Planning a Do-it-Yourself Bighorn Sheep Hunt
A bighorn sheep hunt is a dream for many hunters. Indeed, in the mind of this hunter, bighorn sheep hunting is the ultimate. While at our leisure sitting next to the fireplace or while lying in bed at night we may dream and think of hunting sheep, the actual `doing’ of it is not to be taken lightly.
A bighorn sheep hunt is a serious matter. Below are some important ingredients, thoughts, and comments, wrought from the crucible of a recent successful hunt. A bighorn sheep hunt is a 'once-in-a-lifetime' experience. Proper planning and preparation are needed to make that once-in-a-lifetime hunt a dream come true.
Get in shape. Start now. If you wait until draw results, it will be too late. If you wait until the year of your hunt, it is probably too late. A lifetime hunt takes a lifetime getting ready for, or at least a good portion thereof. By the time we get drawn, most of us have been sitting behind a desk for too long. Assume that the hunt will demand more of you physically than you have ever produced to date, maybe far more.
As a matter of routine we start climbing a 1600 vertical foot canyon near town as soon as winter waterfowl season closes. Pick steep terrain, if possible, and loose, steep terrain is even better. Do your climbing in all temperatures and conditions while using less and less water if possible.
Steep terrain uses different muscles than flat terrain. You’ll find out which parts of your lower body provide the brakes for going downhill. Rugged terrain will use and strain, it seems, everything. You may be in good general shape, but if you are not used to climbing, you will be very sore. We maintain that the only way to get in shape for climbing is to do just that: climb!
Recruit a Team. Sheep generally inhabit country that you do not want to be in alone. Find out who among your friends is willing and crazy enough to accompany you on a hunt, if you get a tag. Preferably get someone who has hunted sheep successfully in the past.
Its important that you find out how serious they are about the hunt. A sheep hunt will probably require their vacation time. Are they willing to make that kind of commitment? Oversize your team a bit to accommodate any last minute dropouts. In my opinion you will want as many eyes as possible on your hunt, and if you get a ram, you will want several strong backs.
Put in for the Controlled Hunt. Bighorn sheep tags are obtained (in the states) by controlled hunt draw, auction, or lottery/raffle. Rules vary from state to state, in some states everyone starts on equal footing every year, while in others you must accumulate points to get in position for a tag. Some states even offer a blend of raffles/lotteries and limited draws.
In general the best hunts have the most difficult odds of drawing (1 in 100, or worse); the more difficult hunts have better odds (1 in 5 or better). Auction tags may go for tens of thousands of dollars; raffle tags may go to the person who buys thousands of tickets, though not always. Controlled hunt draw tags are obtained through the state fish and game departments. Bighorn raffle and auction tags are administered by cooperation of state game departments and local chapters of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS). The raffle and auction tags are out of the price range for many of us – and so are outfitted hunts – thus the motivation to do it yourself is high.
Get Physical Information. Get as much physical information as possible for the unit you will hunt. Unless you are putting in for raffle and lottery hunts, here is where you may begin to spend at least a modest amount of money. U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps can be purchased here. Satellite imagery is available here. Printable topographic maps are also available here. If you print maps from your desktop computer you will need to use waterproof paper or laminate before you go into the field. Maps in digital format may be purchased here as well as other sources.
Determine Access Options. Bighorn sheep hunt units may be in the wildest parts of your state and its important that you determine how to access your unit in advance. Typical access might be by jeep road, boat, backcountry airstrips, pack animal, and/or foot. If in wilderness areas there will be limitations on vehicle usage. Wilderness in Idaho means, among other things, no all-terrain-vehicles, no mountain bikes, and even no hang gliders.
Get the Tag. Celebrate. Throw a party. But now you really have to get to work. Hopefully you're already in motion. Throw away your car keys and ride your bike everywhere. You can't be in too good of shape for sheep hunting.
Go on a Shakedown Trip(s). You cannot afford to have a sheep hunt bust because of unknown flaws in equipment and people. Equipment gets old and brittle sitting in a closet. Any equipment you think you'll use on your sheep hunt take and use beforehand.
If your friends can't hack your shakedown trip, then you don't want them on a sheep hunt - period. Bighorn sheep don’t tend to lay down alongside maintained trails, so do an off-trail trip. Some people who hike fine on trail systems can’t hack off trail stuff. A shakedown trip will also enlighten you to the difference between exercising lightly versus climbing around with a pack. Don't even think about coming on a hunt with me without broken in boots and without having gone on at least one 1600 ft "power climb". Some people who talk big tend to decompose in something like a sheep hunt, but some other people might surprise you and do well. The best accompaniment on a sheep hunt is someone who has done it before. If you live at low elevation and you’ll be hunting high, make sure you can accommodate the difference in air density.
