Hunting Head On – Colorado Bighorns, By Andrew Schaefer & Bryan Gwinn

Editor’s Note: A twist on the classic hunting tale, this is the story of a single hunt for Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, told through the lens of two different hunters. 

“Still-hunting the bighorn is always a toilsome and laborious task… No other kind of hunting does as much to bring out the good qualities, both moral and physical, of the sportsmen who follow it. If a man keeps at it, it is bound to make him both hardy and resolute; to strengthen his muscles and fill out his lungs.” Theodore Roosevelt

Our first day hunting together we spotted the old ram that we would name “Maximus” for his battered horns and bruised body. The perils of living in sheep country I guess. Of course, we could step back 6 months when a simple text message came from Bryan with a picture of a sheep tag. Even through his text message, I could sense the excitement and sheer shock of what showed up in his mailbox. He claims to have opened the envelope expecting to find the refund check from CPW. We could even go back years before when we first met and talked about Bryan’s newfound love of elk hunting in Colorado, and discussed many times planning a hunt together. As life goes, we hadn’t yet gotten around to making that hunt a reality. 

That first day started before sunrise, but the story of this hunt didn’t begin until the sun went down that night. We couldn’t have had a more stereotypical day of hunting. Wake up in the dark, eat breakfast burritos, drive somewhere, get out of the truck, start hiking. While it may sound mundane there was excitement and nervousness in both of us. Having never hunted together we weren’t sure what to expect from each other, let alone what to expect from a sheep hunt. Would I be holding him back? Would our hunting “styles” clash with each other? Was he more aggressive? Would I say the wrong thing? Would I accidentally spook an animal that we worked so hard to find? 

Bryan: To be honest I’d previously given not one thought to sheep hunting. Never dreamed it, desired it, and knew hardly anyone who had ever tried it. I was just putting in for points because my hunting partner, Drew, had been and I figured by the time I had 20 points I’d have a hankering to try it out. So when a glossy blue tag fell out of a CPW envelope instead of my anticipated $247 refund check I just stared at it; confused, wheels spinning. Then it struck me. “Babe, I need to tell you something… I drew a sheep tag.” “Oh, cool” she replied. Neither of us appreciated the gravity of what just happened. 

A few months earlier the New York Times had run a piece on sheep hunting that profiled the who’s who in the industry and highlighted the link between a sheep hunt’s prestige and the high-dollar conservation efforts to restore the animal to prominence. When I pulled the tag I went back and re-read it and the quotes haunted me: “as far as sheep hunting being a rich man’s sport, that’s absolutely true”; “I’ve had moose tags and I’d trade them all in for a sheep tag”; “I’ve been putting in for a sheep tag since I was 12 years old and I’ve never gotten one, and I’m 67”; “For the true hunter, you can’t buy them behind the fence… You have to climb the mountain… Anybody can kill a bear if they sit on the beach or along the stream long enough… You can’t do that with sheep. You have to go and get it.” I was completely daunted. The pressure to capitalize on this opportunity or face lifelong regret hung in my consciousness and taunted every free-thinking moment. The learning curve seemed enormous. I’d been hunting elk and deer in the backcountry for a decade and felt like I had barely scratched the surface, and now I was supposed to do a 6-month crash course on bighorns and trudge out there and kill one? Plus, I was the first class to try a new December season for my unit – so all previous data was irrelevant. And, it wasn’t like I didn’t have anything else to do! Our daughter had just turned one, I was five months into a new job, we were selling a house and doing all the things that people normally do when they didn’t know they had a sheep hunt coming up. Have you ever tried to clear your calendar for December? 

Soon, however, I was fully saturated. I prioritized my workouts, consumed podcasts, websites, and talked to anyone who knew anything about sheep. I was up-sold big time at the bow shop (who can argue with the clerk’s air-tight logic that “it is a once-in-a-lifetime tag, isn’t it?”). I flung arrows as much as I could. I even wondered whether sourcing a first edition of Jack Connor’s “Sheep and Sheep Hunting” on eBay would provide talismanic guarantees of success. As the date approached I was filled with a mix of dread and excitement, but mostly just wanted to get on with it. 

