The following information on mountain sheep hunting comes from Chapter 15 of Hunting Our Biggest Game by Clyde Ormond. Hunting Our Biggest Game is also available to purchase in print.
There is no big-game animal which will bring out the full potential of the hunter’s skill like a wild ram. Sheep hunting involves adequate preparation, getting into the most rugged, alpine country imaginable, and the most arduous climbing. And once into the high ram ranges—where the hunter’s dual problem is to locate desirable game and approach it—he, of all people, needs the patience of Job.
The successful taking of a prized ram trophy is no haphazard affair. With but small exception, it is done only after skillful hunting by men familiar with the field behavior of the game. The deer-, elk-, or moose-hunter may often accidentally bag his animal, either while barging about in the woods, or through the woods-antics of some other hunter resulting in pushing the game to him. This is not true of sheep hunting. The successful sheep hunter takes his prize strictly on his own, and only after a hard hunt having that single objective.
The sheep hunter’s best tool is a basic understanding of his game. First off, wild sheep are relatively non-migratory. Their principal migration, or drift, occurs between their summer and winter ranges—this, within the same general area. In the most rugged mountain habitat, such as the Bighorn ranges of Alberta, Wyoming, and central Idaho, this movement may represent but a few actual miles, though the elevations change from 11,000 feet to but 4- or 5,000 feet. The migration is simply “off the mountain” to the bottoms, with the deepening snows, and back again upward with the melting snows of spring. It is axiomatic that wild sheep will follow the snow-line, assuming that there is still any snow at their “top of the world” summer ranges.
While on March and April steelhead expeditions along the famed Salmon River gorge, I have repeatedly watched bands of Bighorns slowly working their way upward along the greening ridges and saddles, co-incident with the snow-line. In August, while fishing the Big Clear Lakes in Idaho’s Bighorn Crags, I have seen the bands of sheep just off the still-remaining snowbanks. The difference between summer and winter ranges in these areas is often less than a day’s ride with a pack-string. The vertical difference, however, is extreme.
Another most vital fact, so far as the hunter is concerned, is that during the summer and fall hunting season, the sexes separate. The ewes and lambs range together. The rams, too, take off with other males and ordinarily will have nothing to do with the females until the rutting season which, in the north country, occurs about November.
Once the rut is under way, the rams disregard all friendship which they obviously enjoy during the summer with the other males; and will, quite like bull elk, fight to the finish to get and hold a harem of females. The great rams will back off a rod or so, and at some signal no human can recognize, come together head-on like express trains. The sound of their heavy head-gear smashing together can be heard for a half-mile or over. At the impact, each ram’s muscles will begin rippling at his neck—this rippling continuing under the stress like rapid waves of water, all the way to his tail. When one ram has had enough, he quits. Thereafter, neither victor nor vanquished seems to hold any grudge. The victor, however, takes the ewes.
During the intense period of the rut, wild rams are like domestic sheep in that the males seem never to become satisfied or depleted. They literally run the ewes to exhaustion, abuse them, and overbreed until it often prevents conception. This factor, in spot areas, is often considered to be one of the reasons for this animal’s lack of increase.
A generality on which the hunter can depend is that, during the fall segregation of the sexes, the rams will be at the upper periphery of the sheep ranges, with the ewes and lambs lower down.
While driving the Alaska Highway in late August and early September, I have often spotted small bands of sheep in the lower country bordering the highway. Invariably they have been females and lambs. The rams, at this season, were in the “top” country.
I once asked Pete Petersen why the rams would have nothing to do with the females all during the summer months. He grinned, “Well, old man, as near as I can determine, it’s for the same reason a lot of old men like to get away from women. They just can’t stand the gabbing and noise of the women and kids. The older they get, the harder it gets on their nerves.”
A factor most important to the hunter is the relationship between elevations and the incidence of game.
In a general way, wild sheep have been moved to the upper elevations within their ranges because of enemies. These have included man, and the coyote and the wolf. In the upper reaches of mountains, sheep can safely travel upon, and over, terrain which will either slow down, or stop a wolf. More, in these upper elevations, often above timberline, the full potential of the sheep’s marvelous eyesight can be utilized. He can spot his enemies before they see him, and escape accordingly.
