Ground Hog Day, 1977 - It's been so cold across the Blue Ridge that farmers swear cow's milk freezes between the teat and the pail. But in all the controversy that surrounds the groundhogs around here, nobody - not even those wedded to woolly worm forecasting - believes that the varmint and his shadow have anything to do with the weather.
W. J. Hawk of Jefferson County, Tenn., a gun leader in this self-proclaimed capital of Tennessee groundhog hunting, was all "het up" about fuss over that Punxsutawney groundhog in Pennsylvania."I heard it all morning on the radio coming back from making a deal on some shells in Johnson City. I'm for whatever makes people happy, but that stuff about the groundhog and his shadow is all bull. It's just a damned varmint that digs holes for cows to fall in and to break tractor axles. Huntin' the damn things is a sport only from a distance and there ain't even no trophies for that."
Farmers and hunters from Rabun Gap, Ga., to Fancy Gap, Va., seemed agreed that Marmota Monar , fancy words for an overgrown rodent that locals call a "whistle pig," is mainly a pest to be hunted and eaten only as an act of vengeance. Though there are many prescribed ways to hunt it and cook it, even the most avid groundhog lovers admit when pressed that hunting the varmint is best left to dogs and the best recipe is to feed it to the dogs.
Groundhog hunter Sam Venable, outdoor editor of The Knoxville News Sentinel, says the sport is "better than stomping pigeons," but even he admits that shooting one is "calculated murder." Eating the varmint is more of a problem.
Jim Dykes, a native of Townsend, Tenn., who admits to having eaten a dog more than once, insists that groundhogs can with effort be made edible. "Back where I come from in the Smokies, which is so far back that we had to keep our own tomcat, it was a delicacy. It's not really as stringy as possum, and if you soak it overnight for a day or two in salt water, take the ribs and back meat and filet them in good clear bear grease, put them in a wood stove oven that's biscuit warm and cook it for a half day, it's damn good eating."
Carl Salmons, a dairy farmer near Hillsville, Va., claims that "not even a self-respecting buzzard would eat one. I may be wrong on this but I don't think I've ever seen maggots completely eat one of the things." Salmons says the holes the groundhogs dig and the mounds they build are death on farm equipment and sure-fire traps for broken cattle legs. "A whole den of them will mole an alfalfa field like a lawnmower," he says.
Wiping out groundhogs is impossible, W. J. Hawk allows. "I worked on one that was eating a woman's garden for a year one time," he says. "I tried to shoot it and couldn't and then I poured five gallons of gas in the hole and lit it. The whole damned world shook but I still didn't get him."
Hawk believes groundhogs are "uglier than sin - a reduced mastodon that survived the ice age." The ugliest one he ever saw - weighing about 30 pounds - was carried into his gun shop a couple years back. "This rascal's two front buck teeth had growed down, turned around, and went back up to where they hit him in the nose everytime he took a bite. It was the damnedest thing I ever saw."
Hunters disagrees on exactly the best guns to use on a groundhog, and that debate is half of the fun of the sport - about "35 per cent" one said. Frank Kilgore of Honeybranch, Va., recommends a .22 rifle "with a hollow point short shell." W. J. Hawk believes the best result are achieved at least 150 yards away with a .22-250 caliber rifle and a 16-power scope. "The reason for this gun is that they are more accurate and the bullet will not ricochet and kill the farmer's cow, his hired hand or the farmer."
Hunting a groundhog up close with a .22 Kilgore insists, requires more stealth because the animal is very watchful, "always raising up to see if anybody is coming, and whistling (thus whistle pig) to warn the whole den."
Kilgore maintains strick self-discipline on his groundhog hunting. He claims he always eats them, "even those I pick up that have been run over on the roads." The only groundhog he can remember that left a really bad taste in his mouth was this pet groundhog that wandered over our place from over at Whestone. We kept him for a couple of days trying to get the owner to take him back. He said he wouldn't because it had tore his house up real bad. Then the thing ate our telephone cord in two and we put him in the pot. But it was old or hadn't been eatin' right or something. It had a lot of old yeller fat on it and was real stringy."
The Foxfire students at Rabun Gap, Ga., whose books on mountain folk ways are to print and hillbillies what "Roots" is to television and blacks, agree that Dykes' recipe of a lot of black pepper and "parboiling in spicewood twigs" is the best way to cook groundhogs. "All the spicing," says one veteran eater, "is to keep down the smell."
Several people said groundhog hide was useless except for bootstring and only then after soaking in ashes or lye to remove the fur. There may be other uses, Kilgore says, but as far as mountain folks are concerned, "when we want to know what the weather is going to be, we read the paper."