An In-Between Seasons Alternative
By Tim Barker
What’s the avid hunter to do when deer season is over and spring’s turkey season is weeks or months into the future? The answer to this question may vary, depending on what part of the country the hunter calls home.
For those looking to fend off boredom or keep their skills sharpened, there is an in-between-seasons alternative known as varmint hunting. Popular prey options include coyotes, foxes, feral hogs and prairie dogs.
“It’s something to do during the off season and when fishing isn’t any good,” shared Ronnie Groom, the longtime owner of C&G Sporting Goods in Panama City, Fla.
But more than that, these nuisance animals represent several opportunities for hunters. Chief among them is the chance to essentially preserve the strength of those other hunting seasons, he said. Hogs and coyotes, if unchecked, can do severe damage to local populations of deer, turkey and rabbits.
Varmint hunting also offers a convenient opportunity to introduce young people to the sport — particularly in locales where prairie dogs plague local farmers and ranchers.
Hunting trips organized around the small creatures tend to be more social affairs, where concealment, patience and the need to be quiet aren’t critical elements. These are also the types of hunts where kids and other inexperienced hunters are pretty much guaranteed some success, said A.J. Hoffman, co-owner of SoDak Sports in Aberdeen, S.D.
“Let’s face it: The prairie dogs are out there waiting for you,” said Hoffman, whose stores (they also have a location in Mitchell, S.D.) carry a strong selection of youth-oriented hunting rifles.
Still, you don’t necessarily need easy targets. Kids might also enjoy some of the more difficult hunts, including feral hogs and coyotes. They just need to be old enough to possess the discipline needed to settle in for some of the long waits, said Groom.
“You have to use patience with kids,” he added. “And if they get tired, it’s time to give it up and go do something else.”
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“It’s not a big department, but it’s a good department,” Groom said of his varmint-hunting sales.
Groom has owned the Panama City shop for nearly four decades. He’s also a lifelong hunter who occasionally finds himself with a varmint in his sights. Groom doesn’t go out looking for them, but he carries along a varmint mouth call while stalking deer, just in case.
“If I’m in a deer stand and a coyote comes by — he’s gone,” Groom stated.
One of the challenges for other shops looking to get into the varmint business is figuring out exactly what it is local hunters are stalking — and what they’re doing it with.
Understand it’s heavily dependent on the part of the country (and even your state) you live in. What works for a shop in the Florida Panhandle might not for a store in the middle of Idaho, Groom relayed.
Groom suggested dealers should talk to varmint hunters to figure out what they need, as well as local sales reps for various manufacturers, to get a handle on what’s selling in the area.
In the Florida Panhandle, most varmint hunting revolves around coyotes, foxes and feral hogs. Unlike out west, Florida hunters tend to deal with a lot of undergrowth and low visibility. It’s rare a hunter takes a shot further out than 100 yards.
“It’s pretty hard to find an open place out here,” Groom acknowledged. “The animals can get up to you without you seeing them. You almost have to shoot them on the road, on private property.”
Things are decidedly different out in South Dakota, with its wide-open spaces. Hunters there are after coyotes as well, but they also have the prairie dogs.
“Prairie dog fields get big. There are thousands and thousands of prairie dogs out there,” said Hoffman at SoDak Sports. “There’s a sport to it. And they’re a nuisance.”
And because of topography, it’s not uncommon for hunters to take game out to 300 or 400 yards. This is one of the reasons SoDak carries a wide range of optics, including pricier options from makers like Leupold and Vortex.
“Our theory is that you should spend more on the optic than the gun,” Hoffman added.
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Ronnie Groom, longtime owner of C&G Sporting Goods, says while varmint hunting isn’t a “big” department,
it’s certainly a “good” one for his store. Groom recommends talking to local varmint hunters and sales
reps to stay on top of the varmint hunting trends in your area.
As for the guns, varmint hunters generally choose either a bolt-action rifle or something in the MSR platform. Popular brands at the store include Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Rock River and a local maker, Alex Pro Firearms.
Top calibers for coyote hunters include .223 and .22-250, while .17 HMR (Hornady 17 V-Max is a favorite) is also popular with prairie dog hunters. The important thing is to be able to offer a strong inventory.
“It’s definitely a quantity sport,” Hoffman noted. “Guys will buy most anything they can get a decent price on. The key is being able to buy it in 1,000-round quantities.”
Back in Florida, Groom said hunters sometimes supplement their MSRs and bolt-action rifles with shotguns in 12- and 20-gauges — for those close shots they often find themselves facing. Top brands include Remington, Browning and Savage.
For hogs, the popular calibers include .30-06 and .270 Win. But the one growing in popularity is the 6.5 Creedmoor. “It’s the hottest thing going right now,” Groom shared. “It was originally designed as a target gun, but it turned out to be a great hunting rifle.”
Both stores also stock a range of camo gear for hunters — particularly for those hunting sharp-eyed coyotes.
“You need something to cover your face and everything else,” Groom noted.
But perhaps the best advancement for varmint hunting in recent years is in the area of calls, particularly the electronic models offered by companies like Primos and FOXPRO.
SoDak Sports carries six different models of the FOXPRO as well as the Primos Alpha Dogg. These electronic calls offer many advantages, including 200-yard remotes and dozens of sounds. But the store also offers old-school options, including the Tally Ho, a single-reed mouth call made locally.
“I think everyone starts with the mouth calls and works their way up from there,” Hoffman said.
By offering a healthy staple of varmint hunting products, you’ll keep your out-of-season hunters coming in your store. And it will give them an opportunity to scope out any new items you have in stock, which wouldn’t be half bad either.