Sweat dripped from my brow, stinging my eyes, as I followed my guide, Randy Johnson, upward through a series of steep sandstone ledges. For the past six days the oppressive desert heat and rugged terrain had kicked our butts and taken a toll on leg muscles that strained to push us onward. I have been on some tough hunts in my life but this one was shaping up to be one of the roughest I have ever encountered. Stopping briefly for a quick breather, Randy whispered to stay quiet and nodded that the area we were approaching was a prime location for sheep to bed down in, protected from the blistering heat of the blazing afternoon sun. I watched as Randy cautiously inched his way around a ledge to peak at the terrain in front of us. What happened next captured my complete attention! I saw my guide turn, crouch, and motion for me to get low! In one motion Randy was by my side, whispering that he had seen some ewes bedded directly in front of us. In barely an audible tone, I ask if I should put a bullet in the chamber? He nodded, quietly telling me that he expected there to be some rams with the ewes. As I noiselessly chambered a round Randy belly crawled to a small bush and glassed through it with his binoculars. It didn’t take him long to wiggle backwards to me. The expression on his face told the story. “There’s a massive ram bedded just in front of the ewes, crawl up to that bush and kill him!” “Make sure that you don’t hit a ewe.” As I inched my way forward a flood of thoughts rushed through my brain. This was the moment I had been waiting for all my life. Getting in position, I inched the rifle to my shoulder and poked it through an opening in the small scraggly brush. All I could see was a bunch of sheep milling around. There were at least 3 or 4 rams bunting each other among the ewes. I moved back, then anxiously ask Randy, “which ram, they are all standing up?” Randy slipped to a different brush alongside the ledge to look, then motioned for me crawl forward. “The ram I want you to shoot is now standing in the front looking at us, take him.” He spoke in a quiet, confident and reassuring voice. Within a second I raised my .270 Weatherby, placed the crosshairs on the ram 100 yards in front of me and slowly squeezed the trigger!
After waiting 18 years for my chance to draw a Desert Sheep tag, I knew over a year ago that I had to be getting close to “winning the Utah lottery” and bonus point system. I did my research, asking knowledgeable people I trusted every question I could think of. I had known who I wanted to guide me on this hunt long before I even drew my tag and had actually called Randy Johnson of HIGH DESERT WILD SHEEP GUIDES last year to get on his list. I was still in total shock in late April when I received official word that I had drawn a desert sheep tag, one of the most coveted hunts that a hunter could possible dream of having the opportunity to go on. It didn’t take long for me to get on the phone with Randy again and my adventure of a lifetime kicked into high gear. He didn’t mince words in telling me to “get in the best shape of my life,” encouraging me to check out the HIGH DESERT WILD SHEEP GUIDE’S gear list and conditioning program on their website @ www.highdesertsheepguides.com
. To complicate matters just a little, I had also booked a Stone Sheep hunt for August so I was going to have an extremely busy fall.
My summer wore down ever so slowly. I worked harder than I thought possible to get in great physical condition, ordered some new gear, a light weight rifle, and felt confident that I was prepared to go sheep hunting. I left for British Columbia on August 10 to hunt my Stone and after some really wet, foul weather harvested a beautiful salt and pepper ram with Moon Lake Outfitters. Returning to Utah, I received a phone call from Randy to see how my Stone hunt had went and to confirm a date for my desert hunt. He had me scheduled for October 14. Wow, I was getting nervous. Would I be ready for the challenge ahead of me?
On September 23, while out doing some chores, my cell phone rang. I was surprised to hear Randy’s voice. He explained that one of his hunters with a tag on the Escalante Unit had gotten really sick and couldn’t go that weekend. Because Randy and his team were booked so tightly he was trying to reschedule and move hunters around to make the short two month long sheep season work out for everyone. He ask if I could get my gear ready and be willing to meet him to go hunting on Monday? Apprehensive, I phoned him a couple of hours later to ask if he felt like this was a better time to try and find my ram than the date he had me booked for me earlier? He explained that he expected the weather to be a lot hotter but that on this particular unit, the sheep rut much earlier than traditional Utah units and that the rut was just ending but we would find some rams still with bands of ewes. I trusted in Randy’s knowledge and said, “let’s do it.”
