By Mike Deming
In the beginning of the 19th century, the American bison roamed the plains by the millions. The massive herds were an extremely impressive sight. What we did to them as a society is utterly appalling and doesn’t show the hunters or should I say killers in a very good light. These majestic animals were taken to near extinction. However, protection and conservation have brought them back to huntable numbers for a select few and only in a small number of states. These are once-in-a-lifetime hunt opportunities, if you are fortunate enough to draw a tag, but for most it will only be a dream.
Steve Chavez, owner of Rancho de Chavez just south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, has a love for bison just like I do. However, he has taken his love for these great creatures as well as his love for the great outdoors and put together a hacienda and ranch like no bison has ever seen. He put together a chunk of land that is close to 18,000 acres and established his own private herd on it. He has been doing this for a number of years now and has built the herd up to a point where he has huntable numbers, which provides the Sportsman’s News team with a unique opportunity to visit and hunt one of these magnificent animals.
Since this is a private herd, you aren’t required to draw a tag or even have a New Mexico hunting license. On top of that positive piece of information, we would be hunting these bison on 18,000 acres of free-ranging, wild terrain and not some 1,000-acre, high fence enclosure. We set the date for late March to do our evaluation trip, but could have done it any time during the year since this is a private herd.
You can read about an outfitter and their operation on the internet or through their website and even talk to past customers, but nothing really prepares you for an operation. You just have to see if for yourself and Rancho de Chavez is one such place.
We rolled up to the gate of the ranch late in the afternoon on a Friday. You could see the roofs of several buildings back in the distance, but we couldn’t tell exactly what was in store for us. The large metal gate opened electronically and we followed the narrow winding road through the pinions and junipers to a point where it came to another gate. The house was in the background at this time as well as the detached garage and the huge backdrop of the valley below. The gate then opened, we drove in and parked the truck. We were greeted by Season Elliot and not only is she Steve’s significant other, but she handles the logistics of the hunters and guests coming to the ranch and she and I had talked a bunch. She informed us that Steve was running a bit late as he has sixteen other businesses that require his attention, but he would make it in plenty of time for dinner.
Season gave us the complete tour of the main hacienda. The main ranch house was built in the 1970s by the Ball family (Ball Mason Jars) and the home reflects lots of little details of this heritage and one item that caught my eye was a hand-carved Ball Mason jar inlayed into the banister. Steve kept these unique items as well as the primary footprint, but he added to it significantly to bring his own Spanish ancestry into the design. It is a true Spanish hacienda, with all the bells and whistles and not even the photos can do it justice. There is a unique chandelier in the courtyard area which once hung in Jennifer Lopez’s house. It has its’ own wine tasting room and on the wall, hangs an original Picasso. Who hasn’t been to a hunting ranch with a Picasso? The bar has tiles in the ceiling and part of them are filters for the clean air filtration system that allows you to smoke cigars and the person next to you can’t even smell it. The other tiles are part of the sound system. So, this place is as good as you can possibly imagine. If it is possible, Steve has it there. However, this isn’t a piece for architectural digest, but rather a piece on the great hunting opportunities at Rancho de Chavez, while still enjoying the finer things in life.
Steve showed up just before dinner and joined us in the bar for appetizers and drinks. By the time dinner was served, it was obvious that even though he is the owner/outfitter of record, this isn’t your average mom and pop operation. Steve has built this place and provided the opportunity to hunt because he loves it. The weekends at the ranch with fellow hunters is a getaway from all of his other business ventures. By the time we had finished dinner, I felt like Steve and Season were old friends and we were catching up from years gone by. I could tell that this was going to be an exciting weekend.
We were to be joined on this hunt by two past customers of Rancho de Chavez; Ricky Yingersoll and Bert West, both of Colorado. Ricky loves the meat of the bison and was planning on shooting two meat bulls in that 2-to-3-year-old range, while Bert loves the exotic types of animals and was going to take this opportunity to hunt an Asian water buffalo. Rancho de Chavez has numerous different kinds of animals as well as the native New Mexico animals on the ranch.
When you have 18,000 acres of land to cover and you are looking for a few hundred bison, it can seem like a daunting task. However, full-time guides, Raul Sisneros and John Lucero, work year-round for Steve and keep an eye on the herds and the general area where they are spending most of their time. We rolled out about 7 a.m. to start our search. By nine, we had found one small herd of mostly cows, but none of those 2-to-3-year-old bulls. Raul climbed up onto an old windmill for a vantage point to look across the flat cactus covered plateau and quickly found some of the missing animals. It took several stalks to get things right and a clear shot, but Ricky was able to put both young bulls down before the herd gathered and left. This is usually when the hard work starts, but after a picture taking session, Raul and John went to get the front-end loader and a trailer for packing. This made packing out two bison rather simple. However, the hard work of breaking down two large animals and getting them into coolers took a good majority of the afternoon. We were able to spend several hours looking for the Asian water buffalo, but had no luck turning any up.
