For the hunter, adventures can come in many forms. When a long awaited, once-in-a-lifetime Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep hunt presents itself, it is certainly a welcomed surprise. Hunting friend Kevin Urie from Colorado was one of only 7 hunters to draw a 2005 license in Colorado’s Sheep Management Unit 11, which is largely comprised of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness area northwest of Buena Vista. Because of the limited number of bighorn licenses issued each year, the average wait to receive a license is 8 years, though some hunters have applied unsuccessfully for two decades or longer.
Kevin applied patiently over a nine-year period before successfully drawing the highly coveted Colorado bighorn sheep license. The wait seemed scripted. His oldest son Ryan turned 15 this year and was certainly old enough to partake in what would be a rigorous and demanding hunt. That made the long awaited hunt even more meaningful, it would be a combined father-son hunt.
Few hunters beat the odds when pursuing this coveted big game animal, especially on a do-it-yourself hunt. For those who have not, but have that dream, Kevin’s adventure is a worthy tale to share.
Kevin hunted above timberline on talus slopes with the Arkansas River sparkling below. “I was on the mountain 17 days during the September 6th to October 7th season, many of those days with my son Ryan, some with my cousin Lee and some on my own,” Kevin related.
Kevin prepared well before opening day. He and his two oldest sons’ Ryan and Travis scouted weekends over a five-week period. The duration of the scouting trips varied with some overnight pack-ins. The common factor during scouting trips was that they all occurred at or well above the 11,200-foot timberline level.
“Persistence, proved to be the most important part of my hunt,” Kevin conceded. Each day on the mountain started well before day light, which meant an early alarm clock and steep rock field climbing in the darkness. The first full week of the hunt went by without seeing any rams. “We spotted small bands of ewes and lambs, but no rams and that was disappointing,” Kevin admitted.
The second week of hunting was equally slow resulting in a few more sightings of ewes and lambs, but also became a continued learning experience. “It became increasingly apparent that the sheep’s diet and their escape cover were major factors in where to find the rams,” Kevin related. Bighorn sheep seek out and graze on lush tundra grasses. As the September temperatures at timberline drop into the freezing range, the grasses go dormant, turn brown and lose their nutritional value to the sheep. Kevin quickly learned the value of checking closely for areas of green grass before settling into a specific area to glass and hunt. “Elevation, the sun exposed side of the mountain and occasional rain, sleet and even snow were all factors in finding the ever changing presence of food sources and as a result, the presence of sheep. As the season went on I found myself working more on the edges of the high timber stands of spruce and pine trees, since most of the bighorns were feeding lower on the still remaining lush green grass in or near the dense trees.”
“The terrain above timberline was largely shale rock, loose, noisy and slippery, consistently steep in grade and with an almost constant wind” Kevin said. The bighorn sheep’s ability to navigate the rocky terrain plus their keen sense of smell, hearing, and excellent eye sight are all big advantages the sheep had over the less keen and agile hunters.
“On Sunday evening of the third weekend my cousin Lee spotted a band of five trophy rams, less than an hour before sunset. Two rams were full-curl and three had at least three quarter- curls. But they were well above timberline and out of range. Because of the pending darkness and vertical distance we decided to pursue the band of rams the following morning. Well before daylight Lee and I attempted a near vertical stock, to timberline, on the band of trophy rams. We reached timberline just as rays of sunlight began to radiate through the trees anticipating that the rams would be bedded high on the grassy slope where we watched them bed the night before. As I rounded one of the last krummholtz, I observed the rams quickly leaving the area in single file. Apparently the rams had caught our scent due to the strong cross winds that were blowing that morning. We never saw that band of trophy rams again,” Kevin related.
“I learned to be even more aware of the shifting winds above timberline. I became more comfortable traversing the loose and slippery talus rocks as my strength, balance and endurance grew throughout the season,” Kevin observed.
Kevin’s persistence was finally beginning to pay off with opportunities and the adrenaline level was on the rise as Kevin headed into the last two weeks of the hunt.
In addition to the pursuit of sheep, and their often shortness of breath, Kevin, Lee and Ryan were entertained by other experiences the mountains offered. On numerous occasions they encountered Rocky Mountain goats on the rocky cliffs and at other times feeding elk and deer in the lower timber edges, as they worked the changing elevations of the mountain.
On the second to last day of the season Kevin’s persistence paid off. Ironically, the new opportunities came amidst a couple of unusual and conflicting events that nearly ended the hunt on a down note.
