Varmint hunting (Deep South style)

The author was so enthralled with stories of varmint hunting when he was young that he resorted to shooting coots with a .257 Roberts — not realizing doing so was illegal.

Hey, this happened when I was young and dumb

I don’t know why we were never arrested.

Growing up in the Deep South years ago, if you liked to shoot, you had lots of opportunities. It was a more rural culture then, the city dwellers frequently being the first generation off the farm. Which meant the grandparents had property, and you could shoot then without worrying about nosy, complaining neighbors.

But as a Deep South lad, one eaten up with shooting — particularly rifles — I devoured every one of the “Big Three” outdoors magazines I could get my hands on. Back then, you read Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, and Field & Stream.

There was little pure shooting information in these mags — they were devoted to hunting and fishing. So you filtered through the mule deer; elk; caribou; trout fishing; and wing shooting quail, grouse and pheasant. And just about every issue, there was some sort of article on shooting varmints.

Now this was more like it — at least these guys described their rifles, cartridges and what they loaded most of the time.

And they made all these wondrous shots on groundhogs in the East and prairie dogs, jackrabbits and coyotes out West. This was wonderful, exciting reading about rifles and magically long-range shooting.

Unfortunately, for the rifle-obsessed lad in the Deep South, none of those critters existed.

Oh Lord, but I prayed for the opportunity to make just one successful prairie dog hunt. Or to get the chance to go up in the Eastern woods, and draw a bead with a .222 Remington on a big, fat groundhog.

But we didn’t have those things down here. So if you were obsessed with shooting rifles, you had to make do. Sometimes, those “make-dos” skirted the fine edge of lawful behavior. But what the heck: We were young, loved shooting rifles and needed targets.

In Louisiana, they are overrun with a particular type of amphibious turtle called a red-eared slider. Take a run down any still body of water, and see the logs covered with lazy, sunning turtles. Some of them reach impressive size.

You cannot imagine the fun of using a .22 semi-automatic rifle, running past a log in a boat, and emptying a magazine of .22 long rifle trying to hit just one turtle before they slipped off the log. Rarely did you hit anything, but it was great fun trying.

Later, as a young man getting into centerfire rifles and reloading, I was introduced to the .257 Roberts Improved.

Ned Roberts was a gun writer and wildcatter of cartridges in the early part of the 20th century, and spanned the years from the muzzleloader to the autoloader.

One of his most notable achievements was the development of the .257 Roberts cartridge. He necked down the immensely popular 7×57 Mauser cartridge to .257 caliber, and came up with a hot .25-caliber round that — like the still popular .25-06 — was both an excellent varmint cartridge and suitable for big game like whitetail deer and antelope with the proper bullet.

The cartridge lost its popularity when the .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington came on the scene, but for decades in the middle of the 20th century, it was one of the most-popular small centerfire cartridges.

“Improving” a cartridge generally means taking an established case and reforming it slightly to accept more powder, and gain velocity. It is rarely worth the trouble — but in the case of the .257 Roberts, you could “fire-form” the case by shooting standard .257 Roberts cartridges in a .257 Roberts Improved chamber, and the shoulder would blow out to meet the slightly lengthened chamber to allow more powder capacity.

With the .25 Roberts, you gained 100 to 300 feet per second — impressive velocity gains that improved the ballistic path, gave the bullet more down-range energy and made it hit harder.

Oh, boy, did it hit hard. Slinking around bayous on my cousins’ soybean operation in Southeastern Mississippi, I could get 200-yard shots on logs simply overladen with red-eared sliders.

The challenge was to find the perfect angle and make the perfect shot to clean every turtle off the log with one shot. If you achieved that perfect angle and hit the turtle at the end of the line just perfect, an entire log of turtles would explode in a red cloud of mist.

My all-time record was five turtles with one shot.

Down in Louisiana’s famous Atchafalaya Basin on one of my very rare duck hunts with a friend, we took a flat-bottomed john boat back up into the flooded woods.

