In March, 2006 as I climbed our airplane into an overcast Colorado sky, I had already accepted the fact that I wouldn't see my wife and kids again for a long, long time; the birthdays and family moments I would miss could never be regained. I also knew that it was very unlikely I would be home in time to participate in any of the 2006 archery hunting seasons. My military unit was being deployed to provide airlift support throughout Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). We would be stationed at Camp Le Monier in Djibouti, Africa, at the southern tip of the Red Sea. My only hope of hunting at all was a long-shot; drawing a rare and elusive, late-season archery tag for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
Six weeks into the six-month deployment, I checked the Colorado Division of Wildlife's website for the 2006 drawing results. I actually called the DOW's office to confirm what the website revealed; I had finally drawn a highly-coveted bighorn ram tag! Colorado's Unit S46 is an anomaly among the typical late-summer or early-autumn bighorn hunts. It is an archery only unit with season dates in late November and terrain elevations between 8,000 and 10,000 feet. My previous knowledge of the unit and its sheep population was quite minimal, but I now had six months to plan for this hunt of a lifetime from half a world away.
As with any backcountry archery venture, I strongly believe that physical conditioning is the foundation of a successful sheep hunt. I spent nearly all of my free time working out and getting into the best shape of my life. With everyday temperatures in the 120s, the Horn of Africa was a great environment to deliver strenuous workouts. Near our camp, dirt trails and roads cut through the thorny trees and shrubs of the African desert. Occasional camels, hyenas, and black mamba snakes were witnesses to the hundreds of miles I ran and hiked during the mid-day heat. I always maintain a high level of fitness, but I knew that this sheep hunt could possibly be the most physically challenging hunt of my life. In addition to physical preparation, I spent countless hours studying maps, satellite photos, hunt statistics, and anything I thought might help me learn more about the unit. Jim Bulger and Brian Dreher of the Colorado Division of Wildlife were incredibly helpful with information and advice. After months of preparation I felt as if I really knew the hunting unit and the typical behavior of the bighorn population - without ever making a single boot track in the area. The topographical maps and aerial photos were permanently etched into my memory. S46 is primarily a bighorn wintering and rutting area and I knew that early snow on the high peaks was critical to move the sheep from their alpine, summer range into the lower elevations.
Upon my return home, early snow came to Colorado with a fury and it seemed that my wish had been granted. But three weeks before the season, the weather was clear and dry and it seemed that summer was making a comeback. The warm weather and disappearing snow would certainly limit the number of sheep available and make the hunt even more challenging.
Opening day was sunny, with the chill of an impending storm. I hiked many of the mountains and ridges within the unit and glassed the adjacent hillsides looking for the tell-tale sign of white rumps. Late in the day, I spotted a large herd of sheep across the valley from my position. There were about 20 animals basking in the afternoon sun; two big rams were among them. I watched the two rams spar and jostle with each other while I debated about whether enough daylight remained to make the trek across the canyon and attempt a stalk. Guessing that the sheep would move during the night, I traversed down the ridge toward the opposing sunny cliff walls. As I climbed the ridge to attempt a stalk from above, I couldn't resist the urge to get one last look at the sheep before I crept behind the cliffs. To my dismay, most of the animals were looking my direction as I peeked through the trees from over 500 yards away. I slithered back into the trees and continued the stalk, knowing that the sheep's radar was now up and they were alert to possible trouble.
After dropping my pack and making one final check of the wind I entered the cliffs from behind a predetermined point and was surprised to find two ewes a mere 10 feet away. The entire herd must have moved from their original location lower on the cliffs. Moments later, dozens of pebble-sized chunks of granite rained down on me from above. I peeked around the boulder that shielded my view to find that the two ewes were now gone. I never determined exactly what happened to the remainder of the herd, but I guessed that I was in plain view to an unseen sheep above, and it alerted the others to my presence. As I hiked in the fading light down the steep cliffs toward my camp, I didn't comprehend just how much I would later wish for another chance like that opening day encounter.
A storm arrived the next day, dumping several inches of snow along with strong northwest winds. I hoped that the winter weather would spark a migration of sheep into the lower elevations and sunny, south-facing cliffs, but the storm was short-lived and there was no such migration. In fact, the next two weeks were completely void of any bighorns. The calmer weather returned producing clear, sunny days and bitter, cold nights. The only wildlife I encountered were deer, bobcats, and a 15 yard face-off with a mountain lion. The cat and I met unexpectedly as we each rounded a huge boulder beside a trail. After a few seconds, the cat bounded across the river and disappeared into the boulder-strewn timber.