Scout Your Hunt Area. This may not be easy as many of the hunt areas are a long way from civilization (not manageable on a weekend trip). Consider chartering a plane and fly the area, seriously. For several hundred dollars you get a good look, you may not see sheep, but you'll see what you're up against. An area that looks good on the map may in real life have just been burned by fire and washed away. There is a chance you’ll realize you’re in over your head and you’ll decide to go with an outfitter, or (gulp) may even want a refund on your tag.
Planning. Logistics, Logistics, Logistics. You can't over plan a sheep hunt. Consider: access in, access out, conditions of roads, last gas station, supplies, ammo, food, tents, stoves, water. What will you do if you get an animal? How will you get it out without meat spoilage or hair slippage?
Find out ahead of time how to dress your game and how to deal with the animal for mounting. Talk with a taxidermist or two beforehand and find one you can trust. Once you start talking about mounting an animal, all kinds of people will want a try at your animal. My once-in-a-lifetime mount will only go to someone good.
What are you going to do for water? We take small water filters and filter our water. Backpacking stoves are nice if you're on the move or in weather, and may be a must if you want to cook something and there is a fire restriction in effect. We planned on backpacking in and if we didn't get an animal we'd backpack out. If we did get an animal we planned for the possibility to pack it to a backcountry strip and fly it (or it and us) out. You may want to pre-arrange for pack animals and see what arrangements could be made with those who have pack stock in the area. If you have your own stock animals, you can use them to get into, or at least close to, sheep country.
Intelligence. Get as much general information about the species and terrain as possible. I found the state Fish and Game Department quite helpful when it came to trophy species. Try and find out where in your unit you might find the sheep, as they may occupy only a fraction of the total hunt unit. Talk to the fish and game biologist for where to look. Talk to previous hunters, successful and unsuccessful. Hours on the phone, internet, and letter writing will pay off. Know what the animals look like, their tracks, their "sign", their beds, their grazing areas.
During your research, you should begin to get a picture that bighorn sheep habit steep, rugged terrain. They have excellent vision and use it to their advantage. You will find them where they can watch anything and everything that may approach them from below and hear anything approaching them from above or beside (knocking off rocks or clamoring across talus). They are unique in that they use very noticeable (scraped clean) beds. They also tend to stay in an area they find to their liking. They will be close to or in formidable rock formations, where they quickly jump and climb out of reach of their pursuers. Mature rams tend to reside in small bands, apart from ewes, lambs, and smaller rams.
Communication. For person-to-person communication in the field we use FRS radios and we let people staying at home know what frequency we are on, in case they come in for us. Make sure you know how to use your radios and have extra batteries. For emergency and contingency communications we use satellite phones. Satellite phones are expensive but the only reliable communication tool for a good part of the backcountry.
Know your equipment beforehand. Pre-program emergency and important phone numbers into your phone. Emergency numbers might include the county sheriff office or search and rescue. Important numbers might include charter air service, local outfitters, and, obviously, family. (Don’t just count on dialing 911 with a satellite phone – it may get you to an emergency clearing house in another state or country.)
Firearms. For sheep in rough terrain I recommend a rifle light enough to carry easily in one hand, since you should be able to carry it with either hand or by sling. I use my daughter's Ruger M77 Compact, 260 caliber. It's a child's gun. The gun is light and the ammo is light. Some people scoff. Whether or not you ever pull the trigger, you will be carrying the gun through exhausting terrain and conditions. Stainless steel is awesome in case you get into weather. We have also used the Winchester Model 70, Featherweight, in tough terrain. You must have a gun you are comfortable with carrying and shooting. I recommend NOT using a borrowed gun. It is critical that you know the trajectory of your bullet and how it will travel uphill and down. We also took a 10 mm pistol for other critters in the wilderness.
Consider how you will get another gun in on your hunt if you fall and bust the one you are carrying. Consider a range finder. Sheep country is not like the "football field" you used to sight in your rifle. Rough terrain can be deceptive with regard to distance. I find that people over-estimate range in steep terrain. Bighorn rams are big creatures. The 140 grain 260 Remington bullet is adequate for my big game hunting (deer, goat, and sheep). Being able to use the gun you have is probably better than the one arrived upon by debate among all the experts. Besides, the do-it-yourself nature of your undertaking (and your spouse) may prohibit purchasing a firearm for the hunt. I use a fixed 4x Leopold scope. For sheep a higher power or 3-9x variable scope would also be suitable. Don’t borrow a gun just because it has a higher power scope or faster bullet. If you’re not used to a higher power scope, you may not be able to find your target.
Optics. At a minimum, I recommend a spotting scope and a good pair of binoculars for each person. Bushnell optics are affordable and of good quality; Swarovski optics are high end and exceptional quality. For binoculars consider 8x50 or 10x42 plus. For spotting scope consider variable 15- 45x or greater and you will need a tripod for the spotting scope. Get comfortable with optics and tripod beforehand. Perhaps more important than brand of optics – is the discipline to USE them. Use the naked eye first over all terrain, then for closer looks use your binoculars. To scour and pick apart the terrain and to look at individual animals (determine horn size, etc.) use the binoculars and spotting scope. You will probably want to take along camera(s) – stillpic and/or video – to record your hunt. Choose a tripod system that will work for both, if possible.
