CPW Field Journal ‘Sheep and Moose Hunts’ (Part 7)

Photo by © Wayne D Lewis(CPW)

Photo by © Wayne D Lewis(CPW)

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.

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 Part 7: “Perseverence Finally Pays Off ”
Go to part 6 of this series

Hhiking the ridgelineSheep hunting has got a hold of me.  I wouldn’t say that I’ve become a “sheep addict,” but I definitely love it. I would not pass up the opportunity to hunt sheep with a friend.  We have even talked about spending family camping trips, in upcoming summers, above timberline, so we can look at sheep.  I think that’s because of how unique the sheep-hunting experience is.

I left off last post by telling you that I had missed on several occasions at shooting a good ram with my bow, but that I would have more chances.  Well, I will spoil the surprise and tell you that I never did get that “wide ram” that I had been chasing.  I had chances but, as I described before, something always seemed to go wrong.  Sometimes it was my fault; sometimes it was just plain bad luck; and sometimes it was the weather.

The "wide ram."

The “wide ram.”

The reality is that hunting with a bow is often about luck – both good and bad.  I’m not saying that there aren’t things you can do to improve your odds.  However, in the end, animals are going to do things you don’t expect.  The  weather and wind  are also going to surprise you, and, ultimately, too many things have to go right for a hunter to stalk within 40 yards of a sheep — an animal that spends its entire life watching out for danger.  Still, when you’ve made the right decisions, prepared yourself for that one-shot opportunity and chased bad luck from the field, bowhunting for sheep is the greatest sport in the world.

I was approaching the end of a 4-week-long season, with only about a week remaining.  As I previously mentioned, I had not been able to find the “wide ram” again. So, I returned to the spot where I started on opening weekend. I located a smaller group of rams there that included a couple of ¾-curl “shooters.”  Now, I just had to find a way to get close enough for a shot.  My first opportunity came with the rams bedded-up on a rocky slope above an alpine meadow.  Sound familiar?  With Shannon watching from below, I made the long stalk along the backside of the ridge, which topped out at well over 13,000 feet.  I tried to sneak along a steep slope to come out above the rams.  Again, I thought that I had plenty of time to finish my stalk before the sheep would head down to feed.  And, again, I was mistaken.

As I peeked over the top of the ridge and tried to get my bearings, I immediately saw several rams feeding in the grassy slope below.  I slowly worked my way down through the rocks, and I discovered that the three largest rams were still bedded-down.  However, time was not on my side.  Once a few rams start to move, they all eventually move together in a group.  I snuck closer and closer, and I tried to cut the distance to less than 50 yards.

As I approached the closest (and largest) ram, I used my rangefinder to see that he was still 120 yards away.  Now he was standing, looking around, watching the other rams feeding below. I knew that I was too late.  I watched, helplessly, as the last three rams walked down the hill and moved away from me to join their buddies for dinner down below.  I’ll admit: I was starting to get frustrated.

The next day, Shannon and I were again on the mountain after the same rams – this time, with a new plan:  If I couldn’t get to them, I would try to get them to come to me.  This idea came from some hunting experiences from my childhood.  When I was a kid, my dad and uncles and brothers would use deer “drives” to hunt.  This is a common hunting practice in a lot of areas, but for those who are unfamiliar with this, it entails sending hunters into an area with the intent of scaring the prey toward another hunter who is waiting.  I had no idea if this would work on sheep or not. Based on my past experiences, I thought that it was worth a try.

Shannon got to do the hiking this time. She climbed the opposite mountain to get behind the sheep.  I found a good “ambush” spot located between where the sheep were and the next basin where I thought they would go when spooked.  I watched Shannon climb the ridge until she was several hundred yards above the rams, which were still bedded.  As she moved down toward them, surprisingly, they did not spook as I expected.  Apparently, this was a better approach route and she was able to get within a hundred yards and even shoot some video of the rams before they noticed her.  The rams moved slowly down the grassy slope to feed.  But they had no desire to “escape,” and apparently felt secure in the open, grassy meadow.  I watched helplessly from my location as the sheep moved in the opposite direction.

Shannon keeps an eye on the rams from atop a steep ridge.

Shannon keeps an eye on the rams from atop a steep ridge.

After watching them for a while, Shannon motioned for me to come up to her location. I then worked my way up the bottom of the basin and just out of view of the rams, where I joined Shannon in the rocks.  It was now obvious that there was a way to approach the rams in the meadow, through the rocks.  We now worked together, moving from rock to rock, as the rams fed.  We were nearly close enough for a shot and then the weather moved in, again.  This time, it was only small hail and heavy rain, but we still had to crouch behind a boulder and take cover under our ponchos.