Any spooked sheep is apt to run upward. The species has learned to look for all danger from below, and that escape is more favorable above. This is a basic point for the sheep hunter to remember. A scared ram will run higher. He’ll continue going higher around the mountain until there is no “higher.” Once the hunter has spooked his prize, there is often little wisdom in trying to follow. But he may safely assume that the location of his game will subsequently be above his own elevation.
After witnessing the speed and apparent ease with which mountain sheep negotiate mere shelves of ledges, spires from which they must leap to other points of rocks, and sheer cliff-faces over which whole bands will file, a person is apt to conclude that no footing is too tough for a sheep. This is erroneous. On a three-years’ study of Idaho Rocky Mountain Bighorns, my friend Dwight Smith discovered indubitable evidence that an occasional sheep missed its footing, fell, and either broke its neck or became the crippled prey for coyotes. Others were caught in spring avalanches. Some were but natural mortalities, due to old-age or disease.
Despite the “traffic accidents” of such terrain, wild sheep use its advantages for their survival against enemies. Unmolested sheep, however, do not habitually stay in the cliffs and rocks. They prefer the tiny alpine saddles between such broken areas, where they may feed on the grasses.
Where, in good sheep country, will the hunter locate his ram?
In early morning and late evening, the animals will be feeding in the high saddles. If any glacial lakes are in the area, they may be down along its shores at dusk for water. In mid-day, when they bed down, it will be upon some jutting promontory, area of rim-rock, or spine of barren ridge from where they can look in all directions and downward. Such resting areas, if the animals are not molested, will be used for several days. These are on the very “top.”
As an example, the big Stone Rams mentioned earlier and at which Weldon and I shot, had been observed for two or three days previously—each time at dusk as they came to a tiny pocket of lake to water. The guides, while setting up the tent and stove at spike-camp, had spotted them each evening with a spotting-scope. We located them within a couple of miles, the first morning of the hunt.
Or again, Don Welden, a Wyoming guide, and I rode unexpectedly upon a similar band of Bighorn Rams in the fall of 1953 while hunting elk. We were at the time after an exceptional bull, and had located one just at dusk up at the head of Castle Creek. This bull was bugling a mile away, just at the fringe of timberline, right at the 10,000-foot elevation. We could see him just outside the timber in an open alp. His harem of cows was evidently brushed-up in the timber below.
There were less than thirty minutes of light left, and if we reached to within shooting range, any approach had to be made quickly. Don tested the wind and scrutinized the lay of the country. The only possible route seemed to be by circling the canyon-head above and to the south of the bull. This was treacherous going, consisting of steep shale slides, cliffs, and a glacier of ice and snow approximately three hundred yards across, just beneath.
“We’ll pick our way along the crest just above the head of that glacier,” Don said, “and drop down onto him from the other side.”
There’s no mountain that Don cannot cross somehow, with a horse; so we took off, keeping an intervening crest of ridge between.
The upshot was that when we reached the other side of the snow-bank, the country dropped sharply off into nothing except air. Darkness and the terrain skunked us on that bull, but we did run into something almost as interesting.
While leading our nags over the broken rocks above the glacier, my nose was hit with a powerful stench. “Don,” I said, stopping, “I smell something. It smells like sheep.”
He turned his horse to reach the very crest, studying the dry ground between rocks. “It is sheep. There’s tracks and dung all over the place.”
A few minutes of close scrutiny made it plain. A whole band of animals had obviously used this area for days. There was old dung and fresh. Old tracks and fresh ones. Intermittently among the rocks on the very edge of the bluff were the mild hollowed-out areas of dust where individual animals had bedded down.
These were unmolested sheep, and yet their constant vigilance and strategy were as plain to read as print. There was no place, in any direction except straight up the sheer glacier, where anything approaching their resting-place could not be immediately spotted for distances up to a half-mile or more. From any one of the bedding-down spots, an animal could, within a few short bounds, retreat in any of the four directions—such a sprint invariably putting some intervening crest or hump between the sheep and danger.
As we studied this, we abruptly heard the faint tick of shale to the south. In precipitous country, this tinkling of shale sometimes is caused by small rocks breaking off or being dislodged by wind or wet. The smart hunter, however, knows that such a faint sound often means game.
We listened for a second, with the breath held. Then Don pointed. Across the basin-head to the south, and now barely distinguishable, a whole string of mountain sheep filed sedately up the opposite barren crest. Quickly, we jerked the rifles from the scabbards, to study them through the scopes.
