To this day I’m amazed that our local town sheriff did not get a call about some “weirdo” at our little post office. After opening my mailbox I pulled out a little yellow card that read: “Montana Bighorn Sheep; Paradise Unit……. Successful.” The only words that could escape my slack-jawed, drooling mouth where,” Oh my God! Oh my God!” A complete stranger walked in the door. I looked wild eyed at her and proclaimed, “ I drew a Montana bighorn sheep tag!” She lowered her chin towards the floor to cut off eye contact and veered around me. Then the other two people that I don’t know in our tiny town walked in, and I gave them the great news as well. I must have looked like a complete idiot! Next, the thought occurred to me that one of my cruel friends was pulling a prank. I scanned the parking lot for someone laughing holding his or her sides. No jokesters there. And, that was the beginning of my Montana sheep hunt.
A twenty -fifth wedding anniversary is a very important milestone in a couple’s life and I am a very lucky man for the wife I have, especially when I asked if she would mind spending it scouting for sheep instead of lounging around some luxury lodge near Yellowstone. It was not exactly a romantic weekend get-away but my wonderful wife loves the outdoors as much as I do. We arrived in a neat little out -of –the- way valley complete with warning signs to “watch for sheep.” Ha! As if we weren’t already doing that! And for the next few days we did watch for sheep. It took a while to figure out the country and the sheep range, but once we did, we started seeing rams, lots of rams.
This was not your high altitude formidable country typical of sheep hunting, but steep ridges that rose from the bottom broken by little benches and parks. Sheep here have the good fortune to spend most of the year working on horn growth and breeding, rather than survival, as they live at 3,500 feet most of the year in a “Banana belt” The stout Clark Fork river bisects this country to divide the little valley in two. Whitetail and waterfowl abound along its banks. Not what you’d expect while glassing for bighorn. Looking at a landownership map you got the sense that the surveyors had gone berserk! This area was checker boarded with paper Mill Company, B.L.M., National Forest, state, and private land ownership. A good map and compass were as important as binoculars. Oh what I would have given for a G.P.S. with a map download! Meeting a few locals, I soon was in touch with a few “sheep nuts.” One guy in particular, Matt, was a great help. There is nothing that compares to local knowledge. I was a little puzzled however when I first met him. He wore a t-shirt that said, “Earth First!” on the front. It didn’t make sense since he’d mentioned he was a logger. Then he turned around. The back said, “We’ll log the other planets later!” He had great eyeballs and a keen sense for where the sheep were.
The rams we saw in this country were impressive to say the least. Their bodies were huge, belying the size of their horns. Large bases with lots of mass were the norm. I think they had sheep in mind when they named this place Paradise. In fact, it is probably a good bet; this is where sheep nuts go when they die.
Having talked with every person remotely interested in sheep hunting, buying every map and book on the subject, watching every Montana sheep hunting video, and spending my last two cents on equipment, the hunt finally arrived. My good friend Doc and I made the 8-hour trip with huge expectations. With Matt’s help we started stacking up the rams in my notebook. Size, score, location, and any other stat we gathered went down. We heard stories of a great ram near a local rock quarry. The crew that worked there spoke of the giant ram that fed nearby while they ran front –end loaders, D-8 cats and rock crushers! I spent a lot of time hunting the area with my bow, but I never saw that ram. Doc and I did see several great rams in the high country above the quarry, but nothing I wanted to hang my tag on. As the sun gradually slid down to the west and the chill of fall cooled the air, we headed home feeling we had done well seeing ten black bears, a giant mule deer buck and sixty- eight mature rams in five days.
Sleep does not come easy when you have a Montana sheep tag in your pocket and your bed is in Wyoming. It would be two long weeks before I could return. I kept reminding myself of the advise of the local biologist. “ The sheep hunting only gets better later. Most people just wait for November.” Weather and the rut push these sheep to the lower elevations making them even easier to find and hunt. In my mind, I felt that climbing those hills and hunting hard was a part of this sheep hunt I expected and welcomed. I didn’t want to sit by the road and wait for one to walk within rifle range, and I darn sure wasn’t waiting for November!
