Prairie Dog Hunting
The weather on this early June afternoon in northwestern Wyoming could not have been gloomier. There was a storm brewing, the sky filled with dark clouds that promised heavy rain – which thankfully did not come until after dark. Yet despite the lamentations of the hunters’ host, that the weather kept us from really seeing what the area could offer in terms of sheer numbers of prairie dogs, in two days four rifle barrels did not cool down from the time the shooters set up at mid-morning until they left for supper.
Each summer, similar tales are told across many parts of the West. The reason is simple – the popularity of prairie dog shooting is growing by leaps and bounds. It is, in fact, one of the fastest-growing segments of the entire hunting and shooting business.
Prairie Dog Opportunities Growing
Despite the best efforts of the “usual suspects” in the animal rights and anti-hunting crowd who continue to try and “save” the “endangered” prairie dog and other varmint populations that are, in fact, growing throughout the West, varmint shooting opportunities are expanding rapidly. That’s because in many areas ranchers have become weary of prairie dogs digging thousands of holes in their pastures. Cattle tend to accidentally step in these holes and break their ankles. A gun shot to the cow's head then must soon follow. Just as importantly, these same ranchers have discovered that hunters are willing to pay for the privilege of helping them control these pests.
“It’s simple, really. When you stack it up against other western guided hunting, varmint shooting doesn’t cost that much, and both the ranchers and the guiding community have found it is a good way to make some money in what amounts to the off-season. It also is a ton of fun, and the best shooting practice a hunter can have to improve his skills for the coming big game seasons.” In addition to prairie dogs, varmint hunters can also pursue rockchucks in some areas, ground squirrels in others; and when encountered, coyotes are always on the menu.
The Best Practice There Is
When it comes to practicing your shooting, nothing beats burning up a lot of powder at live targets. In this there is no better game than prairie dog shooting. Not only can you fire literally hundreds of rounds in a day, but in much of the best prairie dog country, the wind is always blowing. To consistently hit a pop bottle-sized dog at longer distances, you must become tuned to the nuances of wind drift. Also, you quickly learn the importance of taking a rock-solid rest, how to steady the crosshairs on the target, even how to squeeze the trigger between heart beats to eliminate muzzle jump at the wrong moment. You learn how to adjust a scope for parallax, and how to deal with mirage. You learn how crucial a clean, crisp trigger is, and how important keeping a barrel clean is to pinpoint accuracy. And you certainly learn the importance of matching a specific load to a specific rifle to wring out maximum accuracy at distance.
On this hunt, the prairie dog hunters were blessed to be testing out a superb combination – custom Cooper Arms rifles in .204 Ruger matched with Nosler Custom ammunition. Talk about a tack-driving system! Five-shot groups at 100 yards averaged somewhere between 3/8- and ¾-inch.
The Nosler Custom ammo is specially designed for maximum consistency and accuracy, using only the very best components available. “When Nosler decided to add premium match-grade brass to their product line, you just knew that loaded ammunition would be next,” said a technical advisor for a local shooting supply store, who helped arrange the hunt. “While Nosler chooses different brands of brass in their various ammo selections, the brass selected for the .204 Ruger caliber ammo is from Norma, a company that has built an enviable reputation for high-quality brass cases with uniformly tight tolerances and drilled flash holes. I do a lot of testing of this kind of stuff and I can tell you that when it comes to the accuracy needed for prairie dog shooting, the Nosler/Norma recipe is hard to beat!”
Guns & Loads
In the past few years it is truly amazing how many different top-quality choices a shooter has when it comes to varmint rifles. Virtually all major firearms makers offer something for serious varmint shooting in traditional bolt and single-action configurations. In recent years the popularity of highly-accurate varmint rifles built on an AR-15 platform – you know, the so-called “assault rifle” format – has gone through the roof.