Any red-blooded man would thrill at what we saw. Ten Rocky Mountain Rams walked in single-file up a dim trail, at around three hundred yards! The last two beasts were largest. Their curls were full and most massive. The last animal especially was a trophy beast if there ever was one. He was almost blue-roan in color, and so big he seemed to move with lazy effort. I’ve often, while growing up on a farm, estimated the weight of domestic stock, and could often guess within ten per cent or less, the weight of an animal. That ram, I’m convinced, would weigh close to three hundred fifty pounds. I’m as satisfied that his massive horns would have put him into the record class, and approximated forty inches in curl.
The thing of interest to the sheep hunter was this fact. Those rams, even though alerted from their resting-grounds and wary, were not unduly frightened. Periodically as we watched, they would stop to gape back and watch. They never did move faster than a slow walk. From a prone position, and with a bit of luck, I’m sure either Don or I could have killed any one of these rams with the Magnum rifles we carried.
I have watched other rams in other areas react similarly to the presence of man. Adult rams, as well as bands of ewes and lambs have habitually stood still, gawping down at our boat in the river below the bluffs. Bands of sheep would graze, then bed down within full sight of where we fished for steelhead a quarter-mile or more below.
The prize instance of this occasional lack of fear in wild rams, occurred while Archie McArthur and I were riding the trail from Colson Creek to Idaho’s Bighorn Crags.
As we moseyed along with the horses and pack-mules in late August, traversing a high spine of ridge at timberline, Archie reined in and pointed. “Take a gander down there.”
A half-mile below, on the open grassy sidehill, were four Rocky Mountain sheep. A second look showed them to be rams, and intermittently feeding and looking back up towards us. They had, of course, spotted us long before we had them.
“Boy!” I said, “I’d sure like to get close enough to something like that, either while hunting sheep, or at least for a picture.”
“You can get a picture. If you want.”
“Don’t kid me.”
“I’m not. Here, I’ll show you. All you gotta do is not show any excitement, and move awful slow.”
We tied the mule-string to pines in plain sight of the sheep, going casually about the chore as if we hadn’t seen the rams. Then, with cameras neck-slung and ready, we mounted the saddle-horses.
“Don’t try to get any trees between us,” Archie warned. “And don’t act like you’re interested. Just let your horse feed along as he wants to.”
We started down the sidehill in full view, and angling slightly towards the feeding animals. Each time the horses wanted to graze a mouthful—and this was often—we let them eat, then casually kneed them forward. In this way, we approached the rams to within seventy yards, at which distance I slowly raised the cameras and began clicking.
At this point, the rams appeared more curious than afraid. Two or three of them would graze, while the other stood alert and watching. Or, three of them would watch, while the other fed. At this point, we only inched the feeding horses forward. Neither of us said a word, neither did we make any quick motions.
Before the animals finally spooked, I got pictures within a forty or fifty yard distance. I’ve shown these colored slides often at club meetings, and the series almost audibly shows the rams’ reaction, from mild curiosity, to cautious alertness, and to that final decision, “Well, we’d better get the hell outa here!”
While headed back up the hill, Archie gave me a piece of sound advice as regards sheep hunting. “Never let a ram you’re hunting see you. But if you spot one that has seen you, then don’t act like you give a damn. Whatever you do, don’t try to hide and sneak up on him. He’ll just go poof and that’s it. Instead, stay full in the open and slowly mosey along towards somewhere near him. If you happen to be on a horse, it sure helps.”
I had occasion to demonstrate this same conclusion, even while afoot, in late February of 1953. Spring came early here that year. The ice left the Salmon River, and Don Smith, outfitter, phoned us to get out there in a hurry to take on the spring run of steelhead.
We had at the time floated perhaps fifty miles down the River Of No Return. As we rounded still another bend, we saw nearly a dozen wild sheep standing on the gravel-bar near the water. At the sight of the boat, they bounded a short distance up the gorge-side, then stopped to watch us drift by.
Knowing I wanted pictures, Don pulled the boat into an eddy immediately below and tied up. The others of the party agreed to fish while I tried for photographs. Don and his big black Labrador, Si, walked back up around the bend with me; and I thought the presence of the dog would surely scare the sheep band up over the mountain. Old Si scented them, barked, and started up through the rocks and brush. Don cussed hell out of him and made him lie down. The sheep romped a hundred yards farther up the hill, to stand again and gawp back at Don. At this distance, they were nothing more than plain curious.