My worries were quickly assuaged as our first day together slowly unfolded. We made our way from the rocky edges and steep cliffs back into the forest to cover more ground. We spent a lot of time looking through binoculars, which is one piece of advice more seasoned sheep hunters had given us. The days are short in December which meant by 2:00 we were already planning our route back to the truck. But as we discussed the merits of backtracking or just using the “shortest distance between two points method” I noticed some movement. About 250 yards away on the opposite slope were two sheep. A small half-curl ram that was deferential to another ram that most certainly had to be the old man of the mountain. The small ram was almost respectful in the way he followed and practically guarded the older ram. At one point we had to do a double-take as we watched the large ram lower his head and fall asleep. Something I had never witnessed an animal do.

My thoughts then went to Bryan. What did he want to do? Attempt a stalk tonight or come back in the morning? Was he going to be aggressive on this hunt or take his time? It was the first day of a 31 day season so his options were open. As we talked through the scenarios it was obvious that this animal already meant a lot to him and he was ready to go after him. But the light was fading, the hillside was steep and this stalk would be arduous. After about an hour of closely watching Bryan, I could tell by his body language he knew the stalk had ended. Like a mountain climber getting to the crux but realizing the clouds were too dark and smartly turning back. When we met back up I was expecting a discouraged Bryan. But he wasn’t. In fact, he was heartened by the opportunity and I could tell his confidence had only grown after getting inside of 100 yards. In this case, his stalk hadn’t been foiled by his own doing but rather by the chance location of where we initially spotted this ram. What I didn’t realize was that this stalk hadn’t ended with the darkness, instead, it laid the foundation for what would continue the next day. 

Bryan:  Without lowering his binos Andrew remarked, “Oh, there’s one right there.” He said it so nonchalantly that I assumed he was kidding, so when a massive Ram came into focus I was stunned. I replied, “uh, so we should probably go after this one, right?” Although I had it on good authority that large rams holed up in these narrows, some major road construction and CDOT regulations had prevented me from doing much of the scouting I had intended. So this was the first bighorn I’d actually seen in the unit. Was I being punk’d?

He was so regal – with massive horns broomed three-quarters around. Large chunks of horn were missing from the crown he had defended for over a decade. But I was very aware that we were now in his Coliseum. 

Between us were a clump of trees, some shrubs, and a valley full of talus. I made it to the trees just fine but then dared to venture across the open scree. I spent a few hours slinking around like the Pink Panther making slow progress over naked terrain. Several times, the ram looked in my direction, feigned interest, and moved a few steps farther away. At the rate I was going I was encouraged to have cut the distance to 100 yards. But the sun was going down and realistically I wasn’t getting into range that day.  

At that moment the hunt started. But remember when I said the story didn’t start until the end of our first day together? As Roosevelt said, “no other kind of hunting does as much to bring out the good qualities, both moral and physical of the sportsmen who follow it.” Well, the end of this day certainly tested our mettle. As the sun set, we knew backtracking would involve hours of hiking up and down steep terrain so we opted for the “shortest distance route.” However there needs to be an addendum, something to the effect of “a major Colorado river may flow between you and that straight line.” We put our heads together in an attempt to come up with a smart solution to the final 50 feet of our “straight line.” As the darkness deepened we realized that our only option was the simplest: boots off and pants rolled up. I can tell you that rivers are quite cold in December and our headlamps were no match for the murkiness of the water. As we got across the river, threw our boots back on and made it up the bank there was a palpable buzz. At that moment we substantiated our merits to each other and our toughness as sheep hunters.

The next morning Drew joined our hunting party and we climbed up to a spot that we hoped would give us a vantage point above where we had seen the old ram the day before. The lack of elevation was more than made up for with the steepness, but we did get to a high point. Six eyes can make quick work of a mountainside and within an hour we spotted the small ram from the day before. We assumed that the old ram had to be close, unfortunately, we couldn’t spot him. Having three sets of eyes and legs makes an immense difference when trying to locate something you know is there. We split up for a few hours to glass from multiple different vantage points hoping that the old ram wasn’t secretly watching our every move. From another ridge, I spotted him, then raced back to let Bryan know which way to go. He set off down the mountain making the majority of the stalk without even seeing the ram. His confidence from the night before was apparent in his deliberate but measured pace. Which was in stark contrast to how the stalk eventually unfolded.

