WHAT A DREAM!
By Mark Butler
For me, it doesn’t get any better than spending quality time on the mountain with family and friends. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by an entire “herd” of sheep huntin’ fools! Wow, “what a dream” to have recently completed my quest for all four North American bighorn sheep by taking an incredible Utah book ram to finish my lifelong mission. It was also icing on the cake to have been accompanied by my son, dad, uncle, several cousins and close friends on the hunt.
Hunting bighorn sheep is a goal that most of us diehard, fanatical hunters dream about but may never have the good fortune to experience. My dream began in 1991 while sitting in the office of my uncle, a classic sheepaholic, with me asking the question, “What bighorn sub-species should I apply for in my home state of Utah?” At the time, as a resident of Utah, he felt that the rocky mountain bighorn would give me the best odds to draw a tag.
Unbelievably, destiny knocked on my door 11 years later, as the first opportunity to live the adrenalin highs and butt kicking lows of sheep hunting came to fruition when I drew a Utah Rocky Mountain bighorn tag in 2002. From that unforgettable day in November seven years ago when I experienced first hand the physical and mental challenges that only sheep hunting can offer by taking a trophy rocky, I knew that I would make whatever sacrifices it took to keep my sheep hunting dreams alive in the future.
Fast forward to 2009 when I have a tag in hand that will culminate my 18 year dream of completing a full curl. Randy Johnson of HIGH DESERT Wild Sheep Guides was with me on my first sheep hunt and I wanted him there on the final leg of my “full curl” dream journey. Although Randy knew the unit I would be hunting like the back of his hand, we spent countless hours studying maps, emailing, looking at sheep surveys, and overall devising a winning game plan that would give me the best chance for success.
I’ve learned over the years that in many, if not all cases, scouting early and often is the key to finding quality big game. This hunt was stacking up to being the best ever! Beginning in early May, when I had the opportunity to take my youngest daughter Amanda (8) with me scouting, I spent a total of fifteen days exploring the desert. Although we didn’t see any sheep on that trip we had an awesome time eating dehydrated food, catching lizards, and watching falling stars under the dark canopy of several crystal clear desert nights.
Next, I took my “huntin’ fool” son Andrew (14) with me where I walked his legs off… still no sheep sightings however. At this point, after six days in the unit, I began to question my glassing ability. However, on the third trip in with my daughter Lauren (11) we found sheep! We saw nine rams on this excursion, but none that I would want to “tag.” On a separate scouting adventure on Memorial Day Randy found a group of rams that had what he felt was a 170 pt. ram in it. I was pumped! The dog days of summer slipped by more slowly than I can ever remember.
In mid August, Randy and I planned to take a trip deep into the heart of the unit, knowing that the rams in this area start into the rut early. Boy, am I glad we made the trip! We located a huge ram that we believed would book. We dubbed him, “Shooter”! As you can imagine, the thought of waiting until September 19th to actually hunt “Shooter” was killing me!
Mother Nature was in a foul mood after that and the weather on weekends where additional scouting reconnaissance were planned prevented us from getting into the unit again until 3 days before the opener. We had a great team assembled to accompany us that included my son and father. The heat, bugs and terrain are oppressive obstacles on the desert and after three days and numberless miles we were seeing plenty of rams, but no sign of Shooter. Deep within I was deflated knowing that my son and father could only hunt the opening day because of school and work commitments. I really wanted them to be with me when I fulfilled my dream.
Opening day found us greeting another brilliant red sunrise. Randy had decided to concentrate on an area where he felt Shooter might be holed up since he had located a group of rams fighting in a rugged canyon the evening before. A game plan was devised to have everyone helping with the hunt to meet for lunch so we could compare notes. That morning, Randy and his partner, Brett, led my cousin Jeff, Andrew and I on a marathon hike from the end of one peninsula, to up and over the next and the next…Lots of tracks but no rams.
Lunch came late but with exciting news……. My cousin Brian and Uncle Ken thought they had spotted Shooter! The stalk was on, so we thought. Brian had watched Shooter bed down with three ewes, believing there was no way for him to escape from the protective shade of the ravine without seeing him. We took the next two hours getting into position by sneaking, crawling, and sweating in 90+ degrees to within 100 yards of “Shooter’s bed” only to find that he had evaporated like Houdini into thin air.
Brian couldn’t believe that Shooter had somehow escaped their watchful optics. Disappointed, hot, and tired, we pressed on over the next ridge where we located a ewe in a tier of rugged white ledges, then another ewe, then another! Suddenly, Shooter appeared from behind a truck size giant boulder! Was it really the ram I had been waiting so long for? Having left our spotting scopes at the top of the craggy canyon, it was now difficult to tell whether we actually had the right ram.
We glassed intently as the sheep jumped from rock to rock, not knowing that human predators were watching their every move. Wild sheep are simply amazing animals and live in some of the most unforgiving, gut wrenching country on earth. Frustratingly, the ram would not give us the view we wanted to convince us that he was truly Shooter. Because my unit had the potential to produce some giant rams by Utah standards Randy and Brett were being extra cautious in giving the go ahead to “pull the trigger.” However, going into my hunt, I had determined that if I saw a ram that scored over 160 I would be extremely happy to take him. Without the aid of their spotting scopes both Randy and Bret felt this ram would possibly go 165. His mass was deceiving. That’s all the encouragement that I needed.
I prefer to shoot prone so laying my rifle over my pack, I settled the scope’s reticles of the 300 ultra mag onto the front shoulder of the ram which had been ranged at 430 yards, a comfortable shot for me. Two ewes were standing behind him preventing me from taking the shot. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the ewes moved, presenting the ethical opportunity I was waiting for. I slowly squeezed the trigger. Time literally stood still although it was just a millisecond before the roar of my rifle reverberated off the sandstone walls of the canyon. The shock wave from the shot blew dust into my eyes as the big ram bolted, then leaped over a deep chasm in the cliffs. He disappeared behind a rocky outcrop. Suddenly, three ewes came racing out of the deep arroyo but not the ram. Randy said that he was sure my ram was down. Believe me, 430 yards is a long walk when you didn’t see your trophy drop although we were confident that he was dead! When I climbed over a rock strewn ridge to see my amazing trophy lying before me, upside down in a deep, erosion worn crevice, I almost cried in pure joy. Emotionally, this was not because I had just taken Shooter, but because I was able to experience my dream along side my father, son, as well as friends and relatives. After paying respect to this great animal we celebrated and took dozens of photos. Now, the work really began as we hurried to complete the caping and debone the meat before the blackness of dark descended upon us. Although it took several hours to climb upward through the ledges of the canyon I didn’t feel fatigued as adrenalin surged through my body. My dream was complete.
One Day, Once in a Lifetime
By Paul Anderson
My “Once In A Lifetime” adventure began on Saturday, April 12, 2008. I was attending the 18th Annual Utah FNAWS banquet with my Dad, Jay Anderson, an avid sheep hunter. This is a night I anxiously anticipate each year, when we have the opportunity to exchange hunting stories with other enthusiasts as well as support the conservation of bighorn sheep in our home state of Utah. The dinner was over and the live auction was just getting underway. Anyone who has attended an auction for bighorn sheep tags knows that it is wise to keep your hands in your pockets – unless those pockets happen to be quite deep! When item number “14, the Utah Escalante Desert Bighorn Permit” came on the auction block, I started watching as the hands went up to bid. I wasn’t paying much attention to my Dad sitting next to me as I began to wonder how much this tag would go for. The auction seemed to heat up as I realized my Dad was bidding on this tag. When the bidding war was over, unbelievably, he came out on top. The next thing he did was lean over to inform me that I was going to be hunting a desert sheep this fall! To say the least, I was in shock.
My passion for sheep hunting began in 2003 when I accompanied my Dad on a Stone sheep hunt to northern British Columbia in an attempt to finish his Grand Slam. Due to some heath issues, his hunt was cut short, but the outfitter agreed to let me buy a tag and harvest a ram of my own if the opportunity presented itself. Two days later I had my first ram and a serious case of sheep fever! My Dad and I returned the following year. With the help of another outfitter, he was able to complete his “Quest for Four.”
While applying for sheep permits in the western states, my Dad and I always read The Huntin’ Fool to help us decide where the best odds are and what kind of terrain to expect in each area. I remembered reading in the January 2008 edition that the Escalante unit had “some of the most rugged, desolate sheep country of any western state, and Garth Carter saying “that you better be tough as nails” to apply for this unit. I knew I needed an awesome guide.
Randy Johnson, of High Desert Wild Sheep Guides, approached me after the auction to discuss the area that he has been guiding in for over 15 years. I knew right away that High Desert Wild Sheep Guides was the outfitter to lead me on this once in a lifetime hunt. We decided that it would be to my advantage to begin our hunt on November 7, 2008.
The preparation for my hunt began just several days after the banquet when I received a package from Randy. In it he had included a backpacking list and an exercise routine designed specifically for the rigors of my upcoming hunt. I exercise regularly, but this routine was anything but regular! The next six months I dedicated myself to getting physically prepared. I hiked Malan’s Peak weekly, in my hunting boots, carrying my 55 lb hunting pack. I also did a lot of reading to prepare myself. Articles from Bryan Martin about hunting gear and long range shooting provided me with valuable information. With the anticipation of needing to make a long range shot, I practiced shooting out to 550 yards.
