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March 2018
Story by Austin Atkinson
State: Idaho
Species: Sheep - Rocky Mtn

An ancient proverb says, “It is better to experience something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” Working for Huntin’ Fool has given me the opportunity to hear a thousand sheep stories, but I knew this was one I needed to experience. Sheep hunting gets my blood pumping more than any other species, and this adage has fueled my addiction for adventure and to explore new areas to hunt over the past few years. My desire to hunt bighorn sheep has driven me to pursue hunts with the best draw odds and subsequently the poorest harvest successes. This is what caused me to end up in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48, with seemingly endless miles of rivers, streams, cliffs, and canyon country.

My Rocky Mountain sheep story began in 2011 when I met Huntin’ Fool member Brian Rhead on a hunting forum and began discussing our strategies for obtaining a sheep tag in Idaho. I had recently begun working as an assistant guide on Dall sheep hunts in Alaska and had the sheep bug. Brian and I frequently compared ideas and Google Earth scouting notes and kept in touch as we monitored the unit we had selected that would be our best chance at obtaining a tag. As luck would have it, Brian drew his sheep tag the very next season and went on to take a beautiful ram on his way in to our predetermined glassing spot. As a non-resident having to front more than $2,100 on a credit card for almost three months, it became increasingly tough over the years to justify applying where there is no bonus point system and slim draw odds. However, I kept at it and stuck to my unit choice year after year until one day last May when I made sure my wife was next to me as I checked my draw results once again. With my fingers crossed and her good fortune, the moment I had been waiting for had arrived! I had a tag for Rocky sheep.

In the heat of summer, I took my brother-in-law, Austin Allred, with me on a scouting trip to see if we could locate any water sources up on the ridges we intended to hunt and hopefully see a sheep or two. With daytime temps in the upper 80s, it became obvious that we would not be able to carry enough water to replace the amount we were sweating off. Other than a few ewes and lambs that walked right through our spike camp, very few sheep were located.

After that first scouting trip, I really kicked it into research mode, reading every post online that was even remotely related to my sheep area. I contacted other Huntin’ Fool members who had previously drawn the same tag, and besides Brian, none of them were successful on their hunts, but they all had plenty of stories to tell. Gradually, I realized talking to other hunters became more of a “what not to do” game. This was valuable information as I knew the six-week season and big wilderness country would make the hunt feel very short. My nightly ritual was to spend a few minutes on Google Earth and mark waypoints on my OnXMaps mobile app. I evaluated my approach options and tried hard to find where I felt a band of rams would be hanging out. It was difficult for me to stay focused with an expensive sheep permit in my back pocket. People would ask if I was excited, and I would smile weakly and nod. Truth be told, I was so stressed about blowing this once-in-a-lifetime chance, it was difficult to be excited. I knew I would have to be at the top of my game.

Later, I learned that one of the biggest factors affecting the outcome of my upcoming hunt would be the behavior of wildfires in the central Idaho area. As with most wilderness areas, natural-caused wildfires are not suppressed as long as they are contained in the wilderness boundaries. Often, this creates an enormous amount of smoke that can render your glassing impossible or even block access to the trailheads. I read horror stories of hunters being able to hunt less than one week of the season due to fires. However, I was able to turn the curse of wildfires into a blessing for my hunt. With thorough internet searches, I was able to turn up maps and photos from the recent years’ wildfires and I found a couple that were located in the middle of my unit. Knowing that animals, especially sheep, love fresh burns and the new forage that pops up the next summer, this became my new target area. I spoke with the region’s sheep biologist who shared with me their numbers from the most recent count. She said there appeared to be 20-25 class III/IV rams that wintered in and around my unit. With over 70 sqare miles of rugged country to search, I knew I would have to be extremely lucky to locate a band of rams before I ran out of time or motivation.

After returning from guiding sheep and bear hunts in Alaska, it was time to hike in to hunt the August 30th opener. I drove north to Idaho to meet up with my father, Mitch, and my brother-in-law, Austin. Unfortunately, I came down with the symptoms of giardia, compliments of too much Alaskan water, and felt as if I were on my deathbed. Nothing short of that could have kept me from opening morning for my prized sheep hunt. As we decided that I could not attempt to backpack into the Frank Church with my current health, all I could think about was the other tag holders shooting “my ram” opening day. It ate at me to not give it a shot, but in the end, it was beneficial for us to throw in the towel for a couple of weeks and return when the wildfire smoke subsided and the above average temperatures finally broke.

On September 13th, I drove up to Idaho and all that was on my mind was the other hunters who may already be at my spike camp coordinates or at my intended glassing spot. I was antsy. Thinking on the 30% average harvest success over the past 10 years was the only thing that kept me sane. I knew most hunters would not find the rams before I arrived, if at all. My father and Brian met me at the trailhead where we loaded our packs and set off. We crossed the river in our “Walmart special” rubber raft and began the hike deep into my unit. The hunt was on!

