Alberta Bighorn Sheep Hunt
By Sid Gray
Where to start...
For most hunters in Alberta the mere mention of the words "bighorn sheep" gets their hearts pumping a little faster. For the truly addicted these same words can result in a zombie-like state with the hunter staring off into space dreaming about the perfect ram on a distant ridge, while a little bit of drool dribbles out of the corner of a mouth which happens to be hanging open just a little.
I had my first bout of Bighorn Fever in the mid 90’s. I was fresh out of college and was looking for work as my summer job up at Lesser Slave Lake was coming to a close. I got a call asking if I was able to move to Hinton, Alberta for the fall/winter for a little bit of work. "Sure," I said (nothing else is happening) "What does the job entail?" I learned I would be helping out on the last few months of a Bighorn Sheep telemetry study. I would be tracking sheep via radio collars and recording their locations. Little did I know what this job would do to me. I spent the next seven months in and around the coal mines at Cadomin. For those of you who don’t know, it is the place of worship, where sheep hunters go to pray, also known as Wildlife Management Unit, or WMU 438. There are sheep everywhere and big huge rams just lounging beside the road. The mine sites were closed to hunting and to the public except for a couple of access trails. I saw big rams every day and that is when I got hooked.
An area close to the coal mines is WMU 437, or the Red Cap as it is known locally. This zone is the end of the front range of the Rocky Mountains. There is only one main ridge that holds sheep in this zone and it can be accessed easily from both sides. For that reason WMU 437 had been closed to hunting for many years because the population could not tolerate the hunting pressure.
In 1996 WMU 437 was opened for hunting through a limited entry draw. Myself and a number of other sheep hunters immediately started putting in for the draw. Every year I would put in for the draw and every year I would get a negative when I checked my draw results. I could have hunted sheep in another WMU in the province where general tags are available but life was always getting in the way. Every year I would say to myself “next year I will make the time to get out sheep hunting” and every year October 31 would arrive and I would start the cycle all over again.
That all changed in 2012. For some reason when I did my draws for the year I had a feeling that I was going to get my 437 draw. I daydreamed about chasing sheep more than usual and I caught myself looking through old photo albums from when I worked out there. This was my year….
July 12, 2012 arrived and I check my draw results like usual. Only this time it said that I was successful on WMU 437 Tr.ophy sheep! I had been drawn! I was going sheep hunting!! After phoning the draw results line 3 more times and checking online twice more it was confirmed: I was going sheep hunting in one of the most sought after regions in all of North America!!!
Then it started to sink in. I was going sheep hunting. This isn’t like chasing deer out on the prairies. If I got one I would have to carry it out on my back. Switching areas isn’t as easy as driving down the road and opening up the next gate. While chasing sheep in the mountains in October there is a good chance it is going to be cold and snowy and there is no hotel to stay at. I started getting nervous.
This is my chance at this once in a lifetime draw; I will never get this tag again. After 17 years of applying I had pulled it and I had better get serious about this.
I started training with a pack weighing 50 lbs. The old pack wasn’t cutting it so it was time to order up a new one. While I was at it a new spotting scope would be a good idea too. Then I got on the phone to Corlane Sporting Goods and ordered a new turret for my Huskemaw scope and one of those little slope-dopers so I would be able to figure out the correct range if I was shooting at a steep angle. Then I pondered what else I would need for this hunt. A place to stay while out there is a must. A trailer would be nice but I couldn’t afford to buy one. That is when the farmer in me kicked in. I got our 24’ stock trailer, closed in the sides, installed a wood burning stove, put a mattress in the goose neck and then put a fridge in the back to make life a little easier. Not perfect, but it would be much better than the back of the truck and a tarp.
I talked with the people I knew who had drawn this tag previously and was advised to make sure I had a 4x4 quad that was reliable. Hmmm... So the 1994 Honda 250 on the farm with the fuel leak isn’t going to cut it? Oh well the farm could use a new quad. A quick trip to town and I came home with a shiny new 2013 Honda 420 in the back of the truck.
The training was coming along nicely, and I was up to an 80 pound pack. But now my boots were showing signs of fatigue. No problem, I know how to fix that. A quick trip to Whyte Ave in Edmonton and there was a new pair of Hanwags on my feet. Ready to go!
Everything was progressing nicely until the middle of August. Once harvest started at the farm all training and prep work stopped. The next 7 weeks was a blur of farm equipment and dust. When I started this quest I was hoping to have 2 weeks to chase my ram. I figured if I got that much time after harvest I would have been satisfied. Fortunately harvest wrapped up with time to spare and I was going to be able to chase this ram for nearly the whole month of October. Perfect.
I finished loading the trailer, picked up the last few items that I needed, and set off on October 3rd. By the time I made it to Cadomin that night, it was snowing badly and the truck was having trouble getting up the hill to the designated camping site. Once at the site I quickly set up camp and settled for the night. A couple movies and some drinks and I was ready for bed. A quick check outside before bed and it was still snowing. There was almost 10” of snow at this point and I hoped it would stop soon.
It was still snowing in the morning and I was in no hurry to get going since I couldn’t see the nearby train tracks, let alone the mountains where the sheep should be. I got my pack ready and took a little trip on the quad to GPS the loading chute at the cement plant. Fish & Wildlife officials had told me to use the loading chute as the center location for the closed area. No problem, that’s easy. With that done I checked out the store in Cadomin. The sky was starting to clear so I headed back to the trailer to get ready to go.