Then the clouds moved in. We lost sight of the rams. Once the weather cleared, I saw that the rams had moved again.  Now they were directly behind us and moving up through the rocks on a path that would bring them within shooting range.  Had my luck finally changed?  Even though we were exposed, I was able to nock an arrow, and I ranged the sheep at 53 yards – just outside of my comfortable shooting-range under perfect conditions. But it was looking as though things were going to be “perfect,” for once.

Suddenly, the sheep saw us and moved up the rocks single file.  I struggled to determine which ram was the one I had decided to shoot.  When I finally identified the original ram from the group, he walked in front of another ram.  I drew back my bow and waited for him to move so I could get a clear shot.  My mind focused on an ingrained checklist: 50-yard pin, pick a spot, relax the bow-hand, good sight-picture, smooth release and follow-through. Everything clicked into place, and I let the arrow fly. “Fly,” it did . . . right over the ram’s back. Both Shannon and I saw the arrow strike a rock above the ram, and the whole group exploded to the top of the ridge. The rams stopped, briefly, to look back at whatever had made the noise that spooked them. And then they were gone.

I can’t really describe what was going through my mind at that point.  How did I miss?  Did I misjudge the distance?  They did come slightly closer as they moved along the rocks, but not enough to justify me missing that badly. Did I panic and simply make a bad shot?  I can usually tell on each shot if I did something wrong and even anticipate where the arrow would hit once I released the string.  But this shot felt perfect.  I was calm, and my sight-pin was still right behind the ram’s shoulder when the arrow struck the rock. I had done my best to keep my bow dry during the storm, but maybe the bowstring was affected by the wet weather.

I’ll probably never figure out what caused the miss. But I do know one thing: As we hiked in the darkness back to camp, I was surprisingly content.  Yes, I was frustrated with missing the shot, but I was pleased with the hunt.  After days and days of chasing rams, I finally had a good opportunity to take a shot.  If that was all I would get, I had gotten my money’s worth. And I would never feel anything other than satisfied with this hunt.

The next morning, I have to admit, I was not too eager to hike back up the hill.  I was certain that the rams had left the country. I was already figuring out another spot to spend the final days of the season.  Shannon convinced me that we needed to at least look to see where the rams had gone and if they were, in fact, gone for good.

Bighorn sheep bedded in rocks.

Bighorn sheep bedded in rocks.

We again made the hike to 13,000 feet and began glassing.  Immediately, I saw sheep right where we had been the previous evening.  We were both amazed that, after being spooked out of the basin, the group of rams had returned the next morning and were feeding on the same slope (sometimes good fortune smiles on you and you had better take advantage).

We made a plan to come in the same direction that Shannon had gone the day before in hopes that the sheep would again bed in an approachable location. After a couple of hours, the sheep bedded where we had expected. We were now on the rocks directly above the rams. I made my approach and again, the sheep began to feed into the bottom of the basin.

I moved slowly through the rocks, getting to within 60 yards. But I had to get closer.  Again, the rain moved in, but this time I didn’t hunker down.  I hoped that the sheep would react to the rain, as before, and move back toward my direction.  Luckily, they did just that. I took advantage of the rain to close the distance. I pulled out my range finder and waited:  50 yards . . . 40 yards . . . and now the two largest rams were lined up next to each other.  I drew back and again waited for them to move so I could get a clear shot.  As the larger ram moved and then stopped, I picked a spot behind his shoulder and released the arrow – this time, I watched it hit within 2 inches of my aiming point!

My hunt was now over.  I was elated, relieved, sad, exhausted and experiencing a hundred other different emotions.  The smile on Shannon’s face said it all as she approached after watching the entire event from the top of the ridge. Unfortunately, we had to wait through another storm and clouds that reduced our visibility to mere yards. But now we stood looking at a magnificent ram lying in the rocks below us.  All I could think of was what a great hunt it had been.  We certainly had our work cut out for us as we skinned and quartered the sheep so that it could be packed back to camp.  This was a job that took all afternoon and half of the next day. The satisfaction of a successful hunt made all the hard work much easier.

My harvested ram.

My harvested ram.

My harvested ram back at camp.

My harvested ram back at camp.

We packed the sheep’s quarters out of the rocks and down to a location where we could more easily get to them in the morning.  Then we began the long hike back to camp in the dark.  This time, there was very little talking between us. Shannon was exhausted, and I had too many things going through my mind.  An hour and a half later, as we finally arrived at camp, I knew that this hunt had turned out exactly as I had hoped.  I had spent a summer and fall in the backcountry enjoying all that our mountains have to offer.  I learned more about sheep and life above timberline than I expected. And I had matched myself physically, mentally and emotionally against the sheep, the mountain and Mother Nature.  I didn’t win that battle.  Rather, I survived the encounters and am now blessed with a freezer full of meat, a sheep mount on the wall and memories of this hunt that will last for the rest of my life.

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