Sliding the rifle off my shoulder, I popped the bipods out and set her down in the snow. It was nearing the end of a long, exhaustive day and my energy was dwindling. I walked over to the edge of the saddle to peer into the icy canyon on the backside. Heath, my cameraman and hunting partner, was going to stay put, keeping an eye on the snowy hillside above us. The sun would soon be setting, and the temperature, along with my odds, were slowly dipping. Suddenly, Heath whistled! I whipped around and looked up on the ridge. There, a mere 140 yards away, stood a beautiful bighorn ram staring down at me as if straight out of a dream. His flared horns and broad chest made him look like a proud king of the mountain. Here was the moment I’d been praying for. Fifteen days of hunting, hiking, and hard work were coming to fruition, and I was 30 yards away from my gun!
I was on a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep hunt in Montana. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I remember the exact moment that I looked down at my phone and read the word "SUCCESSFUL" next to the sheep category. I happened to be with my business partner, Heath, that day, too. We were heading over to Idaho to refresh our bear baits when he pulled into the gas station to fill up.
"Hey, draw results are out today. Did you check?" he asked before walking in to grab some drinks. He appeared minutes later to the sound of me screaming from the truck, "Heath! Come look at this! Am I reading this right?" He let out an expletive or two and confirmed that I wasn’t hallucinating. Thanks to Robert Hanneman at Huntin’ Fool, who helped me decide where to put in for tags, I was going on a Montana bighorn ram hunt in my very own backyard!
When you’re filming a hunt, there are a lot of things to consider in terms of planning. This hunt was going to be filmed for my CarbonTV series "Skull Bound Chronicles." Packing camera gear, extra lenses, batteries, chargers, etc. all needs to be considered when trying to decide where to go and how to get there. Heath and I decided we were going to start the hunt in mid-October and have a base camp right inside the unit to maximize our time.
My boyfriend, John, a Utah native, was able to come to Montana and join us for the first four days of the hunt. We towed our camper down to the unit and set up shop near a beautiful creek. The weather was more like January than October with the snow and frigid temps, so the camper was a great call.
October 11th was the first day of the actual hunt where we stood high above a well-known landmark called Painted Rocks Reservoir. Heath and I were interrupted while filming a quick intro about the excitement of opening morning when John lifted his head from the spotter and said, "I’ve got sheep." Just 10 minutes into glassing the opposing side of the lake we counted seven ewes munching on grass in an opening of the thick timber roughly 1,000 yards away. If we could find and keep track of the ladies, we should be able to easily find some big boys come November when love was in the air and the sheep rut started to kick in.
After combing the landscape with our Vortex from the high vantage point, we drove around the reservoir to get a closer look at the ewes. Another group of nine sheep were spotted that afternoon on the backside of the ridge. One young ram proudly herded his harem around, but there were no big boys in sight. At dusk, we drove mindfully back to the camper as the elk and deer emerged, peppering the ditches and river bottoms.
The next three days were mostly spent glassing and driving from ridge to ridge, sunup to sunset. One afternoon as we were heading up an old logging road, we rounded a switchback and slammed on the breaks. Ahead of us on the road a mere 50 yards away stood 16 sheep. A few old ewes rose from their beds as the group slowly meandered up the hillside. Heath had time to put on his long lens and captured some incredible footage, but again, there were no mature rams to be found.
By the end of those first four days, the tally was 41 sheep. No big rams were found, but more disheartening was the fact that of the 41, there was only one lamb. It was obvious we were witness to a predator issue in the unit. When the mountain is home to mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, and even eagles, it can be challenging for the lambs, fawns, and calves to make it past the first year.
After returning from my annual veteran elk hunt in Wyoming in late October, I hit the sheep unit again with Heath. We spent multiple days searching for sheep but without any luck. John returned in mid-November to spend another three days with Heath and me. The only sheep we found was one young ram who was collared and in search of the same thing we were – the ladies. All 41 sheep we had found in October were nowhere in sight. John was driving my truck and heading to a new spot to glass when suddenly something caught my eye. "Back up, back up," I said, peering up through the sunroof, looking for sheep. "I think I saw a moose paddle or something." I could almost hear his eyeroll since most of my "sightings" typically turn out to be sticks or styrofoam. He politely backed up the truck, and I verified with the spotter that it was in fact not a moose paddle but better! Lying 100 yards up the steep slope was an upside- down sheep skull.