Briefly, I followed those sheep for well over an hour up that steep canyon-side. At all times, I stayed in full view, often taking but one step at a time, then standing still. I made no sudden movement. Even while raising the camera to my eye, I took several seconds. The sheep zig-zagged up the only spine of ridge and bluffs. In places, I had to follow on all fours, going at this movement as slowly and casually as any other. When they’d romp up a few rods, then turn to gawp back, I gave no indication of any except a casual interest.
At a distance just short of one hundred yards, I began shooting pictures. I was lugging a 4×5 Speed Graphic, a belt camera, and a 35mm. loaded with colored film. Each time the shutter clicked, I figured the sheep would take off. But they didn’t bolt. By going agonizingly slowly, I actually cut the distance to thirty yards, and ran all the cameras dry of film at that range.
When the belt camera was dry, I deliberately turned my back and sat down. Taking a last roll of film from a shirt pocket, I slowly loaded the camera, and casually turned around. No sheep had budged an inch during the process, but still stared me straight in the eye, in sheer amazement and immobility.
Slowly easing up the camera again, I shot the last negatives. Tipping my sweat-soaked hat to the accommodating sheep, I left them standing there and inched away down the mountain.
A bonus reward of that stalk was the fact that among the band of ewes and lambs was one mature ram having curls of three-quarters or better. A ram of that size traveling with ewes and lambs that late in the spring was unusual, and I captured the fact on film. As Don put it, “Maybe he was the bashful type, and didn’t get his love-making done till spring. He’s hoping to make up for lost time.”
Lastly, in the matter of approachability of wild sheep, my good friend Frank Gerard and his wife Martha had an experience which likely tops them all. They were at the time about a hundred miles from Canada’s Lake Louise, and nearly ten miles off the main highway on a dirt road. A fellow had told them of some wonderful trout fishing beyond a high shale mountain. Their plan was to leave the car and hike up to the little alpine lake, which was not in any national park.
Here’s how Frank puts it:
“Martha wanted me to take the camera, but I told her we had enough to pack as it was. So we left it back at the car. We did, though, put up some crackers and sandwiches for lunch.
“There was a faint trail around the shale mountain, and we’d made it maybe half way up when I heard a tinkle of shale above us. I looked up, but couldn’t see anything. But we’d only gone a little ways till we heard it again. ‘Martha,’ I said, ‘there’s an animal of some kind up there. Let’s just sit down and watch a while.’
“So we sat down and listened. Sure enough, it came again. Then as we looked up, we spotted him. A full-grown Rocky Mountain ram was standing up there watching us. We decided to sit right still and see if he wouldn’t come closer. And he did. While we waited, we’d started eating on a sandwich, and he seemed to be interested in that.
“Within a minute or so, he inched his way a little closer. Before you knew it, he’d come to within maybe fifty feet of where we sat. Thinking he might be interested in the sandwich, I tossed a rind of the bread up his way. At this, he bolted away for several rods, then turned and came our way slowly again. Curious, like.
“We sat right still and before long, that big ram actually came back and ate the piece of bread. So we tried it again. Each time I’d move to throw, he’d run away a little ways. But he’d always come back, and eat up the bread and crackers we’d toss him.
“By being extra patient and not trying to make any quick moves, we actually got that ram to come right up to us. We never could quite make him eat a cracker from our hands, though he’d be almost close enough. Each time I’d push the cracker out at him, he’d turn and move off. But he’d always come back to eat the piece after I’d toss it to him.
“You know something? That ram ate most all our lunch. He ate up all the crackers and then chewed on the paper wrapping. Before we left, we heard another tinkle of shale above us. Another ram showed up and stayed in plain sight. But we never could get the second ram to approach us. He just watched the first ram….In a vacation trip of more than three thousand miles, I missed the best picture by leaving that camera in the car.”
Similarly, while traveling through South Dakota’s Black Hills in November of 1954, I watched Sandy Sanders feed a wild Rocky Mountain Ram a candy bar, from the car window. This ram had come down the mountain and was crossing the highway as we drove up. We stopped the car and he seemed in no way alarmed. It took only a few minutes’ coaxing to bring right up to the car. This, of course, was in an area where the hunting of all game was prohibited.
