A Wyoming "Buffalo" Safari

By William Stocks

Wyoming bison
Wyoming bison herd. Photo courtesy of William Stocks

"I'd really like to take down a buffalo someday with that old gun," I said, as the break room conversation evolved from guns to hunting. "But, who can afford that? It's several thousand dollars."

"Twin Pine Ranch," was the reply, and my friend Garth Huff proceeded to tell me the details. "They have a place over by Wheatland, Wyoming and offer "heifer hunts" for only $500. They're the best meat anyway, and you get to keep everything. All buffalo have horns, so you'll even get a fine robe and a skull to mount."

That was late 2003, and needless to say, was all it took to get me fired up. But I knew that even such a bargain price of $500, was not going to come easy around my house, what with a new baby and all, so I had to bide my time.

In the fall of 2004 some old friends from Michigan, who had hunted with my Dad and I when he had an outfitting service in the '70's, came to visit. My brother came over from Rock Springs to see them, and somewhere along the trail of reminiscences and tall tales, I introduced the idea of a buffalo hunt at Twin Pine Ranch. They were all for it, so he (Mike French) paid our deposits and booked a hunt for the four of us on November 28, 2005. He and his son Jon would meet my brother Mike and I in Wheatland on Sunday the 27th.

Not having to come up with the $250 deposit right away enabled me to wait until company bonus time (February 2005) to send Mike French my payment in full. With nothing left but the anticipation, I could hardly wait.

The remaining months consisted of practice, practice, and more practice.

The "old gun" I referred to earlier, was an H&R Model 155 "Shikari" single shot break-open rifle in 45-70 caliber. The serial number begins with the letters AM, indicating it was manufactured in 1974. I bought it off the used shelf for $125, and although I was a bit apprehensive about the purchase, it proved to be a very good shooter.

Unlike the modern NEF/Marlin Handi-Rifles it has a standard rifled (not Micro-Groove) 28" barrel, and a swept down hammer with none of the "transfer bar" BS. However, it has a cast (not forged) receiver and the barrel lug is silver soldered on, which means it must shoot factory loads or reloads of Trapdoor Springfield pressures. It is not drilled and tapped like the Handi's either, but has standard 3/8" dovetails front and rear. I installed a fully adjustable Marble's #69W folding leaf rear sight, and a Lyman #3 Ivory bead 1/16" front sight both of .360" height.

It kicked like a mule due to its relatively light weight, but removing the butt plate I saw that it had the standard H&R shotgun style butt stock with a hole clear through for the attachment bolt. So I filled this cavity with #6 lead shot, which helped to lessen the recoil considerably.

I also found it really liked the Winchester 300 grain JHP factory loads. Using the new open sights, I fired two shots at 100 yards that you could cover with a quarter. Though these cartridges are rated CXP2 for light thin-skinned game, I decided to use them for my heifer buffalo hunt, based not only on their astounding accuracy, but also on terminal appearance, having dug many out of the dirt bank backstop at the range. They really mushroomed perfectly in the soft, often wet dirt, penetrated deeply, and retained most of their original weight despite hitting small rocks and the many pieces of spent lead scattered throughout the dirt.

I also worked up a few practice loads using Hornady 300 grain JHP bullets and both IMR-3031 and H-4831 powders, but could not quite duplicate the velocity and accuracy of the Winchester factory loads. Therefore Winchesters it would be, and as things worked out, I wouldn't regret it.

As the appointed day approached, we made our final plans. Larry and Peggy Gerke, owners of Twin Pine Ranch, send out to their clients a comprehensive packet of information with recommended lodging, meat processing, and excellent directions to the ranch.

We all elected to stay at the Motel 6 in Wheatland and booked rooms for the 27th and 28th of November. Rather than have our meat processed locally and have to return to Wheatland to pick it up, my brother Mike and I made arrangements with a local processor, Harold Albright of H's Custom Cuts, to skin and quarter and hang our animals overnight. This he did for a very reasonable fee of $55 each. We picked them up bright and early Tuesday morning the 29th and drove home in 20-degree temperatures to deposit the quarters at our local processing plant. Mike and Jon French went with Grizzly Processing in Douglas and a 24-hour rush-processing job, so they could pick up their meat and return home to Michigan on the 30th.

The morning of the hunt broke with high winds and blowing snow, gusting up to 40 mph. Our drive out to the ranch through the open plains took about 45 minutes, and we both had our doubts about even being able to shoot in such conditions. But the ranch sits in an area of jack pine timbered ravines, scattered with sarvis brush, and is strewn with rock outcroppings, all of which provide good cover for buffalo to hole up and get out of the wind.

After meeting Larry, Peggy and our guide for the day (Larry's son Dennis), we agreed that I would shoot first and my brother Mike second, so we could haul our animals into town together. Mike and Jon French would accompany us in the morning but would not actually be shooting until afternoon.

With that decided, we set out shortly after 8:00 a.m. in Dennis' Dodge pickup to find some buffalo. Larry and Mike French followed at a distance in the "Buffalo Truck," an Army 6x6 Larry has rigged up with winch equipment for retrieving and field dressing the huge beasts.

