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Idaho Middle Fork Bighorn Sheep Hunt

September 2018
Story by Josh Miller
State: Idaho
Species: Sheep - Rocky Mtn

On May 17, 2017, my fiancé and I were sitting on the couch working on wedding plans when my buddy, Carl, texted to say that Idaho’s draw results were up. I quickly logged in and saw the word every sheep hunter dreams of seeing, “Successful!” I had just drawn a tag in Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness, arguably the hardest sheep hunting area in the lower 48 outside of Montana’s unlimited units.

The next few months were a whirlwind of Google searches, forum searches, phone calls, reading books, and planning for and getting married in Alaska. I was very fortunate through my searching and posting to meet many great people along the way who gave me advice and tips on hunting sheep in that wilderness.

It was finally time to set foot in my unit and do some scouting. I had met a guy who used to spend a lot of time in the area I was hunting and had recently moved back to it. He asked if it would be OK for him to accompany my wife and me on a long weekend backpack trip for some scouting. I was very eager to accept his request. We spent the weekend glassing and found sheep, but they were just ewes and lambs.

A few weeks later, my wife and I returned to a different portion of the unit to do some scouting, but we were met with a foe I would grow to hate – smoke! We couldn’t glass much, so we only spent two days and left without seeing a sheep. I still had high hopes and was excited for the hunt, which was now only two weeks away.

My best friend and hunting partner, Sean, drove up from New Mexico before the hunt and we sorted out gear. We headed out two days prior to the opener to fly in and do some last-minute scouting. This proved to be a waste of money, effort, and time. The fires were still raging in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Oregon, making visibility near zero. We opted to go to another location further south and hoped the smoke wasn’t as bad.

We reached the second location and set up camp. Opening day came and went with nothing spotted except for some deer. Sean and I formulated a plan to go to the end of a drainage and work our way back to base camp. We left early that morning in the dark and were heading down a trail when we heard a shot ring out not far from where we had just left. My heart sank when we saw another hunter packing out a sheep not a few hundred yards from where we had walked in the dark. I knew we had walked right by some sheep but never saw them.

We glassed and hunted for a few days, only seeing ewes and one immature ram. The conditions were worsening from the heat and smoke, so we decided to go back to Idaho Falls and fish for a few days. I left that area a little beaten up mentally but hopeful the conditions would improve soon.

Finally, a cold front entered and suppressed the fires, so I made plans to go back in. This time, my new friend, Mitch, who had gone scouting with my wife and me, went with me. We made our plans, met up in the unit, and set up a nice base camp. We spent a day and a half glassing and hunting but with no luck. Then, an early season winter storm set in. I don’t know how much snow we got as it was coming in every way but straight down, making visibility nearly zero. We tried waiting it out a couple days, but weather reports made it clear we would not be getting a break for a while. We decided to go back to work for a couple weeks.

September 30th came, and I met Mitch in Challis, Idaho to fly into the unit to a landing strip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and hunt from the river up. We hoped the sheep would have moved down a little with the winter storms. We got to Challis and flew out, beating a low cloud layer by minutes to slip in and land. We had brought a raft with us to float across the Middle Fork. We got our gear situated and loaded up the raft. We got across, loaded up our gear, and headed downriver. We made our first camp and went for an evening glass with no luck.

On October 1st, we made our second camp and quickly headed up the hill for another evening glass. At approximately 6 p.m., I was glassing a drainage where several people had seen sheep during the late tag hunt. All of a sudden, there was a ram standing in the sun. I could tell it wasn’t a very big ram and quickly started picking apart the hillside around him. Two, three, and then four rams appeared. I got my Swarovski spotter out and studied each ram. The fourth and darkest ram was “The One.” He had great bases and was broomed off on both sides. Mitch and I came to the conclusion that it was too late in the day and they were not in an ideal location to make a move on them that night, so we would have to come back tomorrow.

We got up early the next day and headed up the 2,000 vertical feet to get to the spot we could see from. When we got up to the knob, we started glassing to find the four rams again but with no luck. My hopes started to dwindle with each new glassing spot. We had climbed nearly 3,000 feet to the top of the ridge, and we were both getting tired. I looked at a large, rocky spot, and we agreed it looked like a good spot to see the last rockslide they may be hiding in.

We worked our way over to the rocks, and Mitch went to the edge and looked over. He quickly ducked back down and mouthed, “Sheep!” I dropped my pack, grabbed my rifle, and worked my way to the edge. Two rams were lying in the sun but neither was the dark-colored ram. I looked in the shadows, and there lay the dark-colored ram, facing us at 188 yards. I instantly started shaking with excitement. I got a spot between two sharp rocks and used one as a rest as I put the crosshairs on the ram’s chest. I took a deep breath to calm myself and squeezed the trigger. Whop! I hit him! He stood up and spun broadside, mostly behind a tree branch. I could see a small opening around his shoulder that I wanted to try and fit a second shot into. Whop! It was a positive second hit, but I lost sight of him.

Mitch and I gathered our packs and gear and headed down an incredibly steep, rocky chute.

We got down about 100 yards, and Mitch looked down and said, “There he is! He’s down.”

I scrambled down to where he was. I couldn’t believe I had just killed a bighorn! I went over to him and just sat there admiring how beautiful he was and how much character his horns had. We took pictures, high fived, and got to work. We got back to camp with an immense sense of accomplishment.

I spent 18 days in the Frank Church, scouting and hunting, and the mental and physical tests I endured came close to breaking me several times. However, the quest of finding my ram kept me going. I came away from this hunt knowing it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I did it! I will have memories of the hunt, the time spent with friends, and the things I learned about myself to last a lifetime.