The months went by quicker than I expected, and finally the date had arrived. Brett Caldwell, Randy’s partner, picked me up in Salt Lake City on November 7th for the drive to meet Randy at his home in Marysvale, Utah. I learned that night that we would be accompanied on the hunt by Dale Jennings (whom I have known since childhood) and Zac Backtell, who would help as packers. We arrived in Marysvale shortly before midnight, allowing us about five hours to rest before we continued our journey to the Escalante area. Sobering thoughts about this challenging, once in a lifetime hunt battled the child like excitement that kept giving me butterflies. Needless to say, sleep did not come easily.
The next morning, loaded with supplies for a ten day hunt, we departed for the unforgiving canyons of the Escalante. We arrived at our designated trailhead at 10:00am and began what potentially could be an eight to ten hour hike into the rugged high desert landscape. The hike in took us through
some of the most spectacular country I have ever seen. The beautiful red rock chasms and convoluted terrain of southern Utah welcomed us with their diverse shades of sandstone. The majestic cliffs and slot canyons slowed us only slightly. We hiked narrow ledges and trudged through sand swept flats and ravines. Seven hours later we were officially in sheep country. Just before we arrived at camp, Randy and Brett spotted several ewes and a small ram. As the sheep left the area a larger ram trailed out in front of them. The setting sun told us we would have to wait until the next day to get a better look at him. Mountain House food was on the menu and stories of missed and made opportunities circulated around the camp …tales of hunters who had spent fifteen to thirty days hunting, before returning home with a trophy ram. We also discussed the hiking that lay ahead of us…specifically along some narrow, high cliffs. I listened quietly, taking it all in. Our day would start before sunrise, so we retired early. I couldn’t sleep. I had not let on to Randy that I have a healthy fear of heights. I didn’t want this anxiety to prevent us from hunting an area in the unit that Randy and Brett had purposefully not hunted for several years. As I lay there all I could think about was that cliff and whether or not I would be able to make it. After a restless night we were up and packed to continue our journey into sheep country. Just before departing Zac’s zipper broke on his pack. We waited as he and Dale rigged a fix for it. My gun was strapped to my pack on my back when I suddenly noticed an expression on Randy’s face that said, “sheep”. Without asking, I instantly turned around to see a ram on the talus slope just above camp.
Without even grabbing his binoculars, Randy said “Get your gun,” and then, “Take him.” I quickly unclipped my gun and threw my pack down against the rock it had been resting on the night before. The ram was moving at a steady pace along the slope. I lay down and prepared to shoot. Everyone else took cover. The ram stopped, standing broadside at about 150 yards. I tried unsuccessfully to get the ram in my scope as Dale encouraged me to breathe. I then realized that my scope was still turned up to 14 from my long range practicing. Quickly I reached up, turned my scope down and waited for the ram to step out from behind a group of rocks.
I am not immune to “buck” fever, as my brothers will gladly tell you. As the ram reappeared, I got him in my crosshairs and squeezed the trigger… Nothing! I had forgotten to take off the safety! I turned the safety off as the ram hopped up on a car sized boulder. He turned to take one last look before heading out of sight. I knew I had to relax and shoot before it was too late. I exhaled, quickly settled the crosshairs behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Time moved in slow motion as I watched the ram collapse. Elation and disbelief set in. I had been preparing for over six months for this desert sheep hunt, and it was over in less than 24 hours!
As I approached the trophy ram and lifted his head, I was amazed at the massive, horns on this old warrior. There was no question as to why Randy made such a quick decision. The ram was eleven years old and green scored 169 B&C.
In the spring of 2008, the sheep hunting community lost a dear friend. David Elm lost his battle with cancer the last day of March. In April his family learned that he had drawn the Dirty Devil unit sheep tag that he had long sought after. Unfortunately his tag was returned to the State of Utah and given to the next hunter in line. I know that Dave was with me as I hunted that day in Escalante.
I would like to thank my Dad for instilling in me a respect for nature and a love of hunting…and especially for giving me this opportunity to hunt desert sheep. Without his generosity, this hunt would not have been possible. I am also grateful for the loving support of my wife Misti in all my hunting endeavors. I could hear the genuine excitement in her voice when I called her via satellite phone to tell her I had filled my tag. Thanks to Randy, Brett, Dale and Zac for helping me deal with my fear of heights and for sharing this short and true once in a lifetime experience.
Upon checking my ram into the DWR offices, Shooter was officially scored at 175” right on the button and was aged at 8.5 years old. No ground shrinkage on this toad! His mass was incredible. I couldn’t be happier with the ram that completes my pursuit for all four North American Wild Sheep. I would feel remiss if I didn’t thank Utah FNAWS and the DWR for providing this hunt, my sweetheart Kim for allowing me to spend time in the field, an understanding employer and HIGH DESERT Wild Sheep Guides (435)590-8139, Randy Johnson and Brett Caldwell for being with me every step of the way.
The ominous crash of thunder echoed off the red Wingate cliffs of the erosion worn Escalante gorge as bright flashes of jagged lightning crisscrossed the storm filled skies above. Under cover of the approaching storm front, with its sudden burst of cold, howling wind, dark clouds and plummeting temperature, I quickly, yet cautiously made my way down the steep rockslide, navigating through an obstacle course of boulders before crossing a timeworn sandstone swell. Upon reaching the mouth of a deep, narrow box canyon, I carefully worked my way along its precipitous edge peering down into its recesses, my eyes straining to locate the hiding place of the six year old desert bighorn ram that we had watched earlier run down into the canyon to elude the approaching storm. Suddenly, I clearly hear the unmistakable sound of hoofs grating on the sandstone below me as I continued to creep along the edge of the canyon. Climbing up over a slight rise in the landscape I was momentarily caught off guard at the sight of two trophy rams standing directly below me, their horns locked together, posturing, fighting for dominance of a band of ewes who were watching the two gallant gladiators in battle. They were standing side-by-side, facing away from me, totally oblivious to my presence. I raised my rifle and took aim on the ram furthest away from me, as I didn’t want to chance shooting both animals, then fired. The trophy ram collapsed onto the canyon floor as the impact of the bullet jerked his companion down with him. I watched in awe for a few moments as the other confused ram thrashed and struggled to free himself from his fallen combatant. I then turned and walked back over the sandstone swale to locate my guide, Randy Johnson, who was making his way down the steep rockslide carrying both backpacks. My quest for a desert bighorn sheep was finally over. With the adrenalin dissipating from my system I suddenly found myself physically and mentally numb from the exhilarating yet draining experience that I had worked so hard and sacrificed so much for. The opportunity to finally harvest one of these majestic, incredible and scarce animals had finally reached closure. The feeling at that precise moment in time was indescribable.
My story begins the same as for most sheep hunters. . . with the annual application process for the very limited and highly coveted number of permits to hunt wild sheep in North America. In 2002, Utah had allotted only two tags for non-resident hunters to pursue desert bighorn sheep in their state and these permits were given out through a lottery process with increased odds for selection based on the number of unsuccessful prior applications. Selection is definitely a “Once In A Lifetime” opportunity. Applications were due in January with the results to be released in April.
This past April, I was personally caught up in the North Texas Telecom crash and was released from my high-tech company due to the slowing economy. Soon after and still in shock from losing my job, I received in the mail a notification that my application had been drawn to hunt desert bighorn sheep in the isolated and extremely rugged Escalante unit of Utah. The odds for me drawing this permit were one out of one thousand and forty-nine applicants. Under normal circumstances, I would have been celebrating my good fortune. However, being the sole provider of a family of five and with three small children at home. I just didn’t know what to do. I decided to sit down with my wonderful wife and we had one of those difficult husband/wife discussions. Fortunately, I am blessed with a wife who understands the pursuit of life’s goals and dreams and we decided to make the financial sacrifices to allow me to pursue my desert bighorn hunt and personal goal of completing a “Grand Slam” of North America Wild Sheep. I had previously harvested a Dall in Alaska in 1998 and a Stone in the Yukon in 2000 and had planned to hunt a Rocky Mountain in 2002, but the slowing economy had put a delay to this plan. Now things had really taken an unexpected turn.
Along with searching for a job, I went into information gathering mode on the Escalante unit and soon found out why it is considered one of the most difficult areas to hunt in the lower 48 states. The Escalante is a designated Wilderness Area and being so has extremely limited access, not to mention scarce water and an incredibly formidable broken terrain dissected by Grand Canyon like canyons cutting deep into the heart of its myriad of high desert plateaus. I briefly considered going on a self-guided hunt before coming to my senses and choosing to hire a guide. With truly a "Once-In-A-Lifetime" opportunity, I wanted to stack the odds in my favor as much as possible. After much research I contacted Randy Johnson of Marysvale, Utah, and asked him to guide me on my “Once-In-A-Lifetime” desert sheep hunt. Randy is not only a legendary sheep guide in the Escalante but is a outdoor-magazine writer, a published fictional author, extreme hunter and is famous for having discovered the “Buck of Justice” (thought by many people to be the world’s most massive mule deer shed pickup). He lives in Southern Utah and has been hunting, hiking, exploring, and guiding in this wild wilderness area of southern Utah for most of his adult life.
