Story by Kevin McNab
As I knelt down and respectfully placed my hands on the ram’s battle-scared horns, my whole soul was flooded with the personal significance of this single moment. The thoughts of all the years applying for a sheep tag unsuccessfully, the countless hours in the gym preparing my body, the months of research, the planning, the sleepless nights dreaming of this moment, the physical and mental toll this rugged backcountry has already ravaged upon me; it all flowed through my mind in a tsunami of emotion. And now here I was, holding in my hands my lifetime dream … a bighorn sheep!]
I have dreamed of the opportunity to hunt bighorn since I was old enough to read my dad’s hunting magazines he kept within arm’s reach of his recliner, and occasionally got in trouble for “studying” as opposed to my school books and usually resulting in being grounded from everything in sight come report card time. But that’s a whole other story. Through the next 20 years I became a consistently successful deer and elk hunter and applied for bighorn sheep permits several of those years to no avail. Having been a subscriber to Eastman’s Hunting Journal I came to enjoy hunting stories and tips and tactics from the likes of Cameron Hanes, Guy Eastman, Nate Simmons, and many others. I knew a hardcore backcountry DIY hunt was something I really wanted to do, but I had one major problem. I was 6’1’’ and an unhealthy 260 pounds. There was no way I could endure the physical demands required for that type of hunt. One day, while surfing the internet I stumbled upon Cameron Hanes website and saw a video titled “Singularity of Purpose”, simply put, that video changed my life. I decided then and there that I would dedicate myself to be the best hunter I could be — on the fitness level — allowing me to access fertile hunting grounds far away from the crowds. I worked out 5-6 days a week, changed my eating habits, bought and studied every backcountry hunting book I could find, and eventually joined a CrossFit class at my gym. I was fanatical in my approach and determined to meet my fitness goals. If you are a backcountry hunter and unfamiliar with CrossFit I urge you to check it out. This regimen combines strength training, endurance, and cardio on a competitive platform and pushes you to overcome the mental tendency to stop during extreme physical exertion. I think it is the perfect program for the backcountry hunter.
With my confidence in my physical abilities growing every day and the application period for bighorn sheep fast approaching it was time to make a bold move. The unit I had been applying for sheep in over the last several years was a well-known and a very accessible area. This equated to drawing odds that were, seemingly, slightly better than winning a multimillion dollar lottery. There had to be a better way. I needed to find another unit with better drawing odds. I researched the fish and game regulations, drawing odds, and harvest statistics on the F&G website. I found a unit that had great drawing odds but there were very few sheep being harvested, although the sheep that were harvested in the past seemed to be decent rams. This area is home to some of the most inaccessible, remote, and rugged country Idaho has to offer. This one unit alone boasts 297,834 roadless acres in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness were the elevation climbs over 6,000 feet above the rocky shores of the Salmon River in less than three vertical miles.
The area is also heavily timbered and can make spotting the bachelor groups of rams in their summer range a difficult task. Combining all of this and lower numbers of sheep and you have one difficult hunt on your hands! The season runs from August 30th until October 13th and with rut usually occurring in November I knew hunting the high elevation summer range would be my best bet. That is … If I could draw a permit.
My dream came true on a sunny afternoon in late June, 2011. While at work I saw that the draw results were available on the fish and game website. I routinely punched in my license number and expected to see the same “Sorry this license number was not drawn for a controlled hunt” I’ve been numbed to seeing for the past 10 years. A few key strokes later I was surprised to see “Congratulations! This license was drawn for the following controlled hunt…”
I couldn’t believe it! I drew a sheep permit! After jumping up and down and hooting and hollering like a baboon on speed. I started making calls to break the news to my soon-to-be jealous hunting buddies and assemble my backcountry team. It was decided very quickly that my cousin, Russ Nichols, would be my hunting partner on this hardcore DIY backcountry adventure. Russ is a seasoned competitive distance runner, a medical doctor, and every bit as passionate about hunting as I am. I couldn’t have even dreamed up a better combination of qualities in a hunting partner.
The next two months were filled with researching possible access trails, practicing shooting my rifle, buying gear, studying information on sheep behavior, and talking to people who have been in the area before. While researching topographic maps and GoogleEarth I pinpointed a few small areas that looked really promising for early season/pre-rut rams: Partially open ridges with good spring water, cool pockets of timber, close proximity to steep rocky cliffs, and in the 7,000 – 8,500 foot elevation range. I also located a saddle off of the main access trail that would serve as a great camp site. The site was seven miles from the trailhead in a central location to the areas I wanted to hunt, feeling confident in my research and selection of hunting areas I couldn’t wait for season to open.
At 5:00 pm August 31st, Russ drove the short four hours to meet me in my hometown of Lewiston, Idaho for a hearty dinner and a few last minute shopping items. By 10:00 pm we hit the road for the trailhead and the anticipation of the hunt flowed though me as I watched the city lights quickly fade in my rearview mirror.
Five hours later the dust was bellowing in my headlights as I shifted my pickup into park at the trailhead. Road weary and sleep deprived, even though we were anxious to hit the trail we decided to get a couple hours of sleep before making the seven mile hike to base camp. We woke up with the sun just starting to glow on the horizon, took a few laps around the pickup to work out the kinks, strapped on our packs and hit the trail. The trail into camp was through some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. Granite and quartz-lined basins with multiple crystal clear lakes. It quickly became very apparent to me how vitally important it is to be in shape before attempting a backcountry DIY hunt like this. I had come a long way; from my heaviest at nearly 260 I was now feeling great at a fit 187 pounds.
