The woodchucks were fat and saucy, and you would understand why if you had seen the devastation they wrought on our alfalfa fields and gardens. I called them woodchucks because that’s what Ernest Thompson Seton called them in his monumental book, Lives of Game Animals. Most folks I knew called them groundhogs; some even called them “whistle pigs.” Be that as it may, one thing everyone called them in unison was a “damned nuisance.” Dad said they just had to go. I volunteered for the job.
I had been a woodchuck hunter since I was 9 years old, when I got my first big chuck with a BB gun. No, I didn’t shoot him, although I tried. Darned BBs just bounced off his tough skin, and that was long before Kevlar. In an effort to get to his burrow, the woodchuck ran toward me. Convinced I was being charged, I grasped my trusty Daisy BB gun by the barrel and clobbered the chuck with the stock when he got within range. The barrel was badly bent and I never hit anything with that gun after that, but I certainly laid that woodchuck low.
Dad agreed with me that I was definitely under-gunned and, despite Mom’s apprehension, he decided it was time for me to get a real gun. Besides, I was 11 years old, almost grown up. Dad didn’t even have to ponder on what gun I should get, because I already had a blued-steel beauty picked out.
Whenever we drove into town to get groceries or feed for our farm animals, I always ended up on Water Street, looking in the huge plate glass windows of Widenor’s Hardware Store. Other kids may have plastered their noses against a candy store window; mine was bent against Widenor’s.
There, in all its glory, nestled in among boxes of shot shells, duck decoys, hunting vests and other sundry articles, was my heart’s desire, an Iver Johnson Champion single-barrel, full-choke, 12-gauge shotgun with an automatic ejector. No diamond nestled in velvet in the Tiffany’s window in New York City would ever have as much appeal.
The price tag, by today’s standards, was unbelievably low, but in those Depression days of 1937, $9.59 was a princely sum (about $157 today). Having saved gift money and money from doing my chores, I had almost $6. Dad offered to stake me for the rest, including a box of 25 low brass no. 6 shells that sold for an additional 61 cents. Dad offered a bounty of 10 cents per chuck. While he would have taken my word for the number I shot, I wanted to present him with the proof of my prowess, so I always carried my quarry back to the house.
I was the woodchuck’s nemesis. Even if they didn’t realize it at that time, they would in short order. I hunted woodchucks every waking moment that I could spare, and I dreamed of hunting woodchucks when I slept at night. Although I was actually hunting woodchucks, at times I was a mountain man hunting Indians. Or I was an Indian hunting mountain men. I always wanted to be one or the other. At times I was hunting bears, although they still looked like woodchucks after I shot them. It’s probably just as well; I couldn’t have carried a bear back to the house anyway.
I have always been an avid reader and have read every book on or about Indians that I could get my hands on. Using a shotgun meant that I had to get within 100 feet to shoot a groundhog. That meant I had to use every bit of stalking, skulking and stealth skills I had learned from reading about the Indians.
I imagined myself to be wraith-like as I sneaked down the brush row, trying to get close enough to a chuck to do it in. The woodchucks that had their burrows in the center of the fields did the most damage. They also lived longer, because I couldn’t reach them from the fencerows with the no. 6 shells. So, I developed another technique for them.
I would stroll nonchalantly past them, as if I had no interest in them at all. When they dove for the safety of their underground burrows, I would hurriedly sneak to within 50 feet or so and lie down, hiding myself in the growing alfalfa. I was never saintly, but I had the patience that saints are supposed to have. Sooner or later, and it was usually much later, Mr. or Mrs. Woodchuck would emerge from the den to stand erect on his or her observation mound to look about. That’s when I would pop him or her. I hunted woodchucks so constantly, so consistently, that the few survivors became strictly nocturnal.
I remember one good week when I shot 13 woodchucks. As I said, I carried the chucks in to prove to Dad that he was getting his money’s worth, and that the amount of hay we would harvest would be substantially larger. After showing the woodchucks to Dad, I threw the carcasses upon the manure wagon to be hauled back out to the fields as fertilizer. Nothing wrong with that – except it was August. August in New Jersey is usually stinking hot (no pun intended) and accompanied by very high humidity.
While some of the bigger farms had manure spreaders, ours didn’t. We had a horse-drawn manure wagon. The difference being that the manure spreader mechanically emptied itself and had paddles that spread the manure evenly. We had a manure wagon that I emptied manually. By turning the fork as I threw each forkful, I tried to spread it evenly. In the winter, when all of the cows and horses were kept in the barn, we usually had a load of manure every day, which we hauled out and spread every day, until the snow got too deep. Then we piled it into a heap and moved it out in the spring. But this was August. As the cows were brought into the barn just for milking and the horses were fed in the pasture, it usually took a week to get a load of manure. So we only emptied the wagon once a week.
Meanwhile, my woodchuck control program was in high gear and I was throwing two to three woodchucks onto the wagon each day. There those woodchucks lay in the August sun and heat. I knew nothing about physics or the production and expansion of gases. I do know that after three or four days in the August sun, some of those woodchucks expanded large enough to look like the bears I pretended to be hunting. They became quite odorous too.
Although the wagon was kept about 300 feet from the house, Mom finally got wind of what was going on and said the wagon had to be taken out to the back field and emptied whether it was full or not.
My Uncle Jim was working for us at the time. While all of the other men in my family were big, Uncle Jim was not. He took after his diminutive mother, whose family name just happened to be Sparrow.
We drove the wagon and its odoriferous contents out to the field and began to unload it, using five-tined manure forks. I was throwing to the right and Uncle Jim was throwing to the left. Soon he was throwing up. Whereas I was pushing my fork under the bloated carcasses, Uncle Jim ran his fork through their middles. With a loud pop, the entrapped stomach gases escaped with a hissing and gurgling that would have done credit to a ruptured steam pipe. The vapors that permeated the air, while not as lethal as a mustard gas attack, were every bit as debilitating. Uncle Jim choked, he gagged, he retched, he sagged and he stumbled down off the back of the wagon and staggered off for about a hundred feet before dropping down to all fours and heaving. Uncle Jim was not physically strong and neither was his constitution. As the culprit who had inadvertently brought this situation into being, I had to unload the rest of the wagon by myself.
All education is gained at a price. That was the last time I carried the dead woodchucks back to the house for proof. From that time on, I merely scalped my quarry and presented their tails for the bounty. FC
Leonard Lee Rue III is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and author of some 30 books, including The Deer of North America and The Encyclopedia of Deer.