By Tania Foster
When not busy with their feedlot and farming operation, the Ruff family, Hanston, KS, are likely to be found in the midst of another of their passions--hunting.
For father, Ronnie, and sons, Travis, Brad and Todd, hunting is a way of life.
"These boys know every crook in every creek. It amazes me," Debbie Ruff says of her boys. "The land they hunt now is the same land they hunted when they were kids--since they were old enough to carry guns."
So, it seemed only natural that a family guide hunting operation would evolve.
The idea to form such a business had been with Ronnie since the late 1970s. But other responsibilities on the farm laid the idea to rest for over 20 years, until he and Brad entered into a partnership, in October, 1999.
Their company, appropriately named Ruffhouse Outfitters, specializes in pheasant hunting, though quail hunting and fishing also is an option. The father-son team hope to soon add deer and turkey to their list of available wildlife.
Debbie, with help from Brad's wife Cheri, does the cooking. Oldest son Travis and his wife Katie, who are busy with their own enterprises, pitch in whenever help is needed, as does youngest son Todd, on his trips home from college.
With Ronnie making the contacts and overseeing hunt bookings, and Brad in charge of the guiding, their combined years--as hunters and agriculturalists--makes for a memorable time for their visitors.
"When you get ready to start something like this, you have to ask yourself what would I like," Ruff says. "We want this operation to be unique. We are feedyard people, so we do not want to treat customers like cattle processing.
"For many operations, especially those close to a city, it is a mass processing. There will be people on hand to set birds, flush them out and then you shoot. Right behind, there will be another group ready to go. So, you feel like you are rushed. You are just another number," he says.
"Here, we don't ever want our operation to get beyond the point where we can't get to know our customer."
Ruff explains that when hunters come from out-of-state, they must contend with a number of factors, including buying an out-of-state license, finding meals, lodging and a place to hunt. Then, it is a matter of finding the birds.
"By the time many of these people go to all that trouble, they end up thinking that they haven't spent a lot of money. But they don't get very many birds either. And as more people get more restrictive with their hunting, it becomes less appealing," he adds.
So far, word of mouth has been the largest promoter of Ruffhouse Outfitters, with clientele ranging from corporate American to families wanting a weekend getaway.
Ruff says that an operation like Ruffhouse Outfitters appeals to people, because all accommodations are furnished, down to the hunting license and cleaning of the birds. Arrangements even can be made to have birds mounted by a professional taxidermist, if a hunter requests. Visitors only need to bring their gun and ammunition.
"One of the drawing cards to our operation is it is a relaxing time for a hunter, because all he has to do is enjoy his hunt," Ruff says.
"We want our guests to come and enjoy all the good food Debbie fixes. We feel our lodge is top-notch. Brad has good dogs and is going to do a good job guiding them. Hopefully, they are going to want to come back."
Brad spent several months hand-picking the dogs needed to get the business started. His plans now are to breed and train his own dogs, which are furnished for the hunts.
His pointing dogs are English Pointers and English Setters, and Labs are used for flushing dogs.
"Of course, a dog has to have a good nose. We look for how they retrieve, how they honor each other. You want close hunting dogs, within 15 to 30 yards of you," Brad explains.
"The flushing dogs are more important in the early season to get the birds up in the air, because they will run more," Brad says. "A pheasant will run 200 to 300 yards, if it can without flying."
The Ruffs agree, control of wildlife is one of the most important factors in a successful hunting operation.
They supplement their natural pheasant population with pen-raised birds. Brad also has planted a number of food plots along the creeks to bring in wild birds.
"Now, we have twice as many birds as we used to, because of the milo and the feed we planted," Brad says. "Most of the plots are at the bottom of the creek, so on a real nasty day, you are down out of the wind and you have the trees protecting you."
"We can manage pheasants easier, because in our controlled hunting area, we are required by law not to harvest anymore birds than we release," he says.
