Unless you’ve done it, it’s tough to comprehend. I speak of hunting bighorns, arguably the true monarch of the Rocky Mountains. Among all North American game species, they exemplify the essence of majesty. Few creatures can survive where they thrive. Amid scrambling talus slopes, at altitudes that cause most mortals to gasp, bighorn rams are indeed a sight to behold.
Their habitat is often inhospitable and not for the faint of heart. Physical fitness, perseverance, stamina, motivation, and drive; these all are characteristics possessed by afflicted sheep hunters. In fact, commonly experienced on any given day during a sheep hunt are gale-force winds, heavy rains, sudden snowstorms, blistering hot calms and everything in between. Over six years of pursuing rams with both rifle and bow, I’ve experienced it all. Thankfully, during my August 2000 hunt, God smiled on me, providing not only some of the best weather imaginable, but a hunt of my lifetime resulting in the full-curl ram of my dreams.
As most adventures do, it began with a curious conversation. During a drive home from a fishing trip, good friend Claudio Ongaro listened intently as I shared the story of my 1999 sheep hunt.
"...bottom line, we were busted. Couldn’t go up. Couldn’t go down. Two days prior to the opener, were stuck on a ledge with no place to go! Ambition had put us between a rock and a hard place ... literally. As we ascended a slope in preparation for a day and a half of pre-season scouting, we’d located 18 rams. Only one problem; as they became sky-lined on the saddle high above us, we were stranded in plain view!"
Continuing on, the ending was an unpleasant one. Yes, we managed to bivy on that narrow ledge and, yes, we did eventually slip by the rams unseen. But, with every sheep eventually bedding less than 400 yards away, we’d apparently counted our chickens far too soon. At nearly 9,000 feet, we were spell-bound under the misconception that we were alone. Just hours before legal light, two less scrupulous hunters had slipped by us on the saddle unwittingly rousting the rams from their beds as darkness still blanketed our surroundings.
"... Moral of this story...," I proceeded to explain …, “there are two ways to kill a bighorn ram. The first is to compete in a footrace. The second is to go farther into the backcountry than anyone else.”
"Man, that sheep hunting sounds awesome!" added Claudio. "My only problem is time."
As a waterfowl outfitter, he spends the entire months of September and October in the field. Therein lies the problem.
"But that’s the beauty of sheep hunting," I chirped spontaneously. “The season opens the third week of August.” Barely a week later I got the call. Frankly I’d never heard him so excited.
"You serious about that invitation Kev?"
"Just say the word and it’s a go!" I retorted enthusiastically.
You’ve gotta understand, Claudio is a busy guy. Sure, we’re all busy, but he’s a different breed; one who can keep eight balls in the air at one time, and somehow have time for the finer things in life. The key – it’s gotta be his idea. So now it was, and that meant we were going sheep hunting!
After the dust had settled, a third member joined our team; a friend by the name of Sheldon Fiske. With August 25th as the season opener in Alberta, our plan was to travel some 20 miles in on horseback, establish a base camp and invest a couple pre-season days scouting. With half a dozen drainages within easy riding distance, there was ample territory to explore. A six-day hunt before us, enthusiasm ran high as we headed for the hills.
Renting horses from an outfitter, we were escorted in and then left to our own devices. Although we each had some experience with horses, no amount of trail riding can truly prepare you for the moment you are finally left on your own.
"Remember those words of wisdom," I repeated ... "let’s make sure those horses are hobbled properly at night. Seems they know which way’s home, and I don’t much feel like making the trek on foot to retrieve them!"
Surrounded by a picturesque mountain backdrop, the view was intoxicating. With our tent conveniently nestled into the heavy forest cover, directly in front of us was a massive wall of rock; perfect sheep habitat. In short order a band of ewes and lambs were spotted. True to form, we wasted little time in grabbing spotting scopes and tripods. Drooling over the prospect of locating a thick-horned ram, we were like kids in a candy store!
As the sun descended in the western sky, we too retired to our sleeping bags.
Day one promised lots of sunshine and warm temperatures. That said, one thing you learn fast in the Rockies is that the weather can change in a heartbeat. Fortunately, it was not only bright and sunny, but the hot sun was just about too much to bare as we carefully selected a nearby ridge, rode to tree line and proceeded on foot. Leaving the horses tethered on a small plateau, we would spend the day high up on the rocks, glassing near and far off nooks and crannies.
