November 21, 2011

Ruttin' Rams and Raftin' Rivers

Like the previous 19 years, Jake once again put in for the lottery drawing to hunt Oregon Bighorn Sheep last year.  The odds of drawing are somewhere in the 1/100 to 1/200 range, so there is a good chance that he could have put in for this hunt for the rest of his life and never drawn.  However, in true Jake-luck fashion, he won the lottery.  The hard part was over.

Wanting to make the most of his luck, Jake put a ton of time into researching the unit for which he had drawn (West John Day).  This included talking with private landowners, people who had drawn the tag in recent years and local sheep hunting guides as well as studying maps and making a few scouting trips.  Prior to opening day, he accumulated 21 days of scouting via a series of multi-day float trips down the John Day River.

I received constant updates regarding his progress during this scouting process, including photos of named rams like Flair and Warrior.  Being the savvy hunter that Jake is, while he was scouting he was also trying to put together a strong team of support hunters for the actual hunt.  I knew Jake wanted me to join him, but until the last minute I wasn't sure if I would be able.

About a week and a half before Jake's planned departure date, things fell into place.  On November 7th we started floating down the John Day river in search of the largest ram in Oregon's West John Day unit.

Put-in on the John Day River
The Plan
All of Jake's research and scouting resulted in the following plan.  Jake and I would start floating down the river five days before opening day of the 9-day season.  We would float almost 40 miles in three days, passing several rams in the process, before arriving at Deep Canyon, which we would turn into basecamp.  Once here, we would begin our search for the larger rams Jake had seen on his scouting trip, including a ram he hadn't seen that was rumored to be the largest in the area (Rumor Ram).  Ideally, we would locate Rumor Ram before the season and shoot him on opening day.  One day before opening day, we would be joined by Jake's long-time hunting partner (Kyle) and Kyle's step dad (Loren).

The Team
Jake - As Jake drew the tag, his primary responsibility was to shoot the ram.  He also acted like the CEO, planning the hunt, building his team and organizing everything.
Kyle - With lots of hunting experience, Kyle would serve as a strong set of eyes to help spot the sheep as well as help with devising strategies for finding and shooting a giant ram.
Loren - Loren drew this exact tag in 2009.  Through a similar scouting/research process two years earlier, Loren learned the terrain and habits of the sheep well.  His knowledge and experience would make him a valuable member of the team, as well as his eyes.
Me - With less hunting experience than the other three, I would serve as an additional set of eyes, a rower, a pack mule, a calming agent during exciting times, and round out the team for convenient travel in pairs.

Air guitar?  Contrived and unnecessary.  We have a shovel.
On the float down to Deep Canyon, we spotted 100's of sheep including many mature rams.  Jake had ambitions of shooting an Oregon state record ram with a bow, so we passed right on by many rams that most sane people would consider a trophy.  We stopped a couple of times to hike up side canyons, exhibiting due diligence so as not to blindly pass by any giant rams that may have eluded Jake on his scouting trips.

Sheep Everywhere
On our third day, we set up a luxurious camp at the base of Deep Canyon which would provide good access to the herd of sheep known to reside primarily between there and Willow Springs Canyon.  Unlike other animals I have hunted, the sheep here don't seem to travel more than a few miles, living their entire lives in a relatively confined area.

On November 10th we began the real leg work, with our primary goal of locating Rumor Ram as well as finding and keeping tabs on other large rams in the area.  In order to see lots of terrain, Jake floated the river in a packable kayak while I hiked to the top of the canyon and looked down at the same terrain Jake was looking up at.  While floating Jake located about 80 sheep, most of them in a single herd very near the river.  In this group was a ram that looked a lot like Flair (aka Ram-a-lamb-a-ding-dong), but appeared bigger!  We would later name this ram Elvis (The King), but I think he might have been the same ram as Flair.  It's also very possible that Rumor Ram = Elvis = Flair, but these are things we will never know for sure.  At any rate, Elvis was big enough that we would want to keep track of his whereabouts as he might very well be the largest ram in the area.

Jake hiking back to camp at sunset

On the 11th Jake and I both hiked to the top of the canyon and searched several miles of the adjacent Willow Springs Canyon (WSC) on our way to pay Elvis and the herd of 50 sheep a visit.  We saw two lone rams in WSC before finding the big herd in the same location as the previous day.  Only this time, Elvis was not with them.  We got within 200 yards of the herd to get a closer look, but Elvis wasn't there.  One ram wandered away from the herd and got within 100 yards of us before spooking and running back.

