, more than anything else, for making me the expert rifleman I became. I believe, I have shot most every kind of varmint that there is from rock chucks in the lava beds of Idaho, cottontail rabbits in brown waves, marmots in high mountain valleys, prairie dogs from the Canadian border to Mexico, pestilential numbers of jackrabbits throughout the American West, groundhogs in the hills of the Virginia’s and Ground Squirrels from South Africa to Canada.

All that varmint shooting offered its own challenges and satisfactions. But for the sheer volume of shooting, nothing beats shooting ground squirrels on the prairies of Alberta, Canada. I guarantee shooting ground squirrels is the best fun you can have with clothes on. Now Ed, you might be saying, prove it.

A chubby Canadian gopher (ground squirrel) poking out of the grass
Our quarry, the dreaded and chubby Canadian gopher…. Err, ground squirrel.

Well, sit back, relax, and I’ll relate a wild story about littering the high plains of Canada with 12,000 brass casings. Guaranteed this tale will whet your appetite for squirrel. Once I’m sure you’re hooked, I’ll give you a peak at the gear and some tips to get you going.

Gear

In most areas, it is easy to fire a brick (500 rounds) of .22 ammunition a day. In a good area, 1,000 rounds a day is not hard to shoot. Of course, in helps if you have a couple of accurate semi-automatic rifles and plenty of high-capacity magazines for each. It also helps if you can find the assistance of a nimble-fingered loader who doesn’t like to shoot.

I recommend this type of high volume shooting be undertaken with rimfires. Specifically, I recommend rifles chambered in the ubiquitous .22 Long Rifle. You can certainly shoot centerfire rifles, but you will never shoot as many squirrels as you can with rimfires.

In a secret spot, you would burn the barrel out of a good centerfire rifle in short order. Personally, I prefer a higher body count and save my centerfires for prairie dogs at longer ranges. My two favorite calibers for ground squirrels are the .22 WRM and .17 HMR. The .22 really thumps them, and the .17 reaches out pretty good as I have made documented kills out to 400-plus yards with one.

I reserve the use of my centerfire rifles to my shooting trailer with its rotating shooting table, sandbags, spotting scope, and rangefinder for prairie dogs. Where shots are as long as 1,000 yards and limited to 200–300 a day. But for ground squirrels, with the need for high-volume shooting and mobility as an asset, I prefer being agile, mobile, and hostile. That way, when all the squirrels in your area have gone underground, you just move to another location and do it all over again. The secret to shooting lots of ground squirrels is to maintain mobility.

Elevated shooting platform from a truck-pulled trailer
The view from atop one of my “War Wagons” in the hunting fields.

Location

Finding locations that harbor those kinds of populations requires some travel. I will go wherever it takes me, because it sure is fun. One year, while I was attending one of Chuck Cornett’s legendary Invitation Only Prairie Dog Conventions, I met Gun writer Stuart Williams. We got to talking about high-volume hot-barrel hunts.

During that conversation, he mentioned the best he had ever experienced was in Alberta Canada. His story seemed beyond unbelievable. He said that after a morning’s shoot when they opened the doors of the Suburban, the brass was a foot deep and cascaded out like a waterfall. He sure got my attention.

I called the outfitter who provided the orgiastic experience, got prices, dates, and all the information necessary to book a shoot. The best dates for that year were fast approaching, but I needed three other gullible shooters to make up a party of four. The outfitter confided that ground squirrels were a real pest in his area, and the farmers and ranchers really wanted them culled.

LaPorta Potty Shooting Trailer
My LaPorta Potty Shooting Trailer in the prairie dog towns around Havre, Montana.

I don’t think I exaggerated to get my three volunteers on board. After all, why would Stewart exaggerate, I mean, which gun writer exaggerates… Right? Mea Culpa! So, on the day of our departure we were sitting in the international lounge at LAX, chatting with a fellow hunter and outfitter, who said he guided for sheep in Alberta. When we mentioned that our intentions were to shoot ground squirrels he said, in no uncertain terms, that they did not have ground squirrels in Alberta.

