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The Great Summer Varmint Hunt 2014

We crawled to the edge of the rise, through knee-high prairie grass, convinced the barks we'd heard must be coming from a nearby prairie dog town. We were so certain, that even though we'd been warned about the number of rattlers in the grass (due to the heavy rains) we chose to crawl once we got close. We were on a mission. My son PJ had never been prairie dog hunting before. . .

by Joe W Gorman

Crawling in West-Central South Dakota means close encounters with cactus. And had we found a lot. The rains that had fallen nearly every day in June also meant mud. At this point, my rifle, my Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 8 x 42 field glasses, my multicam BDUs and my ILBE pack were gumbo-mud caked. Thankfully, the heavy duty Propper Multicam jacket and trousers (stout nylon/cotton cloth, seriously over stitched) and Altima nylon jungle boots had helped to blunt the cactus spikes I'd bumped into. The Altima's nylon density provided an extra layer of protection when I accidentally walked over a cactus.

Bushnell Binoculars

Cresting the hill top, I glassed the plains ahead of me with the Bushnell binocs (fortunately I'd left the lens covers in place while we crawled so the mud never touched the lenses). The resolution and clarity of the Legend HD glass was really amazing, given their price point (street price about $200) and allowed me to easily see those little, white-bellied commies cavorting as if the whole world was their salad bowl. My son pushed his assault pack up roughly in line with my pack. I focused the eyepiece on the 7X Bushnell Elite 1 mile ARC laser range finder, mounted it in a lightweight tripod and quickly assessed the town. Yeah we were waaaaay too tactical for assaulting a prairie dog town, but what the heck, we had the gear.

"Looks like the close edge is 395 yards and the far edge is about 485, I'd say it runs about 200 yards laterally. Small town," I said loud enough for PJ to hear. We were both glad to find this town, after a misunderstanding about what "a little ways around the corner" meant with respect to this dogtown's location the day before (In this case, a little ways was about 3 miles, but the rancher who told us this was driving) and a bit of disappointed that this was it.

I was used to huge dog towns. I told PJ about dogtowns that ran for miles. Towns we could drive up to and shoot for days. But we're "glass half-full types" so this was where we were setting up. This particular town was on walk-on hunting land. Translation: No vehicles. We had to hump water, ammo, rifles and optics for a day's shoot. But we were lucky to find this town as the plague had killed so many dogs in South Dakota this year, we were beginning to wonder if we'd see a town at all. Fewer dogs meant fewer coyotes too. At least that was my logic.

Fortunately, we'd discovered some healthy dogs. I re-glassed the entire area. I spotted a smaller town, north of our hilltop, and the Bushnell 7 X 26 Elite 1 Mile ARC Rangefinder told me it started about 720 yards and that's about all I needed to know about that town :). We locked and loaded our SIG rifles, PJ had a SIG516 Patrol and I had a SIG716 Patrol. PJ's rifle had a Leupold MARK AR MOD 4-12X zeroed at 300 yards and I had the Patrol 1.25-4X (Yes it's not ideal for varmints at these ranges but it's still fun). With our weapons charged, we coordinated fields of fire.

Bushnell ARC One mile range finder

The Bushnell ARC provides an inclinometer and ammunition presets which means precise elevation calculations (even in MIL if you prefer it and I do) and absurdly accurate ranging. I had to crank the display to max brightness to see it in the midday sun, but once cranked up it was easy to see range returns and MIL holdover. As this was PJ's first prairie dog hunt, I decided to play scout and call his first few shots. As he squeezed the Timney drop-in trigger, his first shot landed about a foot right (very stout wind) and about 4-inches low. A quick guesstimation for windage and a bit further toward the first mildot and the second shot just barely missed. The next shot he fired found its mark and he had the wind figured out.

Using his Harris bipod, his steady shots were having a big impact on the dogs. The light Hornady VMAX bullets expended most of their considerable energy into the dogs and at one point PJ exclaimed that he saw the red veil! The red veil! Small-caliber hi-powered rifles allow you to stay on target after the shot and higher magnification optics allow you to see the effect your bullet is having clearly. The VMAX and the Federal polymer tipped 55 grain bullets caused spectacular vaporization. I couldn't see it with the 4X Leupold Patrol but I'd seen it before.

We set up the tripod for lasing and the clarity of the optics in the ARC rangefinder was such that I could do a decent job of scouting the closer dogs and pointing them out to PJ. For wide viewing though the 8X42 binoculars were incredibly clear after I figured out how to adjust the eye pieces. Eventually I used the Rotapod and Harris to lay down heavy fire from the SIG716. I'd packed up all the miscellaneous ammo that I had stored in the basement including some unknown European MIL surplus. I noticed a flintlock effect wherein after the hammer fall there was a split second delay to detonation. I reasoned that the RRA varmint trigger hammer spring was too light to really wallop the harder primers of the foreign mil surplus stuff (even though earlier it'd done fine with South American surplus). So lesson learned: Use a stock weight hammer spring, doh.