John Benet 'Ram'sy

We had perfect weather up to this point, but part way though the day the wind picked up.  On the hike back to camp we experienced gusts that we estimated at 70-80 miles an hour.  When we returned to camp, Jake's raft had blown about 100 feet up into camp and our kitchen was in shambles.  Our one saving grace was that Kyle and Loren showed up while we were out and rounded up many of the pieces of our kitchen.

Opening Day
On opening day Loren and I went back to watch the big herd and see if Elvis returned.  We saw five rams on the way there, and once again found the big herd right where we left them the previous evening.  Shortly after finding the herd, a ram we named Chip the previous day wandered by at close range.

Meanwhile, Jake and Kyle hiked upriver to ensure that we covered all areas that we thought might hold sheep.  They found none and by afternoon had hiked all the way to where Loren and I were.  We had just left the herd after watching them for a couple hours.  Jake and Kyle were tired of not seeing sheep, so they went out to the vantage point where Loren and I had been.  As soon as they got in view of the herd, they saw Elvis moving toward the herd form a ways off, coming in to see if any of the ewes were in heat.  When they radioed to say that they saw him, I immediately doubled back to join them and get a look at The King.

At this point, we had about two hours of daylight left.  Jake thought this was enough time to put a stock on Elvis and try to get within bow range.  After Jake descended 1,000 feet and started to circle around, Kyle and I watched Elvis through the spotting scope turn his head and stare unflinchingly at Jake, 600 yards away.  Jake continued to circle around and come back up to join Kyle and me.  In the process, Elvis went back to join the herd and at one point Jake passed within about 250 yards of the big ram.

When all four of us went back to find Elvis and the big herd the following day, the herd was back but we never saw Elvis.  The wind that started the day before opening day had still not let up.

Day Three
The hike from camp to where the big herd was hanging out took about two hours of brisk hiking, more if you glassed for sheep along the way.  Jake was growing fed up with the wasted hours of daylight as we hiked back and forth, so we devised a plan for Jake to bivy at the top of the canyon above the herd for as many days as it took for him to kill the big ram.  Consequently, Jake and I got up at 3:00 am and hiked with full packs out to the point above the big herd before first light.  As the sun rose, we were disheartened to see no sheep where we had seen 40 to 50 each of the previous 4 days.

We spent a couple hours glassing the adjacent hillsides.  Jake spotted chip and several ewes way over on the other side of WSC as well as a few other small groups that we thought could very likely be splintered from the big herd.  It appeared the big herd had broken up, which would make it harder to relocate Elvis as the herd acted as a beacon that would draw him in a couple times a day to check on the ewes.

While Jake and I were out looking for the herd, Loren and Kyle had rowed across the river and were glassing the steep cliffs between camp and the last known location of the herd.  At around 9:30 am, Jake and I got in touch with Kyle and Loren on the radio.  They said they saw a "big, big ram" with several other rams that were also big, but at the distances they were looking they couldn't accurately identify him.  Even if it wasn't Elvis, Kyle's description involving two uses of the word "big" was enough to get Jake going in that direction.  We left Jake's pack and bivy stuff at the point and began working our way back along the ridge to where Kyle and Loren had seen the rams.

All of a sudden sheep were everywhere.  Some had crested the ridge and were heading down into WSC.  We saw about 10 sheep in WSC and expected to see the group of big rams there too.  When we didn't, we continued along the ridge.  As I followed directly behind Jake, he stopped suddenly.  He saw several sheep off the other side of the ridge (the John Day River side).  As I stayed back, Jake snuck in closer for a better look at what appeared to be about 30 sheep.

Due to the persistent winds as well as the terrain that Elvis was sticking to, Jake opted to put down his bow hunt with his rifle.

I knew they were close and was hoping that Jake was waiting for a clear shot at Elvis.  I thought I would hear a gun shot at any moment, followed by news on the radio that Elvis was down.  A few minutes later, Jake came crawling back through the grass.  He said it was definitely Elvis along with a ram he had previously named Warrior and several other rams and ewes.  He circled around to get in a better position as the sheep were sidehilling near the top of the canyon in the direction of camp.

Jake putting the sneak on Elvis
I remained out of site and once again hoped I would soon hear a gunshot.  Minutes later, I did!  I was convinced that Elvis's time was up.  Thirty seconds after the shot I saw Jake running back up the hill and circling around to get in better position for a follow up shot.  Then . . . nothing.  I turn on my radio to ask Kyle and Loren if they have any idea what's going on.  They said they were watching Elvis sidehilling back towards Deep Canyon, moving like he hadn't been hit.  When Jake and I finally reconnected we moved quickly back towards deep canyon in hopes of cutting Elvis off as made his way to wherever he was going.