Every sheep hunter that I have ever talked to describes in great detail the miles of hiking, the blisters on their feet and the bruises earned by carrying a heavy pack. They talked about how sheep hunting was as much about the physical as it was about the psychological/emotional. Days spent hiking and glassing empty mountain sides. Eating freeze dried meals. Shivering in a snow storm on the side of a mountain. The endless stream crossings with water so cold that your feet instantly go numb and are burning by the time you make it to the other side.
Well now it was my turn to experience that.
I took off on the quad with the intentions of making it to the trailhead and doing a short hike up to check out the main basin behind the cement plant. With the day over half gone there was not much else to do. About half way to the trailhead I realized I had left my binoculars sitting on the bench back at the trailer. So back I went, suddenly glad I was hunting alone so nobody could give me a hard time. With the binos around my neck I headed back up to the trailhead. As I was getting closer I started seeing tracks in the fresh snow. "Wow", I thought, "I wonder if those are sheep tracks?" Yep, they probably are since there are two rams standing over there in the timber! With my heart beating out of my chest I looked through my binos and confirmed there were two little banana-head rams standing watching me. This is great; I have a couple sheep within 158 yards on the first day of hunting. If only they were legal. I kept checking the hillside for more sheep since there were a lot of tracks. I checked the GPS and I was out of the restricted zone so if there was a legal ram he would be fair game. I climbed a small hill next to me to change vantage points and that is when seven more rams walked out of a draw. But still no shooters in the herd. Or is it a flock? Anyway... I got around the rams and tried to get a better look in case there was a ram that I hadn’t inspected yet. As I crested the rise the group of nine rams were within 25 yards. Nope, still no legal rams. But this day was a su
I went back to the quad and carried on up to the trailhead. Just before the trailhead there were more tracks in the snow. I stopped to look them over and figure out which direction they were going and if they were from the group of rams I had just looked at. No, these were heading into the opening where the trailhead was located. Great! I will be able to pop up over the ridge and there should be sheep in the basin. This plan is actually going to work. I looked up the mountain trying to see additional signs of sheep. I couldn’t see any tracks but just then six more rams walked out of the timber towards me and up onto an open knob.
Well, the frenzy that took place in the next 60 seconds must have been a sight to behold. A quick look though the binos showed that one ram was clearly bigger than the rest, a backpack and jackets were jettison to the ground, a spotting scope was set up, and then a rifle was unstrapped and uncased from the back of the quad "just in case". All this was going on with the sheep standing a mere 210 yards away watching me. I was in the wide open hiding behind my quad. Even after I got the spotting scope set up I was shaking so bad I couldn’t focus on the biggest ram. He stood facing me and I could not get a good look at his horns. After a few minutes I started to calm down and just when that happened the ram bedded down. Still facing me, I couldn’t be sure that he was legal.
After 20 minutes I dug out my cell phone to see if I was high enough for reception. I had 1 bar, I was hoping to use one of my lifelines and call a friend and ask what I should do. Then my battery died. But wait he is getting up, now I will be able to see. Nope. He just turned around and bedded back down. Now he was facing away from me. With the phone no longer an option I came up with a new plan.
Since I was 210 yards away I would move positions and try and get a different angle on the ram. I got up and walked up to 138 yards and sat back down. Nope that did nothing. I was closer but now there was a small spruce tree concealing his head from my view. I tried everything: I took my hat off and waved it in the air hoping to get him to look at me. That did nothing. Through the spotting scope I watched him move his eye and look in my direction but he would not turn his head and let me confirm whether or not he was legal ram. I was 99% sure he was a full curl and therefore legal. But I didn’t want to pull the trigger until I was 100% certain. So I decided to just sit in the snow and wait. Eventually he would have to do something.
While waiting I had a lot of time to think. Should I shoot him so early in the hunt? After all these years hoping for this tag should I fill it so soon? What if I let him walk and I don’t find another legal ram? Do I want to pass on him just because it is so early? I also thought about a talk I had with a sheep hunter years ago about a storm back in the 80’s that dropped three feet of snow overnight and people had to be rescued because they couldn’t get out of their camps. I realized it would sure be nice to be able to get the quad right up the ram and not have to spend two days packing him off the mountain... While all of these thoughts were going through my mind the ram and a couple of his buddies actually put their heads down on the snow and went to sleep. After two hours of waiting and watching this ram, some of the smaller rams started to get up and feed towards me moving off the knob. With the four smaller rams now 90 yards from me I kept waiting and hoping that my ram would turn his head. Finally he stood, stretched, and turned broadside. He was legal. For sure.
I grabbed my rifle and got off one round as he was leaving the knob. He and another ram both disappeared from sight. Time stood still as I waited for the rams to appear in a small opening ahead of the direction they ran. All of a sudden the smaller of the two rams ran back onto the knob and the four smaller rams ran up and joined him. The larger ram was nowhere to be seen. The five smaller rams were all looking over the edge. I knew then that my shot had been true and my ram was down. I got up and stretched; after two hours of sitting in the snow I was starting to cramp up. As I walked over to the knob the five smaller rams filtered back in to the timber heading up the mountain and there, at the bottom of the knob, lay my ram.
I was prepared to hunt for a month, shoot long distance, and live on the side of the mountain if I had too. I was looking forward to the blisters on my feet and bruised shoulders from the pack.
This was not your ordinary sheep hunt but it was a hunt that I will never forget. I think it was well worth the 17 year wait.
The only problem with this hunt is I now have to deal with the glares from all of the jealous sheep hunters as they are complaining about the blisters and sore shoulders.
I wish I knew what they were talking about...