Hunting For Prairie Dog Towns
by Jim Eid
As prairie dog trips go, this one stunk. Eric and I had shot fewer than 50 rounds in the first two days of our trip. The rain was turning every road that wasn't paved into gumbo, keeping us from getting into the back country to dog towns I had shot before. So there we sat in the protection of the pickup, watching the only tiny dog town we could get to, listening to the radio and getting more frustrated with each drop of rain that hit the windshield. At the top of the hour the weather report didn't offer any hope. Rain for the next couple of days.
As I sat there looking out on an empty dog town, I recalled other trips that had gone bad because of weather. On one trip, three of us left Wisconsin with high hopes and lots of shells, heading for the badlands. We hit rain driving out and it didn't stop. Three days later, with a grand total of 7 rounds fired, we gave up and headed home. A wise rancher once told me, "never curse the rain", but it is hard not to when you have so much invested in a prairie dog trip.
Another trip I recalled was just plain miserable. We were in northwestern Nodak, shooting the grasslands and got there just about the time a cold front came sliding down from Canada. The wind was gusting 25 to 35 mph and it would sprinkle every now and then. Not enough to force you off the prairie, but enough to make you pick up your gear. And was it cold! We were wearing every piece of clothing we brought with us and were still cold. It is the only trip I can remember where the heater was used more than the a/c. We set up one bench close to the pickup to keep out of the wind, and then sat in the warmth of the cab, glassing the area for dogs. Every so often we would see one venture out of the burrow, take a look around and then head back down, never to be seen again. Most of the time they wouldn't stay up long enough for us to get a shot at them. We waited out the cold weather, and did get some shooting in, but on the report card of prairie dog trips, that one was a D-.
Bringing myself back to reality, I looked at Eric and said, "We gotta' get out of this weather pattern. How's Wyoming sound to you? With a wry sense of humor, Eric replied, "Well, it looks like we got Nodak shot up, let’s go."
We had been cruising for about 4 hours on our way to Wyoming when we rounded a slight bend in the road and looked to our right to see 3 men on horse back, riding across the prairie. Watching them intently, Eric says, "Now there's some REAL cowboys, with REAL cowboy hats, riding REAL horses." I glanced over to look at them again and hit the brakes hard, scaring Eric to death. I pointed towards them as Eric was getting his heart going again, and said, "Yup, and look at the REALLY big dog town they're riding through."
Eric and I spent the next few days shooting that town and others in the area. To say we were lucky is an understatement. The shooting in the area right next to the road was incredible. We couldn't figure out why until we questioned the rancher and found out cattle had been kept there for several weeks in preparation for shipping. No one could shoot the area with all the cattle in the way, so the prairie dogs got used to the good life. That town was no more than a hundred acres but we were able to shoot the town all day and come back the next day for more. Eric had two guns and I had three and many times, all five were too hot to continue shooting. We asked the rancher if he had spread oats laced with Viagra instead of poison, as every mound seemed to have a dozen pups on it.
Of course the town was immediately nicknamed the Viagra town. After starting slowly, the trip turned into one of the best hunting and shooting trips I have ever had the pleasure of making. If your concerned Eric and I overshot the town, you should know that town prospered for another five years being shot by us and many others. Year after year it continued to be one of the best towns I have ever seen. Right up to the time the plague came along and wiped it out.
Some of you may disagree with me when I use the term "hunting" with respect to the sport of prairie dog shooting. Those of you that are fortunate enough to live near active prairie dog towns would be the first to question my sanity. So bear with me a bit, and I will try to explain.
It is true, you usually don't have to stalk the little buggers, they aren't going anywhere except up and down. Nature’s pop-goes-the-weasel game if you will. And although I have tried to call them, sounding as much like a prairie dog as possible, they didn't come running, at least not to me. They don't decoy real well as far as I can tell, although I did go through a stage earlier in my prairie dog career where I tried some home made ones. The plan was to cut a standing prairie dog silhouette out of cardboard, paint it to look like a prairie dog, and fasten a stake to the cardboard so you could stick it in the prairie. The decoys are then spread out in a semi circle between the shooters and their intended victims.
Supposedly, the decoy makes the other prairie dogs feel safe when they see it standing up, showing complete and utter disregard for its safety. Unfortunately this experiment with decoying prairie dogs was to be one of my more humiliating adventures. It wasn't that decoys didn't work, and I suppose, given the right circumstances, I would try them again if someone held a gun to my head. It was when the rancher happened to come riding up, with a couple of his hands to see how we were doing that things got embarrassing. Of course they spotted the decoys right away, but for some reason didn't ask about them for what seemed like an hour. I could tell all of them were trying to figure out what in the world these idiots were doing with cardboard prairie dogs stuck in their prairie. Finally, pointing at the decoys, the rancher asked, "What’s the matter, not enough real ones to shoot at?" I explained the reasoning of using prairie dog decoys as best I could, but I am quite sure it was too late. I can just imagine the discussion that took place between them when they left us. I haven't had the guts to use them since. So, if the more common hunting tactics are largely a waste of time, where is the "hunting" in prairie dog hunting?
