THE GATHERING DARK

Outdoor Life - - WILD AMERICA -

fi­nally forced Ted to start pick­ing his way to­ward camp. On the hike back he bumped into Justin, who was do­ing the same thing. Justin, it turned out, had wor­ried the milling rams would bolt and dropped down to in­ter­cept them. But the wind had shifted, blow­ing his scent to the herd and his chance for the evening.

Ted wres­tled with his frus­tra­tion, ticked the 19-year-old had doubted their plan and his ex­pe­ri­ence. But this sea­son was dis­ap­pear­ing fast, and he un­der­stood Justin’s ur­gency. So nei­ther said much. In­stead, the Sheedys turned one last time to see the rams, now sil­hou­et­ted on the hori­zon, look­ing back at them.

A storm rolled in overnight and sunny T-shirt weather dropped into the 30s; steady winds brought rain and snow. Un­able to hunt and un­will­ing to get snowed in, the pair packed up camp and left the rams for an­other week­end, hop­ing they wouldn’t range far.

The 5-mile hike out through Mon­tana’s Up­per Mis­souri River Breaks Na­tional Mon­u­ment didn’t ease their bit­ter mood. The Breaks—canyon coun­try nor­mally so parched, hun­ters must carry in all their wa­ter—is no­to­ri­ous for its cracked clay that melts to gray gumbo in the rain. The Sheedys used trekking poles to scrape 4 inches of wet con­crete from their boots ev­ery 20 paces, packs pulling on their backs and snow blow­ing side­ways all the while.

Hun­ters with va­ca­tion to spare might’ve holed up, shuf­fling cards and talk­ing in the tent for a day or two, but both guys had to get back to Boze­man. Ted couldn’t af­ford to take more time off from his sales job. This was their fourth long week­end in the Breaks, and he was al­ready tight on time. Justin was a fresh­man at Mon­tana State Univer­sity, jug­gling class­work with Na­tional Guard du­ties and a part-time TSA job at the Boze­man air­port.

When the draw re­sults posted last sum­mer, Justin didn’t check on­line—after only seven years of ap­ply­ing for the res­i­dent bighorn hunt, he didn’t ex­pect to pull the tag. It wasn’t un­til the mail ar­rived and he opened the Fish, Wildlife and Parks en­ve­lope that he re­al­ized he’d ac­tu­ally drawn: unit 680: suc­cess­ful.

Then he got to work. Justin saved pay­checks to buy a new set of camo, and even sched­uled classes to keep Mon­days and Friday af­ter­noons free. Ted tack­led much of the re­search. The Sheedy men are ex­pe­ri­enced elk and mule deer nuts, but sheep were a wild card, well be­yond Ted’s ex­per­tise and, or­di­nar­ily, his price range. So he started call­ing peo­ple who know sheep.

IT TAKES A VIL­LAGE

Ask­ing about a hunter’s elk spots is like ask­ing how many guns he owns: im­po­lite and cer­tain to pro­duce a vague an­swer. But odds are bighorn hun­ters will get only one sea­son, so shar­ing in­tel with the lat­est lucky guy to pull the Breaks tag doesn’t ex­actly cre­ate com­pe­ti­tion.

Plenty of lo­cals were happy to help the Sheedys. One guy sent over a wall-size BLM map, blown up for his own hunt in the same unit a few years back. A few of­fered their boats for river ac­cess. An­other pointed them to a sheep guide by the name of John Lew­ton.

Lew­ton is a di­vi­sive char­ac­ter in the Mon­tana hunting com­mu­nity. He has a track record of guid­ing clients to big sheep, in­clud­ing roughly a dozen gover­nor’s tag hold­ers. (Th­ese tags are sold in auc­tions to the high­est bid­der and typ­i­cally go for more than $300,000.) In years when he doesn’t guide paying hun­ters, he shares info and of­ten tags along on hunts.