Most varmint rifles or single-shot specialty pistols are chambered for popular varmint calibers like the .223 (a 5.56 mm rifle will also chamber a .223, but a .223 caliber rifle will not take a 5.56), .22-250, and .220 Swift, although more and more shooters are also bringing firearms chambered for some newer rounds like the .17 HMR and .204 Ruger, among others. “For most guys the three ‘old standby’ calibers are the best choice, for two reasons,” Dampman said. “One, they are accurate, reach out there, and get the job done. And two, you can usually find reasonably-priced ammunition at local sporting goods stores. If you shoot an oddball wildcat caliber, you may have trouble buying ammo for it locally. And if you fly out to hunt, you won’t be able to bring enough ammo for a multi-day shoot.” Many serious varminters also pack along an accurate .22 rimfire or .22 magnum both for plinking and for times when the shooting is at close range.
Special varmint bullets have been designed for both super-accurate flight and explosive terminal performance. Both handloaders and those who shoot factory ammunition can easily find Nosler Ballistic Tip, Winchester’s Combined Technology Ballistic Silvertip, Hornady V-Max and SST, Barnes VLC, Sierra Varminter, and similar bullets readily available.
Top-quality optics are essential. Variable scopes in 4-14X and 6-24X are very popular. A sunshade and adjustable parallax are important. Bring along a small camel’s hair brush to keep dirt and dust off the lenses. Also needed is a quality spotting scope with top-end power of between 45X and 60X, and a binocular between 7X and 10X. A sturdy spotting scope tripod that can hold the scope steady in a stuff breeze is needed, too. And do not forget your laser rangefinder!
You’ll find some accessories quite helpful. First on the list is ear protection. Most guys often double up, using soft foam ear plugs covered up with a quality muff. The Pro Ears Pro Mag Plus is about as good as it gets in this regard, but prairie dog hunters also like the Pro Ears Ultra 33, Walker’s Game Ear Power Muff and Quad Power Muff, Howard Leight Impact Sport Ear Muff, Peltor Tactical 6, Bilsom Viking Muff, E.A.R. Ultra 9000, or a similar product. Top-quality shooting glasses are essential. If you wear corrective lenses as, check out the SunBusters line of shooting glasses that come with several different tinted snap-on lenses that go over a set of corrective lenses; they’re the cat’s meow. On guided trips, the outfitter normally will provide portable shooting benches, rifle rests and/or sand bags, but be sure to check and bring something if they don’t. Detachable bipods are invaluable if you get away from the bench. Often overlooked but very handy are ground pads that make sitting or lying down and shooting for hours more comfortable. Knee pads can also be useful.
What About Guided Hunts?
Guided prairie dog shoots are a great buy and make everything simple for you. And for the money, Dampman’s prairie dog hunts are about as good a deal as one can find these days. “We charge $550 per hunter and that includes three days shooting, plus lodging and meals,” he said. “We do them from early June until archery elk season opens in early September.”
When shopping for a quality guided varmint hunt, there are several things to look for. At the top of the list is whether or not you’ll be hunting private land, where access is tightly controlled. In many areas public lands have been shot to shreds, making private land your best overall bet for consistent quality. At the same time, you want to make sure that the rancher/outfitter have not shot individual pastures to pieces before you get there. “It is important that pastures and fields be rested as much as possible between hunts,” Dampman said. “We try to not shoot the same pasture more than a couple times over the entire summer so we know the clients will have all the action they want.”
Also ask about amenities. Some guides just drive you into a field for the day and let you shoot, not providing food, beverages, or a place to sleep, while others offer full-service packages that include lodging, meals, etc. Both are good options, you just want to make sure there are no misunderstandings before you arrive.
Lastly, make sure there is enough ammunition available. Many serious varmint shooters drive to their destination even if it takes a day or more so they can haul thousands of rounds of ammo with them. This is especially important for those who handload.
Off-season prairie dog shooting is great fun and awesome practice. Guided hunts don’t cost all that much. In the modern world of western hunting, there is simply not a better deal.