The October 6th sunrise offered a chilling 20-degree morning, and a swirling wind. With the spotting scope set, Kevin and Lee began glassing at daylight scanning the steep timberline rock fields. Throughout the morning they moved cautiously working the rock fields and ravines. “Early that afternoon, I spotted two sizable rams moving away from us through the trees at the edge of timberline. Realizing that this could be my last opportunity, I quickly dropped my pack frame to the ground and placed my rifle on a large rock. Centering my scope and rifle on the shoulder of the largest, a three quarter-curl, I squeezed the trigger of my 7mm magnum. The rocks in front of the ram exploded and both rams quickly ran over the rocky ridge.” Kevin recalled. At just that instant the first of a series of unexpected, even humorous events unfolded when a large cow elk and her calf, spooked by the gun shot, came out of nowhere, nearly running over him as he traversed the mountain side to the ridge where the rams had been standing. Kevin approached the ridgeline where the rams had been standing. Once there, he and Lee stopped in a hurried effort to relocate the two rams. Kevin finally spotted something unusual near the top of the far ridgeline about 400 yards away. Looking through his 10 x 42 Barska binoculars he identified the two rams as they stood looking back in an effort to identify what had spooked them. Kevin again dropped his pack and rested his rifle on a rock and took careful aim. Squeezing the trigger, he heard a click! His rifle magazine did not release another round in the chamber after he cycled the action following his first shot. The rams began to move toward the ridge as Kevin rushed to load another round. He placed the reticle of his scope on the trailing ram firing the shot just before the rams reached the ridgeline. Both rams disappeared over the rocky ridge. Uncertain about whether the bullet had hit its mark, Kevin maneuvered across the talus slope toward the far ridge, leaving his pack behind. At the ridge top he spotted his ram moving slowly through the rocks, he was only 125 yard away and obviously hit. Wanting to finish the job quickly, Kevin took aim off-handed, missing by mere inches over the rams back. The ram dashed for the next ridge and out of sight. Adrenaline rushing and winded, Kevin made it to the next ridge behind the ram. The ram, standing a mere 75 yards away, continued to move gingerly as Kevin again took aim. Just before he could pull the trigger the ram walked around a large rock outcropping. Kevin decided to take his time and work toward the high side of the outcrop for a better vantage point in anticipation that his ram would be standing or bedded near the large rocks. Once on top of the rock outcrop, Kevin was in disbelief, the ram was no where to be found. He spotted several large pools of blood at the base of the outcropping. Looking in the near distance he could see another small ridge and based on the blood trail surmised that the ram had gone over this rocky ridge. After reaching the small ridge top, Kevin spotted his ram standing at the edge of a steep rocky ravine behind another smaller rock outcrop. Completely out of breath and exhausted from the chase, he waited for the ram to expose his vital area. Finally, the ram made an attempt to move along the edge of the rocky ravine, exposing the front portion of his chest past the rock outcrop. Kevin took aim and squeezed. The ram appeared to fall into the ravine as rocks and dirt could be heard falling behind him. Waiting and listening, Kevin was certain that his ram was finally down. When all was quite, he approached the ravine edge to get a closer view of his trophy ram. As he reached the steep ravine the ram was standing 25 yards away looking right at him. After looking face to face at each other the ram quickly turned and darted downhill to escape. Kevin took a quick shot hoping to finally end the calamity. He was certain the shot hit the ram but the ram kept heading toward the trees and en route for the deep ravine. In a final attempt, Kevin aimed only to hear his rifle “click” again. His shell holder was empty. In disbelief, Kevin headed back across the talus slope toward his pack promptly reuniting with Lee. Lee inquired about the ram when Kevin disclosed that he was out of shells and that the ram was heading to the trees and the deep ravine.
Lee agreed to continue tracking the ram as Kevin scrambled back down the sliding rocks to retrieve his pack then down to his pickup for more shells. Following the extremely difficult climb back up the mountain, Kevin found Lee just as the sun began to set. Lee indicated that he had quickly found and tracked the ram to where he had bedded down on a high cliff just off the steep ravine at timberline. After several hundred feet of nearly vertical climbing they approached the cliff edge where the ram was bedded. Thoroughly exhausted, Kevin’s adrenaline was still rushing in anticipation of finding the ram again. When they peered to the area of the bedded ram, the ram was gone. Lee offered to take a closer look at the rams bedding area to determine where the ram may have gone. With only five to ten minutes of daylight remaining, Lee approached the cliff edge. Looking down into the ravine Lee pointed and exclaimed, “There’s your ram!” As Kevin hurried to scramble down to the edge of the ravine to make the kill shot, Lee confirmed that the ram was down and piled-up at the bottom of the steep ravine. Kevin couldn’t believe it and kept asking, are you sure? Lee responded, “I wouldn’t kid you about something like that. Yes the ram is definitely down!” After nearly an hour of navigating the rocky ravine in the dark Kevin and Lee approached the magnificent ram with jubilation.
The picture taking, dressing and capping of the skin continued well into the night. By the time they secured the head and cape to Kevin’s backpack frame and worked their way down through the darkness to his pickup, it was 11:00pm. It was an exhausting day, but a day not to be forgotten.
Kevin and Lee returned the next morning and packed out the remaining meat and carcass.
Kevin’s long nine year wait; five scouting trips, four weeks at timberline scoping and climbing; cold weather, sharp winds, steep terrain and persistence was rewarded with a three quarter-curl bighorn ram. This once-in-a-lifetime hunt was truly a hunt to remember.