By any measure, hunting mountain sheep is a challenging undertaking. In North America, there are four species of wild sheep and I’ve been fortunate to have hunted them all multiple times. But the one specimen that is most difficult to take is the Rocky Mountain bighorn. Success rates for guided hunts, even with excellent outfitters in good areas, historically only run around 50%. These odds are significantly lower than those expected while hunting the bighorn’s cousins—Dall, Stone and desert sheep.
Of course, there are reasons why this is so. There are fewer overall numbers of bighorn rams, they normally congregate in bands containing fewer individuals, and they’re usually found in isolated pockets about their range. But in my view, the single greatest reason why bighorns are so difficult to hunt is their propensity to spend significant time in the timber, which is an ever-present and important part of the environment they inhabit. The more time these sheep spend “timbered up,” the less visible they are to a hunter’s probing eyes. Consequently, they’re ultimately harder to find and kill. Bighorns also seem less tolerant of human intrusion—whether detected by sight, smell or hearing—than other wild sheep.
As if sheep hunting weren’t difficult enough, some years ago I decided to forsake my modern center-fire gun and pursue these great animals with a muzzle-loading rifle. Besides the one-shot challenge of muzzleloading, in an effort to be more faithful to a primitive ethic, I also opted to forego the advantages a scope offers and hunt with open sights instead. Let’s just say I really like to push myself!
In January 2004, I met Jordan and Natasha Aasland, owners of Whiteswan Lake Outfitters, at the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep convention in Reno, Nevada. They outfit bighorn sheep hunts (as well as hunts for several other species) in the East Kootenay region of British Columbia. I was brutally honest with Jordan about my goals, abilities and my weapon of choice. If he thought I was nuts, he was polite enough not to speak his mind. Instead, we made arrangements for a hunt in September 2005, where he would be my guide. Apparently, Jordan wasn’t one to shy away from a challenge, either.
The hunt that followed was very special. We navigated the ups and downs that typically accompany any sheep hunt, including some particularly bad weather. In the end, we connected on a beautiful ram taken from a group of five sheep. Although I was capable of shooting at a much greater distance, I took the ram with an off-hand shot at the improbable range of thirty-five yards. The entirety of the hunt and the quality of the animal made him the best trophy of my hunting career. And despite the difficulties intrinsic to hunting bighorns, as well as the additional self-imposed handicaps, Jordan and I prevailed in the face of great odds.
About a year after our first hunt I was contemplating another bighorn hunt, so I asked Jordan about his schedule and any openings he may have had. His immediate reply to my query was, “Why would you want to do that again?” Jordan’s response took me a little off-guard, but I understood why he reacted as he did. Our first hunt together had been so perfect—storybook even—that he feared we could detract from that memory if things didn’t work out as well on a subsequent try. And he knew the odds of a repeat performance were decidedly not in our favor on a second go-around. Sensing Jordan’s trepidation and the reasons behind it, I responded by saying, “We can’t top the first hunt, we can only add to it.” Like Jordan, I was under no delusion about the likelihood of being successful on a second try, especially given our good luck on the first hunt. But, that’s what hunting is about. No guarantees, just the opportunity to pit yourself against the mountains, the elements and the animal. Sometimes your best efforts are good enough; sometimes they aren’t!