Sheep hunter finds bighorn ram via another realm
By Chris Schiller
It all started with the inability to check my own mail because of a busy summer schedule on our farm located in extreme northeast Colorado.
My father had gone to the mailbox and, with an odd smirk, he handed me a Division of Wildlife envelope. I rummaged through the envelope expecting to find a refund check. Instead I was shocked to find a blue tag stamped S66 Rifle Ram.
My heart skipped a beat. I didn't have time to prepare for this unexpected sheep hunt in the central Rockies, but then again, I didn't have time not to.
Not only did I draw the coveted bighorn rifle tag, but I also drew a second season rifle tag for mountain goat in the same unit.
As someone who's hunted since I was old enough to hold a bow, and someone who has sculpted animals since the age of 18, I fully appreciated these hunts, and knew I had to make it happen some way.
The ram season started Sept. 10 and closed Oct. 14, so I knew I had to get in shape quick with three months before to prepare. I doubled my training program, emphasizing cardio, legs and losing weight.
I also shot over 250 rounds through my new .300 Mag equipped with a tactical scope. I practiced hard to ensure I'd make a clean, ethical shot up to 600 yards.
This hunting unit is spectacular, yet brutal, with 14,000-foot peaks, and little to no vehicle access. I had to be prepared for all scenarios, even worst case ones. Three months of physical training, research and practice gave me confidence to come out of the Rockies with a great story.
The Ram Hunt
With 18-hour days spent getting ready for the trip, I only took one scouting trip to the area, but decided to do this hunt myself without a guide.
I set up a base camp near Twin Lakes a week before the season started, hoping to find a group of bachelor rams and stay with them. That would give me time to scout and harvest a mature goat in the same fashion.
Of course, my plans didn't turn out that way. The days of searching tore my boots to shreds. I began to question not hiring an experienced guide.
I remembered one of my art clients saying he didn't get his stone ram until the ninth day of his hunt, and that was with a guide.
My ninth day slipped by without anything close to success. I was lucky to even see sheep every third day of intensive hunting. Maybe I should have hired a helicopter or at least gone to church once in the past 12 years. I was getting desperate.
After three weeks in the field, I hadn't seen one legal ram. To amuse myself, I started to name all the 112 ewes and non-legal rams I'd found in the unit.
After gaining a full respect for the terrain, observing wildlife including lions and bears, despite blinding rain, lightning bolts, fog, sleet, bruising hail, snow and gale force winds, I decided it was time to harvest a mountain goat before the season closed.
And, I had no real preference for a Billy or nanny at this point.
But soon, a small but dedicated support team showed up at my base camp - Carl Bagwell, known as Bags, who was my high school art teacher and a seasoned sheep hunter, and Jon Moore, an outdoor gear specialist and accomplished big bull elk hunter.
My spirits were lifted after a night around the campfire with good friends and a feast, which featured a marinated elk loin.
I didn't realize how hungry I was until I'd eaten the rest of the meat well after my friends had finished.
I told a story about meeting a sightseeing couple who'd parked their SUV next to my truck on Independence Pass. They said this was God's country, but I told them, "God's country is where corn grows. The devil lives in these mountains. Just try existing in them."
My plan for the next day was to head up to a saddle where I thought I'd catch mountain goats crossing. Bags, who was 79 years old, was looking for sheep from all available vantage points near camp while Jon and I headed for the pass.
I lured Jon by saying it would take only an hour to hike up to a glacier lake full of cutthroat trout. He needed incentive since he was recovering from the flu. It actually took six hours of hiking to reach my preset spike camp at 11,800 feet.
I left camp after lunch, while Jon stayed behind to search for oxygen and glass for game.
I spotted a nice nanny that afternoon that was somewhat accessible without the assistance of rock climbing gear.
I decided to make a fast, two hour stalk to the opposite hillside. As I pulled and crawled up a sparsely vegetated granite mountain, I thought how foolish I was to not fill my water canteens in a stream that was only 1,000 extra feet away.
One aspect of goat hunting is that you're always out of water, so there's no point in complaining.
I eased into final position and stuffed some green shrub in my mouth, hoping to get a drop of water out of it.
I chambered a round, placed paper towels in my ears and ranged the goat at 285 yards, uphill. I secured my rifle rest between two boulders and watched the goat feed until it was completely broadside.
Five hours after a single trigger squeeze, I stumbled back to camp with the first load of fresh nanny goat. My shins were battered from countless falls, and every muscle in my body screamed for food and rest.
When I arrived, I was shocked to see Jon with one eye as big as a golf ball. He asked if I had any Benadryl because he was allergic to the nuts in his trail mix. I did not have any, so it took me two more days and several Miller Lites to pack out the rest of the meat and spike gear by myself.
