CPW Field Journal ‘Sheep and Moose Hunts’ (Part 5)
CPW Field Journal
When it comes to outdoors expertise, no one understands Colorado’s fishery and wildlife resources better than Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s diverse staff of wildlife managers, park rangers and biologists. For these dedicated individuals, working for CPW is not just an occupation but a way of life. When they’re not enforcing fish and game laws, patrolling state lands or conducting fish and wildlife research, most CPW employees are avid sportsmen and women who spend their leisure time hunting and angling throughout the state. Here, CPW staff share their personal stories and experiences, provide on-the-ground field updates and offer a unique, “inside” perspective on all things hunting and fishing in Colorado.
In this special, multi-part series of CPW Field Journal, CPW employee Michael Scott shares his personal experiences applying/drawing for sheep and moose licenses, and provides real-time updates during his preseason scouting and fall hunting trips.
Part 5: “Sheep Hunting: The Ultimate Challenge”
Go to part 4 of this series
Here’s what I’ve learned the past couple of weeks: Sheep hunting is hard. It is especially hard when you limit yourself to hunting with a bow and arrow. I have shot my bow regularly all summer. But I still would not feel comfortable taking a shot beyond 50 yards. Even then, I would only take that shot if the conditions were absolutely perfect. Furthermore, because these animals live on steep, rocky slopes at elevations of 13,000 feet or higher and can move effortlessly from basin to basin, and because, unlike me, sheep don’t need to haul around things like raingear, water, a survival kit, bow, food, etc. – sheep have a huge advantage over me.
My season started in early August, and I have been lucky enough to go hunting several times. My plan to hunt the fringe, “sleeper” areas in my game management unit has paid off. I eventually found rams that were worth chasing and have not run into any other hunters.
The first trip was during a long weekend with my girlfriend and kids. My daughter Sarah and son Christian were not too keen on the idea of getting up early and hiking up and down mountains. But they did enjoy the camping and fishing on the trip. My girlfriend Shannon and I found lots of sheep on this outing, mostly ewes, lambs and immature rams. Persistent, I figured that a band of rams had to be lurking around the next corner. But the weekend ended with nothing more than a lot of hiking and glassing but no stalking. And as I mentioned in my last post, there was a lot of rain.
My next trip was a one-day hike along a 13,000-foot ridge into an area that I figured had to hold sheep, despite there being no kills reported in previous years. Heading into this area paid off when we finally spotted three rams at the bottom of a basin. One of the rams was tremendously wide but was only a ¾-curl and probably not very old. But the dark-chocolate color of his coat, contrasting with the wide, sweeping, light-tan horns, really made him stand out. I was definitely interested in him. The fact that he was about 1500 feet below me and unapproachable from above, only deterred me slightly. However, the primary deterrent was the August snowstorm that blew in and then blew us off the mountain. The weather was more of an obstacle on this hunt than the elevation and steep terrain.
Trip three was, again, a one-day hunt. Shannon and I hiked and brought our mountain bikes into the basin from the bottom, along a very rough road – one that I was pretty sure was only for diehard 4-wheel-drive folks. We figured that the bikes would save us some time on the stretches of road above the steep rocks. Of course, as we got started, three other hunters also headed up the road, one of them on a 4-wheeler. Fortunately, they were only scouting for the upcoming elk season, and I learned that you could get an ATV up the road if you were very careful.
About 2.5 miles up, we got to a point where the road got bad again. We dumped our bikes in the willows (we had only ridden a total of a half-mile at that point anyway) and hiked farther up. We still couldn’t see the basin where we had previously spotted the rams, but we decided to glass the mountain anyway. Right away, we saw rams – seven of them – about 1500 feet above us and feeding along the rocks! This time, they were approachable but only from above. After watching the rams settle into one general area, we studied the mountain to figure out the best way to approach them. I decided to loop around and go above them. This meant a 2000-foot climb up a steep, rocky slope, which ended up taking me several hours.
Shannon and I established a simple method of signaling so she could direct my position. She held orange towels in each hand and pointed so that I would know where the sheep were once I reached the top. This proved critical because the rams moved several times during my climb and bedded down for an hour or so before they wandered to a new location on the ridge. Then, after climbing meticulously through some of the steepest and rockiest slopes that I had ever traversed, I finally reached the top nearly four hours later. Thankfully, some tough, old miners, who had prospected this same mountain in the 1860s, had carved trails up the steep slopes. The worn, 150-year-old switchbacks were still useable in some areas, which proved to be my savior on this trip.Once at the top, Shannon gave me the signal that the rams were further along the ridge than I had thought. I was now following the same ridgeline that we had hiked days earlier. I came to a point where she signaled that the rams were now directly below me. I crawled slowly to the edge of the rocks and took a peek below. Eventually, I could see a couple of rams standing on a rocky knob about 200 yards straight down. I decided that my best plan was to approach the rams from above and try to keep my scent from blowing down to them.
As I crept lower, I saw three of the smaller rams feeding, off to my left. My rangefinder indicated that the rams were about 172 yards away. There was also a small, rock outcropping located about 100 yards away. I figured that if I could just get to those rocks, I might be within shooting distance of any rams that wandered up the hill toward me. As I continued to move lower, I suddenly saw movement to my right. One of the bigger rams that was feeding spotted my movement and was now looking directly up at me. I froze, and then I very slowly sunk behind a rock. Fortunately, from this position, I was able to still see two other large rams that were unaware of my presence. My rangefinder pegged them at 104 yards — still way too far away. After about five minutes of me holding this spot, the first ram, still staring in my direction, decided that he was no longer comfortable with what he couldn’t see. He escaped down the mountain and walked around the ridge, with all but the smallest four rams following behind him.
In hindsight, I chose the wrong approach. I had not been patient enough to let the rams stop feeding and bed-down again. I had blown it!
Shannon watched everything from below through the spotting scope. She also watched the rams move back into the original basin and eventually bed-down. After a long, 90-minute hike down the mountain, my legs and feet were trashed. I have never felt so happy to be on “flat” ground, and the grin on my face showed that I had a great day, despite my lack of success. We continued watching the sheep for a little while and then decided to leave and come back another day. The mountain bikes came in handy on the descent downhill. We still had to get off and walk the bikes through some of the rockier parts of the road. And I had to deal with a leg cramp while pedaling, but we made the trip down much more quickly.
As the days and weeks have progressed, I’ve had opportunities to stalk these rams again, several times. More on that in future posts . . .