Enchanted Bighorns

Enchanted Bighorns

With two highly coveted bighorn sheep tags to fill, outfitter Mick Chapel helped his wife and a paying client find two of the biggest rams ever killed by sport hunters in the Land of Enchantment.

Jennifer Chapel, joined by sons Ben (l.) and John Curtis and husband Mick Chapel, with Scarface the bighorn. Photo by Perry D. Harper

By Patrick Meitin

It always happens for other hunters. Or so Jennifer Chapel and her husband Mick believed.

As one of New Mexico's most successful outfitters, Mick Chapel handles a large number of applications for clients, and a few actually draw permits each year. The evening drawing results are posted by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is a big event in the Chapel household, and it was especially so in 2002. Not only did those results determine the kind of outfitting year they would have to look forward to, but it was also the first time sons Ben, 6, and John Curtis, 8, had applied to hunt all species available in the drawings.

By midnight of that day, the Chapels had reviewed results for their clients' applications via the Internet. Then they turned to the application results for the boys and the rest of the family.

Because it was a forgone conclusion that Jennifer's application for hunting bighorn sheep would be rejected just as it had been for years prior to this drawing, hers was the final application Mick checked that night. Amazingly, Jennifer's bighorn sheep application got drawn, and in a big way: She had drawn a tag in New Mexico's top trophy-producing unit, the Wheeler Peak area of Unit 53.

After the disbelief wore off, their attention turned to the potential of the area and the rams available. The Wheeler Peak area is home to some of the biggest rams in the West, and it also the Land of Enchantment's highest ground, with much of its hunting above hellishly rough elevations of 11,000 to 12,000 feet.

Winter seems to never end up there, and visitors are forced to face perpetual cold and virtually non-stop precipitation. The peak is flanked by treacherous rockslides, cliffs and slick moss, and the climbing is nearly all vertical. At this altitude, under these conditions, simply entering the area to hunt is a daunting task.

Wheeler Peak bighorn reintroduction efforts began as far back as the 1970s, with introductions from Banff, Alberta, Canada in 1973, and Whiskey Mountain, Wyo., stock following in 1978. Early efforts were hampered by the proximity of domestic sheep and epidemic poaching from the nearby Taos Pueblo. Lengthy negotiations with ranchers led to a suspension of grazing permits by the Forest Service, and additional stock from the nearby Pecos Wilderness supplemented Wheeler Peak's fledgling herd in 1992. After the removal of domestic sheep, the country finally proved big enough and rough enough to sustain what would turn into one of New Mexico's most healthy bighorn herds, and certainly the one with trophy potential.

Mick Chapel and his two sons were soon engaged in their first scouting trip into the area, along with Perry Harper, one of Mick's regular elk guides. Harper is no stranger to the Wheeler Peak area. He was one of the first two tag holders for the then-new sheep unit in 1999. Harper made good on that tag, shattering the archery state record bighorn sheep with a fantastic ram scoring just under 185 Pope and Young Club points after a grueling nine-day backpack hunt. Harper took the Chapels into the very areas he had hunted.

Mick was utterly amazed by the quantity as well as the quality of the rams they saw, and the boys were more impressed with the excellent trout fishing they found in a small stream near camp where they were keeping their pack animals. Mick had begun to understand what he was in for.

It had taken four hours of rugged horseback riding at elevations of more than 11,000 feet to reach prime sheep habitat. Once there, though, they had invested only a 15-minute walk from where the horses were tied and had their binoculars on a group of 14 rams. By the end of their first scouting trip, staying a total of three days, they had scouted 32 different rams. On each subsequent scouting they would discover more rams, and bigger ones as well. Finding a ram that would qualify for the Boone and Crockett records (180 points) seemed a sure thing.

On the business side of the house, Mick the outfitter had booked Rick Hooley for a bighorn sheep hunt in the same area. Hooley was the only other lucky hunter to draw one of the two coveted tags allotted in the area. Not ironically, Hooley's guide would be Perry Harper. Harper spent the entire summer scouting other areas of the unit, looking for additional rams of exceptional quality.

