It was October 6, 2008, the last week of my central Idaho bighorn sheep hunt in the Bighorn Crags. I found myself thinking of what I could have done different and questioning my spotting skills. As a friend of mine Tyler Staggs and I climbed a high cliff face that overlooked a giant creek basin, the daunting feeling of the steep terrain came over me and I knew the likelihood of finding rams was not good. After 3 separate trips and 27 total days I had met my match in this country. As a native Idahoan I have hunted throughout most of the state for various big game species but bighorn sheep hunting in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River country is the most grueling hunt I've been on as of yet.
My first adventure hunting the Bighorn Crags started in the fall of 2007 when a coworker friend of mine drew a bighorn sheep tag his first year of applying. We contacted several other hunters who had drawn in the past and identified several areas sheep often used and the best way to access these areas. In September of 2007 we packed 3 horses 21 miles into the area we were going to hunt. During that two week hunt the weather ranged from smoky to foggy then we received around two feet of snow. The weather was against us and we headed home after only seeing one small ram and a few ewes. He later flew in, when the season was extended, because of the smoke, getting a nice ram off the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The experience of the hunt taught me much about the area and I was fairly confident if I could draw I would get a ram as long as the weather conditions were right.
In the spring of 2008, I applied for the Bighorn Crags again expecting the same "no draw" result. Days went by as I nervously waited for the draw results to become available. Finally I looked on the Fish and Game website and saw that the draw results were out. I put in my license number and in disbelief, I realized that I had drawn a sheep tag for Unit 27-2! I jumped up and down like kid at Christmas but quickly sobered up after realizing the huge task I had a head of me getting a sheep out of the Crags without a guide was going to be one of the most difficult challenges I've ever had. Immediately I began planning where, when, and who I could get to go with me. All summer I trained at the gym and got my legs in the best shape I could. Finally, the end of August came and it was time to hunt.
Two friends, Trevor Parke and Tyler Staggs, were generous enough to take a couple of weeks off work for the season opener on August 30. The first trip, I planned to search the high country where I knew rams had been killed before. It was also the same area we hunted the previous year. It took an entire day to hike the 20 miles from Crags campground to our base camp with 3 horses carrying our gear. The day before the opener we glassed across the canyon from where we were camped and spotted 7 ewes feeding across the face in front of us. I was excited as night fell and was sure we would locate some rams the next morning. On opening day we got up early and headed for some rock outcrops from where we could thoroughly glass the area, then after a few hours we moved to another location. We did not locate a single sheep on opening day, but did see two mountain goats. As the sun started to set we were a little discouraged and an unseasonal chill cooled the air as dark clouds came in from the west. That night the wind howled and we woke up to over a foot of snow and a fog so thick you could not see ten yards. After an agonizing 2 days of sitting in the tent the fog finally moved out and we could see well enough to glass again. That morning when we went to check the horses, fenced on a nearby lake, I noticed horse tracks coming up the trail. To our distain, we found that the horses got tired of the weather and decided to go back to the trailer on their own. It took me a full day of walking to get back to the truck to get them while my two friends stayed behind and looked for sheep. When I got back we spent the rest of the trip glassing every inch of the drainage that we thought could have sheep. After 7 days of searching we decided to pack up and head home.
The second trip I decided to try a different area to the south, midway between the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and the top of the Bighorn Crags. Ryan Newman, a friend from work, came with me this time and in addition to my sheep tag he had a mountain goat tag for the same unit. After preparing the horses, we hiked 20 to 25 miles into an area that overlooked the Middle Fork of the Salmon River high above where Ryan had shot his ram the year before. Our plan was to hunt the area looking for both a ram and goat. After a few days of glassing we spotted a nice billy Ryan decided to take. It took two separate days of stalking but Ryan finally shot and killed the nice 9 inch billy. From there we decided to take the goat back to the horses, hang the meat, cure the hide, and go back out to hunt for my sheep. That night we got back to camp in the dark and there was an uneasy silence. We couldn't hear the horses and it appeared that there were horse tracks on the "goat" trail we took to get into the basin we were hunting. I thought it was impossible that the horses had left because they were hobbled and we had set up a backcountry electric fence around the perimeter of the large lake meadow. Then after about 15 minutes of assessing the situation I knew what had happened, they had either got spooked by something and ran off or they broke their hobbles and just took off. I was disgusted and we decided to go ahead and hunt for a few more days then make the trek back to the trailer to find them. After a few more days of hunting for we only spotted one small half curl ram and a ewe. We then began our hike all the way back to the trailer and found the horses fat and happy looking at us like they were ready to go home, hobbles broken. After two more days of hiking back in, loading our equipment, and coming out we at least had a nice mountain goat to show for the effort, but I was really questioning how many sheep this unit had.
