Jim Chapman leads a group of ultra-keen airgunners out to Dakota
Jim’s in South Dakota this month with a posse of airgunners, on the hunt for prairie dogs
I’ve just returned from a rather unique hunting adventure, and this trip was different because we invited several other airgun hunters to come along. My friend, Brett Waibel, owns an outfitting service, ‘ Bad River Birds and Bucks’, in central South Dakota. Brett’s primary business is running a high- end, pheasant hunting operation, that also serves as his base for big- game hunts – mule deer, bison, and pronghorn antelope – and during the summer months they are booked out for prairie- dog shoots.
These are typically longrange shootists who use small-bore centrefire rifles to take prairie dogs at 200- 600 yards, but a few years ago, I started showing up at his ranch with my air rifles, and turned this shooting- centric activity into a hunt! I’ve written about this a lot in the past, but will mention again that when using an air rifle at 40-100 yards, you rely as much on fieldcraft as you do shooting skills.
Believe it or not, shooters pay a premium (often $ 600-$ 800 a day) to spend a couple days out on the vast prairie lands, thinning out the population of these prolific rodents, but Brett and I worked out a deal to offer a discounted hunt, with the intent of testing the waters to see if airgunners would take advantage of such an opportunity tailored for them – and they did!
So, this is how I found myself surrounded by a group of very enthusiastic airgunners, champing at the bit to get out and start shooting. We’d all arrived on a Thursday afternoon, and had bench rests set up so that hunters could check zeros and plot trajectories before we got down to it. Next came drinks and dinner at the lodge, after which we took care of housework; checking licences and signing liability waivers, discussing hunting techniques, and breaking into groups that would be accompanied by a Bad River guide. We wanted to keep the groups small, with no more than three hunters per guide, but there were groups of friends and father/son combos who we wanted to keep together, so I picked up the slack by taking one of the solo hunters with me.
That Friday morning after a great breakfast – nobody said we were roughing it – we loaded up our guns, a 4500 psi CF air tank, shooting sticks, personal daypacks, lots of pellets, and headed off. I was hunting with
a gentleman named Scott, to whom I’d only spoken on forums and via email, and we continued airgun-fuelled discussions that had started when we’d met the night before. The weather was working against us; it was raining on and off, it was cold, and it was windy, and whilst none of these was an absolute deal breaker on its own, together it was the trifecta of bad conditions for prairie dogs.
As Scott and I pulled up to the area I’d intended to hunt, the lack of dogs was immediately apparent. There were a couple off in the distance, but normally you’d see a couple hundred as you rolled up the dirt road. Our spirits remained high, though, as we jumped out and started unloading our gear. We had all brought several rifles along; I’d packed nine, and had brought an Omega Compressor that I’d got from Airguns of Arizona, to keep them all charged. On this first pass, I was carrying the .22 calibre Daystate Renegade, which had really impressed during my sighting in and longrange shooting workup. Scott had opted for his FX Wildcat, also in .22, and after seeing what he could do out to 100 yards, it seemed a good choice!
To prep the guns I use for prairie dog hunting, I start by zeroing in at 75 yards. Shooting off the bench I proved out a ¾” 5- shot group, then set up targets at 25, 50, 75, and 100 yards. The life- sized prairie dog targets were staked at these distances, and I sat on the ground with shooting sticks, which is my typical shooting position. I then focused on printing groups with the intention of achieving 5/5 kill shots at each of the distances. This was achieved at the first three distances, though I settled for a 4/5 at 100 yards with one clean miss.
Scott and I hiked into the town, surrounded by burrows, and we could hear the barking from underground. As the rain slowed, our first dog surfaced and stood at the edge of his burrow at about 75 yards away. I told Scott to take the shot, and after lining it up, he squeezed the trigger. With a loud thud, the prairie dog backflipped away. Scott had not hunted prairie dogs before, and was thrilled with his first in the bag.
At this point, the rain had stopped and we worked the field in earnest. We walked out amongst the mounds until we heard barking, and then settled in to wait for the sentries to start poking their heads up. Scott’s rifle was equipped with a bipod, and he laid on his belly waiting for a shot whilst I walked along the fence line until I heard
barking, and then sat with my back to a fence post and waited. I was using sticks, which I prefer because it lets me shoot over the rolling ground and tall grass.
Even though conditions worked against us, we’d managed to take 25 or so prairie dogs each. At about 12pm, I saw one of the ranch hands standing off in the distance by my car waving, and looking through my binos, I saw that he was dropping something at my car. It was starting to rain again so we hiked back and found sandwiches, chips, fruit, and bottles of chilled water waiting for us. As we ate, both of us lowered a window to drop a couple of dogs that had surfaced at about 60 yards off the road, but on checking the weather, we saw that this downpour was going to last awhile, so headed back to the lodge.
Another outstanding dinner and breakfast later, and we were back at it. Whilst day two was not perfect, it was better than our first. We went to another one of my favorite spots, and as we rolled up were greeted by scores of potential targets. We repeated our approach from the preceding day; spotting, stalking, listening, and waiting, and once in the field, I’d only occasionally spot Scott off in the distance, shooting. We each racked up several dozen kills before taking a lunch break. We and soon after decimating the lunch that had been shuttled in, we were back at it!
As the afternoon unfolded, the young pups started to surface, and the shooting became fast and furious. There were many occasions when there would be 5-8 dogs moving about on one mound, and we’d shot several dozen more each by the time the sun started to sink. The Renegade served me very well; dead accurate, power to stretch out for the long shots, a respectable shot count, and very compact and easy to carry – it turned out to be a great little field gun.
Some may question the high numbers and the fact that we were culling so many pups, but this is pest control on a massive scale. Our group shot over four small towns, and culled perhaps 500 animals. Each of these towns will easily sustain several more weeks of heavy culling, and whilst not eradicated, they will not spread. Now consider that there are more than 50 towns that Brett hunts, most much larger than those we were shooting on. If not aggressively managed, prairie dogs will overrun and destroy large swathes of pasture lands. In the past, ranchers laid poison to reduce the numbers, but the fact that there is economic value now associated with prairie dogs, vis-àvis hunter’s willingness to pay, it means that larger populations are tolerated on private ranchlands, and the use of poison is reduced. I view this as a win-win scenario.
Jim shooting the Renegade off the Primos Polecat shooting sticks
Scott with his first prairie dog; an experienced hunter, he was as happy as if he’d bagged a big buck! I got stuck and had to be extricated by force
A group of five pups filing out of one burrow
Loading the Renegade’s magazine whilst keeping a look out for surfacing dogs