Guides are often asked how they feel about bow hunting, just as I was before I started working for Canol Outfitters. My honest response is always that bow hunting is the most rewarding and frustrating experience I’ve ever had.
When the new hunters come in we often hit the ground running, especially being the first guide and hunter combo leaving camp. The sun was shining on base camp as it usually did, but anything outside of our mountain commune was being hit hard with weather… heavy rain and fog. As we headed out visibility was very limited. Through the driving rain, I squinted across the valley to the equally steep mountains across from us as we banked our last corner and I looked across at the range I had hunted previously. My last archery hunt was playing on repeat in my mind. As we flew, I noticed we were a lot lower than we had planned to be. With mountains this rugged ideally we would set up base camp on top, drop down on some rams, simple, go home. This was not quite the case. Trying to find a place to land we had basically two options, one high flat plateau about a third of the way up the mountain or a flat in the bottom of the valley.
When hunting rams I always opt for elevation, these spooky animals are always looking down. While we circled to find the best place for camp we spotted a big ominous spot, a boar grizzly. Looking up at our whirlybird and snapping his teeth as we flew over. Needless to say, once we landed neither of us was very anxious to crawl into our tents. We had a good vantage point from our camp so we opted to get to know each other a little better while standing in the rain and keeping an eye out for old Smokey. Lon and I clicked immediately sharing stories of similar life experiences, how we got to be where we are and possibly even a laugh or two.
I woke up around 06:00 to the sound of still weather. The silence can be deceiving. A warm comfortable night in a tent with these prevailing weather conditions usually means one thing, snow. As a guide, especially on a bow hunt, there’s a certain excitement you get when you step out of your tent in the morning and see those white meandering dots with your bare eyes. They are close, relatively, for sheep hunting at least. They are basically a straight climb up from our camp. I swiftly set up my tripod trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. Nine ewes and lambs hung in the cliffs above us, while I brewed my morning coffee I started to scan the other hills in the distance. Four more sheep, looking like rams. With the sun coming up and the sheep three miles away, the heatwaves rendered my judgement inconclusive. A quick second look turned up a band of two, making their way towards a band of five… They were a lot closer than the band of four. My heart began to race, Goosebumps spread across my arms. Game on.
As Lon woke up he asked me, “So what are we doing to do today ?” I pointed off into the distance in line with my spotting scope and said “we’re going to lace our boots up tight, and we’re going to get to a sheep today” We’ve got a band of ewes in between us and we know there’s a grizzly bear close. At the very least it’s exciting, there is game everywhere. In between the fog patches I can see across the valley to the peaks that, as of yesterday were bare. We’ve got a bow, two bands of rams and for one of the only times this season the weather seems to be breaking. Morale was at an all-time high.
As we started the hike there was a shared emotion that would flip between, “do we know what we’re committing to”, and “we’re getting a ram today.” The mountains were steep and tough to navigate. Even with fresh legs and light packs. Lon was determined. It was obviously apparent how much it meant to him to get a ram. He had no thought of not following me, if it meant a chance at a ram. This was his 4th sheep Hunt with three of them ending unsuccessfully. And for anyone who’s sheep hunted you know how this plays with your mental state. Luck played a small factor, as it always does, as the most mature rams were one of the pair travelling and one in the band of 5 which ended up meeting up.
As we closed ground we were quickly and easily sitting at 400 yards and kept closing. 300,200. And stuck. Counting the rings this close there were three rams I felt good with taking. Two broomed on opposite sides with both 10+ and the one tipped out ram from the pair of two travelling earlier that was acting like a very dominant ram. He was sitting high above all the rest with an incredible vantage point. He was just as old as the other broomed ram he was staying close to but tipped out. What we call in the biz a “twister”.From where we were there were two options to get him.
Option one: load 165 grains into my 300 WSM and finish the hunt. Option 2: be patient. I could hear words rolling through my head on repeat. Something my dad told me when we first started chasing rams together,” sheep hunting is about two things. Patience and opportunity.” And Lon didn’t come here to shoot a ram with a rifle. We were pinned. Too many eyes on too many high open breaks to get any closer now. So we waited, for hours. As the minutes sluggishly started to roll by we waited for our opportunity. The young rams started to get up and slowly but surely feed and file up above us into the draw in front of us and the steep cliffs above. One by one.
Slowly the rams we could see started becoming fewer. As it dwindled down, the two oldest rams seemed very content on where they were. The broomed ram stood up and with a very confident stretch and a lip curl started feeding into the draw heading towards the top of the mountain. This was our chance. We quickly slipped to the off side of the razorback we were on and started closing ground. The long ram was laying on a bench that only left us one option. When we got onto him we would be directly on top of him. A shot within 10 yards, but he was facing away chewing his cud about as content as an old mature ram could be.
We closed into 130 yards. We would have to cover some exposed ground, where he could potentially see us, but it was a short distance. We made sure he was looking away, camoed up and started closing the final distance. We dropped out of sight and into the draw. There was a clatter up above us. I looked up to the cliffs above to see an immature ram at sixty yards looking for a place to bed. He hadn’t spotted us. We were so close to being out of his sight so we pressed on. As we peeked over the ridge my eyes were jumping all over the mountain. At this point, I only have two out of the seven rams accounted for. Realistically they could be anywhere.
I crept forward cautiously and spotted two dark chocolate, bowed out arches directly in front of me. I checked the range, 43 yards. Our wind was good and he hadn’t spotted us. I motioned to Lon to knock an arrow and get ready. We crept forward slowly and confirmed that it was the old broomed ram. As he pulled to full draw and stepped above the ridge the ram had turned his head and was looking directly through us. My heart raced again. I can’t imagine how Lon was feeling. The arrow flew and delivered a lethal hit directly into his vitals. He started running out of panic and all of a sudden there were rams scattering everywhere. He ran a short distance and quickly laid down again. He was looking very weak and even had his head down on the mountain.
We closed some ground. In what was a shock to both of us, he stood up and took off into some low cliffs, as we scrambled across the mountain to keep an eye on him. I think we both had a sense of panic. We crested the ridge and had no spot on the ram. I felt my heart sink and there was no dialogue needed, to know Lon’s had done the same. It was such a short distance… he couldn’t have covered that much ground, right? After a short talk we spread out, both positive he couldn’t have covered this amount of distance in such a short time, he had to be close. I took the top of the ridge navigating the cliffs. And then it happened. I looked down into a bluff of short, stunted, twisted mountain pines. Those same horns were piled up at the base of one, with his feet in the air.
It was such a surreal moment. Satisfaction, relief and fulfilment flooded over me. I yelled out to Lon, “He’s here!!!” His face was covered with doubt, disbelief, and a spark of hope. “Is he dead?” he replied. “Yeah Lon, I am looking at him right here!!”
Lon didn’t say a word. He held his bow up triumphantly and sat down. Gazing over the extreme mountainscape we had just covered and the ram that he had been chasing for years. Our orange tent just a spec in the distance. It was a silent and serene moment. One I won’t soon forget.
As a guide, I’m constantly asked what is my favourite hunt, which is a difficult question to answer. They are all so vastly different and there’s so much that goes into a hunt. For me, it’s always been about the moments. Ones like this. To see someone work so hard and have so much appreciation for what we had just done will leave this hunt forever engrained in my memory.