This hunt would be strictly a backpack hunt in the broken sandstone country that resembles a lunar landscape (Insert Picture Of Escalante #1). Randy advised me that the first thing to do was to schedule an all-inclusive physical examination and then get myself into a marathon level of physical conditioning. He stressed that getting in and out of prime desert sheep country would be both a mental and physical challenge. Needless to say my stone sheep hunt in the Yukon Territory had been physically demanding and with the confidence of the innocent, I began preparing for my 2002 Escalante desert sheep hunt.
The summer months past quickly as I searched for a job and took great pride in my physical workouts, conditioning and hardening my body for the hunt as Randy and I stayed in close contact. I finally landed a job in Virginia and started work on September 13, with the stipulation that my employer would allow me to take a three-week unpaid leave to go on this hunt. They were very understanding. A short, unbelievable four weeks later I was actually on a plane flying to Cedar City, Utah.
Randy met me at the small Cedar City airport. We quickly claimed my bags and hit the road for the Glen Canyon National Recreation.. There were two isolated desert bighorn areas, which Randy had pre-scouted. He decided to first hike up the Escalante River and then climb out of the river onto the massive Steven’s Plateau (Insert Picture of Escalante River #2). We arrived at the trailhead just at dusk, organized our gear and provisioned enough freeze-dried food for a seven-day backpack trip into sheep country. We packed as light as practical, no tent and no rain gear. Taking only the essentials, our cumbersome packs still weighed over 60 pounds each. It was an hour’s hike in the gathering darkness to the canyon rim far above the Escalante River that led down into its seemingly bottomless depths. In the light of our headlamps we lowered our backpacks over a cliff down into the canyon by rope, wiggled our way through a fissure in the sandstone, and then made our way down a steep sand dune toward the sound of the river below. It was pitch black in the canyon by the time we reached the river where we pitched camp for the night under a sandstone ledge.
It wasn’t long until a bright, extremely luminous, huge white moon poked its face over the rim of the deep gorge bathing the canyon in light. The moon’s rays were not only bright but felt oddly warm like sunlight shining on my face as I struggled to fall asleep, anxious at the unknown challenges ahead of me. With the serenading chorus of frogs along the river I finally slipped into a fitful sleep. Morning arrived slowly as we arose and broke camp. I put on an old pair of tennis shoes and some shorts as we started wading up the river, trying to avoid small pockets of sucking quicksand. This section of the river gets quite a bit of foot traffic as hikers come down into the canyon and wade up the river to see the magnificent geologic splendor of Steven’s Arch.
Very few hikers venture very far past the arch and soon the footprints in the wet mud ceased. Four hours of wading the ice-cold river found us at the bottom of a canyon chute that would lead us up and out of the river and onto the top of our hunting country. We quickly changed into our hunting clothes, hiking boots and started working our way up the steep, rock filled chute. I quickly learned how to walk flat-footed on the steep slopes to gain better traction and also not to trust any footing or handhold. I likened this method of moving around to aerobatic wing walking … you don’t let go of one wing strut until you are sure that you have a good grip on the next as any slip or fall could be disastrous. That first day we saw two groups of eight sheep as we neared the top of the plateau including two small rams. Randy had a specific location picked out for a base camp, which he had located on one of his earlier scouting trips. We arrived just before dark after more than 12 hours of continuous hiking.
Base camp was little more than a high point in the middle of the Stevens Plateau, sheltered by a few ageless but hardy mountain cedars. In a sandy area we scratched out sleeping areas to place our ground cover over, then crawled into the comfort of our sleeping bags. This would be our base of operations for the next six days. Our daily routine was to rise before dawn, quickly down some instant oatmeal and then hike to elevated buttes where we set up to glass. This was not always easy, as we had to work our way around immense canyons to reach our points of destination. A snack of cheese and dried
summer sausage was our usual lunch with a freeze-dried meal (they never quite hydrate completely)consumed for dinner upon returning to camp. Late on the fourth day, we spotted what we were looking for. . . three good rams feeding in the bottom of one of the formidable canyons (Insert Picture of Canyon #4). One was a tremendous ram with great mass and length that might book. Randy hustled me out onto a narrow peninsula where we worked our way into position above the ram for a shot. With Randy telling me to hold low, and grasping my belt while setting on my legs to keep me from falling into the near vertical canyon, I took aim at the ram 250 feet below me. You can probably guess what happened, I shot twice over the ram. Not knowing where I hit on the last shot and with the ram disappearing into the maze of boulders without appearing again Randy and I spent the entire next day locating a route into the canyon to assure our self’s that I had indeed missed cleanly. On day seven we had ran out of food and were forced to reluctantly head off of the plateau and back to the trailhead to re-provision and regroup. Thankfully, we chose to spend one night recovering in a soft bed at a motel in Escalante where we treated ourselves to hot showers and a great Prime Rib dinner and topped it off with an ice-cream sundae at the local cafe. The next morning we were up before dawn, stopping at a convenience store to carbo load on some chocolate donuts and whole milk, then headed to a different trailhead in the Moody Canyon complex. Randy had decided we would change areas and to try our luck in the maze of canyons enveloping the Waterpocket Fold country. The hike into the Moody complex wouldn’t be quite as physically demanding as getting onto the Stevens Plateau but once on top moving off into the remote canyons would be just as difficult. Water would be harder to find, but the weather report called for rain. With the possibility of rain, we decided to carry a tent to provide some shelter just in case the weatherman happened to be correct. Randy carried the tent and I carried the rain fly and poles. We also took some Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) for provisions just in case we were unable to find enough water to hydrate the freeze-dried meals. It turned out to be a wise decision on both counts.
To reach the top of the Moody Plateau, Randy and I climbed straight up a steep talus slide before reaching the base of a cliff. My physical conditioning was definitely paying dividends. To reach the top I would have to inch my way out onto a narrow ledge, rope up, and then climb hand over hand up a 10-foot vertical section of cliff. Randy someway squirmed through a narrow crevice in the cliff, climbed to the top, then attached a climbing rope to a giant boulder, and threw it down to me. After he pulled up the packs I took a deep breath and climbed hesitantly up and over the cliff. What an experience! A rope break or slip would most likely have resulted in a serious injury.
Heavy rain fell on us the second day in the Moody Complex. Although it wasn’t conducive to hunting the moisture was welcomed as we were finding it extremely difficult to locate enough water to keep ourselves hydrated. MRE’s sustained us until there was ample water to allow cooking of the freeze-dried meals. The sheep were elusive but we kept at it and on the evening of the fourth day in one of Randy’s secret canyons we spotted a band of sheep feeding on a terrace that contained a good ram. We devised a plan to rise before sun up, circle around the backside of the terrace under the cover of darkness and then climb up through the cliffs to a high point for a shot. This plan worked flawlessly and just before we reached the prominent point, the ram appeared out of nowhere. He was trotting directly toward us at 150 yards. Quickly I dropped to one knee and fired, shooting just over him. Before I could take another shot the ram had disappeared from sight. Randy had to be wondering to himself if I had ever shot a gun before. Biting his tongue he told me that the odds were getting pretty slim on getting me another shot at a ram before our time ran out. His exact words were “it’s going to take a miracle”.
With my head held low in disappointment, we began hiking back to the sandstone ledge where we had bivouacked the night before to break camp. As we hiked Randy continually glassed ahead of us. Somehow he pulled another rabbit out of his hat, spotting another group of sheep with at least one good ram in the group far up the plateau. However, when we finally reached the location where he had seen the sheep they had evaporated into the landscape. Cautiously continuing on toward our spike camp Randy glanced back over his shoulder and spied a lone ram out on some slickrock below us. The youngster was getting a drink from a slight depression in the sandstone. He was a young two year old with lamb tips. We slowly crouched down and ducked into a group of sparse cedars for cover. Soon we were able to make out two ewes and another larger ram. The larger ram appeared to be a five or six year old that would score in the low 150’s. My miracle was starting to take shape. The young ram had spotted us and just couldn’t take his eyes off our location. Finally, his curiosity got the better of him and he climbed up through the ledges to within 30 yards of the group of cedars we were hiding behind. He paced back and forth in front of the cedar trees trying to get a reaction from us, snorting and stomping. Finally, after thirty minutes he headed back down to join the other sheep. While this was going on the larger ram ran down a steep slide and out of our sight into a narrow box canyon below us. Randy took this opportunity to try to scare the other sheep off of the sandstone swale so we could make a stalk on the larger ram. Of course, the small ram and ewes were not going to scare easy. Randy stood up, waved his arms, chucked some rock, all to no avail. We then rose from our hiding place and moved further down toward the canyon. I got myself into a shooting position on a flat boulder 500 yards above the slide where we had last seen the older ram disappear into the narrow box canyon. Suddenly, a fierce storm raised his ugly head with the wind gusting furiously, the sky darkening, and the temperature dropping 25 degrees. I started to tremble from the cold and both Randy and I were forced to dig into our packs for more clothing and rain gear. Randy suggested that I use the cover of the storm to move quickly down off the ledges onto the rim of the box canyon with the hope that the big ram was hunkering down to avoid the sudden storm. With time at a premium Randy would then follow behind me carrying both of our packs. Under camouflage of the approaching storm, with its microburst winds and flashing lightning, I quickly made my way down out of the ledges and across the sandstone swell. The rest is history. . . Unbelievably, I found two great rams locked in combat. Unable to unlock their horns they were tearing up everything in sight. I took a deep breath, placed the cross-hairs of my scope on the ram furthest from me and touched off the shot. What an unreal sequence as both rams dropped onto the slickrock. Time appeared to be in slow motion as it felt like hours although it was only seconds before the second ram was able to free himself from the horns of his dead opponent. He must have thought that he was one tough ram to have dropped his combatant in his tracks. My shot had broken the other great rams neck killing him instantly. After my successful shot, I must have been in a daze as I glanced up to see Randy making his way across the slickrock with our packs. I raised my gun over my head to signal success. He yelled his congratulations as I tried to explain what had transpired. Meeting at the mouth of the steep chute leading down into the narrow canyon, we exchanged high fives and war whoops of joy. Shortly afterward, Randy was surprised to see the ram that we had spotted earlier run past us, followed by some ewes, and then the tremendous ram that had been locked in combat with the trophy I shot. Randy said this ram would have scored over 165. They all ran by us at less than thirty yards. We had to rope down two near vertical ledges before lowing ourselves down onto the narrow floor of the canyon to reach the trophy of a lifetime. The storm passed as quickly as it had appeared and my miracle was complete.