Lew­ton was also the sub­ject of a con­tro­ver­sial FWP sting in 2008, after the depart­ment re­ceived com­plaints that he was guid­ing il­le­gally. That op­er­a­tion ended in an un­der­cover of­fi­cer shoot­ing a record-book ram and mis­de­meanor charges of hunting with­out landowner per­mis­sion and out­fit­ting with­out a li­cense for Lew­ton. He was found not guilty.

Con­tro­ver­sial as he is, ev­ery- one agrees that Lew­ton knows sheep. Of the 47 Mon­tana bighorn tags al­lot­ted each sea­son (45 drawn, one lot­tery, and one gover­nor’s tag), Lew­ton says usu­ally about 25 hun­ters call him for ad­vice.

When Ted reached him, he found Lew­ton will­ing to give him a few free point­ers about sheep be­hav­ior and how to size up rams. They should look for horns jut­ting high off the head, deep curls drop­ping be­low the chin, and plenty of mass.

Fa­ther and son be­gan por­ing over pho­tos, try­ing to get the hang of field judg­ing. When Justin had to re­port to Na­tional Guard train­ing, Ted took a scout­ing trip to the Breaks—a five-plus-hour drive one way—to lo­cate ac­cess points. All told, he called about 20 peo­ple in the area for info and ac­cess: ev­ery­one from game war­dens to the BLM of­fice to landown­ers. He didn’t have any luck knock­ing on doors for per­mis­sion to cross pri­vate tracts. Once, he nar­rowly avoided step­ping on a rat­tler coiled on a front porch.

But a boon ap­peared in the form of an ease­ment, ac­quired by the Rocky Moun­tain Elk Foun­da­tion in 2015, that pro­vides ac­cess to sheep habi­tat. It would still take plenty of boot leather to reach bighorn coun­try, but it was a start.

WEEK­END WAR­RIORS

Lo­cals—some­times com­plete strangers to the tag holder— of­ten clamor to join bighorn hunts, know­ing the odds of draw­ing them­selves are slim. But few are will­ing to hike 5 miles be­fore the hunt even starts. The Sheedys, along with one of Justin’s buddies, packed in for the La­bor Day week­end opener, ex­pect­ing to scout as much as hunt. Justin, slight but strong from mil­i­tary con­di­tion­ing, brought his bow. Ted car­ried a shot­gun for birds and, al­though used to tough hunts with his son, felt all of his 51 years. The trio split up each day, cov­er­ing a 20mile loop. The vast­ness of the

bad­lands over­whelmed Justin but en­cour­aged him too. The boys found rams—maybe 15 to 20—though none ma­ture enough for such a spe­cial tag.

They didn’t see any other hun­ters, ei­ther, al­though they did en­counter some­one who wasn’t happy to see them. The Sheedys were thread­ing their way through the patch­work of pub­lic ground that runs be­tween the ease­ment and their sheep spot when a pickup came flying to­ward them. The landowner be­hind the wheel lurched to a stop and in­formed them, none too kindly, that they were on pri­vate prop­erty.

Ted ex­plained po­litely that they were, as a mat­ter of fact, stand­ing smack in the mid­dle of a con­tigu­ous pub­lic par­cel. They had the map and a glow­ing GPS dot to prove it. The landowner doubted they would have reached this spot with­out driv­ing across pri­vate tracts. She had clearly un­der­es­ti­mated their de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Justin and Ted re­turned twice in the fol­low­ing weeks. With per­mis­sion now se­cured for a splin­ter of pri­vate ac­cess (from a dif­fer­ent landowner), they hunted the ri­fle opener—which co­in­cided with a gumbo-con­jur­ing rain­storm. It took six hours to drive 25 miles with a trail­ered ATV. When the trailer be­came so heavy with mud they couldn’t go any far­ther, Justin un­loaded the quad and drove be­hind his dad, wear­ing a garbage bag as a pon­cho. When they fi­nally stopped to camp at 1 a.m. and he peeled away the plas­tic, mud caked both arms from shoul­ders to fin­ger­tips.

