Now that I’m home and finally done at the end of a 40 day season, the words that keep coming to mind are…wow, that was an adventure!
My sheep season started back in February when I learned that I was incredibly fortunate to draw a coveted drawing permit for the Delta Controlled Use Area. I’d never hunted Delta before, but had long dreamt of it. In addition to getting my chance at a late season Delta tag, this also meant that our early season would be solely focused on trying to find a ram for my bride. My wife has been trying for some years now, and there truly is nobody I’d rather go afield with. She’s incredibly capable in the mountains, and while things haven’t quite worked out for her yet, it’s not for a lack of mountains climbed and effort expended.
We hit the mountains on the 8th of August and were immediately spotting rams. By the end of the first day we had four rams spotted, and by the next morning we had upped that total to 8.
We were hopeful as opening day approached, as one of the rams looked like it had serious potential. The morning of the 10th we made our way back up the bowl we had spent the previous day in while glassing rams, and this time proceeded up a ridge that would put us in good position to verify legality and potentially work out a stalk. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The largest ram of the group was close – so painfully close – but ultimately, we just couldn’t justify pulling the trigger on him. To call him 7/8 would be understating it. He was within 1/16th of being legal…or 1/32nd…just as close as can be, but not quite full. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t pain me a bit to turn around and climb back down that day, but overall we had a wonderful time together in the mountains. We spent another day glassing and picking berries, and by the end of the trip we were reminded of why these trips are our favorite times of the year.
Jump forward three weeks and I was set to embark on my long awaited DCUA hunt. Though I would have loved to take my wife along, some things changed with her work situation this year that made taking time off more difficult, so this one would be solo. In my younger days I had taken a couple rams on solo hunts, and while my sense of nervousness was palpable as I headed afield, I must admit that I was excited to wander the hills alone once again in search of sheep. I had done a fair bit of research and corresponding with friends, and in the process had come up with what I thought was a pretty dynamite plan. Alas, that lasted all of about four hours once I fired up my machine and left my truck. A river that I didn’t figure as an issue had changed course just enough to completely block my progress. I spent an hour or two trying to figure a reasonable work-around, but none was immediately apparent to me. Well…none that seemed workable for a solo hunter. The approach became much more difficult and, quite frankly, dangerous were I to come back out with a sheep, so suddenly I was faced with the need to formulate a plan B. Pulling out my maps and my sat phone, I soon settled on a new direction thanks to the gracious help of a friend. I went back to my truck, licked my wounds over dinner and a beer in Delta, and set out the next morning for round two.
I should mention at this point that I was greeted on my drive north by snow-draped mountains. I might usually say snow-capped, but that snow was ominously low for late August. The next morning I headed down a different trail, and by early afternoon I had reached the end of the road and was treated to my first taste of what would be my near-constant companion over the remainder of my trip – snow.
I walked around a bit to figure out a good campsite, and to my dismay I soon spotted a camp about 500 yards over the hill. Of course I was hoping to be alone, but I figured that it was best to go meet my new neighbors so that we could devise a plan together. I was secretly hoping they were moose hunting, but unsurprisingly at that elevation, I learned that they were fellow sheep hunters – a couple with party tags accompanied by their son. They were very welcoming and kind, and once I learned of their plans to hunt the drainage closest to us, I packed up my gear and set out on foot. I spent the next couple hours moving two drainages over, then set up camp at the foot of a promising looking valley. I had no sooner finished pounding in the last tent stake when I turned around and was shocked to see two men walking out of the valley only a couple hundred yards away. Arg!! This was not what I was expecting! I knew that there were plenty of tags handed out for the area, but still, given the weather and the distance off the road I had traveled, I certainly had hoped for some modicum of solitude. Funny thing, though – once again, it was an absolute pleasure to meet these men and it ended up being helpful, as they graciously shared what they learned over the past ~5 days of hunting. They turned out to be forum members who I had met previously at last spring’s sheep seminar (and one the father of one of my students), and we talked for quite a while about their experiences and what they knew of other recent hunters in the area. They were on their way out (though they did manage a moose the next day, I think), so I once again adjusted my plans on the fly based on what they shared and made plans for the following day.
