Preparing for a Bighorn Hunt
Engaged in a peerless but somewhat reckless parody imitating a bolt of greased lightning, I narrowly missed setting a new world’s record in the three-meter dash as I darted for the warmth of my down filled sleeping bag. Piling under the covers, I stuffed myself deep inside the cozy refuge in hopes of kick starting my circulation again, after stumbling around in the pre-dawn darkness brewing a fire to life with frost covered tinder.
As I lay there listening to the wind bluster down the craggy walls of the valley, the old tin box in the corner started to cough and groan, each sputter it made belching forth a chimney full of sparks that would go dancing up through the treetops like tiny fireworks before they fizzled from life and delicately swirled back to the ground disguised as miniature ash bombs. I hadn’t even the time yet to reach a hand and wipe the sleep from my eyes or enjoy the small waves of heat starting to trickle my way, when my outfitter rapped a couple times on the canvas shell of my wall tent.
“Up and at ‘em, Steve!” he barked. “The cats are back in camp, and coffee’s a brewing!” Half turning to leave, he illuminated my gear with the yellow beam of his flashlight. “Oh ya, sure hope you got film in that there camera of yours because you’re going to need it!”
My head still whirling in a dizzy haze of dreamland wonder, I yawned, reached for the stars to stretch the well rested knots from my back, then let a big shiver go. “Brrrrr ... holy snappers is it cold,” I thought and half said to myself, rolling out of a toasty bedroll and into starch stiff hunting duds I could have sworn had spent the night in an icebox.
Shuffling around the now growling stove to warm up a few of my more tender spots, I scratched a couple itchy body parts that were nagging me, including the top of my head. “The cats are back in camp? Huh, better go check this out,” I muttered groggily. Taking one last sweet draw of smoke emanating from crackling flames gnawing through an armload of sappy pine I had fed the toasty fire, I jumped into sodden boots, and stepped beneath a wonder of twinkling stars. Burning off yonder over the easterly mountain range, an abysmal pool of molten darkness was busy fighting off an encroaching sunrise. It would only be a matter of time before the purple hue draped across the horizon melted into a fiery mixture of pastel rapture. In bliss, I stood there awe struck inhaling the beauty of it all, relishing the promise of yet another day climbing mountains in pursuit of bighorn rams.
I was in paradise chasing a lifelong passion of hunting sheep, a small niche of heaven in the Rocky Mountains. It was grizzly country, as grizzly country as you could ever expect to find. The makeshift electric fencer strung around camp was an affidavit to that. So were all the fresh bear diggings down along the creek that riffled past our rustic lodgings no more than a strong arm’s throw away. If that wasn’t enough, there were countless tales swapped over dinner table during supper the evening before last regarding some close encounters (of the “furry” kind) my guests had endured a few days before my arrival. That’s why, when I turned to stumble towards the teasing aroma of fresh rations wafting from the cook shanty and something hairy brushed by and went thumping off into the eerie shadows only a few feet away, my heart nearly blew my head clean off at the shoulders when it leaped into the back of my throat!
I must have looked like one of those cartoons, the kind where the character’s feet are a whirlwind a mile ahead before the upper body decides to follow suit like a stretched rubber band being released. Checking my pulse to see if I was still alive and giving my leg a quick shake to make sure I hadn’t soiled my shorts, I thanked the Big Guy upstairs that all my bodily functions hadn’t failed and brought me untimely embarrassment.
“It’s just the cats,” my outfitter chuckled. Hey man, I’ll admit that bears make me nervous, but what do you expect when there’s nothing but uninhabited space between you and your .300 magnum, instinct nudging you in the ribs to answer to an overactive imagination.
