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Texas Varmint Hunt!

Posted by on July 6, 2014

My hunting has been a bit slow over the last couple months, I’ve been traveling a lot for work, doing some family trips (spent this weekend at the Fields Museum in Chicago….love that place!), and thought I jump into my field journal and share a hunt from seasons past. A couple summers back I was invited on a predator hunt in West Texas, to help thin out the coyotes and bobcats causing some headaches for a local rancher. The land was being converted to a wildlife / hunting preserve, but after years of a no hunting policy by the past owner, predators had gotten out of control. An old friend and predator hunting expert Cody Brunette had been asked to come in and control their numbers, and asked if I’d like to come with them. Knowing my fondness for airguns, they asked if I wanted to bring one along to take a side trip for prairie dogs and jackrabbits. They said there was a population explosion on another of the ranches they take care of. Well, this sounded like a winning deal to me; predators all night and varmint in the day!

On the Road to Texas!

Getting ready for the trip from Indianapolis to Midland Odessa I confronted the perennial challenge, how to get all my gear onsite without spending more in excess baggage than the cost of the airfare. I wanted to take three guns on this trip, but outside of the massive safari case used for long overseas trips, none of my cases would conveniently fit three full sized rifles. I finally settled on disassembling the guns removing the actions from stocks and demounting the scopes so that they’d fit into a standard two rifle case.

I’d originally planned to carry a couple of small tanks and a hand pump for keeping the guns charged. But while doing some advanced ground work, I went online to look for a paintball shop where I could get the tanks filled, and low and behold found a dive shop…. In the middle of Texas, go figure! Calling to see if they could fill my tanks, the owner asked if I just wanted to rent tanks instead of hauling my own cross country. He arranged to have three bottles filled and ready, so all I had to carry along was the yoke and fill probes. I was a bit apprehensive without the safety net of even a handpump, but the shop owner had done business with airgunners in the past and assured me they would have everything I’d need. So in the end I got all the gear required packed into my duffle and a standard rifle case.

I was hunting the seemingly barren West Texas area, but as dry as it is, there is a lot of wildlife.

I was hunting the seemingly barren West Texas area, but as dry as it is, there is a lot of wildlife.

I had found a good deal on airfare online, but did encounter some hidden charges. I had to pay additional fees for my checked baggage and excess weight, if you’re watching your budget consider these costs before buying your ticket. Checking my gun case was trouble free; I filled out the forms, confirmed the guns were unloaded, and stood by while it went through TSA. Getting your guns squared away is always hit or miss, and depends on whose working at the airline check-in and security counters, as the only consistency to be expected these days is inconsistency. Airguns are viewed and handled as firearms, and as a rule I don’t even mention that they are airguns as this seems to totally confuse most airline representatives. But it was my day and after a few minutes wait for the gun case to clear, I was in my seat and on my way!

Flying into Midland a few hours later, I looked out the window to see an expanse of open land that looked like a giant game board with green vegetation and red earth checkering the landscape. This looked like endless hunting opportunity and I could not wait to get in the field. I was keeping my fingers crossed that the guns had made the transfer on my Dallas stop over, as I ran through a mental check list of what needed to be done on arrival (get gear, pick up tanks, drop off bags and put guns together, etc.). The approach was bumpy, and as it turned out the winds bouncing our little commuter plane around as the girl behind me sat retching would be my unwelcome companion for the next few days.

On the grounds, my bags came rolling out quickly and seemed in good condition with no visible dents. I wheeled my gear outside and called Cody on my cell phone, and waited until I saw his full sized hunt-mobile pull up to the curb. I threw my kit in the back and we headed over to collect the scuba tanks. There were three tanks filled to 3400 psi waiting for me as promised, and all my connectors fit perfectly…. Off to a good start! I was dropped by my hotel to get checked in and sorted out, grabbed a fast bite to eat, and then headed out for an afternoon prairie dog shoot.

I wasn’t sure if I’d need optics on this trip or not. I always bring a spotting scope when heading out for a varmint shoot with my centerfires, but around a hundred yards was going to be as far as I’d be stretching it with an air rifle. I packed binoculars and a spotting scope to be safe, but in the end only used the binocs. And they did come in handy for viewing the area between shots and picking out my rodent targets from the cow patties.

Lots of prairie dogs, this is one the only places that I've shot prairie dogs and ground squirrels in the same place.

Lots of prairie dogs, this is one the only places that I’ve shot prairie dogs and ground squirrels in the same place.

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Lots of jackrabbits too, on this trip they were everywhere you looked, a year later hardly and to be found, this year I've heard they're out in numbers again!

Lots of jackrabbits too, on this trip they were everywhere you looked, a year later hardly and to be found, this year I’ve heard they’re out in numbers again!

Guns and Gear

The gun I’d chosen to take along for smaller quarry was the AirArms S410 FAC. This well crafted rifle is typical of the quality in British gun design; a well crafted and ergonomic stock, rugged and reliable action, and nice overall fit and finish. The .22 caliber rifle I’ve been shooting is spitting out pellets at velocities in the mid 900 fps range, packing a walloping 31 fpe. This gun is cocked using a side lever action which I find to be a marked improvement over the traditional bolt action, and makes it fast to cycle the 10 shot rotary magazine. The magazine is quick and easy to fill, and digests a wide range of pellet styles, though I opted for Crosman Premiers as the best all around hunting load.

And at night it was back to the big bores and calling in the yotes! Cody has a very cool shooting tower and calling station above his pickup.

And at night it was back to the big bores and calling in the yotes! Cody has a very cool shooting tower and calling station above his pickup.

