Saturday, May 14, 2016

WI: Recond Rat Hunt in Wisconsin in 1957

Image of rattus norvegicus from youtube

A close friend and mentor revealed details of a world record rat hunt that he accomplished in 1957.  It was casually mentioned, but as I showed interest, the details were clear and extraordinary.  In the 1950's, dumps were unregulated in Wisconsin.  It wasn't until the 1970's that sanitary regulations and increased affluence led to the end of dumps as breeding grounds for rats and other vermin.  Hunting rats at dumps was a common pastime.  I shot rats at dumps into the early 1970's. It helped keep the rat population down and increased hunting and shooting skills.  My friend, as with many young men of the period, was an avid rat hunter.

My friend approached rat hunting with his usual rigor and intellect, determining how to obtain maximum returns for his effort.  This lead to hunting rats at night with a headlight powered by a six volt Ray O Vac battery.

It was on the return from a night hunt with two hunting partners that he discovered the dump that was a rat hunter's Mecca.  It wasn't far from his base of operations in Madison, Wisconsin.

On the way back from a more distant dump, he was a passenger in one of his partners beat up older car.  This was in 1955. I expect the car was pre World War II.  He could see through cracks in the floorboards.  As the car approached the junction of Highways 12 and 78 on the East side of the Wisconsin River, he saw flames flickering under his feet.  It was about 1 am.  He notified the driver that they were on fire; the driver expeditiously pulled over into a service station.  The fire was at the cars fuel pump.  They used sand and gravel to put it out.  Then the car refused to start.

As they waited for rescue from Madison, about 15 miles away, they chatted with the gas station attendant.  The attendant asked what they were up to at that time of night.  When he heard that they had been hunting rats, he mentioned that he also hunted rats at a dump only a mile to the South.  He had shot 10 or 12 in an afternoon.

10 or 12 rats in broad daylight translates to hundreds after dark.

The dump was an unregulated affair on a few acres of low ground at the edge of the Wisconsin river floodplain.  The debris was only 8-10 feet high, as high as people could easily unload it.  Restaurants in the area routinely dumped spoiled and outdated food there.  It was a wonderful breeding place for Rattus Norvegicus.  The hunting partners hunted the dump a few times, bagging nearly a hundred rats each.  Dane County deputies would stop by and use their .38 revolvers and shotguns to shoot a few rats in the evening.  They said hello, but never questioned or detained my friend.  There were no nearby houses.

My friend described the site location. It was between highway 78 and the railroad tracks.  A farm crossing allowed access to low-lying fields in the river bottom on the other side of the tracks.  The Boy Scouts had purchased a property a half mile away on higher ground.  My friend's uncle had built a small, bare bones structure there.

In the spring of 1957, the medical students that had been my friends hunting partners had graduated or transferred.  He was the only rat hunter left of the original group. He had also purchased his first car, new, for cash.

Experience had taught him that the best hunting nights were the first warm nights in April. It was likely April 19th, or 20th. Those days were the warmest in April in 1957.  The rats had been breeding all winter, virtually unmolested.  The new population would not be used to being hunted. 

On a warm April night in 1957, he arrived at the dump with his Savage model 29 pump rifle with a 24 inch barrel, a High Standard semi-automatic target pistol, and a quart jar of .22 Remington standard velocity .22 long rifle ammunition.  He said that a Mason quart jar of .22 long rifles was 850 rounds of ammunition.  After sunset, he started hunting rats.  The sun went down about 6:45.  It was dark enough for hunting by 7 pm.

Rat hunt Savage 29.  Tree is Hickory.  Over 100 squirrels have been shot out of it.

He loaded the Savage to capacity.  That meant filling the magazine tube to the top with long rifle cartridges; 20 rounds.  He did this by touch in the dark. The inner tube, follower and spring could not lock with that many in place, so spring tension was maintained by friction.  After four or five shots were fired, the inner tube could be inserted the remaining 4 or 5 inches and locked.  The pistol was used for close shots that presented themselves while he was reloading the rifle.  Nearly all shots were under 50 feet, and the rats  averaged about 1/4 to 1/2 pound.