After extensive scouting, the Chapels set their sights on a single ram. They had nicknamed him Scarface because of a large scar across the bridge of his nose. He appeared to carry more mass than other rams they had seen. His horns had good width and a full curl that appeared to drop well below the jawline. This ram had it all.

Scarface was always found traveling or feeding with a young 3/4-curl ram.

Chapel and Harper had also located four other world-class rams during a long summer of careful scouting. They had nicknamed each for identification purposes. Curly was one of them.

Mick arrived in the Wheeler Peak area four days before the mid September season opener, to get in some last-minute scouting and to pack in a simple camp. Harper and Hooley were to try for another huge ram at the opposite side of the unit.

Meanwhile, a huge hurricane was brewing off the Gulf Coast. Mick and his boys rode out to pick up Jennifer the day before the season, making a quick turnaround and the four-hour horseback ride back into camp. The weather was deteriorating by the hour.

The hunters were awoken well before sunrise of opening morning by a hammering downpour. The deluge would last more than seven hours. At those extreme elevations, clouds and fog were more of a problem than rain, obscuring visibility, making any attempts at glassing impossible. They were essentially unable to hunt that first day. The weather finally broke by midafternoon of the second day, or so the hunters believed. Pushing their mounts upward, they weaved their way up to where the sheep Jennifer wanted had last been seen. They had finished about half of their ascent when rain started pouring down on them.

They continued riding, having a particular destination in mind, a glassing vantage where they had spotted Scarface on several occasions. Throughout the morning clouds and fog moved in and out, bring sporadic heavy rain and biting cold. They tied their horses at timberline and continued afoot. When they reache

d the designated vantage and sat down to glass, two rams appeared suddenly at less than 200 yards. They had already seen the hunters. It was Scarface and his companion.

The sheep broke and ran across a series of dangerous rockslides before disappearing in a rough piece of alpine mountainside. The hunters descended into the timber once more and began circling around in the direction the rams had gone. Jennifer and the boys waited at the timber's edge while Mick crawled to the open edge to glass and see if he could locate the rams. To his surprise, just 20 yards below a heavy cloud bank, he spotted both rams bedded, now facing him.

It had begun to rain again, hard. Mick returned to Jennifer and the boys and they all crawled out to where he had spotted the rams. Mick used a laser rangefinder on Scarface: 453 yards.

They decided to allow him to stand or change position before taking a shot. It would be a long 45-minute wait. That is how long it took Scarface to suddenly jump up and trot toward the smaller ram. Jennifer immediately moved into shooting position with her .270 Weatherby Magnum, fixed with a sturdy bipod. Her first shot would be taken from about 450 yards. At the shot Mick was sure he had heard the whump of a hit, but the ram showed no sign of being hit. Scarface continued his trot across one rockslide after another.

Jennifer fired five more rounds before the ram and his smaller companion hit a large patch of timber and disappeared from sight. It was 6:30 p.m. Darkness was only an hour away. Mick estimated that it would take at least two hours of climbing to reach the place where the rams had disappeared into the trees. And rain was streaming down in buckets. They would return in the morning.

It would prove a long night. Pelting rain fell throughout the night and into the next morning. After the blinding rain finally ceased, Mick saddled four horses, and the hunters started up the mountain. They had not completed half the ascent when they were hit by a violent thunderstorm that produced 2 inches of hail and swallowing cloud cover. Their visibility was completely obscured.

They again were forced to retreat to camp. Jennifer had become hypothermic, so it was decided that they would descend to town and to dry clothes. They would try again tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Harper and Hooley were also in town, regrouping and drying clothes. They had been having little luck with their targeted ram. The Chapels located the pair via cell phone and got together to compare notes. It was agreed that everyone should head back to the area where Mick had been hunting the next morning.