Long story short, a small posy of mule deer made it a custom to show up at my outfitter’s camp every fall to satisfy their sweet tooth for oats. These were wild deer that, over time, had developed an unusually and trusting relationship between hunter and hunted, even though muleys are fair game in this neck of the woods as long as they bare antlers. And although they come snooping around for a treat, shooting them is strictly taboo. You see, the hunting camps in this particular valley have a standing house rule concerning these deer, which are commonly referred to as “the cats” due to their brazen nature when it comes to looking for a few handouts. They’re strictly off bounds, but who could argue with such an arrangement. Hunting is far more than just killing something, and it was one of the greatest thrills I’ve yet to encounter in all my hunting career to have a wild deer nervously approach, eyes scanning, nose probing, only to then feel their roughness and wet tongue run across your skin as it laps up a fist full of oats.
Yes indeed, hunting bighorns is pure adrenaline. This particular adventure prematurely skidded to a halt when I broke the crown off a tooth, however, pulling stakes and heading for an emergency rendezvous with the nearest dentist. I didn’t get my ram, but I have no complaints to share in that department. For me, the essence of a hunt is everything one encounters in the incredible bounty Mother Nature so kindly offers us. On this trip I got to ride shotgun in a modern day chuck wagon, saddle horses, climb a mountain or two, live under the unpolished comforts of a wall tent, and luxuriate in all the other great stuff that a sheep hunt has to offer. In fact, before I departed from camp I did have a real life encounter with a grizzly. Funny thing, nevertheless, I sure wasn’t as unstrung as I was when that goofy “cat” scared the living heck out of me in the wee hours of morning, the close quarters contact with the big boar was almost spiritual.
I’m fortunate enough to live less than two hours from some of the best bighorn hunting in the world. Hence, I’ve pursued sheep a number of years now, and over this course I have developed a few opinions pertaining to gear selection I feel is invaluable to anyone considering a hunt of this caliber. With that said, let’s start off with rifle selection.
Fast, flat shooting rifles zeroed in at 300 yards are recommended medicine. Both the .270 and .280 are excellent sheep guns, with bullet weights of 130 to 150 grains plenty enough juice to get the job done. Magnums – like the 7 mm or any of the .300s – might seem like more of a practical choice to the novice, but bighorns are nothing like elk or otherthick-skinned game (i.e. moose, bear, etc.) in that they need a heavy payload of lead to bring swift demise. You’ve also got to remember that you’re going to be crawling up and down mountains, quite often several miles a day, so that alone eliminates most magnums as they fail the requirements of a lightweight firearm. While it may not seem all that critical, at the end of the day two or three pounds can mean all the difference when lugging it over your shoulder.
A good example of the ultimate sheep gun is Remington’s Model 700 Titanium. At only 5 ½ pounds in their long-action and 5 ¼ pounds in their short-action, Remington’s titanium receiver delivers incredible strength but at a lot lighter weight than steel. Designed for high-altitude hunting, the receiver is a bolt featuring spiral-cut flutes and a skeleton handle to help reduce overall weight. At only 22 inches, the 416 stainless-steel barrel features a trim mountain-style contour for fast handling and to also cut down on poundage. As for the stock, it’s an ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre composite reinforced with aramid fibres and fitted with sling swivel studs. Overall length, this rifle is perfect for stalking bighorns at only 42 ½ inches long (long-action); the short-action is about a ¼ inch shorter.
WALKING THE WALK
You can be in the greatest of shape of your life, own the best of equipment, and hunt the deadliest sheep country in North America, but the bottom line is: if you’re not wearing proper footwear you may as well go home. Nothing will spoil a hunt faster than sore feet or a boot full of blisters. You need to take care of your “mode of transportation” above all else when traversing mountains.
Hunting upwards of four months a year, I literally log hundreds of miles on my feet annually. I wouldn’t be able to do this unless I wore the best footwear possible, like my Versa-Tracks from Red Wing Shoe Company. An 11-inch boot that’s Gore-Tex lined, they’re great for hiking rugged terrain. Breathable and waterproof, the 1000-gram Thinsulate Ultra insulation keeps your feet warm on the coldest of days without sacrificing weight. At only 3.8 lbs, it’s like walking on thin air. Add roller-bar lacing (so your laces won’t loosen throughout a day’s hunt) and interchangeable Multi-Terrain and Ice cleats, and you’d be pretty hard pressed to find a better hunting boot.
