November 04, 2010
I have always loved bowhunting mountain goats. But now, I was beginning to wonder why. A wicked north wind raked my face, raising welts of pain and making my eyes water. I jammed my fingers into the half-frozen sod and clawed upward, pushing my bow with arms, chest, and chin. One slip now would mean a sickening slide into cold, empty space. I didn't know how high the cliff was below me, and I didn't care to find out.
In British Columbia, floatplanes ferry bowhunters deep into the heart of mountain goat country.
Mountain goat hunters tend to take chances. For one thing, a goat is desirable enough to make you forget danger. For another, the goat inhabits North America's steepest and most dangerous terrain. This can be a deadly combination.
I risked a glance under my right arm-pit, and noted the grim expression on Keith Holmes' face. My guide was lean, muscular, and cool-headed -- the sort of guy who makes clients feel safe. Keith was below me, gripping the icy mud with determined fingers. Five more yards and we'd be out of danger. With luck, we might also be in bow range of a giant mountain goat.
Three hours before, Keith and I had spotted a goat from our lakeside camp. The animal had popped into view like magic a thousand feet above us, slowly picking his way up a rock chute in the predawn light. A look through the 30X scope showed a high-shouldered billy with thick horns longer than his face. My heart leaped to my throat. This goat would score high in the bowhunter's record book -- if I could stalk close enough to plant an arrow in his engine room.
Mountain goat territory has a heavenly beauty that belies the hellish climbs to reach goats. A comfortable base camp helps to ease the pain.
The difference between an average goat and a world-record goat is only three or four inches of horn. This makes field judging difficult. But a patient and observant bowhunter, with good optics, can assess these animals.
Billies and nannies can both have excellent horns. Billies usually score better because their horns carry more mass, but the longest goat horn ever recorded was from a female -- 124„8 inches. To make the bowhunter's record book, a Rocky Mountain goat must score 40 points or more. Seven-inch horns with fairly heavy bases normally make the grade.
Goats are easiest to judge when viewed from the side. The distance between the tip of the nose and the front of the eye is about seven inches. Distance from the nose to the base of the horns is about nine inches, and the distance from the nose to the base of the ears is about 10 inches. Goat horns curve, so they look about one inch shorter than they really are.
THE DAY BEFORE, master guide Keith Holmes and I were in a Beaver floatplane, twisting among giant mountain peaks in north-central British Columbia. I had booked this hunt because Holmes had a great reputation as a bowhunting guide, and because British Columbia has more mountain goats than Alaska and all other goat habitats combined. Some parts of B.C. literally swarm with goats, giving a hunter his pick of trophy heads. Keith had assured me that his goat area was one of the best.
At first, Keith and I tried to talk above the bumblebee drone of the plane but ended up gaping in silence at the wild panorama below. As we flew over incredibly rugged terrain, I was reminded that the Rocky Mountain goat is one of the most underrated animals on our continent. This slab-sided, snow-white creature inhabits the steepest parts of North America, perching precariously on pinnacles from Colorado to southern Alaska. A mature goat might not have impressive headgear, but a goat's rugged habitat, beautiful coat, and razor-keen eyesight make him worthwhile to hunt.
Guide Keith Holmes and I glassed for goats from the shore of the lake near camp. Good optics -- and good physical condition -- form the foundation for goat hunting.
Much of the best goat country can be reached only by floatplane. Hunters set down on lakes and climb from cool valleys to icy goat terrain. The odds of crashing a bush plane are slim in good weather, but we breathed a sigh of relief when we landed on a kidney-shaped body of water. The pilot told us this was Murky Lake, our temporary home. He promised to return in a few days to see how we were doing. He roared down the lake and out of sight.
After setting up backpack tents and sorting gear, Keith and I turned to the all-important task of scanning peaks for goats. We could see for miles in the gin-clear mountain air.
A quick look showed nothing at all, but Keith insisted this was great goat country. The animals were simply bedded under ledges, in caves, or otherwise out of sight. We lounged and talked for a few minutes, and then I glanced back at the mountains. Oh my gosh! Two white dots were moving above camp.
Our eyes were glued to spotting scope and binoculars as more and more goats popped out. The evening feeding period had begun. During the next two hours, dozens of goats appeared high above us. Most were on the mountain directly behind camp. Several were large, but exactly how large was tough to tell in the rapidly failing light.
Goat hunting is not for the faint of heart. Those rocks are not only vertical but also slick!
AT DAYLIGHT, KEITH and I spotted the giant goat mentioned earlier and assaulted the mountain. The country got steeper as we climbed. In places, we clawed up 45-degree slopes on hands and knees. A snow squall settled around our ears. It was miserable.
The wind was whirling aimlessly as we approached the billy -- the worst possible thing during a stalk. Goats have keen noses and trust them without question. Goats also have sharp eyes, but they don't always run at the first sight of danger.
As we scanned the terrain where the goat ought to be, we realized the wind was the least of our worries. To reach stable ground and set up a shot, we'd have to cross 20 yards of near-vertical mud. Below the mud was a sheer cliff at least l00 feet high.
We made it across on toes, fingers, and nerves. I grabbed solid rock and struggled to my knees. No goat was visible in front of us. I stood up, eased ahead, and looked beyond a boulder. Still nothing.
With horns measuring nine inches in length and five inches around the bases, my Murky Lake mountain goat justified my near-death experience to collect him.
Keith and I picked our way up the mountain, glassing creases and folds in the rocky face. The goat had moved. The weather grew worse; a driving snowstorm mixed with patches of fog. At least the wind had turned steady, blasting us from one side.
Good things can happen fast. As Keith and I neared the top of the mountain, a fogbank closed around us like a glove. When it lifted a few minutes later, we were on the lip of a crater 200 yards across. In the middle of that crater was a very large goat!
We hit the deck like commandos. The goat was lying on his side, napping. The storm didn't seem to bother him at all. I glimpsed massive horns, and then more fog rolled in. In a flash, we were up and running to get the wind exactly right.
Minutes later, Keith and I crouched behind a boulder above the goat. The wind had picked up, numbing our flesh and ripping snowflakes past our ears. A soupy shroud still blotted out the view. I gripped the bow with half-dead fingers and buried my head between my arms.
Without warning, the fogbank split. Sunlight stabbed the icy mountain air. I jerked up my head -- and almost swallowed my tongue! The goat was walking toward us less than 75 yards away, nibbling tidbits among the rocks.
With heavy horns longer than his face, this billy was a keeper for sure. He moved with maddening slowness, gawking between bites of grass. He stopped 40 yards away, but the wind was howling between us. My bow bounced like a Ping-Pong ball as I tried to aim, and I knew the arrow would drift several feet before it arrived. I bit my lip and wished I could feel my frozen fingers on the bowstring.
The goat milled around, and then turned broadside. As if by magic, the wind hit us hard, swirled uncertainly, and died.
I drew, planted the sight pin, and released. The shaft sank behind the goat's creamy white shoulder. He whirled, staggered 50 yards, and collapsed. I was vaguely aware of Keith pounding my shoulder as I galloped across the rocks. We had climbed 3,000 feet in less than six hours, and we had a first-class billy goat to show for it.
A quick measurement made us feel even better. The horns were over nine inches long, the bases over five inches around. This was a solid record-book animal.
We snapped a few photos, caped and quartered the carcass, and stumbled down the mountain. The hunt had been cold, tiring, and dangerous, but that's par for the course when you're after a Rocky Mountain goat.
In spite of the risk, I'd do it again in a minute!