A great airgunning quarry, in my opinion, is one that reproduces quickly and needs to be controlled aggressively. It occurs in dense populations and is both wary and moves quickly. It’s a challenging and exciting hunt. Several species fit the bill. Rabbits and squirrels are great game for the airgunner. They can be found almost anywhere — with huntable populations in almost every state — and often close to suburbia, which equals opportunity for a lot of hunters. But my personal favorite when it comes to varmint species would have to be prairie dogs out West.
They occur in huge numbers, with towns populated by hundreds of the burrowing rodents spread out over the grasslands. And they are a challenge to hunt! Sentries are always watching and have a series of vocalizations to not only warn of danger, but locate and monitor it as well. This requires that the hunter packing an airgun moves with great care. Strategically use concealment in a place where not much exists. Typical airgun range is 40 to 100 yards, with some shots closer and some a bit further. Unlike a rabbit or squirrel, getting inside of 100 yards on a prairie dog can be quite difficult. Consider that most shooters using small-bore centerfires take these animals at 200 to 600 yards, which transforms it from hunting into a shooting sport.
However, swap the centerfire for an airgun, get on the ground and go mobile through the towns and it becomes a hunt once more! Stalking through the open prairie you’ll see many prairie dogs standing on their mounds watching, but almost always just out of range. To be successful, use the limited cover, keeping behind a cactus or crawling along the scattered hills to shield your approach. And even if you evade detection in the immediate vicinity, there might well be animals a few hundred yards out of range barking a warning. But once you violate their safety zone, they will flip their stubby tails into the air let out a bark and dive down a hole. You can hear them vocalizing from underground while you hike, until eventually a braver one resurfaces and sounds an all-clear. Usually the young and less-experienced animals come up first, often providing a shot. But moving through the grassland you need to think about more than prairie dogs. Almost every outing I come close to stepping, kneeling or sitting on a rattlesnake.
Having been bitten twice, I am in no hurry for a repeat performance. There are also insects and plants everywhere intent on sticking, stabbing, or stinging you!
We have vast tracks of public land that can carry large populations of prairie dogs, with predators, weather and disease serving to check populations. The problems generally occur when these towns are situated on private ranches, as substantial grazing land can be lost. Prairie dogs belong here, they just need to fit in a way that’s compatible with current land usage.
There are several guns I frequently choose to carry on these hunts — the Daystate Wolverine .25, the Brocock compatto .22 and the Evanix Rainstorm .30 are current favorites. The .30 is a caliber that has grown on me over the last year or so, It is accurate out of many guns, it imparts a lot of energy on target and creates a substantial wound channel, which is devastating on the smaller bodied rodents, and performs well at longer ranges. More recently I’ve also been using several bullpups — the FX Wildcat .25, Air Arms Galahad .22, the Kral Puncher .25 and the MrodAir Velociraptor .30 to name a few. These are compact guns that maintain a full-length barrel and air reservoir. It also comes in a package that is easy to move with. All of the guns mentioned are great long-distance rigs. Rifle or bullpup, I like a gun with a lighter trigger, a multi-shot design is preferred and a high-shot capacity is a plus because there is invariably a lot of shooting. However, if the onboard air storage is limited you can always slip a buddy bottle in your pack.
With respect to performance, as with all hunting guns accuracy rules, it needs to be proven at distances from 30 to 125 yards. I will generally zero my rig at 75 yards, using Chairgun to generate a cheat sheet at 10-yard increments. At some point before I began hunting, I’ll shoot at 30 to 100 yards to make sure the trajectory is properly mapped and define my maximum range as that point at which I can maintain a ½-inch group. A scope reticle with aim points or mildots is very useful in this hunting application and is strongly recommended. In terms of power, my preference for .22 something around 35 ft./lbs. In .25, I prefer around 55 ft./lbs. and in .30 around 80 ft./lbs. I have been using many of the Leapers scopes for this application. They have good glass quality, are very sturdy and stand up well to hard use. They are budget priced, which is unusual when it comes to airgunning optics.
Regardless of caliber, my preference is for a medium-to-heavy roundnose Diabolo pellet, as they tend to give the best overall performance for long-range shooting. I’ll use JSB Exact Heavies quite often, as most of my guns are accurate with them, and the terminal performance is excellent. Lately, the H&N Hunter Extremes have been impressing me. Besides being accurate, this cross-hatched hollowpoint offers up outstanding terminal performance in more powerful guns. There is a huge selection of pellets available in .22 and .25, with more coming to market for the .30 all the time.
My other gear includes a solid set of shooting sticks. Packing a pad to sit or lay on will save you from some of the thornier vegetation. I always keep binoculars on hand, as prairie dogs will often raise their head 1 inch over the mound to watch you, providing a viable target if you can locate them. A rangefinder is a must, as distance can be difficult to estimate in these wide-open spaces. This is a hunt where I always carry a first aid kit. I’ve actually used it on many trips, especially tweezers to pull out thorns and cactus needles. The heaviest article in my daypack is a water supply — 3 or 4 liters in plastic bottles that I freeze the night before and drink as they melt down. Temperatures in the low 100s with no humidity just sucks the fluids from you. Keeping hydrated is an issue of safety, not comfort.
I generally wear earth-colored clothing, preferring long-sleeved fishing shirts with mesh-covered vents, a bandana around my neck so I don’t become the proverbial redneck hunter, a hat, (sometimes) lightweight gloves to give added protection from stickers and sun, and light hiking boots. I have some very thin mesh camo coveralls that weigh a few ounces and slip over my cloths if I deem camouflage necessary.
With winter in the rearview mirror, hunting opportunities for prairie dogs come up early in the spring and last throughout the warm-weather months. If you want to try something a bit more challenging that will keep you on the ground and moving, give an airgun a try. It will turn your shoot into a hunt. Even if your primary goal is to go out with your centerfire to pop dogs, set aside a morning and try an air rifle. It will add a new dimension to your outing!