My first archery ram. Oh, how I dreamed of taking a ram with a bow.
On my pack out this fall I came across a father and son on a horse trail, who told a tale that made my hair stand on end. As I stood hunched over beside them with my 120 pound pack on my back, they recounted watching a hunter trudge down a horse trail heavy with a full load, unaware that a grizzly was following him. It didn’t take long to realize the hunter they’d been watching was me! I never knew the grizzly was there, although I’d heard something in the bush while I sat for a short lived rest by the trail.
Finding success on an archery ram could have come sooner in my life, had I not been rifle hunting on many of my sheep trips. So I can’t call myself a life-long, truly dedicated bow hunter, but either way I have no regrets. The way I saw it when planning for many of those trips, it would have been hell venturing up towards the heavens solo with both a gun and bow while trying to sift through new territory for 12-14 days. That all changed when I purchased the super compact and incredibly light Hoyt Carbon Element – a backpacker’s dream bow and an absolute pleasure to shoot.
As I flew northwest, looking down at the saturated countryside from the recent persistent rains, I pondered if this hunt would be a truly soggy one. The moss was so wet that when we landed to dump more fuel at a remote strip with a side-slope, we skidded to the side enough to slap a few young flexible pines into the wingtip, and shortened a few willows with the propeller!
It was the perfect morning for a flight across such a majestic landscape and I took in the endless beauty of the land I was surveying for the very first time. I think every hunter needs to experience the thrill of soaring with the eagles in a slow moving aircraft on a calm morning amid the crags.
Unloading the aircraft I had quite a pile of gear and grub, enough for 20 days if need be. The area looked very intriguing – I stashed my extra food in a tree and made camp, totally bagged from a week of night shift at work. I threw the heavy pack on my tired body and headed up the mountain. Slippery algae and deep creek crossings slowed my progress but I carried on.
Over the following days I found some sheep tracks, along with some nice moose tracks, a good number of caribou, and several grizzlies. But for sheep, all I found was a half-curl ram that eluded me before I could confirm if he had friends or not. Then came the tough decision: to restock my food from my stash in the tree and cover more of this new territory, or get moved?
It was get moved I did, for a true mountain hunter’s appetite to see new, fabulous country is never satisfied. There is always a greener slope with a bigger ram on the horizon somewhere. So on the 11th day I moved for parts unknown to me once again. The weather had been great so far, with only late afternoon showers and thunderstorms rolling down the valleys.
At my new spot I found some rams after a few days. The first one I wanted was a nice old double broomed ram that I sat on for a day but was unable to make a move. I thought I lost him when I woke from one of those sun drenched naps we all love on the mountainside. I searched and searched and thought he’d moved on, but I eventually found him. He had merely moved 200 yards and bedded down again but he really had this bowl cased out, even in the new spot it was a no go.
A day or so later I got a chance to put a stalk on a younger ram with one broomed horn. I watched from the inside of the tent with the spotting scope (that’s when it’s nice to have a tent with a back door). I suspected he saw me as I began my stalk, as at my last sighting he was within rifle range, with the wind in my favour but he was gone when I took what I hoped would be a final peek at bow range. I realized then it’s not a good idea to set-up camp this close to where the rams are. Later that day I found the original double broomed ram I wanted, once again holding his own in the bowl he controlled. I was back in the action! I put him to bed once again, and attempted to get around a tricky band of cliffs so I could get above him.
Half way there, as I stepped out from behind a huge boulder, we met eye to eye, close enough to see the inside of his nostrils as he flared them in sync with the heaving in and out of his plump mature belly. We both stood there in disbelief. It was the most majestic sight I have ever seen in all my years in the hills, he was barely 15 yards away! Our eyes locked as we waited out each other’s move, until I could not fight off the urge to ease my binos up for a close-up view that lasted a second before he was over the skyline in a single bound with a half curl ram in tow.
I was stunned to find him bedded later that day on the far side of the bowl, as I had traversed below skyline to see the backside of his domain. I was tempted to try a futile stalk from above with mostly noisy rock, but made the long trip back to the tent once again.
The next day I skirted the skyline once again and never saw him. I poked over the backside a little further than I did the day before and was back in business – only this time with a bigger ram! He was bedded inside bow range from a chimney below some rim rock. I ran along the plateau full tilt above him and out of sight most of the way. It was not long before I was picking a chute down a chimney and kicking off my rubber boots to slink down the noisy rock in my blue bama socks! An excellent mid-day updraft felt so reassuring, but was gusty at times. The next thing I knew I was lowering myself over a ledge that was harder to go down than up and suddenly I was 50 yards away from him.
