April/May 2012 EHJ (Issue 130) - Get some good raingear.” That bit of advice was a reoccurring theme from numerous sources I heard while preparing for my 2011 Stone sheep hunt with Gundahoo River Outfitters. Thankfully, I paid attention. I was hunting in northern British Columbia and all of the predictions about wet, windy weather in the northlands were certainly coming true on my 14-day hunt.
Day nine found me and my tireless guide, Trusty Rusty, spending another cold, wet day in the saddle trudging through another wind-scoured rocky pass to head for a new valley searching for the ram of my dreams. The nearly constant barrage of storms for the previous week and a half had driven the sheep off the ridges and into the timber making them all but impossible to spot. We had spotted only one band of rams with a potential shooter in the previous eight days. While I was trying to remain upbeat, despair and doubt were slowly setting in amidst the swirling snow and ice that afternoon.
One of the other guides had glimpsed a band of rams from several miles away when the clouds lifted from a high-mountain basin, and Rusty and I decided to burn one of my few precious remaining days relocating to my third camp of the hunt. Rusty kept his good nature and assured me that "it” would happen.
My animal anxiety was higher than your average Stone sheep hunter. I had won the tag at a drawing put on by the Full Curl Society at the Western Hunt Expo in Salt Lake City, Utah. Like many hunters faced with the long odds of raffles and hunting draws, I wasn’t sure if my next sheep hunt would ever come.
With an apparently misguided assessment of my luck, I also filled my pocket with tags for moose, goat and caribou on top of my Stone sheep tag and the gratuitous wolf tag that Art buys for all his hunters. As the days ticked off, my good luck in hitting the tag was starting to look more like a cruel joke.
Jostling along in the saddle, I was trying to pencil out in my mind how I could ever come back…and it wasn’t adding up! I went to sleep that night amidst the customary rattle of rain pelting the wall tent. I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to the same tune. Rusty poked his head out of his bag with his usual grin and said, "Let’s go get your ram!”
We rifled down a quick breakfast and saddled the horses. The gray morning shroud of clouds started to give way to glimpses of blue sky. The weather had definitely taken a turn for the better and by 9:30 a.m. the sun was beaming down on the snow capped peaks of the valley.
After 20 minutes of glassing, a speck of white materialized across the valley. Six hundred yards away in a small clearing directly across the valley was a ram lying in the sun. I was stunned when Rusty again told me we could do better. It was day 10! Wide eyed, I retreated off the ridge to follow Rusty and Colin farther up the basin through the broken pines.
We crossed the valley and moved carefully through the dense thickets so as not to scare the lone ram. I was belly crawling under some pine branches when I came face to face with a steaming pile of reconstituted mountain blueberries just as the unmistakable musky odor of a grizzly bear hit my nose. I maneuvered to pull my gun off my pack and mouthed to Rusty, "Bear.” He answered back, "Rams.” He motioned for me to follow him back down toward the creek bottom. We quickly huddled and he pointed out three more rams three-fourths of a mile farther up the basin. We adjusted our route to circle below and get to a new vantage point. We lost sight of the rams as we dropped behind a low hump and snuck up the backside to a small stand of pines. We peaked around the edge and set up our spotting scopes. Now there were six rams on a grassy bench above the cliffs.
Sizing the rams up, there was a black ram with wide horns that neared full curl. He was easily the best ram of the hunt. Colin motioned me over to his spotting scope and said, "Here’s your ram.” When I looked through the lens, it wasn’t centered on the black ram as I expected, but on a ram I hadn’t noticed that was lying on a bench just apart from the other rams. Colin and Rusty put together the plan for the stalk while I snapped a few photos through the spotting scope. The giant ram stood up and surveyed the valley below him. His majestic horns swept beyond the full curl mark. There were now eight rams above us and one beside us in the basin. They eventually moved a couple hundred yards and lay down on beds scratched out of the steep slope above the band of cliffs. All of a sudden it was happening!
Colin said, "Let’s go,” and we backed off the hump and dropped into the creek bottom once again. We soon ran out of trees and had to cross about 150 yards of open ground in plain view of the rams. We meandered slowly at an angle perpendicular to the sheep and huddled together to try and look like one animal. My heart was in my throat the whole time until we dropped below the rams’ line of sight.
We climbed the grassy slope, but Rusty and Colin veered off and started picking their way up and across the cliff face through a series of narrow ledges. The guides explained if the rams fed around the corner and caught us in the open grass, we’d be trapped. By climbing the cliff face, we could maneuver back and forth hiding on the ledges to get closer. Sounded reasonable until you looked down!
We finally reached a ledge just below the top and paused to let me catch my breath. There was a narrow crack that let the guys climb up and peek over. Rusty said Colin would push his pack up onto the cliff and he and I would quickly follow. When I was ready, we filed up through the crack about seven feet and on to the top of the cliff moving low and in sync like an assault team. Colin pushed his pack in front of me and stayed behind and to my right while Rusty came up on my left.
The stalk had worked to perfection, but the slope was steeper than I pictured from down below. Rusty pointed out my ram and I settled in for the shot. "Wait ‘til he stands up,” Rusty said. But the ram didn’t. The lead ram was facing away from us and only gave us a steady gaze when he turned and noticed us lying there. He was calm and the other rams quickly settled down. We laid there for 45 minutes, which seemed like hours. The guys tried to whisper jokes to me to keep my nerves calm.
Then it happened. The ram kicked out his front leg to stretch and was up in an instant. "Let him turn,” hissed Rusty. "Now?” I said as the ram turned ever so slightly to look down the valley offering a quartering away shot. "Now!”
I remember sharply exhaling everything in my lungs and touching the trigger. My rifle barked and the ram disappeared. I looked at Colin and said, "What happened?” He replied, "You pancaked him, man! Good shot!” I peered back through the scope and watched in awe as the ram of my dreams tumbled out into space. The unflappable Rusty and Colin shrugged and said, "What did you think was going to happen? He’ll be fine. Nice soft shale down there.”
After the high fives, fist bumps and handshakes, we scrambled down. My legs felt like rubber bands and I was starting to shake as we rounded the bottom of the cliff and came up into the basin, which was remarkably devoid of shale. After ten nerve-racking minutes, we found my ram hung up on a boulder on the grassy slope. He had landed on the grassy slope at the base of the cliff and slid another couple hundred yards.
Like any hunter walking up on the trophy of a lifetime, I was overcome with emotion. I was trembling as I picked up his heavy horns and am not ashamed to say there was more than a tear or two. He was amazing. His horns taped out at just over 40 inches with heavy bases. We aged him at 11 years old. What a ram! What a day!
For those of you dreaming of a sheep hunt, be prepared not only for the physical challenge, but also the mental one. It’s hard to quantify how difficult it is to put on your stiff boots and damp clothes to climb the mountain day after day in harsh weather conditions. Each day hoping for the opportunity or the break in the weather that might turn your luck but sometimes just doesn’t come. Throw in grizzly bears, 16-hour days, sore muscles, the time commitment away from family and work, and it’s tough to endure every day when things are not going your way. The guides that do this for a living are unbelievable and couldn’t have kept going had it not been for Rusty and Colin’s eternal optimism and confidence…they were machines.
When those good days come, you have to be there to make them count. On day 11 I was able to tag a record book moose and on day 14 I bagged a 9 1/4” mountain goat. Great trophies and great memories but nothing compared to that special day I took my ram.