The High Standard target pistol is the only personal firearm that he has traded or sold. His replacement was the High Standard "space gun" Supermatic  Citation 102 that had been recently introduced.  He has an extensive collection.

My friend was an accomplished pistol and rifle shot at the age of 22.

The hunting procedure was as follows.  He would move 10-15 feet from the last position with his headlight off.  Then he would turn on the headlight.  Inexperienced rats would freeze in place when the light came on.  He would pick those off with the rifle.  When he could not see any more targets, he would move another 10 or 15 feet and repeat the procedure.  By the time he had made a circumnavigation of the five acre dump, the original position had resumed rat activity and was again available for shooting.  He used an olive jar to carry ammunition to reload his firearms.  It held about 100 rounds.

He continued this hunt until 3 a.m., eight hours of shooting.  He had shot 365 rats that he was able to recover.  That is an average of a rat every 80 seconds.  The quart jar was empty.  He had expended 850 rounds of ammunition. The light from the Ray O Vac was getting dim.

It was an extraordinary hunt in an extraordinary time at an extraordinary nexus of opportunity, location, and skill.  My friend, at age 82, has not shot any animals for years. The hunt took place just before his birthday in 1957. He has followed the hunters normal progression.  But rats, then and now, were vermin whose populations needed to be kept in check.  In 1957 he used a rifle and a pistol.  Now we use bulldozers.

The .22 ammunition has been in the jars for over 60 years.  He allowed me to crack the seal on a mason jar that had been filled before I entered first grade.  I anticipated an odor of acetone, as you often find in old smokeless powder.  I could not detect any, nor could my friend.  There was a faint hint of old wax, barely noticeable.

My friend gave me an even two dozen rounds to test to see if it had been degraded.  I shot the ammunition out of a Mossberg target rifle of similar age.  I fired the rounds at my brothers long established range behind the garage on family land in Northern Wisconsin.  Every round fired as though it were new.  I fired four five shot groups at 50 feet from a rest.  The first was the largest at .56 inches, center to center.  The rest were .32, .31 and .31 inches. Not enough to win matches, perhaps, but perfectly good for hunting. My brother fired the last four shots offhand.

Typical 50 foot group from the old Remington ammunition

The old dump has long been abandoned.  Almost nothing remains for the casual observer.  The five acre site is used to park semi-trailers.  On the edge of the site, overgrown with vegetation, a mound, a crumpled rusty commercial sign, a few broken bricks and tiles, show where the boundary of the dump was.  The remnants are near the old railroad track. Small trees and brush grow between the ties. The farm crossing is still there. The nearby Boy Scout property is still in use.  There is a marble marker commemorating its acquisition.

My friend is a bit obsessive/compulsive.  For years he tracked every penny earned and spent.  He is meticulous in his record keeping.  I firmly believe his 365 number.  He has been insistent that I not include his name or picture.  He values his privacy, and has gone to some lengths to maintain it.

Most rat hunting is done with dogs, commonly with varieties of terriers that catch and kill the rats.  The human hunters job is to help flush the rats from cover.  The record for that hunting supposedly occurred in England in the 1820's where a rat terrier killed an incredible 2,501 rats in seven hours in a barn infested with the vermin.  The dog was the renowned Billy, whose career was legendary.  I haven't found contemporary records of the 2,501 rat killing, but they may exist.  Most of his records are for killing 100 rats in a rat pit against the clock.  Billy's best was 100 rats in 5 1/2 minutes.

I have not seen any records for human hunters killing rats.  Numbers of rats were killed in the "Great Leap Forward" in China, that ended in ecological disaster and famine, with about 20-40 million Chinese dying of starvation.  In the process they killed a supposed 1.5 billion rats.  But given the Chinese predilection with group efforts, it seems unlikely that any records of individual hunts over a few hours exist.

©2016 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.
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1 comment:

Wireless.Phil said...

I remember reading about a big rabbit hunt in the southwest many years ago. Instead of shooting them, they clubbed them in the head.
Think there was some footage of that too.