I’m not entirely comfortable calling shooting prairie dogs in Wyoming “hunting”, it seems like actual hunting is probably a lot more difficult. I am, however, entirely comfortable calling shooting prairie dogs in Wyoming “fun” if perhaps a bit morbid.
I really didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at the Hanging Bull Lodge at Silver Spur Ranch in Encampment, Wyo. The accommodations themselves were worth writing home about; the lodge was spacious with plenty of room to house all of us, and the home-cooked meals were delicious every night, ending on Friday with a delicious steak dinner. Out front was a spectacular vista of the Rocky Mountains rising over green fields where foxes and horses frolicked, it could have been lifted straight out of a Disney movie.
I woke up early on the first day. I’m not sure why I always wake up early at shooting events when I hardly function before ten in the morning when I’m home. Nonetheless, I rose at five excited and ready for the day, put on my favorite pair of boots and headed out to take photos of the beautiful views before breakfast. After a delicious meal, we each selected a couple firearms from Smith & Wesson and Thompson Center and headed out to the range to sight them in. The morning of the first day I selected a Smith & Wesson M&P Performance Center in .223. It had been a while since I had shot so I struggled at first to get my hits where they needed to be, but eventually the gun was dialed in and off we went.
I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who knew what they were doing, experienced hunters and guides who were willing to help me through my first (and second and third) day in the field. That day I rode with veteran guide Roger, and well-known writer L.P. Brezny who has been hunting these hills for longer than I’ve even thought about shooting. The ranch we were on boasted 70,000 acres and were infested with varmints of all kinds – including prairie dogs, jackrabbits, marmots, and badgers. We rolled the Suburban into the field and the two more experienced shooters began discussing how many prairie dogs were around us, but look as I might I couldn’t see them. Finally, our guide pulled the car around, pointed right over my shoulder – and I saw it, a light brown dot on top of a mound about 85 yards away. I settled half a pool noodle over the car window for stability (it worked brilliantly), set the rail down on it, focused in on the dog, and took the shot. I nailed it. We climbed out of the truck and walked over to where the prairie dog had been, and I saw a dog ripped in half with its guts spilling out. It was gross. I was pretty pleased with myself. We spent the next couple hours gleefully sighting and shooting prairie dogs, I rapidly became more proficient at spotting them and soon was able to point them out to myself.
After lunch I decided to switch guns. In retrospect, I probably didn’t sight the gun in as well as I had thought that morning, and I was having trouble getting my hits. For the afternoon I selected a single shot Thompson Center Encore Pro Hunter chambered in .17 HMR. It was fantastic. We decided to head up higher into the mountains to see if we could find some marmots, we ended up higher elevation of where prairie dogs normally stay, which saved us a lot of ammunition but was worth it for the beautiful, beautiful views of the Rockies. We trundled around the mountainous country outside of Encampment along a road that wasn’t really a road, almost got the truck stuck had it not been from some brilliant maneuvering by our driver and guide, and only saw one marmot to shoot at.
As evening began to set in we abandoned the high elevation vistas and found ourselves a true prairie dog town down by one of the ranches. Prairie dog after prairie dog stuck its head out of the ground once we started shooting, we spent quite a while in one location shooting out of either side of the truck, and by the end we didn’t run out of prairie dogs, we decided it was time to head in for dinner. On our way back we spotted the first jackrabbit. It hopped across the road and I clambered out of the car to get a shot over the passenger’s side window. I took one shot, injured the poor thing, and head to settle in for a second, which I landed. We walked over to the rabbit and it became clear I was going to have to touch a dead thing, that’s part of killing stuff, having enough respect for it not be grossed out once it’s dead. I picked up the jackrabbit and posed for a picture which was later described as “hilarious and appropriate”. It was the beginning of something special.
That night ended on the porch in front of the lodge exchanging stories, drinking whiskey (okay, that was mostly me), and having a good ol’ gunwriter bonding time (those evening are fantastic, I always learn a lot). The morning I rose early again, enjoyed a cup of coffee on the porch and then I selected a bolt action TC Venture Predator chambered in .204 Ruger. It, too, was fantastic. That day I rode with Blue Heron PR Rep. Matt Rice and Women’s Outdoor News’ publisher Barbara Baird, both experienced hunters and prairie dog poppers.
