Bow Hunting Bighorns

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Hiking up the near vertical ridge, my legs and lungs were burning from the exertion required to get into sheep country. I had spotted rams from below and was trying to make my way to a rocky outcrop to set up an ambush. I’d been hiking with few stops and when I was just 150 metres from the rocks, one of the rams appeared and stared directly down at me.

I was busted.

The second ram came over to have a look and the pair stared at me for several minutes before turning and disappearing over the ridge.

I knew my odds weren’t good, but hustled the last leg of the ridge and carefully peaked over the rocks – the rams were already in the next basin and making tracks. I sat and watched them, only to witness two other bow hunters on the next ridge excitedly get ready for the rams, which were headed straight for them. I watched in my binoculars as the hunters drew their bows and arrow both rams. Good for them, but bad for me.

I should have been downtrodden with my bad luck, but couldn’t begrudge anyone successfully taking a sheep with their bow. I knew there were plenty of other rams on the mountain and continued my journey across the top to glass the basins below.

I had scouted the area several times before the hunting season opened and hiked the peaks with an avid sheep hunting friend, TJ Schwanky. Targeting late-season bighorns would allow me to take advantage of their winter range and the rut, but the snow and ice were creating new challenges.

But it didn’t take long to find more of what I came for.

It was getting late in the day and there was no way to get close to the heavy horns below me. I opted to sit and watch them, to determine if they had a travel pattern that might help me the next day. As the sun started to fall in the west, a large herd of sheep assembled and wound their way across the bottom of the rocky outcrops and headed for high country to spend the night in the steep rocks. It provided me with the perfect plan for getting back up the ridge the following morning and setting up in a spot to have the sheep travel past me.

The next morning was cold and I layered clothing for the arduous hike ahead.

I had again found sheep by glassing from the bottom of the mountain and they were headed for the same basin they fed in the day before. I made my way to a rocky pinnacle with a steep cut down the centre of it. It would be the perfect spot to sit and watch, with the game trail less than 30 metres below.

I reached my destination and quickly changed my clothes so I’d have a dry base layer on to keep me warm.

I crawled out on the thin rocky ledge and positioned myself between two rock outcroppings that concealed me from either side. The gap in the rock shelf, which I had identified from below, provided the ideal window to overlook the well-used sheep trails. The trails below were etched into the rock like cattle trails headed to a feeder, joining the basins on either side of the pinnacle where I sat. I positioned myself and practiced drawing an arrow to ensure I had enough elbow room if a shot opportunity presented itself.

I’d been practicing with my bow since early summer and knew my bow could place the arrow where I aimed it. I had waited until the last week of November to start my hunt, not wanting to burn out before the peak of the rut. I knew it was the best time to hunt and from what I was seeing, I was right.

The sheep I spotted that morning were in the basin to my left and I snuck a peek past the rocks to find out exactly where they were. There were four mature rams in the group and two of them were busy smashing horns together, making enough noise that it echoed down the valley. The bigger of the two had crossed my path while I was hiking in, but I had hid behind some rocks and watched the two sheep pass within 100 metres of me. I sat tight and watched until the rams dropped over the ridge and into the basin with the others.

I belly crawled to the edge of the cliff for a better look into the basin on the other side – there were sheep spread out across the windblown, grassy holes and some were well up into the rocks.

The two rams I had been watching continued to butt heads and posture for dominance. They were so focused on themselves that they had no idea I was even there. A larger ram was above the sparring duo and he seemed to be where the real action was, busy tending an ewe and testing the air with a lip curl to help trap scent in his nostrils. It was all very exciting to watch and knowing there was several good rams in the group had my full attention.

As if on cue, a big ewe came down out of the rocks, where she had been overseeing the other sheep, and got the entire herd milling. She looked like the old matriarch of the mountain and her actions seemed to direct all the other animals. A group of ewes started heading out of the basin and fed towards me.

With the ewes starting to move, it didn’t take long for the rams to notice. Within minutes, the entire herd was headed in my direction. I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to control my excitement. The first ewes out of the basin had no idea I was there and didn’t spook in any way. I just had to hope the rest of the sheep would do the same.

I sat with my back to the rocks, watching the game trail below me. I could hear hooves crushing against the broken rock on the trail and watched as the first couple of sheep came into view. The herd assembled below me and I could see 23 ewes and three rams. The biggest ram was over 70 metres away and with the terrible wind he just wasn’t an option. The two rams I’d been watching fight and butt heads for most of the afternoon were still pushing each other around and were working their way closer to me with every step. I don’t think it was just circumstance that the two feisty rams always had lots of distance between themselves and the biggest ram.

The more dominant of the two sparring rams, with the bigger horns, was the closest sheep to the cliff and I made the decision to take my shot if the ram presented the opportunity. He was still preoccupied with fighting and crashed horns with his rival directly below me and jostled for position to stay on the trail. They have incredible balance on the steep, loose rock and the more I looked at the ram the more I knew he was spectacular.

My focus was on the closest ram and when he took a few steps forward, separating himself from the herd, I drew my arrow, placed my sight pin on the ram and let my arrow fly. I was shooting almost directly down and knew that I had to hold low.

When I released my arrow, it zipped through the ram and out the other side, clanking in the rocks further down the ridge. The ram didn’t even flinch and just stood his ground. With the howling wind, none of the sheep had heard my bow, but a few were looking downhill where my arrow had made contact with the rocks. The ram I had just shot was so preoccupied with fighting, he didn’t even realize my arrow and broadhead had passed right through him.

The underdog and smaller of the two rams immediately sensed that something was wrong with his opponent as he stood motionless on the trail. The young rival walked up to my ram, pressed his horns into his ribs and started pushing him down the game trail. They only traveled about 50 metres before my sheep turned to face away from the other ram. It was at that moment I knew my hunt was over. I had nocked another arrow and was trying desperately to find another opportunity for a shot, but with the number of sheep below I just couldn’t take the chance.

My ram started to stagger and lost his footing, falling to the ice-covered grassy ridge. The weight of his body and slick hide turned him immediately into a bobsled, cascaded down the mountain at breakneck speed. My moment of excitement was darkened by the sight of my ram, gaining speed and rocketing through the air as he launched off rocks and junipers along the way. What had taken me 40 minutes to ascend, the sheep had covered in a matter of seconds. The last time I saw the ram, he was in the air and then crashing into a rocky creek bed back at the tree line.

I gathered my gear and headed down the slope. It didn’t take long to go downhill and I knew I had to be careful after watching how fast my ram slid.

I found my ram caught up in a small patch of stunted spruce trees in the steep creek bed. I was relieved to find the body of my ram, and the horns, were still intact.

I had to pinch myself to make sure the moment was real. It all happened so fast that it felt like a dream. I braced the ram with a couple big rocks before lifting his head to the side to count the growth rings, which showed he was eight-and-a-half years old. I shook my head in disbelief of his massive body and horns, and knew there was some serious work ahead to get it all back to the truck.

My archery, late-season ram is undoubtedly the highlight of my archery hunting life and the details will be etched in my memory forever.

It may have taken less than two days to put my tag on a ram, but the hunt had really started six months prior and the scouting and physical conditioning paid off with a ram that easily makes the Pope and Young record books. It felt like I had won the lottery twice: getting drawn for a late-season archery sheep licence in Alberta, and taking my ram.

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