Coaxing sage rats with a whistle and largemouth bass to the surface with frog patterns.

By Gary Lewis

Every spring we shoot vermin to protect alfalfa and keep the agriculture organic. Steve McGrath and Jesse Riding drive west from Utah and I drive east. We meet in Crane, Oregon, where the sage rats are hard at work to wipe out farmers’ crops.

We hunted with Nikki and Justin Aamodt’s Diamond A Guides and Seth “Rat Squeaker” Franklin, a 29-year-old guide who speaks the language. To coax a rat from its hole, Franklin chirps to mimic the motherless juvenile. He smooches the mating sounds and calls up the big females with the mews of a deadbeat dad skipping out with the child support check.

RSCB_Lewis_3He learned to call because a Sunday School teacher gave him a little plastic birdie whistle. “When I filled the whistle with water, it sounded like a squirrel,” Franklin said.

With his whistle, little Seth Franklin found he could squeak sage rats out of their holes and pop them with a BB gun. And when he lost the whistle, he learned to make the rat sounds with his mouth.

“I learned it was something I could do when I could just see the top of a head and wanted him to show himself,” he said.

Anyone paying attention soon learns that sage rats make a number of different noises.

“The babies’ kind of chirp at each other,” Franklin said. “That’s one kind of call. It’s a motherless juvenile whistle, a one-note kind of chirp.”

Another sound is the disgruntled mother’s insistent chirping - a series of six chirps.

The babies start to show in mid- to late April. When the babies are wrestling, they make a smooching sound, which is also the sound the adults use, calling to each other during the mating season.

“The rat-in-distress sound,” Franklin said, “I make with a lip squeak. The stuttered warning whistle, I make with six or more chirps in series.”

Franklin tries to coax the females out by appealing to their maternal instincts. “If you can coax them out with the sound of lost juveniles or a deadbeat dad coming with the child support check, you can get a shot.” These are sounds that can be heard anytime between March and June in the fields of eastern Oregon.

A 32-caliber Traditions proved the undoing of many sage rats on the fields near Crane last spring. A 32-caliber Traditions proved the undoing of many sage rats on the fields near Crane last spring.

With my muzzleloader and my possibles bag along for fast reloads, Franklin and I walked away from the shooting platform in the long grass. A rat popped up from one hole and scampered down another. I looked at Franklin and saw him purse his lips. He gave a quick, one-note chirp and the rat popped back up and exposed its head. I found the blade front sight in the notch of the rear, clicked the trigger and stroked the set trigger. Boom.

Franklin figured it was a lucky shot. “Prove it,” he said. I proved it. Over and over.

We made a pretty good team. Franklin squeaking up rats and me putting them down. For good. For the good of farm crops and alfalfa prices and the price of beef.

When the wind picked up, I held “Kentucky Windage” and shot them. Ask Franklin. He’ll tell you if you can get him to quit whistling.

Steve McGrath with his 17 HMR. Steve McGrath with his 17 HMR.


Dan and Debbie Goetz, of Warne Scope Mounts, were along for Debbie’s first hunt of her life. She did not shrink from the work. By her count, she fired over 500 rounds in one day. We took a break at noon and Riding grabbed clippers and went out and harvested tails to tie streamers. McGrath whipped out the Camp Chef single burner stove with a grill box and after a few minutes he served up chicken cordon bleu sandwiches.

We might have shot till dusk, but Riding, who is general manager for Rainy’s Flies, had brought fly rods and a box full of bass bugs.

Fly-rodding for Largemouth Bass
Late in the afternoon, Franklin pointed the way deep into those hills north of the Steens Mountains and we found ourselves on his aunt and uncle’s doorstep. The water was low, they told us and they had just driven their cattle down and the creek was muddy. They didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in our prospects.

RSCB_Lewis_5We stopped the truck on a high spot and looked down on the water, which was quite a bit lower than it would have been in a normal year. There was a big weed patch close to the dam that promised the best action. I tied on a Warpath’s Olive Whammy Craw on a short leader. I cast and stripped it hard, but the bass didn’t want to eat it that way. One charged in, missed and streaked away.

Steve McGrath walked around to the far end of the weed patch, to the other spot that seemed like it might hold a good fish. I watched him make searching casts in several directions, but it seemed like he didn’t work the water close to his feet. When he walked away to go explore other water, I went and stood on the same rock and pitched the big olive streamer five feet away. A fish appeared, swung a semi-circle, opened a wide bucket mouth, expelled water out through its gills and the fly vanished inside. When I set the hook, nothing moved, like I’d stuck my fly in a log. Then stung, in disbelief, the fish tried to get back into the weeds. My leader was strong enough that I was able to turn it. The fish streaked out to open water and danced on its tail.

Jesse Riding, of Logan, Utah, lifts out a largemouth that ate a swimming frog pattern. Jesse Riding, of Logan, Utah, lifts out a largemouth that ate a swimming frog pattern.

I don’t know how much it weighed. I was more concerned with getting it back in the water, but it could have been the biggest largemouth I’ve caught on a fly. Maybe I should have eaten it to save it from the drought, but I hoped there would be enough water to get the big fish through the summer.

Fly fishing for largemouth and fly fishing for trout do not have a lot in common. Bass are reaction biters and the bigger the bug, the better. Keep in mind, a largemouth will eat a duckling. Once, I watched a bass consume a bird it plucked off a rock. It took a few minutes for the wingtips and legs to disappear inside its mouth.

A bass angler that wants to tie into a largemouth with a streamer or popper doesn’t have to know a lot to start. And a bass fisherman doesn’t have to be a pretty caster. There is nothing graceful about a bass fly.

RSCB_Lewis_6In Skip Morris’ new ‘Survival Guide for Beginning Fly Anglers’, (Frank Amato Publications) he breaks underwater flies into two categories: small fish imitations like the Zonker or Clouser Minnow and general use with a heavy bead or cone, like Whitlock’s Scorpion or Skip’s Brown Trout Minnow.

Floating flies are divided into two types. The first are the hair bass bugs with a brown, yellow, tan or green body (not including the tail) about 5/8-inch long. Morris likes a white or yellow face on these bugs. Diving flies include the Dahlberg Diver and Umpqua Swimming Frog. Diving bugs have a head or body that tapers from narrow in front to broad at the rear. Sometimes a diver is the bug the bass want.

When the rest of us were finished, Riding wanted to fish five more minutes. Clever. He didn’t say five more casts. We watched as his five minutes turned into 25 minutes, the wind died down and the water turned to glass.

He worked his way along the shore with a Meade’s Gutless Frog. He stripped slow, rhythmic, with long pauses. The imitation kicked its legs, it rested, then kicked again. Bass watched it, hypnotized, then they attacked it.

Later, Riding explained what he has learned about fishing any frog pattern to bass.

RSCB_Lewis_7“Once the ripples have gone away, you can start stripping or animating your popper.”

The retrieve depends on the water condition and the preference of the fish.

“You have to try them all to figure out the right speed. The important thing is the pause. You MUST pause, and sometimes for 15 or 20 seconds.”

It’s like whistling a rat up from its hole. You have to hold your mouth right.

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