Now, the doubts and the questioning started. I was able to reassure and deflect the questioning at the cost of some pre-flight adult beverages. We got split up on the flight, but every few minutes, I’d hear from one of them that everyone was saying, “There are no ground squirrels in Alberta.”

After quite a few additional alcoholic drinks (on my tab), we landed in Calgary. The customs officer had also never heard of ground squirrels. Now I was starting to have my doubts. I was finally relieved when the outfitter picked us up and explained that in Canada, they don’t call them ground squirrels, they call them gophers.

Alberta hunting lodge
The first-class accommodations in Alberta.

Because this was to be a high-volume hot-barrel shoot, and everyone expected eradication numbers in the thousands, we had to pre-order the number of rounds each of us wanted ahead of time. This was to ensure the local gun shop would have the brand and quantity in stock. I was the most optimistic and ordered 2,500 rounds of .22 WRM and a like amount for .17 HMR. The others kept to 2,000 rounds if they brought one rifle, and 1,000 each if they brought two.

When we got to the gun shop, everyone was showing the influence of the no squirrel propaganda and only purchased one brick of 500 each. A case of the doubts was even getting to me, and I only took 2,000 rounds of my order. I must admit the propaganda was getting to me and the weather was cold, windy, and damp.

The accommodations, however, were at a first-class bed and breakfast with a chef, bartender, and full time staff. But by the next morning, the weather had not improved and the doubting continued. A couple of the members of our party were even threatening to stay in and play pool, eat the gourmet snacks, and watch movies on the big screen instead of getting cold, wet, and disappointed. I can’t lie, that sounded good compared to the howling wind. However, I had no option but to put on a good front.

vast sky, and the snow covered peaks of the Rockies and Glacier National Park
The vast sky, and the snow covered peaks of the Rockies and Glacier National Park in the distance.

The Hunt

Our outfitter said we would be sorry we didn’t get more ammo. Fortunately, he was more than correct. Once we entered the ranch property, we started to see a fat little ground squirrel here and there. Then we saw them groups of two or three. A little farther and they were in groups of five or six. As soon as the sun rose, they appeared in the 100s, if not thousands.

From 10 feet to as far as you see, without letting up. We had one shooter at each window of the Suburban with one in the center rear seat. The outfitter, who was driving, would reload magazines as would the center rear seater. We rotated positions every 15 minutes. At switch time, we drove the vehicle about 50 yards to a new spot and kept shooting. Before lunch on the first day, those who only took 500 rounds ran out. Fortunately, the outfitter had extra ammo to spot them. He called his daughter and had her pick up the rest of the orders in town and bring them out to us.

The standard modus operandi was to drive the Suburban slowly through the gopher-infested meadows. With a shooter at each window, three shooters can pour a constant stream of hot lead out. Frequently, all three shooters are firing at the same time, their hollow-point bullets popping gophers with a “Whop!’ “Whop!’ “Whop!’ “Whop!

The sound of bullets hitting gophers was like the sound of popcorn popping. It is a sweet and heartwarming sound indeed. This kept up without interruption all day. My once doubting companions in crime referred to it as a “All-day giggle fest.”

We walked the wood and barbed wire fence rows, using them as a rest. At other times, we would station ourselves by old farm machinery, using it as a seat to rest and shoot in all directions. On other occasions, we would take up a stand inside an old, abandoned barn or home, and shoot through the windows openings. Often, we would each shoot over 100 gophers a piece without moving from one place. There were so many that our outfitter taught us how to lasso ground squirrels and walk them like a dog.

Shooting squirrel guns out of the windows of a pickup truck
Guns up! The squirrel-gun truck on its run.

Gophers…. Excuse me! No, they are ground squirrels, and will always be ground squirrels — no matter what they call them north of the boarder. Gophers are rodents that tear up peoples’ gardens. Now, I feel better that it is settled.

Shooting in Alberta takes place from mid-April through mid-June, and it is a special time of year. Great cumulus clouds sail across the sky, and the snow-covered Rockies and Glacier National Park rise in the distance.

