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From One Veteran to Another

April 2023
Story by Jake Marmon
Hunters: Seth Whitfield
State: Montana
Species: Sheep - Rocky Mtn

Late May of 2022, Doug Browning opened his drawing status under the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website. As he scrolled down the webpage, he would have seen he was successful in drawing a bighorn sheep tag. The tag he drew was in a unit that had not been hunted in several years. Doug was a local to the area, FMO for the DNRC, and was a part of the Montana Army National Guard. He was the fire management officer at the DNRC and was in the 672nd Army Reserves. He was deployed twice and retired as a staff sergeant. He was the textbook example of an upstanding member of his community. Unfortunately, shortly before the season started, Doug passed away from a heart attack, leaving behind his wife, Tara, and their three young boys. It’s a stark reminder to make the most of life while you can and hug your loved ones as you never know when it will come to an end.

At this point, you, as the reader, know that this is a story about a successful sheep hunt. Well, Montana has an interesting law that allows for a tag to be transferred to a recipient of a Purple Heart medal. Tara Browning decided that since Doug was a veteran and Montana FWP had a program that would transfer tags to a Purple Heart recipient, that is what Doug would have wanted. Through a non-profit, the Purple Heart veteran was selected. Along with the tag, he received a donated outfitted hunt through Cody Carr’s Hunting Adventures. This was the first time a sheep tag had been transferred in Montana history.

Enter Seth Whitfield, former 75th Ranger, Purple Heart recipient, and now a sheep tag holder. Seth rolled into camp the third week of November with three and a half days to punch his tag on a ram. It was a very short time to hunt, especially by sheep hunt standards. Given our time constraints, locals Lee Kinser and Richard McDonald and all of the guides donated their time to help with the hunt. We had days of scouting leading up to the hunt and were able to pin down where a large herd of sheep were rutting. At any given point in time, there would be 60 different sheep running and leaping from cliff to cliff. Up on the cliffs above the river, we could hear the rams cracking skulls. It was reminiscent of a scene out of an Animal Planet documentary. The plan was simple – get to our glassing point and start judging rams until we found the one worth punching a tag on, all while taking a johnboat across the ice-filled river and dodging ice chunks. We would then put on a stalk and squeeze the trigger. Sounds easy, right?

It turned out not to be that cut and dry. The rutting action of the rams chasing ewes in heat and each other was causing sheep to disappear and reappear all around us. On top of that, the genetics for rams were all very similar. A young ram would look identical to an older ram with a mere few inches in difference on mass score, the best way of telling them apart. At this point, we had a few grandaddy rams that kept giving us the slip. In the heat of the moment, it caused hesitation on several occasions. The moment finally arrived that a stud of a ram that Seth would pull the trigger on was spotted. We jumped in the boat and scrambled across the river with a plan in hand to make a move. We lost the sheep in the rutting action taking place in front of us. The rugged mountain country with a bench provided cover for the old ram along with their keen eyesight, and it left us shaking our heads in frustration. However, Seth always had a smile on his face. He was soaking up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It served as a good reminder that we were doing what we love and that we couldn’t take it for granted.

On the second to last day of the hunt, a band of the rams moved up into the cliffs where we could watch them bed. As we approached by landing the boat on the far side of the river, the rams moved a second time to another bedding location. We maneuvered through the rocks and got into position. The big rams vanished and were no longer with the ewe that was in heat.

The pressure was on. The last day was upon us, and we had to make it happen. We relocated a good portion of the herd of sheep in a tight drainage with rams chasing around a hot ewe. We had to wait until they were in stalkable position, presenting the perfect opportunity to seal the deal with a grandaddy ram in the middle of it all. We pushed the johnboat from shore and quietly dodged the ice jams. We were able to make landing below the sheep, out of their sight. We went fast and light to climb the other side of the drainage to a shooting point before the sheep decided to move off. As we got into position, Seth set up for a shot. With the movement of the sheep and the trees all around us, our shooting lanes were not large enough to give us a shot, but movement could get us busted. After a few minutes and fear that the sheep would just head out of dodge, the call was made to move uphill another 50 yards to what appeared was an opening. We scrambled up through the rocks, trying to stay out of sight. Luckily, we made it without blowing it. The activity of the sheep kept most of their attention. Seth set up again for a shot while Tyler, a fellow guide, started filming. We picked out the grandaddy ram, and I gave Seth the good old fashioned, “Shoot him when he stops broadside.” The ram jumped onto a rock outcropping all alone, and the rest is history. Seth made a great shot at over 300 yards.

With a successful sheep hunt comes people wanting to see the ram and hear the story. On this hunt, however, it was extremely important that Tara Browning and her boys were able to be part of the fellowship and see the ram. I’d like to think that maybe, just maybe, Doug is looking down and is happy with the result. I would like to take a second and pay our respects to the Browning family. What an amazing gift Tara gave to a Purple Heart veteran. Cody Carr’s Hunting Adventures and staff are so thankful to our veterans and the Browning family for the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing experience. God bless our veterans! We want to thank Doug Browning and Seth Whitfield for their service.