The "hunting" is trying to find the dog towns, and it has to be the most important element of the do-it-yourself prairie dog trip. I can hear some of you saying you don't have the vacation time to cruise hundreds of miles of roads, and spend days looking for holes in the prairie. And as the price of fuel increases, hiring a guide that will take you around to the towns is becoming a more economical alternative. For this, all you need to get started is a computer hooked up to the internet. Researching "prairie dog guides" will get you many contacts. As with any guided trip, you should check out the guide completely, and ask for references. But what if you want to do it all yourself? Where do you start? Well, you should have some general destination in mind. The Black Tailed Prairie Dog can be found all over the west, but the largest concentration is in an area that takes in the western half of North and South Dakota, the eastern half of Montana, the eastern half of Wyoming and the far western part of Nebraska. Researching this area will increase your odds of finding what you are looking for. Your expectations can have a bearing on what you look for also.
The first dog town I shot many years ago was not even 40 acres and was hit pretty hard by the locals. 50 rounds a day was pretty good shooting, and I thought I was in heaven. I would spend hours waiting for a couple of dogs to come out to shoot at. I try not to forget those humble beginnings when I have several big towns that allow me to easily shoot several hundred rounds in a day. Generally, dog towns on public land will get more pressure than those on private land. However, this does not necessarily mean the shooting will be poor. Prairie dogs within a few hundred yards will often dive for cover at the first sounds of gunfire. Even driving into a town that is shot often, can send them scrambling for their burrows. Usually though, prairie dogs beyond that will often stay up and feed without any signs of concern. For those that like to shoot at longer distances, the opportunities are endless, and in this situation, it doesn't take a lot of prairie dogs to provide entertainment for hours.
For many years I shot public land and my prairie dog arsenal reflected this situation. When preparing for a trip I would pack my 22-250, a 243, 25-06 and 300 WinMag. So what resources are there for finding the locations of prairie dog towns? I certainly have not checked out all of them, but here are some of the ones I have used.
I shot the Grasslands of North Dakota for many years. There was an office on the outskirts of Watford City where you could get a map of the grasslands, complete with symbols that showed where dog towns were located. The Fish and Game web sites of both North and South Dakota have some excellent information on locations of prairie dogs in their states.
You may get lucky by posting a request on the different hunting forums, but don't hold your breath while waiting. Most who know of a good spot will not give that information to anyone. There is a way to use your computer though, but you will have to read to the end of the article to find out.
- COUNTY AGRICULTURE AGENCIES
I have not had a lot of luck with these agencies, but I certainly haven't checked out all of them either. Some agencies may have contact information about ranchers that want dog hunters, and other counties won't bother. If you have the time it is worth contacting them to find out.
POUNDING THE PAVEMENT
Let’s say, for whatever reason, you're in an area that could have dog towns. How do you find them? The following are some of the methods I have used depending on the general area I am in.
As you are driving around, if you see anyone working a field, opening/closing a fence, doing anything that looks like they own that land, stop and talk with them. Ask them if they know of anyone that has prairie dogs. If there is any in the area they WILL know, as they don't want any on their ranch.
I have stopped at taverns and asked, but the pain involved was usually not worth the information I got so I rarely do this any more.
Sporting goods and convenience stores have not worked very well for me. But don't overlook the restaurant that serves a good breakfast and has all those dusty pickups parked outside.
The best information I have found I got from stopping in at feed mills, or any places where the local ranchers have to go for supplies. This method of getting good contacts trumps all others.
So what is the secret method of finding dog towns with your computer? Well, if you have the right equipment and connection, Google Earth could be your new best friend. First of all you need a relatively new computer and a fairly good connection or the program will run intermittently and you can get frustrated. At least I do. It only takes a few minutes to download Google Earth and you are ready to go. Two clicks on the spot you want to go and you are ready to start looking for prairie dog towns. What you are looking for is randomly scattered, sandy colored spots on the prairie. In some areas, the resolution of the image is not that great and you have to look carefully. Other areas have a greater resolution and it is fairly easy to spot them. So far I have found several new towns that I want to check out. Remember, what you are viewing is not in real time. Most of the images are one to three years old, so there are no guaranties that the town hasn't been poisoned or killed by the plague, or for what ever reason doesn't exist any more.
Am I concerned? Not in the least. Experience has taught me prairie dog towns are fleeting, here one year, gone the next. I am excited because after spending so much time and money hunting dog towns over the years, I have to smile when I find one, sitting in an easy chair, moving around this little mouse and clicking my way across the prairie.