BIG SKY BIGHORN

HIGH-COUN­TRY AD­VEN­TURE AWAITS

Modern Pioneer - - Front Page - By Thomas C. Ta­bor

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.

The Hunt

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.”

PHO­TOS BY THOMAS C. TA­BOR

(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

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