After Randy had caped the ram for a full body mount and we had deboned the meat we labored under the weight of very heavy packs to get out of the
canyon. It was pitch black when we finally made it back to where we had pitched the tent two days before, very happy but bone dead tired. Then, the following morning it was another strenuous eight-hour hike to get off of the Moody Plateau and back to the trailhead where Randy’s truck was located. After twelve physically demanding days in the field, Randy and I had lost twenty-five pounds of combined weight in pursuit of my desert bighorn sheep and the experience had left me wondering if I had another sheep hunt in me. I guarantee that I would do it all over again in a fraction of a second! The Utah Fish and Game scored my ram at 163 2/8 and aged him at 13 years of age. What an incredible animal. Looking back now, all the pain and sacrifices were an insignificant price to pay for the achievement of a lifetime goal. I am now applying for a coveted rocky mountain bighorn permit with fingers crossed hoping to pull a tag and complete the final leg of my “Grand Slam”. I’m definitely prepared to head into the mountains again. The joy of sheep hunting is indeed indescribable. A special thanks, to my family for their support, to Randy Johnson for providing me with a hunting experience that I will treasure the rest of my life, and finally to FNAWS for their efforts in putting wild sheep back on the mountains.
SOME DREAMS DON’T COME TRUE…
By Bruce Kirkpatrick
My desire to hunt North American wild sheep was born in May of 1990. While meeting with the president of a civil engineering firm in Missoula, Montana, I found it difficult to keep my attention on the job interview. The mount of a beautiful Rocky Mountain Ram was staring at me from behind his desk. At that precise moment I decided that I wanted to one-day pursue these regal creatures. Unable to find employment, I was forced to return home to Pennsylvania where the economy was somewhat better.
Living back east, I continued to hone my passion for whitetails, taking a couple of nice Iowa bruisers with my bow. However, my sheep hunting dream remained in its infancy until my wife, Michele, and I vacationed to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada in September 2005. It was there that we saw several Big Horns, including one majestic ram perched high atop a craggy bluff overlooking the highway. The fire of my sheep-hunting dream had been rekindled.
I then discovered that during the 15-year hiatus from when I had seen that first mount, I should have been doing my homework. Having the opportunity to go sheep hunting tends to require a lot of luck or a lot of money, usually some of both!
I began applying for sheep in a few states in 2006 and several more in 2007. Imagine my unbelievable surprise on April 23, 2007 when I opened an email from the Utah Division of Wildlife. It simply said “SUCCESSFUL for hunt 26-957”. I was in total disbelief! I must have made a mistake on the application or was there a computer glitch? It’s impossible to draw the Kaiparowits-Escalante non-resident Desert Sheep Tag in Utah with no bonus points; isn’t it? The following day I checked with my credit card company and they confirmed that there indeed was a charge for the license fee. It was only then that I allowed myself to celebrate.
I later learned that I was the only tag drawn from a pool of 2221 applicants. When factoring in the bonus points, my odds of drawing this tag were one in 10,423! Incomprehensibly, my dream was becoming a reality.
The first call I made was to the Huntin’ Fool to see what I should do next. Adam Bronson returned my call within a few hours. Being a sheep hunting “rookie”, I explained to Adam that I was definitely considering hiring a guide. He recommended that I call Randy Johnson of High Desert Wild Sheep Guides, saying that there was no one more capable of helping me find a nice ram in Utah than Randy.
Within a few days I had booked a trip with Randy for the season opener. I had been doing some physical training, but really ratcheted up the effort after drawing the Once-in-a-Lifetime tag. By the end of the summer I had spent countless hours at the gym and hiked over 350 miles, much of it with a loaded pack. I had also fired over two-hundred rounds from my 300 Remington Short-Action Ultra Mag. I felt well prepared for my first sheep hunt, or so I thought!
The day after my 43rd birthday, I was on a westbound jet with the final destination of St. George, Utah. What a relief to see all of my baggage coming off of the plane as I walked across the tarmac. I was greeted at the airport by Randy’s brother, Bryant Johnson and Gale Erye, a friend of Bryant’s. We quickly loaded my gear into Bryant’s pick-up and headed east about 2-1/2 hours toward Big Water, Utah to meet up with Randy. The hunt seemed to be coming together, as Randy reported seeing a group of sheep that included two mature rams. We were later joined by Ken Davis, another accomplished sheep hunter from this great state.
The opening morning of the hunt found us climbing upward through some rugged ledges, trying to find access to a high mesa. We were following some sheep that Bryant had seen slip over the top of the mesa. Bryant is about 6’4” with legs longer than most men his height. I practically had to jog to keep up to him at times. We broke out onto the top of the mesa and discovered that the sheep were trailing along the rim of the canyon to the north of the rocky pass we had just picked our way through. Earlier, Bryant had spotted the head of a ewe on the crest of a ridge at first light, but that band of sheep had only a marginal ram in it. A short time later, while Randy and I were glassing another area, Bryant had seen the group that we were currently tracking, running for the top of the mesa. He had counted twelve sheep, including one possible “shooter ram”.
We continued to follow the band of sheep’s tracks in the sand through the Pinion Pine and Juniper that covered the broken-up, sandstone mesa. After hiking roughly three miles, we cut off to a high point along a towering cliff line to try to locate the sheep up ahead of us. About a thousand yards away, we spotted the sheep just as they were heading up a small draw toward the crest of a ridge. Randy and Bryant were able to get a better look at the ram
and decided that he was not quite mature enough to continue to pursue. About that time the weather turned sour as the dark, foreboding skies opened up with heavy rain. On the treacherous hike down off the mesa, Bryant was almost bitten by a western diamondback rattlesnake as he stepped between the rocks where the annoyed reptile was seeking shelter. Shortly before the required detour around the snake, I slipped and fell hard when lowering myself down over a very slick ledge. Luckily, neither I, nor my rifle, suffered any damage. This sheep hunting was turning out to be as tough as I had imagined.
Once off of the mesa, we hurriedly met up with Ken and Gale, who had been glassing farther out the canyon. They had spotted one lone sheep a considerable distance away, but weren’t able to get a good look at it. We headed out to the trucks and back to base camp to escape the worsening storm.
Bryant and Gale had to return home to other obligations, wishing us good luck as they headed out on muddy, rain-slicked roads. As Randy, Ken and I settled down for the night, a fierce thunderstorm raged outside. The rain hammered the sides of the small camp trailer to the point we thought it would be dented. As the pounding rain began to let up, I quickly slipped into a deep slumber.
All too soon it seemed that the hunt was over and I was at home in Pennsylvania without a ram. But strangely, I couldn’t remember any of the details of the hunt other than the first day. Something just didn’t seem right! As I clawed my way out of one of those dreams that are so vivid you’d swear they are real, I reached around in the dark to make sure that I was still in the camper. This was one dream that I did not want to come true. Not wanting to rattle Randy or Ken, I kept the dream to myself.
We awoke early to a partly cloudy sky and prepared to head to the east side of the unit. We were planning to ride four-wheelers as far as the road would allow and then hike to a location to look for one of the rams that Randy had spotted while previously scouting. However, as we attempted to cross Wahweep Creek, we discovered that the rain had the normally docile stream swollen to the point that it was impassible. Our luck seemed to be heading down-hill as we then discovered that Ken’s wheeler had a flat tire. In my head I kept hearing my father-in-law repeat his favorite verse: “All things work together for good…” This was just a minor setback! The verse would echo through my mind several times during the next few days.
As we repaired the flat tire, we decided to spend the day riding and glassing as many areas as we could, hoping to locate a prospective ram. We set off on slick, mud covered roads, headed in the direction of the Arizona-Utah Border. As the day wore on, the hot desert sun quickly dried out the roads and what had started out as slick mud rapidly turned to eye-stinging dust. By the end of the day, we had ridden nearly 85 miles and seen some ruggedly beautiful country, but no sheep. With the sun beginning to touch the horizon, Randy spotted a band of sheep with a decent ram trailing along a slick rock dome. Disappointingly, we were unable to study him long before he disappeared behind a large bolder.
The following day we were finally able to cross Wahweep Creek and return to our original plan. After hiking up our targeted canyon, we split, with Ken climbing to the top of a high point while Randy and I hiked farther up the canyon to glass. We kept track of Ken and after a short time he signaled that he had spotted some sheep. He directed us where to go and Randy and I initiated a stalk. We got to a position where we thought we should be able to see the sheep, but were unable to locate them. Rather than proceed, we backed out and hiked to Ken’s position to determine why the sheep had disappeared.