We were legal — duck stamps, plugged shotguns, everything we needed — and we managed to find one lost, stupid duck that fell to our imprecise shotgunning skills.

Back at the levee, bored and about to leave, I pulled the .257 Roberts Improved out of the truck, took a sandbag rest over the rear wall of the bed and started shooting at the veritable rafts of coots (called “poule d’eau” in South Louisiana) swimming by the hundreds in masses around the woods.

If I hit them just right, like a submarine launching a torpedo and striking a ship at the waterline, the immense explosive pressure of the bullet striking where the duck met the water resulted in this absolutely wondrous explosion of blood, feathers and water, and a bare spot where the duck had been.

If I hit them a little high, we were treated to the hilarious (to us, at the time) sight of a half-duck floating on the water—no body, no head, just half a duck.

My friend, who was barely a duck hunter, let alone a rifleman, thoroughly enjoyed the entire ballistic demonstration of the explosive power of a .25-caliber spitzer bullet zipping along at nearly 3,000 feet per second.

We laughed about the coots all the way back home.

A day or two later, telling a good friend how the duck hunting expedition turned out, a strange look crossed his face and he made a sound somewhere between a curse and a strangled, choking sound.

“You’re an idiot, you know that?”

I must have looked totally clueless — which I was — when he started laughing.

“You do realize you were shooting migratory waterfowl with a rifle, right? You do realize that is a FEDERAL wildlife violation, don’t you?”

Shaking his head, he said “It’s a wonder the both of you aren’t in jail.”

I learned early on in my shooting career the true meaning of the old saw: “Ignorance is bliss.”

Of course, I did get caught one time. I had discovered a buzzard roost across an open cypress swamp. If you got down on the edge early in the morning, there were buzzards on dead cypress snags out to 250 yards, stacked up like black blobs on the limbs.

If you started on the bottom limbs, you could pick off as many as three before the reverberating boom of my incredibly accurate 7mm Remington Magnum made them take flight.

Of course, if you shot one on a top limb, it fell past the others, and all your targets flew away.

I was happily plucking buzzards off limbs one morning with a friend who had driven up with me, and who had expressed some concern over shooting buzzards.

“Not sure this is legal,” he commented, nervously.

“Legal!” I sneered knowingly. “It’s not illegal to shoot a buzzard!”

I remembered from my boyhood days when they were declared a hazard, supposedly transmitting hog cholera. I never could figure out just how the hogs were supposed to catch cholera from a buzzard, but I loved shooting at them just the same.

Up drives the local game warden, drawn by the very offseason sound of a high-powered rifle.

“What in the world are you guys doing?” he asked. “Sounds like a young war over here.”

“Hey, Mike,” I called merrily, looking back at him from the Monte Carlo stock of my lovely wood-stocked British-made Parker-Hale rifle. “We’re shooting buzzards! Come on over.”

Mike had stepped out of his Mississippi game warden’s truck and was walking up to us, when a disturbed buzzard came over the treetops from behind and flew right over our heads, going away.

Mike the game warden instantly snatched my Ruger 10-.22 rifle, fully loaded, and emptied the 10-shot rotary magazine at the departing buzzard, never cutting a feather.

“Shoot,” he intoned, disgusted at missing such an easy target.

My buddy Paul, in a quizzical voice, said, “Gosh, I just really thought it was illegal to shoot buzzards.”

Mike actually looked down and toed the dust with his boots when he said, ‘Oh, hell, it is. And there’s a season on crows, unless they’re depredating crops. But, like my boss tells us, every morning when that SOB wakes up, he’s going out looking for a crop to depredate, so don’t arrest nobody for killin’ no crows.”

“Besides,” he said, as I stood there in open, gate-mouthed wonderment at what I had just done and said, “a man’s got to shoot at something.”

Like I said, it’s amazing we were never arrested, if for no other charge than simple aggravated ignorance.

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