By Terry T. ClappConflicted Shooter or Hunter
It is not necessary for me to pontificate on the merits of wing shooting in South Dakota. Every wing shooter’s dreams are fulfilled there with almost endless opportunities on numerous winged species, the top dog of which is the pheasant. Like the pheasant, another species that too is not a dog, but is at the head of the pack for shooters, is the prairie dog. It is in
South Dakota that both the shooter’s and the hunter’s dreams come true. Shooters live for trigger time while hunters live for the hunt and all that goes with it. Even the most avid hunter feels a little remorse after a big game season has ended. Why remorse, even if the hunt was successful by normal standards? Simple - hunters would like to get more time behind the trigger under real time hunting conditions. So can shooting and hunting come together for a win-win? A trip to South Dakota to hunt a small, but objectionable critter the prairie dog, should settle the shooter/hunter conflict to everyone’s satisfaction.Quality Trigger Time
One approach to quality trigger time involves shooting with a partner and taking turns shooting. This takes planning, equipment and shooting skills. In South Dakota, four of us prairie dog hunt together and each person gets 100 or so shots a day. This process takes 6- to 8-hours of shooting, depending on the conditions and everyone enjoys the camaraderie of the shooting/hunting experience. Each of us has a homemade bench seat set-up, which will rotate 360 degrees. One of the two-person team will start as a shooter, while the other person acts as the spotter. The other two-person team does the same thing at the same time on different targets. After one shot is taken by a team member, the roles reverse, hit or miss. Now you will hear stories that this guy or that guy took hundreds of shots a day. One person told my brother he got 600 shots one day. Think about that! At one shot a minute, well you do the math. So this guy must never let his rifle cool off or even take a break to eat, drink or you know what. Go figure!
If you are not happy with a 100 or so quality shots in eight hours, then stay out 10 or 12 hours. The four of us are happy with the 8-hours of hunting and 100 shots. We respect our rifles and ourselves. It is not about how many rounds you can let off the chain. Don’t be fooled by some folks telling you that they have a 90% hit rate on prairie dogs. That could happen, but when a dog disappears that doesn’t mean it’s a hit. When shooting under real time field conditions at any significant distances, few shooters will experience a 90% hit rate.Mobility in the Field
To get 8-hours of quality trigger time, you will have to be mobile. This is where a nice 4X4 and an enclosed trailer will facilitate the shooting. We have customized a 5X8 trailer to hold our assortment of rifles, shooting benches for each person and all other equipment associated with such a trip. Being able to pick up and move efficiently enhances the experience. Here is the reason: often after a set-up, within 10 or so minutes, all the dogs within 200 yards hunker down. Remember, prairie dogs are very social, so the word travels very fast that something isn’t quite right in ‘Dog Town’. I don’t think it matters if the dogs are hunted a lot or a little, they just know when it’s time to vanish.
That marks the end of the first phase of shooting in that colony. Now comes phase two, with shots out to 400 yards. This phase may last a little longer, but after an undetermined time lapse, all those dogs too drop out of sight. For phase two, you might be changing to another rifle. This scenario can repeat at different distances. It may require rifle changes out to the magic 1,000 yard mark. I will close the mobility issue by a comment on moving your set-up position. If you have a 4X4 and a trailer, then you can load your equipment up quickly and move. A move is recommended once all the dogs within 400 yards have hunkered down. You may have to move only a ¼ mile through or around the colony and set-up again. But to enhance your shooting, you will want to be able to make moves as necessary.Two Rifles - Centerfire and Rimfire
I know ‘two rifles’ sounds like a great Native American name. However for this article, I will briefly discuss two rifles to take to South Dakota and one to leave at home. Leave your .22 at home. The .22 will not serve you well in the bigger-than-life landscape of South Dakota. This is not shooting a squirrel out of a Hickory Nut tree. As previously mentioned, often times within a few minutes, the 50 to 100 yard shots vanish and it follows with time, so do the 100 to 200 yard shots. So if you want to experience some very cost effective centerfire shooting, bring along a .17 HMR rifle. This is a great rifle out to 200 yards for most shooters. The .17 HMR is a very explosive round. It proves to be very effective on an animal the size of a prairie dog. If you are a great shooter, I’m sure you can poke a small hole through a prairie dog out to 300 yards with your .17HMR. But at 300 yards, the .17HMR loses a lot of its’ explosive nature.
The second rifle I suggest bringing along is the .204 Ruger. It is a centerfire rifle that shoots fast, flat and has very little recoil. The .204 covers distances up to 400 yards and beyond, depending on the shooting skill level of the shooter. The guys I hunt with can make a 500 yard shot with the .204, me not so much. The .204 is a very, very explosive round and great fun to shoot. Both the .17HMR and the .204 Ruger are super cost effective to shoot and efficient. Factory loads of .204 Ruger, 32gr. V-Max, work great for me, plus I save the brass. Remember, each rifle shoots different factory loads differently, so do your homework. Practice with different brands to see which shoots best in your rifle.
As you have guessed by now, my personal comfort shooting zones are out to 200 yards with the .17HMR and from 200 to 400 yards with the .204. I shoot a .204 in a Remington Model 700. I shoot the Savage in the .17 HMR. I have one-shot a couple of coyotes in the 220 yard range using the .204 Ruger, 32gr. V-Max bullet. As I said before, the .204 is a very explosive round. But if you desire to join the 1,000 yard club that may be possible depending how much time, effort and expense you are willing to expend. However, the .204 and the 1,000 yard club do not really go together.
