Hunting with Trophy Ridge Outfitters (TRO)
July 15 - 18, 2007
Copyright 2007, Christopher Long - use of pictures and content by explicit permission only
In search of really good long range prairie dog shooting for this year, I traveled to north eastern Wyoming for a four day hunt, hosted by Ralph and Lenora Dampman of Trophy Ridge Outfitters:
The goal of this trip (besides having a great time) was to get in some long range (1000+ yard) opportunities, and possibly even a shot over 1500 yards, in order to qualify for the VHA 1500 yard certification. I had worked up some really good loads for the 6.5-284 TubeGun and the 260AI using the new 130 grain Berger VLDs, and wanted to see how they performed at these extreme ranges. I also wanted to see how the trusty 6 Dasher performed as a long range varmint cartridge.
The town of Carlile is located in the north western range of the beautiful Black Hills, and is the home of the fabulous Devil's Tower National Monument. Ralph and Lenora at TRO are primarily big game outfitters, and have access to thousands of acres of private ranch land, chock full of deer, elk, turkey, and other game. They have just started providing services for guided prairie dog hunts, during their nominal off season, and the above mentioned ranch lands are home to some prodigious dog towns.
The terrain is beautiful, a welcome change from the South Dakota prairie, with lots of hills and Ponderosa pine trees.
Once arriving at TRO, I was greeted by Ralph and Lenora, and one of Ralph's friends, Mike. Later, friends Chris and JD arrived, after traveling all the way from western Virginia for this hunt. Our plan was to get in four days of intense, long range shooting. We were not disappointed!
The weather was clear, calm, and quite hot (by Seattle standards) in the high 90's. It remained hot and dry for most of my stay.
TRO is located just a few miles from the Devil's Tower, and the view from the hill where the ranch is located is excellent. This is looking west from the TRO driveway off of US Highway 14:
The TRO driveway entrance, looking to the northwest:
A view of the entrance gate arch, looking to the east, from in front of cabin #3, my accommodations for the duration:
Here is a view of cabin #3 (on the left) and my trusty Suburban Prairie Schooner. The cabins sleep 8 in two rooms, with a full bath, kitchenette, and even air conditioning. Very cozy, and very comfortable:
Since I was so close to the Devil's Tower, and there were a couple hours before dinner, it seemed that a little sightseeing trip was in order. The drive from TRO to the Tower was only 15 minutes, at most.
This view is approaching the Tower from the south via the access road. The Tower is solid rock, and is a volcanic plug from long ago. It is very large, and very much out of place from the rest of the terrain. It is considered sacred by the local native Americans. There is a 1 mile walking loop around the tower, and if you are inclined, it is possible to climb it via some steps and using technical climbing procedures:
Another, closer view from the access road. The scale begins to become noticeable by comparison to the Ponderosa pine trees at the base:
A couple days later, Ralph took us on a tour of some of his hunting areas to look at some game, and we had this beautiful view of the Tower from the north:
We started each day before dawn. Lenora provided wonderful food for us, with steaks, ribs, brochettes and other grilled meats for dinner, fresh fruit and biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Lunch was provided in the field. Getting up before dawn provided the opportunity to see some spectacular sunrises, and even some game. Here are a couple of nice bucks passing through to the feeding area. The amount of game in this part of the country is staggering:
We spent days 1, 2 and 4 working this immense dog town. This town was no more than one mile from TRO, and you could just see the top of the Tower over a ridge to the north.
The conditions were excellent, with very little wind, perhaps 5 to 8 MPH, and steady. The only downside was that it was over 100 degrees in the shade, and the sun was relentless. We drank a lot of water this trip. In addition, an exceptionally wet spring had allowed the grass to grow extra tall and thick, making the dogs hard to see when not on a mound. More on that problem later...
These dogs had not been shot all year, as the rancher had just moved a large herd of sheep off this pasture before our arrival.
