By Bob Burgess
-- The month of November arrived to find me preparing to head for Nevada and my chance to hunt for a desert big horn sheep. The permit to hunt for these sheep is one of the most difficult of all the big game permits to obtain. Each year, thousands apply for a precious few permits issued via a drawing. To be drawn for one of these permits is akin to winning the lottery.
My permit was for unit 161, a bit north of Tonopah, Nev.
I met my guide, Nick, the following morning for breakfast. After getting acquainted, we headed to Nick’s pack station in the little town of Belmont. After dropping my gear there, we headed to the west side of the mountain to meet Nick’s nephew, Brian. He had been glassing for sheep on the mountain. We joined him in this effort.
We began ascending the mount in the pink light of dawn. A cautious approach allowed us to spot a band of sheep on a ridge at the 10,000-foot level. As we glassed, several more sheep appeared from the opposite side of the ridge. Among them was a ram that immediately caught my attention.
Nick whispered, "He’s the one we want."
The sheep were beginning to bed down on the side of the ridge after feeding, and the ram I wanted was in the middle of the bunch, surrounded by other sheep. We decided to wait to see if they would return to feeding and spread out a bit. They showed no signs of getting to their feet, however, and we were concerned the wind would shift and carry our scent to them. We decided to take a chance and drop down around the back side of the mountain to gain altitude and get above them. Slipping out of our packs, we headed around the mountain.
We worked our way through foot-deep snow until Nick said something and pointed up the mountain, where a single ewe was peering at us over the edge of the ridge.
"Get ready," Nick said. I dropped to the prone position and chambered a round.
One sheep after another appeared on the ridge. Soon, a dozen or so sheep were gathered in a tight knot, watching us sprawled in the snow.
I had the big ram clearly in my scope, but other heads and bodies were all around him. Not confident of hitting just the big ram, I elected not to shoot, and the sheep elected not to be there anymore.
We continued around the mountain to watch the sheep move out of sight. We pursued them deeper into the snow and higher into thinner air. As we worked our way toward the middle summit of Mt. Jefferson, we saw a trail in the snow heading towards the summit.
Looking along that path, we saw a few sheep topping a distant ridge. These were the animals we’d seen earlier, we believed, and the ram was probably still with them.
As we neared the summit, we began to side hill around the mountain through knee-deep snow. Spotting some sheep below us, we crouched in the snow, trying to see the rams before any of the sheep saw us.
After some waiting, a group of rams appeared. The ram we were looking for was among them.
These sheep were also in a tight group with only their heads visible above the ridgeline. We waited to see what they would do. When it appeared they would drift over the edge of the ridge, we worked toward them.
Then, reminiscent of a couple of kids playing in the snow, we slid down the slope on our backs.
A ram caught sight of us moving through the snow. He didn’t hang around trying to figure out what we were.
The band now tried to put some serious distance between themselves and us. Nick headed down the mountain to where the sheep had been. Rounding the mountain shoulder, we saw the band of sheep bunched on the slope ahead.
Again came the words, get ready.
I plopped down in the snow. The sheep were standing on the hillside, hesitant to cross the deep snow ahead. Our appearance was all the motivation they needed to keep moving.
Then luck made an appearance. Several ewes decided to break away from the main band and strike out across the snowfield. The ram I wanted thought it would be a good idea to follow them. Good for me, not so for him.
I got ready to shoot. Other than the fact that my heart was racing, my breathing was heavy, the scope was wet, the distance was extreme, the ram was moving and I was sliding down the slope, it was a routine shot!
I guessed the distance to the ram, held a bit over its back, and fired. With the snow all around, I couldn’t see where the bullet struck. My guess was that I hit low, so I held higher and fired again.
The ram lay in the snow on the other side of the basin, mortally wounded. Left alone, he would have died where he lay. But we needed to retrieve him and get out of there before dark.
We really didn’t want to work our way across that deep snow field to the ram. Nick motioned to Brian to come down from the top towards the ram, thinking that this would force the ram down the slope where we could retrieve it. Brian approached the ram, but the animal stayed put.
Watching through my binoculars, I was astonished to see Brian leap onto the back of the ram and grab a horn in each hand. The ram still had the strength to turn and leap, with Brian astride, down the slope. With snow flying all around, the two of them went some distance down the slope before the ram expired. A sheep rodeo at 11,000-plus feet in the snow was an awesome sight indeed!
There was a white knuckle moment when we thought the entire slope would avalanche to the bottom. We were spared that disaster as the snow held while Brian descended with the ram.
We joined him and the sheep near the bottom of the slope.
We broke out the tape measure. The ram scored 166 B&C points.
Although my desert hunt held far different things than the cactus, sand and rocks one would suppose, it was everything I could have wanted in a sheep hunt.