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NIGHT HUNTING FOR VARMINTS
An enlightening experience.
by John St.Clair

 
It was a dark night. Above in the moonless sky, millions of stars shown down on the dry cactus and Mesquite of west Texas with a brilliance I had forgotten from boyhood. The only sound was the cold  north wind moaning across the plains. On a distant highway I could see the glow of a car's headlights as it sped through the night. My cold fingers felt the comforting grip of my Remington 700. The laminated stock was warm while the blued steel of the .223 bull-barreled varmint rifle intensified the cold slowly creeping through my hand. My trigger finger twitched slightly as it rested alongside the trigger guard. Through the Simmons 6.5 - 20  scope I could see only blackness.

Suddenly, a tortured scream ripped the night air. The sound of an animal in agony broke forth from just behind me, sending a different kind of chill down my spine. Again, Doug blew on the Burnham Brothers "Mini-Blaster" predator call, sending a high-pitched, pleading scream echoing into the night. He paused long enough to sweep the area with a red-lensed spotlight. About 200 yards away, two sets of greenish eyes reflected in the light. Two deer, a doe and another that might have been a small buck, grazed in the dry grass, oblivious to this nerve-wracking sound. 


Photo courtesy Burnham Brothers, Menard, TX (Copyright)
Doug continued to call into the night, sweeping the light in a circle around us. We were standing in the back of his Chevy pick-up. A steel-tube frame wrapped in foam pipe insulation provided a rest at chest height for the heavy rifle.

Suddenly, the light stopped in mid-sweep and locked on a set of close-set, orange eyes as they burned out of  the night. Doug touched my shoulder to make sure I had spotted them. I nodded and changed position slightly to get behind the optics. Through the scope I could see disembodied eyes staring back at me through the Mesquite. The eyes began to move slowly to the right, gradually coming nearer. The brush and Mesquite blocked a clear view and any chance of a shot at the animal. Doug kept up the calls and tracked the animal in the halo of the light, careful not to shine it directly into it's eyes. The animal had now gotten downwind of us and it seemed unlikely we would be able to bring it out into the open for a shot.

Fortunately, this varmint must have been hungry. His stomach getting the better of his instincts, he made up his mind and came almost directly toward us and out of the cover of the brush. He stopped, broadside, about 60 yards away, highlighted by the red light now pointed squarely at him. "Take him!" whispered Doug. I placed the cross-hairs of the scope on his shoulder and touched the trigger. The Remington spoke in a much louder voice than had Doug. Just as I lost sight-picture I saw a blur of gray as the foxes senses finally convinced him that something was wrong and he bolted. The Starke 55 grain, hollow-point bullet met only empty night air as it impacted just beyond where the fox had stood.

"Doc" the third member of our party was sitting in the warmth of the truck and Doug reassured me that Doc was quite familiar with the feeling of having missed at such short range. This of course started a round of friendly banter common between good friends and hunting rivals.


 RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

First of all, let me assure you, spotlighting on private land (with the owners permission) in Texas is legal. This does not include county roads and highways. Nor does it include game animals such as Deer. Non-game animals such as Rabbits, Fox, Coyote, etc. are legal. For specific details, consult the Texas hunting and fishing guide available at any sporting goods outlet. You must have a Texas hunting license even for non-game animals.  Now that we have that out of the way...

Hunting predators at night is one of the most exciting and challenging types of hunting. Seeing a set of glowing eyes approaching out of the dark and not knowing for sure what they belong to is, to put it mildly, a bit unnerving and exciting at the same time. This was my first attempt at spotlighting combined with calling. I had spotlighted Cottontails and Jack rabbits before but never had I gone out with the intention of calling a predator in on my position. I appreciated the fact we were up several feet off the ground. The idea of  Mr. Bobcat hopping into the truck for a visit was disturbing to say the least, much less having one crawl into your lap while sitting on the ground. There were plenty of other critters out and about that night. Deer, Possum, Skunk, etc. We saw more bunnies than you could "shake a stick at". But, we were out for Fox and, as Doug said, it was a good night to be a rabbit.


