Close Search

Luck of the Draw

February 2023
Story by Ray Costa
State: Oregon
Species: Sheep - California

During our annual elk archery trip to Montana, Chip and I talked about booking an archery hunting trip for Roosevelt elk in Oregon or Washington, which if successful would provide us with all three of the elk species. Chip stated, “I’m in!” After several conversations, we booked a hunt with an outfitter in Oregon. While talking with the outfitter, he recommended that both of us put in for the California bighorn sheep and goat tags. The odds were even for everyone applying, so it was worth a shot. It was just the luck of the draw.

On June 20th, I checked my voicemail and had several messages congratulating me on being selected for one of two non-resident California bighorn sheep tags in the John Day unit. I just sat there stunned. I called Chip, and he asked me if I knew I was drawn for the John Day ram hunt in Oregon. I said yes, and he congratulated me and was excited that I had been drawn. The next statement that came out of his mouth was, “When are we leaving because I’m going with you?” I let him know the dates and then he paused and said that he had booked a trophy mule deer hunt in Eastern Colorado, so he needed to call them and cancel the hunt. What a true friend!

I contacted Robert Hanneman from the Huntin’ Fool team and asked him for suggestions of whom he would recommend guide me on my sheep quest. He recommended several outfitters but stated that if this was his tag, he would hunt with Dan Blankenship from Sheep Mountain Outfitters (SMO). I was interviewing several hunters who were successful in the past, and the same name continued to be recommended – Dan Blankenship. Dan’s knowledge of the area and his 20+ years of experience along with his true passion for sheep hunting made it an easy decision to hunt with SMO.

The day finally arrived! I had an 11-hour drive ahead of me to meet Dan and the Sheep Mountain Outfitters team. Unfortunately, Chip had a sudden situation and wasn’t able to join me on the hunt, but he was with me in spirit. I arrived in Condon, Oregon and pulled into our meeting spot. Meeting Dan was like meeting your hunting buddies at camp each year. I felt right at home and made a lifelong friend. He had arranged to have JR Masters film my hunt, which was another amazing surprise.

After lunch, we drove down to the campsite that we were going to launch from in the morning. As we were driving down the dirt road to the camp spot, we spotted 30 sheep. My anticipation level to begin the hunt was off the charts. Dan had asked me several months prior about my thoughts of another hunter joining the hunt. He stated I would have the first shot and if I decided to pass, the other hunter could decide if it was a ram he wanted or he also gave me the option of hunting alone. I let Dan know that I always liked other hunters in camp so we can share hunting stories and it makes the experience more enjoyable. When we finally made it to the camping area, I met the resident hunter who also drew a sheep tag in the John Day unit. Coleman, the hunter, and his dad, Joe, were going to hunt with me for the next five days. I couldn’t have been more excited to be hunting together with these great guys.

I woke up to the smell of coffee, grabbed my gear, and headed down to the rafts. We were also joined on the hunt by Mike, one of Dan’s guides, and Martin, who owned the rafts we were using. Martin floated this river and knew it like the back of his hand. We finally pushed off, and the hunt started. Within 20 minutes, we spotted our first rams. We paddled our raft to the shore, pulled out our binos and spotting scopes, and viewed the rams. As we continued down the river, we saw almost every size and age group of ram while Dan explained the details of what we should be looking for in a mature ram. Each time we saw a ram, we would beach the rafts and view the rams, which totaled 22 on the first day. The day ended with Martin directing us to a great level campsite where he prepared a great meal.

Day two started off with breakfast and then off we went. Again, the rams in the area were plentiful. As I was glassing on the left side of the cliffs, Dan was glassing to the right. Suddenly, Dan spotted a ram and started heading to the shore. By the time the raft hit the shore, Dan was out of the raft and setting up his spotting scope. I could tell from his facial expression that this was a great ram. Dan looked at me and said, “You need to look at this ram.” My reply was, “No, I don’t. Get in the raft and let’s go after him.”

They were about 1,000 yards out, so we hiked about half a mile to get a better look at the ram. By the time we arrived at the lookout point, the sheep were moving to the other side of the mountain. The rest of the team met up with us as the last two ewes were walking around the other side of the mountain. Dan looked up the mountain and said he saw a path. Once we arrived at the top of the rimrocks, we followed the sheep trails. An hour later, we found two rams and four ewes bedded halfway down the rimrock on the ledge of the mountain, but the target ram was still not visible. We continued to glass the mountain for the next hour.

We saw Martin walking up the hill, and he let us know the ram we were looking for was bedded directly below us at the same level as the sheep we could see. We decided to wait them out to see which direction they would travel. After 45 minutes, I saw a ewe walking up to the bedded sheep that we could see, and then a young ram walked out and lay next to them. The excitement was growing.

During this time, Dan was keeping me calm. He reassured me that once the target ram appeared we would have plenty of time to set up and take the shot. Over the next 15 minutes, three more rams walked over to the bedded sheep, and each time I looked at Dan, he would shake his head no and I would refocus on the area. All of a sudden, a ewe appeared and walked toward the bedded sheep. Right behind her was the unmistakable shooter ram. As I looked at Dan, he gave me a big smile and said, “Take your time and shoot him when he presents you with a shot.” The ram took three more steps and stopped broadside. I put the crosshairs of my Leupold sight on him, pulled the trigger of my Bergara 6.5 Creedmoor, and the bullet hit its mark.

The ram fell backwards, sliding down the hill and heading for a 500- yard cliff. He finally hung up on a boulder five feet away from the edge of the cliff. The entire team stood up and celebrated a successful sheep harvest. I wanted to run straight to the ram. Unfortunately, he was only 202 yards away as a crow flies, but the 500-yard cliff below us added another 45 minutes to recovery. We reached the ram, took hundreds of pictures, celebrated some more, and dressed the ram out for the hike down off the mountain to the boats.

Over the next three days we spotted, glassed, and continued our quest for Coleman’s ram. Unfortunately, we did not find a ram that Dan or Coleman decided to pursue and our river trip was over. I took my ram into ODFW to have it validated. While I was there, I received a text from Coleman with a picture of a great ram he took on one of the properties Dan had access to.

My ability to experience the love of the outdoors and the hunting opportunities I do is because of the support of my wife, Jeanette. I couldn’t have asked for a more patient and supportive person in my life, and she has molded me into the man I am today. During this journey, she has been the rock who has supported me. I am pretty sure that when we were married, this beautiful blond beach girl would never have imagined that she would be enjoying wild game for dinner, having her house decorated with beautiful mounts, and having to deal with the non-stop elk calling practice. I have two sons, Chris and Derrick, who have been my hunting partners. We are very competitive and always on the go. I am also fortunate to have three beautiful granddaughters, a grandson, and another grandson on the way. They love to hang out with me and experience the outdoors.