Bighorns and Rimrocks

By Jerry and Joshua Simmons

Jerry and Joshua SimmonsJerry and Joshua Simmons
Oregon 2006
Public Land D-I-Y

Sheep country was everything we expected and more. The remote canyons were deep enough to scare me and lined with rows of jagged rimrock, sheer-walled cliffs and steep grassy slides. Some places were downright treacherous!

But being anywhere else was out of the question. My 22 year old son Joshua had drawn a coveted Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep tag in the Oregon controlled hunt draw, and although I knew it wouldn't be an easy task to scale those canyon walls, I was determined to be part of this once in a lifetime hunt. Oregon is not well known for sheep or sheep country. On the eastern side of the state though, are some very remote and rugged areas like the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Snake River Wilderness, and we share with Idaho the Hells Canyon which is the Nation's deepest canyon. Thanks in large part to Eastern Oregon biologist Vic Coggins and his staff, all of those areas hold healthy populations of Rocky Mountain bighorns.

Sheep hunting was a brand new game to me and Joshua, but we still chose the challenge of going at it Do-It-Yourself style. Like always though, we knew that the work ahead of time would be the key to success. After researching our hunt area, one particular drainage in the lower elevations stood out as a favorite place for the bighorns.

Opening morning we made our way along the rim of a sparsely timbered canyon, stopping frequently to glass the steep hillsides. Mid day, Joshua spotted a group of ewes near the bottom. As we watched, the ewes and lambs played king of the mountain on the bluffs that overlooked the creek.

A bit later we spotted a ram on an outcropping 250 yards below us. I'm sure Joshua's sheep tag could have been filled right there with a well placed bullet, but that wasn't possible at the moment he was hunting with archery tackle. The ram was a good curl, and I reminded him that the rifle was strapped to my pack and there was no guarantee that we could find another ram this good and I sure would hate for him to go home empty handed and Josh calmly interrupted, 'It's Ok dad. I want to try it for a few days with my bow.'

The ram moved down the slope into the rimrock and cliff s that were too dangerous to navigate for a bow stalk. We discussed waiting for the evening to see if the ram would feed out into the more accessible bluffs, but by the time we dropped down the canyon and got into position it would most likely be dark, and that is not the time to be climbing around that part of the canyon.

Two more sheep showed up near the bottom of the canyon while we were planning the next days stalk. One was a half curl ram, the other had a dark brown, heavy body, and despite the fact that we never got a look at the head, we were pretty sure it was another ram. We finished plotting a plan for the morning and started the long hike out.

 

Well before daylight we arrived at the trailhead and started our trek down the series of switchbacks that dropped to the floor of the main canyon. Four hours of hiking and wading across knee deep frigid creeks, we finally arrived at the mouth of the sister canyon where we had seen the sheep the day before. After a short lunch break, we headed up the overgrown trail that followed the brushy canyon bottom. Every few minutes, we stopped to glass the bluffs and hillsides and before long a group of light colored ewes stood out bright on the slope 800 yards above us.

Throughout our hunt, we found that the ewes were a much lighter color than most of the rams. The same was here and close by the ewes were 2 darker colored rams. The smaller ram was not quite a curl but the other ram was very close to a full curl, probably a 165-class ram. Our first plan was to climb a ridge parallel to the ridge the sheep were on, cross the small drainage between the ridges, then round the hillside to wind up just above the sheep. It was a simple plan that turned out to have a major complication.

The terrain there is unique. The open slopes and bluffs that hold most of the sheep are generally pretty dry, after all it is 'rattlesnake country.' However, many of the washes and drainage bottoms are overgrown with jungle like alders, vines, and brush that proved to be more of a challenge than we had counted on. So back down to the trail we went.

Actually, it was our third attempt before we gained the elevation where we had last seen the sheep. The hillside was grassy, which helped our footholds, but it was steep - really steep.

We were trying to re-locate the sheep when Joshua froze in front of me, slowly turned and whispered 'There's a ram 30 yards ahead it's the smaller one'. 'Take him' I whispered back. He knocked an arrow and crept ahead one step for a couple seconds, then retreated. I knew he passed on the shot and was looking for the big one.

Joshua couldn't see the larger ram but we were sure he was nearby. Taking a new angle of approach, we scaled through a man sized crack in the rock sheer wall that would put us above the sheep, but when we rounded the ridge again, the sheep had moved to the other side of the drainage. Both rams had bedded below a rock outcropping a little better than 300 yards away. Again, the terrain was just not right for a bow stalk.

I un-strapped the rifle from my pack and offered my comments. 'Josh, that's a really good ram. I think you should take the shot with the rifle.' Joshua removed the scope cover, jacked a round into the chamber, and pointed the rifle at the ram. Moments later he handed the gun back. A little puzzled, I dug out a spot in the steep bank to keep from sliding and huddled against the canyon wall as Joshua disappeared above me.

Joshua; I knew my best chance for a bow stalk was to get above the rams. The only way to do that without being detected by the sheep was to climb to the top of the canyon, then cross over to the ridge the rams where on, and come down the back side of that ridge to the outcropping the rams were bedded below. I figured the going would be easier when I reached the summit, but instead of being above the brush like I had hoped, the entire mountain was covered with even more of the jungle like stuff . By the time I stumbled through it and made it to the next ridge, I was pretty scratched up and bruised. Somehow, I managed to bypass the group of ewes that had bedded above the rams and I finally made it to the right outcropping. I couldn't see below the little cliff , so I didn't know if the rams were still there, but I was about to find out.

Josh came back into my view and slowly inched toward the outcropping where the rams were. They were unaware of his presence as he closed the distance to a 100 yards, then 60 yards, then 40 and 30 yards. I had trouble believing what I was seeing! Josh stood on the bluff less than 20 yards above his quarry.