EQUIPMENT

Aside from a gun, the primary tool of a night varmint hunter is the spotlight, some of which can put out as much as 1,000,000 candle-power of glaring, white light. That is a lot of light, 200,000 candle-power is plenty. The idea is not to turn night into day. All you need to do is highlight the animals' eyes. A white light is fine for spotting bunnies but for predators, a red lens is preferable. Snap-on lenses are available at most sporting goods stores. Most lenses leave gaps on the edge that spill white light out the sides. The spillage of white light is a bad thing as it fouls up your night vision and lights you up as well. However, it is necessary so the spotlight doesn't overheat and melt the lens. To remedy this you can put a cowling on the light so the lens is recessed. This allows the cooling vents to remain open but keeps the white light contained. Modifying one of the wife's black, plastic flowerpots works great.

Spotlights are commonly powered by clipping the leads directly to a vehicle's 12-volt battery or plugging it into the cigarette lighter. Re-chargeable lights are also available. Be sure to test the light before you go into the field. I have seen poorly wired leads melt down or fuses blow due to the power these lights can pull. This will ruin your hunt and for me a "kitchen pass" from the wife timed with good weather is sometimes hard to come by. Carry a backup light or a replacement bulb also (Doug says he carries five lights in the truck.).

Another type of spotlight mounts directly to your rifle. With the sport of varmint hunting growing by leaps and bounds several have appeared on the market. Some mount on the scope and others can be affixed to the rifle itself. Initially, the thought of mounting a spotlight on my rifle scope turned me completely off. I don't even pick my rifle up by the scope much less mount some big bulky spotlight on it. But, if you are hunting alone, holding a spotlight in one hand and trying to aim your rifle with the other is a bit awkward. I solved this problem with a visit to Burnham Brothers in Menard, Texas. They have a couple types of lights available that work quite well and are light  enough (no pun intended) not to damage your scope .

One is a 12-volt, 100,000 candle-power light that weighs only one pound and is powered by your vehicles 12 volt battery. A rechargeable battery pack is also available. It is currently it is priced at $49.95. Another model has 50,000 candle-power and sells for $34.95. Red, blue and yellow lenses are available for each model.
 
 
 
 


Still another light system available from Burnham Brothers is the "SL-18". This light is much smaller and snaps easily onto any 1-inch scope. Powered by two 9 volt batteries contained internally, it has  a silent on-off switch attached to the forearm of the rifle by an elastic band. It comes with an orange lens installed in the housing. The unit sells for $34.95. (Note the switch on the left, front of the stock.)



One that I came up with is shown here. Intended to be cheaper, it wound up costing about the same as the Burnham Brothers units. When my son received a "Maglite" flashlight for Christmas, I just had to have one also. Then Doug contacted me and asked if I would like to go night hunting and I had the excuse I needed to purchase one. The model I selected uses two D-cell batteries and cost $15.95. I purchased an accessory kit ($6.95) with red, blue and orange lenses and a snap-clip for mounting the light in a vehicle. I had some Weaver tip-off mounts for a 1-inch scope lying around and I hit on the idea of attaching the Maglite to the heavy barrel of my Remington 700 BDL/VLS. I purchased a Weaver scope ring base for a Ruger 10-22 ($5.17) and attached the rings to it. I then attached the snap-clip to the base. The rings were for a 1-inch scope and the barrel of my rifle was just a little smaller than that. I went to the local home improvement outlet and found what I was looking for. In the plumbing section they had clear rubber tubing of almost any thickness imaginable. The tubing created a shim to bring my barrel up to the desired thickness, provided protection for the barrels finish and added some shock-proofing for the flashlight. What I like about this rig is the Maglite's beam can be focused. I can remove the mount quickly with an Allan wrench, or if I need to use the flashlight for something else, I can just pull it out of the snap-clip and replace it again quickly.

SAFETY

An important consideration for night-hunting with a rifle-mounted light is you will be pointing a loaded weapon at an unknown creature in the dark. Positive control of the safety mechanism and keeping your finger away from that trigger is of paramount importance in this situation! Visually identify your target before taking the safety off or placing your finger near that trigger!

You need to be completely aware of the surrounding area you will be shooting in. During the daytime you can see your backdrop or what lies beyond the target. At night, this is normally not the case. If the land has livestock on it, this increases the need for caution. Shooting the owners cattle is not a good way to get a return invite. A stray bullet passing through his or her bedroom in the middle of the night can create a stir as well.