Bryan:  I moved down the cliffs with as much speed as I could safely negotiate and got to a point where I was about 90 yards from the young ram. Still having no idea where Maximus was, I wanted to be near enough to the young one to increase my odds of intercepting my target, while giving enough distance to the grazing youngster to remain flexible on my approach. I settled in on a little outcropping above the young ram. The ground was relatively flat and I could rely on a small tree in front of me and vias camo patterned rock face behind me. I stopped and wondered what I would do next.

To be a witness to the hunt was quite exhilarating. We had no control over the ram, or Bryan, or the mountain… We could only watch from above and enjoy whatever unfolded. At one point Drew said, “this is like watching a hunting show on TV!” He was right. He and I knew the approximate location of the old ram in relation to Bryan but we also knew that Bryan couldn’t yet see the ram. I remember the moment when the ram crested over a small ridge and was only 60 yards from Bryan. I remember watching Bryan through the binoculars and realizing the moment HE saw the ram. At that point, he was so close and the ram seemed to be slowly continuing his line towards Bryan. It seemed like a shot was imminent. But that old ram hadn’t lived that long with reckless abandon, his age and obvious hardships had calloused him to the difficulties of life in “sheep country.” Just like all other animals he had a sixth sense that told him something was amiss. His pace slowed and eventually he locked on to Bryan or at least what he realized to be something out of place. I remember watching Bryan freeze in his tracks and begin a stare down that eventually morphed into a standoff. The temperature was warm for a December day but the cloudless sky intensified the rays of the sun. I remember watching Bryan’s face get more red as the sun relentlessly shone on him. I could only hope that he had stopped in a comfortable standing position because the seconds turned into minutes turned into…

Bryan: Maximus crested the horizon eye-level to my perch. The serendipity of it all took me off guard, but I had to move fast. I ranged a rock a few paces in front of him that he would inevitably pass. 60 yards. I knocked an arrow and positioned my body. My muscles tensed. I got the taste of adrenaline in my mouth. I applied some tension to my bowstring in preparation to draw back. He walked to the rock, stopped, squared up and we locked eyes. I froze. 

When I say he “squared up” I mean it. He wasn’t “quartering” in the least. I was looking at a Dodge hood ornament. I didn’t move a muscle. “Let the camouflage work,” I thought. “Be patient” the old-timers had counseled. And that’s how it remained. 5 minutes passed. 10 minutes. It has to be 20 by now? My hand fell asleep so I slowly relaxed the tension from my release. 30 minutes. A far-off semi applied its jake brake and the ram glanced in its direction – so I shifted my weight to the other foot to allow my circulation to resume. 40 minutes. The tree that had previously provided cover was no help by now and I could feel the sun beating on my face. 45 minutes. I still hadn’t moved a muscle. It was getting ridiculous. Had I missed my calling as one of those guys on the street, statuesque on a box covered in gold paint and working for tips? How long will this go on? I started wargaming how I could force the decisive moment. Could I thread a shot past those horns into the vitals? Not on my best day. Settle for a frontal shot? Desperate and irresponsible. Should I bum rush him? Too Hollywood. 

Throughout our standoff, he would periodically lift his front hoof – hold it suspended in the air – and then set it back down as if favoring an old injury. At each episode, my spirits would swell with anticipation that he was finally ready to end the stalemate and position himself for a shot. By now over an hour had passed without either of us blinking. He lifted his hoof up once again, folded it, and then bedded down. 

The old ram had stopped near the shade of a juniper tree while he did his best to wait out Bryan, hoping he would make a mistake and show himself. But age and weary bones got the best of the ram and he laid down. At that point, I didn’t know what to think. I could only sit and put myself in Bryan’s boots. Were his legs shaking? Could he feel the sun burning his face? Was he nervous or calm? I continued watching Bryan through the binoculars to try and get a sense of what he was expecting, but again I could tell that patience won out. He could have tried to slip an arrow in but he had spent so much time watching that ram he knew that patience was truly going to be a virtue. Then all of a sudden the old ram stood up noticing a lone ewe that had snuck in. Even for that old ram, his most basic instincts seemed to kick in. I continued watching Bryan through the binoculars when very quickly I yelled to Drew “he just pulled his bow back!” No sooner had I uttered those lines the arrow was gone from his bow. My eyes darted back to the ram to see the arrow hit its mark. All of the slowness we had been witness to was washed away as the blood from that ram coated the rocks. He fell to the ground and without the traction of his hooves was unable to keep himself from sliding down the mountain. His already scarred horns leaving a few more pieces on the mountain for good measure. I looked back to Bryan hoping he had seen the events unfold after the shot — the look on his face told me everything. 