When we reached Ken, he told us that the sheep had moved down hill and crossed the upper end of the canyon. Randy and I soon began another stalk up the opposite side of the canyon. We were within 750 yards of the sheep before we finally spotted them. There was a solid, mature ram in the group. Having no cover between the sheep and us, we were forced to hide behind what rocks we could find. Painstakingly, we closed the distance to 540 yards, but the ram was moving and the wind was gusty. As we took a gamble and pushed in as quickly as we could, we were able approach within 225 yards of the ewes, but the ram had disappeared, slipping up a side canyon. “All things work together for good” was running through my mind once again as we descended back down the canyon before darkness enveloped the land once again.
As the sun broke over the eastern horizon on Tuesday morning, the dawning day, full of optimism and hope, found us headed toward the Smokey Mountains to glass from one of Randy’s favorite, high pinnacles. The three of us split up around the rim of a great looking canyon, but kept within sight of each other. After about an hour of glassing I noticed that Randy and Ken were sitting together, with their focus in the same direction. Soon Randy motioned for me to work my way over to them. I was hoping that they had spotted a respectable ram.
Looking through Randy’s spotting scope, I was excited to see two nice rams interlocking their horns, posturing in a “dominant” pushing match. The ram on the right was slightly larger. Randy and I quickly prepared to make the stalk. Ken would stay and watch from his vantage point.
I followed Randy as closely as I could, watching each footstep and trying to place my feet in the same position. We dropped off the rugged rim, maneuvering ourselves down a rocky chute. We continued into a canyon that would conceal our movement from the 15 ewes that were with the rams. After covering the mile long, very intense stalk up a deep ravine, we rounded a point in the canyon where Randy spotted the rams on a bluff about a quarter mile ahead. They had left the ewes and were moving toward the edge of some mean looking country, where they would be impossible to stalk. We had the ravine working in our favor this time and quickly closed the distance to 360 yards.
As we crawled up onto a rocky ledge, I attempted to load a round into the chamber, but my gun jammed. I worked frantically to clear the jammed cartridge. After seconds that seemed like an eternity, I was finally able to chamber the first of three rounds. I use a ballistic style reticle; however, the scope must be set to full power to be accurate. In my haste to get the rams in the scope I had reduced the zoom. Squeezing off my first shot, it rocketed well over the back of the larger ram. Randy half shouted, “You’re way over!” I think he was wondering if I had ever shot my rifle before.
Remembering the zoom, I quickly turned the scope to full power and chambered another round. I had the ram in the crosshairs and fired a second shot. This time Randy said, “You’re just over his back. Stay calm and aim just a little lower.” With my attention focused on the scope, I had failed to notice that the rams had bolted down the hill about 40 yards on the first shot.
The larger ram was quartering toward me, from left to right. The other ram was to his left, standing broadside. As I settled the crosshairs on the larger ram’s shoulder, his partner walked directly behind him. Anxiously hoping the large ram would hold his position, I was forced to hold the shot. As soon as the second ram cleared, I fired the third and final round in my gun. Dust flew from behind the ram, as both Randy and I thought that I had missed again! Both rams tore off for the safety of the canyon rim, as I hurriedly dug into my shell holder for another round.
As the large ram ran he slowed down, and began moving downward on the side hill. He soon stumbled and Randy exclaimed “You hit him!” Suddenly he started to quiver and piled-up just out of sight in a small gully. My third shot had found its mark, drilling the ram just in front of the shoulder, ripping through the “boiler room” before exiting and striking a rock on the other side. Randy started yelling, “You got your ram, you got your ram!”
The emotions of what had just happened were over-powering. I thanked God for an incredible adventure and continue to feel truly blessed for everything that has transpired to make this experience a reality.
After spending a few minutes admiring my ram, I soon called Michele on my cell phone and told her what had happened. She was elated, as I sensed in her voice, her excitement for me. Michele is an incredible wife who eagerly supports my hunting pursuits. I wished she could have been there to celebrate with us.
We took lots of pictures as Ken made his way over to us to help cape and bone the ram. Ken is 69 years of age, but he can keep up with anyone on the mountain. It took about three hours to prepare the ram for packing. Randy took the bulk of the meat while Ken had the cape, as I proudly packed my horns.
As we made our way back to the top of the rim, I continued to ponder the incredible odds of being where I was. To have been drawn for a Desert Sheep tag the first year that I had applied, and then to harvest an incredible ram on the fourth day of the hunt was truly extraordinary.
Randy asked me if I had a name for my ram. I came up with “Arizona” because of his massive, flared tips, his genetics appear to come from transplanted sheep from that state. “Arizona” is a beautiful ram. His left is the strong side with over 33 inches of length. He holds his mass well and scores nearly 161 points. Not all dreams come true, but I’m glad some of the good ones do!
by Jeff Jones
Having been born and raised in Utah into a family that has has loved and cherished spending quality time in the great outdoors, exposed me at an early age to those incredible adrenalin highs that come from pursuing big game. Hunting with family and friends has provided me with experiences that I will treasure and remember forever. These"out on the mountain" experiences have played a very important role in shaping my identity. Knowing that my father and uncle had completed their Grand Slam of North AmericanWild Sheep gave me the desire to follow in their footsteps as I set an individual goal to accomplish the same, very difficult feat.
We slowly made our way down the rocky slope to my ram, anxious to see my trophy. Again, I felt great satisfaction as I admired, not only the beauty of his heavy horns, but the almost sacred experience of getting the opportunity to hunt such a magnificent animal. The length and mass were exceptional. As I picked up his head and marveled at my prize I was humbled at how fortunate I was. After taking pictures and recountingthe experience over and over we caped the ram and prepared the meat for the hike back to rendezvous with my dad, who had heard us yellingfrom miles away. After a very steep, hot, and exhausting hike we arrived back at the point we had spotted my ram from. As I unloaded thehorns from my pack and reflected upon what had happened to me that day I was overcome with pure emotion and wept tears of joy. Taking a168" Utah Desert ram with those family members and close friends that mean so much to me is as good as it getsl My thanks goes out to everyone that made this once-in-a-lifetime experience happen.
Mark quickly ranged the ram at 125 yards at a 20-degree angle below us. After Randy's coaching and making sure the ram I had in the crosshairs of my Leupold scope was the correct one, I gently squeezed the trigger. The ram bolted backward with the impact of the bullet, then staggered a few steps down the steep slope. I quickly chambered a second round that provided the reality that my dream ram was finally mine! Immediately, I jumped to my feet yelling at the top of my lungs with sheer joy. I cannot describe the feeling that washed over me as I stood in total awe of what had just happened. Suddenly emotions of joy, accomplishment, and relief overcame me. It was one of those special times in my life that I will never forget.
At age 22, I had my first experience hunting wild sheep in Alaska. I was fortunate to be successful in completing the first step of my lifelong Grand Slam goal. A couple of years laterI was fortunate enough to harvest another Dall ram, then a beautiful Stone sheep on an incredibly difficult and physical hunt.
I was then able to obtain a sheep permit for the Kaparowitz Unit in the rugged high desert of southern Utah. This available tag was a direct result of the efforts from the UtahFoundation of North American Wild Sheep and their commitment to putting sheep on the mountain.
I knew that this opportunity would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that required my complete personal commitment to be in top physical and mental condition. I becameacquainted with Randy Johnson and Brett Caldwell of High Desert Wild Sheep Guides. I knew that if I wanted to be successful in taking a quality ram it was essential to have them be a part of my experience. I knew that they were the best and most experienced guides in Utah. Randy and Brett knew the area well and had guided sheep hunters successfully in this diverse unit in the past.
I spent time with Randy and my dad on Memorial Day weekend looking over the unit and then Randy and Brett
took advantage of Labor Day weekend to scout the area with me several weeks before the opening of my hunt. We saw some rams but none were the quality that we were looking for.
The season began on Saturday, September 20th. Randy and Brett mapped out a plan to leave for the unit on the 18th so that we could spend several days before the opener to lookfor the ram that I had dreamed about. lt was decided that each of us woutd look at different targeted areas, covering as much terrain as possible. This time we had better luck, aswe located several large rams though none were of the caliber that I had my sights set on.
On Friday evening, the night before the hunt, my cousin, Mark, joined us at sheep camp. He came to spend the weekend with me to help and experience those special moments thatonly come with hunting wild sheep.
Opening morning we were in a different area still searching for my special ram. We did find sheep, and one ram with great potential, but not the bruiser that met my highexpectations. That evening while in Randy's camp trailer, enjoying a great home cooked dinner we planned the next day's hunt. Randy suggested that we focus our efforts in a completely new area that he felt could be hiding the ram of my dreams.
The next day Mark and my dad were sent into separate areas while Randy and I glassed a large, rugged canyon. After glassing for about 30 minutes across the canyon into an endless maze of broken up washes and talus slopes that eventualty fed into a larger drainage below, Randy motioned to me that he had found some sheep. I quickly moved to hisposition. He had glassed four rams and eight ewes, some bedded and some on the move along the edge of a large, rocky cirque. The rams were in hot pursuit of the ewes while competing with one another. After studying the sheep for a moment one ram stepped into view that instantly drew my attention. I knew immediately that we needed to get a closerlook at him.