The shooting was from 100 to over 1000 yards, and the dogs were everywhere. This view is from the ridge on the north side of the town, looking to the south and a bit west. The far tree line is about 1600 yards, with dogs visible out to about 1100 yards. There were plenty of targets close in, so there was a lot a variety. It is especially challenging to move in and out in range by these extreme amounts. It gave me a lot of practice estimating range and wind conditions, then seeing if I could get the come-ups and windage right on the scope for the first shot at the new range. By the end of the trip, I was getting it pretty close, with some one shot hits out to about 600 yards. That's Ralph standing behind the Prairie Schooner next to the BR Pivot bench and the 6.5-284 TubeGun. Chris and JD were set up to my left, on their sturdy portable benches:
The TubeGun ready for action. Notice the oldie-but-goodie Swiss Wild optical rangefinder to the right of the bench. This thing is heavy, but very accurate, and has no problems ranging out to as far as you can see, unlike a laser rangefinder. I did use my Leica 1200 for the targets out to about 800 yards, but the performance becomes iffy past that. The Wild comes into it's own past where the laser quits working:
A close-up of the 6.5-284 TubeGun. Note the beefed up forend tube structure, and the rear bag rail.
The load for the trip was 130 grain Berger VLD moly bullets, over 51.5 grains H4350, Lapua brass, and a Federal GM215M primer. This launches the 130 grain bullets at 3165 FPS, with standard deviations of velocity in the single digits. I developed this load in order to better the traditional 140 grain loads for the 6.5-284, which like to run at about 2950 FPS. While there is another OBT at muzzle velocities about 3100 FPS, it is not possible to safely and accurately reach that velocity with the 140s. On the other hand, the 130s make it very easily, with no excessive pressures, and scary, one hole 5 shot 100 yard group accuracy. The primary benefit, however, is that the 130s have a very high BC (about 0.6), and at 3165 FPS actually shoot flatter and have less wind drift than the 140s at 2950 FPS. This trip proved this conclusively.
My 260AI loads were also based on the same bullet, using 48.7 grains Ramshot Hunter and a GM215 primer in fireformed Remington brass. These pushed the 130s at 3100 FPS, still bettering the 140 grain performance:
I shot my 6 Dasher as well. This uses my standard load of a naked 107 SMK over 33.0 grains RL-15 in fireformed Lapua 6BR brass, and a CCI 450 primer, achieving 3070 FPS. The Dasher has proven itself in spades as an extremely accurate cartridge for F-Class Open competition, and I was anxious to see how it performed as a varmint cartridge. The performance was excellent, with many hits out past 1000 yards. This rifle is set up as a switch barrel rig, and is the platform for the 260AI. I made a portable barrel vise that mounts in the trailer hitch receiver on the Suburban. That, with a rear entry action wrench, makes barrel changes a 5 minute affair. I would shoot until the barrel got a bit hot, then switch and proceed with the other caliber.
Here is the Dasher (with the Dasher barrel installed) on the bench ready for action:
The three of us worked this town all day, and never ran out of dogs. Once the dogs got nervous in one area, we would simply change aim to another part of that huge town, and work that for a while. After that, the original dogs were back up, and the fun continued. I made quite a few shots at 800 to 1000 yards, with all three calibers. All performed very well. JD shot a .223 Remington at ranges out to about 500 yards, to great effect. Chris shot his 6BR and 6.5-284 at the longer ranges as well. Occasionally, we would break out the AR-15s for some closer range (out to 500 yards) action. The AR is a near perfect varmint rifle for the closer ranges, as follow up shots are so fast.
WARNING - Graphic video in the next link, you have been warned!
For a rough video clip of what the AR and the 55 grains VMax bullets do to a prairie dog, look here. Apple QuickTime player is required. If you have Quicktime installed, and it does not run in your browser, right click the link above, and choose the option "save target as", and put it on your desktop or other location on your machine. You should then be able to view it with the Quicktime application.
We returned to the same town as day one, and worked the dogs over all day. Still hot and sunny, and very mild winds. During the mid day, we moved to a secondary location, providing access to parts of the town that we could not see from the primary (long range) location. This location on the top of a small ridge provided some excellent shooting out to about 800 yards, with lots of dogs in under 300 yards. The ARs got a thorough workout from this position!
