Sometimes you get lucky.
In 2013, at the ripe old age of 29, I won a public lottery tag for bighorn sheep in Idaho’s unit 27-L. The hunt was exciting by nature: remote area, difficult access, hard to draw, “any ram”…you get the picture. The hunt area is along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, making a float based trip the choice of the hunter hoping to maximize access. I hired a hunting guide AND a river guide, and started counting down the days.
Sometimes you get unlucky.
In the days leading up to my hunt, the federal government closed its doors…or at least the door that led to the permit desk to float the river. The river outfitter refused to float without a permit, making all our plans useless.
It only took Dave Melton and me a few seconds to make a new plan as I sat in his living room near Salmon, Idaho. My guide and I would fly in, hike up, and kill a giant ram in the Bighorn Crags. If the government re-opened, we would learn of the event by satellite phone and meet the raft at the river. I was willing to do whatever it would take to get a ram, including hunting the entire season. This was my fifth time hunting wild sheep, and I wanted to have a record over .500 when the hunt ended. The strong taste of failure on my stone sheep hunt earlier in the season served as motivation to conquer even the tallest mountain.
I had planned on a float hunt. This “new” hunt was to be a multi-day, extreme backpack type trip. It was estimated that we would spend up to 3 days just to reach the area Dave suspected held rams. My multi-day pack was still in Texas, so Dave lent me his old model frame pack for the journey. I stuffed it full of freeze dried food and my gear, and slept as best I could that night.
The flight in was beautiful. The Bighorn crags surrounded the Cessna like a mother cradling a child as we streaked towards the strip deep in the confines of the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness. I was surprised to see the looks of the cliff-top strip as we entered our final approach. The dirt runway was curved…with a hill in the middle! Our pilot effortlessly lighted the big metal bird, putting my mind at ease.
Brian Johnston was to be my guide on this hunt. He and I seemed to get along well enough, and I knew from the look of him that he would be much needed help on this trip. He looked like a Sherpa as he donned his giant pack for the hike in. I couldn’t help but make a wise crack about it, especially since I own the same exact backpack. He just smiled, a look of joy on his face to match my own.
There is something really special about men that love to hunt wild sheep. I could tell Brian had that in him, and hoped I had it to match. I knew that I had the determination.
“I’m slow man, but I’m stubborn as hell. If you leave me behind, don’t worry. I’m coming!” I said as we both smiled during the first steps of what seemed to be an impossibly long journey.
We survived a deep river crossing, two nights in spike camps, miles and miles of switchbacks, and almost 4000 feet of elevation gain before we saw our first sheep on my unit. The sheep we saw were not close to us either. The “hunting” camp was in the most ruggedly beautiful spot I have ever hunted or hiked. God didn’t paint the Frank Church, he chiseled it. The forest had burned a thousand times before our arrival, making the vista to the river indescribable. From our mountain top perch it looked as if you could reach out and touch the cliffs across the river. They were two miles away.
For several days we repeated the process of waking up, climbing downhill towards the river and glassing for sheep all day. We ate crappy food, slept in tiny one man tents, and smiled until our faces hurt from loving every damn minute of it all. It got so cold one night that I barely slept even though I wore ALL of my clothes inside my sleeping bag. I bragged about the ounces saved by culling extra gear the next morning over steaming instant coffee.
We saw rams. Brian found them far below us atop a grassy ledge just as the sun was fading into obscurity. One of them looked likely as a shooter, and we made a play for him the next day without any sightings. We saw sheep every day we looked for them, and I noted with much chagrin, that they were all 3000 feet BELOW us! We both chuckled as I shot video of the spotting scope’s angle against the horizon as proof of our folly.
On day 6 we got word of an end to the shutdown saga. I had a decision to make and I declared that Dave should send in the boat. Regardless of whether we killed a ram up high on foot or later along the river, we were going to leave the unit in a raft. I wanted to float the river, as I had heard nothing but positive reviews of the experience. I also knew that we would likely pry our eyes into some of the areas rarely seen by anyone else, an opportunity I always cherish.
The next morning we decided to make for the river immediately. It was a full day to the rendezvous, and there was no time to waste. Brian assured me the prospect of a giant ram was greater at several spots down river. I shoved my tent and sleeping bag into the borrowed backpack and we hiked out.
The arrival of the boat was like Mardi gras and Christmas combined. There was “real” food, and even cold beer to drink. It was Shangri-La on the Middle fork that night as we drank beer and ate steaks. I felt spoiled as I watched our “boatman”, Shane Moser, cook the food. He seemed just as stoked to be a part of this rare opportunity as Brian and I were. His enthusiasm certainly buoyed the spirit of our tired bodies, renewing my determination for success.
A skilled boatman at the oars makes any float pleasant, and Shane was just that. He caressed the ridiculously heavy raft through the rapids and chutes as we slowly traveled down river to the next area Brian wanted to explore. We glassed as he paddled, searching for sheep on the cliff faces adjacent to the river. Just as I was beginning to think that was not a possibility, Brian shouted “Pull Over! Pull Over!” over the roar of the rushing water.
Sheep. Rams! There were several sheep spread across a high set of cliffs.
I hit them with the range finder inside my swaros…437 yards. Holy Moly!
We studied the largest ram from the shore of the river through the spotting scope. He bedded, stood, and rutted the ewes in his company while we watched. His curling horns shined a surreal shade of lustrous golden perfection as the sun made them appear even more beautiful. I rolled camera on the ram at full zoom, knowing that he was not soon departing. This was a moment that would only happen once in my lifetime and I was determined to maximize both my enjoyment and the permanence of the experience in my mind. It was nothing short of amazing.
Although I could have likely killed the ram from our observation area, there was a clear route by which we could close the distance considerably. I always advocate for getting as close as possible in the field, so we crossed the river in the raft and climbed the hill to get a cross canyon shot of just over 100 yards.
I slowly peeked around the cliff that had concealed our approach and for the life of me could not see the ram. “He’s right there!” Brian said….five or six times. I somehow remained calm, and continued to look for the ram. I moved further to my right, and he was as obvious as the nose on my face…he was right there!
I did not hesitate to plant the cross-hairs on his chest and punch the primer on my 30-378. The 210 grain Nosler devastated the ram, as he collapsed on impact.
Then he rolled.
A moment of what should have been ecstasy turned into unparalleled uncertainty when he tumbled from view into a creek bottom. I blamed myself, but Brian did a good job of congratulating me on my once-in-a-lifetime tag being fulfilled. He was 100% right. We had worked incredibly hard to secure that opportunity, and I had made an excellent shot on the ram.
We made our way to the ram to find my worst fears realized. His entire left horn was broken off at the base, as well as seriously broken at the tip. We were able to locate all the bits and pieces, and I was able to hold the horn onto the skull-plate for photographs. I felt terrible for having killed the ram in a spot that such devastation was a possibility. The meat was undamaged, as was the cape from the shoulder forward, both of which I was thankful for.
This ram is far and away the greatest hunting trophy of my lifetime. His unbroken horn tapes almost 36 inches. I have instructed my taxidermist to re-construct the broken horn tip and bring him back to his original glorious self so that I might hang him in a place of honor in perpetuity. He deserves that. I could never have pulled this off without my guide Brian Johnston and my boatman Shane Moser. A special word of thanks to both of them, as well as to Dave Melton of Bighorn Outfitters in Idaho. Wild rivers and rutting rams….What an adventure!
Also, for the record, I have no problem at all believing that if you flattened Idaho out it would be bigger than Texas. Based on my time in the Frank Church….it might even be twice as big!