I peeked over a rock face at a 50 degree angle, it was surreal and had all happened within an hour of my first sighting of him. He was still bedded so the cards were in my favour. It was now time to calm down and make a plan. The plan was to wait for him to stand, slide out onto the big rock I was peeking around and shoot from a sitting position to lessen the effect of the gusty wind.
Finally he stood and saw me right away. He watched perplexed as I slid while at full draw onto the rock on the cliff above him, but when I aimed my lower bow limb hit the rock. I was then forced to stand and shoot while the ram stood in awe of the growing figure before him. I waited for a lull in the wind gusts, held low to compensate for the angle, but my math teacher failed me, and the shot went way high. The ram bolted and stopped to look back, I estimated once again and missed again, and he bolted for good.
I was lucky enough to find one arrow, and was very ashamed of my poor pre-hunt practice at these critical steep shots. I made the long, thirsty trip back to the tent with a case of cotton mouth and feeling ashamed and mad at myself. I just blew the best hunting opportunity of my life. I dragged my heels into camp that night, and drank water like a fish to drown my sorrows.
It was decision time again. I decided to break camp and spend a long day circling the mountain to see if the old broomed ram was still around. I saw only a couple young rams but witnessed a very nice 6×6 elk rubbing the velvet from his crown.
First thing the next morning, I could not believe my eyes! I looked down the mountain and there was the big ram I missed, at the tree line. I wasted no time scampering just out of sight down the slope to the right along the top of the plateau, only to find near endless drop-offs and chimneys. Finally, the last possible chute allowed my safe passage down its treacherous grind, and I was within rifle range of the grand old ram once again!
I left the spotting scope up for a direction pointer to the rams, as I would be heading into tall willow and trees. I also I removed my boots and GPS’d them, and watched as the rams bedded downhill deeper into the spruce trees where they would be very hard to see from any angle.
It was day 19 now, the wind was squirrelly, and I was running low on food and running out of cards to play if I was going to fulfill this dream. As I approached the band, I could smell the sheep…and then the wind swirled once again. The final sighting was their white backsides traversing the opposite mountain, stopping only to look back at the broken hearted fool in the brush a mile away.
To pour salt in my ever growing wounds I could not find my boots! The GPS said I was 7m away from them, but I could see no familiar trees and had to start snapping off branches as I started making circles. The GPS ended up being out by 150m, not the norm for a waypoint, but anything is possible with technology! I sure was relieved to see those green gumboots let me tell you!
I was deflated, I had blown it again. I should have backed off and waited for better wind. How could I be so foolish? It was a long slow hike back up to the tent. After I packed up the tent there was one last ridge to peek over as I made my way back towards my pick-up spot with the pilot. Lo and behold, there was the broomed ram again! I could not believe my eyes or my luck. He seemed to be bedded in an impossible spot, but as I glassed the area I saw that the green plateau he was bedded on had a 10-20 foot cliff to the left. If I could just make it to that side and scale the cliff, I would be within range.
From where he was bedded he could see the whole bowl to my right, and he was half a mile away or more. To expedite the stalk I would have to drop into the valley and trees below, and I would be in plain sight until I reached the trees. There was no other option with the amount of fuel left in my lunchbox.
Once I hit the tree line I knew he had seen my movement, but now the question was how long would he stay put? When I got to the bottom I emptied my pack in a frenzy in a very rough tent spot and I marked it with my “trusty” GPS. I then crossed the creek, stopped to drink and then it was time to get up the mountain. When I neared the cliff a huge marmot sounded the alarm, over and over, and over again.
I peeked over the start of the cliffs and he was still bedded looking in my direction about 400 yards away. I could side slope left now along the base of the cliffs that grew taller and taller every step I went, then I spied a slightly lower notch. I wasted no time getting to that notch and dropped my pack and bow. I needed both hands to scale the cliff, and when I looked over he was up and feeding not 150 yards away. If I had my bow in hand I would have just waited right there, but I had to climb back down to get it.
I tied the bow on my back with a Ukrainian half hitch, and wouldn’t you know it half way up the cliff my new Hoyt took it smack between the eyes, free falling off my back to the rocks 12 feet below. I found a lot of paint gone on the bowsite as well as some other marks, but back up I went with a granny knot on the bow this time. Peering over the cliff with bow in hand, arrow knocked at the ready, there was nothing in sight. My heart sank.