I had hoped the weather would warm quickly and push the snowline back, but it wasn’t to be during the duration of my trip. Still, the weather was reasonably nice that next day (if a bit windy), so I set out early and got to climbing. Within an hour of leaving the tent I had been busted by a sublegal ram, and I spent the next few hours dancing with him among the rocks, hoping that he’d lead me to a larger group of sheep. That plan actually worked out quite nicely, but alas, there were no legal rams to be found in that band. I topped out at about 6,500’ that day and had a glorious time, but it seemed like all the sheep were down low, so I worked my way back down and in the late afternoon hours tried to scurry around the base of the mountain to another vantage point. Just as I was turning around I caught a glimpse of a ram another ridge over, and while I couldn’t see enough to determine his size, that at least gave me an option to try for the next day. I slept well that night, excited about the prospect of what the next day might bring.
The next day started out well enough, with decent visibility and calm winds. Small groups of caribou moved about the hillsides here and there, with some dandy bulls among them.
That favorable weather, however, was not to last. As I neared the ridge I wanted to explore, the fog blew in and it started to spit a mix of snow and hail. It wasn’t too bad, though, and I was certainly prepared for inclement weather, so I pulled on my rain shell and pressed on. There were no sheep to be found down low where I had spotted one the evening prior, so after surveying what I could see of the bowl below the clouds, I turned left and started climbing…and climbing…and climbing.
As I climbed, the clouds became thicker, the snow fell in larger flakes, and eventually I had worked myself to a point higher than I had seen any sheep the previous day. When this was all I could see when peering down a chute, I decided it was time for a change of approach.
I dropped off the ridge into the next bowl below, and after working my way around it, decided to scale the next ridge further. The visibility still sucked, but I knew there were rams nearby somewhere – I just had to find them. So I climbed and sidehilled my way up and around yet another mountain in hopes that the clouds would lift, but the weather just kept getting worse. The wind picked up significantly, and as I found myself on a steep shale slide in poor visibility at nearly 5,000’, I decided that it was probably time to pull the plug for the day. But then….this:
My best guess is that it was snowing an inch or two an hour at this point, so clearly these sheep tracks were fresh – very fresh. The only problem, obviously, is that I couldn’t see a darn thing. Still, there was no way I could turn around now. I pressed on, hoping that I would stumble upon them in the clouds. I soon hit the ridge, and while I was praying that they would head down and lead me into better terrain, they instead had turned uphill, their tracks leading into progressively steeper, rockier, more slippery terrain. I thought for a moment, then gave chase. I was just about to turn around (again), when I looked up and saw the faint outline of a sheep peering down at me. Crap! I quickly hid myself, but I was pretty sure that he had busted me. He wasn’t legal, but from the tracks I knew there were more. The next fifteen minutes were a bit of a blur – I worked around boulders and shale slides, hoping that they would stay in place but finding instead that they had moved uphill again…only to see another sheep peering out of the clouds up the mountain still further. And then… Well, the short version is that I screwed up, plain and simple. There were eight rams, two of which were legal, but they were bunched very tightly together at the very edge of my visibility in those whiteout conditions. I could barely see a mass of bodies and horns, but couldn’t tell which body belonged to which horns in the blowing snow. I waited them out, and in a split second one of the legal rams stepped free from the group and gave me a momentary opportunity. And….well, I missed. I’d like to blame it on the long, steep uphill shot in the 40+mph winds, but I simply screwed that one up. Of course they ran a bit at the shot, but then stopped again and gave me another look. The problem was that I wasn’t 100% sure I had missed, and worse than missing a ram and going home without would be shooting two different sheep. In the poor visibility and running bodies I couldn’t be sure which legal ram was which, so….I had to pass on the follow up shot. They ran off, and I spent the next good while walking around, making sure that there was no blood or other evidence of a hit. There was none to be found after extensive looking – as I thought, it was a clean miss – so I headed down with my pride a bit damaged but my spirits still high.
It took me quite a while to make it back to camp, and while I was hoping that I would eventually descend below the snow, the temperature continued to drop throughout the day and this is what I found upon my return:
Looks cozy, doesn’t it? At this point, I had to make a decision – wait this out and hope for a significant change in the weather, or consider doing something else entirely. The forecast wasn’t favorable and I had blown what was likely to be my best chance at rams given what I knew of the recent hunting pressure, so I chose to at least pull camp and head back to my ATV where I would re-evaluate in the morning. The hike out that night was long and tiring, but…well, how could you not enjoy such lovely sheep hunting weather?
