Jim Chap­man leads a group of ul­tra-keen air­gun­ners out to Dakota

Air Gunner - - Contents -

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

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