Chasing Kings of the Crags: The Thrilling Hunt for Oregon’s Bighorn Sheep

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Chasing Kings of the Crags: The Thrilling Hunt for Oregon’s Bighorn Sheep

Oregon’s Bighorn Sheep

Fear of failure is arguably the greatest motivator a bighorn sheep hunter has working to their 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 differs from ending your deer season without venison in the freezer.

Gearing Up and Training for Oregon Bighorn Sheep Hunting

From the moment you learn you’re drawn for a bighorn sheep hunt, there is a sense of urgency in everything you do.

In my case, I felt like I was behind the proverbial 8 Ball as soon as I learned I was drawn. I immediately met with a trainer at my gym, and he created a program that focused on strengthening my legs and core.

A casual shooter at best, I started going to the range more often. I needed to be comfortable with my rifle and scope.

After researching, I discovered I needed to be more prepared in the equipment department.

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).

Where to Hunt Bighorn Sheep in Oregon?

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. Oregon Bighorn Sheep hunting opportunities exist in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and the Snake River drainage.
  • California bighorns are found in central Oregon’s John Day River, Deschutes River drainages, and various parts of southeast Oregon.

As the mating season approaches, their behavior changes. During the Oregon Bighorn Sheep Hunting season, if you find ewes, you will find rams.

During the rut, bachelor groups move closer to the ewes, and the older rams establish dominance over the younger ones. The rut also coincides with the late-season hunts starting in mid-October. 

Strategies for Success: Scouting and Teamwork

While owning the necessary equipment, being able to climb mountains, and shoot well, it all means nothing if you don’t know where to hunt.

Scouting is paramount to success, and it truly was a team effort.

One of the most important components to a sheep hunter’s success is assembling a group of like-minded hunters working toward the goal of helping the tag holder fill their tag.

I had three partners with 11 bighorn sheep hunts to their credit.

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.

Kevin and I started scouting the areas known to hold sheep in July. It helped alleviate some stress, but the anxiety doesn’t end until you have a ram on the ground.

The Hunt: Chasing the Kings of the Crags

Four of us walked with loaded packs three miles through a harvested wheat field before we reached the sight of the Deschutes River.

After deciding to pass on the first ram, we saw a second one with a group of ewes crested a steep cliff face. From a distance, he looked promising, but when we studied him through binoculars and spotting scopes, we decided he wasn’t what I was looking for.

About the time I started second guessing, not shooting one of those rams, Travis waved me to where he was glassing into a canyon.

One of those waving motions 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 studied him through binoculars and spotting scopes.

The Heart-Pounding Climax: The Final Moments of the Hunt

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 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. Doug decided to walk around to the other side of the canyon, which later proved invaluable.

The ram finally stood, and the next 30 seconds were a blur.

He instantly dropped into a shale rock bed when the bullet hit him. 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 could put the final kill shot into him.

Celebrating Success: The Thrilling Conclusion of the Hunt

Months of preparation ended with an abruptness of a heart attack. I sighed in relief, and the four of us celebrated collectively.

Doug on the radio and Kevin, Travis, and me in the canyon. 

It was a grueling pack out, but worth every sore muscle and drop of sweat.

What’s most important is that he was what I had envisioned and a ram I’ll be proud to look at for the rest of my life.

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