The plan was to make it to our destination within three days, spending plenty of time to make sure we were not passing sheep in the lower river breaks country. Between the three of us, we picked apart every crevasse and timber pocket, hoping to catch a glimpse of a ram. After two days of bushwacking, multiple hikes up and down to vantage spots, and seeing only ewes and lambs, we decided it was time to make the 4,200' vertical climb to a new spike camp and glass down into the next canyon. My dad’s knee was starting to flare up, so he made the tough decision to hold back and work his way back down to the river and not push it any further. It was tough to leave him solo back in there, but we knew it would be serious if he got any deeper into the wilderness and hurt his knee any worse.

The morning of September 16th, Brian and I dropped back to the creek from our vantage point and filled up our packs with as much water as we were capable of standing up with. I had eight days’ worth of food and Brian had two days’ worth, knowing he had to return to work on Monday with or without me. The climb kicked our butts. It took us all day to go 0.75 miles on the GPS, with over 2,000' gained. Our walking sticks were traded for gloves and tight hand holds on the uphill tree limbs and bush clumps. As soon as the sun faded over the ridgetops, we set up a spike camp in a saddle just wide enough for the Hilleberg tent footprint. It was too dicey to proceed any further up the ridge in the dark.

After a lovely night’s sleep between a cliff and a rock, we were reenergized and ready to continue up the ridgeline to the burned area and our last spike camp. We made good time on the remaining 2,100 vertical feet and set up camp on a little bench that gave us a 20-yard circle of flat space. After dividing out our water to make sure it was rationed properly, Brian and I grabbed our necessary hunting gear and continued up the ridge towards the next canyon. At this point, we left the lush coniferous forest and entered the freshly burned area. Everything was charred black from top to bottom. However, there were a few green sprouts popping up that gave hope to new life.

After a few minutes of walking in the soft, black dirt, we spotted sheep tracks, and they looked like ram tracks! What a relief it was to know they were close. We raced up to the glassing knob and set up our tripods to glass for the few remaining hours of daylight. After an hour tucked behind a rock, wearing my down insulation, glassing the same clearings over and over, I finally made out what appeared to be a ram’s behind.

“Brian, I got rams!” I yelled.

Bedded just 600 yards below us in the wide open rocky slope were three rams. We had done it. It’s tough to draw a sheep tag in here, it’s even tougher to get into the unit, but the toughest part of all is finding a mature ram to kill. We were relieved and nervous. I took a drink and ate a snack to try to lower my shaking levels as I watched the ram in my Vortex binos. With the Red Rock Precision rifle in hand, this should be a chip shot. However, the wind was racing 10-15 mph from right to left in an upward motion as it hit the hillside. Knowing we would only have one shot at these rams, we decided to cut the distance as much as possible to diminish my margin of error. We carefully dropped down the steep slope underneath us, totally exposed, but hoping the rams would stay put just a few more minutes. The best ram in the band didn’t like the sight of two guys covered in KUIU gear dropping into his basin, so he got out of his bed and began pacing around the other younger rams. I dropped my pack on a small log below and got into a miserable downgrade shooting position. Brian had the range and wind meter and was calling the shot as I took a couple of practice squeezes and tried to guess the updraft of the wind. At 490 yards, I loaded a cartridge and watched the oldest ram turned broadside. The setup felt perfect to me, so I let him have it.

“Miss!” Brian yelled.

The wind had pulled my bullet high and just over the ram’s shoulder. All proper shooting techniques were now out the window, and I frantically reloaded to get more lead in the air. After another 43 seconds of pure chaos trying to line up the crosshairs on the right ram and letting the 6.5x284 speak again at 503 yards, Brian finally said the special words we hope to hear from our spotter, “Got him. You did it!”

The rush of emotions came over both of us. I had just taken a ram not one hour after we had seen him. It was a little bit of a rodeo, but we had made it happen. After a lengthy session of photos, lifesize caping, and plenty of smiles, we had our first load of meat and the cape on our backs for the climb back up to spike camp.

Brian headed down to his truck early the next morning as my brother-in-law, Austin, came to the rescue to help me pack out the cape, meat, horns, and all of our remaining gear. It was a slippery, snow-covered journey down to the river the following day, but we were now accomplished sheep hunters, and that makes sore joints and achy backs hurt much less.

Sure, it’s just a sheep, an 8-year-old ram with soot-covered horns, but to those who understand the emotions and rewards of hunting, he is more than that. He’s a symbol of time, effort, friendship, investment, and conservation efforts in Idaho. He’s a symbol of the journey we all got to experience, and his meat was the best tasting meat I’ve ever been able to share with my family.

There are a lot of cliche phrases that come to mind after a tough hunt in the wilderness, and I feel all of them are probably true. First of all, I could not have had the energy to embark on this hunt without Wilderness Athlete products. I spent more money on their products than I’d care to admit, but with the nighttime optimizer pills, each morning, I felt like I could continue hiking and the drink supplements kept me going during the day. Also, I would not have been able to draw this tag or experience this hunt without the love and support of my wife, Chelsie. Finally, I would never have known of the treasures that existed for me in the outdoors without the help of my father and mentor, Mitch Atkinson.

They say sheep hunting changes you. I think it did for me. It strengthened the relationship I had with my family, my hunting buddies, and my Lord, the Creator of all this.