Another safety concern is safe gun handling. Driving around while someone stands up with a loaded gun in the back of a truck on bumpy terrain is downright dangerous. You should always hunt with a buddy in this type of scenario. If two or more persons are present, have one hold the weapons while the other(s) climb in or out of the vehicle. As you will be handing a weapon up or down to a person ensure positive control of the muzzle, keeping it pointed in a safe direction at all times. Do not extend a weapon to someone with the muzzle pointed at them or yourself and of course you should never chamber a round until you get into shooting position.


TARGET RECOGNITION

Different animals eyes reflect different colors in a spotlight.  Fox have close-set, amber colored eyes. Some cattle also have amber colored eyes that are set farther apart. Whitetail deer have greenish-blue eyes and some animals have reddish colored eyes. This is not an accurate method of identification. ALWAYS visually identify your target. (Okay, okay, no more safety lectures...)


(Cover picture copyrighted. Used by special permission from The VARMINT HUNTER Magazine, Pierre, SD 57501.)

As you look at the animal through the scope, watch the movement of the eyes. Obviously the direction they move will tell you where the animal is going, but the way they move is noteworthy. If it is a slow drift, he is stalking you. When he starts to trot or run the eyes will bounce up and down. But remember, as long as you can see those eyes, he is facing towards you. At one point we saw three sets of eyes watching us from beyond the brush line, all in the same general direction, downwind of course...

Doug was driving... he was also swinging the spotlight from side to side, probing the darkness for eyes and shapes. Occasionally the beam, now a glaring white without the red lens, would brush across a shape darting amongst the Prickly Pear and Mesquite. Most were Jackrabbits, some were Cottontails, racing away from the pickup as it growled along the dirt road, slinging dust into the night air. As the beam swept across a denser portion of trees Doc hollered for us to stop. "What was that?" asked Doc.  "What was what?" I asked. Doug backed up and brought the truck to a stop. Bedded down in the trees was a Deer, a Whitetail Buck. Still young but with a strange, twisted rack on his head. Somehow he had managed to break off many of the spikes on his crown.

We continued on down the winding road as Doug swept the beam back and forth. Suddenly he slammed on the breaks and swung the light towards the rear of the truck, lighting up a Gray Fox. The Fox was sitting near the road, calm as can be, just watching us drive by. Bad choice on the Fox's part. I don't know if the Fox realized his mistake, recognized Doug from the posters in the Fox post-office or just plain took off instinctively. He leapt up and started running parallel to the road, another bad choice. Little did he realize that Doug was already pushing the barrel of his Remington "Seventeen" out the window of the truck. Doug gave a little squeak with his lips and the Fox made his final mistake, he stopped to see what was making that noise. The last noise he heard was the sound of Remington's bark. The round caught him broadside, directly behind the right shoulder. A perfect shot. Doc remarked that it was to bad Doug had "Gut-shot that one". And another round of banter ensued as I looked on, grateful that Doug was the target of Doc's wit and not me. My self-confidence was now at a new low. Somewhere back along the road I had not only missed another Fox but a bunny as well. (That's all I have to say about that...)

There are many types of calls on the market today by a variety of companies. Mouth-blown, tapes, electronic, etc. Many of these are very effective and it comes down to a "Ford vs Chevy" type of situation to state a preference. But I will say this, I prefer the mouth-blown type. It gives me a thrill to to "speak the language" of the animals. I feel I have better command of the situation being able to change sounds, volume, intensity, etc. without having to fumble with the buttons and knobs on a mechanical device. If a target seems a bit hesitant to come in, it's easy to increase the level of pleading in the call or change to a sound that may be more tempting, such as a squeak. This will sometimes help a reluctant varmint make the wrong decision.

Be aware this type of hunting is very addictive! Even though there are many other topics that I would like to cover in this article I will leave some things for you to discover on your own so as not to spoil all the fun and surprises for you!

Shoot straight, good luck, be safe...



Burnham Brothers
Varmint Hunters Association

NIGHT HUNTING PART II - TACTICS FOR THE BEGINNER


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 [ Main Forums ] [ Tech Section ] [AR-15 Tech Section] [ FAQ ]
[ Sponsors - Accessories, Reloading, Optics etc ] [ Classified Ads ]
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