Such unusual instances are not to be construed as being typical of the field-behavior of wild sheep. They do, however, indicate the relationship between approachability and the degree of fear with which game has learned to associate man.
Sheep country is big, open country. It is usually in high, clear air where both the game and the hunter can see for miles. Hunting in such country involves an intense quality of vision. Mountain sheep have vision superior to that of most any game animal. It is the considered opinion of many observing men that a sheep’s eyesight is comparable to that of a man using binoculars of from six to eight-power.
One of the best ways for the hunter to gain an appreciation of both the sheep’s eyesight—his best equipment for survival—and of the resultant hunting difficulties to overcome, is simply to sit in good sheep country with a pair of 8-power binoculars, and look intently. This will quickly give him a fair conception of game-vision.
Through glasses of this power, the hunter can see about on a par with his quarry. Objects which the hunter can pick up with the glasses, the sheep can see with the naked eye. Colors, shapes, contours, and object-definition which man can see only by the aid of binoculars, are interpreted by the game without such an aid.
Similarly, the movements, evidences of excitement, and subsequent intent-to-pursue—and which the hunter normally thinks are lost to view by anything watching him within the half-mile—are all seen and interpreted by watchful sheep at several miles.
By way of again visualizing this, I just took a pair of such binoculars and looked towards the rolling foothills south of our Upper Snake River Valley home. These hills are several miles away.
Through these glasses, I could easily spot and identify dirt roads through the wheat-stubble of the dry-farms, and the actual swaths made by a grain-combine during the harvest, including the heavy tracks in the stubble of the big “bull wheels.” Animals the size of mountain sheep, had there been a reasonable contrast in color or shade, could easily have been seen.
By considering this procedure in reverse, and translating such scrutiny into the conditions surrounding sheep hunting, it is easy to understand that sheep, watching my way from that same stubble, could have seen me, and ascertained that I was watching them.
Once the hunter gets a true mental picture of this comparison of vision, the basic problems of locating game, and then approaching it, become at once magnified and made simpler.
Briefly put, the sheep hunter’s problem is to locate his game before he, himself, is spotted; then to so maneuver the lay of the country and terrain, that he may come upon his quarry undetected. Cardinal rules are that he must keep out of sight. He must never allow himself to be seen a-top an open ridge. Due to the contrast he’ll present, silhouetted against the sky, or hills of contrasting shades, any sheep in the area are sure to spot him.
There is, in the majority of instances, some way of staying out of sight of spotted game. With sheep, it usually means going entirely around the mountain, to come down upon the game from behind. Usually some sort of ridge-crest, promontory, windy peak, or jut of rocks may be made to intervene between the hunter and the located game, if he works his way around above.
In instances where this is impossible—that is, where unmolested game has not spotted the hunter, but is in a position where it can watch beyond rifle-range in all directions—then there is but one smart thing to do. Patiently wait until the game moves. Some time, at some place, such unsuspecting game will move to an area or position where the terrain may be utilized so that some form of obstruction can be made to come between the hunter and the quarry, thus shielding his approach.
Located sheep, just like spotted antelope, caribou, or other open-country game, should never be approached directly. Stalking directly towards located sheep is the best method of becoming “an aid to conservation.”
When the sheep have already spotted the hunter at a distance, and before he sees them, the only successful course is to display no intention of pursuit, or give no visible evidence that the sudden sight of game has in any way interested or excited him. Rather, he should continue casually and unobtrusively on his route until he reaches some area where vision between him and the quarry is obstructed. At this point, he plans his campaign of maneuvering to a point where he may approach the game undetected.
Sheep hunting had best be started from the camp. One of the best tools of the sheep hunter, as indeed for other species of mountain game, is a good spotting-scope. A good quality glass such as the Bushnell Spacemaster, with 20- to 40-power eyepieces, is a fine choice. Such an instrument, mounted upon a good folding-tripod or bi-pod such as the Freeland—so that it may be handily carried on a horse in the saddle-bag, or in the ruck-sack—is worth all the bother it entails. With this type of scope, most any game within the miles surrounding camp, may be picked up. The outfit is simply set up on the camp-table and the country glassed. For the serious ram-hunter, this type of rig is not too unreasonable to lug along even on the actual hunting, where every excessive pound costs dearly.