Finally after a week of recuperating I was going to make one last hunt in the Crags to find a ram. On October 3, I chartered a flight with Salmon Air and got a river permit from the U.S. Forest Service. My dad Frank, my friend Tyler, and I flew into Bernard airstrip along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I had rented a raft and borrowed rafting equipment from friends and we floated 18 miles down river to a campground which was located at the confluence of a creek drainage I wanted to check for rams. The next morning, after a good breakfast of chorizo and eggs, Tyler and I loaded up our packs with all the camp and hunting gear we would need for up to 4 nights while my dad stayed camped on the beach. Not knowing the water situation on top of the hill we each packed about 3.5 gallons of water. We crossed the river by raft and got up the hill, finally finding a flat spot to make camp. Checking his GPS Tyler was pretty bummed to find out we were only 0.6 miles from the river, but were over 2600 feet above it. We glassed a bit before dark but saw nothing. The next day we climbed to another vantage point to glass up a big, big drainage running to the northeast. The climb was another Middle Fork classic; go about 0.5 miles over and 0.5 miles up. All through the morning we saw no game, nothing. Shortly after lunch we started hearing echoing knocks, like someone rapping on a hollow log. We kept glassing and I finally spotted 7 rams taking turns rubbing a tree and knocking heads! We could just make them out well enough in the spotting scope to know that at least 4 of them were legal and 2 looked pretty decent. After an hour of watching them bang heads we made a plan. The plan involved Tyler staying where we were currently camped with an eye to the spotting scope while I grabbed some food, my bivy gear, and take off to try to get to the hill the rams were on by the next morning. I took off and Tyler got all 7 rams accounted for before night set in. Bright and early the next morning Tyler was up and on the scope, but could only see 2 rams and only for a short while. During my all night hike I got a bit turned around in the dark and couldn't figure out exactly where I was on the hill in relation to where we had spotted the rams, but after a while I finally got my bearings and headed up to where we had seen the sheep the previous afternoon. Once there, I found it was a steep, rocky area full of large snaggy trees, but there were no sheep, just lots of sign, some of it very fresh. After a couple of hours of sitting, looking, and listening I decided the sheep must have moved. So I started down a steep tree covered ridge following the tracks and sign, moving as quietly as possible, but as anyone who's hiked in this country knows rocks can and will roll on you at anytime. About that time I heard a rock roll on the opposite side of the ravine I was walking down...then another rock rolled. Looking across the ravine, I saw a ram step out from behind a rock at about 300 yards away. His eyes were locked onto me as he faced me broadside. I quickly looked through my binoculars and saw he was a nice legal ram. Luckily there was a dead tree about two steps in front of me and I placed the rifle on a branch for a brace. As the ram scurried along the rocky, tree ridden hillside he finally stopped to look and I shot. BOOM?crack?Nothing! He slowly began to walk uphill and I took a "Texas Heart Shot"...BOOM...crack?Nothing! The ram then walked behind a tree and just stared at me from behind it. Finally he stepped out from behind the tree and I took a shot at his neck and missed. All of the sudden the rams legs got wobbly, he dropped rolling down the hill and was stopped by a log within 5 feet from a huge cliff. I couldn't believe it; I had finally found and shot a nice ram. After examining him for a minute I realized I had actually hit him my first two shots once through the chest and once in the rear. I then called Tyler on the radio and excitedly told him, "RAM DOWN!!". He was excited, but I could hear the hesitation in his voice knowing that a lot of work was in store. We made a plan that I would start processing the ram while Tyler would pack up our camp and head back to the river then the next morning start hiking up the creek drainage I was in and try to meet me halfway. The next morning I got all the meat, hide, horns, and my equipment together and started the grueling pack down to the creek. We met up after a long brush-wacking hike and Tyler took half the load from me, 6 hours later we finally made it back to the river. It was then time for cocktails and sharing the story with my dad who had been camped at the river the whole time. We stayed one more night at that camp and then started the float out.
All in all it was a great hunt in some of the raspiest, steepest country I have had the pleasure of hunting. As you can see patience along with what seemed like unachievable expectations, hard work, persistence, and hours behind the spotting scope and binoculars can pay off.
I have a tremendous sense of gratitude for my friends and dad for unselfishly giving their time and help for my benefit. Without them, I would not have been successful at getting one of the most coveted big game trophies in the west.
About the Author:
I am a 37 year old wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Reclamation in Burley, Idaho. In the fall I enjoy hunting most of the biggame species Idaho has to offer and upland gamebird hunting with my Drathar pointer. During the rest of the year I enjoy fishing, skiing, backpacking, camping, and dirtbike riding with friends and family.