Hunting prairie dogs
by B.B. Pelletier
This past week I was in Lubbock, Texas, for two days with the television show filming a prairie dog hunt. We were guided by Jay White, a veteran airgunner who was gracious enough to invite the whole crew onto private land for the hunt. I won't spoil the show by telling you how everything went; but since this was my first time hunting these animals, I would like to give you some of my observations as a newbie.
Different game = different tactics
I have always been a woodland hunter, feeling more at home in the trees and brush than the open lands we encountered in Lubbock. We hunted on an oil patch (flat open land with pumpjacks pumping oil), where cattle graze on open land too poor to sustain even a small herd with anything less than hundreds of acres. The prairie dogs build their mounded holes on such land because it affords them perfect visibility from danger. Imagine no trees, bushes or even tumbleweeds. Just low tufts of coarse grass that the sod poodles seem to love.
As a result of this empty terrain, the prairie dogs see you coming a long way off and know where you are at all times. There's no such thing as stalking, though I did try walking on a zig-zag indirect line whenever I tried to close in on a particular dog. It was no use, though. They had a network of sentinels set up around the fields to warn them of any suspicious behavior, and apparently I looked like an Eskimo on a nude beach! They bark at you in short whistles that don't let up until you either move away or scare them down their holes.
The other dynamic of northern Texas is wind. In fact, we passed hundreds of windmill generators on our way up to Lubbock, which sort of gives you the score. It was blowing a constant 15 m.p.h. on the first day of hunting, so some shooting corrections had to be made. If we shot into the wind, our pellets precessed sideways to the right and climbed; if we shot across the wind, we got several feet of drift at 80 yards, which was about as close as those whistle pigs let us get. If we shot downwind, the pellets went pretty straight, but so did our scent! There was no good place to be. I found myself wanting a flat-shooting .204 Ruger instead of the .22 Talon SS that had always seemed so powerful among the trees.
The problem with a powerful centerfire, though, is the houses and roads that ring the fields. Sure, they might be a mile away, but a centerfire can cover that much ground pretty quick. A pellet gun can't shoot that far, so it's the perfect tool--if you can get close enough to use it!
Another thing that threw me off my game was range estimation. In the woods, I'm usually able to guess within a yard or two out to beyond airgun range, but out in the open I'm lost. I estimated the range to a nearby pumpjack at 180 yards and was stunned when the laser rangefinder pegged it at 249 yards! Or the abandoned truck I felt was maybe 200 yards away until the rangefinder confirmed it was over 430 yards! Clearly, I was not the person to ask!
I mostly watched while others armed with Condors and one Sumatra shot at targets 100 yards away. We bagged a couple cottontails but no dogs to take home on the first morning. That evening, we hunted different land, where the bushes grew to above man height. They enabled us to stalk closer to the holes, and I dropped a dog offhand at 25 yards with the Talon SS. My first shot was low and sprayed sand in his face, so he ducked down the hole. Ten minutes later, he was back up. Shot two went over his head, and he ducked down again. During that time he was down, I walked up to about 25 yards and waited. The third time, I popped him square, and he went down for good.
Our guide dropped a dog that evening with his Sumatra, and the other hunters got shots at dogs as well. We saw plenty of large Texas jackrabbits, but they were always moving too fast to shoot. Often, they ran straight at us until they saw us, then veered away sharply.
The vegetation made this second place more ideal to hunt, for sure. We had planned to call coyotes, too, but a west Texas thunderstorm descended after an hour and ended our hunt abruptly. The rain persisted, making the ground too wet to continue that evening. The next day, we returned to the first place to finish the day. Though we saw a lot of dogs, they remained out of shooting range all day.
The irony was that when we went to lunch, there were prairie dogs on vacant land across the busy city street at less that 50 yards! They knew they were safe there and didn't drop down their holes when people approached.
What I learned
Having never hunted prairie dogs before, I learned that they're difficult to stalk. Most shooting will be long range, so have your most accurate pellet already sighted-in. And choose an airgun that can reach out! I felt hampered with the SS, but the Condors were clearly able to deal with the ranges we needed to shoot. I could have switched to a 24-inch barrel, but I didn't think to bring it with me. Shooting sticks are a must for the longer shots. And a good pair of binoculars are essential for hunting these critters.