Hornaday .223 Remington VMax AMMO

We occasionally had the good fortune to catch a number of dogs out of their holes socializing. I coordinated with PJ on which dog he should hit, which one I'd hit and I'd countdown to trigger time. This worked well and one of these coordinated shoots resulted in us hitting the same dog milliseconds apart: PJ's shot hit first and the dog caught a bit of air, and the 7.62 hit quickly after, pushing the dog back in the direction of my bullet's travel. This was a spectacular team effort. By the way, the 155-grain Hornady VMAX ammo sort of, well, vaporizes a dog. When we walked back through dog town I found one I'd hit with the VMAX and it was in two separate pieces with everything in between just gone. . .

PJ at one point ran out of ammo and had to pack back to jeep to resupply. The temps were getting well into the upper 90s and he brought back more water as well. Eventually the battering of 7.62 NATO took a toll on my shoulder (I'd fired 420 rounds) and I used my Colt M4 with the Aimpoint PRO and a JP Enterprises Armageddon-gear roller trigger.

I had to do some serious guestimation at the closer dogs with this rig, but I did manage to get a couple confirmed kills. Given my eyesight, that's a miracle! The stock Colt M4 is not nearly as accurate as the SIG716 and given the 1X red dot, shooting at dogs more than three football fields away might seem hopeless. But the JP roller trigger helped wring as much accuracy as possible out of the Colt carbine.

Federal .223 VSOH ammo Remington .223 caliber

By the end of the afternoon we'd come to the conclusion we should probably bug out, make camp and have dinner. We walked back to the jeep and, after examining the sky, opted to head for higher ground as the already saturated low lands we were in would be really sticky if more rain fell. I carefully packed the SIGs in an SKB iSeries double rifle case and kept the M4 up front in the jeep with us. The precision SIGs were carefully set up to be EXACTLY on target at specific ranges. And while the Leupold glass and Mark 4 I.M.S. mounts are tough and durable, we are talking rifles capable of shooting the heart out of a playing card at 100 yards. This level of precision is required to make repeatable long range accurate shots. The SKB keeps these tools safe and dry. Oh and it has wheels! So just to prove a point. I put two eggs in separate zip lock bags and locked them in the center of the SKB case. I then struck the case with an aluminum baseball bat. The eggs were fine. This case, and the protection it offered, to my mind, made the difference between a successful hunt and a frustrating failure.

After we pitched our Eureka DownRange 2 tent (and used all the guy ropes too) we busted out my old Coleman dual burner stove and made up some Chili with saltines and tortillas and a couple slabs of sharp cheddar. Uuummmm! Fortunately we did not recreate the beans scene from Blazing Saddles. As dusk neared, we packed up the Fox Pro Wild Fire 2 and walked to the top of a wooded ravine facing into the wind. We left the speaker of the Fox Pro set up on a tripod. A local rancher had earlier said there were still coyotes in the area. We backed off 100 yards or so from the call speaker and started scanning with binoculars. After roughly 10 minutes I saw him.

PJ rangefinding

Typically I can't see a coyote very far away in the summer due to the colors of his coat blending in so well with the terrain. This summer, the hills and plains of South Dakota were deep jade green. I was able to see him with the Legend glasses. He seemed wary, reluctant to come in. This guy was standing, only his head exposed above the thick grass, lased at 500ish yards. I whispered to PJ where I saw him but he did not spot him. I looked for him again and he was gone. The storm that we had seen in the distance had closed in closer to us, we could see the rain line draw nearer. We figured we'd get wet but we continued to call. PJ spotted him first. I lased him at about 350 yards, again, I could still only see his head. The rancher had told us that calls usually bring coyotes in to within shotgun range and quickly! This old yote apparently didn't get that memo. He was not running in.

The yote was coming in exactly how we imagined he would, upwind of us and he couldn't flank us without completely exposing himself. He disappeared again. I told PJ to crawl forward of our current location to the very edge of the hill we were on and set up his SIG516 prone.

I hunkered down with the ARC laser and scanned.

I spotted him.

I lased him at 290-ish yards. I thought this might be our last chance to get this guy.

I crawled up to PJ and pointed out his location. He acquired the yote in the MARK AR Leupold and put the crosshairs on his chest. PJ wiped off the safety and lost the yote in the weeds. . .

I lost him too. He'd backed off as the rain began to pelt us. That smart old dog lived to see another day.

We made it back to the tent as the rain soaked us. Lightning flashed across the distant horizon. We got inside the tent as the wind blew harder. In the shelter of the tent we recounted the day. It was a good day for a first time varmint hunter.

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