We used a Leica 800 rangefinder. Practice with it in your terrain. When we got into rams we happened to not have the rangefinder with us, but earlier practice with it at camp paid off.
Food. We use a combination of Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) and other stuff. MREs are heavy but don't need to be cooked. MREs are typically available at army-surplus type stores. We get ours on line here. Our other food is generally dried (grocery-store type). We have found that freeze-dried, backpacker food is only adequate if you divide the number of servings by 2, or 3 (and are hungry enough to eat anything). Freeze-dried food is available at typical sporting goods stores, but tends to be expensive. Have food that you can grab-and-go (trail mix for example). We also use fat-conversion activity bars between meals - they assist the body in burning stored body fat (left over from last Thanksgiving and Christmas). Stored body fat is high energy and you don't have to climb around with a gut full of food.
Spend Time Packing. Pack, and re-pack. Know where everything is. If you are backpacking in, be ruthless, radical, even ridiculous in cutting weight. If you use MREs, open them up, discard un-needed stuff, discard the cardboard box containers, and re-pack, in about one-third the volume. Seriously, if this all goes on your back, you don't want to burn yourself out getting just a few miles down the trial. Be able to spike out from your main camp(s) with a small, light pack with few essentials. I spent literally two days packing my backpack before our hunt. This is difficult in our busy schedules, but last minute preparation may be costly. My buddy loaded up all his stuff in the back of his truck and then put it in his pack at the trailhead. Result? He couldn't lift his pack. We spent another 45 minutes lightening his load. The dangerous part of the ordeal is that to start taking stuff out of your pack at the last minute is that you might leave behind something essential.
Know what weight you can carry comfortably in what kind of terrain. The so-called one-quarter of your body weight rule might be fine for packing along a trail, but off trail might be murder. I weigh 200 pounds and try to keep my pack around or less than 50 pounds, on trail (if in for a week). But if I am climbing looking for sheep, I want it down to 20 or less. We have found that anything over 60 pounds in rough terrain will simply beat you to death. Remember that sheep live in terrain where you’re stumbling around over loose rock and bad terrain is their life insurance. Back country hunting is different than backpacking in that you are also carrying gun and ammo, optics, and if you’re successful, an animal. If you scout your area ahead of season, take in some food and stash it. Consider other ways of getting food and equipment in.
License, Tag, Certification, etc. Make sure you have your license, tag, and other required paperwork. Idaho requires that you show evidence that you attended their bighorn sheep orientation video and different states have different regulations. Some of the regulations may be pretty particular, maybe even peculiar, for the trophy species.
Miscellaneous. Clip your toenails. If you don't, you'll find them jamming into the front of your boots a few days into your trip, and they'll be painful and blue for the duration. Bring some cash. You never know. We ran into a trail crew and they let us borrow a mule to haul out our sheep. We dropped a couple twenty-dollar bills where they were working. They invited us to steak dinner at their camp (sure beats MREs). Make room in your freezer before you leave. Blessings come to the prepared.
Tactics. Always remember, sheep have excellent eyes. Stay off the skylines. Take it slow; use your optics. Get above them. If you are below them, you’ll be looking for the heads of bedded sheep; if you are above them, you can look for full bodies. Early in the season they don’t move much. Glass for animals; look for sign. If you find ewes and lambs, you’re probably at the wrong elevation. If you don't see sign, keep moving. The best sign is their beds; if you find active beds (scraped clean, oval, about 24 inches by 36 inches, clear of vegetation, etc.) – you’re getting close – really close. But be warned, they are the master of their terrain, and if you are into their beds and they get the jump on you, they are off like an artillery shell. They will cover unthinkable terrain in a flash and will be gone.
We found the sheep on quasi-open hillsides with at least 2000 vertical feet elevation difference bottom to top. They really seem to like terrain that was burned in previous years and was more opened up. The best possible mix is good bedding and escape territory (talus and rock outcropping with a good view) not far from water, preferably on the same contour, nice green grass around , and some timber nearby if they want shade or cover.
In conclusion, I think if you take your hunt and these points seriously, you might just get one, though probably no bighorn sheep hunt is a "slam-dunk". I put in for bighorn sheep because I knew it would demand of me everything I have ever learned of the backcountry and of hunting and it did. It stretched me well beyond anything I had previously experienced. I came back a changed person – irrespective of bringing back an animal. I am now irreversibly hooked on bighorn sheep – and have entered what some would call that quiet and mysterious cult of sheep hunters. We may not be outspoken of our feats, but we know what it takes, and we did it.