The storm sub­sided and the Sheedys turned that week­end and the next into pro­duc­tive hunts, find­ing rams, cov­er­ing ground, and get­ting com­fort­able field judg­ing. On the fourth week­end, the Sheedys hiked in again, ar­riv­ing with just enough light to look for sheep. They spotted the rams not far from camp and set out early the next morn­ing, but this time the sheep saw them first. When Justin glanced up, the bach­e­lor herd was 100 yards ahead, star­ing right back. They’d fed to­ward camp in the night. Now they bolted.

The Sheedys watched them bed down on a canyon wall. They spent the day wait­ing for an open­ing that never came. They were sure now: Two of the rams in this group were def­i­nitely shoot­ers. The first had hand­some dark head­gear, but the sec­ond was truly strik­ing in pro­file, with horns that swept back, then curled deeply be­low his jaw. When the ram faced away, Justin could barely see any hide peek­ing out be­tween the wide, crowded curls.

Once, an out­fit­ter drove his quad right above the bed­ded rams, never spot­ting them, but it wasn’t un­til evening that the sheep rose and trot­ted off.

Justin and Ted checked canyon after canyon the next day un­til, at last, the herd turned up, again close to camp. They agreed on a plan, but Justin took off and so did the rams. Three weeks passed be­fore they could hunt again.

UN­DER THE WIRE

Justin couldn’t stop think­ing about the two big rams he’d seen. He fig­ured other hun­ters had prob­a­bly killed them while he was stuck in class or on a shift. Fi­nally, he was able to head back out. This time Lew­ton and a buddy joined them, and they set out early on a Friday, hik­ing the long miles back to the last sight­ing. Justin and Ted skipped set­ting camp and split up to lo­cate the sheep. Gen­eral deer sea­son opened the next day, and more hun­ters would move through the area.

In­cred­i­bly, the rams were bed­ded near where they’d last seen them, as Ted dis­cov­ered while glass­ing a coulee. The bach­e­lor group had now dou­bled to 16. After re­treat­ing to a ridge for a bet­ter view, he hur­ried off to find Justin.

By the time the whole crew as­sem­bled atop the ridge, it was midafter­noon. Justin lay be­hind his ri­fle now, scope set­tled on the big­gest ram, bed­ded safely be­hind a bush at 270 yards. Lew­ton looked through the spot­ter, con­firm­ing his sus­pi­cion: This was a gi­ant. Not want­ing to pile more pres­sure on Justin, he didn’t say a word.

Justin spent two hours wait­ing and watch­ing, run­ning through dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios in his head. He looked through the spot­ter, then the scope on the .300 Weatherby Mag, then the spot­ter. His legs and hands shiv­ered, not from the chilly wind, but from adren­a­line.

When the big ram fi­nally stood, the first of the bunch, Justin’s train­ing kicked in. His muscles re­laxed.

The ri­fle went off, but he didn’t re­ally no­tice. He didn’t hear the shot. In­stead, he watched the hit and saw the ram stum­ble out of sight as its com­pan­ions rose and trot­ted off, one fewer in their num­ber than be­fore.

Skin­ning and quar­ter­ing com­plete, they rough-scored the ram: 209 inches. A mis­take, surely. But a sec­ond, more con­ser­va­tive tally put the horns at just over 208 inches. Most hun­ters are lucky if they kill a 180-inch ram. Boone and Crock­ett ac­cepted Justin’s ram as the new world-record hunter-killed bighorn (pend­ing panel scor­ing next year), its 208 3⁄8 inches ty­ing with an Al­berta ram from 2000.

But that doesn’t mean the Sheedys are done. Ted could draw the tag any year now. And word has al­ready got­ten around to this year’s lucky hun­ters that the Sheedys know a thing or two about chas­ing sheep in the Breaks and just might be will­ing to help out if you give them a call.

Justin Sheedy with the 6-year-old ram, cur­rently the largest hunter-killed Rocky Moun­tain bighorn sheep ever taken in the U.S.

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