"Sure be nice to find a few rams right away. In theory, all we’d have to do is babysit them until opening day." But then, based on my experience, that’s no sure thing either!
"Think we’ll have company this far into the backcountry?" asked Sheldon.
"Hard to say ... we’re pretty far off the beaten path." Well, as sheep hunters quickly learn, no destination is too remote. "The best we can do is hope no one else is as ambitious as we are."
By noon we were on top of the world. Able to look down on virtually every range for miles in either direction, the view was breathtaking. Equipped with hand-held radios, communication was made easy. Each separating to scale and explore one last face to get to the highest point of our mountain for the day, upon reaching the top, I stopped abruptly.
Careful to ensure the volume was turned down, I whispered into my radio, “whoa! ... take it easy guys, you’ll never guess what’s in the basin just in front of me ... ease up here and take a look!” Before me were two ewes and two lambs of the year. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there were two cow elk bedded just a couple hundred yards below me. Then, as the three of us rejoined, we caught movement across the slope. There before us was a lone rocky mountain goat wandering a sheer rock face, the likes of which few other creatures could navigate.
“Unbelievable!” Claudio commented. “If we’re seeing this much game here, just imagine what these other drainages hold.
“Look over there! Check out the mule deer on that ridge to the north,” added Sheldon. Bottom line, this was pristine wilderness teeming with game. From up high, we could see a larger band of ewes and their young some four miles down the valley and high up on a grassy slope.
“That’s where I think we should go tomorrow,” suggested Claudio.
Upon further inspection of our topo maps, we all agreed. According to the maps and aerial photos, the drainage in question looked to be the most suitable in the area.
After spending nearly four hours glassing and meticulously scouring every visible structure, we decided to make our way back to camp. While no rams were spotted on this first day, the next promised an entirely new experience.
Day two turned into an adventure in way-finding. Following numerous hours of bushwacking, we eventually stumbled upon a trail of sorts. Generally following a creek bottom, after nearly two hours of riding and several hundred feet of elevation gain, the valley opened up into a Shangri-La of open talus slopes, waterfalls, vast alpine meadows marred by various smaller drainages leading to a host of cirques and basins. This was sheep country extraordinaire! Again tethering the horses at the highest point that we dared take them, travel was easy following trails worn solid into the scree from centuries of sheep traffic and likely the odd backpacker and hunter.
“I think we should spend opening day here,” prompted Sheldon. “This looks too good to be true.”
Following some discussion, another factor was brought into the equation. Ahead of us were two backpackers … and they were carrying rifles. Just the thing we were desperately trying to avoid, competition was simply out of the question.
“There’s ample room for everyone,” I offered. “I think we should spend opening day climbing the ridge behind camp. These two won’t leave this place, and with us, that would be five in this drainage … that’s too many.”
All in agreement, we finished the day glassing that valley and headed back to camp. For our efforts, we were granted a brief glimpse of a small ram, more ewes and six more goats.
“Sure would have been nice to locate some rams, so we’re right on them for opening day,” I added. But the truth is, anything can happen in the mountains. With only a small percentage of the habitat visible, rams can be tucked in on a small bench and remain unseen until you’re right on top of them. Sheep hunting is truly an exercise in patience and determination. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you discover something new. The fact is, I never could have guessed how true this statement is. At least not until we ventured up our third mountain the next morning.
Vibrating with excitement, the alarm clock rang loud heralding the arrival of opening day. Fumbling in the early morning darkness, we managed to dress and warm ourselves by the fire despite the frost-laden grass and shrubs.
“I can’t wait to get up into the rocks,” I recall thinking. We’d all been waiting some time for this adventure and it was finally here. With the sun beginning to peak over the distant mountain peaks, we were getting a late start. Saddling the horses and grabbing daypacks, saddlebags, rifles and scabbards, we wasted little time in getting underway.
Two hours later, we were again at tree line. “Hey guys, look up there!” prompted Claudio.
Some 300 yards away was a band of 28 ewes and lambs. In my experience, in the early season, rams typically don’t hang around the ewes and lambs. But, given there is an exception to every rule, we knew that each day only allows enough time to scale one mountain, and we were determined to invest our time on this one; it just looked too good to pass up!
By 10:00 a.m., we had the horses tethered for the day and began our steady climb up a small drainage to a nearby saddle. Each step up the rocks seemed as though it had been divinely positioned just for sheep hunters. Like climbing perfectly placed stairs, time passed quickly as we made our way to about 9,000 feet.