The next hour passed very slowly as Mark and my dad joined us at our glassing point. Randy, Mark, and I gathered our packs and equipment while my dad positioned himself suchthat he could signal any movement of the sheep to us. The heat was stifling.
The rams finally bedded in a ravine of boulders out of sight. This allowed us the opportunity to make a long stalk without being in view of the rams. We wound our way down a very precarious, steep slope into the wash below. After crossing the wash we then climbed up a very steep canyon on the ' backside of the mountain, doing a little ledge hanging at times, all the time remaining out of view of the sheep.
After about an hour and a half we finally neared the top of a short saddle that Randy felt would place us just above the rams. We stopped to take off our packs as I chambered abullet into my Christensen Arms 270 Winchester short mag. Crawling inch by inch through the sharp rocks and puncture weeds on our bellies, we reached the crest of the saddle. Icould now see into a hidden pocket that had been out of view from our original spotting point several miles away. Randy immediatety picked up a couple of rams and ewes. Somehow the sheep sensed that we were above them. The rams, however, continued their rutting activity 150 yards below us. Suddenly the big ram appeared from behind a rocky outcrop in hot pursuit of a receptive ewe. lmmediately, I knew that this was my ram, the trophy I had been waiting years for.
of a sheep hunter
by Randy Johnson
What is there about sheep hunting that causes grown men and women to become infected with a contagious disease named "Wanderlust" that sends them on adventures around theworld? Why do they temporarily lose their sanity to willingly sacrifice hard earned
financial resources, then risk life and limb to cross raging rivers or climb rugged mountain ranges that laugh at their insignificant human challengers?
I caught the incurable "Wanderlust," better known as "Sheep Fever," years ago. lt's my personal bias that each of us become addicted for a variety of reasons. Personally, I love theunmatched physical and mental challenges as I venture into a sheep's domain. Where can you find such an unprecedented, natural, pure adrenaline rush as when you match yourselfagainst the unpredictable forces of mother nature and the majesty of animals who in-habit the most formidable yet beautiful country on earth? From the wild splendor of Canada tothe jagged volcanic canyons of Baja, the vast steppes of Asia to the maze of unforgiving sandstone gorges in
Southern Utah, wild sheep have captivated man with their priceless grandeur for unspoken centuries. They capture our imagination and dwell in our dreams with hypnotic spells that cannot be broken. These are the factors that cause each of us to continuously seek to inhale the infectious virus labeled "sheep hunting." lt permeates our souls, leading us on new adventures and undaunted explorations. lt gives us the will, the determination to promote, preserve, and dedicate ourselves to the preservation of wild sheep in the 21st century.
Taking a Stone sheep has always been a lifelong dream of mine. lt was one of those ellusive goals that I didn't expect would ever become reality. These hunts are expensive and normally beyond the grasp of an average person's financial ability. What would life be, however, if we didn't have goals to shoot for? I just felt lucky to have had the opportunity totake a magnificent Dall sheep six years ago in the Northwest Territories after making the decision to accompany my daughter Marissa on her mountain caribou hunt after she won the Youth Essay Contest sponsored by FNAWS. This caribou hunt is graciously donated by Kelly and Heather Hougen of Arctic Red River Outfitters each year for our youth. What a great experience for a young person who may never get such an opportunity! Several years prior to going on my Dall hunt I had the privilege of taking a coveted desert ram after winning a drawing for a tag donated by the local chapter of FNAWS in my home state of Utah.
Believing I might not have the good fortune of ever taking another ram by myself I began guiding hunters for desert sheep in Southern Utah a few years ago. I chose to do thisbecause of my absolute love for sheep hunting. The fact that l've spent most of my life learning the secrets of the remarkable Escalante canyons and Kaiparowitz Plateau country was also a factor in my decision. Helping someone else to take a ram is a real honor and gives you the opportunity to continue experienc- ing the excitement of sheep hunting.
ln early June of 1999 I was preparing to take a lucky permittee out scouting for a desert ram in the scorching summer heat. When you have sheep fever the weather doesn't seem tomatter. One morning at work l was surprised to receive a call from a good friend of mine. C
o¡ncidentally, last year at the FNAWS Convention he had booked his second Stone sheep hunt and was scheduled to go with Jerry Geraci, owner of Upper Stikine River Adventures inNorthern British Columbia.They were planning on hunting some new country that Jerry had never been in before. My friend was booked to leave on his hunt the last of July. Becausehe wanted to concentrate entirely on scouting for his Utah desert ram that he had drawn, he was looking for someone to purchase his Stone hunt. He wasn't worried about finding ataker. Garth knew that killing a Stone was a goal high on my list and thought the price for this hunt was a real bargain. lt just might be within my price range. Well, I swallowed hard, told him that l would get back by the end of the week, looked at my schedule (as a superintendent in a rural school district I wear a lot of hats), reviewed my hunting funds,took my wife out to dinner, then did the unthinkable, I jumped at the opportunity. I phoned Garth to tell him he could count on me! The sheep virus had struck again. I hadwanderlust! I couldn't believe l was actually going after my Stone.
With less than two months before I was due to leave I began experiencing unpredictable anxiety. I phoned Jerry Geraci to finalize all details, purchased my airline tickets, researchedtopo maps of the Stikine Mountains, and even studied weather patterns for the region I would be hunting. I also contacted other hunters who had booked with Jerry. I was a nervous wreck knowing this would be a "once in a lifetime opportunity" for me and that I couldn't afford to blow it. The clock was ticking. I was fortunate that physical conditioning wasn't aproblem due to the fact that I stay in good shape scouting for desert sheep and tro- phy mule deer the year round in Southern Utah.
Time moved at a snail's pace. lt seemed as if the days and weeks were twice as long. Finally, the departure date, July 28, was in sight. I bribed my wife by offering her a shopping trip if she would drive me five hours to Las Vegas. She was more than happy to accommodate my request, dropping me off at McCarran lnternational Airport so she and my daughtercould go to
the malls. lt wasn't surprising that I arrived at the terminal five hours before my scheduled 11:00 p.m. flight. I flew into Vancouver that night arriving at 2:00 a.m. where I had afour hour layover. Nervous I would sleep through my connecting flight at 6:00 a.m., I wasn't able to get a wink of shuteye. You might say I was a little wound up. ln the airport I meta fellow sheep hunter from Austria who didn't speak a word of English. Somehow we found a way to communicate, finding that we had a lot in common (must have been the guncases). He was scheduled on the same morning flight as me, although he was booked with a different outfitter. We shared pictures and stories then helped each other board the plane that flew us into Smithers, a picturesque little town nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. I quickly waved good-bye after my new friend was met by his outfitter whohurried him to another flight. I was relieved when one of Jerry's assistants introduced herself to me, but was upset when we discovered that the airline had flown my duffel bag back to Vancouver. Luckily, I got it back later that day. ln Smithers there were some problems with the float plane, so three other hunters and I were driven eight hours via the AlaskanHighway to Dease Lake. I enjoyed seeing the country and wildlife but was definitely getting tired of sitting. Finally, our chartered Turbo Beaver arrived the following afternoon, and we were flown out to base camp at Tucho Lake. After meeting Jerry's staff, getting acquainted with the facilities and eating a gourmet meal of moose tenderloin, we sat outside in our shirt sleeves, swatted a few kamikaze mosquitoes, then admired a spectacular flaming orange sunset. The tranquil setting was invigorating. Later that night in my cabin Ilistened to a pack of snarling, growling wolves who seemed to be much too close to camp. Apparently, they had pulled down a calf moose in the willows. There was no mistaking thechilling, blood curdling noises of the predator's feeding frenzy. Later, I fell into a deep sleep as my dreams were filled with visions of finding a big ram.
Our wranglers were up early the next morning preparing the horses for an eight hour ride to a secluded spike camp. As I mounted up I knew we were in for a long day. I thoroughlyenjoyed the incred¡ble scenery and pristine beauty.
We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning. After a huge breakfast consisting of bacon, eggs, and fried potatoes, Jerry sentme backpacking with two guides and another hunter. He was going to join us later with the pack horses. We climbed over a steep mountain, following an old trail that had been carved through the thick undergrowth. Bear sign was everywhere. It felt great to bewalking again. The weather was beautiful, unusually hot, causing each of us to strip down to t-shirts by the time we arrived at alocation named Rub Camp. It wasn't difficult to see how the camp got its name - there were giant moose scrapes all over the pine trees. Later that day Jerry and a couple of wranglers led the pack horses into camp. We wouldn't see the horses from then on. Atthat point Jerry, a new guide named Roger Pellerin and I separated from the other hunters. We were going in a different direction and had further to backpack. Each of us labored under the 65 pound packs on our backs. We were prepared to stay for the duration of my hunt if necessary. The mountain's unparalleled beauty captivated me as we climbed toward distant peaks capped withglistening white snow. Small streams of glacier water ran everywhere.The vegetation was lush. Later that night we had no choice but to pitch our tents on an ancient game trail withfresh grizzly droppings right in the middle of it. Jerry and Roger laughed at my paranoia over the huge grizzly tracks, but I know they were also a little nervous. I slept restlessly that night with my rifle close
The next day saw us backpack even
further. We crossed a high mountain pass clogged with p¡nk patches of watermelon snow before gaining access to the new country Jerry wanted to hunt. We glassed for hours, spotting moose swimming in emerald green lakes, caribou frolicking in snow banks, chalky white Rocky Mountain goats climbing the crags of towering
Stikine Mountains. We forded rivers, rode across lush alpine meadows, and wove our way through heavy timber to our eventual destination. lt was a nice change to have a horse do the packing for me, but my backside was so sore that I wondered if I would ever walk again. At our new camp we discovered a grizzly had tried his best to tear down the rustic cabin but everything was still intact. I was definitely ready to begin backpacking, something I was well accustomed to. lt was time to begin my quest for a ram.
peaks, and coveys ofptarmigan clucking at our presence. However, we couldn't locate a single sheep. We followed this routine for six more days as Jerry, Roger and I backpacked further into the heart of unexplored country. The crisp clean air, bright blue skies, and glacier cold water rejuvenated our spirits as endless mountain ranges challenged our aching muscles, forever drawing us onward. lt became adaily routine of mine to quietly celebrate the solitude, the exhilaration of discovery, the never endlng obstacles, appreciative that Iwas alive and physically capable of fulfill- ing a dream that many people will never realize. Was this how the mountain men andnative Americans must have felt centuries earlier? I knew that I was probably feeling just a small fraction of what they must have seen and experienced.
