Recently, Katy and I were running to buy a pair of boots and then I was going to take her out to dinner. I was thinking about how magical Idaho is in the spring (I know, I know, I say that every spring).
Suddenly, I was singing: “It’s the most wonderful ti-i-ime of the year. There’ll be whistle pigs flipping, the crappie will be nipping, the mushrooms will be growing and the turks will be crowing, it’s the most wonderful ti-i-ime of the year!!!!!”
OK, I’m not a songwriter but springtime is magical in Idaho and less we get tied up mushroom hunting, turkey hunting, bear hunting and crappie fishing don’t forget — whistle pig hunting. It’s one of the highlights of the year. It provides for high-speed shooting and is a great hunt to break kids in on.
There are plenty of them and they are in no danger of being over hunted. They’ve been shot for centuries and are doing fine. In fact, if they are thinned out, they’ll do better because the plague won’t run through their colonies as fast and wipe them out. Farmers will gladly welcome you because they devastate crops. They can wipe out a field of alfalfa in a short amount of time.
So, what is a whistle pig? They are a unique animal. Their official name is Townsend ground squirrel. The subspecies south of us are the Urocitellus Townsendii Idahoensis. They emerge and mate in January/February. Although everyone thinks of them as appearing in mid-April, I’ve had good hunts in early March, according to the weather. But when it gets warm, they are out in full force.
Gestation is only 24 days and they’ll have six to 10 young in April. Their eyes open in 19 to 22 days and are weaned muy pronto. This seems to be their system to me. As stated above, they come out in late January/February and go on a breeding frenzy. Then they go on a feeding frenzy until the end of May/June when it gets hot and the grass dries up. Then they go back underground and that’s the last that you see of them for the year.
Some people think that they go underground and eat plant roots for the next seven to eight months. Some people think that they hibernate. What they actually do is called “estivation.” Sort of a summer hibernation.
You may be fooled into thinking that they are cute little furry creatures but make no mistake, they are a prairie rat. Adult squirrels have been known to cannibalize unweaned young. And while hunting you’ll frequently see them run out and eat their fallen comrades.
Enough of the scientific angle. What will you need to hunt them? Some people use a .223 but most people use the lowly .22. Most shots will be within 100 yards so a .22 is the perfect gun. And the Ruger 10/22 is the most popular model. Since they are small, you’ll need to use a scope. I put a Riton Optics 4-16x on my 10/22 and a Timney Trigger and a Boyds’ Stock to make it super classy. But the .17 HMR is also a popular rifle. It is faster, has better results and reaches out a little further.
But the last 10 years I’ve mostly been using airguns. They’re a lot cheaper to shoot and with ammo being so scarce airguns might be the only option for you. Plus, since they’re quieter they pop back up faster.
I’ve been using the Umarex .25-caliber Gauntlet and the .22-caliber Synergis. They are both super-good choices in the airgun realm. For pellets use JSB Dome pellets if you want supreme accuracy. But JSB just came out with a pellet named the Knockout pellet that looks like a good hunting option. I went out shooting yesterday but the wind was blowing so bad that I can’t testify one way or another as to their accuracy. You’ll also want a good pair of binoculars to find the little elusive creatures. I use a pair of Riton Optics 10×42 binoculars.
I think that the high deserts are beautiful in their own forlorn way. Hunting whistle pigs gives you a good excuse to go out and see them. Plus, there will be unique wildlife viewing opportunities. You’ll see badgers, which I think are beautiful (but the kings of bad attitudes). Once I shot a whistle pig and suddenly a badger ran out, grabbed it and ran back to his hole. Another time my old buddy Roy Snethen shot one. He flipped twice and I said “You got him!” Suddenly a hawk swept down and grabbed him and I said “You had him!”
So, before they go underground for the year you better grab a kid and run out and have some fun!
Tom Claycomb lives in Idaho and has outdoors columns in newspapers in Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Louisiana. He also writes for various outdoors magazines and teaches outdoors seminars at stores like Cabela’s, Sportsman’s Warehouse and Bass Pro Shop. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.