Sticks and stones may break my bones, but the mountain will never beat me. 3:45 a.m. came early on that breezy, warm July morning. It was two days before the season opener and after a quick stop at my hunting partner Ryland’s house we were on the road.
It could have been the lack of sleep, or the eight-month anticipation of the hunt, but the drive seemed impossibly long. It gave us the extra time to scour our maps once more and mark waypoints in the DeLorme, but that didn’t make the wait any easier. Eight long hours later, the truck hit the dirt roads and finally reached its resting spot for the next 14 days.
As we stared up, steep crags loomed over us and I was suddenly filled with a sense of purpose, much like Frodo Baggins the first time he laid eyes on Mordor. We went through our gear one last time in an attempt to shed excess weight, grabbed our bows and hit the trail.
The hike up was fairly uneventful, until the last spine ridge to the top of the plateau, where we caught our first glimpse of sheep, only 300 yards away. Rams. The six rams made their way 100 yards from us before veering off in another direction. None were legal, but it was still exciting as it was my first encounter with Stone sheep. After another half hour, we crested the plateau, and, after deciding we were in the right area, we set out looking for a water source to set up camp beside.
After an hour of walking along the open tundra we came across a small spring. It was about a kilometre away from a large rock fortress where we could make camp. We built several dams along the 6″ stream to pool up water, then filled our Nalgenes and set out for our rugged accommodations.
After camp was set up, we ate a quick meal of Mountain House, and made our way to the edge of the plateau. We still had a day and a half of scouting left and we planned on using every second of it.
As we crawled over the first knoll to some rolling hills of rich feed, it wasn’t long before we spotted our second band of rams. This band was much larger and contained about 25 rams. They were feeding towards us in the last hours of day light about 150 yards away. After a quick glance at each ram we decided nothing was clearly breaking the nose, so needless to say, we got comfy behind the spotter and got to counting rings. There were probably 15 rams that were damn near legal, but it seemed the dominant gene of the area made all their horns curl too tight. We watched them until dark and made our way back to camp where some much overdue sleep was waiting for us.
The next day we woke up at daybreak. Ryland started the coffee and prepared the oatmeal and I made the trek to our dammed up spring to refill our water supply.
After breakfast, we both decided we were sufficiently satisfied on the location of the second band and went to go check the other side of the plateau in search of a more mature ram.
After half a day of only seeing ewes and lambs, we decided we should make our way back and concentrate where we knew the rams were. After a quick two hour hike back across the plateau we found ourselves lurking above the now larger band of sheep. We counted 35 rams this time around and there were a lot more tight heads in the group than before.
One ram stood out among the rest, he laid there bedded above all the others except for a few banana head sentries. His horns were a deep, dark brown with heavily ridged, thick bases. He flared wide on his right horn and was broomed off on his left. Even before counting rings, I knew this guy was legal, but I managed to confirm so in the spotting scope.
We dubbed him “Big Brown” and declared him target number one. There were still a few hours of light left and everyone was sitting pretty right where we left them the night before, so we decided to make our way back to camp and shoot our bows for a bit. We were both avid goat hunters, but we’re new to the realm of sheep hunting. I knew this would be no walk in the park, by any means. I was new to trad shooting, also, and, after five short months of practice, I decided to stack the chips in the sheep’s favour by bringing along my new longbow.
It’s safe to say that that evening neither of us was able to sleep. We stayed up all night discussing tactics and game plans. The morning of opening day we slurped down coffee and shoveled in our oatmeal quickly in the dark. Opening day also happened to be my birthday and Ryland graciously allowed me first crack at Big Brown. The game plan was simple. We would make a stalk together, just as we do goat hunting and, if it proved impossible to get within 30 yards, I would let Ryland shoot given his extended range with his compound.
At first light we spotted Big Brown and everything was going smoothly. A couple hours into our stalk we were now 100 yards from the band. Big Brown was close, but he was surrounded by sentries. Eventually, they fed a little higher and had us pegged. We didn’t move and they weren’t alarmed. We lay there in the cold wind for somewhere around three hours. Shivering uncontrollably, cursing their remarkable eyesight and taking turns blocking each other from the freezing wind. It was our first attempt at hunting sheep and we failed horribly.
The next day we decided to change up our game plan and employ another tactic that others have found successful. One person would put a stalk on the sheep and the other guy would choose one of the many game trails along the steep mountain to sit on. If the stalker blew his opportunity, he would then push the sheep onto one of these trails where the other guy would hopefully be waiting and within range for a shot.
After a few days and many failed stalks, we’d started to build a pattern on this ram. There were about four good spots he liked along the 5 KMs of steep shale slopes. I never realized how little cover I would have during my stalks compared to a goat hunt. There was no timber, hardly any boulders, and vast open faces of truly nothing everywhere. It seemed the bands wouldn’t post up any closer than 50 yards from anything I could use as cover.