As for ammunition, hollow-point bullets are preferred. I have said (and believe) that pound for pound, the ground squirrel is the toughest animal on earth to kill. I have seen many a ground squirrel take a good solid hit, only to have it run off and escape down its hole, appearing to be totally unfazed. If lions or grizzly bears were as tough, they would own the planet.

Abandoned farm equipment and old farm house
Some of the abandoned farm equipment we used to camouflage our presence, and one of the abandoned buildings we used.

The subject of proper rifles and ammo for ground squirrels deserves a little conversation. There aren’t many .22-caliber rifles that combine the high degree of accuracy and the firepower required to be an effective ground squirrel rifle. The ones that I have used with total satisfaction for the past 30 years are a custom-made .22 Magnum designed by Jim Boland that was made by Paul’s Precision of Simi Valley California. It is on a stainless steel AMT action. It sports a Lothar Walther Barrel and Leupold 4.5×14 — it is incredibly accurate.

A good all-purpose ground squirrel rifle is my H&K 300 in .22 WRM with a Leupold 4.5x14x50AO in a Harry Lawson thumbhole stock. Additionally, I have some of the first Tom Volquartsen special order rifles. One is in .22WRM, with a Leupold 4.5×14. Another is chambered for .17 HMR with a Leupold VXIII 4.5×14. The third was built for .17 Mach 2 with a Zeiss Conquest 4.5x14x56. All are deadly accurate.

I like the 4.5×14 magnification range for its versatility at handling everything from the very close to the very far squirrel. The best choice for my money is the Leupold line of products for performance and quality although you see a Zeiss mixed in to keep me honest. All the scopes have parallax adjustments — an essential feature for shooting at various ranges.

Lassoing squirrels and shooting from a seated position using a tripod
Our outfitter showing us how to lasso ground squirrels for when we got bored of shooting them — like that could ever happen — and “Jimmy the Driller” enjoying a Havana while leisurely executing misbehaving rodents.

Which hollow-point load do I use? The one that the rifle shoots the most accurately. Almost any of them will do if you are shooting at close ranges. Typically, however, you will get lots of shots at ranges out to 125 yards and beyond. For accuracy with the .17’s, my rifles like Hornady’s offerings. Paul’s Precision likes the Federal offerings. As for the Volquartsen .22 WRM, one round really distinguished itself from the others — Winchester Power Point.

Again, all choices are predicated upon which is the most accurate in a particular rifle. The feature that makes them clearly superior to other rounds for squirrels, however, is the great hollow point that creates terrific hydrostatic shock. It will gut, skin, and turn a squirrel inside out in one instantaneous operation.

Hell, if you put a little Barbecue sauce in the hollow point you could pick them up and eat them. Even more impressive is the sound effect it creates. If you shoot a squirrel amidships, that big hollow point makes a moist clubbing sound, a “Whock!” that lets you know immediately — even at extended range — that you connected. That is half the pleasure of squirrel shooting. 

Top: Custom Jim Boland-designed .22 WRM from Paul’s Precision, Bottom: Tom Volquartsen .17 Mach 2
Top: The custom Jim Boland-designed .22 WRM from Paul’s Precision is a design marvel using an AMT stainless-steel action with a Lothar Walther barrel, custom trigger system, and topped with Leupold 4.5x14AO variable scope that made the trip to the fields of Alberta. Bottom: The Tom Volquartsen .17 Mach 2 that was topped with a Zeiss Conquest 4.5x14x56 variable scope that was used for the close (under 100 yards) shots.

Squirrels are small critters and in certain circumstances can be hard to see. That is where a good pair of binoculars becomes indispensable. I have found 10x to be the best magnification for squirrels, and don’t scrimp on cost. Remember, you are going to be spending a lot of time glassing on a typical day of shooting. The final item you will need, to become the Complete Squirrel Eradicator, is a laser rangefinder.

You may wonder why I recommend a laser rangefinder for shooting at ranges that will average about 50 yards and will seldom exceed 125 yards. It’s so you can collect on those bets as to who made the longest shots. Bye the way, in four days, the four of us accounted for over 12,000 confirmed kills, and we had to stop shooting early because we ran out of ammunition, not targets.