“If I was a ram, this is definitely where I’d hang out,” I offered optimistically. “Check it out; easy escape routes in two directions, grassy slopes for easy feeding and high rocky ledges for bedding.” Comparable to the day prior, now this was the most pristine and suitable sheep habitat I’d ever laid eyes on!
“I think we should spend the day on this plateau,” suggested Sheldon. With no hesitation, Claudio and I offered our endorsement.
Selecting a high point with a clear view, we pulled out optics and settled in to painstakingly analyze every rock, ledge, trail and meadow within sight. This routine continued for several hours as we advanced a few hundred yards at a time to new vantage points.
By 2:00 p.m., I was already restless. Admittedly, if there’s one thing I struggle with, it’s sitting in one place for too long. Suffering from an advanced case of ‘gotta-see-over-the-next-hill-itis’, my prevailing curiosity must be satisfied.
“I’m gonna to take a hike over the crest of this ridge,” I told the guys. “I’ll be back in a half hour or so. Keep your radios on, just in case.”
Careful not to skyline myself, I began my trek up over the top. Admiring the vastness of the ranges surrounding us, I kept reminding myself to move slowly, as contours can play tricks, exposing not only the sheep to me, but me to the sheep if I didn’t keep my wits about me. Then it happened.
Not five minutes later, I caught a glimpse of a familiar shape. Quickly crouching down, I raised my glasses to reveal the round tops of a ram’s horns barely visible down the slope in front of me. Hurrying to identify a legal ram and then scan for others, I calculated for sure one and possibly three legal rams not 350 yards away! Contently grazing in the high alpine meadow, they were completely oblivious to my presence.
“Hey guys, get over here quick!” I whispered into my radio. Although I considered myself to be pretty much under control, I was later told that they thought I was hyperventilating as I spread the news. “Rams, a bunch of them … might be legal … come quick!”
That was their version. Mine of course, was much more calm, cool and collected. Carefully instructing them on where the sheep were, I decided it was best to simply go back and meet them on the other side of the ridge, where we could all move in together for the stalk. Not willing to risk spooking the rams, I led the stalk and, because I’d spotted them, yours truly would get first crack.
Easing in, we were a tight convoy of three camo-clad hunters crawling on all fours. Finally, at a distance of 225 yards, we poked our heads up over a small bench to find them still contently feeding. Nice thing was, there was no mistaking the closest. A massive full-curl ram; literally the trophy of my dreams!
“I’ll wait as long as I can guys. Hopefully we can take three out this bunch of nine, but if that one starts to move out of sight, I’m gonna take him.” Needless to say, following many years of hunting, I’ve learned that the ‘ol “bird in hand” principle is worth it’s weight in gold.
Just then, the massive ram centered in the crosshairs of my Leupold scope began to move off. It was now or never.
“Sorry guys, I’ve gotta take him now!”
At the report of my 7mm Remington Magnum, the ram reared up on his hind legs, darted forward, ran some distance and toppled over. A perfect double-lung hit, he was an incredibly strong animal.
At that instant, chaos erupted. With the dominant ram down, the other eight merely trotted another 100 yards and stood staring in disbelief. Confused and apparently waiting for direction from their leader, it took at least three minutes for the others to realize the need for a new leader. As soon as that decision was made, and the new hierarchy established, he proceeded to lead his peers to safer ground.
Oblivious to where the shot had come from, the band began to approach our position. At 125 yards, they were still quartering toward us, making it difficult to discern horn mass and whether or not they met the three-quarter curl restriction.
“I think the second and third are legal,” I offered. “What do you guys think?”
“Can’t get the right angle,” Claudio said … “too tough to tell.”
Just then, the band disappeared behind a ridge in front of us. To make a long story short, we played cat and mouse with these sheep for the next 45 minutes ultimately losing site of them entirely after they disappeared over a distant saddle.
After de-boning and packing my ram in our packs, we made our way back to the horses. And, with the sun descending behind us, our seasoned mounts carried us faithfully home. Arriving just as darkness covered our valley, this was a hunt that I know I will never forget.
With two days remaining, I spent the next in camp, painstakingly caping the head and preparing it for the trip home. Fortunately, we had glacier cold water running nearby, and sealing the cape and immersing it in the icy water was just the ticket to ensure that the hair didn’t slip.
As for Claudio and Sheldon, they did manage to find those same rams again. Both were legal and in fact respectable by most sheep hunter’s standards. "Looking for a full-curl", was the response given when asked why they didn’t shoot.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.