The rams finally sensed something wrong and stood up. Joshua came to full draw on the big ram and was set to release the arrow when the ram bolted and was gone. Just nanoseconds from a bow kill, but it was still a great adventure. Several days later, we found sheep on the far side of the main drainage. The group of about 10 ewes and smaller rams were out on the open hillside feeding in the shadows of the setting sun. Further down the canyon, was one of those dark colored rams. The chocolate brown ram was big bodied and carried a nice full curl and through the spotting scope, it was easy to tell that he was well into the trophy class. The wise old ram had planted himself on a vertical rock face that was a long way from any accessible entry point, so a stalk across the vast canyon was out of the question for that day.

Packing in overnight seemed to be a good idea, so we packed up our gear and dropped into the deep canyon for a night with the idea of climbing the opposite side at day break to find the sheep. All day we climbed steep grassy ridges, scaled more rimrock, and fought through the thick drainage bottoms. We scoured countless bluffs and draws and glassed what seemed like a hundred miles of hillsides, and as much as we wanted to find that big ram, we never saw one sheep. Disappointed, tired and sore, we struggled up the switchbacks and late in the night finally reached our rig at the trailhead.

The next morning came way too soon, and it wasn't easy to leave the comfort of the warm sleeping bag and heated camper, but it was no time to sleep in. Th is journey was now on the 10th day and the hunt seemed to have taken on a sense of urgency. As a matter of fact, Joshua had put the bow away and was now packing heat, a .300 WSM. So, we were up early again and re-stalked our packs with supplies, and prepared to pack into the canyon again as soon as we spotted another mature ram. It was a pleasant surprise when Joshua's cousin Nate Simmons showed up in camp.

Nate is a videographer for Eastmans' Hunting Journal. He had just left a hunt with Guy Eastman and drove across several states to join up with us and hopefully get some footage of Josh's sheep hunt. Rays of early morning sunlight stretched across the plateau that ran along the brim of the canyon as we began the next phase of our quest. By now we knew the drill well, hike to the viewpoints along the edge of the drainage, glass every nook and cranny searching for anything that could possibly resemble a sheep, then head to a new vantage point and search and glass some more.

Along the way, Nate shared stories about some of the Eastman hunts he had already been on this year. To name of few, there was a five day backpack trip into the Wyoming Wilderness that produced a 176-inch mule deer buck for Guy, a successful hunt for big black bears in Saskatchewan, and several trophy antelope hunts. The film crew managed to get some good footage of all of these excursions, as well as other hunts. Perhaps you have already seen some of the movies on Eastmans TV show that is aired on the Outdoor Channel. Some of those hunts are also on Eastmans Hunting Journal's annual DVD. You can get the details here.

That afternoon we were all glassing a herd of ewes that Josh and I had watched a couple of times before. It turned out the band of sheep now had a ram among them. The rams' horns had not quite reached a curl, but the sheep were, at least in sheep country terms, in a fairly easy place to stalk. At this stage of the game, I couldn't help wondering if Joshua was doing the right thing when he passed on this opportunity.

We were just about to head to another viewpoint when I spotted three sheep about a mile down the canyon. Joshua pivoted the Leupold spotting scope downriver and pulled the bighorns into view. 'That's the one we want' he said. Nate looked through the scope and confirmed it.

Unfortunately, these sheep were on the move. Perhaps a predator had spooked them or maybe they just had a wild hair to travel, but they were moving out at a pretty good clip. To complicate things more, the sun was dropping into the western horizon leaving only a few hours of light. We started hiking to where we hoped the sheep would be. There was no way to tell if the sheep were still in the vicinity, but we were going to do our best to find them.

We followed the bench that ran along the top of the canyon and every few minutes stopped to peer over the edge. It was three or four miles from where the sheep were first seen before our persistence paid off and we finally spotted the trio a half mile away.

I stopped for a breather and through my binoculars could finally see what the fuss was all about two ewes led by a beautiful ram that sported a massive set of full curl horns. But could we get to them? The sheep were in some pretty rough country and there was little time before the sun would fad away. Exhausted from the pursuit, I hunkered down and watched the stalk play out as Joshua and Nate closed the distance.

Joshua; The sheep were near the top of the canyon, but because of the terrain, we started our stalk from the canyon floor. It wasn't easy going either. Th e hillside was really steep and it was hard to get a foothold because the hard ground was covered with loose gravely dirt. I was tired before we started, but now, halfway up the hillside, my legs were so weak I wondered if I could go any more. My heart was racing and beating so hard that it hurt. I was out of breath and shaky. When we saw the sheep again they were walking across the hillside above a row of rimrock. The big ram was still leading the way.

If we moved, the sheep would see us and run, so we concealed ourselves by lying prone in the tall grass. But this wouldn't work for long, the path the sheep were on would take them out of sight within minutes and we didn't have enough light for another stalk.

It was now or never. My rangefinder combined the yardage and steep angle to determine the correct shooting range at 210 yards. With the crosshairs zeroed in on the chest of the ram, I squeezed the trigger. The shot rang out and the big ram tumbled down the slope and finally came to rest on the grassy hillside just above us. What a rush!

Nate pointed to his video camera, smiled, and gave me thumbs up. While admiring the big ram, I couldn't help thinking how fortunate I was. God has already blessed me plenty, especially with good family and a wonderful wife and two great daughters. To experience a bighorn sheep hunt like this is, well, quite a bonus.

Our 10 days in the canyons literally had its ups and downs, but the hunt finally came together and I couldn't be happier with how things turned out. It's often said that sheep hunting is a 'once in a lifetime' adventure - but I think not. Stay in shape dad!