Bowhunting Montana Big Horn Sheep
November 04, 2010
Why would a bowhunter even put in for a Montana bighorn tag he would never have a prayer of drawing?
"So, how long are we just gonna sit here?" Jake whispered sideways in my ear.
"Until dark if we have to," I whispered back. "Now quit slobbering and relax a little."
We flattened against the top of a cone-shaped clay knob and peeked over. Propping up my binoculars, I counted through the heat waves again. Eleven. Eleven bighorn rams, about half of them on their feet milling around. I focused on the big boy. He was bedded halfway down the slope with two other rams. My rangefinder showed 158 yards. The closest ram was 120, way out of bow range. But we were right where three little draws funneled together and the wind was good. They might come our way. Yes, we would wait here until dark.
It took a series of miracles for us to even be here in the Missouri River Breaks of Montana, bowhunting bighorn sheep. Not your average, garden variety miracles either, but actual water-to-wine, nets-full-of-fishes, Lazarus-come-forth type miracles. Jake had just graduated from high school and planned on serving as a missionary for our church by late summer, which meant he would miss the next two hunting seasons. Since he wanted to keep building bonus points while he was away, we had scoured the regulations and put Jake in for hunts with the worst-possible drawing odds -- precisely so he would not draw.
The choice for bighorns was easy. The previous year, in Unit 680-00, the Missouri Breaks, 3,633 first-choice applicants had applied for 20 tags, about .5 percent odds. He would never draw that one.
As bad luck would have it, the very morning after Jake had completed his last interview and submitted the paperwork for his mission, a friend called and told me that the drawings results were on the Internet. I ran upstairs and typed in my information.
Nothing. I tried my wife and daughter. Zip. Almost as a second thought, I plugged in Jake's info and hit submit. My blood went cold when the screen said, "Successful Sheep."
"No, no, no, no," I chanted frantically. Even as I chanted, however, I did the math in my head. It was now the third week in June. It usually takes three weeks to get a mission call back and then another four to six weeks before you report. None of this even came close to adding up to September 15.
I debated whether even to tell Jake, but when he got home from work, all I could do was show him the computer screen and say, "Have faith. You'll have to have faith." His face lit up when "Successful Sheep" registered in his mind, and then it dulled slightly when "have faith" registered. Jake simply walked to his room and grabbed his bow, went outside, and started shooting.
The next Sunday at church Jake handed me his Bible, opened to Genesis chapter 22, and whispered for me to read verse 13. "And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son."
"Get it?" Jake asked. "I'm supposed to go offer a ram as a sacrifice before my mission.""Yeah," I said. "The sacrificial ram. And we should make sure to get a first-born male without blemish, preferably one scoring at least 190 Boone and Crockett points."
Negotiating the Missouri Breaks is like standing on one leg tying your shoe -- a lot harder than it looks.
After a divinely inspired delay by our local leader in submitting his portion of the paperwork, the envelope with Jake's mission call arrived in the mail. He could be spending the next two years almost anywhere in the world, yet I was all atwitter about when, not where. He opened it and started to read. He would serve in Phoenix, Arizona.
So far, so good. I braced myself for the next sentence and was sure I heard harps and angelic choirs when Jake read that he was to report October 1.
In the meantime, we had learned of another miracle: For the first time ever, an early archery-only season for sheep tag holders would open September 5-14. By the power and grace of the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, we now had 10 extra days of hunting. It was time to go to work.
We talked to former tag holders, landowners, and taxidermists. I contacted a game warden from Havre named Shane Reno, who was so helpful I offered him a job in customer service at my company. We bought maps, sheep videos, and sheep books. We studied sheep mounts in restaurants and wherever else we saw them. I feared Jake would wear out his bow, shooting the 3-D deer target in our yard that now sported enormous cardboard sheep horns. We went on a three day scouting trip. Anything we did together revolved around the sacrificial ram.
The day finally came when we drove two time zones past the middle of nowhere and creaked the door open to a BLM cabin, where we ditched our stuff to get in an hour of glassing before dark. That evening we located eight rams, including one three miles away that looked like an absolute giant.
The next morning we could see none of the rams we had put to bed, so we took off in the direction of the big ram, parking the quads and hoofing it up a wash to get to the top of a brutal rim. On the way in we bumped eight or nine rams feeding in the bottom, but they were mostly small and ran off through the sagebrush before we could really look them over. We stayed on course and scrambled to the top of the cliff, where we found a few more decent rams but could not locate the big boy.
However, from up there we again saw the rams we had bumped in the morning. Dialing up the spotting scope, I checked out the rams while Jake played with a lizard.
"Hey, Jake," I said. "Come check out this one."
Jake squinted into the scope. His eyebrows shot up and he started panting like a dog. "I like that one!"
