BIG SKY BIGHORN
HIGH-COUNTRY ADVENTURE AWAITS
After applying in as many as three different states for 35 years, the license finally arrived in my mailbox. Bighorn sheep top many hunters’ bucket lists, but few actually get to hunt them. I was now the exception.
I took a fine ram on that unbelievably fulfilling hunt. The downside, however, came when I realized that could be the last time I’d ever be able to hunt these magnificent animals. I didn’t believe I had another 3 ½ decades of applying for a license left in me; by that time, I’d certainly be turning up daisies from 6 feet under.
Good news: I found a way to once again hunt bighorn sheep without investing another 35 years to do it.
One of the Best Kept Sheep-hunting Secrets
Montana, like several other western U.S. states, offers bighorn ram licenses on a limited quota drawing basis, but it also offers the opportunity to apply for ewe tags. Why would a hunter choose to target a ewe instead of a ram? Well, because ewe tags are in less demand, so they’re considerably easier to draw in most cases.
For me personally, it took only three years of applying to draw a ewe tag. Obviously, you can’t necessarily count on that same level of success, but the odds of drawing a ewe permit are assuredly higher than drawing a ram license. In fact, I have a buddy who’s drawn several ewe permits throughout the last few years.
Perils, Impediments and Advantages
Montana’s sheep-hunting season is long, usually spanning nearly three months, most often beginning in early September and running through Thanksgiving weekend. But, even before the season opener, it’s always wise to do a little scouting. So, after meeting up with a hunting buddy, we toured the unit I drew, scanning the high cliffs for sheep. Unfortunately, the only critters we encountered were a few white-tailed deer grazing in the canyon bottoms. Nevertheless, scouting the area before the hunt helped me develop a game plan and understand the challenges I’d be facing.
Like most sheep habitat, many of the rock faces are closer to vertical than horizontal, and are plagued by shell rock that makes staying upright challenging. The elevation is also such that our lungs struggled to get enough oxygen. Regardless, it’s some of the most beautiful and impressive country you’ll likely ever encounter.
My hunt unfolded in a unit west of Missoula, Montana. Like much of Montana’s sheep
country, this area consists of a patchwork of public and private lands. While I was unfamiliar with this particular unit, my hunting buddy, John Englert, had successfully hunted it several times and agreed to accompany me on the adventure.
John was first to spot the herd high overhead on a rocky cliff face, but in this case, the odds clearly favored the sheep. Like most animals, sheep typically watch for danger from high vantage points. It didn’t help that we had little natural cover to conceal an approach. We could see eight or 10 animals, but surmised that many more sheep were hidden from view. Nevertheless, that’s a lot of eyes that could easy foil an attempt to get closer for a shot.
I was confident that I could pull off a shot from our current location with my 6.5 Creedmoor-chambered Savage rifle, but I always prefer to get closer whenever possible. And, being able to observe the herd more closely would allow me to better judge the quality of the animals, plus make sure my target was a ewe and not just a young ram in headgear disguise. So, after carefully analyzing the situation, we began our slow and deliberate ascent using what little cover we had.
Sometimes the unexpected occurs when hunting. While stopping briefly to catch our breath, John reached over and tugged on my shirtsleeve, then pointed to the far hillside nearly a mile away. Squinting into the bright sunlight I could see a huge black object slowly moving through an opening, a large black bear.
“... before the season opener, it’s always wise to do a little scouting.”
(above) Sheep habitat is big country, and that frequently translates into many strenuous miles of foot travel.
(opposite) Sheep can move quickly from one area to another, so a hunter must stay vigilant, or they might miss a shot opportunity.
(top) Tabor’s bighorn ewe ran a short distance before expiring on the edge of the rocky hillside. (left) These young rams were seeking minerals found in the rocks. When hunting on a ewe license, the hunter must take care not to mistake a young ram like these for a ewe. PHOTOS BY THOMAS C. TABOR