What makes a sheep hunter tick? After over forty years of guiding I should have some idea….right? Every season I hear simplistic comments from hunters like; “I really want a 40″ ram this time as my last one was only 38”, “need to complete my Grand Slam so I can win the Pinnacle Achievement award”, “my last ram was broomed and I want a flaring ram with even horns this time”, “I need a bigger ram than the one my buddy got”, or my all time personal favorite “I am just here to kill shit”. None of these comments fully explain why sheep hunters come back to the mountains every year, spending thousands of dollars, leaving family for weeks and neglecting busy careers.
Wild sheep are found in wild space, high on mountains and far from human settlement. The solitude & beauty of their mountain habitat is a powerful primal draw for sheep hunters. Just sitting on a grassy sheep bed at 6000 feet, surveying the same vista below that generations of rams have viewed, allows a hunter to feel involved in the complex web of life. When a band of rams suddenly appear on a well worn sheep trail below….adrenaline starts to flow and our hearts beat faster. Predatory instincts are activated…..challenges are presented.
Of course, it is a physical challenge just getting to where rams live. Endless hours of horseback riding, thousands of vertical feet climbed, rugged cliffs and dangerous mountain terrain, sore eyes from dawn to dusk glassing….a sheep hunt is rarely easy. The eyesight of a ram is equivalent to ten power binoculars. Hunters need to see a ram before the ram sees them or the game is up. Constant focus & awareness are required. Sheep hunters very much “live in the moment”.
Then there is the moment of truth….trying to get a decent shot at a full curl ram. Bachelor ram bands have a unique defense strategy against both wolves and hunters. They utilize their elevation advantage and superior eyesight. Even when bedded down for an afternoon nap, rams are spread out on vantage points facing different directions, alert for any movement which could signify a predator. Shooting distances are rarely less than 100 yards and often more than 300 yards. The feeling of elation after a well planned stalk and successful shot is hard to duplicate.
The taste of wild sheep meat is superb. Rams are almost always fat and the tender, marbled meat is juicy. The tradition of roasting sheep ribs over an open fire on a sharpened willow stick is a gourmet delight. Once harvested, the meat, hide and horns weight at least 110 pounds. I have personally carried over a hundred of these loads off mountains, always with the satisfied smile of a job well done. There is absolutely no way I could ever carry a 110 pound pack frame full of rocks (even gold) off of a mountain!
The curl of a ram horn contains the rich history of their life. Each yearly growth ring is clearly imprinted on their horns. The outer ring represents the year the lamb was born. The next ten or so rings represent the hardship of -40 degree winters, the welcome banquet of lush alpine grasses in the spring, and the powerful clash of horn on horn as mature rams fight for breeding dominance in the late fall. Dall sheep horns are normally golden in color, representing years of exposure to high altitude sun. Stone & Bighorn rams often have darker horns as a result of spending more more in timber and rubbing against sap encrusted tree bark.
Most people who pursue wild sheep are looking for trophy horns….something similar to the big ram pictured here. But a trophy horn is simply a standard of measure. To label sheep hunters negatively as “trophy hunters” is doing them an injustice. In Spain there are prehistoric cave drawings of early man hunting sheep. Although we no longer use primitive stone arrow points as weapons, modern hunters pursue sheep for reasons similar to our ancestors. We hunt sheep because it is a complex, challenging and pleasurable experience that is ingrained in our genetic makeup.
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