For 33 years, Billings hunter Jim Tuell has been putting in for a bighorn sheep tag. So when he finally drew one this season, his goal was to take a trophy ram whose heavy, curled horns would score 200 inches or more.
“Everyone said, ‘Don’t take the first ram ...Wait, wait, wait ... Look at lots of rams ... Don’t get in a hurry ... 200 inches is very possible in this unit,’” Tuell wrote in an email.
But as he got closer to the end of his nine day hunt in Unit 680, northeast of Judith Landing in the Missouri River Breaks, the trophy hunter in Tuell was concerned that he would have to fill his tag with a smaller ram than he had envisioned.
“It’s not like I could pass this year and shoot one next year,” he wrote. “Sheep are a true once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Settling for less wasn’t a thought he wanted to entertain after hours and hours of studying maps, contacting landowners and wildlife biologists and spending more than 20 days scouting the badlands terrain this summer to learn the sheep’s patterns and habits.
His drive was also intensified by the death last year of his 97-year-old father, Varble Tuell, a longtime bighorn sheep buff. Varble became obsessed with desert bighorns while living in Southern California, an interest that transferred to Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep when he moved to Bridger. Every fall, Varble would drive to the South Fork of the Shoshone River canyon outside Cody, Wyo., to photograph and film the sheep during their rut.
“His love for the animals was an inspiration to me,” Tuell wrote.
Although sheep hunting would be a new adventure for the 48-year-old Tuell, he has long pursued other game. Growing up in Bridger, he hunted with his older brothers, Jack and Buzz. So it was only natural that they’d accompany him on his bighorn sheep hunt. They all traveled to the Missouri Breaks on Oct. 13 and in five days had spotted more than 40 rams, 15 of which had horns that would make the 180 minimum score for the Boone & Crockett Club’s record book.
“We saw four that would go 190-plus,” Tuell wrote. “Two of those had over 17-inch bases, but lacked length because they were broomed off.”
One of the rams the brothers spotted on the second day, which they estimated would score 195 inches, they nicknamed Brownie. The name came from the bighorn sheep’s unusual chocolate-colored hair.
After five days of hunting and no shots fired except to ensure Tuell’s Winchester Model 70 7mm magnum mounted with a Leupold scope was zeroed in, the Tuell brothers agreed that Jim should shoot Brownie rather than risk going home empty handed. So on Oct. 18, they fired up their four-wheelers and began searching the ram’s favorite haunts. The bighorn sheep was nowhere to be found.
“We looked up and down the rim for miles thinking he had picked up a hot ewe and moved deeper into the gumbo canyons,” Tuell wrote. “The rut was kicking in, the rams were splitting off of their bachelor herds, and they were on the move. Anyone who has hunted the Missouri River Breaks knows of the countless hidden coulees and canyons.
“I was nervous and a little concerned that another hunter would find him and not pass on him like I had foolishly done earlier in the week,” he added. “The day was slipping away and I was running out of hiding places to search, so I climbed up on the last rim that we had seen him on and pondered the situation.”
That’s when Tuell said he remembered that the canyon directly across from him was a migration route from the ram’s summer feeding grounds – a familiar area for the bighorn sheep.
“I slid down off the cliff, ran up to the mouth of the canyon, calmed down for a few minutes and slipped into the depths of the creek that ran out of the gumbo hell hole,” he wrote. “I wasn’t half a mile in when I saw a white sheep’s butt dip in ahead of me. My heart was racing. I was on pure adrenaline now knowing this was Brownie. As I crept closer, I watched the ram step out of the creek onto a small flat ... it wasn’t him, but a smaller three-quarter curl ram.
“My heart sank. I kept my cool, and sat quiet for several minutes until the ram fed around the next bend. I slipped up to where he had been, wincing as I picked the cactus from my knees and peeked over the edge. This time, two white butts faced away from me, and one had enormous horns, in fact they didn’t look real from only 150 yards away.
“After a quick judge, I knew it was Brownie. They had no idea I was there, so I took in as much of this majestic animal as I could before slipping off the safety and carefully squeezing the trigger.”
The ram’s horns ended up measuring 44 inches on both sides, had a spread of 23 4/8 inches with 16 6/8 inch bases. The Boone & Crockett green score was 197 3/8 with only 3/8 in deductions. The official score requires a 60 day drying period. Since the ram wasn’t the 200-incher he had envisioned, Tuell was a bit disappointed.
“But this one had everything else that I was looking for -- width, length, heaviness, flare, beautiful brown chocolate cape,” he wrote.
Others that the group saw may have scored close to the ram he finally took, but none were as nice looking as the chocolate-caped bighorn.
Finally fulfilling a dream that started when he was 15 was emotional for Tuell.
“As I walked up to Brownie, I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder. Together, we examined the massive horns and felt the beautiful brown body and cape,” he wrote. “I wiped the tears from my eyes and bowed my head to thank the Lord for this animal, the hunt shared with my two older brothers, completing a tribute to my father and a 33-year quest coming to an end.”