The fun thing about the second day is that I had the opportunity to drive the Nissan Titan V8 that had been loaned to us for the weekend. I loved every second of it, and being behind the wheel certainly didn’t mean I didn’t have an opportunity to shoot. Be sure to check out my full review of the Titan in the side bar (I learned some valuable stuff in the eight hours I was behind the wheel that day).
While the standard prairie dog shooting ensued, the highlight of the day came that morning, when I spotted another jackrabbit. I shot a neat hole through it with my .204 Ruger and it dropped instantly, we went over to pick it up, and it was beautiful – much larger than the previous day’s rabbit with a perfect fluffy tail. I threw it in the trunk, froze it solid, packed it in my luggage, and got a taxidermist’s number from my landlord when I got home.
That evening, several of us decided to go coyote hunting – which was a much more “hunt”-like experience than driving around shooting prairie dogs out of an air-conditioned vehicle. We drove out the field dressed in camo with our faces covered, set up a call, and sat as still as possible. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and I’d love to do it again. I felt so on edge, I was so ready to see something and I so wanted to see something. We had no luck at our first location, but we had some special kinds of luck at the second. While we didn’t see any coyotes that night, there was a doe who wandered into our field to examine that call, and a beautiful hawk that landed next to it before perching directly above where I was standing between two hay bales.
Despite our lack of success, we headed back to camp to celebrate, joining our comrades around a camp fire and exchanging stories and arguing about different industry events.
The next morning I rode with Blue Heron Rep. Jeff Puckett and experienced hunter and excellent shot Mark Hampton. The third day was an amazing experience and the only way I could imagine ending the week. That day, I packed up an M&P 15-22, another single shot TC Venture Pro Hunter this time chambered in .223, and a suppressed M&P .22 compact. I was well-equipped for the day’s adventures.
We started out parked on top of a hill where Jeff and Mark were shooting prairie dogs out from under some old farm equipment. I used the opportunity to scan the field below with my scope and I couldn’t believe what I saw – a badger sitting on top of a mound. I shouted to the guys, focused in, and took my shot. I missed. Mark sighted in on it, took his shot, and hit. We drove down and found the beautiful creature, knew we needed to prove we shot it, and threw it in the back of the truck.
From there, we proceeded into a field next door, where herds of antelope dotted the hillside. I was scanning the field, relaxed and looking around, when Mark shouted “Another one!” We watched as the badger trundled across the road. Mark leaned his rifle out the window, took another shot, and got another hit. We knew we now really had to prove what had happened so we threw that badger into the back of the truck too.
Throughout the course of the day we saw elk, plenty of beautiful antelope, some very large deer parked right off the side of the road, a giant golden eagle that swooped down over our hood, a flock of bald eagles circling a lake, and lots and lots of prairie dogs. At the end of the day I was able to nail another jackrabbit, this time with the .223 ripping it to shreds. The day was perfect, everything about it seemed an idyllic version of what driving around the Rocky Mountains shooting prairie dogs should be.
Nissan Titan V8
Spending a day behind the wheel of the Titan V8 trundling through the mountains taught me quite a bit about it. For example, on the way back from prairie dog hunting, we discovered that the gas light comes on at 27 miles to empty. It has an exceptional turning radius (this coming from someone who regularly drives a Mini Cooper JCW), the brakes work really well when you almost miss your turn to the lodge, and the mirrors make really excellent rifle rests – in fact I used them for that basically all day.
The crew cab is spacious – we had enough head room for 6’1 Matt to sit quite comfortably, and enough space in the back for Barb to move rifles back and forth to either side of the car with ease. The coating on the trunk allowed the rabbit blood to be washed off with ease. In fact, our only complaint was the lack of tether on the oil cap.
Barb’s M&P 15 started to dry up and we didn’t have any gun oil in the car, so Matt climbed out while I popped the hood. After successfully lubing the rifle with engine oil, Matt managed to drop the oil cap into the engine. We backed up a good 100 yards, with no success in getting the oil cap to fall out. Finally we found it lodged in a peculiar spot under the truck and were able to continue with our day, but a tether would be a good thing for people like us who do dumb things like drop the oil cap into the engine.
By Shelley Rae. Originally published in the September 2015 issue of GunUp the Magazine.