The Great Kansas Buffalo Hunt
By: John J. Woods
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Arthur, John Woods used a classic 45-70 Sharps to crawl within shooting range of a wild American buffalo.



After all, it was Kansas.  What possible good could come out of Kansas?  Wasn’t that a dead pan line from the movie Josey Wales?  Maybe the old lady had it right.  Or maybe she had it all wrong?  
   
Well, let’s just see then what good comes out of Kansas.  Of course, there was Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan Earp, along with the infamous Doc Holliday.  Some say they still haunt Dodge City today.  Kansas brings America our annual wheat bounty for bread on our tables.  There was Dorothy and Toto.  Kansas provides some of the best grain fed beef steaks to ever adorn a charcoal grill.  It’s part of the experience.

And at one time in history the Kansas prairie lands were home to one of the largest American Bison herds to ever roam across the grasslands of the near west frontier.  Ah, yes, the bison, or buffalo as we unofficially label them.  Alas, those huge herds are all gone along with the experience of stalking a huge “wooly” haired bison with a classic single shot rifle resting over oak shooting sticks.  Or has it?  What good comes out of Kansas?  Add to the list above, Lee Hawes and his Hawes Ranch Outfitters out of Ford, Kansas.  It’s part of the experience.

Sacred Grounds
   
“The buffalo harvest that most people are familiar with occurred in this area.  Most historical accounts refer to the area between the Arkansas River and the big hills south of the Mulberry Creek as the Slaughter Pen,” says Lee Hawes.  

“This is the location of our ranch.  My great grandfather settled here and started this ranch in 1884.  He lived in a dugout for a number of years until a house could be built.  He raised horses for the U.S. Calvary and cattle that were driven to railheads and shipped to Kansas City.  He went to Texas to learn the cowboy trade and made many drives from Texas to Dodge City.  Later he became a buffalo hunter and a personal friend of Bat Masterson.”
   
Hawes continued, “My grandfather and father were both cattlemen.  I was raised as a cattleman and rancher.  The area surrounding our ranch has been plowed up and farmed.  We are an island of grass surrounded by a sea of farms.  This is the only place in the entire world that you can hunt buffalo where the heart of the harvest took place.  We brought the buffalo back to the ranch a number of years ago, now it’s like they never left.”

“When you hunt here, it’s not just harvesting an animal; it is knowing you can be part of something bigger than yourself.  It is knowing that where you belly crawled up on a herd of buffalo, the old-timers did also.  It is knowing that you have been able to do something, take part in something where it actually took place.”  

“It’s part of the experience,” which Lee’s son Cody remarks often during the hunt at the turn of each event.  It didn’t take long for us all to start repeating Cody’s marketing moniker.  

Cowboy Camp

Hawes’ buffalo camp is no plush lodge.  What he has recreated is a camp similar in nature and layout to what might have been a typical buffalo hunter/skinners camp in the 1880s.  
From the crest of the hill coming upon the campsite, you see the tops of teepees set around a central fire ring.  Three earthen dugouts adorn the walls of the “canyon” ridge.  Two dugouts were built to house hunters and one serves as the cook shack and dining area.  To say the least it is rustic.  This is as it should be to offer just a little glimpse of how things might have been on the plains of Kansas back in the buffalo hunting hay days of the 1880s.
   
Dugouts are just that.  “A room” is dug into a wall of dirt.  Timbers are put across the top, and then next a layer of tin roofing, then dirt piled on top.  The exterior is adobe.  The walls are dirt, the floor is dirt.  Dirt is the operative term.  An old iron pot belly wood stove is added in the corner.  When the lights go out at night, it is dark like nothing I have ever experienced.  It defines black.
   
We added a poly tarp as a floor and it was debatable if that helped.  Camping cots got us off the layer of base dust.  Sleeping bags, clothes, guns, gear, and everything else gets coated in a fine film of Kansas plains dust.  Remember, the wind blows constantly just as sure as the sun comes up.  It’s part of the experience.  
   
Some of our hunting party from Mississippi opted for sleeping in a teepee.  They nearly froze the first night, but indicated it was worth it.  They stuck it out the second night and fared better.  The teepees definitely added a different kind of plains camp ambiance.  
   