I waited and waited, and finally slinked my way along the steep side of the plateau, peeking over the cliff here and there. There was just one last knob to check, exposing more and more of the last couple hiding spots an inch at a time in slow motion. I moved forward with the release firm on the string. I crested the very last hump truly expecting a 20 yard shot, and nothing was there. I could not believe it.
I started backtracking along the cliff, and sat for a while to decompress. The wind was perfect the whole time, and just a few minutes later I glanced down the cliff to see the ram feeding 175 yards down below. He eventually bedded again this time facing downhill so I was hoping his vision would be blocked by a clump of willows above him.
I bailed off the mountain like a snake, making time in the quiet spots…200 yards away…then 150 yards. The boots came off, no time for a GPS waypoint this time! I knew I had to slow down, and take it easy over the last 80 yards of noisy brush. I used the wind gusts to cover my last few advances, moving select rocks aside with my hands to prevent them from rolling and making noise. I was suddenly 20 yards away from the ram. It happened so fast. His head turned my way a few times, with only the tops of his horns barely visible between the willows.
I could hardly stay in one spot without slipping downslope with my bama socks. I dug my toenails in deeper to keep from butt sliding into his lap. How lucky was I?! Two bow stalks on two great rams in the same day, not to mention on the 19th day of a hunt?
He stood up looking my way. With my bow in hand but not drawn I watched him feeding at 20 yards. I had the riser of my bow covering my face hoping it would break up my outline. He bore holes through me again, but I won the staring contest looking with only one eye and through my eyelashes. He needed to take two steps, just two steps then I would draw as soon as his head went down. The grass was so lush it took forever for him to take just one step, then forever to take another, by then looking at me more seriously. I begged my bama socks to keep me planted, and felt my legs going numb with pins and needles from the lack of blood flow. Then he took that last step and his head went down. I released the arrow and heard the whack as it buried into him, stopping at his far elbow.
He bounded into the willows below and out of sight. I felt it was a perfect shot, and ran as fast as my socks would allow down into the ever taller willows. A drop off forced me back and there he lay. We startled each other as we met eye to eye one last time on this mountain, and before I could grab him a last death kick sent him off a perfect grassy spot for photos down into the rocky abyss below. My perfect backdrop for a photo was now a steep rocky chute! And I was unsure if I could get down into it!
It was a little difficult getting down to him, but not as bad as it looked. As I slipped, skidded and fell my way down to him my eyes welled up and tears of pure joy ran down my face. I was overwhelmed by the memories and hardships I’d endured both in the mountains with bow in hand and in life in general over the past few years. The loss of my dear friend and old guiding buddy, Billy Jack Young, along with my own battle with cancer felt a little less overwhelming as I held those beautiful broomed horns in my hands.
I had the ram gutted just before dark and then made the long difficult trek back to my tent. Sleep came fast and so did the dawn. I ran my gear down to the horse trail far below, then had to head back up to retrieve the ram, not getting back up the mountain until 10am despite a brisk start at the crack of dawn.
I reached the ram and was skinning when several baseball sized rocks came down the chute from above very suddenly. I figured it was a wolverine as I had several sightings on the mountain and the night before had found a good chunk of meat eaten off the ram. I dodged the rocks but ended up falling in the deep rubble before getting back to the skinning job. Minutes later more rocks came down and this time bigger ones! I was not so lucky this time as I got whacked by a smaller rock on the inside of my knee while I was focussing on the bigger rocks. I didn’t end up seeing the wolverine but finished packing up the ram and made my way down the chute slipping and skidding but surprisingly my knee held up.
The next day the knee that took the rock was bruised but a ram on your back makes it easy to forget the aches and pains that come with a hunt of this duration. I slowly but surely made my way out of the area and as noted at the beginning of the story, with that grizzly in tow! Nevertheless, I made it out safely and with memories that will last a lifetime.
When I got home the archery shop confirmed that my now not-so-new bow needed new limbs after the beating it took in the fall, a small price to pay for making the dream of my first archery ram come true!
Ken offers this story as a memorial to his good friend and hunting guide Billy Jack Young that sadly lost his life at too young an age in a battle with cancer. Ken knows deep down Billy was with him on this hunt and helped guide him to the successful harvest of his first archery ram.