The Gerkes tell you on their web site: "This is not a pen hunt." Believe me, they mean it. Dennis drove us to a ridge top where we disembarked and followed him up, down and across several rugged pine timbered draws before spotting a herd of about 75 buffalo feeding below us. He then led us up and around onto a rock outcropping slightly above them as they fed uphill directly across the draw from us.

A Marine Recon sniper could not have picked a better position to shoot from, and I had a solid kneeling rest across the top of a large, flat mossy rock. It was still snowing a little and there was some blowing snow to contend with as the wind gusted. Though it was biting cold and penetrated like a knife, the wind was still manageable from a shooting standpoint, and I felt comfortable with making the shot.

With his digital rangefinder Dennis began quietly pointing out heifers to me and giving their range.

"See that one just to the right of the big cow and calf, and above that small bull, she's the one with the dark dorsal hair, that one's about 101 yards," indicating a good sized heifer that was facing us in a small open area amidst the herd. "If she will turn just a little that will be a good shot. Just let me know if you're gonna take the shot."

As he spoke the heifer turned downhill and walked several yards to our right. "That's 107 yards", he said, "I don't know if you wanna take that shot or not in this wind with your open sights." But I was already cocking the hammer on the old Shikari and replied, "I'll take it."

The gun fired with a resounding boom followed by a loud thump. I could see the heifer hump up and begin to stagger. "You got her, she's hit hard," said Dennis, we'll have to wait for her to go down though."

What followed in the next few minutes was one of the most interesting and enlightening experiences of my life. Immediately upon smelling blood, that whole herd of buffalo converged on the mortally wounded animal, surrounding her with a protective formation, which by this time had "made us," and began staring down our position.

Amidst this protective enclave, she laid down, only to be coaxed to her feet, not once but twice, by a pair of insistent older cows. On the second attempt she expired, tipped over, and rolled downhill.

At this point Dennis called Larry on the walkie-talkie and told him to bring in the buffalo truck, saying, "They won't leave unless Dad comes up here with the big truck." Sure enough, as soon as Larry and Mike French came up the draw, the herd ran off over the ridge. It was easy to see how the early buffalo runners were able to shoot entire herds one at a time from a single stand, and eventually take the entire population of millions to near extinction. Surely these indomitable social instincts were their ultimate downfall.

bison trophy

Bison heifer. Photo courtesy of William Stocks

After the customary picture session, field dressing was quick and efficient as Larry skillfully gutted the buffalo and winched it aboard the 6x6. The 300 grain JHP bullet had entered just behind the ribcage on the right flank and angled toward the front shoulder on the opposite side, passing through the top of the liver and puncturing both lungs. However, it had not exited through the hide, so I was hopeful that Harold would find it when he skinned her later in the day.

My brother Mike and the others had hiked back to Dennis' truck and were now stalking his heifer in the bottom of a draw they called "Commissary Spring." As I rode around that way with Larry he gave me a fascinating history lesson on the ranch and surrounding area, rich in the lore of the Old West and befitting their modern day buffalo habitat.

Mike was shooting our late Dad's .30-338, a custom Mauser action rifle on a bird's eye maple stock, originally built by Pennsylvania gunsmith Alex Hoyer of 1000 yard bench rest fame, who hunted with Dad in the early 60's.

Their belly stalk in the snow resulted in a perfect broadside shot at 65 yards. The bullet went clear through the ribcage just behind the front shoulder, taking out part of the liver and centering both lungs. The buffalo still ran about 100 yards and crashed into a pile of sarvis brush in a nearby shallow draw.

These critters are undoubtedly among the toughest and most awesome species alive. Seeing as there was no obvious need to protect this one, the rest of the herd left the scene before Larry and I arrived. Dennis is what I would call a "super guide." He actually lay in the snow to get the best pictures for my brother.

Larry and Dennis soon had the second buffalo dispatched, and by 11:00 a.m. both were transported back to the ranch and loaded into Mike's Dodge pickup. We bid farewell to Larry and Dennis, thanking them for a first class experience. By 12:30 p.m. we had dropped off the carcasses at Harold's place.

Mike and Jon, having an equally successful hunt, had taken both their heifers by 3:30 p.m. and were busy hauling them into Douglas for processing. Four buffalo with four shots.

When we picked up our skinned and quartered meat the next morning, Mike asked Harold, "Did you find any bullets during the autopsy?"

"As a matter of fact I did", said Harold, and produced a beautifully mushroomed 300-grain JHP 45-70 bullet. "It was just under the hide here", he said, pointing to my buff's left front quarter, which had an exit wound behind the front shoulder.

"I nicked it with my knife right there," indicating a flat spot where part of the mushroom had been clipped off. The bullet had retained enough energy at 107 yards to pass diagonally through the chest cavity, but lacked that last bit of energy necessary to penetrate the thick hide to exit.

And so we had the perfect ending to a perfect hunt. That bullet will go into a frame next to one of the great pictures Dennis took for us, and we'll be enjoying some of the finest meat there is throughout the coming year.

If you're looking for the buffalo hunting experience of a lifetime, look no further than Twin Pine Ranch.

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