The virtues of such a glass are that any game may be spotted before it sees the hunter; and, subsequently, any good heads may be generally sized up before a decision to stalk is reached. Truly a spotting-scope is a leg- and mile-saver for the sheep hunter.
The lighter-weight, old-style mariner’s telescope, as mentioned earlier, is a fine substitute. It folds more compactly, but lacks the optical qualities of the modern spotting-scope, and also has a more limited field of view.
After reaching the first high crest out of camp, the sheep hunter had best continue glassing his country. This should not be done by coming full upon the ridge. Rather, the hunter should stay just under the rim opposite the area he wishes to study, or in which he expects game. The crest should be reached with only the hunter’s head and the scope slowly peering over. If the hunter is bald-headed, he should keep his hat on. If a hat is worn, it should be a dull color, matching the country-rock of the area. If the sun is shining and the hunter wears spectacles, he should remove them before sticking his head over the rim. His rifle should be left just behind him, but always available, of course.
Anyone who is observing knows that such objects as rifle-barrels, glasses, and even bald-heads will reflect enough light to be visible for great distances. Further, objects are more easily seen while looking downward, than while looking up; and during most of the actual sheep hunting, the hunter is habitually below the game.
From such a crest, the entire area is studied meticulously. If a spotting-scope is not used, binoculars are utilized. The visible area is carefully studied, not only for the normal movement of un-alerted game. It is also scrutinized for predators whose presence might eventually spook game into visibility; for game already alerted; and for those spots and contours of the area which, at first glance or study, are not interpreted as game, but simply as objects which “don’t belong.” Often any such object, out of harmony with the surroundings, is the hunter’s first clue. The second scrutiny, or a study made later at closer range, shows the unharmonious object to be game.
Such study from the ridge-crests should, with sheep, be repeated at each succeeding and higher area which gives a view of country not possible before, or the same region from another view-point. The procedure should be repeated all the way up to, and onto, the “top-of-the world” country, where literally there is “no higher.”
This is tedious, time-consuming work. To the novice, it appears that the hired guide, following this course, is loafing and killing time while they might be “hunting.” To the wise sheep hunter, this careful, constant scrutiny is the major portion of the actual hunting, and the only way to a successful marking down, and approach of game.
Good areas to study intently are the tiny saddles between crags; if in early morning, the sides of peaks and jutting promontories whose sides sun rays will strike first; the shelving ledges where animals stand to stare into the gorges below; the steep, zig-zagging game trails leading up any ridge-spines; the old trails left in glaciers, and which lead from one peak to another; and the shelving ledges just under the crests of basin-rims, where rams may lie down, stand upon, or traverse.
In some areas of the north, sheep country occurs co-incident with, and just above the great clay formations and deposits of the land. There is one such area just north and west of Muncho Lake, in British Columbia. There are entire plateaus and low mountains of pure clay. In the spring, the run-off in the gorges have, over the ages, cut away whole canyons and miniature gorges through the eroding process, leaving sheer cut-banks of pure clay, often dropping hundreds of feet from the plateaus above.
At this season, the Stone Sheep of the region seek out these areas of pure, soft clay. For a week at a time, they will eat nothing except straight clay, scooped with their mouths from the muddy banks. This clay apparently conditions their digestive systems after the rough foliage they’ve had to winter upon, when heavy snows covered the grasses.
With summer, the run-off stops, the clay banks harden into nearly the consistency of stucco, and the animal’s tracks are left imprinted along the shelving trails they made into the banks. The dung left by the animals is pure clay, and likewise hardened.
These clay-banks are not to be confused with the true salt-licks, and for which this species takes such a liking. I am convinced, however, that the clay in such areas may have a mild saline content.
The sheep trails leading downward to, and up from these areas are well-marked and worn. Periodically, the animals will descend along the trails, while crossing from one mountain to another.
I killed my first Canadian ram as it traversed such a trail in the high plateau country between Prochniak Creek and the Liard River. This was a small five-year-old ram. In that year, 1947, British Columbia allowed the non-resident hunter two rams, and this one was taken while we kept optimistically looking for a real whopper.
The taking of this animal illustrates both the fact that horses often have a dampening effect on a ram’s suspicion, and that rams are comparatively hard to kill.
