WINNER, S.D. | As we drove our four wheeler up to the edge of the prairie dog town we could see the little critters everywhere.
By the time we unloaded, got set up and ready to shoot, there was nary a dog in sight.
"These guys have been hunted," I said to Gary Howey, Hartington, Neb., who was sweeping the town through his 8X24 binoculars.
"Landowner said there hasn't been anyone in here for about six weeks," Gary answered.
I pushed my 10X50s up to my eyes again and muttered, "They sure got a good memory."
We were northwest of Winner, S.D., on a dog town that covered about 160 acres. That's a quarter of a section for those of you who have been raised in town. And just so you know, a section is a mile square.
As dog towns go in Millette County, however, that's not huge. The state figures there are 30,000 acres of dog towns in the county. A lot of that is on private property, and permission is not hard to come by.
As we glassed for dogs, I took some time to look at this pasture. I say pasture using the term lightly. There was no grass. There was no grass at all. Acres and acres of some kind of low-growing plant that I couldn't identify, but no grass. That's one of the reasons ranchers hate them. There were some cattle grazing at the edge of the dog town. Black white-faces mostly. There was grass beyond the mounds, but not here.
Then we gradually began to spot some dogs. They were coming out, but so far nothing close. We waited and finally one popped out about 150 yards away.
Gary got behind his Howa 1500 .22-250 and nailed him. I was up next and we found one about 200 yards out. The 55-grain ballistic tip left the barrel of my .243 at 3,750 feet per second, and when it hit the dog, well, it disappeared.
For the next couple of hours, we took turns spotting and shooting. Most of our shots were 200 yards plus and, I have to say, we missed a lot.
Neither one of us is a serious prairie dog hunter. We might go once every couple of years or so. I use my Ruger M77 sporting rifle topped with a 3X9 Leupold scope. It stays dead accurate for about five quick shots and then the barrel heats up and begins sending rounds into unpredictable spots.
Gary's rifle is a better dog gun. It's a thumb-hole stock with a bull barrel. The heavy barrel doesn't heat up as quickly so it holds its accuracy better than mine. On top is an Alpen Apex 6X24X50 variable scope.
We carried self-inflating air mattresses and sat on them using our Harris bipods for rifle supports.
Serious hunters will bring their own shooting benches. They'll spot dogs with expensive spotting scopes. Range finders will dial in the yardage. Their scopes will equal military snipers' and their rifles will sport bull barrels, large diameter steel which will stand up to the heat of constant firing. They will look for shots 400 yards out and make them more often than not.
To them, this is a serious enterprise to test their ability at long-range shooting at a small target. And they come from throughout the world to hunt prairie dogs in western South Dakota.
But for most of us this is more like plinking on steroids. If you are not sighted in, and a half way decent shot, you probably won't hit anything. And if you don't know squat about this game, there are some things you should be aware of.
First rule is never to pick up prairie dogs. They can carry disease and their fleas can carry a type of plague which is not unlike the bubonic plague. It's a fact that most of the dogs west of where we were shooting have contracted some type of plague.
Stay away from the burrows. There may be fleas which actually carry the plague, and rattlesnakes live in the holes. I've also been told black widow spiders live in the holes, but I've never seen one. I have seen rattlers.
We decided to move to another dog town a couple miles south of this one. Again, when we drove in the little guys were everywhere. And then, just like that they were gone.
It pays to be patient when you hunt prairie dogs. We set up and waited. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes they began to surface.
I spotted for Gary for the first half hour. Then it was my turn.
These dogs were not quite as spooky and we got some shots at about 100 yards.
It was fun just being out in this country. The pastures we were shooting in were relatively flat, but bordered by large buttes jutting from the earth like Jurassic sentinels. Boulders were strewn along their steep slopes. I imagine they look about the same now as they did 200 years ago.
And, no doubt, prairie dogs called this place home just as much or more then as they do now.