The next morning, Bert was chomping at the bit to find the big water buffalo that John had been talking about. These animals are very aggressive and the possibility of a charge before the shot or even after from the remaining herd adds a bit of excitement to the hunt. With great weather, no wind and a larger than average hunting party, Steve decided that it was time to bust out the UTV’s. These things are fully equipped, military grade Can-Am utility vehicles. With three different machines all loaded to the hilt, we looked a little more prepared for a military assault than a day of hunting. However, it made getting around the large ranch and turning up our target species a bit easier.
Within a couple of hours of searching, we finally spotted the big bull we were looking for, but he had also identified us as a foe. Having a small platoon consisting of cameramen, guides, onlookers, along with a hunter has a tendency of making it hard to sneak up on something, but after a couple of hours of cat and mouse, we finally got a good setup. Bert made a fatal shot on the huge Asian water buffalo bull, but he wouldn’t go down. We scrambled through the cedars to find another clear shot and finally put the animal down for good. These animals are enormous and would provide a full freezer for Bert. Since we just had the privilege of eating aged ribeyes from these animals the night before at dinner, I was a bit envious of what was laying on the ground in front of us. Once again, the daunting task of processing an animal of this size can be a bit overwhelming. This time, a skid steer with bucket and tracks showed up and reduced the task to something manageable.
With Bert and Ricky done and Raul and John preoccupied with field dressing, skinning, and breakdown, the rest of us jumped in Steve’s truck to go look for a bison for me. Since this isn’t a high fence operation and the bison do have the ability to roam, one will occasionally leave the herd and head out. Steve said that there had been one lone bison that was miles from the group that had been seeing occasionally. He wanted to see if we could find this lone bull and make a play on him while he was still on the property.
This part of the property is more rolling terrain with coulees and draws, but not much elevation to get above and see into; so we had our work cut out for us. We had driven around for nearly an hour when we spotted a group of Himalayan yak. We were evaluating them and considering shooting one of these instead of a bison, since I’ve never harvested a yak, when suddenly we caught movement back in the cedars that wasn’t the color of a yak.
As it passed through a small opening, all I could see was a huge head and large hump. “It’s him”, I said. They were only about 500 yards away and the wind was heavy in our face. The herd of yak and the lone bison had moved away from us and made our first 300 yards a relatively easy approach. Since I was shooting an antique Winchester model 94 chambered in .32 Winchester Special and open sights, I wanted to be inside of a hundred yards. That last hundred yards was a bit tricky getting from bush to bush and not being seen, especially with two cameramen and Steve.
I was scanning the terrain hard for legs or feet through the trees when I caught movement to my right. We were busted and the bison was staring us down. I slowly raised my rifle and pulled the hammer back. Andrew and Sam both confirmed that they were recording and I squeezed the trigger. I felt like I could see my bullet as it went through the neck hair and underneath my target. This large animal had deceived me and the shot was closer to two hundred yards than the hundred yards I had wanted. The animal bolted on report of the rifle, quickly catching up to the group of yak, but then slowed back down. We closed the distance once again and this time I made sure I was around a hundred yards when I squeezed the trigger.
One precise shot behind the ear and this magnificent animal was down for good. I had succeeded in harvesting another bison in my lifetime and this time, I had done it with a relic. This was my great grandfather’s rifle and belonged to his grandfather’ before that. It was over a hundred years old and one shot behind the ear, just like my grandpa always said, did the job. No meat wasted and a quick, humane kill.
There were high-fives all around and when we walked up to the animal, I finally realized that I had shot a cow. Thinking we were after the one lone bull down here, I never paid attention to identifying the sex. I was so caught up in the excitement of the moment and hunt that I was just taking it all in. Steve was okay with it and with this hunt, harvesting a cow wasn’t a problem as either sex can be harvested. This cow was extremely large and would provide some great tablefare for me and my family as well as a memory that will last a lifetime.
Steve Chavez and his operation at Rancho de Chavez is something special. It’s definitely worthy of being a Sportsman’s News Platinum Approved Outfitter and we will be coming back here in the future. We will be giving away a premium trophy bison hunt and 3-days of luxury accommodations for our Pro Membership Sweepstakes next year. Make sure you are a member for your chance to win this great trip at www.promembershipsweepstakes.com. And, if you would like to experience a first class hunting and outdoor experience and are tired of waiting to draw a tag for bison, you can book a great hunt with Rancho de Chavez at www.ranchodechavez.com