Tom Mould and Pete Petersen were both with me at the time, guiding and outfitting. We’d work gradually up the basin-bottoms, gaining elevation as fast as the horses could climb. Periodically, Tom would dismount and glass the entire basin.
At one such stop, Tom said casually, “There’s a ram! Don’t make any quick movements.”
The sheep was watching us, and momentarily paused upon the clay-surrounded trail perhaps a half-mile up. It seemed intent upon the horses.
Pete and Tom, experienced on the species, thereupon practiced an act of sheer deception. Without ever looking directly up at the ram again, we slowly dismounted, petted the horses, casually tightened the cinches, and otherwise acted as though the ram didn’t exist. After a moment or so, Tom moseyed on up the basin-bottom, slowly leading his horse. Pete and I did likewise, acting as if we might be but looking for a spot to sit down and eat lunch.
The moment a knot of intervening spruce shut out a view of the ram, Pete and I ducked into the trees, and hurriedly circled: back down the canyon. Tom simply moseyed out into an opening with the horses, in full view. He began puttering around the saddles.
“We’ll have to hurry, old man,” Pete whispered as we hurried off. “That ram is nervous. He’s undecided about the horses.”
Within a matter of minutes, Pete and I had circled back around the bluff area, to where a dry, glacial-washed gulley angled back up the opposite direction. By quickly and noiselessly pussy-footing up the wash, we made it to a point nearly three hundred yards from the ram, and on nearly the same level.
Our first and only view of the ram came through the up-ended roots of a big aspen, or silver-poplar tree, native to that region. The animal was nervously minching about, standing broadside, and staring downward at the horses.
“Hurry,” Pete whispered. “Let’s get closer.”
“He’ll run, Pete. I think I can take him from here.”
Pete looked entirely skeptical, and was, as I quickly learned. But I was at that time carrying a heavy-barreled .300 H&H Magnum. It was the semi-target model in Winchester Model 70, and weighed nearly eleven pounds. Its one virtue was that it held solidly as a crow-bar, and would stick 180-grain Silvertips into a half-dollar at 100 yards with monotonous regularity.
Leaning slowly against the tree-roots, quite like a scantling propping a hay-stack, I quickly held the third breath and squeezed one off.
At the crash of the rifle, there was no indication of a hit. The ram simply looked our way, then calmly started walking up the top of the clay-bank.
Pete was disappointed, but still hopeful. “Quick!” he said, “let’s hurry and maybe you can get in another shot before he gets away!”
The ram simply walked on up out of sight. As he vanished from view, I saw a faint wisp of dust where he’d been, as though he’d suddenly broken into a run.
When we reached the place, the ram was stone dead. The dust had come when he’d toppled over onto the clay, and slid fifty feet downward. I’d got lucky with Old Betsy, and shot him squarely through the heart.
Since that time, other experiences with sheep have convinced me that this young ram’s reaction wasn’t unusual. Rams are relatively tough and take considerable killing. Pound for pound, wild rams are harder to stop than big mule-deer bucks, of which I’ve killed over thirty. Ram, however, are not so tough to put down as mountain goats.
For the reason of surely killing any ram shot at, as well as for stopping him within the area where he may surely be reached, I would recommend plenty of ordnance. If the ram-hunter has one good chance at his prize on any hunt, he is lucky. This lone, probable chance at his trophy is certain to come after he is weary from climbing. It habitually comes where the footing is poor; when he is out of breath, with lungs laboring for oxygen in high altitudes; and when he is at his very worst as a target-rifleman. He simply cannot lay ’em in with the same precision as while back on the home-range, calm as a cucumber, and with belly comfortably upon the earth.
Due to the game’s characteristics, and the necessary approach, the hunter often comes upon his trophy at a wide variety of ranges, and probable motion. He may, after hours of stalking, stick his nose over the rim, and there’s his ram—an animal big and desirable enough literally to stop his heart! Only the great curling horns and ram’s face may show, at perhaps a hundred yards, and ready to bolt. Shooting then becomes a fast race to the rim (to get a view of the ram’s body), and a quick shot at either a whirling beast or white-spotched hinder.
Again, the hunter may peek over the crest, to find his prize already gaping at him from three hundred yards across the gorge; standing immobile; ready to take off. It’s then a relatively fast shot, from the best possible position which can readily be assumed on that particular terrain—usually rough and steep.