Outfitter Lee Hawes did most of the cooking.  His son Cody, serving as hunt boss and all around wrangler kept the hunt running like clockwork.  His helpers, Joe and Carl his 80-something year old grandfather filled in.  
   
Lee cooked beef fajitas with potatoes, green peppers, and onions outside on an open grill in a cast iron wok the first evening in camp.  They hand fried tortillas on the propane stove in the cook shack.  It was delectable.  Breakfast was ranch cut bacon, oatmeal, homemade fry bread coated with sugar, and cowboy coffee.  Good stiff, black, hot coffee.  Grandpa would slip you a hot chocolate if you asked.  

Lee cooked a huge pork roast with potatoes, and onions in his Dutch oven outside on a fire in the grill.  He had it going, and in the pot before we even ate breakfast on day two.  That night the meat just fell off the bone.  We all agreed it was the best pork roast we ever ate.  The fare wasn’t fancy.  It was basic meat and potatoes with some green beans or black-eyed peas.  I didn’t hear any complaints about the food above the clanging of knives and forks.  

The Quintessential Classic Buffalo Hunt
   
Cody describes the hunt at a first evening briefing as a “gentlemen’s hunt”.  Translated that meant unlike a western elk hunt, we leisurely got up around 7:00 am, ate breakfast and then gathered up our gear while they rode out to find all the horses.  Trail ponies back in camp, enough were saddled up to carry three hunters, guide, and wrangler out to track down the whereabouts of the buffalo herd or fragments thereof.  Sometimes the herd stays together; often it breaks out into two or three groups over the 1000 acre ranch.
   
I drew a seat in the saddle of the initial group going out the first morning on a horse named John.  Perhaps that was an omen of sorts.  We hit the trail around 9 a.m. with my Sharps secured by a saddle horn wrap designed to hold a rifle.  We rode east into the sun, turning north back where the herd had been spotted the day before.  The pace is slow.  There is no need to trot into the midst of a herd of buffalo that could be standing just over the next ridge or around the next corner.  
   
We rode quietly along for more than an hour.  The five horsemen pulled up a short climb over a hill.  There in the distance stood black bodies milling around maybe half a mile out.  We turned away from them hoping to circumvent their movement to make a sneak from another angle.  Cody is a seasoned buffalo hunting guide that knows how to play the game well.  
   
We finally turned up into a huge drainage gorge that would ideally lead up right to where the herd had been standing.  With our heads approaching the top of the rim line, Cody had us dismount so he could crawl up to the edge of the ridge for a peek.  His smile back to us told the hunters all we needed to know.  Now the hunt was on.  
   
We eased up to the head of the drainage to where it played out.  Down on hands and knees we continued forward.  Just raising my head I could see the herd no further than a hundred yards in front of us.  We crawled into a line of knee high weeds leading toward the herd.  Crawl 20 yards, then rest with face in the thistle for a couple minutes.  Slowly Cody would coach us forward into shooting position.  
   
Fred was the first to go with his 1885 Winchester in 45-70.  On the sticks it is a wait for a buffalo to separate from the herd for a clear shot.  Cody was whispering the whole time for us to hold tight.  It came in about 10 minutes of patient waiting.  One shot, one bison down.  The herd held fast milling around nosing and butting the downed brethren.  It’s a strange witness of buffalo behavior.  
   
Fred eased back and I moved up beside Cody for the next try.  My good friend Kerry was up on his seat on the other side.  As animals moved to and fro Cody would pass the sticks back and forth for a clear angle.  Finally we had to all ease up, crouched over, and moved in unison about 30 yards to our right.  We repeated this tactic several times all the while the herd was standing there looking at us.  You get a sense of how the original buffalo herds were easily shot out and decimated.  
   
Finally my chance came.  I had my Pedersoli Sharps in 45-70 on the sticks.  I was praying the complicated ladder screw adjustable tang sight was dialed in.  I also installed the front hood sight with a straight post insert.  The set up punched paper with earnest regard, but this was its first test on living flesh.  Yeah, I was a bit nervous.  You had to be.  It was part of the experience.
   
At long last one buff stepped out away from the gang.  Cody was whispering to shoot.  I centered the front post just below the brisket.  Cody eyeball ranged the stocky animal at 105 yards.  I hammered the Sharps into fire mode and gingerly squeezed the front trigger.  At the shot the buffalo humped up in a ball then bolted into the herd.  Cody called the hit by the dust blowing up on the hide.  Double lung shot.  Though my buffalo was obscured by the milling herd, it was down for the count.  We later discovered the Black Hills 405 grain lead bullet sailed all the way through the beast.  
   