When I got back to my machine that night, my nagging fears were confirmed – my machine wouldn’t start. I had trouble starting it a couple of winters ago, and with the snow and ice I was concerned that the same problem would rear its head. When I turned the key there was a whirring sound, but the starter wasn’t engaging. Since my mechanical knowledge is extremely limited, my hopes now turned to the family I had met on my first day. Thankfully, they were still camped over the hill, though their camp was quiet when I walked by that evening. With that, I rolled the machine forward to expose some dry ground, set up my tent, and had an uneasy night of sleep.
Thankfully the next morning my neighbors’ camp was still there. In a last-ditch effort at a self-rescue I tried heating up my battery and engine by placing my stove under it for 45 minutes or so. No dice. Soon I saw one of my neighbors walking up to my camp, and after talking for a few he graciously offered to help. We tried jumper cables at first, but that didn’t seem to fix the problem. The next 10-15 minutes was mostly spent banging on the starter and surrounding area, and amazingly, right when we were about to give up the effort we heard a “click” at the sound of the key. The starter had engaged! We quickly hooked the jumper cables back up, and the engine fired right up. WHEW! Man, that was a huge sigh of relief for me. From that point forth the four of us traveled together, slowly working our way out over the next few hours. Of course I had hoped for a sheep from that second hunt of the year, but at that point I was just happy that I wasn’t going to have to walk out while leaving my machine behind. I was also very happy to make some new friends – they are seriously great people and I hope I can somehow repay the favor someday.
I can honestly say that I returned home feeling blessed. I was hungry for more, of course, but I felt so blessed by the adventure I experienced and the people I met.
Flash forward two and a half weeks, and time was growing short. The season was to end on Saturday the 20th, so on Wednesday the 17th I made the last preparations to make a final long-shot attempt at filling my tag…or at the very least, at experiencing another new area. In discussions with a very helpful friend, I had decided to leave the machine behind and walk in to a drainage that I had overlooked previously. I drove most of the way that night before camping north of Paxson, and by 7am on the 18th I was climbing towards sheep country. The weather was markedly better than my previous trip. A week of warm weather had pushed the snowline back to near the ridgelines, and sunshine and calm winds lifted my spirits as I passed through treeline and onto an alpine ridge. That day I covered more ground than I had originally planned, working my way 7-8 miles into the high country, traversing far enough that I could thoroughly look over three drainages, and eventually camping at 4,750 after topping out earlier in the day at 6,700’. Many sheep were spotted that day, and I got to spend 20 minutes or so dancing with a small group of ewes. Until the wind shifted and they caught my scent, they didn’t seem the least bit concerned about my presence at all. Instead, they closed the gap from 100 yards to less than 50 over the course of that time, taking a few steps and then watching, walking and watching. It was such a cool moment, and though they weren’t legal quarry, those few minutes captured so much of what I love about sheep hunting.
Just before topping out on the highest ridge in the area, I also jumped the lone ram that I saw that day – a thin-horned 7/8 ram that gave me a surprise at relatively close range. I was surprised that I hadn’t seen more rams given the amount of country that I covered, but I still had a good chunk of terrain to hunt, so I descended to camp and made plans for the following day.
The next morning dawned beautiful as the one before, so I quickly wolfed down breakfast and headed towards new terrain. As with the previous day, I was soon seeing ewes and lambs, and as I climbed hope rose within me. Alas, with every ridge I crested, the new country proved to be either empty or inhabitated by only lambs and ewes. I wasn’t surprised exactly, as that was what I was prepped to expect, but still…I figured there must be a ram in one of those draws somewhere. As I had told myself before I left, I only needed one. I kept at it, again topping out near 7,000’ in mild winds with good visibility. Clouds were moving in the distance, though, and I knew my window of favorable weather was closing, so I moved as quickly as I could to see as much country as possible.
I circled around the last summit that I could possibly extract a sheep from given my limited time away from home, and as I did I had one more moment of excitement - but again, the same 7/8 ram from the day before proved to be the one in my spotter and again he appeared to be alone.