When we got back to base camp, Bags reported no luck in spotting sheep. With the goat tag filled and my friends departing soon, it was time to get back to the lonesome task of finding a bighorn ram.
Looking for a Ghost
With two weeks remaining until the season closed, I was physically exhausted and mentally drained. I pushed as hard as I could every day, focusing on keeping a good mental attitude and enjoying every day, whether or not I found a ram.
On a typical day, I'd drive 45 miles to various locations in my pickup, then another 17 miles on an ATV, then hike 10 miles to high ground where I could use my optics to spot sheep.
Despite the added weight, my 20x60x86 spotting scope never left my back.
To stay hydrated, I drank from streams or snow melt through a filtration system. I ate meals consisting of anything sugar-based or in a bag, but also ate foods that nature provided, snacking on rose hips, wild berries, or the occasional slow moving grasshopper on the snow crust. I'd lost 20 pounds and simply could not carry enough food.
At night I'd reflect on the day's events and make sketches. Then I'd call my family and friends to let them know I was still alive, and try to dry my clothes and get a good night sleep. Even though I hadn't found a ram, I'd discovered a sense of purpose and lots of humility.
I started to think that I'd never find a ram, but this trip was giving me clarity on life's priorities: family and good friends.
Living away from civilization in sheep country for weeks allows one to appreciate nature and find peace on her terms. It is that peace that always brings me back to who I am. Nature is brutally honest all the time.
With two days left in the season, I returned to my truck in the dark to find I had three deflated tires.
There had been a black bear problem at base camp. I hoped I wouldn't find the bear eating my food and sleeping in my bed. I had attempted to cure the bear problem with a half-jar of cayenne pepper mixed with chicken grease.
Without a day of rest in 38 days, I questioned my sanity. In this country, my main goal was to stay alive. For more than a month, I'd focused on every single treacherous step and lived up to my mantra, "Don't do anything stupid."
Back in civilization, I still remind myself of this.
Bags phoned me that night to report of his continued efforts to find me a ram. My old friend had been busy networking through his connections with guides, biologists and wardens. Unfortunately, his best tips were locations I'd been patrolling religiously.
Bags' wife, Cherie, was helping, too. I had her key in four last-ditch location options in her computer search. On the very first option I named, I heard her shouting excitedly in the background.
The Final Push
The next morning, I managed to pump enough air into my tires to get to the nearest service station. I was angry that I was late, arriving at the trailhead Cherie had located at 9 a.m.
Contemplating the severity of the unfriendly valley, my mind was unwilling to force my body up that nasty trail for a fifth time. I wanted to go some place that did not require walking more than 10 feet to glass for sheep, so I fired up my ATV.
Then, a mystical intuition caught me in the back of my head like a stone from a slingshot. It simply said "no."
I humbly conceded, turned around, gritted my teeth and marched uphill, realizing I'd been in the mountains way too long. The woods were actually talking to me now.
As I came to a final split in the trail, I was astonished at the short time it took me to get there. I'd grown mountain legs! This same hike in the first week had taken me three hours. Today, it was one.
I thought maybe I was turning into a goat, not only in my facial beard and odor, but my legs and lungs, as well.
When I arrived at the trailhead split, I went with my gut and chose a steep, granite, icy and non-existent trail over the nice stair-stepping path made by glory hikers. I ignored my mind's complaints.
After reaching the summit of my intended mountain by 1:48 p.m., I grazed on snow and a single fun-size chocolate bar. Then I looked around for berries or insects to forage on.
I reminded myself this was my last chance to fill my tag, and quickly regained focus on glassing.
My first look revealed what appeared to be fresh tracks in the snow two air miles away and across a wide valley.
After careful study I determined they could only be fresh sheep tracks because of the location, group number and feeding pattern.
My jaw dropped and a few foul words slipped out, because the tracks lead to three rams in the distance. One was the biggest ram I'd ever seen in my life.
Instinctively, I blocked out thoughts of the animal's horns and began plotting a strategy that would put me in range for a shot.
It was then I realized I was not a stranger to their land anymore. This group of rams was in their home, but I was in my kitchen.
It was 2 p.m. and the sheep were still moving and slowly feeding. I had no time to lose, so I broke my pre-determined rules of never starting a chase after noon, and never going after moving sheep.
But with tomorrow being the last day, I knew if I could only make it up that next ridge, I might catch them.
I stripped away all unnecessary clothing, emptied my pack to only the essentials and plowed into the last valley before ascending the ridge. I planned to move light and fast with only my emergency GPS, bullets, range finder and binos.
I started the climb as a well-adapted animal, giving no rest or mental recognition of fatigue as I drove each step, up, up, up, with no allowance for pain. The sun wasn't going to stop falling.