None of us were willing to admit it, but we were all getting worried. Jerry and Roger knew what was at stake. I would never get this opportunity again. Where were the elusive sheep? We had penetrated so deeply into the heart of the Stikine Mountains that itwould take us days to get out. Finally, on the eighth day our luck changed. While perched on a knobby pinnacle Jerry's eagle eyesspotted movement in a colored band of cliffs that stood guard over a beautiful mountain lake on the far side of a glaciated valley.He thought it might be sheep. We strained our eyes through powerful binoculars to pick out the movement again. Nothing. Finally,a spotting scope confirmed that Jerry hadn't seen a ghost. There were sheep in the cliffs. We picked out six rams layingcontentedly in the sun. One was very dark. lt looked like he was a shooter. Even at the extreme distance each of us estimated him to have good mass and horns about 38" in length. We knew it was going to take hours to claw a path across the valley clogged with
shintangle thick enough to make a grown man scream out wildly in frustration. I could only hope the rams would still be there after we reached the landmark we had picked out.Jerry negotiated a route down through some rough cliffs as we descended into the valley. Eight hours later all three of us were cussing like drunk sailors after fighting our way though the thick undergrowth with full packs on. Finally, we reached the base of a vertical, talus slope. Quickly, we threw up a tent tossing our gear hastily inside. The dark clouds building overhead looked ominous, threatening to discharge their contents in another act of nature's unpredictable power. We didn't have time to worry about the weather or to consider being tired or hungry. We climbed straight up, our physical endurance tested once again by mother earth's natural obstacle course. Upon reaching the prominent knoll where we could see into the sheep basin Jerry belly crawled through the knee high grass to a boulder where he peered over the edge. The aqua blue waters of the small lake were mesmerizing, star¡ng back at him as he glassed for the rams. After several agonizing minutes he pointed high into the cliffs that surrounded the basin. He had located three rams, but they weren't cooperating with us.The sheep were on the move, nimbly picking their way through terrain much too rugged for a man to climb. After nonchalantly scaling the nearvertical ledges the rams fed across a bare mountainside then disappeared into a rocky ravine. A few minutes later I spotted them with my 10 x 42 Swarovski's as they crossed a jagged ridge into what looked like a boulder lined crater. With darkness now but an hour's breathe away and a stiff wind that wasn't in our favor, we had to make a decision veryquickly. Was it possible to execute a successful stalk under the present conditions that were not in our favor? Should we wait until morning and chance that we couldn't find therams? All three of us were physically wasted after battling the shintangle in the valley earlier in the day. There wasn't a question in my mind however, as to what needed to be done.lf we had to "howl" out in the cold overnight to get a shot at a ram it would be worth it. I told Jerry that this might be our only chance. He knew that I wanted him to roll the dice.How were we going to know if our gamble was going to pay off unless we tried? My mind suddenly remembered a poem that my college coach had once given me about how some men quit when they are so close to victory and winning the golden crown? Jerry must have been thinking the same thoughts as he made the decision to go after the rams instead ofwaiting for another day.
We raced off the knoll, climbed down into the basin cradling the lake, skirted its waters, then scrambled up the abrupt mountainside opposite us in just 45 minutes. We climbed anarrow ridge that looked like it had been created by the devil as a racetrack for sheep. lt wound progressively upwards toward the crater full of boulders. I strained my eyes, hopingto find the rams romping in their playpen. Where were they? Had they cleverly eluded us once again? Suddenly, I spotted a small ram feeding hungrily in a small patch of grass. Hewas higher up in the basin than where we had expected the rams to be. lnstantly, we froze, slowly lowering our bodies into prone positions, wishing we could melt into the ground.Jerry glassed for the big ram. With his sharp eyes it didn't take him long to find what we were looking for, four rams bedded in the boulder field. One was obviously the wall hangerwe had seen earlier. Disappointingly, the sheep were out of rifle range. Or were they? The rams definitely had us pegged. We couldn't move on the bare ridge line and the black cloak of darkness was closing its curtain once again. Unexpectedly, I looked at Jerry and whispered that I could take the ram from the location we were at. He stared at me like Iwas a raving lunatic. What he didn't know was that I had practiced shooting boxes of bullets starting at a young age under all types of field conditions. I had been doing this religiously for years. I know exactly what my limitations are as a marksman. I rarely choose to shoot at distances greater than 500 yards but under the circumstances I knew I hadto attempt the shot. I was pushing the parameters of common sense but believed in my ability. I grabbed Jerry's backpack and slid it under my rifle. I don't use a bipod nor do Ishoot a fancy long distance caliber but depend entirely on practice and knowledge of my weapon. My Browning 7mm outfitted with a Boss has performed very well for me. Idesperately struggled to locate the ram in my Leopold scope. When I found him he was nervously standing up. He looked very small. Without a range finder I would be guessing the distance. I was shooting 160 grain Nosler partitions my brother-in-law had hand loaded for me. I sight my gun in by using reticle points below the crosshairs for anything 300 yardsor more. I placed the mark I use for 500 yards on the top of the ram's shoulder. Touching off the shot the sharp crack of the 7mm broke the still solitude of the evening. ltreverberated eerily as the bullet whined through the wind. "Damn, its further than I thought, l'm way low," I said, mumbling silently under my breath as the bullet hit beneath theram's feet. Jerry was speechless. He didn't think I was seriously going to attempt the shot. I overheard Roger Pellerin who was videoing the shot sequence for me whisper, "l can'tbelieve it, Randy's actually shooting at 800 yards." I hurriedly chambered another round. This time I raised my 500 yard mark, which is the last one I use on my scope, several feetabove the top of the ram's shoulder.The wind was blowing to the right. I moved the reticle another foot left. The ram was moving now, taking himself further out of harm's way. Itook a deep breath then squeezed the trigger once again. lt seemed as if everything was in slow motion. I heard the gun roar, the whistling moan of the bullet as it traveled upward, then a resounding "thud." The big ram collapsed as if he had been hit between the eyes with an axe. I watched as he tumbled end over end finally lodging himself between two boulders. He didn't even twitch. Later, we found the bullet had entered his brain just behind an ear. Jerry and I let out wild war whoops of sheer joy before hugging each other. I think I may have also used a few expletives in the excitement. Neither Jerry nor Roger could believe the I had just made. Jerry teasingly tabbed me with the nickname "Hitman Johnson." He commented that he had never seen a shot like that.
After walking to where the ram was located we estimated the distance to be over 700 yards. For those who don't believe us I guess you will just have to take our word on it. I know the "Sheep Gods" were gazing down upon me that night because when any hunter chooses to shoot at that distance, much more luck is needed than skill. My ram sported deep horns38" in length with 14" bases. He had a gorgeous dark chocolate cape, white face, and will look great on the full body mount l'm planning for him. After taking numerous pictures we caped and deboned my trophy in the glow of our flashlights. I felt like an incredible weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Later that night as we tiredly stumbled toward thedirection of our tent it seemed as if there was nothing but God's fingertips separating us from the thick blanket of incredibly bright stars that had mysteriously replaced the threatening clouds. We didn't make it back to our spike camp until 1:00 a.m. in the morning. What an unforgettable experience! My dream of taking a Stone sheep had came true.
The next day we relaxed, worked on fleshing out the cape, ate a lot of fried sheep meat, and rested our raw feet.
tents we spotted a trophy caliber mountain goat staring down at us. I had purchased a goat tag but passed the big billy up becauseof the rugged-country we were in, the heavy loads we would be packing, and the distance back to where base camp was located. lttook us three tough days to reach the horses and another one riding back to the cabins at Tucho Lake.
Having a few remaining days to find a goat I made plans with Roger Pellerin to hunt a mountain where some good billies had beenspotted close to base camp. That evening I decided to try my luck fishing and went out alone along the shoreline. lt was raining. While practicing my boulder jumping skills I slipped on a slick rock.
My ankle went one way while I plunged headfirst into the lake.Well, I'm glad that no-one caught that dumb stunt on video.
