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Muzzle Blasts Online
Muzzle Blasts Online Cover
Aug 1999/Sep 1999 Volume 4, Number 4

Hunting Big-horn Sheep with the Buzzard

Typical terrain  for the Rattlesnake unit in southeastern Utah. I was drawn for one of two Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep permits.

Typical terrain for the Rattlesnake unit in southeastern Utah. I was drawn for one of two Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep permits.

"There he is," Bill said, "I think you should get closer and then decide if you want him."

"Wait a minute," I replied, "I want to check him out with the spotting scope first; and besides, I thought you said that he was just a three-quarter-curl ram anyway." For a minute my mind was confused with what my eyes were seeing. Let me back up a little bit and explain.

It was the summer of 1996, and I was at a meeting for Beehive Wasatch Bowhunters when my hunting partner and good friend, Bill Allard, came running up to inform me that I had just drawn one of two Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep permits for the Rattlesnake unit in southeastern Utah. (A third permit is auctioned off to the highest bidder at the FNAWS - Foundation for North American Wild Sheep - annual banquet.) This is probably the hardest tag to draw in Utah. Three years earlier Bill had drawn this same tag and had taken the first Rocky Mountain Bighorn in Utah with a bow. So the odds for both of us to draw had to be incredible. Now to go along with that, I had the good fortune to have a partner who had scouted and hunted this area for about eight weeks when he had his sheep tag. He is also a tremendous archer and outdoorsman who has dedicated the past twenty-plus years of his hunting career exclusively to bow hunting. In this time he has tagged a variety of trophy animals and has told thousands of tall tales.

Mid-November found Bill and me on the Rattlesnake ready to hunt sheep. Now the Rattlesnake is some of the toughest country in Utah, so you had better be in good shape to take it on or you will feel its bite and it will drain your spirit and your strength. This area is made up of high mesas and plateaus with most of the canyons having sheer rock walls hundreds of feet high. There are only a couple of roads in the area, and they are, for the most part, along the Green River. So unless you have mules or good mountain horse you have to walk.

We camped along the Green River close to one of the few trails that lead to the top of the plateaus. As we were setting up camp, Elvin Hawkins (a renowned sheep guide) and his client Carl Hoehner, who had bought the bid permit, stopped by on the way back to their camp. Carl, a veteran of many a sheep hunt, was looking for a Boone and Crockett (180+) type ram, and as yet had not located one; but after two weeks of hunting they had seen several around the 170+ class. After talking with these fine gentlemen for awhile they lined us out on a ram they had been watching that day that they thought would be about a 170-class ram. Since this was my first sheep hunt and I was carrying a muzzleloader, Bill and I thought this sheep well worth checking out.

A .54 caliber T/C Renegade, 90 grains of GOEX FFg black powder, and a Hornady 425 grain HBHP slug proved the right load for this ram.

A .54 caliber T/C Renegade, 90 grains of GOEX FFg black powder, and a Hornady 425 grain HBHP slug proved the right load for this ram.

The next morning found us looking at the cliffs where the big ram had been hanging out. It was not long before we had him spotted; he was standing guard over a ewe and doing battle with four three-quarter-curl rams. I quickly decided on a route up through the cliffs that would take me above the rams. Bill would stay behind with the spotting scope to give me hand signals if the sheep moved. After making the top I circled around and peeked into the area where the sheep had been. Oh, what a sight: two hundred yards below on a little ledge the big ram was standing over the ewe, who was physically exhausted from the rigors of breeding. As the other four three-quarter-curl curl rams tried to get to her, the big ram would repeatedly smack horns with them, knocking them back down the cliff. Being equipped with a muzzleloader, and being cliffed out, all I could do was watch. Finally the four smaller rams teamed up and overpowered the big ram. Chaos took over as the five rams chased the ewe up and down the cliffs. After thirty minutes of frantic pursuit the big ram finally regained control, and they settled down on a small bench about a half-mile away.

Once again I was on the move. After two hours of cliff climbing and side-hilling I had positioned myself about 150 yards from where I had last seen the sheep. I just needed to pick my way around a large rock outcropping and I would be in position for a possible shot if they were still there.

About this time a guy scouting for Elvin Hawkins on the plateau across from us started to yell to get his partner's attention. Bill heard this yelling, and since he'd lost sight of me for a couple of hours, he thought that I had fallen and was trying to get his help. So he left his position in the bottom of the canyon and started hiking up the mountain. When I saw this, I assumed the sheep must have left the country, so I abandoned my cautious approach and proceeded around the rock outcropping only to run head-on into the sheep, sending them rocketing up and over the mountain. After I'd climbed down from the cliffs and conferred with Bill about what had happened, we both enjoyed a good laugh. With a gleam in my eye I started to tease Bill about being one heck of a guide. More laughs and more teasing continued throughout the day, as we tried to relocate the big ram and his ewes, but they had disappeared into some remote side canyon.

