Mention the words “prairie dog hunting” to my husband and his buddies and their faces light up. For years I have watched this group of friends take off to somewhere in Montana for a guy’s hunting weekend. “What is all of the hubbub?” I thought. They have emails and phone calls back and forth for weeks leading up to the trip. They have “arguments” about gas gun or bolt action, calibers, shooting benches, weather gear and more. Then I get to hear about it for weeks afterward and am forced to watch videos and look at endless photos. The videos are made most entertaining by the roars of laughter in the background after a hit has been made and you see the varmint being flipped through the air. Too gruesome? Well, then this article is not for you.
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I have to admit, I find it more fun listening to the guy’s reactions than actually watching the videos. I never hear this much excitement when going out to hunt big animals for food, such as deer. I am not really a hunter. My disinterest in hunting has nothing to do with “killing things.” It has to do with me being wimpy and not wanting to sit in the cold and then drag my kill home for miles, but I’ve come to realize that the prairie dog thing is a completely different animal, pun intended.
Hunting prairie dogs, or varmints as a broader category, helps farmers and landowners. These are pests; they can destroy a field and their holes can cause injury to cattle. Landowners beg hunters to come out and get rid of the varmint population, and some people have caught on to the popularity of this sport and charge a guide fee to get hunters out to properties.
Finding and Hunting Prairie Dogs
If you are just getting started in this game you may not know how to find the land or get permission to hunt on it. To make it easy you can pay for a guide, there are many out there willing to take your money. But there are so many land owners who want you to hunt the varmints for free, how do you find them? While you are there on a guided trip, get to know the locals and ask questions. Visit the local gun store. In fact, the local tavern has been known to create contacts of “people who know people” that have land. You will want a beer at the end of the day anyway, right?
As with any type of hunting, property owners won’t let just anyone on their land. They want to know you are not just a city slicker with little hunting experience; that could cause more damage than the varmints themselves. Remember, the land you’re shooting on is someone’s workplace, so have a map of the local area so the landowner can show you where his land begins and ends and stick to the areas identified. In the pursuit of heavily-populated dog towns you will see some of the most beautiful country in the world.
Be sure to ask if the landowner wants you to shoot other vermin too, such as coyotes. After you’ve littered the prairie with hundreds of fat little dogs the coyotes will be sorely tempted by the prairie dog buffet. And by all means, at least offer a donation, or better yet, a vintage bourbon as a thank you. Hopefully you will be allowed to come back next year.
Of course, the best way to find your land is to have a buddy who lives there and already has some connections. This is the case of my husband’s group. One of them lives in Missoula and has access to the perfect spots. Winner!
Once you find an approved property you will need a truck or some kind of four-wheel-drive vehicle; you will be off any main or dirt roads. You are looking for prairie dog towns, which appear as barren patches on the landscape. You can see why ranchers and farmers hate them. Dog towns create real scars on the landscape and considerably reduce the revenue potential of the land.
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Gas Gun or Bolt Action for Hunting Prairie Dogs?
I can’t believe I am even trying to bring this subject up because I know how this argument goes. It never ends. We have this argument for tactical competitions also. It starts with “bolt actions are more accurate” or “gas guns are just as accurate and you get back on target quicker.” See? I just started a revolution. So without trying to determine which is better, just bring what you want. Then, while you are out there with your buddies, you can have contests to prove your point. Basically, you can use any caliber you wish but you’re going to be happier with some of the flatter shooting choices. Some of the more popular calibers are the .204, .22-250 and of course the .223. What action and caliber you choose may also depend on your style of shooting. Yes, I said style.
Your style of shooting will also determine how many rounds you bring with you. Some are one shot, one dog kind of folks and will contemplate over the effects of wind, temperature, coriolis effect, and so on. You will find nerds and geeks in this game as well. This person will fire only after cool deliberation; for him it is not personal, it is just business. At the other end of the spectrum is the spasm shooter: one round is never enough, his rate of fire is sustained. All rounds are walked onto the dog and the impact area has great geysers of earth to accompany the noise. What style you choose is irrelevant because you can’t help having fun.
Equipment for Hunting Prairie Dogs
When my husband and his friends went on their first trip they didn’t buy any specialty gear, they only took what they happened to have. So they spent three days on the prairie in the prone position on shooting mats with bolt action rifles. In addition to sore necks, they also found that the increased height of a shooting bench really improved the visibility and accuracy of their shots. So do yourself a favor and take a bench. There are several on the market, some are okay and others are spectacular. Anyone of them is better than shooting from prone for an entire day.
Binoculars and range-finders are also good to have. Remember, the dogs are pretty small targets so optics are critical to finding these little guys. Choose your optics carefully, you’ll be peering through them for long stretches of time. Also, you’ll find having a buddy spot your shots is really helpful. Spotting for dogs is really rewarding.
Spotting in itself is an art form. After a while dogs may become a bit scarce within 200 to 300 yards so you will find yourself having to look farther afield. A spotter is going to be a great help. For this you may want to have either a spotting scope or some good binoculars. The idea is that the spotter will find the dog and will use terrain features to guide the shooter onto the dog. This can be harder than you think. After all, the spotter is trying to direct you to a particular spot on a sometimes featureless plain. One of the guys came up with markers to put out in the field to give spotters and shooters a landmark. Being very creative and a former Ranger, he gave each marker a famous battle name.
Folding chairs are also a must-have item. When you’re not shooting you’ll probably be spotting for a buddy. Do it from a comfy chair, it’s better than kneeling on the ground next to the shooter.
Shooting prairie dogs can be a pretty social affair, a lot of communication is necessary. If you have them, take along some electronic hearing protection. You’ll be out there shooting dogs for a couple of days and you want to be able to hear what’s going on around you.
You’re going to be pretty far out so be prepared for all types of weather, such as your food, water, sunscreen, rain gear, and bug spray. Be sure to fill up your gas tank before you go.
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Setting Up Your Position
So you’ve talked to the landowner and found a busy dog town with lots of fat, unsuspecting doggies. Now comes the part where you choose your shooting position.
Elevation is your friend. The higher you are the less dead ground there is and the more dogs you’ll find. So choose your shooting position with that in mind. You can even set up your bench in the back of a pickup to get a few extra feet.
If you’re lucky, you will have a 360-degree range fan, but in every case make sure that there are natural backstops to catch your bullets. After all, there are a lot of people out there who may be working on the land or livestock or equipment. Finding little holes in the engine of a tractor or the side of a cow isn’t going to make a farmer want you back next year. Once you’ve found your position, agree among yourselves what the range fan will be. Not only for the whole party but also for each bench. However, if you’ve missed a big fat dog in your fan be prepared to have one of your buddies snipe that dog out from under you! This is normally accompanied by peals of laughter. If the range fan is less than 360-degrees it may be possible to do some walk-on shooting. This can be crazy fun but safety considerations do apply. Let all your shooting buddies know where you’re going and be sure to stay in that area. As you walk, be aware of your own range fan.
After all of these years of hearing the stories, I now want to go on a varmint hunt, but I don’t want to invade the guy’s weekend. I do know a group of women who love to do this but they live on the other side of the country. Perhaps we can meet in the middle. We too can come home with miles of video footage and photos and most of all awesome memories. After all, hanging with your best pals doing something you all enjoy is what this all about.
By Anette Wachter, member of the United States National Rifle Team and 2015 US Palma Team.
Originally titled: Hunting Prairie Dogs and published in the October 2013 issue of GunUp the Magazine.
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