"Are you absolutely sure? You may never, ever do this again. Would you be once-in-a-lifetime thrilled to kill that ram with your bow?"
the temperature was 80 degrees, and we had to find a way off the rim, across a wash, and up the next rim. Then we had to locate the rams somewhere in a series of small, steep clay draws.
Hiking in the Missouri River Breaks is like standing on one foot to tie your shoes -- a lot harder than it looks. At one point we had to slide off a crumbly cliff maybe 10 feet tall, straddle a few boulders to the bottom, and then crawl through a four-foot tunnel carved out by the wash. I kept wondering who was going to be sacrificed first, me or the ram.
After a couple hours of that, we crept over a second little ridge. The rams were not in the draw we had expected, but they had to be close. Trading spotting scope for binoculars, I glassed ahead as Jake glassed to my left. Suddenly I saw ram horns over the sagebrush, 200 yards directly below us.
Ducking down, I clicked my fingers to get Jake's attention. Slowly he crawled beside me, and after waiting a few minutes, I bellied back to the top of the knob. I could count 11 rams total. Ten were feeding, while one stood at full alert, staring us down. After about 45 minutes, the alert ram finally moved up to the others and bedded. Jake impatiently wanted to make a move, but I told him we'd wait.
"So, how long are we just gonna sit here?" Jake whispered sideways in my ear.
"Until dark if we have to. Now quit slobbering and relax a little."
Looking the situation over for himself, Jake reluctantly agreed we couldn't do much right then. So we waited. And waited. Three long, hot hours we waited. We were feeling like burnt offerings ourselves.
Finally, the rams all stood, stretched, and milled around for a few minutes. Then, to our horror, they angled directly away toward the ridge to our left.
"If you want to chance making a move, it's now or never," I told Jake. "I'll stay here and direct you with hand signals."
Jake grabbed his bow, checked his release, and grinned at me like a hungry wolf. Then he slithered across a 30-yard opening and dropped into the opposite draw undetected.
Whew! That was the hard part -- or so I thought.
As he looked at me through his binoculars, I waved him farther down the draw. He took three steps and looked again. I waved him farther down. He took two steps and looked again. I then performed an intricate but simple series of hand signals that any intelligent person would know meant: "Go 40 yards farther down the draw, ease up to the ridge, come to full draw, and shoot the largest ram, which will be slightly to your right, third in line."
For some reason, Jake wasn't getting it, and the rams were getting closer. Finally, I just waved him toward the ridge. The rams were now in two groups -- eight in a bunch directly below Jake, and three others, including the big one, slightly to Jake's right -- just as my obvious hand signals had indicated.
Jake's 71â„2-year-old ram had horns measuring 42 and 38 inches around the curls.
At this point the DVR in my mind hit "record," and this is what I will forever see: Jake is kneeling just below the ridge opposite the sheep, coming to full draw, and easing toward the rams not more than 30 yards away. All 11 ram heads suddenly yank up and stare, while Jake momentarily aims toward the group of eight small rams. I panic. But then he swings his bow to the right, and as I focus my binoculars on the big ram, I hear Jake's bow go off. The 11 rams blow off down the hill and ball up on a little ledge, changing directions in the process. As the big ram turns, I see blood pouring from behind the front shoulder. "Holy shnikes! Jake just smoked that huge ram!" I say. The old ram pauses and stumbles, and the other sheep run away. He then flips over and tumbles wildly in a dozen airborne somersaults while Jake does the Abrahamic happy dance. It all seems, well, downright miraculous.
We fairly floated off the hill and approached the beautiful, big ram. His horns measured 42 and 38 inches around the curls, and 15 inches around the bases. We aged him at 7½ years. The back side of one horn was notched and jagged from banging heads with other rams. Jake was jabbering around with a big, sacrificial ram smile plastered on his face.
We took pictures, green-scored the ram at an amazing 186, and caped and quartered him. By late evening we had the ram packed out and hanging from the meat pole, along with a pack rat and a four-foot rattlesnake. Another great day in the Breaks.
Three weeks later we dropped Jake off to start his missionary service. Even as his Mom was bawling her eyes out, Jake still had that big smile plastered on his face. Choking up a bit myself, I told him that no matter what comes his way he should always do his duty; have faith; believe in miracles; keep smiling; and, when things get tough, always remember the sacrificial ram.
Living in Montana, author Chris Dahl owns a wholesale distribution business for packaging and shipping supplies. He and his wife, Kim, have four children. Bowhunting runs strong in the family.
Author's Notes: Jake took his ram with a Hoyt Vectrix bow, Carbon Express Maxima 350 arrow, Muzzy 125 3-Blade broadhead, T.R.U. Ball release, Montana Black Gold sight, Ripcord arrow rest, Pentax binoculars, and Swarovski spotting scope.For full information on applying for big game tags in Montana, go to http://fwp.mt.gov/default.html.