That magical 1,000 yard shot changes everything and is beyond the scope of this article. This is where the real shooters shine. Make efforts to rub elbows with them, as they can share valuable information that will help you become a greatly improved shooter, even if you don’t make the 1,000 yard club. But be prepared to listen and learn the jargon. When they say BC, it doesn’t refer to timelines. They will talk of long range chambers and factory barrels. They will rattle off numbers like 22-250 and 220 Swift. They talk of different grain bullets in specific calibers and how they could retire other caliber rifles. They know which rifles can shoot high BC bullets and which can’t.Licenses and Accommodations
The only license you need to buy for hunting both prairie dogs and coyotes in South Dakota is called the Non-Resident Predator/Varmint License. This license costs $40.00 for 2016. If you hunt on Indian Reservations, at least on the Rosebud Reservation, a 3-day license will cost $60.00, but I don’t think a state license is required. However, hunting on Indian lands will require the services of an Indian guide. Guide services on the Rosebud Reservation cost around $75.00 a day per person, with a two person minimum. Hunting on Indian lands with a guide is very cost effective, considering you will save a bunch of time while getting introduced to the area. On the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Game, Fish and Parks website, you can buy a license and obtain a list of guides. Getting an Indian guide is not as easy as it might seem, so plan well ahead of time.
Prior planning is always the key to a comfortable fun hunt. The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks website can help you with online licenses and a ton of information about prairie dog hunting in South Dakota. Their website contains maps of prairie dog distributions throughout the state. They are happy to mail you a packet of useful information for DIY public land hunting. The southwestern part of South Dakota, along the I-90, is where we focus our trips. We hunt from Murdo, SD, west to the Badlands National Park and south of the I-90 to the Rosebud Indian Reservation along the Nebraska border. Motels can be found in Murdo, SD, on the I-90 and in Valentine, NE. Places to eat can be found in each of these locations. Other than that, motels are few and far between as are places to eat.
There may be a few old ranch houses in certain areas available for rent. For DIY folks, these are usually great and in the middle of good shooting areas. We have been renting one such place for a week in June for 10 years. The place is booked up by regulars and by word of mouth. The owners didn’t want me to mention the place, because that’s just the way it is in South Dakota. In the big city, we call it supply and demand. However, there are three nice cabins in the area that sleep up to four. The cabins rent for $150.00 a night and are called Salt Camp Cabins. They have a Rosebud, SD, address. Five miles from these cabins is a place called Allstop Grocery Gas and Deli. Here they serve breakfast and lunch and of course have an array of supplies, groceries and fuel. I mention these places because this area is where you might have to drive 50 miles to get a burger and a coke. Now once again, remember the supply and demand thing you learned in college. Always call way ahead of time to get reservations at the cabins. I’m talking up to a year ahead of your trip. If you don’t plan ahead, then likely you won’t be able to schedule three to six nights in a row. Remember too, these may well be the only rooms and other services available within 100’s of square miles.Shooting Conditions
Uncontrolled variables include weather, insects, rattlesnakes and the Sylvatic Plague. One side bar about the Sylvatic Plague; it has been and continues to be very bad on public lands in the western US. I suggest that you gather all the information you can on the places you desire to hunt. Both the Fed and the State will provide you with viable data, but remember hunting might be down 90% here or there and okay a few miles away. This is where private lands may trump public lands for availability of good prairie dog shooting. If you hunt a place on a regular basis you will see the cycle of life in all wildlife populations, but with the prairie dog, it can be very dramatic from year to year. We had a very down year three years ago, but the past two years, the hunting has gotten better and better in our location. However, the national grasslands nearby are experiencing huge problems in the prairie dog colonies with the Sylvatic Plague.
Because of the plague as well as rattlesnakes, it is best to leave your pets at home. Of course, you need to protect yourself as well. Last year the mosquitoes were unreal, you know the kind of year where there is no escape from them. They bite through your clothes, go under every protective layer of clothing and bite you no matter what. Sitting still is next to impossible. Take along some Thermacells with refills to keep mosquitoes at bay while shooting, just in case.Equipment needs
Basic equipment, related rifles and ammo vary with individuals. Some common things needed are coolers, lawn chairs, one shooting bench setup per person, a small table, binoculars and range finders. Optics can include spotting scopes, but good binoculars offer greater flexibility and mobility for fast action field use. Pack a portable awning or two for sun protection. A predator call is nice to bring because where there are prairie dogs, there are Coyotes.
We use a 5’ by 8’ enclosed trailer that has the interior customized to accommodate mainly our rifles, ammo, shooting benches and other equipment. This trailer is key to our mobility and facilitates our shooting activities in the field. We drag it everywhere. Thus, our comfort inside the vehicle is insured as all our equipment is well protected and stored inside the trailer.Trip Cost
A trip to South Dakota to hunt prairie dogs and coyotes as a side bar hunt if you wish, is a bargain. Divide all the cost two or four ways for housing, fuel and food. Cost per individual on our trip is divided four ways as follows: $50 a night on the road, one night each way for a total of $100 per person. The ranch house cost each of us $35.00 a night for five nights for a total per person cost of $175. Fuel cost per person for the round trip will be $125. Food cost per person is $100 for the seven day trip. License cost $40 each. Total trip cost per person for seven days, five of which are hunting days is $540 plus or minus $50. Housekeeping duties and cooking at the ranch house are shared. Since one of us loves to cook, the rest of us divide the other chores. By the way, while our cook is putting the chicken in the pot guess what? A couple of us will slip off the porch of the old ranch house with a predator call. It’s a fairly causal and informal coyote setup, but still we get one or two coyotes a trip.