Kings of the Crags
Hunting Bighorn Sheep in Oregon Requires Luck, Patience, Trigger Discipline and Teamwork
By Pat Hoglund
He was definitely good, but was he good enough? That was the thought that swirled in my head 60 minutes into my bighorn sheep hunt. A ram casually went about its business feeding on tufts of bunchgrass below a rocky ledge. Unaware that I was within 400 yards of him, he methodically worked his way closer toward the top of the canyon. I watched him through the spotting scope, as did the rest of my hunting party. We talked in low voices debating whether he was a shooter. Collectively, we guessed he was about five or six years old. I liked the fact that his horns swept below his ears and up toward his eyes, but was not convinced he was the one.
When you have a bighorn sheep tag to fill countless thoughts race through your mind and it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. But when you’re able to clear your thoughts and focus on whether the ram you’re about to shoot is the ram you’re going to look at on your wall for the remainder of your life, serious debate takes place. After studying hundreds of rams—whether through photographs, videos or my scouting trips—I still grappled with the decision. The easy answer would have been to let the moment take over and sneak to plateau below me and shoot him from 200 yards. His length was good, but he didn’t have the mass I wanted. The more I looked at him, the less I liked what I saw. I looked at Kevin and asked him what he thought? He cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. I looked at Travis. He pinched his lips. Then Doug’s words from the day before echoed into my consciousness. “Whatever you do, don’t shoot the first ram you see. Unless it’s a 170 or better.” The ram was not a 170 and it was the first ram we saw that morning. The four of us quietly moved out of sight and worked our way toward the edge of the river canyon.
Fear of failure is arguably the greatest motivator a bighorn sheep hunter has working to his or her advantage. No matter where you hunt sheep, chances are good that your hunt will be your one and only. In Oregon, a bighorn sheep tag is called “once in a lifetime” for a reason. You only get one crack at it. Failing to fill your sheep tag is a lot different than ending your deer season without venison in the freezer.
From the moment you learn you’re drawn for a bighorn sheep hunt there is a sense of urgency in everything you do. Whether it’s your fitness level, your shooting acumen, your equipment or your knowledge of the area you’re going to hunt, the calendar becomes a ticking clock and the second hand ticks louder and faster as opening day approaches.
In my case, I felt like I was behind the proverbial 8 Ball as soon as I learned I was drawn. I was in decent physical shape, but not in the condition one needs to be in to hunt bighorn sheep in the steep, rocky canyons where they live. I immediately met with a trainer at my gym and he created a program that focused on strengthening my legs and core. Along with lifting weights, I started running more regularly and climbing stairs with a weighted backpack. A casual shooter at best, I started going to the range more often. It was imperative that I was comfortable with my rifle and scope.
After doing a lot of research I found out that I was woefully unprepared in the equipment department. That changed almost overnight. I purchased a new rifle (Kimber Hunter in a 6.5 Creedmoor), added a new scope (SigSauer Whiskey 5 3x15x50), new binoculars (SigSauer Zulu9 11×45), a new spotting scope (Leupold, Kenai 2 25x60x80) and a new rangefinder (SigSauer Kilo 2200MR). And stocked up on ammunition (Hornady Precision Hunter 143 grain ELD-X).
While being able to climb mountains, shoot well, and having the necessary equipment, it all means nothing if you don’t know where to hunt. Scouting is paramount to success. This is where Kevin Madison proved to be my most valuable asset. Kevin, WHJ’s Shooting Editor, is a veteran of five bighorn sheep hunts including his own. I was coincidentally drawn for the same unit that Kevin drew three years prior. And even more of a coincidence, Doug Moncrief was drawn for the same unit in 2016. Doug is the father of Travis Moncrief, WHJ’s Editor. Doug participated on Kevin’s hunt, as well as mine. As did Travis. Collectively, I had three partners with a total of 11 bighorn sheep hunts to their credit. It truly was a team effort, and therein lies one of the most important components to a sheep hunter’s success: Assemble a group of like-minded hunters who are working toward the common goal of helping the tag holder fill his or her tag.
When Kevin was drawn for his tag in 2014, he began contacting landowners who owned property on the east side of the lower Deschutes River. Two years later Doug was drawn for the same tag and Kevin reached out to the same landowners and they graciously granted access to their property. Kevin did the same when I was drawn. Beginning in July, Kevin and I started scouting the areas known to hold sheep. It helped alleviate some of the stress, but the anxiety doesn’t end until you have a ram on the ground.
Leaving the pickup as the sun rose in the cold, clear skies of Central Oregon, the four of us—Kevin, Travis, Doug and I—walked with loaded packs three miles through a harvested wheat field before we reached sight of the Deschutes River. The intimidating canyon was off in the distance as the wind howled and blew up from the river bottom. We had scouted the area the day before and saw several good rams in the canyon. Feeling satisfied that there was at least one shooter in the canyon, we left undetected with plans of returning in the morning.
