The weather on that early June afternoon in northwestern Wyoming couldn’t have been gloomier. There was a storm brewing, the sky filled with dark clouds that promised heavy rain—which thankfully didn’t come until after nightfall. Yet despite the lamentations of our host, Ralph Dampman of Trophy Ridge Outfitters ((307) 756-9776), who said the weather kept us from really seeing what the area could offer in terms of sheer numbers of prairie dogs, in 2 days four rifle barrels didn’t cool down from the time we set up at mid-morning until we left for supper.
Each summer, similar experiences are shared 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 hunting and shooting sports.
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. 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,” said Dampman. “When you stack it up against other Western guided hunts, varmint shooting doesn’t cost that much, and both the ranchers and the guiding community have found it’s a good way to supplement our business in what amounts to our off-season. It’s also a ton of fun, and the best shooting practice a hunter can have to improve his or her 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 rifle shooting, nothing beats burning up a lot of powder at live targets, in particular, prairie dogs. 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 long 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.
On this hunt we were testing 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 between 3/8- and 3/4-inch.
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 Richard Folsland, a technical advisor for Black Hills Shooting Supply, who helped arrange the hunt. “While Nosler chooses different brands of brass in their various ammo selections, the brass selected for the .204 Ruger ammo is from Norma, a company that’s 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 And Loads
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 such as the .223 Rem., .22-250 Rem. and .220 Swift, although more and more shooters are also bringing firearms chambered for some newer rounds such as 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 might 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 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 the 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-powered riflescopes 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 high-quality spotting scope with top-end power of between 45X and 60X, and binoculars between 7X and 10X. A sturdy spotting scope tripod that can hold the scope steady in a stuff breeze is needed, too. And don’t forget your laser rangefinder.
You’ll find some accessories quite helpful. First on the list is ear protection. I often double up, using soft foam ear plugs covered up with a high-quality muff. The Pro Ears Pro Mag Plus is about as good as it gets in this regard, but I 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 also essential.
On guided trips, the outfitter normally will provide portable shooting benches, rifle rests and/or sand bags. A detachable bipod, like those from Harris Engineering, B-Square, Accu-Shot and Versa-Pod, or shooting sticks like those from Shooter’s Ridge, Stoney Point Products and BOG Gear, 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 life easy for the shooter. And for the money, Dampman’s prairie dog hunts are about as good a deal as you can find these days. “We charge $550 per hunter, and that includes 3 days of shooting, plus lodging and meals,” he said. “We do them from early June until archery elk season opens in early September.”
Off-season prairie dog shooting is great fun and awesome practice, and guided hunts don’t cost that much. In the modern world of Western hunting, I can’t think of a better deal. That’s why you see me out there … a lot!