Bryan: I had just been through a grueling stand-off with the ram but now he was comfortably resting in his bed – eyes still fixed on me. He was assured of his advantages – time, terrain, distance – and was using them all against me. I remained still as my inner thoughts contended for my next play. Pretending to be part of the landscape in perpetuity seemed out of the question, but what else could I do? Eventually, I settled on a theory of our encounter: whereas the previous day I had been the pursuer and prodded his retreat, today he had approached me and had eventually relaxed in my presence. Operating on those assumptions I revealed myself from the cliff and crept further out on my perch to a spot where the rock that had previously read 60 yards now sat comfortably at 40. I set up shop and waited, again.

Sometime later I heard a rock slide behind me and I pivoted around to find a ewe that was as surprised to see me as I was to see her. She was making her way down a ridge and across the scree in the direction of the ram. I knew that this would be the wild card I needed to break the deadlock. 

The next time his hoof moved it was to lift himself from his bed and resume his familiar posture. But now the ewe had given me the advantage: triangulation. He took a bite of grass, looked up, and advanced one step to face the ewe, broadside. I drew and steadied. I went black. Then I saw red. He careened off the ledge, tumbled and skidded down the valley of loose rock that separated us and into a thicket of brambles that caught the ram, just as the thicket had done for Abraham. 

“Still hunting the bighorn is always a toilsome and laborious task…”

At that moment nothing TR ever said was more true. The stalk had taken hours to cover a few hundred yards. It was undoubtedly still hunting at its pinnacle. I could only hope that the adrenaline would be enough to cover up the nerves he had been feeling the past few hours. I was on the edge of my seat (or rock as it was) so I could only imagine what Bryan was feeling. Drew and I made it down to him and the ram as quickly as you can descend a steep rocky mountainside. But I also wanted to make sure that Bryan had time to savor the moment himself. Everyone feels something different in the moments after killing an animal and I was glad he had that experience to himself. Even if just for a few minutes.

Bryan: That same December weekend 17 years prior my dad died. I grew up tree-stand hunting whitetail with him back in Illinois, but the summer before he passed we were day-dreaming about a western elk hunt. As I descended toward the ram I welled with emotion as appreciation for the experience overwhelmed me. The privilege of just getting to do this, let alone matching wits with an archetypal specimen of the West’s premier species, outstripped my wildest expectations for this hunt. My dad would definitely have been there. And he was.  

When I encountered Maximus the familiar mix of awe and sorrow over a kill was overcome by anew attribute: kinship. He and I had sparred for many hours over the last few days and I revered this animal more than any other I had encountered. When Andrew and Drew joined me, we quickly removed him from the thicket onto a more-dignified position on a nearby dais. As we worked into the night, I started thinking about how to honor this animal long after the freezer went empty. There was only one way I knew fitting, and that was to display his mount prominently in his rightful pose: head-on. 

When we finally got down to Bryan we were all a little speechless. We had formulated a plan the night before but the shock of it actually materializing was just too much to believe. The adrenaline and excitement were certainly enough to get us through the process of pictures and breaking down the animal. Our knives working together with the knowledge that the sun was going down fast and the darkness would not provide any respite on the side of this mountain. A flashlight may illuminate the path ahead but even the brightest beam ends at blackness.

Keeping at it was our only choice as we descended back towards the river hoping that we wouldn’t be cliffed out. As we finally stood next to the moonlit river we felt safe knowing that the steepness was behind us. The added weight and memory of the river crossing the day before made this one more difficult but easier at the same time. The coldness of the water and crispness of the air were invigorating but the retelling of our day was even more lively. 

Posted by Nolan Osborne