The next trip found me in the company of good friend and great hunter, Art. He, like Doc, was a fun guy to hunt with and has great game eyes. I could feel a change from the first trip and could see it as well. The country looked different. White clouds with grey underbellies slipped along just at the tops of the peaks. I sensed this hunt was going to be successful. Immediately we began to see some of the usual suspects: Lefty, Otis, Cracker, and Arnold plus some new rams we had not seen before. On the second day the sun had just come over the mountain. Art and I were still in the dark shadows, but up on top, the clear sunrays lit up a lone ram. His horns shone and glittered like diamonds in the slanting rays of the early morning sun. A look through the scope showed an old looking ram. At the bottom of his horn, it dropped below his jaw and at this point the mass was the same as at the base. His right horn rose up three inches above his roman nose. The left being broomed back. This was the ram I was looking for. I thought back to the best piece of advice I’d received from anyone. “ The best way to judge a ram is to picture the one YOU want,” He told me to,” Forget score, what your friends tell you is best, what the biologist says to shoot, and make sure he’s the ram you want.” Well, maybe I have a character flaw, but long sheep horns make my heart pound. I wanted a forty- inch ram and here he was!
Taking up my bow, Art and I started our ascent of the ram’s fortress. As we made our way through a narrow draw crowded with thick overgrown brush, we heard an animal launch ahead of us racing towards our quarry. A treacherous eddy of mountain wind had carried our scent to a bear feeding on a deer carcass. The bear lumbered up out of the draw and straight to the ram and both blew out of the area.
Art assured me the ram would be back, and I agreed.
The following morning found us glassing the area where the big ram had been. It didn’t take long to see that he was back on the same mountain, but in a more open spot. This time I shouldered my custom built pre-64 model 70, a rifle I had great confidence in. The ram was feeding on top of this one hundred yard long, flat-topped knoll. From the sky, or eagle’s point of view, this hill was shaped like an hourglass. It had two open flats at each end with a five-foot wide pinch point in the middle. Flanking the sides were sheer cliffs impassable even to a mountain sheep. Only at the east end was there a slope that could be navigated to the top. All along the cliff’s base were rocks and boulders just looking for an excuse to roll off. As I carefully and deliberately eased around to the accessible end, I was happy to see not breeze nor bear. In the short amount of time it took me to get to this spot, the ram had moved off the top and was now standing broadside staring at me. In my haste to find this sheep, I had focused my attention towards the top and ignored the chance that he may move. He had me pegged. Standing next to a large Ponderosa Pine, I leaned against the tree, ranged him at two hundred and four yards and pulled the rifle up tight for the shot. The crosshairs came to rest behind the big ram’s foreleg and the rifle was as steady as from a bench rest. The 7 mm roared, the ram wheeled away and up the ridge he went. Everything happened so fast. I stood there a little dumbfounded for a spell, and then slowly walked to the spot fully expecting to see sign of a hit. I saw nothing but tracks of his escape. How could this be? I didn’t hear the wallop of the bullet striking his big chest. He made no leg kick or hump up or anything else to indicate a hit. Could I have missed? It was only a biscuit over two hundred yards! The only logical explanation was that I didn’t hear the hit and he didn’t bleed. Surely he would be lying dead just at the top of the “Hourglass” knob.
I followed his track cautiously to the top. Again I was confounded when I saw no dead sheep on the top. It was wide open with no place to hide except for this one little patch of brush. I walked the forty yards to the tuft of Mountain Mahogany and realized that the other half of this knob lay on the other side. I stepped through the brush and found myself standing in the narrowest part with cliffs on both sides.
We all have our wildest moments in our hunting careers and this was mine. The big ram was standing at the far end of the bench not twenty-five yards away. He had no hole in him and it was go off the cliff or through me. He chose me. That sheep let out a grunt and in a flash tore past me on a dead run! I couldn’t jump back out of the way or I would have gone backwards into outer space. Before he shot past I grabbed a fist full of brush in case of impact. He brushed past my pant leg and in an instant was diving off the slope near where I first shot at him. I only had one chance to shoot him as he quartered to my left a hundred feet below. I threw the sight picture out ahead of him while pulling the trigger, like shooting a skeet gun. This time there was no miss. He crashed into a jumble of boulders, staggered to his feet and I put another round into him, sending him to sheep heaven. Later, back home, I found my old reliable was shooting eight inches high at one hundred yards.
I sat for a moment gathering my thoughts on what had just happened. The whole thing was just a blur of hide horns and adrenaline. Walking to the downed ram, I realized I had killed a warrior. The old boy had seen better times. He was a little gaunt, had bad feet and his face showed years of battle scars. His headgear told a tale as well. His right horn stretched the tape to forty inches while the left was broomed to thirty-five.
Art and Matt soon arrived at the scene. “You nailed him Hoot!” Art exclaimed. I replied,”Yeah. If I would have waited an hour or two he might have died of old age.”