I must have looked like a prehistoric, waterlogged slug crawling out of the lake onto shore. I hobbled painfully to my cabin. After down
ing a half dozen lbuprofen I taped my ankle up as tight as I dared with the swelling then proceeded to go hunting with Roger the next day. Boy, I felt like a whimp as I struggled to keep up with him climbing those mountains. We located a nice billy late that evening but I knew my ankle wasn't capable of getting me to where he was feeding in the cliffs. I felt lucky just to make it back to our base camp. Later, after getting back home to Utah my doctor told me I had a fractured ankle. I plan on leaving the fishing to someone else next time.
A special thanks to Upper Stikine River Adventures and Jerry Geraci for this "once in a lifetime" opportunity. Jerry does a great job, is a superb hunter, has some incredible country,and is willing to go the extra mile to insure that his hunters are successful. Perhaps luck will shine upon me again someday in the future and I will draw a coveted rocky Mountain permit to complete my grand slam. Until that I will continue to relive my sheep hunting adventures truth timeworn memories. There's no known cure. I'll be a sheep fanatic the rest of my life.
ON THE TRAIL OF MEGA MULIES
BY RANDY JOHNSON
During the past l0 years, I've adopted specialized tactics for hunting the most remote inhabitants of Utah's rugged rincon country, and they've put me in touch with some of the biggest mule deer that have ever lived. Finding these extreme bucks requires thorough scouting. I've backpacked into the most isolated country I could find and have investigated such evidence as tracks, scrapes ancl especially shed antlers. In gathering all the evidence at my disposal, I've gained further appreciation for how elusive trophy mulies are andhow utterly difficult it is to hunt them.
I've spent years studying the habits of mule deer, and along the way I've witnessed a significant decline in the numbers of big bucks. Our mule deer, "like others elsewhere, havesuffered from dwindling winter range, increased predation, severe winters and mistakes in wildlife management, and it has become increasingly tough to find a trophy buck. Many of those remaining have relocated into terrain that would frighten off a casual hunter.
I have lived mv entire life in the heart of I some of the greatest mule cleer country in the Western United States. Growing up in a small, rural community in Utah, I developed a love for hunting mulies early on. From
the time my father took me into the mountains on my first hunt at age seven, I have been captivated by the mystery, intrigue and physical challenges of outsmarting trophy bucks.
Discovering some of the most massive antlers ever recorded would put any mule deer hunter in a world-record frame of mind.
In late June, 1993, my daughter Marissa
and I hauled 65-pound backpacks three days into desolate rincon country. It was a picturesque region that I believed could hold giant bucks.
The small thermometer on my backpack registered 107 degrees, and the waves of heat radiating from the bare rocks sucked precious moisture from our bodies. I was beginning toworry about our water supply when I spotted a damP area in the formidable tenain through my binoculars. Fearning it might be a mirage, we moved in to check it our. Sure enough, it was a small but life-sustaining seep and right along side the very limited water source were some of the biggest mule deer tracks I've ever seen. I knew they weren't desert sheep, whose dew claws will pinch in more than a mulies. Immediately, I knew I would return to the area at some point to locate the bucks that made them.
I scouted the region for days at a time, often alone, fighting the biting gnats and the unbearable heat of summer. Each trip, I found fresh tracksand other monster mule deer sign, but I didn't actually see an animal in this geologic disarray. Finally, in early August, I spotted nine mega-bucksin a secluded, juniper entangled rincon. Four were nontypicals displaying eight to 14 points per side, with spreads measuring 33 to 37 inches inwidth. All would gross more than 230
After studying contour lines, landmarks and other terrain features on a topo map, I set out for the area of the seep in May of 1994 with my brother Layne. We were physically exhausted by the time we climbed into the canyon that Marissa and I had visited the year before, but we made an incredible discovery near the apex of a rocky ridge sprinkled with cliffrose. Lying beneath the ageless branches of a lightning charred cedar tree was the biggest typical mule deer antler that either of us had ever witnessed. Adrenaline surgedthrough our veins as we admired the magnificent antler, which had been shed no later than the previous year and remained in good condition. Quickly, we spread out to search forthe match. Before long Layne found it sticking out of browse. A quick measurement indicated that the buck would have grossed more than 215 Boone & Crockett points . Before sundown that day, we collected 12 additional sets of huge mule deer antlers.
Obviously, we were on to something in our search for huge mulies, but I still had to figure out the bucks' habits before I could expect to hunt them successfully in the fall.
brush-choked draw. The same hunter had also spotted a gigantic nontypical, and although I didn't know it at the time, that buck would become my obsession.
As the hunt continued, so did the action. Ilocated a freakish nontypical and shot him as hetried to sneak past me in a box canyon. Later, we leamed that an out of state hunter who had stumbled into the area had seen Hotel Sierra ina rincon to the north of us but missed a tough shot in a
A couple of days before the season opened in mid-October, Layne and I backpacked into therincon country. We didn't so much as cut a track during the first two
FINALLY HUNTING SEASON
days. On the opening day of the season we decided that Layne would circle a narrow sagebrushflat on a high mesa above the canyon, believing that the bucks might use the area to bed in. We were
B&C points. Two others were 32 to 35 inch-wide typicals with 26 to 28 inch main beams,excellent mass and deep, sym- metrical forks. I had the pleasure of glassing them for two hoursbefore darkness set in and I literally thought I was in mule deer heaven. I was a littledisappointed that the group did not include Hotel Sierra, and I nearly went mad during the next month and a half while waiting for the deer season to arrive.
right. Layne jumped an extreme buck that was bedded beneath the rimrock. We tracked the buck through incredibly rough terrain and Layne shot him as he exploded from where he was hiding behind a weather beaten log. the shot, a quick oneone, entered the side of the buck'shead and dropped him instantly. The 5x6 rackwas massive, sporting a 34-inch spread withseven inch bases. Had the shot not split theskull plate, the buck would have scored 207typical B&C points.
THE BUCK OF JUSTICE
covery I made a month later. In late June, Layne and I explored a beautiful canyon that was clustered in pinion, cedar and sagebrush. I left Layne on top of the rock strewn knoll he was glassing from andcarefully worked my way down to a clearing. I spotted what I thought was the bleached hip bone of a wild burro beneath the limbs of a cedar tree and moved in for a closer look. AsI approached, I was shocked to find that the hip bone was actually the antler from a huge nontypical buck. Its mass was unbelievable. I couldn't ger my hand around the tips of each beam. I yelled for Layne to come see what I found, then began combing the area for the missing other left side. Suddenly, Layne starting yelling at me. He had walked right into the matching antler, and it was equally incredible. We placed both horns together and I took some initial field measurements.They indicated that the rack was about 43 inches wide witheight-inch bases. Instead of losing mass toward the end of each beam, the horns maintained their tremendous density. We counted 13 points on the left hom and 12 on the right.Layne and I both realized that the antlers were once on the head of the ultimate mule deer buck.
As anxious as I was to get back into the rincon country the winter of 1995 felt endless. On two solo excursions in April and May, I found some outstanding shed antlers but wasn't at all prepared for the dis
I may not see the Buck of Justice again, but he continues to build excitement in the world of trophy mule deer hunters. All three setsof antlers have been mounted. I don't know whether the buck will survive another winter, but even if nature has taken him, he hasleft his genes behind. And we can all be thankful for that!
NOTE: After the author wrote this article he found one additional set of shed antlers from the Buck of Justice. Two other hunters also discovered sets. One of them, a sheep hunter, stumbled onto the last set after seeing a skeleton with large burrs on the skull under a tree. Randy Johnson hiked back into the area, located the skeleton, and carried the bones from The Buck of Justice home. It appeared the old legend had been killed by a mountain lion. Randy believed that the buck met his demise in 1998. The largest set of antlers that the Johnson brothers found were scored at a massive 286 points! Legends of trophy animals such as The Buck of Justice are what keep hunters awake at night!
As we continued searching the immediate vicinity, I picked up another giant left antler from the same buck. Unable to find the match, I returned eight times in the next sixmonths. I saw nothing of the antler nor the buck that grew it. We fared no better when we were trekked back into the country in October for the '95 rifle season, but we returned in January for another look around. The weather was brutally cold, but our diligence paid off. Layne stumbled into a third left hom from the giant nontypical, and we were shocked to see that it was the largest of those we had recovered. This finding made us that much more determined to come up with the two missing right antlers.
Two months later, the mission was completed when I found both right horns within a square mile of where we had originally discovered the other drops.
The antlers were absolutely mind boggling. We named the buck that shed these antlers the "Buck of Justice." Every time I
looked at the antlers, I couldn't help but wonder if the buck was still alive and whether or not I could find him. Playing a hunch, Ibegan spending days glassing and scouting a rugged area in which I felt the Buck of Justice might reside. I located some huge tracks and saw several trees that had been shredded by a buck that had to be wearing some formidable headgear.
I then spent weeks in the country trying to pattern the habits of the deer, but the Buck of Justice eluded me. He didn't reach that size from being stupid! I found the buck to be nocturnal, wary and determined to live in the thickest, most miserable terrain and cover he could find. On two occasions in which I tried to follow the big buck's tracks, he circled behind me and let me walk right pasthim. His tracks are longer than a 7mm cartridge, and it's apparent that age is making him understep. Still, the buck knows everyescape route and adheres totally to his survival instincts. After tracking the buck for two days in a snowstorm last fall, I got aglimpse of him. I surprised him late one afternoon as he lay bedded under a thick cedar. I didn't have a chance to get off a shot, butI still carry the vision of that buck escaping, his massive rack breaking limbs as if they were matchsticks.