I continued to hunt hard trying to avoid discouragement, but my drive and optimism began to weaken. The season was less than a week from ending and it seemed that there would be no bighorns taken in the unit this year. There are typically two ewe tags and two ram tags issued annually. With just five days remaining, I met one of the ewe hunters and his partner as I crested a ridge mid-morning. We introduced ourselves and began comparing notes about how few sheep there were within the unit. As we talked, I was astounded to see the silhouette of a ram appear on a spur only 200 yards away! The ram was looking right at us. I gambled that my best plan was to allow the other hunters to hold the ram's attention while I attempted a stalk. The wind demanded a flanking-type stalk and I was only about three minutes into the maneuver when I heard whistling to gain my attention. I returned to the original position only to find that the ram had walked right past the other hunters. They informed me the ram was big and clearly on a mission, traveling quickly to the northwest. The news was devastating. After so many days of fruitless hunting it seemed that my only opportunity had just vanished as quickly as it had appeared. My only hope now was to pursue the moving ram.
I moved quickly at first, trying to close the distance and assuming that the ram was still on the move. Instinct guided me in a straight line which took me across and down the other side of the ridge. As the terrain changed from pine forest to huge granite cliffs I hoped to find the ram slowing his pace to look for a warm bedding area. To my delight, I found him several minutes later on a rocky outcropping with a great view of nearly everything below. My position was far from ideal. It was below the rock ledge, but the tops of large pine trees that grew from the base of the cliffs shielded me from the keen eyes of the ram. I quickly moved closer, using the trees for cover while the ram was busy looking uphill at something that had his full attention. I wanted to use my rangefinder, but as I tried to retrieve it from the holster on my belt the ram began moving along the rocks. There was an opening in the trees just a few yards ahead of the sheep and I knew this clearing might be my only shot opportunity. I quickly nocked an arrow and came to full draw as the mighty ram cleared the tree limbs and stopped in perfect view, offering a steep, uphill shot. As the ram's vital spot appeared in my peep sight I judged the distance instinctively, exhaled, and let the arrow fly. I saw the ramï¿½s light-chocolate colored fur make a puff just behind the right elbow and heard my arrow collide loudly into the vertical granite slab beyond. He trotted along the rock ledge and disappeared over the rise. In the next moment came the distinct sound of success; the mortally-wounded ram tumbled off the ledge and crashed into a cluster of pine trees adjacent to the cliff wall. The tree limbs eased his fall and he expired quickly at the base of the broken pines. I hit my knees and said a prayer of thanks for this fabulous animal and for the magical experience of hunting him in the wild beauty of the Colorado Rockies. I was in complete disbelief that I had finally taken a Rocky Mountain bighorn. Just 30 minutes prior, I was making peace with the seeming fact that my only opportunity had vanished.
After some photos using my compact tripod and camera timer, it was time for the work to begin. I de-boned the quarters and was able to fit everything into one brutally heavy load. The steep terrain, loose gravel, and cliffs during the hike were dangerous and problematic. More than a dozen times the cliffs prevented any further movement; I was forced to climb back up and across the face in search of a new route that would allow my descent. There were several hair-raising moments when the heavy pack nearly led the way down the granite cliffs with me along for the ride. Two hours later I arrived at the base of the mountain with my prize. After months of dreaming from halfway around the world, my deployment dreams had finally come true.
About the author:
Matt Dorram is a Colorado native and an active-duty pilot with the Colorado Army National Guard. Matt's aviation unit was deployed to serve with the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. The task force is charged with defeating terrorism, primarily through humanitarian assistance to impoverished people in the region. Matt, his wife, Kathleen, and their two children, Garrett and Lexington, all enjoy outdoor recreation in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Matt's first article "Brotherly Bulls" was published in the March/April 2004 issue of Eastmans' Bowhunting Journal.
Arrows: Easton XX75.
Broadheads: NAP Scorpion.
Boots: Lowa Tibet and Scout II.
* For any backcountry bowhunt, get in the best physical shape possible. Too often, demanding terrain prevents hunters from exploring the best habitat for many species.
* Allow yourself to follow your instincts and always carry enough equipment to spend an unexpected night in the woods if necessary. Having the proper gear will give you the confidence to explore deeper into the wilderness.