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November 2023
Story by Stan Henderer
State: Montana
Species: Sheep - Rocky Mtn

 I am used to scanning junk mail postcards quickly and tossing, but this one caught my eye because it had rams on it. Without reading, I looked over the pictures and admired what those lucky bighorn hunters harvested. Since it was hunting related, I looked to see who it was from. It was John Lewton with Montana Bighorn Outfitters. Montana caught my eye because I grew up there. Then I read, “Congratulations on your tag.” Wait, what? What tag? Results weren’t out yet, were they? I zipped to my phone, looking up Montana Fish and Game and went to my profile and to results. It said something about “Successful” and “2022 sheep license.” My head was spinning as I took it all in.

I’d put in for years in states with bighorn draws in hopes that one day, somewhere, I might draw. I was fortunate to live in Alaska in my 20s and hunt Dall sheep self-guided. I used the Great Recession to get a cancellation hunt to take a Stone sheep. Each hunt was epic with many miles and memories. I needed plain old luck to draw a bighorn one day, but I had no idea it would be in my old home state, let alone a premier unit like the Breaks (Missouri River Breaks). I had just been to the Breaks the year before hunting deer, daydreaming of what it would be like to hunt bighorn sheep there. I had no clue what would happen months later when I got that postcard.

Now, I told everyone I could think to tell. Hunters knew what I was talking about, and non-hunters figured it must be a big deal since I was beside myself over it. I talked with a Huntin’ Fool member who drew the same tag a few years earlier and gleaned a lot of information to narrow my choices. I loved the idea of self- guided, but talking with John Lewton, I liked the idea of first-class experience with the area and his access to some private ground where the rams linger early in the season. I made plans not only to hunt with Lewton, but to keep coming back every other week as work allowed to make use of the full season and make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Next, I was going over gear, summer hiking workouts, what if’s at work for being gone, and poring over maps. I knew the first week I would have my best chance with the guide’s experience, but I was restless with making sure I had uncovered every possible scenario.

Finally, I made the 14-hour drive. The forecast was for rain the first day of hunting, so I wanted to get there on my arrival day since the “gumbo” created by that rain would prevent me from arriving later if delayed. We were starting a week after the opener. John had me out scouting for three hours that evening of arrival. We spotted three groups of rams, no Mr. Big, but it was fun to watch the ewes and lambs and the young bachelor groups. It was all familiar sheep behavior I had witnessed in my Arctic and Northern BC trips. I expected the next day would be all day spotting, moving, spotting, etc.

That night had, rain and lightning. The next morning had rain and mud. The mud transferred from boots to pants, pants to gloves, gloves to hat, to everywhere. We tried to walk in grass to avoid mud, but the grass came up with the mud. However, we were again spotting sheep.

Grassy ridges fell down toward Ft. Peck Reservoir with some burnt forest. We sat on one ridge glassing across a small valley at the next ridge. Right off, I spotted six rams. Four were small, one just shy of being a shooter and there was a big one. From over a mile away, I was not sure what he really was. We had time to keep looking and get closer to examine.

Lewton’s assistants, Blake Trangmoe and John Cargill, were on the same ridge as the rams, scouting, and then they made a beeline to us to inform us what a huge ram they had found. We had found it too but were not aware of the bruiser it was. The six rams had headed across the little valley to the ridge we were on, so we worked down toward them. All these ridges are like the fingers on your hand. When we realized they had crossed to the next finger ridge, we circled back up to work down the ram’s finger ridge and found they had crossed again to the next ridge. Another circle back and we found them, all of us now on the same ridge. We hoped to get this ridge between us, get down ridge on the opposite side, and pop up above them, but as we made the move, the two biggest rams got up on top and busted us on a flat bench.

The two rams abandoned their little brothers and sprinted for the canyon beyond. Without any conversation, we sprinted after them, hoping to get a glimpse before they could descend, cross over, and reascend the far side of the canyon. A couple hundred- yard mud sprint later and I stopped 10 yards short to try to control my breathing. Blake had him instantly ranged and said “200, shoot him!” I was in shock. I just expected to get a glimpse of ram butt cheeks leaving the area. They were getting out of there, but at a quick walk as they climbed.

Breathe in, slow my breath out. I regained my composure and lined up, Mr. Big stopped for a split second, and I shot. He was down instantly, and I said out loud “Wow, that was fast!” Somehow, the shot even flipped a bit of mud in my eye, but I could still see him tumble down the muddy slope.

A total of 28 hours of driving and 6 hours of bighorn hunting. Twenty-six years after my first Dall sheep and all of those years daydreaming about adding an epic bighorn sheep hunt. In four months of not stop thinking and planning, I had even contemplated that I might find one right away. I told myself, “You take it when you find it, no waiting,” and there he was. My ram was down, and he was now my ram. Wow, that was fast!

Thank you to John Lewton and his crew. They have an incredible amount of sheep hunting experience. Thank you to my dad who dragged me along on Montana hunting adventures as a kid and who let me drag him along on Alaska hunting adventures as a young adult. Thank you to my wife who said, “Make as many trips to Montana as you need to live this dream of yours.” She was surprised too that it was a six- hour dream hunt.

Mr. Big’s quick tale of the tape was 8 1/2 years old, 40" long side, 38" short side, and 17" bases. His green score was 191". I am very blessed to have drawn the tag and made acquaintance with Mr. Big.