Bowhunting Bighorn Sheep
October 28, 2010
Crawling out on the thin, rocky ledge, I positioned myself between two outcroppings that concealed me from either side...
Author Brad Fenson used his BowTech Tribute to take this fine bighorn ram during a November 2008 hunt in Alberta's Kananaskis Country between Calgary and Banff National Park.
Crawling out on the thin, rocky ledge, I positioned myself between two outcroppings that concealed me from either side. There was a gap in the rock shelf that provided the perfect window to overlook the well-used sheep trails etched into the rock below like spider webs joining the basins on either side of the pinnacle where I sat. I positioned myself and practiced drawing to ensure I had enough elbow room if an opportunity presented itself.
If At First You Don't Succeed'¦
As a resident of Edmonton, it was fairly easy for me to scout this area in Alberta's Wildlife Management Unit 408 (between Calgary and Banff National Park) several times before the season, hiking the peaks with an avid sheep-hunting friend. Targeting late-season bighorns would allow me to take advantage of their winter range and the rut, but the snow and ice would generate its own challenges.
I'd been practicing for months with my bow and had confidence my BowTech could place an arrow where I wanted it to. The last week of November 2008, I started my hunt. Heading out in the pale morning light, I scurried along the trails that wound through the mature forest, eventually bringing me to the base of the mountain I planned to hunt. The eastern sky was exploding with color as the sun started to brighten the peaks around me. I found a big tree to sit against, took off my pack, lifted my binoculars and within 30 seconds had a ram pegged on one of the rugged peaks. Things just got better from there. A second and third ram was spotted, and with further prying, I found a herd of ewes being courted by several rams in one of the grassy basins. There was no sense wasting time, so I grabbed my pack and headed up one of the game trails meandering through the bush.
I had my sights set on a rock outcrop where I'd seen one of the rams standing to overlook the valley. It would be an ideal spot to see into two drainages and use the rugged rocks as cover. I climbed at a steady pace, and it didn't take long to break into a sweat. My thighs burned from the extreme workout but my excitement pushed me onward at a determined pace. It was a steady climb for over an hour before I slowed to take a break. A ewe had stepped out on the rocks and forced me to wait for it to move on before continuing my ascent.
The ewe eventually moved on and I made my move to get to the rocks. I hoped the ewe had a ram in tow and my timing would be perfect. With only 120 yards to go, I felt my heart sink when a mature ram walked onto the rocks and stared directly at me. Busted! Stuck on the open slope, the sheep stared at me for several minutes. To make things worse, a second ram walked out onto the pinnacle to see what was so interesting down below. There was little I could do but wait the sheep out and hope they didn't wander far.
With the flicker of the last ram disappearing behind the rocks, I headed up the mountain. It didn't take long to cover the last 100 yards, but by the time I got there the sheep had vanished. I snuck into the rocks and found a protected vantage point where I could watch the drainages and search the weathered hillsides. Eventually, I spotted a ram high on a mountain trail, heading west. Seconds later, the second ram appeared and the pair worked their way west. I knew they were gone for the day and that it would be impossible to catch up with them.
There were plenty of bighorn sheep in the area where Brad Fenson hunted.
During the encounter that ended with the harvest of his trophy ram,
Fenson counted 23 ewes and three rams in sight.
'¦Try, Try Again
I spent the rest of the day watching sheep, trying to determine where they were traveling, feeding and bedding during the day. The snow in the grassy basins made it pretty easy to determine there were some preferred trails. The rugged rocks to the west were used for bedding and safety at night, while the grassy basins to the east were the preferred feeding sites for the 20-25 ewes. And where the ladies went, the rams followed. One particular trail garnered my attention, as it passed directly under a rocky outcropping that had a cliff face and a small ledge near the top. It would be the ideal ambush location, and if the sheep continued to use their main trail, it would undoubtedly put me in range of one of the legal rams in the herd.
