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 would have to be prairie dogs out west.
Why Hunt Prairie Dogs?
Prairie dogs occur in huge numbers, with towns populated by hundreds of the burrowing rodents spread out over the grasslands. They are a challenge to hunt, too! 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 40-100 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 200-600 yards, which transforms it from hunting into a shooting sport.
However, when you swap the centerfire for an airgun, get on the ground and go mobile through the towns 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. 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 tracts 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.
I frequently choose to carry several guns on these hunts, with the Daystate Wolverine .25, the Brocock Compatto .22 and the Evanix Rainstorm .30 as old favorites. The .30 has grown on me. It’s accurate out of many guns, imparts a lot of energy on target and creates a substantial wound channel which is devastating on the smaller bodied rodents. It also performs well at longer ranges.
I also have used several bullpups — the FX Wildcat .25, Air Arms Galahad .22, Kral Puncher .25 and MrodAir Velociraptor .30. These compact guns maintain a full-length barrel and air reservoir. They also come in a compact, mobile package. All 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 of the amount 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, your prairie dog air rifle needs to be proven at distances from 30-125 yards. I generally zero my rig at 75 yards, using Chairgun to generate a cheat sheet at 10-yard increments. At some point before I begin hunting, I’ll shoot from 30-100 yards to make sure the trajectory is properly mapped and define my maximum range at which I can maintain a ½-inch group.
A scope reticle with aimpoints or mildots is useful in this hunting application and strongly recommended. In terms of power, my preference for .22 is something about 35 foot-pounds. In .25, I prefer about 55 ft./lbs. and in .30 about 80 ft./lbs. I’ve used Leapers scopes for this application. They have good glass quality, are sturdy and stand up well to hard use. They also 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 impressive. Besides accuracy, this cross-hatched hollowpoint offers outstanding terminal performance in more powerful guns. A wide selection of pellets is available in different calibers.
What About Accessories?
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 raise their head an 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 wide open spaces.
A first aid kit is a great idea, too. I’ve used it on many trips, especially the tweezers to remove thorns and cactus needles. The heaviest article in my daypack is a water supply — 3 or 4 liters in plastic bottles I freeze the night before and drink as they melt. Temperatures in the low 100s with no humidity 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. My thin mesh camo coveralls weigh a few ounces and slip over my clothes if camouflage is necessary.
Hunting opportunities for prairie dogs come early in spring and last throughout summer. If you want to try something a 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!