On day four I managed to put up a good fight. We discovered the rams closer to the end of the plateau where we had made our way to the summit from the trail. They were hanging out about 600 yards down a big steep open face. The top of this mountainside had a bit of a gradual roll to it, but eventually dropped off to a vertical wall of pebbles. There were a couple small bluffs above the sheep, and a few boulders and ledges to the right of them, which I would use as a landmark. The thermals were strong and there was a faint breeze from up the valley. I made my way across the rolling knob on top of the mountain and dropped off to the other side where I could use a few finger crags for cover.
Once on the other side of the fingers, I made my way down the far side of the shale slope where the band of rams could not see me. I carefully peeked over the faint spine I used as cover to adjust my elevation in comparison to the rams. When I was at the proper elevation, it was time to cut back towards them through the open shale. I could not walk, I could not crawl—the face was far too steep to belly crawl. The only way to conceal my body was to lie on my back and worm my way towards them. This was tough and uncomfortable and it didn’t take long before my pants and shirt were filled with hundreds of little stones.
After an hour or so of snaking my way across the open shale, I finally reached the large boulder. I peaked around it slowly and grabbed my range finder. My jaw dropped at the insane sight before my eyes. There was the large band of rams, up close and personal. The closest ram was 38 yards and the furthest was 60. In the middle of the group sat Big Brown.
I looked back up towards the top of the face and found that Ryland had made his way into some small bluffs 80 yards above the sheep. We sat there for a few hours waiting for Big Brown to make a move. Eventually a small lamb came out of nowhere and made his way towards me. I didn’t know if the others had sent him my way as an initiation or if he was just wandering looking for feed, but it looked like my cover was blown.
Not three minutes had passed before he made his way to the ledge my boulder was perched beside. I will never forget those eyes. Those large saucer eyes locked with mine at 10 yards. At first, he was frightened and very standoffish, and then he was just curious. After five minutes he decided I wasn’t worth his time and slowly made his way back up to the plateau.
Hours went by and we just sat there, patiently waiting. Eventually a small band of the rams broke off from the group and started to leave, but they didn’t make their way towards me, or up to Ryland. Instead they started heading down the mountain towards the timber.
I decided that, since the others may follow shortly, this would be my only chance to strike. I ranged Big Brown once again. 49 yards, that wasn’t going to do. I’d practiced a lot over the preceding five months, firing thousands of arrows, but was still new to trad shooting. I was only confident to 30 yards. I decided to slowly make my way, shale-snaking again, across the open to the next boulder 20 yards ahead, where I could most likely make an ethical shot.
I dropped my pack, nocked an arrow, and took one last look at Ryland to let him know my attentions. After about 15 minutes, I gained about 10 yards, but to my surprise an out of place banana ram had me pinpointed at 30 yards. I froze still and waited for him to make a move. The ram stared so hard I felt as if he looked right into my soul, and knew I had plans for his leader. He quickly circled back to the rest of his group and signaled my presence.
Big Brown gracefully rose from his slumber and casually walked away, bringing every ram along with him. Instead of heading back down to the timber like the first group, he made his way towards Ryland. I watched in anticipation as he anxiously nocked an arrow. Big Brown still had no idea of his presence. From where I watched it looked like it might be a possible shot, but it was still a far shot.
Ryland ranged the ram at around 80 yards, and held his bottom pin above the spine. From where I was standing I could see everything. The rams suddenly took off running straight for a canyon in the side of the mountain. My heart was pounding so fast. I watched the rams leave, passing out of sight, and looked back up at my partner. There was no celebration. I later found out he ended up shooting over Big Brown.
For the rest of our trip arrows flew and many great stalks where made. I was within 50 yards of legal rams half a dozen times and I managed to get 30 yards from a few tight curls a couple of times, as well. We kept taking turns on our stalks, and we kept picking sheep trails to sit on that inevitably turned out to be just out of reach when the band was pushed out.
The weather was bad and spontaneous. Most days were huntable, except for a day and a half when we were stuck reading and playing cards in the tent. The ninth day was absolutely gorgeous. There was a ceiling of clouds in the valley below us that much resembled a fresh blanket of snow on a beautiful December day. Unfortunately, reports came in from loved ones that a big storm, and bad weather, was coming fast.
We gave it one last try, but came up short. We could now see the storm closing in fast across the plateau, so we broke down camp and set out for the trail. The battle had been lost, but this war is far from being over. I didn’t leave with a ram, but I still feel that it was a successful hunt. I met great people, learned so much about Stone sheep, and discovered the hardships of stalking in impossible locations.
I probably would have been successful with a compound bow on this hunt, but I know the feeling of harvesting an animal with a stickbow and you simply cannot beat it. To harvest a Stone sheep with one would be the pinnacle of my hunting career. I may never take a ram, but I can assure you I will be out there, year after year until I do.
Although James is now a Field Editor for the JOMH, he’s been a long time subsrcriber and previously contributed a phenomenal story about his record book mountain goat. His passion for the mountains and mountain hunting is obvious in his writing and was a big part of why we brought him on as a Field Editor. This story was too good to not qualify as a “subscriber story” even though he’s now part of our staff!