I followed the ridgeline down off the mountain, which allowed me to watch the sheep till late in the day. I was excited to see them use the trail I'd identified to head back to their bedding area. I looked the terrain over carefully and made plans to return the next morning.
I located the sheep at first light and started climbing toward my chosen ambush site. It was a long, steep journey, but I kept at it and eventually was above treeline. I stopped to catch my breath and spotted rams on the pinnacle where I'd seen them the day before. I knew exactly where they were headed and hustled uphill to get behind a rock before the rams worked their way across the grassy slope above me.
I got behind cover, dropped my pack and steadied my bow when two rams ambled out of the rocks and across the trail above me. I had the rangefinder out and marked the rams at just under 100 yards; too far for a shot. I watched the rams drop over the ridge and into the basin with the other rams and ewes.
It was time to head for the outcrop above me. Taking my time, I changed out of my hiking clothes and into the insulated pants and jacket I'd picked up for the sheep hunt. With winds whistling at over 30 miles an hour, dressing right would be the key to staying warm and allowing me to wait for the sheep to move.
I belly crawled to the edge of the cliff and peaked into the basin on the other side. There were sheep spread out across the basin and up into the rocks. I watched two rams butt heads and posture for dominance. The sound of horns smashing together echoed up the ridge. I recognized the larger of the two rams as one of the pair that came across the trail above me an hour earlier. An even larger ram in the herd was busy tending a ewe and testing the air with a lip curl to help trap scent in his nostrils.
By patiently glassing from a high vantage point, Brad Fenson was able to determine the areas local sheep were using to bed and feed. Thanks to the snow cover, he was even able to determine their preferred travel route and identify a perfect ambush site on a ledge directly above it.
'The Highlight of my Hunting Life'
As if on cue, a big ewe came down out of the rocks and got all the sheep milling. A group of ewes fed toward me and I ranged them between the rocks at 15 yards. With the ewes starting to move, it didn't take long for the rams to notice. Within minutes, the entire herd was moving towards me. I took a couple deep breaths and tried to control my excitement.
I sat with my back to the rocks, watching the game trail below me. I could hear hooves crushing against the broken rock on the trail and watched as the first couple sheep came into view. The herd assembled below me, with 23 ewes and three rams in sight. The two rams that had been fighting and butting heads were still pushing each other around and working their way closer to me with every step.
The bigger of the two rams was closest to the cliff where I was hiding, and I made the decision to take a shot if he presented the opportunity. The two rams crashed horns directly below me and jostled for position to stay on the trail. The biggest ram took a few steps forward, separating himself from the herd. I drew my arrow and placed my sight pin on the ram. I was aiming almost straight down and knew I had to hold low. When I released my arrow, it zipped through the ram like a hot knife through butter. He didn't even flinch! He was so preoccupied with fighting the other ram, he didn't realize my arrow had struck him.
The smaller ram immediately sensed something was wrong with his opponent, pressed his horns into my ram's ribs and started pushing him down the game trail. They only traveled about 50 yards before my sheep turned to face away from the other ram. It was over. The ram lost his footing and cascaded down the mountain like a bobsled sliding down an icy track.
My moment of triumph was suddenly overshadowed by horror as my ram gained speed and rocketed through the air as it launched off rocks and junipers along the way. The last I saw, he was about 12 feet in the air and flying into a rocky creek bed back down at the treeline.
I gathered my gear and headed down the slope. It didn't take long to go downhill, and I found my ram hung up on some miniature spruce trees in the steep creek bed. I took the regal horns in my hands, lifted them up and felt elation sweep over my body as I realized they were still intact.
I had to sit for a long minute and let the reality of what I had just experienced sink into my mind. It all happened so fast it was like a dream. I counted the growth rings on the 8 ½-year-old ram and marveled at his massive body and horns. This mature ram is undoubtedly the highlight of my hunting life, and to have done it with my bow made it even more spectacular.
It may have only taken a day and a half to fill my tag, but the hunt really started six months earlier. All the scouting and physical conditioning paid off with a Pope and Young ram.