The following three days led us into some of the most beautiful and rugged country that the Rattlesnake has to offer. We spotted more rams and ewes, but none worthy of a stalk. More teasing "The Buzzard," more laughs and more tired, sore muscles.

Day five found us high in the cliffs glassing for rams. Around noon "The Buzzard" and I split up to check different basins. We were to meet in two hours to discuss what we had seen. Coming back down the mountain I could see Bill already in the bottom of the canyon. When we met, Bill told me he had seen sheep: five rams and three ewes. With only a few hours left until dark Bill said, "let's go look at those sheep that I saw; maybe we can get some video pictures of them before dark." With the thought of a three-quarter-curl ram in my mind we headed into the canyon where they had last been seen.

Now back to the beginning of this story. "Bill," I said as I lifted my head from the spotting scope, "That one ram looks great."

"Shane, I think that ram is around the 180-class, and you had better work up the mountain and see if you can get in on him before it gets dark," Bill said. With a smile I left Bill behind, and up the mountain I climbed.

Picking my way through ravines and using large boulders for cover, I got to within a hundred yards of the big ram. I wanted to cut this distance in half, so that when I pulled the trigger there would be no doubt about the outcome.

People who have used a muzzleloader or a bow know that yards don't come easy when you're this close to a big game animal; but they also know that this is the most exciting time of the hunt.

I crept forward, foot by foot; Can I cut the distance? Will the wind shift? Will they see me, or sense me? Will they move or start to feed? The excitement builds, the yards grow shorter, suddenly the big ram spots movement as my pack sticks above a rock. He whirls and leaps onto a big rock to get a better view. Will he bolt? Where are the other sheep? Have they seen me too? Anticipation, anguish, excitement, and doubt all roll into one.

I freeze; the big ram can't figure it out. Still cautious, he jumps off the rock and lies down staring in my direction. I can't move, but maybe he'll relax. My leg muscles start to hurt, and time is running out. Sixty minutes till dark. I'm seventy yards away; I can make the shot, but only his head is visible and he is staring right at my hiding spot. Five, ten, fifteen minutes go by. My back aches from bending over, my leg muscles are numb from crouching. Don't move, I tell myself; he doesn't know what you are. Suddenly he's up and on the rock again, staring at me. He turns to go; he's had enough.

The old hand-made rifle is up: it belches smoke, and the ram is gone. What happened? Did I get him? The shot felt good, but he was moving. Rocks start rolling, and sheep are on the move. Reload. Above me sheep start to appear. Is that him, or one of the other rams? Sheep look huge when viewed from behind. Let them go; be confident in your shot.

Finally from below The Buzzard yells, "You got him." He has watched the whole thing through his binoculars.

The big ram went ten yards after leaving the rock. The 425-grain Hornaday slug, backed by 90 grains of FFg black powder has done the job well.

I work my way across the steep hillside. There he his next to a large boulder; he's magnificent. What an impressive animal. Bill finally arrives from the bottom of the canyon. We hurry to capture this grand old ram on film before the day fades away. We skin, cape, and quarter him by flashlight and decide to wait until morning to pack him out.

Oh, what a beautiful evening, the calm and the beauty of the stars where no other lights can be seen. This is truly a day I will never forget. On the hike out I say, "Bill, did I ever tell you that buzzards can soar like eagles?"

Author's Notes:

I would like to thank a few people who have been instrumental in putting sheep back on the mountains in Utah. UFNAWS - a great organization; Don Peay, a champion for the hunters in Utah; Elvin Hawkins, a great sheep guide and a fine person; Carl Hoehner, whose generosity and commitment to sheep allow guys like me the opportunity to hunt and see these grand animals; and finally, to the Division of Wildlife Resources in Utah. These folks don't get nearly enough credit for the outstanding job they do.

The ram was 10 1/2 years old and green scored 178 5/8. He had 15 1/2" bases and measured 38" around the curl with heavy brommed tips. After the 60-day dry time he scored 175 5/8 SCI and 175 B/C points. He will place in the top five ever taken with a muzzleloader.

I used a .54 caliber T/C Renegade with iron sights, 90 grains of GOEX FFg black powder and a Hornady 425 grain HBHP slug.

One final note: It's time for the spring bear hunt in Idaho; maybe I can enjoy some more chuckles with The Buzzard. Thanks Billy. Good Luck and Good Hunting.