Have you ever hunted squirrels, either on the back 40 for dinner or a varmint erridaction hunt for wildlife? What your favorite squirrel gun? Share your answers in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (11)

  1. Fun times. For the guy asking about timing…. male RGSs can be out as early as mid Feb but wait till early summer when all the kids come out but BEFORE the grass gets too long in late june.
    Thanks Ed for all the articles, i have catching up to do.

  2. Sounds like a great day of shooting those nasty yard destroyers. They are destroying my yard no matter how many I dispatch. Great read..

  3. I don’t usually reply to comments but have made an exception here. To Bearchick, Ground Squirrels, Gophers or whatever your burrowing varmint of choice is are responsible for many millions of dollars of damage every year and their reduction by firearm is the most environmentally safe method of eradication available so make a farmer, rancher or landowner a friend by offering your services. In the old days they would even supply your ammo. To Phil Fan, the time of year depends on the latitude and longitude but basically early spring before the grass gets too high in your area is best. To Tom, you guys should really read these articles because most questions are answered if you do. The area described in the piece was, as mentioned, in Alberta Canada close enough to the boarder to see Glacier National Park. As for outfitters, an internet search will turn up lots of them in the states and in Canada as well. I hope this helps.

  4. BEARCHICK’s comment points up the utter worthlessness of the “environmental” movement for animal control. “Balance of nature” state game biologists ignore the fact that human settlement makes their goal impossible. Therefore, states have a choice: Tolerate trash species or cut their numbers. It boils down to taxpayer tolerance for “bunny-huggers” in media and government.

  5. Where is this little piece of heaven? Outfitter’s name? Contact info? My 3 buddies and I go from Western Washington to Cut Bank MT. every year for gophers, but bad weather and fancy shooting has just about cleaned them out. Looking for (pun intended) greener pastures.

  6. Growing up in Yuma, Arizona, my best friends dad owned a tire store on the outskirts of town, right next to huge alfalfa field, where the harvested alfalfa bales were stacked in long rows. Every Saturday morning we would ride with his dad and our Remington 22 single shot bolt-action rifles to the tire store, make our way to the rows of alfalfa bales, climb up to the top and rearrange the bales to create shooting ports for us – and wait for the jackrabbits to come and eat. No scopes, just iron sights and a ton of fun. When it was time to leave, we cleaned up our brass, put the bales back in place, guns in his dad’s truck and watched the buzzards come in for their banquet. We always told ourselves we were helping out the alfalfa grower by saving his crop from the literally hundreds of rabbits that would descend on it every Saturday morning. Loved that Remington single shot bolt-action 22lr with the pull-pin striker.

  7. I have been known to snipe at ground squirrels from a second-story balcony on my 5 acres with a Henry bolt-action .17HMR. Good Times!

  8. Personally I don’t like to kill wildlife unless it’s a nuisance such as varmints or an imminent danger. I’m currently pissed off at the gophers who, because of the rain we received lately in California decided to make a mess of my manicured front yard. This calls for WAR! Living in a residential area I can’t bring out my 22 or even a pellet gun. The field next to my home is full of both gopher and squirrel holes. The latter are the worst. My neighbor who lives on a cliff overlooking the ocean just lost most of his backyard that abuts the Pacific. It even washed away most of his seawall. The real culprits are the squirrel and gophers who make zillions of holes causing erosion and an auger effect from the deluge of rain. Our local city is currently spending millions of dollars to prevent the street fronting the Pacific from collapsing into the ocean by construction an enormous seawall. While taking my dogs for walks on any day you can see many many squirrels all over this area. Tourists and locals think they’re cute and feed them! They don’t think about the destruction they cause as they dart back into their holes. Every time we get a big storm we lose a substantial part of the cliffside including sidewalks etc. But the city does nothing to eradicate the problem using poison or whatever. Would love to see Mr. La Porta set up his varmint mobile and solve the problem once and for all!

  9. Gophers ? This is what a man who has hunted Africa calls fun shooting . OK then in Australia we can shoot big meeces , much easier good stuff Ed .

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