I like the CP pellets for a couple reasons, weighing in at 14.3 grains these round nose pellets are particularly accurate in the rifle I was going to use, and I know from past experience they perform well on small game. These pellets are purchased in bulk, and come packed in a box of 1250 pellets per box. I transfer a couple hundred pellets into small fishing lure storage boxes for carry in the field. It is a smart practice to shoot the same pellets used for plinking and target practice as those that will be used for hunting, reduce the variables in your field gun wherever you can.

The accuracy obtained with this gun is impressive, facilitated by the 12 grove Lothar Walther barrel and two stage adjustable trigger. Checking my guns zero after remounting the scope, I was getting ¼” fifty yard groups that opened up to ¾” at 100 yards. I don’t often reach out this far with my small bore airguns, but I’d been tasked with aggressively thinning out the varmints and would take long shots when presented. I knew this gun would be up to it! The optics mounted on my rifle was the Niko Stirling 3-9x50mm scope with adjustable objective, which can be optimized from 5 yards to infinity. The optical quality is clear, sharp, and offers excellent low light characteristics, the perfect compliment to this gun.

Prairie Dogs and Jackrabbits …… everywhere!

The first afternoon Cody and Chris picked me up and we drove about an hour out of Midland. We were going to a prairie dog town on a ranch where the guys hunted predators, but they’d not been there for a while. Pulling off the highway we started down a dirt ranch road bouncing along the washboard ruts. There was sparse mesquite brush as far as the eye could see, and in just about every other shady spot I could see a jackrabbit or two trying to escape the intense mid day sun. And it was hot, the high that day eventually reaching 103 degrees. After a thirty minute drive we pulled off the road onto a trail that led out to a barren flat of about thirty acres, spotted with a few mesquites and a light cover of low grass and barren earth. Prairie dog mounds and cow patties dotted the landscape, each with a prairie dog set back on his haunches staring at us as much smaller and faster ground squirrels darted about. Some of the dogs dropped down their holes and out of sight, while a few brave souls stayed above ground to watch us.

I jumped out of the truck and sat down shooting off of my knee, and squeezed two rapid shots dropping two dogs quickly. My rifle has a shrouded barrel and  is very quiet, I don’t think they could hear anything, and were confused as one after another a neighbor back flipped away to the big prairie dog town in the sky. The outstanding accuracy of the rifle coupled with an effective pellet enabled me to reach out with a couple shots paced off at over a 110 yards. I dropped many more prairie dogs and a few ground squirrels, most in the 60 to 80 yard range. Eventually the wind started kicking up, and I had to start making some significant adjustment for windage, a 16 grain pellet moving at around 900 fps can be moved several inches in a 30 mph crosswind. Having Cody call my shots for me was a big help, but the wind remained a factor for the rest of my trip.

The next day we decided to focus on jackrabbits and headed to another ranch where the landowner had way too many of these desert hares. The previous year they had been a real nuisance as they raided his winter wheat crop. I’ve been an outdoorsman all my life and have traveled far and wide, but outside of a couple areas in Australia have never seen so many rabbits in my life. It is not an exaggeration to say that on some areas of the ranch I could walk for hours in any direction and never loose sight of at least one set of the antennae like ears perked up and listening for trouble. As with the prairie dogs, the gun and pellet combo did the trick. I shot a pile of jacks at ranges between 25 and 120 yards. The pellets hit with a thud that was more audible than the gun, and whether lung shot or head shot would tend to anchor the rabbit. I have always liked multi-shot guns, but unless hunting in very cold climates where loading with numb fingers was a problem, was just as happy with a single shot. But simply based on the large number of targets and how quickly they presented, found the ten shot rotary magazine an asset.

A rather odd thing occurred when taking a shot at a rabbit around a hundred yards out. A strong gust of wind blew my shot a little off course and I cycled the gun getting ready to shoot again. But looking through my scope I was surprised to see a covey of quail surround the rabbit and feed, with a couple actually stepping on his back! I had to wait about five minutes for the quail to finish and get on their way before I could shoot.

Prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and jackrabbits are the perfect quarry for airgun hunters. They take precision shooting, are the right size, and can be found in quantity. A rifle such as the one I used on this hunt, that generates thirty or so fpe and minute of angle accuracy, will do the job and provide a lot of shooting opportunity.

Gun and Ammo Performance

I used my AirArms s510 on this trip, but any accurate gun in .22 or. 25 putting out in the 20+ fpe range would do the trick. Some of the other guns I’ve used since this trip when heading out west over the last couple years include the Daystate Wolverine .22 and the Huntsman Classic .22, the FX Verminator in .25, the Royale .25, the Airforce Condor, and the Marauder .25. With shots often stretching close to the century mark I like a gun with a bit more power that can handle heavy roundnose pellets which I find the best type of pellet for most hunting, and especially longer range. I have gravitated more towards .25 caliber in recent years, as it hits with authority and is better at anchoring quarry on the spot.

My trip out to Texas with Cody and Chris was a lot of fun, but in fact it was the wrong time of the year for serious predator hunting, which the guys had warned me of up front. As hard as we worked, hunting all night and systematically making more than a dozen sets over large areas on each outing the coyote and bobcats wouldn’t come in. Or I should say that we couldn’t see them through the thick vegetation if they did. But having my air rifle along for varmint provided all the field shooting I could ask for during down time, and really made the trip! Hunting small quarry with air, due to the need for precise shot placement at closer range, was a different and much more “hunting” oriented challenge than the typical long range varmint shooting with a small caliber centerfire. Regardless of whether you are backing up your firearm hunt with an airgun, or specifically out to hunt with air, there is a lot of fun to be had with this mode of shooting!

Have some new guns on the way from my friends at Airguns of Arizona, and planning a hunting trip out there soon. In the meantime I’m hitting the basement range almost every day for an hour or two, one of the things I love most about airguns, no matter how busy life gets I can shoot every day!

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