After deciding to pass on the first ram we saw that morning, a second ram, this one with a group of ewes, crested a steep cliff face. From a distance, he looked promising but when the four of us studied him through binoculars and spotting scopes he wasn’t what I was looking for. He was a little older than the first, but his tips were heavily broomed and he lacked the mass I wanted. We quietly slipped away and hiked to where we spotted the rams the day before, atop a rim looking down into a steep, unforgiving canyon.
About the time I started second guessing not shooting one of those rams, Travis waved me to where he was glassing into a canyon. It was one of those waving motions that meant ‘get over here now!’ I crept to where he was and 175 yards below us stood an older mature ram with a group of ewes, lambs and younger rams. The wind was right, and the group of sheep had no idea we were above them. The four of us were able to get a good look at him through binoculars and spotting scopes. Much like the first two rams we found, there was a lot of debating to this ram’s merit. Kevin liked him; Travis liked him; and Doug liked him. “But do you like him? That’s the question,” asked Kevin. I weighed my options.
There were three rams in the area and all of them were beautiful sheep. Each one was a little different. As I watched him through the spotting scope it was a matter of deciding if this one was the ram I wanted. When he turned his head to look down into the canyon I made my decision. I can still remember seeing the mass at his base and character of his horns. They were thick, had good length, and showed years of battle scars. I settled into a prone position and dialed my scope up to 15 power. That’s when he decided to bed down. For the better part of two hours. Waiting for him to stand up seemed like an eternity. Sensing that we were going to be there for a while, Doug decided to walk around to the other side of the canyon. He brought his binoculars, spotting scope and radio. The plan was if the sheep got up Doug would be in a position to direct us in the direction he went. As it turned out, having Doug on the other side of the canyon proved invaluable.
The ram finally stood and the next 30 seconds were a blur. When the bullet hit him, he dropped instantly into a bed of shale rock. He laid there for a brief moment, kicked his legs and then tumbled towards the bottom of the canyon. I had an awful feeling in my stomach as I watched him roll over a bluff and out of sight. Fortunately, Doug witnessed the event unfold and directed us to where he ended up. Travis, Kevin and I grabbed our packs and scrambled below to a cliff ledge where I was able to put the final kill shot into him. Months of preparation and countless hours of anxiety ended abruptly. Snippets from the past four months passed through my brain. I thought of the weekly ‘Full Curl Friday’ texts from Kevin, each accompanied with a photo of a bighorn sheep attached. Hours of scouting we spent in different canyons flashed before me as did the gracious landowners we met. The grueling hikes. Sore feet and oceans of sweat. Watching three cougars chase five mule deer into a draw, and only four emerging. Coveys of chukar we flushed. Hours upon hours of glassing. My mind was like a movie on fast forward.
Months of preparation came to an end with an abruptness of a heart attack. I let out a sigh of relief and the four of us celebrated collectively. Doug on the radio and Kevin, Travis and me in the canyon. When the moment passed, Travis took in our surroundings and matter of factly said: “Now we get the tar beat out of us.”
He couldn’t have been more correct. Because the next three hours we did in fact get the tar beat out of us. After we field dressed the ram, divided him into three packs, we made the decision to pack him out down to the river. Doug was able to call a friend of ours who guides steelhead anglers on the Deschutes. Grant Putnam agreed to pick us up at the river. It was a grueling pack out, but worth every sore muscle and drop of sweat. Doug would later meet us at the boat ramp and the four of us were able to take in the moment. The only regret I had was not having Doug with us in the canyon. Check that, looking back on the pack out I wish we had retraced our steps and packed the ram up instead of down. In hindsight, we all agreed it would have been difficult at first, but easier in the long run. But at the time going downhill seemed like a simpler, easier alternative. It wasn’t.
There are two subspecies of bighorn sheep in Oregon, Rocky Mountain and California bighorns. Rocky Mountains are bigger bodied rams with larger and heavier horns. Their range is generally associated with northeast Oregon. Hunting opportunities exist in the Eagle Cap Wilderness area of the Wallowa Mountains and the Snake River drainage. California bighorn sheep, meanwhile, are more widespread and their populations are considerably higher. California bighorns are found in central Oregon’s John Day River and Deschutes River drainages, and in various parts of southeast Oregon. There are even a few pockets of California sheep in northeast Oregon.
To give you an example of bighorn sheep populations, Oregon gave out 73 California bighorn sheep tags in 2017, and only six Rocky Mountain sheep tags. Interestingly, there were 3,183 applications for the six Rocky Mountain tags, and 15,210 applicants for the 73 California sheep tags. For every one Rocky Mountain sheep tag there were 530 applicants compared to 208 applications for every California sheep tag. Despite the fact that there’s fewer sheep, it’s clear that more hunters covet a Rocky Mountain sheep tag, which I suspect has to do with the body size of a mature ram and its horns. Horns from a California bighorn are not as heavy and flare away from the lower jaw whereas horns from a Rocky Mountain bighorn form a tighter curve and are heavier throughout. A mature Rocky Mountain weighs upwards of 250 pounds while a mature California weighs close to 200 pounds.
