Editors Note: This article was originally published in the Winter edition of Pope and Young Club's Ethic Magazine.
It was -20°C when I left the trailhead. The snow was deep but I knew the trail well. Some five hours worth of trudging up the valley, my son Cameron had been hunting for the better part of sixty days, most of which were solo. I was going to restock him as he had five days left in the season. It was dark when I arrived and found him relaxing in his wall tent. He jumped up and helped me with my pack. The wood stove was warming his tent and a most-welcomed supper would soon be made.
The next morning we were up early. More real food for breakfast and his energy was high. The rams were even higher as well, they were moving, they were up in the cliffs and we were excited to be hunting sheep together again.
Sheep hunting is not for the faint of heart. They live in some magnificent and rugged country. Every year, unfortunately, hunters succumb to the elements, are mauled by bears or suffer a bad fall while hunting sheep. They quit hunts early, pack it in just minutes from the trailhead or many never even take the plunge and try. The hiking, the remoteness, the feeling of being alone and helpless can cause even the toughest hunter to fail. One might spend days, weeks and even seasons to find the ram they are looking for. Then wait even longer for an opportunity for the perfect stalk.
I have never been lucky enough to draw a cherished sheep tag in Montana, Wyoming or Colorado and may never. On the other hand, I have been fortunate to have held some thirty sheep tags here in my home province of Alberta. I have made pretty much every mistake known to mankind, so here are some thoughts that might make your next sheep hunt a bit more enjoyable.
1) Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance - There is the physical aspect of a sheep hunt. Most hunts are backpack trips, with or without the comfort of a decent camp. To get into sheep shape, one must run, walk, lift weights, and hike with a heavy pack. Boots broken in, meals planned, backpacks fitted and bows tuned.
2) Perfect Practice Makes Perfect - Practice takes many forms. One needs to practice shooting, setting up camp, stalking, ranging, and packing. Every one of these skills are important parts of the hunt. No need to pound the target for hours on end. Instead, execute on a few well-placed arrows each day. Shoot each arrow as if it’s your last, or your first and only shot. Practice while wearing your gloves, facemask and with your binos or rangefinder around your neck. Practice with and without your quiver. Doing so will limit the variables and increase your chances further. Once you've done all this, practice some more.
3) Book a Mule Deer hunt. A big ram may not be as wary as an old mule deer, but there are lots of similarities. If you are on a decent deer hunt, you may get one or more stalks a day. On a ten day sheep hunt you might not get any. You will have more opportunities to practice stalking, moving quietly and slowly, then ranging and finally drawing and then executing the shot and it will certainly be more cost effective to practice on mule deer than on sheep. Then try a goat hunt and that will prepare you the rest of the way. Also gets you comfortable with rocks, shale, scree and cliffs.
4) Do it Alone? What happens on the last hundred yards? - One of the best guides I have ever hunted with says "I'll get you close enough to kill it with my 30/30 then it’s all up to you". In Alberta a ram must be 4/5th curl to be deemed legal for harvest. It might be a bit intimidating to go the final way on your own, especially if there are more than one sheep. I am fortunate to have two great bow hunting guides as sons. They work well with me and in our case two can stalk as quietly as one. Having your guide there to help, to range and to keep you calm, helping to assess the situation, the demeanor of the ram and when to draw and shoot can be helpful. My son Cam has been with me on several sheep and at least three would not have been shot without him over my shoulder. Discuss with your guide and then decide if they would be more helpful staying back or in being in your hip pocket.
5) Dress for Success - Snow squalls and big winds, temperatures can plummet or soar, rain, hail or sleet can hit the mountain hunter and all in only a few hours. Clothing needs to be lightweight, packable, breathable, waterproof, moisture wicking as well as dry quickly and function as layering system. From my experiences, I've found without a doubt that Sitka makes the best mountain hunting gear in the world. Starting with their base layering underwear, merino wool shirts, to key insulation pieces, windbreaker soft shells, down-fill jackets and hard shell rain gear, I wouldn't leave home with out it. In addition, I've found Optifade Open Country Concealment pattern to be near invisible in the rocks.
6) Look Hard and Long - I prefer 8 x 42 binoculars. 10's are great, but a bit harder to hold steady and I find a bit much if I get in close but great for glassing. Then a good spotter (angled or straight is a matter of preference) as well as a light and packable tripod is a necessity as well. Leica makes fantastic glass that performs well in low light and against the heat wave mirage of long range glassing. The best sheep guides have their binos glued to their head. Do yourself a favor and get the best possible glass you can get your hands on.
7) Click, Click and Click Some More - I like to take pictures, and lots of them. So my Nikon 35mm digital SLR and a couple of lenses is a given plus a waterproof pocket camera that is handy and either in my pocket or in my Mystery Ranch waist belt pocket. Then I have added a Tines Up camera system that can attach to the spotter for up close photos or video. It’s a great tool to be able to check legality of a ram and evaluate the trophy quality. In the digital age, 'film' is cheap, so click away.
8) If you aren’t smart you better be tough - When I read accounts of sheep hunts, its clear that many writers put themselves in peril. Their lives threatened at every turn. Their hunt was the most dangerous and life threatening. I may be a bit guilty of being reckless with the facts, but anyone who puts in their time preparing and getting in shape can do a sheep hunt. Some turn into grinds, some get you into some sketchy spots and most require determination but are most rewarding. If you can hike five or so miles with sixty pounds, and do if for ten days, then you are more than ready to hunt sheep. Paired with a cool and cautious mentality, you are safer on a sheep hunt than driving to the mountains.
9) Steep and Deep - Traditional archers will find it tougher to shoot on a slope that is higher on their left and drops to their right, especially those that cant their bows. The bottom limb wants to stick in the rocks. On slopes the other way, I find seem to suit my eye much better as my bow parallels the slope. Compound shooters need a bubble level and have to really bend at the waist. This is the only way to ensure to get the peep square. Sheep have a sixth sense. Come in from above but be careful of the thermals switching as afternoon systems roll in. Practicing steep shots down and uphill will only prepare you further.
10) What’s in your Bag? Everyone will have their own pet equipment. For me, a detachable quiver allows increased stability in the wind and comes off on long shots. A self-contained rest with moleskin keeps the arrow quiet when drawing. Multiple pins work for me as there can be little time to range then adjust. Others swear by a slider-style sight. Wind check for everyone in the group. I fill little bottles with baby power but my secret weapon the downish undercoat from my Sheppard-cross, Kaiser.
Primos makes a great bowsling that protects your cams and string. I can strap my bow on my pack and know its safe, even when pushing through the thickest brush. The days of stump shooting are gone. 300 fps and arrows bend or blow up. The only way to stay practiced is to carry a target. Jim Wilson, a long time Pope and Young member and owner of Grizzly Targets designed a backpack target for me. I shoot a few arrows every day just to give me the confidence that nothing is amiss with my bow.
We glassed hard, climb a bunch and like my friend Tom Hoffman says “we made some bowhunting memories.” Spending time in the mountains hunting bighorn sheep is special. Spending it with family and friends adds to the experience. Well we made some mistakes and never got a shot at the big ram we were chasing. The good news is that we are learning from our mistakes but the best news is he will still be there next year, and so will we.