On, in the crags, it may be a quick sight of spooked game, bounding from rock to rock like some animated sack of spuds upon four well-oiled pogo-sticks.
Still other possible views of the animal, and possible shots, are of the great animal curiously lying upon a cliff, with just a part of the vital area showing; or of spooked game quickly filing up the opposite basin-side.
Whenever, wherever the hunter comes upon his ram within rifle-range, he has two immediate problems. He must quickly estimate the trophy-potential of his ram, and he must get the animal down. To shoot an undesirable trophy after all the effort entailed in sheep hunting is a great disappointment. And to try finding a thoroughly frightened ram, after it has been spooked, is something like trying to overtake one’s past.
The best criterion I know for hastily estimating the size of a ram’s horns, lies in his fullness-of-curl or lack of it. Rams with full curls have horns whose tips come well upon, or over, the plane of the nose when viewed from the side. Tip-spread may often be estimated, if the beast is end-wise, in relation to body-width. If the horns stand out well from the body, showing a reasonable amount of “daylight” between tip and body, the ram is apt to have a good spread. The experienced guide’s opinion is usually sound.
In order to take advantage of all types of shooting encountered in sheep hunting, the rifle-and-cartridge should have definite minimum requirements. It should be capable of at least minute-and-one-half accuracy—that is, be able to place all bullets into one and one-half inches per hundred yards. The rifle should be relatively light in weight. Past thinking to the contrary, it doesn’t take great weight and heavy barrels to make a rifle accurate. My own Weatherby .300 Magnum, as an example, weighs but 7 1/2 pounds. The test-group fired when the rifle was being made up for me measures just 3/4-inch at one hundred yards. That’s accurate!
In addition to light weight and accuracy, the rifle should be equipped with a sling, used mostly for carrying the piece. If of heavy recoil, it should have a recoil-pad. This item is additionally useful in cushioning the rifle against jarring, when it is stood on the butt. Lastly, any rifle used for sheep hunting should be scope-equipped. The full long-range sighting and accuracy potentials cannot be brought out and utilized otherwise. Because some shots may be close and at bounding animals, while others may be at long-range, the scope-power should be what is known as “all-around.” Four-power is best for average use. Coated lenses have a distinct advantage over uncoated lenses, especially for shooting at dusk and daylight. A scope of four-power also doubles nicely for binoculars in instances where the guide and hunter carry but one pair of the latter.
Such a fine-quality scope need not be expensive. The Weaver 4X, Bushnell 4X, Lyman’s All-American 4X, the Texan 4X, and Stith Bear Cub 4X, may all be purchased at around fifty dollars each, and are entirely adequate. If one wishes to pay more, such instruments as Bausch & Lomb’s Balfor 4X, and Weatherby’s Imperial 4-81 are wonderful glasses and hard to beat.
Caliber for the sheep rifle?
My own choice in a factory rifle and ammunition would be the .300 H&H Magnum, shooting 180-grain bullets—preferably those having relatively sharp points and long ogives, which retain their velocities well.
In a custom rifle, shooting the so-called “wild-cat” cartridges, I can think of no finer sheep rifle than the Weatherby Magnum in either .270 or .300 caliber. These rifles have all the needed lightness, perfect fit, accuracy, and power wa-a-y out there, for the difficult job of sheep hunting under its wide and varying conditions.
In these, and comparable custom-made Magnums, the 130- and 150-grain bullets should be chosen for the .270-caliber; and either the 150- or the 180-grain bullets for the . 300. Ammunition, usually hand-loads, put up in these calibers, too, should have bullets with pointed tips for high retained velocities. Among the finest bullets for the purpose at the present are the spire-points made by Hornady. Ammunition should be loaded to maximum, or near-maximum velocities.
The standard .270 Winchester and popular .30-06 cartridges are the lowest in retained “horse-power” and flat-shooting qualities which should be used on sheep. In factory loaded ammunition, the 130- and 150-grain bullets are best in the .270. In the .30-06, the 180-grain bullet should be chosen, since it is likely that the sheep rifle will also be used on other larger species on the same hunt. Unless the hunter is an expert gun-crank, he’d better stick to one weight of bullets in any one rifle, on one particular hunt.
Truly, a mountain ram is a most noble beast. His coat is hair instead of wool. His meat is the finest of all wild game. And his well-mounted head, once upon your own wall, brings back the most satisfying of memories.