About half way in we met two guys on their way out. They had spent four days in the area doing an invasive weed survey. The area they were studying was one of the areas I wanted to look for sheep, so naturally I asked them what they’d seen. They said they saw several mule deer and some elk but no sheep. I thanked them for the information and we continued on our way.
Noontime found us arriving at the saddle where I wanted to set camp. We set our tents, ate some lunch and took about an hour nap before heading out for some afternoon glassing. Being that the guys we met on the way in hadn’t seen any sheep I decided to check out the other area I had in mind… As we neared a Forest Service lookout tower Russ spotted a set of sheep tracks in the trail. The tracks looked to be less than a day old so we knew there had to be sheep in the area. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the lookout with our eyes glued to our binoculars, glassing every basin and ridge we could until our eyes were so strained we could no longer see straight. With the sunlight fading fast and feeling a little discouraged that we didn’t spot any sheep we sat down to make a plan for the following day’s hunt. I pointed out a ridge on the map and told Russ that this ridge just feels right. The tracks we saw earlier that day were headed in that general direction and I wondered if the rams may have dropped elevation during the heavy thunderstorms a couple of days prior. Russ told me that he was just thinking the same thing and agreed that there was just something about that ridge that had sheep written all over it. With the next day’s hunt planned we hiked back to camp for a much needed Mountain House dinner and a good night’s sleep.
Just before dawn the next morning, while loading our packs for a full day hunt I had a premonition that today we would see sheep. I looked at Russ and said “Dude, I just have a feeling about today. I can’t explain it but something good is about to happen!” Russ said “I’m feeling the same way! I call it premin’, and I’m premin’ hardcore this morning.” Moments later we were again “premin” our way up the tough and rocky trail to begin the day. Stopping and glassing at every vantage point we came across we eventually crested the ridge we felt so strongly about. It looked even better than we imagined: The long gradually sloping ridge had suffered a forest fire several years ago which in turn was producing a huge abundance of high nutrient grass. There were a few heavy timber pockets and the whole ridge was protected from below by long steep cliffs. Almost immediately we found sheep tracks and droppings no more than three days old meandering their way down the top of the ridge. We took our time glassing every hidden nook and cranny as we zigzagged our way down the ridge top. By working in this fashion we could glass each side of the ridge from multiple angles.
At about 11:30, as we were nearing the end of the ridge we took a lunch break and took time to take our boots and socks off to let them dry out in the sun. It wasn’t long before we were back in hunting mode and stalking back around the ridge. We hadn’t moved more than 30 yards when I spotted and odd shape on an adjacent ridge. Not being able to get a good look through my binoculars I took my pack off and set up the spotting scope for a better look. While I was setting up the spotting scope the faint sound of a stick breaking came from around the ridge just out of sight. Russ and I looked at each other and shrugged it off as a squirrel dropping a pinecone so I continued setting up the spotting scope. Just as I was focusing in on the adjacent ridge, Russ piped up in an excited whisper “RAM….RAMS!!! Grab your rifle!” I quickly pulled my rifle from the scabbard in my Eberlestock pack and chambered a round while looking straight below me. Russ whispered again even more excitedly “NO … to your right, the lead ram is a good one!” I whipped my head around to the right and frantically stared toward the end of the ridge about 100 yards out.
“See ‘um?” Russ says. Panicking now, I said NO! It was then he said “Sh*% … 40 yards.” I brought my eyes down and thought my heart was going to pound out of my chest when I made eye contact with the first ram standing behind a windfall and between two small trees. It never dawned on me that they would be that close! I hurriedly shouldered my rifle and clicked off the safety just as the biggest ram appeared. I knew within a split second that he was the ram I had dreamed about all these years. My rifle roared just as my crosshairs settled behind the big rams shoulder. All four rams scattered so I stood up and chambered another round. I could barely see the head and neck of my ram and another smaller ram standing behind a small group of trees. Looking through my scope again I saw the big ram’s head start to wobble. The smaller ram standing next to him spooked and I lost sight of my ram. Russ hollered “HE’S DOWN! You got him!” Having not seen the ram go down I said “ARE YOU SURE? I don’t see him!!” Russ was standing a little further up the hill from me and could see the ram lying there, “Yes! He’s lying right there! I watched him drop.” I repeated several more times “are you sure? Are you SURE?” Russ, almost laughing at my excitement, said “look behind that windfall. See his rump laying there?” Throwing up my binoculars I finally saw him and immediately commenced to whooping and hollering and just short of wrestling my hunting partner to the ground in celebration.
I was still shaking with excitement when I approached the downed trophy; I couldn’t believe how everything happened so fast. While setting up for pictures we noticed that two of the younger rams were still standing only fifty yards away watching us. Those two youngsters stood there and entertained us for the whole three hours it took for pictures and dressing. One was head-butting a windfall and the other stood right next to him raking a small tree: almost like a bull elk in rut.
After taking a disc of pictures we quartered, boned out, and loaded the old ram into our packs and made the steep four mile hike back to camp. That night the weather got below freezing allowing the meat to cool really well and even froze in a few spots which really helped avoid any spoilage. The next morning we reloaded our now hundred pound packs and made the hike to the trailhead.
The trip out took us eight hours and I’ve never been happier to see my pickup. Every inch of our bodies hurt as we tenderly crawled into the cab and closed the doors. We were sweaty, hot, tired, dirty, bloody, and sore but when I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that ram in the bed of my pickup, I smiled a smile as big as all Idaho, turned to Russ and said “Once in a lifetime, buddy!”