After the long drive, I knew I was in for one of the most physical hunts of my life as Randy explained his game plan. Meeting up with Randy’s brother Bryant and a friend, Gayle Eyre, we quickly strapped on the backpacks and pushed into a location that Randy wanted to glass from. That evening we saw some sheep on the top of some gnarly cliffs but nothing that looked good. The next day we strained against the heat and backpacked even further. With water being an issue Randy and his brother hiked off into a deep canyon to fill up our collapsible containers. Again, that evening, we saw sheep, but not the ram I had set my mind on. The next day was brutal. We were up before daylight and hiked for hours. Randy led us on an “adventure” that none of us will forget for the rest of our lives. We literally crawled up through a near vertical crack in some cliffs to access the country that my guide felt was hiding some big rams. After locating a small, life sustaining water source and setting up camp, we accessed some high vantage points and put the high powered optics to work. Bryant told Randy that they had jumped a group of sheep and to keep an eye out. It wasn’t too long afterward that we practically stepped on the band of sheep as they spooked out of a rocky pocket in front of us. I threw my gun to my shoulder quickly but Randy said, “those rams thin out too much on the ends, don’t shoot.” I was a little disappointed to not see anything bigger but knew that we had made the right decision. After a hot night, and some fitful sleeping, we stumbled out of our beds before daylight. Bryant and Gayle had to leave and left in
the opposite direction on the difficult hike back to their truck. Meanwhile, Randy and I were prepared to stay for the duration and began to hunt some rugged pockets of ledges that Randy had seen a great ram in the year before. We located old tracks, but saw no sheep as we moved steadily up a long peninsula, having to maneuver our way through some very difficult terrain. After shading up beneath the branches of a giant ponderosa for lunch, I ask Randy, “how much further are you planning on going today?” He responded, “to that point in the far distance.” I didn’t question his desire to find me my ram, gritted my teeth, and followed him on our “hike into hell.” Boy, am I glad I had the determination and will to keep pushing myself onward!
As I placed my crosshairs on the huge ram standing in front of me and lightly pulled the trigger I saw the ram drop like he had been hit with a freight train. Sheep started running everywhere onto a steep sandstone slab just to the right of the depression in the trees where they had been bedded. Randy grabbed my shoulders and excitedly yelled, “your ram is down.” Moments later his voice changed to a whisper as he told me that the ram was back up, hidden in the trees. It was unbelieveable. We both watched anxiously as at least 30 confused sheep, nervously walked and ran around on the sandstone. We couldn’t believe there had been that many animals bedded in the small depression in front of us. There were at least 7 rams in the group, with 2 really mature big boys, and one other bruiser that was persistently pushing a ewe in a circle. The ram and ewe moved back down into the trees to apparently check out the ram I had shot. Randy could still see my ram moving in the trees. After what seemed like an eternity he said that my trophy was going to follow the ewe and other ram out onto the sandstone slab and to get ready to put him down for good. Slowly, painstakingly, the sheep moved out into the open. My ram moved hesitantly but was making progress toward escape. My .270 Weatherby roared again. As Randy was telling me to put another round into him the ram suddenly keeled over backwards on the sandstone and my dream was complete. The other sheep disappeared over a dome. I could feel Randy’s hand literally shaking on my shoulder as we expressed our congratulations. What a rush!
As tough as this desert sheep hunt was, it is definitely one of the most thrilling and memorable hunts I have ever been on. There is nothing more exciting than walking up to a huge monster ram that you have worked and sacrificed so much to get! I think Randy was every bit as excited as I was and he quickly nicknamed my ram, “The Sledgehammer,” which seemed quite appropriate the closer we got to him. Although he was heavily broomed, his mass was simply unreal.
Working as fast as we could to take plenty of pictures, get the full body cape off my ram in the heat as well as debone the meat, I knew that the toughest part of our journey was yet ahead. We didn’t get back to our small tents until dark. After hanging the cape to cool in the late evening air, Randy climbed out onto the edge of a cliff to get cell coverage, make some calls, and text a few photos. My wife text us back the word, “Sweet.” We could tell she was excited and Randy thought her choice of words was pretty cool. Neither of us slept much that night as we prepared for the dangerous trip back to the trucks the next day. Some way, we made it off those cliffs packing extremely heavy packs without getting hurt. We kept hiking to a prearranged location where we met his son-in-law, Calob Johnston, a strong young man, who had hiked in with water, Gatorade, and a couple of Cokes to help us out. Wow, that warm Coke tasted like heaven. As the heat of the day got worse we kept pushing, driven by sheer adrenalin to finally reach the trucks at 2:30 pm. We were all physically spent but very happy to be off the mountain with my trophy of a lifetime.
My 9.5 year old ram was scored by the Utah DNR at 170.5 points. He is one of the most massive Utah desert rams you will ever see. I want to thank everyone involved in helping my “Once In A Lifetime Hunt.” Without my wife’s support I could have never pulled this off.
Thanks again Randy for such a successful and rewarding hunt! You are professional, knowledgeable and one of the most “Die Hard” guides I have ever met!