Another boot worth serious consideration is Cabela’s Outfitter Series, in particular their 12-inches high. I definitely recommend a boot no less than 10 inches high for the added support needed to withstand the strain of hiking steep inclines, as well as a boot with proper traction cleats. The Outfitter’s Airbob outsole fits the bill perfectly, and at just over 4 pounds they too provide the same comfort level as the Versa-Tracks do.
Equally important for proper foot care, there are a number of hi-tech socks that help wick away moisture as much as they insulate against the cold. With a variety of synthetic fabrics to choose from, selection is virtually endless. Seldom do I find the need to double up on layers any longer when wearing quality boots like my Versa-Tracks or Outfitters, but I always make sure to have an extra pair of wool socks in my day pack just in case. Likewise, when sheep hunting I always have at least two extra changes of regular socks on hand so my feet stay dry.
Whether it’s an old hockey stick with the blade chopped off or a commercially made staff, a walking stick is invaluable. One bad slip in treacherous terrain can spell disaster, so I always have some sort of walking aid in hand. It even helps displace the load on your back; whether it’s the meat and cape from a sheep you just shot, or gear you’re packing off the mountain. Generally fabricated out of aluminium, some store bought walking aids also serve double duty as a shooting stick.
I once tried crossing a scree slope in stone sheep country 15 years ago, inching my way along a rather skinny goat trail etched in the loose rock. Losing my balance, I slid on my back feet first for more than 400 yards before coming to a rest no less than 200 feet from the edge of a cliff. It was a couple thousand feet straight down, and I watched as my daypack tumbled over the rim and out of sight. Poor footwear and no walking stick were the contributing factors to my mishap. I never did recover my lost gear.
It’s amazing how far technology has come, even with the clothes we wear. Long gone are the days of cotton. Although exceptionally warm when dry, cotton isn’t very breathable, is extremely heavy, and retains moisture once wet thus losing its insulation factor.
When selecting clothing for your bighorn hunt there are three attributes one should keep in mind: breathability, warmth, and weight, of which the two most important are breathability and warmth. Wool and gore-tex/thinsulate blends are good fabrics to evaluate when picking out your hunting clothes.
There are basically two parts to hunting bighorns – walking and glassing. While both are draining work, spending hours hunched over a spotting scope or leaning up against a spruce tree with a pair of binoculars glued to your eyes can be absolutely exhausting. The idea is to meticulously pick apart a mountain slope looking for bedded, moving or feeding sheep. While it may sound quite painless, trying to distinguish the difference between the grey assembly of a bighorn ram against a wall of smoke-colored shale and rubble is literally like trying to find a needle in a haystack. I’ve been a fan of Bushnell for years now, and highly recommend their products for this type of hunting. Not only are they extremely durable to the punishment of climbing mountains, they offer exceptional optics at an affordable price.
TRAIN! TRAIN! TRAIN!
If you expect to lavish any sort of success harvesting a bighorn ram, you’ve got to be in the best physical shape possible. My suggestion is to join a local health club no less than 6 to 7 months prior to your intended hunt. These sorts of leisure facilities are available in any major urban center, and generally offer everything from swimming and weight lifting to racket ball courts and indoor running ovals. Likewise, they have personal trainers on staff who can help you with a safe and effective training routine suited to your fitness capabilities and level. I start my own program usually no later than March each year, and it’s amazing how fast one can get back into shape again after sitting around for a couple months in the winter doing nothing (I speak of a physical level) except staying warm.
Hunting bighorn sheep – or any sheep for that matter – demands a sizeable investment in both equipment and determination. You’re not hunting whitetails here, and for most people a sheep hunt is a once in a lifetime experience. So if shooting a bighorn ram is on your “to do” list, why leave it all to chance? Success in this game comes only from those with enough heart and will to prepare for the ultimate North American adventure.