November 04, 2010
By Neil Thagard
"The ram not only detoured around our ambush, but he then walked within 20 yards of our camp!"
By Neil Thagard
We had backpacked 6 1/2 hours to a spike camp, where my guide, Jonas Guinn, and I spent four days sitting in the bitter cold, looking through binoculars, when I finally got my first shot opportunity at a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Aiming at the ram 35 yards away, I knew this was the culmination of my lifelong dream.
But when I released, the arrow slipped harmlessly through the hair on the ram's back, leaving a slight mark in the hair. Thus, we dubbed the ram Razorback.
I was hunting in the famous Bow Zone near Canmore, Alberta, with Rick Guinn Outfitting. Rick has a long history of big game outfitting, especially bowhunting for bighorn sheep. The hunt was scheduled for the last 20 days of November, ample time for me to bag a ram — I hoped. Also on the hunt was Michigan bowhunter Dr. Joel Johnson.
After that close call, Razorback disappeared. We figured he had found love somewhere else or had simply found a safer place to hang out. Whatever the case, for nearly a week we could find no other mature rams until we finally located a beauty in a canyon so treacherous it was given an unprintable name.
Dr. Joel and his guide, Logan "Low Gear" Peasley, would get first crack at this ram, and they spent a full day trying to approach the ram. As so often happens, they ran out of daylight before Joel could get within bow range. It was a long, arduous hike back to camp for hunter and guide that evening.
The next day — the 17th of our hunt — Logan and Jonas decided to swap hunters to see if it would change our luck. During the night, nearly 10 inches of new snow had fallen, and it was still coming down heavily as Logan and I labored into the unprintable canyon. I wore crampons and used trekking poles for traction and balance.
One of our biggest challenges turned out to be keeping tabs on the ram as clouds engulfed the mountain range, reducing visibility to near zero. Despite the terrible conditions, by midday we managed to maneuver within 100 yards of the ram and his band.
However, for two hours we were pinned down, unable to close the gap. As heavy snow continued to fall, the sheep moved to a new spot, and using the near-whiteout as cover, we followed. But, again, we were unable to slip within bow range. But now we were above the herd, and with darkness approaching, the sheep were beginning to move up the slope, in our direction, to reach protective rocky outcroppings for the night.
As we crouched in the driving snow, a number of sheep passed within 20 yards of us. Surely the ram would follow.
But he did not. Pursuing a ewe, he veered away to our right. Quickly, hoping to stalk more quietly, I removed my crampons, and then Logan and I moved ahead behind a lone spruce tree. The ram now stood slightly below me on a steep cliff at about 30 yards. I readied for the shot.
Suddenly, Logan's feet slid out from under him, and he hit the ground with a thud! and slid out of control for 75 yards down the mountain. Alarmed by the commotion, the ram took off.
High in the Alberta Rockies, I'm living my dream of hunting bighorn sheep. At our modest base camp, the only warm place on the mountain, guides Jonas Guinn and Tanner Sinclair discuss hunting strategy with Michigan bowhunter Dr. Joel Johnson.
After making sure Logan was okay, I quickly climbed 20 yards above the edge of the cliff and made my way across the hillside and spotted the ram again. This time I got within 25 yards of him and was just rising to position myself for the shot when my feet slipped. Now I was the one shooting down the slope out of control. Frantically I fought to roll onto my belly and dig my hands and toes into the snow and ice to stop myself — six feet from the edge of a 70-foot cliff! With darkness coming on fast, Logan and I decided we'd better head toward camp. After that, I resolved to wear the crampons while stalking.
They had to be quieter than this — and a lot safer!
The next morning we awoke to clear skies and high winds. Again, we switched guides, and Jonas and I returned to look for the ram in the unprintable canyon. Right away we spotted him, and now he was on our side of the canyon, in a much easier position to stalk.
We took some time to plot a stalking route, and eventually it led me within 70 yards of the bedded ram. But at that point, other sheep around the ram had me pinned down, and all I could do was sit and wait until the sheep gave me a break. Finally, as they moved around, I was able to close the distance to 40 yards. Unfortunately, the bedded ram did not present a good shot angle. Again, I could only wait.
A cold and windblown guide, Logan "Low Gear" Peasley uses a spotting scope to locate distant sheep.
When the ram finally stood I came to full draw, but in the heavy wind my bow was like a sail. I could not hold steady. When the sight finally rested on the sheep, I released and the arrow looked good. But as it traveled downrange, the wind blew it off course by at least two feet, and the arrow sailed harmlessly past the ram. As it bounced through the rocks, the ram descended to the canyon floor and up the other side to that unprintable place where he'd spent the previous two days.
We were now down to the last two days of the season. On the encouraging side, a few more rams were showing up in the area. As we sat high on a rocky bluff, Jonas and I noticed a familiar looking ram. With the spotting scope we studied him closely, and as he turned broadside the sun highlighted a mark in the hair on his back. It was Razorback, right in the spot where we'd first met.
In hopes the ewes would lead Razorback to us, we decided to stay right where we were, and after several hours, the sheep began to move our direction. As they closed the gap, we realized they were going to come right where we wanted them.
However, while the main band continued on course, Razorback veered down the mountain to pursue another group of ewes on a different mountain a mile away. Talk about disheartening. The ram not only detoured around our ambush, but he then walked within 20 yards of our camp!
My crampons proved essential gear for negotiating the icy terrain.
Well, now was not the time to feel sorry for myself. With two hours of daylight left I hustled down the mountain and up the other side. As Razorback chased a couple of ewes around the rock slides, I was able to get within 75 yards of him.
Using the rocks and brush for cover, I began slithering toward the lovesick ram. Now within 35 yards of my target, I lay in wait for a shot opportunity. As Razorback turned broadside and lowered his head behind some rocky cover, I rose, drew my bow, picked a spot, and let the arrow fly.
From my vantage point, the shot looked good, and as the herd bolted across the mountain with Razorback in tow, I climbed up to the spot where Razorback had been standing when I shot. The sign on my arrow indicated that the shot had found the proper mark.
With the fading daylight, I went in quick pursuit only to discover that he had bedded down with the band and was still alert. Unable to get within range for a second shot, I decided to back off and wait until morning.
On the last day of my hunt, in minus-35-degree weather, Razorback and I met one final time.
Very early the next day, Jonas and I made our way to where I had last seen Razorback, and we quickly located him, lifeless, in the bottom of a deep, treacherous ravine where we again had to use crampons and trekking poles to make the descent.
Once we reached the ram, it was a celebration of silence and remorse. Yes, Razorback now donned my Alberta bighorn sheep tag, but most importantly, he had provided me with a lifetime of memories from a grueling 20-day adventure.
As Director of Operations for the Wild Sheep Foundation (formerly the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep), the author works on public land and wildlife management issues throughout North America. He has hunted exclusively with a bow for the past 18 years.
Author's Notes: I hunted with a PSE Diablo at 70 lbs. draw weight, Carbon Tech Rhino 45/70 arrows, NAP Thunderhead 125 broadheads, Swarovski binoculars and spotting scope, Sitka Gear and Raven Wear clothing, and La Sportiva Makilu mountaineering boots.
Bighorn sheep are good indicators of land health because they're sensitive to many human-induced environmental problems. At the time of European settlement, there may have been as many as two million bighorns roaming North America from British Columbia south into Mexico, from California east to the Dakota's. By 1975, only a fraction of the bighorn population remained. The main culprit? Disease introduced by domestic sheep and goats. Today, thanks to aggressive and persistent management, bighorn sheep numbers have rebounded from a low of fewer than 15,000 to just over 70,000.