This dream hunt had a very different beginning. I have been an avid sheep hunter for years and had taken nine North American sheep previously, but I never had a beginning like this one. My brother was asked to prepare to serve a three- year mission for his faith beginning on July 1, 2021. He had booked a hunt for Oregon Columbia blacktail with Eden Ridge Outfitters for him and his son. I contacted John McCollum of Eden Ridge Outfitters and told him that I would be assuming my brother’s hunt and wanted to know if there was anything he needed. He indicated that he would contact me in the spring of 2021 to prepare to apply for tags. When the time came, he did just that. In that conversation, he mentioned that I should apply for sheep and mountain goat tags as well.
Then that call came. John said, “Joe, you will never believe it, but you just drew the John Day River bighorn sheep tag.” He was right. I did not believe it until I looked it up online and confirmed what he was saying. I had an Oregon tag in what some will argue is the best California bighorn hunting in the West.
Finally, the season arrived. My wife and I arrived one day early to do a little scouting with the team that John had assembled. We had three assistant guides, and they were fabulous. This team had over 140 bighorn sheep harvests to their resumes combined. I couldn’t wait to get started!
The guides had two rams located that they wanted us to look at that evening before the opening day. When we found them, they were in the same group of ewes. Earlier that day, they had been about half a mile apart. The rut was in full swing, and we watched the two rams together for about 45 minutes. One ram had a very open and large curl which resulted in better length than the other. The second ram had a tighter curl and appeared a little heavier. The team judged the first ram to be in the low 170s and the other to be in the high 160s. I would have been happy with either ram, but as a team, we decided to look for a possibly better ram since the next day was opening day and there was a lot of time to hunt.
During the next two days, we looked over several rams that were right at the 170" mark. They were either just over or just under but nothing that clearly landed above that. To be honest, there were several rams that I would have been happy with, but the team kept saying that it was early in the hunt and we would find the ram.
At dinner at the end of the second day, we discussed all the rams that we had seen and decided to go back and look for the deep curled ram that we saw on the evening before the opener. Of course, I could not sleep that night. I was so excited to see that ram again. However, it looked like the weather might not cooperate. It was supposed to be cloudy and rainy most of the day.
We were in position to glass bright and early that next morning. Each assistant guide took up a different position, and John, my wife, and I took up another position. We were watching a nice ram when one of the assistant guides pulled up and said that we needed to come and take a look at a ram they had found. When we arrived, two assistant guides were already watching the ram with their spotting scopes. I could tell they were really focused. Even as an avid sheep hunter, it is still very difficult for me to tell the difference between a high 160" and a low 170" ram. When I looked through the scope, I realized we were seeing a ram that we had not seen before. To me, he looked fantastic. When I asked the team of guides what he would score, no one really wanted to answer. I asked if he was a 170" ram, and they all looked at each other but did not answer me. Finally, one of the assistant guides, Jon Barker, said “Joe, kill that ram.” That was more than enough for me.
The big ram had separated a little from the herd by about 80 yards and was bedded down with a single ewe that he had been following all morning. In this location, we were hunting from the bottom up, which was not the normal style of the previous two days. After discussing it as a team, we decided to circle the mountain in the vehicles and then hike up the backside and shoot from the cliffs above the ram. The weather was starting to get cloudy and had the appearance that a storm was imminent. While two assistant guides stayed put to watch the ram in case he moved off, we started the stalk.
When we reached the summit, we knew that we needed to be careful and peek over the cliffs until we found him. The ram was focused on the ewe. He was not the concern. The bigger concern was the band of ewes and small rams that were close. They finally located the ram in the exact position where he had been two hours earlier when we began the stalk. It started to drizzle and made it a little more complicated. I was going to have to climb out to the edge of the cliff in the rain and shoot down at about a 45-degree angle. The ram was facing away from us, chewing his cud contentedly at about 250 yards. As we got ready to take the shot, my barrel was being blocked by a little outcrop of rock on the cliff. This was going to require that we shift to the left about six feet and get right up on the edge of the cliff. As we were making that minor adjustment, John noticed a small ram in the group had noticed our movement. He indicated that we needed to get the job done a little quicker or the whole group could bust out any second. At that point, my heart really began to race.
We carefully made the adjustment, and now all I had to do was make that shot. I was solid and felt like I could take him right between the shoulder blades as he was bedded down and facing away. Not an ideal angle, but with the small ram watching us, we were concerned that the big ram would bust out of his bed if the group started running. My wife and John were watching the shot through his phone camera attached to his Swarovski spotting scope. All I remember at the second that I touched the trigger was John saying, “Stone dead.”
As we got to the ram, it was one of those moments that only happens a few times in a hunting career. The ram was bigger than I thought. What a ram and what a hunt! They all agreed that the ram was in the mid 170" class. It did not matter. It was my first California bighorn and my tenth North American ram. This was the second time I had been accompanied by my wife on a sheep hunt.
After the 60-day drying period, the ram was officially scored at 176" net Boone and Crockett. He was uniform because he only grossed 176 4/8". I feel blessed to have been lucky enough to draw the John Day River unit. Remember, you cannot draw if you do not put in. You never know, next year it might be you hearing the words, “You will never believe it.”