On June 16, 2015 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued a plan to depopulate chronically diseased Tendoy Mountain bighorn sheep using public hunting as the primary tool. Read the full press release here.
On a hot afternoon in early August, I was sitting at the kitchen table attempting to organize my 2015 taxes when I got a call from my longtime friend Lyle Hebel. Without so much as a “hello,” he asked me if I could be excited about a sheep hunt in September. Absolutely.
"You need to get online and buy a tag, I'll give you details as soon as you have that done," he said.
Mind blown, I did as I was told and bought a tag on the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website. I had a minute to read a short article on the pneumonia epidemic plaguing Bighorn sheep in the Tendoy Mountains outside of Lima, Montana. Everything started to fall into place and I was excited to hear that Dustin and Eric, two of our longtime mutual friends and hunting buddies, were also coming.
September came. The four of us joined up with Ben and Joel, the film crew, outside of Dell and spent the next two days scouting. Eric had flown his Super Cub out and had room for one passenger while the rest of us glassed from the ground. Sightings were hit and miss but we managed to spot around 15 head, before it was time to hit the trail.
We were super excited, but 300 tags had sold for an estimated 30-40 head of sheep, and there was a vehicle or camp atop every ridge we could see.
Opening day brought moisture, and dense fog clouded our view. We crawled into our rain gear and scrambled through the sagebrush above camp hoping to catch something as soon as the weather lifted. Ben and Joel went with Lyle and Eric to the sagebrush saddle above camp and continued to glass. Dustin and I took off back toward a drainage we’d seen the day before.
As soon as we started to top out, Dustin spied the others 200 yards ahead of us. Out of my peripheral, I caught movement and looked up to see another hunter.
The hunter’s name was Justin. He was friendly and openly shared information and sheep locations from the last few days. After a few minutes, he asked what our plans were. He said he’d be willing to let us choose direction so we wouldn't bump one another. Lyle and Dustin took the far side of the drainage, and Eric, Ben, and I took the near side. Justin offered to partner up with Lyle and Dustin as long as he got first opportunity at a ram. They were fine with that and we headed our separate ways.
We were on the southernmost side, when Eric spotted Justin trudging alone right on the rim in full view, no pack and no bow. He came over, and told us of his encounter with two rams. Without time to range, he drew and shot one at less then 10 yards—and then lost him. Eric offered to help look for the ram and Justin led us to the last blood he’d found. Regardless of who's sheep it was, we were all eager to help and excited that someone had unleashed an arrow.
We found a bed with a good amount of fresh blood, but must have jumped the ram. Justin decided to give him the night, thanked us, and gave us the rest of his water as he was headed low to his camp on the creek anyway and we were all but dry.
We continued on, stopping several times to glass and finally ended up on the windblown peak next to an old shepherd’s monument. Adding a few rocks for good luck we sat in the cold and stared down the slope in vein. Ten guys total, including us, had been on that very same hill in search for the very same shot that day.
Disheartened, we started for camp. Drying socks, gloves and warming our hands over the fire, we shared our stories from the day. We relived our encounter with Justin, and his run in with a ram. We were all wishing for the same opportunity. Bellies full and bodies warm, each of us headed for bed.
Sunday morning was clear, cold, with bright blue skies and a skiff of snow. The stars were still twinkling as we made our way to the saddle above camp. We approached the west side of the summit and again split up. Lyle and Eric headed to the monument to glass the sunny side, and Dustin, Ben, Joel and I stuck to the shade.
While we made our way to the first boulder field through the timber, everyone was anticipating either sheep or hunter around each corner. Suddenly, Joel grabbed me by the back of the shirt and hissed "Right there!"
We froze, 200 yards across the drainage a ram came into focus. After a quick plan and review, Ben stayed put to roll footage from the tree line. Dustin and I, with Joel in tow, took off to make the half mile loop that would, with any luck, put us in a sparse timber patch right above the ram. The sun had yet to come over the ridge and the wind was in our favor. When we left Ben, the ram was 75 yards below the timber grazing parallel. We would have to get to the edge and hope he made his way within shooting distance.
We started the stalk down the edge of the junipers. Dustin slowly peeked around the corner, and was suddenly face to face with two rams 50 yards away! They immediately spun and rocks clattered away. We turned and, as quietly as possible, hustled to get 100 yards around the offside of the timber. Hoping they went back to grazing. Creeping to the edge of a dead tree, Dustin froze in place. Joel and I followed. We held mid-stride for what felt like a lifetime before Dustin slowly sank to his heels. The three of us huddled up, he had obviously seen something Joel and I could not. Awestruck, I watched Dustin turn to me and mouthed silently "Do you want this ram?"