"When you have wild and pen-raised birds, you have more of a captive situation. Whereas, deer will roam miles along our creek, so it is more difficult to manage the deer supply," Ronnie adds.
For each hunt, Brad fills out a form indicating how many birds were killed each day. These records are sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service, who then tracks the information for the state of Kansas.
Because he knows the pheasants' habits and flying patterns, and the terrain, Brad can tailor the degree of difficulty of the hunt, according to the experience level of the hunters. One of his most memorable experiences, he recalls, was seeing a young boy shoot his first pheasant.
"I have learned where the birds go and where to position my people," he says. "The first couple hunts, I had no idea where the birds were going to go, so it has been fun getting to know what they are going to do, and where they are going to be. But the quail are pretty predictable."
The Ruffs also have a sizable number of turkeys on their ground, yet permits to hunt them have been limited. Ronnie says it will be difficult to add turkey to their hunting, until their numbers grow, since permit allocations are dictated by population.
"We have quite a few birds, but getting the permit to come hunt one is another thing. In 1986, there were six turkeys. Now, there are close to 100. It really is good habitat here. They eat corn out of the cattle bunks, and there always is corn and rye behind the house," he says.
Though the hunting portion of Ruffhouse Outfitters may have come naturally, a substantial investment of time and money had to be put into several other details, before the first hunt could take place.
The family spent all summer remodeling a farm house into the hunting lodge, which accommodates up to 14 people. They also put together four-wheel-drive transportation and obtained all the necessary permits and insurance needed for a controlled shooting area. Then, there was the cost of the dogs and birds.
Controlled hunting areas are a valuable commodity in Kansas, because these areas cannot exceed 2% of the land area of any county in the state.
Yet, operating as a controlled shooting area has the advantage of a longer hunting season. In Kansas, pheasant season starts the second week in November and runs until Jan. 31. In their controlled shooting area, the Ruffs can hunt from Sept. 1 to March, so hunters can opt for a longer season. However, Ruffhouse Outfitters generally will not start their hunts until October.
"We are eligible to start hunting Sept. 1, but we are chopping silage then, and it is warm," Ruff says. "Everything is green, so your dogs don't work well, because there are so many different scents."
Another advantage to a controlled shooting area is the limitless number of birds a hunter can shoot.
"Four roosters is the bag limit for Kansas, if you are hunting on your own," Brad explains. "For us, it is however many you want to kill, and you can kill hens too. Basically, you can shoot at whatever flies."
Their hunting package includes six birds, with a charge for any additional birds beyond that. The Ruffs generally try to have some birds frozen ahead of time, for hunters who travel from long distances. But any number of arrangements can be made for the transportation of the birds.
And visitors are guaranteed not to go hungry. Depending on how long hunters stay, they will feast on thick-cut steaks and roast, biscuits and gravy and any number of pies and cobblers. All meals are homemade or homegrown, from the breads and jams to the vegetables. Even a large amount of the beef served comes from their feedlot.
"We think we are able to promote our product in a big way, because every meal has beef as its centerpiece," Ronnie says. "We are able to talk to guests about our feedyard operation. And if they are interested, talk to them about the beef business, in general. Most people, especially if they come from the city, are fascinated by it."
There is continuous work that must be done to keep an operation like Ruffhouse Outfitters running in top form, and the Ruffs don't plan to slow down anytime soon. They are putting the finishing touches on a game-meeting room, at the hunting lodge, to offer an additional facility for hunters to relax. During the "off season," the family plans to make the lodge available, on a non-profit basis, for church retreats, family reunions and company getaways.
The Ruff family enjoys sharing with others what for them is a way of life. But their goal is to make Ruffhouse Outfitters much more than just a hunt. They want people to come back, because that is what dictates their effectiveness as a guide hunting service.
"We get the opportunity to meet some really quality people," Ronnie says. "Then, we can extend our friendships to areas where we don't normally go.
"People are the most important thing in life. You always need to keep that at the forefront of your philosophy, to make something like this successful."