Kyle and Loren did a good job of tracking his progress from the other side of the river and managed to guide us to his location as he ascended the hill and crossed into the plains at the top of the canyon.  So good, in fact, that Jake saw a flash of Elvis about 100 yards away as he leaped a fence, landed on private property, and continued sprinting out of site and perhaps out of the state.  We searched Deep Canyon for a while, but it seemed that Elvis stayed up on the plateau and didn't drop into it.

Bear in mind that there was a lot of confusion during this chase.  Was Elvis hit?  Were Kyle and Loren following the ram that Jake shot at or a different ram?  After things calmed down, Jake and I went back to where the ram was when he originally shot at it.  We found the exact location, followed his exit path for a few hundred yards, and found no blood.  It was a clean miss.

With all the stirring up we did, we decided there wasn't much reason for Jake to bivy, so we started back toward the point to retrieve his pack and head back toward camp.  On the way to our cache, Kyle, still on the other side of the river, got back on the radio and said, "This hunt isn't over yet.  That other big ram is still hanging out and I'm watching him."  After a minute or two of deliberation, Jake decided to go after Warrior, who we decided was the second biggest ram in the unit (maybe even the first since Elvis had left the building). I would continue out to the point, grab Jake's pack, and head back toward camp, intersecting Jake and Warrior along the way.

As I was nearing the place on the ridge where I thought Jake would be directly below me, I began hearing radio chatter.  I spoke with Kyle to learn that several shots had been fired, none of which I could hear due to the wind.  As I waited for another update, two more shots were fired only a few hundred yards from me, and I didn't hear these either.  Then I hear on the radio from Kyle that Jake has a ram down and they're crossing the river to join in the photo session and butchering.  I immediately grabbed my pack, Jake's pack, and Jake's bow and started down the hill to the location of Jake and his ram.

Left to Right: Back Row - Kyle, Loren, Jake, Josh     Front Row - Warrior
I arrived shortly before Kyle and Loren and helped Jake pull the ram out of the ravine that it fell into.  Kyle and Loren then arrived and we managed to get a metric shit tonne of photos just before it got dark.

Trophy Photo #1

Trophy Photo #2
After caping, butchering, and packing the ram out about 1.5 miles, we got back to camp around 8:30.  With our 3:00 am start, this made for a long day.  It felt great to have such hard work result in an edible reward.

All packed up and ready to leave base camp
Overall, the trip was extremely enjoyable.  I feel very honored that Jake wanted me to be a part of this special, once in a lifetime hunt (he can never draw this tag again).  It also conjured up sentimental memories of Jake's late father and my dad, who both drew a Steens Mountain Oregon sheep tag in the same year about 25 years ago.  A year or two after their hunt, Jake and I went back to the Steens with them.  I have fond memories of being about 10 years old, glassing for sheep, fishing for trout, and porcupine hunting.  Whereas our fathers both hired guides and killed nice rams, Jake put this hunt together on his own, avoided paying landowners for access by floating the river, put the hunt together very inexpensively, and managed to kill one of the largest California Bighorns in the state.  Also, I can't say enough about how great it was to combine a multi-day rafting trip with a hunting trip.

On the more constructive side, this trip highlighted two things for me: the difference between bow hunting and rifle hunting, and the difference between trophy hunting and meat hunting.  Jake had the option to use a bow or a rifle on this hunt.  While he could have killed a ram with a bow, it would have been much more difficult and he would have had to lower his standards and be much more opportunistic.  As it was, he opted to maintain his ambitious goals and switch to a more powerful weapon.  We may have had to wait days just for the wind to die down enough to accurately shoot an arrow.  The sporting nature of the bow and arrow remains as appealing as ever to me, but at the same time I recognize that the "boom stick" is a more effective way to fill the freezer.

While Jake's goal to kill the largest ram in the unit created an excellent challenge, and I love a good challenge, I still lean toward my Darwinian hunting style.  For example, the big herd contained a good ram with an obvious limp.  My instincts told me that this was the ram to pursue, even if there was one with larger horns right next to him.  To select the largest, most fit ram and eliminate him from the gene pool seems contradictory to the natural order.  With that said, I understand that trophy hunting brings a ton of money to state fish and wildlife departments.  This money has a lot to do with why those animals are even there in the first place, so there is a positive side to trophy hunting too.  It's just not for me.  As a side, bighorn sheep were a native species in Oregon.  Humans impacted their numbers with uncontrolled hunting, but disease brought in by domestic sheep is what did them in.  They have since been reintroduced (form British Colombia, I think) and with careful separation with domestic sheep their numbers are coming back.

Congratulations to Jake for taking an impressive ram and putting together a great hunt!

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