Life just got real. Nodding my head, he motioned me forward. Joel signaled he'd stay back and film while we crept closer. Looking ahead, Dustin slowly pointed out three juniper trees in a diagonal line. "We've got to get there" he spoke without making a sound. As we closed the distance, Dustin turned to me and whispered "Head up the line, come to full draw, and step around the last tree, he's going to be close." My mind was jell-o. I still couldn't see the sheep, how close was "close?” As I reached the third tree, I still hadn't seen the ram. I slowly straightened up, keeping one last bushy branch between the open slope and myself. There was nothing.
Then. Ram. Standing slightly quartered to and locked onto me. Everything happened in slow motion. He knew I was there, but not what I was. Taking advantage, I slowly pulled my rangefinder, 49-51-51. Painstakingly, I lowered my hand. I clipped my release into the string loop. Squeezing my shoulder blades, I came to full draw. My right leg started shaking and I forced my heel to the ground. On the third figure eight, my 50-yard pin settled tightly on his shoulder blade.
I never knew the arrow was gone until I heard impact, that ripping noise every archery hunter aims to hear. Real time took over. The sheep leapt forward, jumping from rock to rock out of sight. I wheeled around and looked at Dustin for confirmation. All he could see was the ram's left horn through the trees. Joel crept up and replayed his footage. From his angle, he had captured me and the ram's neck and head, not enough to be sure of the shot. My mind was racing. Everything felt solid and sounded great. I'd taken my time. We decided to wait the standard 30 minutes, but we could at least mark the spot the ram had been standing and look for my arrow. Smiling, I pointed out a spray of bubbly blood mixed with hair. Looking along the line of flight, we discovered the arrow another 60 yards away, the entire length coated with frothy blood. I picked my head up to take it all in. A mere 40 yards down the slope, just over the ledge, part of a curl stuck up in the morning sunshine. Out of water, out of breath, I pointed for Dustin and Joel to look.
Ben made his way toward us with more great news. He'd caught the entire stalk, the bust, the second attempt and the shot all on film from his perch. We stepped from rock to rock, red splash to red splash, down the steep slope to admire what was, in my opinion, a once in a lifetime trophy. Dark beige horns, golden brown eyes and a gorgeous gray cape lay at our feet. Not to mention, pounds of tender meat we immediately began harvesting as soon as I had cut my tag. Dustin and I laid meat out and caped the hide while Ben and Joel loaded the packs. Weighted down, we started the descent back to camp looking forward to telling Lyle and Eric the story.
Camp was unoccupied, with no sign that they'd been back. We decided to wait with hopes that they had too been successful. Little did we know they were at the base of the mountain not far from our original camp at Dell. Two hours later, Dustin asked if we should pack camp up and head out. We had found a small spring and now had enough water to stay. But where were Lyle and Eric?
The decision was made about an hour before dark when the two buzzed camp in Eric’s Super Cub and told us we could head back to the trailhead. The only problem was we were already loaded down. The tents and sleeping gear still had to be packed and not just our own but theirs as well. We broke down the tents and rolled the bags up, tying the extra to our packs. We made the trailhead about two hours after dark and had the trucks turned east.
Lyle and Eric had reached the rock monument and began to pick the eastern side of the mountain apart. Rock to rock, tree to tree, anything resembling a live animal. Then. Ram. Bedded almost on the bottom of the slope, lay a mature ram underneath a pine tree. Excited, the two had grabbed their gear and headed down the slope. Slide to slide, they had descend until they reach the tree line. They moved blindly, hoping the ram was holed up for the day. One more small shale ridge and they'd be practically on top of their prey. They had made it to their sheep only to find an empty bed. After combing the timber for several hours, they made the decision to walk to Dell and signal us before dark.
With huge grins, we dropped the tailgate and unveiled our prize. At that moment, it didn't matter who had tripped the trigger or filled the tag. The excitement and enthusiasm was mutually shared among a tight knit group of friends who rarely get the time to share adventures between work and family. And the camera crew? Well, Ben and Joel are more than that now. They worked just as hard as we had, if not harder, to capture the entirety on film. Avid outdoorsman and bow hunters, they live for the same moments we do.
Success, best friends, bow hunting, bighorn sheep.