Now the sticks were passed to Kerry as we held tight in our seats.  Within minutes another big buffalo sidestepped clear.  Kerry was using a Ruger 77 bolt gun in 7mm Magnum.  One shot worked it’s magic again at a little over a hundred yards.  We were three shots for three buffs.  Two classic rifles and one modern version performed well.  All proved their metal at the muzzle and on the trigger.  
   
As it turned out us six hunters from Mississippi scored on six buffalo all with one shot each.  I think that was a first in the Hawes camp.  Lee fashioned a signature board to hang up in the cook shack dubbing us the Mississippi Sharpshooters.  Four of us did the deed with classic single shot buffalo rifles, two Sharps, an 1885, and a Remington Rolling Block.  Sweet.
   
Lee and Cody Hawes of Hawes Ranch Outfitters offers as classic a Kansas plains buffalo hunt as one could imagine.  Check out all their information, photo slide show, and details on their web site at www.hawes.org/hunt.  Phone 620-369-2204.  I highly recommend this historic venue hunt for any hunter’s bucket list.  It is a single shot shooters dream come true.

A Dodge City Sidebar

A trip to the Hawes Ranch is simply not complete without a stay in Dodge City.  Only 25 miles away add on a couple days to enjoy this quaint southwestern Kansas cow town.  Established in 1872 off the Santa Fe Trail, Dodge City created a unique history with its background as a cattle and buffalo hide shipping depot, trade center, railroad trail head, and cowboy town.  Between the years of 1872-1874 some 850,000 buffalo hides were shipped from Dodge City.

Those early days brought countless rowdy cowboys into town.  Dodge City wore the moniker of the “wildest town on the western frontier”.  Noted lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson honed their crafts in the streets and saloons of Dodge City.  Their presence remains today. 

Schedule at least half a day to visit the Boot Hill Museum.  I spent four hours there and enjoyed every minute from the General Store, Boot Hill Cemetery, Fort Dodge Jail, Gunsmoke’s Long Branch Saloon, and numerous old fashioned historic shops including a gunsmith shop, dry goods, drug store, grocery, boot shop, bank, barber shop, blacksmith, First Union Church, school house, and the Hardesty House 1880’s home plus much more.  There is a Santa Fe Depot and a 1903 Santa Fe Locomotive on display.  Another shop has one of the best old west firearms collections on display with Winchesters, Remingtons, Sharps, and lots of original gear and accoutrements to view up close.

The old Boot Hill Building contains the “People of the Plains” exhibit which is an absolute must see.  It covers Native Americans, pioneers, soldiers, buffalo hunters, early settlers, cattlemen, and Dodge City’s role in Hollywood.  All this is easily worth the $9.00 museum admission fee.  A Sarsaparilla in a collector’s bottle from the Long Branch makes a classic souvenir.  Remember the long running series Gunsmoke was set in Dodge City.

Many hotel options exist in Dodge City, but I have to personally recommend the original Dodge House.  The rooms are spacious, clean, and comfortable.  The restaurant offered a free breakfast to overnight guests, www.dodgehousehotel.com. There is plenty of safe, monitored parking close to the doors.

Another eatery to visit in Dodge City is Mike Casey’s Casey’s Cowtown Club.  We all had great, tender, broiled to perfection ribeyes.  The next day Kerry and I returned for a terrific burger for lunch.  Check out all the western art hanging on the walls.  Be sure to meet Mike as he is a wealth of Dodge City information and a great ambassador for the city. 

Check out all the details on Dodge City at www.visitdodgecity.org and be sure to stop in the Visitor’s Center on Wyatt Earp Boulevard the main drag in town.  They have a ton of information, brochures, maps, and flyers and are genuinely friendly folks, Dodge City style.  
The Hawes Ranch buffalo hunt and a visit to Dodge City makes for a great trip from a crawl on the plains sneaking on a herd of buffalo, sleeping in a dugout or teepee, tasting outdoor cowboy cooking from a range grill, to shouldering up next to history in a famous western town.  Like Cody says, “Its part of the experience." 



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