I could taste an overload of acid in my mouth, yet I told myself to move, move, move!
This was my only chance. I had a lot of vertical ground to cover, and I was willing to push my heart, lungs and legs past known limits. Eventually, I made the summit and acted on a sound plan of closing the gap to 1,000 yards and getting into position.
As I pushed through the snow drifts and skipped from boulder to boulder in true sheep-like fashion, I continued to monitor the swirling winds, hoping they'd provide me a touch of luck. I eased ever closer to the bowl of rams, always cautious to keep my eyes up and out for where the rams might suddenly appear.
As in a scene from a horror movie, I glassed the talus slides and saw a ram looking straight at me from some 700 yards out.
I slowly sank into the snow and studied it through my riflescope to see if he was the big ram, but it was only a half-curl ram. I hoped the other two hadn't seen me. Its tracks told me it had been watching me for a long time as I plundered over the bluff.
After several minutes passed, the young ram gave away the position of its companions by looking downhill, then back at me, then downhill again. I knew they couldn't see me from where they were.
The young ram left me no choice. I had to start crawling for the next 300 yards to mimic anything except being a human.
I crawled through snowdrifts and over windblown rocks, taking care to keep my binoculars and rangefinder zipped tight in my jacket. It was imperative I keep snow from clogging the lenses.
I reached a vantage point and spotted two more rams bedded some 300 yards directly across from me.
With full expectation of seeing a large ram sunning itself in the waning sunlight, I was disappointed to see only two small rams. I crawled another 100 yard and came to the edge of a cliff and was able to see the entire valley below.
With the younger rams still watching me with curiosity, and the other two rams oblivious to my presence, I continued to crawl using a small ridge for cover.
Before creeping the final 5 feet to get into position, I first removed the plastic bag and duct tape from my gun barrel, chambered a round, placed some tissue into my ears and got my rangefinder ready.
With the grace of a turtle, my rifle made a slow appearance over the cliff but I saw only one other small ram 352 yards out. I was relieved to have made it to this point without the sheep picking up my scent from the shifting wind.
I settled in and glassed each rock to make sure it was really a rock. Within a few minutes two rocks turned out to be bedded rams hidden in the shadows, 277 yards below.
Both were facing away, and all I could see was the back of their horns, but one was massively heavy. I wasn't sure if this was the big ram, but this one captured my full attention. I estimated the wind speed, elevation and shot placement on the bedded ram in case it stood up and was the one I'd hoped for.
Still, I continued to survey the landscape for other hidden sheep.
After 20 minutes of lying in the snow, I started to get hypothermia and began to shake. But, intuition whispered the big ram would stand at any moment.
I secured my final rock steady rest and, within a few seconds, the ram rocked to one side and pushed his heavy body up, stretching his back and giving me a clear view of a full curl and heavy horns.
This was it! Time to take the shot before the gig was up.
I settled the crosshairs in front of his hind flank due to a heavy crosswind, controlled my breathing and squeezed through my target.
I heard the bullet strike with a clean thud.
I chambered another round and saw my ram bolt from its perch, stumbling over the talus slope, then folding and sliding down the hill, trailed by a red streak in the snow.
I kept the scope trained on his shoulders for minutes, looking for signs of movement. I'd come too far and worked too hard to have anything go wrong because of impatience.
Reality began to sink in that this epic journey was over.
I unloaded my rifle and watched the five remaining rams standing 70 yards from the dead ram. I realized I'd gotten their leader.
A flood of emotions raced through me, from dry heaves to the shakes, even a bit of moisture in my eyes, knowing this moment would never come again.
There came a bittersweet sadness, too, from searching so hard for 39 days, all ending with the brief pull of a trigger. The loss of life of an animal I had grown to admire and respect was something I didn't take lightly.
The remaining rams saw me hacking like a bear on all fours and trying to recover from suppressed adrenaline. They blew country.
I made my approach through the sea of boulders, a minefield of snow hidden crevasses.
I gave an offering of tobacco and said a prayer of thanks as I placed my hand on the ram's chest. I later learned, with an official B&C score of 177 7/8", it's likely the largest ram ever taken in that unit.
Then, I took photos and made a few detailed sketches before started the acrobatic task of caping and butchering a ram on a steep mountainside.
With the quarters safely secured in a rock snow cache, I started a careful, heavy descent through leg snapping terrain in the dark.
I safely reached my truck by 9:30 p.m. and started to make phone calls, first to my family, then to Bags and his wife. I jokingly told Cherie I was assigning her the task of finding me a good woman.
Editor's Note: To see Chris Schiller's incredible sculptures visit www.cwschiller.com.