The group arrived at Mick's camp by 10 o'clock the following morning, discovering that they had had a visitor during the night. A black bear had helped himself to their provisions and thanked them by tearing up most of the camp. After straightening up the mess and gathering what food was still intact, they started up the mountain in search of Jennifer's ram.

The weather had finally cleared, at least for the time. The Chapel boys waited with Harper and Hooley while Jennifer and Mick attempted to make their way to the place where they had last seen the tremendous ram.

It took them two hours of clambering and climbing to reach what they believed to be the spot where the ram had entered the trees. They found Scarface lying 25 yards inside the edge of the timber. His hind legs had hooked around a small spruce tree, preventing him from tumbling several hundred feet downhill and over a cliff.

Jennifer had in fact hit the ram with three of the six shots she fired. Jennifer finally had her ram, the one they had come for. And what a ram he was! But more surprises awaited them.

Meeting Harper, Hooley and the boys again, they arrived in camp just before dark to discover that the bear had returned, trashing their camp once again and helping himself to what was left of their food.

The following morning Harper and Hooley returned to the high ridges above camp. The Chapels packed Scarface and the rest of their gear on mules and beat a retreat down to the truck. Mick agreed he would return the following day with fresh horses and mules, and more food. Mick drove all the way home, several hours away, arriving late that evening.

The next morning he was loading horses to return when he received a phone call on his cellular telephone. It was Harper. Hooley had just shot Curly.

"We had spotted a very nice collared ram, which the head sheep biologist had thought might be one of the biggest in the herd, with another 190-class ram a mile and half away the night before, but it was too far and too late to make a stalk," Harper recalls. "So the next morning, bright and early, we started across to the area where we had seen them. As soon as we reached the saddle where we had been the evening before we spotted a half-dozen or so rams, all in the high 180s to low 190s."

The rams were right where the other rams had been the night before.

"We were starting across to them when I noticed ram tracks right at our feet. We slowed down and started looking around more carefully and spotted a very nice ram bedded below us. He was a definite shooter. We quickly stalked into position, found Rick a rest and ranged him, 250 yards away. When Rick shot he tipped him right over. The ram was still kicking, so I told him to shoot him again and anchor him so he wouldn't roll farther down the mountain. We high-fived and I told him, 'Congratulations, you just killed a 190-inch ram.'

"Before we went down to him I called Mick on the cell phone to tell him we had killed a huge ram. Later that ram would officially score 190 5/8. It would take us a couple of hours to get the head and cape out, saving the meat for when Mick arrived with the mules. We cut it close, because there was a huge blizzard coming, raining in the low country, snowing up high. We got out of there just in time."

Mick had pushed his truck as fast as it would go with horses in tow, arriving at midday and starting up the steep trail once more. Upon arriving at camp Mick was greeted by Harper and Hooley who had the horns and cape of Curly in camp. Hooley and Mick took the mules and in about three hours returned to camp with the meat, while Harper policed and broke what was left of camp. They packed the horses and mules and headed for the truck one last time.

After the official 60-day drying period Curly netted 190 5/8 Boone and Crockett points, tying the existing state record bighorn.

Scarface shattered the state record by 4 3/8 inches, net-scoring 195 points.

This proved to be, without a doubt, the best sheep hunt to have ever taken place in New Mexico, and the best sheep year the Land of Enchantment has ever experienced. In spite of terrible weather, Mick Chapel and Perry Harper had guided two hu

nters to the two of the biggest rams ever officially recorded in New Mexico.

Mick Chapel offers fully guided hunts for Coues and mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, black bear, mountain lion and pronghorn, in addition to bighorn sheep. This year's Foundation For Wild Sheep New Mexico bighorn sheep auction tag winner chose Mick Chapel as his outfitter.

For more information, contact New Mexico Professional Big Game Hunting, P.O. Box 291, Quemado, NM 87829; telephone (505) 773-4599, or visit their Web site, www.nmtrophyhunts.com.

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