I’ve drawn some excellent tags through Huntin’ Fool – New Mexico oryx, Wyoming elk, Arizona elk (twice), and Utah elk. In my 16 years as a member, I have consistently applied for sheep. We all know the odds are terrible, but somebody draws.
Last July, I came back to civilization after a month in the Alaskan wilderness to an urgent message from my wife, Marion, to call ASAP. I had drawn a Montana Missouri Breaks bighorn sheep tag, and several outfitters were calling. Before contacting any of the guide services, I reached out to my friend, Rick Warren, hunter extraordinaire. Rick didn’t hesitate, “Get in touch with John Lewton. He works for Montana Trophy Outfitters. He is the top sheep guide worldwide from Montana to Alaska to Asia.” I promptly signed up with Montana Trophy Outfitters.
I co-direct a long-running research project studying steelhead trout in Kamchatka, Russia with my Russian counterpart, Kirill Kuzishchin, Moscow State University/Russian Academy of Science. We conduct our field work mid-September through late October. I explained to Forrest Lewton and John that I had to work around those responsibilities. They assured me that was not a problem. In fact, they said November was prime time to hunt because it coincides with the sheep rut when the rams come down to the Missouri River to round up ewes. We settled on the first week of November. They also agreed that I could bring some friends – Jim O’Neill and Bob Butler. John lined up two additional helpers, Blake and Jeff Trangmoe.
A week prior to heading off to link up with John, I almost fell over getting up from my desk. I was disoriented, throwing up, and unable to speak clearly or walk steadily. It was your worst nightmare, a stroke. I’m 78 and in good shape, but this laid me low. Luckily, I received prompt, cutting-edge medical care. The doctors gave me a new clot-busting drug and then went into my brain with little grabbers to mechanically remove the clod. Suddenly, I was awake, coherent, and back in the land of the living. I felt good, but the scheduled sheep hunt was out.
I called Forrest, and he agreed to reschedule my hunt 10 days later. Two close friends of 40 years, Greg McDonald and Tom 148 Pero, were aghast that I planned to drive to Montana solo. Both dropped everything and signed on as my minders, adding to the entourage. The sheep didn’t stand a chance.
Four days later, we linked up with John at their hunting headquarters in a well-appointed, comfortable farmhouse. The routine was simple – early breakfast, drive to the boat launch, slowly drift the river while glassing the north shore (my tag area), and then go back to the HQ for cocktails and dinner. It was certainly not your typical sheep hunt. Over the next four or five days, we would glass for sheep.
The weather was perfect and supposed to stay that way. It was frosty at night, warming during the day, and clear with no wind. The daily drive to the boat launch, however, was a white-knuckle adventure with narrow, winding roads with drop-offs covered in ice or slippery mud. In the morning, everything was frozen, but the drive out in the evening was terrifying with muddy, slippery roads that were passable only with the pedal to the metal slithering around corners. I simply closed my eyes and assumed that John wanted to live as much as I did.
On day one, we were up early, had a hearty breakfast and a scary drive, launched the fleet, and started looking for sheep. About two hours in, we spotted a group of six to eight ewes, a couple of satellite rams, and a beautiful 185-190" ram 200 yards out. The guides and Jim all agreed it was a very nice sheep that I should consider shooting. I decided to pass. Jim O’Neill warned that you shouldn’t pass on day one an animal you would shoot on the last day. Still, I had applied for a couple of decades and wasn’t going to shoot the first ram I saw, even though he was definitely a B&C trophy. We spotted seven other 185"+ rams that day.
We spotted three great rams on day two, including a weird-looking, asymmetrical ram that would probably score 190"+. I was tempted. However, on day three, there were no rams. The day one advice was echoing in my brain.
Day four was the same weather, but bad weather was coming in a couple of days. About three hours into the hunt, we spotted three excellent rams half a mile away and decided to make a run on them. John, Jim, Blake, Jeff, and I made a good sneak to within 200 yards. I have hunted big game for 40 years. Only once in that time had I ever needed more than one shot, and even in that instance, the first and follow-up shots had hit the elk in the heart. At 200 yards, I simply made a bad shot, hitting the ram too far back. He limped over the knob while his two buddies split. I couldn’t believe I had flubbed the first shot. I waited for the ram to reappear or perhaps die out of sight. About 25 minutes later, we spotted him slowly sidehilling 300 yards away. I now had a great set-up. The ram stopped, and I sent the 168 grain Berger on the way. The ram fell over backwards, disappearing from sight.
Jim and I stayed where we were to help direct John, Blake, and Jeff to where the ram had disappeared. When we got to the area several hundred feet above us, there was nothing! There are many erosion chutes in the Missouri Breaks. After a few minutes, Jeff spotted the ram’s back legs 15 feet down a narrow chute. John called down, telling us to bring ropes and pulleys, which Jim did. John and Blake belayed down into the chute, and they were able to pull the ram back to where they could break it down. In those narrow quarters, they gutted, skinned, and packaged the meat with nary a speck of dirt. It was the most professional job I had ever seen. The ram was beautiful and even looked vaguely familiar. They noted that the animal should look familiar as it was the ram I had passed on day one. He green scored 188". It was high fives all the way around.
Three months after my hunt, I was back to normal with no obvious symptoms or limitations. However, in November, I could not have pulled this off two weeks after a major stroke without the hard work of John, Blake, and Jeff and all of Forrest’s staff and the support of my friends. It was the most memorable hunt of my life. Thanks, guys!