Perched just below a rim in Oregon’s Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Bruce Olsen and I studied the huge ram in disbelief of his mass and length. Our best guess landed him in the mid 170’s, making him a tremendous California Bighorn. The problem? The year was 1983 and we were hunting mule deer.
I wouldn’t draw a sheep tag until 28 years later. Hart Mountain is the only location that I know my Dad had hunted, and it was instantly special. In 2009, with 15 preference points, I drew an archery antelope tag and started to get to know the unit. Fast-forward to 2012 and the sheep situation had changed dramatically. At one time, there were 39 tags awarded per season. In 2012, there were supposed to be four, but one got cancelled due to the size and number of sheep in the unit. Amazingly, though you can hunt antelope on the refuge, coyote and cougar hunting is prohibited, even with valid tags.
Sheep numbers had dropped from over 900 to around 130. With several radio-collared sheep carcasses found partially buried or elevated surrounded by large cat tracks, some managers were begining to suspect cat predation problem. Even though the herd wasn’t what it used to be, I was nothing short of ecstatic to draw a sheep tag on my beloved Hart Mountain.
A lifetime of goose hunting has turned me into a dyed-in-the-wool stand hunter, even on big game, which had turned my attention toward archery. The summer was spent scouting as much as I possibly could. Quality information came from previous tag holders - special thanks to Don Perrien and Nathaniel Govener - and I was able to find three spots that showed promise. One of them, a guzzler, dried up during our drought summer, and my second option was left inaccessible due to fires and fire danger. I’d witnessed rams at the third location, a small seep, but ten days of trail cams revealed that the band had not returned. Hopes of waiting out a ram with my bow were rapidly fading.
Prior to the summer, my rifle hadn’t been out of its case in almost 20 years. Diligent scouting confirmed that taking any ram, even with the rifle, would be a challenge. With large portions of the unit inaccessible due to road closures, partners Gary Miller, Kevin Madison, and I would go several days without spotting even a single sheep. The few rams we did see were in the 140 range, average for the unit. Another tag-holder made an incredible shot on a mid 130’s ram and endured a long, steep solo pack out. He was completely exhausted, but his look of pure satisfaction was one I desperately wanted to replicate.
Gary had to leave so Kevin and I started looking in places that we hadn’t typically seen sheep. Kevin found a group of five rams in an unusual spot, perhaps pushed there due to the extreme shortage of water. Even the majority of the antelope had already started moving toward their winter range off the refuge to search for water and better forage.
At first, I wasn’t blown away by any of the rams, but they were so far away that I could only see their lengths which were “pretty standard, really”. Still, we tried on two occasions over the next couple days to get a closer look. Finally, I could see that one of the rams had good mass. I wanted him!
I wished I could just fast-forward and have my hands on him without having to face the pressure of making the stalk and shot. I remember hating that feeling. I had FINALLY drawn a tag and I just wanted the pressure of filling the tag to be over with. I guess a once-in-a-lifetime tag will do that to a guy.
In 2008, I found a sheep hunting thread on Bowsite.com over the summer and wrote down a quote on my main map. It was from a user named Gray Ghost that read, "Enjoy the special privilege to hunt sheep, and don't let the pressure to fill your tag ruin that." With the rams finally in an approachable position, those words meant more to me than ever.
A short hour later, Kevin and I were perched 400 yards above the rams, much in the same way my friend Bruce and I had been some 28 years earlier. I had put all my faith in my friends, the father and son team of Trent and Brent VanZant, to go over my old rifle and make it shoot as straight as possible. They didn’t let me down.
Not compensating for the strong wind resulted in a clean miss. My dream was slipping away, or was it? God must have been smiling on me on that day because the rams actually worked their way towards me. As an archer, it was difficult hold off the animal to compensate for the wind, but that’s what I did and it anchored my trophy. I rolled sideways and just let out a huge sigh of RELIEF!
When I got to my ram, I was more than pleased with his mass and age. It was such an incredible feeling to put my hands on a Bighorn Sheep after a lifetime of seeing only pictures.
Though there are so many people I have to thank for making this happen, I want to single-out one person who really stuck with me through thick and thin: Kevin Madison. This wouldn’t have been possible without him! Thanks also, to Elda and Kayla, Gary Miller, Trent and Brent VanZant, and Dave Antley, who dropped everything to help us pack out. To all the people hard at work trapping sheep and building guzzlers to pave the way for us lucky hunters, I say “thank you, we could never repay you, we only hope that sweet karma and the tag Gods smile on you always!”