As a young man growing wild in Colorado, I spent about 364 days a year thinking about the one brief moment when I’d have a shot at an elk or a mule deer. Like many big game hunters, I prepared for that fleeting window of opportunity in the offseason by shooting at the range and popping cans with a 10/22 or pellet rifle behind the house.
While those are all great ways to amass invaluable time behind the trigger, there’s simply no replacement for shooting at live animals in a real world situation. When you’re blasting targets you have all the time in the world to setup for a shot, and of course the targets aren’t responsive.
And at the range you have the convenience of a bench and rest, but in hunting situations you often have to setup for the shot using whatever naturally occurring rests are present in your environment. You generally don’t have unlimited time and are forced to react instinctively in the moment—one you may never get back.
That’s why hunting prairie dogs is so valuable: it gives you repeated situational training in a live environment, which helps you build a muscle memory bank of instinctive marksmanship habits.
You get to practice proper breathing, trigger engagement and shooting mechanics with live targets in a realistic hunting situation. And if it’s anything like a recent trip to the grass-clothed plains of Wyoming, the targets are so numerous it’s like the adult version of Whac-a-Mole. Instead of padded mallets you’ve got an AR-15 and 20-round PMAGs in each back pocket.
Four of us bounced up and down the sage-covered hills looking for dogs in Yamaha’s 2015 Viking VI, an all-terrain side-by-side with room for six. With a 686cc, four-stroke engine, the Viking VI is fully capable of tackling nearly every off-road obstacle you can throw at it. Once you’re on county roads, the smooth-riding side-by-side cruises nicely up to 50 mph, which makes your back-to-ranch commute quick and easy.
The Viking VI also made the perfect quick strike vehicle for hunting prairie dogs. After a few practice runs, we figured out the optimal tactical approach: We’d cross a ridge, spot for dogs, then roll in on ‘em hard. After that, we’d pull in sideways, using the front end and bed of the UTV for shooting rests.
I stacked a Champion Gorilla range bag in the corner of the utility bed and used a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 chambered in .223 to send dogs tumbling through the air until, at last, they stopped climbing their mounds and we moved on to the next spot. Other shooters braced themselves with the frame and plexiglass windshield, or laid prone and shot off of a backpack (that works great until a cluster of cacti stabs you in the armpit).
Whatever shooting position you end up favoring, chances are you’ll work through a couple of variations. Depending on the terrain, each situation dictates a slightly different shooting approach. That’s a good thing, too, because it forces you to adapt as a marksman and find what works best for you in any given scenario.
The other great benefit of prairie dog hunting is that your targets present themselves and disappear at irregular intervals, forcing quick but efficient response from you as a shooter. Sometimes the dogs pop up 20 yards to the side of the vehicle, in which case we’d jump out of the Viking, grab our AR-15, rack a round, and then calmly execute the shot.
It also forces you to display constant awareness and be able to move through the entire shot process in an efficient, timely manner. Any fumbling around or wasting time could cost you the shot. And because prairie dogs can pop up at any moment, you’re forced to develop the ability to spot animals in open country.
Tough to Hit
Prairie dogs are small targets, and especially hard to hit at 260 yards when the wind is blowing even 15 mph. It’s helpful to have a spotter and a pair of rangefinding binos, like Bushnell’s Fusion 1 Mile, and a tactical scope with windage and elevation adjustments. I utilized a 3-9x40mm Bushnell AR optic geared for the .223 on this hunt and it performed exceptionally well.
Because prairie dogs tend to litter entire sections of land, it’s common to get to a solid setup point and have targets from 20 to 300 yards in front of you. As a shooter, this forces you to run through a mental checklist of adjustments: range the target, check the wind, make your adjustments, then execute the shot. If you succeed, a prairie dog often salutes your effort with a double back flip. If not, there are plenty more opportunities to hone your marksmanship skills.
Follow the Load
When you’re flinging lead at varmints out to a couple hundred yards, you have to pay attention to bullet size and load. Not all .223 loads are the same, for instance, and even minor differences in bullet weight can make a big difference when your target is only about the size of a tennis shoe.
Hornady’s 53-grain VMAX Superformance was particularly effective on prairie dogs, as was the 52-grain BTHP. You’ll have to tinker with specific cartridges, rifles and scope combinations to find out what works best with your setup, but that’s exactly what makes shooting prairie dogs so helpful—you can test loads to your heart’s delight and see how they perform in a real world setting. Without question you’ll run out of ammunition before you ever run out of dogs.
Not to be ignored, however, is the fact that shooting prairie dogs makes for an amazingly good time. It’s an excuse to break out the AR-15 or bolt gun for some serious summer action, and it gets you finely tuned for big game season in the fall. And best of all, it will make you a better marksman.