It was not lost on me that to have been drawn for the tag meant I defied the odds beyond most people’s comprehension. The odds of me drawing my tag were 0.7752 percent. To put those odds in a different perspective, I had a 99.2248 percent chance of not drawing the tag. No doubt, Lady Luck smiled down on me.
Oregon is blessed to have a healthy bighorn sheep population thanks in large part to the state’s commitment to reintroduce bighorns after they went extinct. Bighorn sheep were native to Oregon, however California bighorn sheep populations all but disappeared in 1915. Difficult winters, disease and unregulated hunting contributed to their demise. Today, Oregon has approximately 3,700 California bighorn sheep spread throughout the state in 37 different herds. The state estimates there are 800 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep that are concentrated in pockets throughout northeast Oregon. Present day populations are a result from reintroducing bighorns back through the state and conservation groups like the Wild Sheep Foundation, and it’s Oregon chapter, the Foundation For North American Wild Sheep.
The first reintroduction occurred in 1939 when 23 Rocky Mountain bighorns from Montana were released onto Hart Mountain, located in southeast Oregon. Despite the state’s effort, the last sheep from that herd was observed in 1947. It was believed that because the Rocky Mountains were non-native to southeast Oregon they did not survive. It wasn’t until 1954 when 20 California bighorn sheep were transplanted from British Columbia and released in Hart Mountain that the sheep population took hold. Those sheep were originally contained within a 1,000 acre fence enclosure. The fence eventually deteriorated and the sheep became free ranging.
Still today efforts are under way to ensure bighorn sheep continue to thrive. While license sales make up a large portion of the state’s funding for bighorn sheep management, it should be noted that much of the funding comes from raffle tickets and an auction for one sheep tag. Held by the Wild Sheep Foundation, last year’s auction tag sold for $135,000. Ninety percent of that money comes back to the state, and the remaining 10 percent goes to the sheep foundation. Proceeds from the raffle tickets also go directly towards wild sheep management in Oregon. In 2017, the state sold 10,497 bighorn sheep raffle tags. A single raffle ticket costs $11.50.
California bighorn sheep today can be found in pockets throughout the state, and in the Deschutes River Canyon the herds are healthy enough to offer six seasons and 17 tags. Introduced here in 1993, there are over 500 sheep living in the rocky crags of the lower Deschutes River. The fact that Oregon now gives out over 80 bighorn sheep tags throughout the state is testimony to the recovery efforts by conservation groups and the department’s management practices.
Associated with terrain that is referred to as shrub-steppe habitat (rocky outcroppings and sagebrush) California bighorns live in unforgiving country. In the Deschutes River canyon, they’re commonly found in steep, rocky canyons where they can evade predators, are protected from winter winds and scorching summer time temperatures. They’re usually found near water and a constant supply of sagebrush and bunchgrass, the two primary food sources.
Bighorn sheep are social animals and they’re typically found in groups of 20 or more. On scouting trips in the summer the majority of sheep I spotted consisted of ewes, lambs and immature rams in their summer range. I did encounter several mature rams in small bachelor groups, which is indicative of their behavior for that time of year. As the mating season approaches their behavior changes. During the rut, bachelor groups move closer to the ewes and the older rams begin to establish dominance on the younger rams. On numerous scouting trips we watched the mature rams run off the younger rams. Those that stood their ground ended up butting heads with the dominant rams. Watching the rams fight and listening to the crashing of horns echo off the canyon walls was a highlight of my scouting trips.
The rut also coincides with the late season hunts starting in mid-October. During the hunting season, if you find ewes you will find rams. And that is exactly what happened during my hunt. If you find a solitary ram during the hunting season, it’s a good bet that it’s a younger ram. Thinking back on the first ram I saw that morning, I’m glad I held off for an older, more mature ram.
Because it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, knowing ahead of time the type of ram you want to kill is important. Scouting is important, but studying rams is even more important. I began reading as much as I could on bighorn sheep hunting, watching videos online, and scouring the internet for photos. Ideally, I wanted to shoot a ram that had good mass at the base of his horns, and had a full curl. Unfortunately, those rams are not as common as you’d think. In most cases the older, more mature rams have broomed their lamb tips off, which is either done on purpose to enhance its field of vision, or happens inadvertently while feeding. That’s not to say rams with mass and length don’t exist, because they do. They’re just not as common as you’d hope. And finding them during hunting is a lot harder than you think.
Ultimately, when I made my decision to shoot my ram I opted for mass over length. The ram I killed had 15 inch bases and 31 inch horns. His tips were broomed, and his horns had great character. He was 8 ½ years old and he scored 159 4/8. He wasn’t the biggest ram ever taken from the Deschutes River drainage, but definitely not the smallest. What’s most important is that he was what I had envisioned and a ram I’ll be proud to look at the rest of my life.