Later that evening, Ralph took us on a driving tour to look at some of the game on the land that he guide hunts. I have never seen so much game. I saw more deer in one night than I have seen in 20 years here in Washington. Since TRO is primarily a big game outfitter, it was clear that this was the place to come for that trophy buck. We saw more than a few beautiful, trophy class animals, just from the car, in an hours time. Ralph does taxidermy in addition to guiding hunts, and his house is filled with beautiful mounts, many taken from this locale. His work is exceptional, and he clearly knows his hunting.
This was the day that we were going to go for the very long (hopefully 1500+ yards) shots, so Ralph was taking us to another town a bit farther away. As usual, I got up before dawn, to get awake, and watch the sun come up. This day brought with it some different weather, with a light system having moved in over the night. The sunrise looking to the east from our cabin was spectacular. Here are a series of shots taken every few minutes as the sun came up:
We traveled about 15 miles to the dog town, located on another private ranch. This town was at the bottom of a huge ravine or canyon, about 100 feet below our shooting position. We could literally see for miles.
The weather was cooler, with a bit of overcast to help the mirage and keep us cool. The only problem we encountered was that the especially tall grass and the sage brush all over the ravine bottom made the dogs near impossible to spot unless they were standing tall on a mound, or out in a more open area. This proved to be the downfall of this location. We knew that there were literally thousands of dogs, as the ravine clearly had activity for better than a mile, but you could not see them well if at all at the long ranges we were trying to shoot.
This picture shows us set up on the western edge of the ravine, looking to the north:
This is another view from the firing point, looking at our primary impact area. That little "bush" is actually a large (cedar?) tree about 1330 yards distant. There were a couple dog mounds and a few dogs visible there, so that was our first set of targets. I made a clean hit there with the 6.5-284. Chris made a hit as well:
We then tried shooting a couple of dogs in a clear spot a bit farther past and to the right of that tree (hard to see on the photo) at about 1650 yards. Chris and I were able to get very close a few times, within a couple of inches, but the dogs got skittish and dropped out of sight. We gave up the long range shooting at that time as there were simply no dogs that could be seen at those ranges.
Even with no hits past 1500, it was clear that the 130 grain Berger loads in the 6.5-284 were performing extremely well. It appeared that there was only about 6 inches of vertical at 1330 yards, and less than a foot at 1650. Had we had more visible targets, there is no doubt that we both would have made our 1500 yard certification.
We did have some fun shooting at the closer ranges, out to about 700 yards. Here is Chris spotting for JD using the AR-15:
Our original booking date was for mid May, specifically to avoid the tall grass condition common with later in the summer. Unfortunately, the ranchers had livestock on the towns until early June, so we had to postpone our trip until mid July. We are now planning for a late May 2008 trip. Ralph will be on the lookout for additional long range locations.
Since the "ravine town" had difficult conditions for spotting targets, we decided to return to the same town as days one and two, and worked them over again. As in day two, we spent the morning at the long range position (primary) and went to the secondary, shorter range position after lunch. Even after three hard days of shooting, there were still hundreds of dogs. I don't think that we made a serious dent in the population, probably not what the rancher had in mind!
Later that afternoon, a huge thunderstorm passed by TRO, just to the east. There were high winds, and lots of rain, but the center of the storm mostly missed us. Here is a picture of the thunderhead after passing more to the south and east. This cloud was immense, and obviously went clear to the stratosphere:
The storm and the late afternoon sun provided us with this nice rainbow:
This picture of the western edge of the thundercloud at sunset made me think of a large beast about to eat the moon:
We had an excellent time! Ralph and Lenora are wonderful hosts, the accommodations were great, and Ralph is a superb guide. We couldn't have asked for better shooting, even with the "tall grass" problem. We (Chris and I) are both looking forward to next year, planning on a mid May date to avoid the tall grass, and possibly make that 1500 yard shot.
Give Ralph at TRO a shout if you want a good hunt, you won't be disappointed!
My thanks to Ralph and Lenora for a wonderful time - you are the best!
I can't wait to return to the Black Hills again!
Copyright 2007, Christopher Long - use of pictures and content by explicit permission only