With the camera rolling, we all climbed the ridge. In sheer awe, I bent down to pick up the skull that was next to the entire ribcage, spine, and other weathered bones still intact and most likely the result of a mountain lion. The big, heavy sheaths were lying just 10 yards away, surprisingly in perfect condition. It was a find-of-a-lifetime and such a special moment to share with Heath and John.
The days were ticking down, but we weren’t seeing any sheep. One day, we were driving up the logging road where we had seen the group of 16 in October. A fresh skiff of snow on the road revealed that a big wolf was recently following the tracks of a coyote. "Maybe that explains why we haven’t seen any sheep lately."
Heath had family in town, so I spent a couple of days alone in the unit, glassing and praying for the rams to make an appearance so I could text him on the inReach and say, "Get your camera and get down here. I found ‘em!" But that didn’t happen. I bumped into the other two sheep tag holders in the unit, and they were experiencing the same frustrations of zero sheep spotted. We needed to change things up.
It was day 13 of the hunt, so Heath and I donned our packs and headed into a canyon where we last saw the young collared ram a week earlier. Two sets of wolf tracks lined the creek bottom in the fresh powdery snow, so we cut up the mountain to get to the ridgetop. Stopping to take a break, we sat down on a log to grab a snack and glass the endless mountains to our east. I spotted what I assumed were two sheep feeding in an opening over a mile away. They were tough to make out in the shadows, but we had to go for it. These were the first sheep we’d seen in days. Trudging up and down the ridgetops, we made it over to the bowl where I had spotted the mystery sheep. Suddenly, Heath caught a glimpse of a nice ram with a ewe across the canyon only 150 yards away. As quickly as they popped out of the pines, the ram took his ewe over the ridge and disappeared in a flash. Running as fast as we could, we made it over to where they stood. The sun had melted the snow, so there were no tracks to follow. They were gone in a heartbeat. It was definitely the low of the hunt.
Day 14 was a whole lotta nada. No sheep, no deer, no nothing. However, the following day was one I’ll never forget. We turned down the snow-packed road along the creek, my head torqued looking for sheep in the first few minutes of light. "Ram!" I shouted. "On the top of the ridge!" Heath quickly threw the truck in park, and we jumped out just in time to see a beautiful full curl ram disappear behind the skyline. The fresh snow gave us an advantage, so we decided we’d get on his tracks and follow him all day if we had to.
Step by step through the snow and rocks, the chase was on. It was probably 40 minutes before we reached the top of the ridge. The tracks were profound in the six inches of fresh snow, and they lead us down the ridgeline and into the next canyon. And the next canyon. And the next canyon. The exhaustion caught up with us before we could catch up with him. It was the second low of the hunt. Deflated and exhausted, we threw in the towel and headed back to the truck. We ended up finding the ram’s fresh tracks again in the snow. He was definitely alone and covering some major ground.
Sweat dripped from our foreheads as we reached the truck. A quick protein bar and water break were in order before we drove down the road in the direction of the ram’s tracks. We glassed the rest of the afternoon without luck. It was mid-afternoon when Heath and I drove to the backside of the mountain we had hiked up earlier to see if we might spot the ram. Within seconds of glassing the steep, jagged cliff face, Heath whispered, "I got him! At the very top, raking that pine tree like a buck!" I ranged him at 700 yards before he disappeared into a thicket of pines.
We devised a plan to drive back around, climb up to that saddle where we saw his earlier tracks, and simply wait him out. By the time we reached the saddle, the clock was ticking as the sun was quickly disappearing behind the far canyon. I set my gun down near Heath’s camera to go take a quick peek on the backside, and that’s when I heard Heath’s whistle.
The ram was staring down at me as I slowly crouched behind a downfall. I watched him look around as if scanning for any ewes, unsure of what we were. He was only 140 yards up the ridge from me, but I was 30 yards away from my gun. I whispered to Heath, "Should I go for it?" The ram started to walk at an angle in our direction, and I scurried to my rifle. Propping the gun up on a log, I found him quickly in my scope and asked Heath, "You ready?" The shot struck the ram hard in the chest, and he ran 30 yards before we watched his legs point toward the sky. "We did it, Heath!" I cried.
Walking up to the beautiful bighorn ram lying there in the snow was surreal. I’ll never forget feeling the immense weight of his head in my hands as I lifted his beautiful horns off the snowy ground. It truly was the pinnacle in my life as a hunter. This Skull Bound Chronicles episode entitled "The Pinnacle" will be released on CarbonTV in January 2023.