Hunting for Stones in the Rocky Mountains

P8030020_-YoungIn a small area of northern British Columbia where the Rocky Mountains are real and the weather is conditional, the Stone sheep stands tall in his own landscape. When sheep hunting, you must hunt where the sheep get old enough to be legal, and just because there are sheep in an area does not mean that big rams live there. As with several big game animals, mature sheep travel to areas that are remote and safe. In some cases, that movement is just a part of their normal migration from spring to summer or fall.  There are many essentials needed for a successful hunt, and legal rams in the area during hunting season would be one of them.

My second trip for Stone sheep started with a booking agreement with Endre Pipics. Pipics is the owner of Besa River Outfitters in British Columbia, operating northwest of Fort St. Johns. Pipics grew up in Hungary and as a young lad dreamed of moving to Canada.  By the time he was 30 he had saved the money needed to self-sponsor his immigration.  Leaving all his family behind, his flight landed him in Edmonton, Alberta, where he opened a small butcher shop and worked as a guide on the side, saving every dollar made.

Eventually Pipics bought the hunting area known as the Besa and started to live his dream. The area sustained a harvest record of nine mature rams for many seasons in a row, but with the cutback in tags that can be issued, the region is currently allowed only four tags each season.  I’m told the cutbacks in tag quotas are not because of reduced sheep numbers, but because the Ministry of Environment Wild Life Branch would like to see Canadian residents take 70 percent of the sheep each year.

Weather in the Besa had been unseasonably wet all spring and the trail to camp was not negotiable by horse.  Mud was knee-deep to a horse and in some cases up to their bellies. Blow-downs crisscrossed the trail like matchsticks and the river system was blown out with raging white water.  In some cases, landing strips were under water and access to camp for summer repair and scouting never came until a week prior to the hunt. Even then there was continuous rain.

P8020012_-YoungUpon my arrival, the rain had parted and the blue sky was as dark as the Mediterranean Sea. With several camp supplies still needing delivery, I jumped a plane to main camp to shorten my horse experience. 

On opening day my guide, Shane Crow, and I left camp for what would be 16 hours on horses. Shane is an experienced horsemen and a First Nation Indian of Canada with dual residency in both the U.S. and Canada.

At one point, Shane walked his horse around a bog, or so he thought. The horse sunk to his saddle in just minutes and after multiple attempts to pull it out, it became apparent the horse was digging its own grave. Shane was forced to take a drastic decision–shoot the horse and carry his belongings, or make one last-ditch effort to free the horse. Choosing the latter, Shane fired his gun behind the horse to cause a reaction.  It did, as the horse freed itself like a rocket instead of becoming grizzly bait.

While returning to main camp at dusk, we chose a shortcut across the Besa River. Forty yards across the water and we would be almost home, but the other bank presented a steep exit from the river and, despite all his horse skills, Shane was about to give me a good show.  His horse attempted to scale the steep bank, but its hind feet sunk in the soft river bottom.

Shane’s weight pulled the horse over backward, and he splashed down in the water like a returning Apollo capsule in the ocean–maybe even a bigger splash than that.  The water may have given Shane a soft landing, but the cold water popped his eyes out like a goose bump on my arm.  My horse was not too happy with the situation, either, and decided to start bucking in the river.  Its hooves smashed on the river rocks, making sounds like a rock crusher and water splashed everywhere. I held on with no desire to sink my dry boots, not to mention the video camera that hung on my side.

P8040092_-YoungShane quickly scrambled like a wet beaver up the other bank. His horse was already standing above, looking down at the river like a spectator waiting to see a repeat performance with me.  My horse stopped bucking and I thought for a minute about going back the long way to cross the river. I gave my horse two good spurs, he launched out of the river like a cat and landed on the bank with all four hooves digging in as his legs curled under the stress of the climb.

I leaned into the horse to balance his position and hung on like a spider. Though I made the flight, my horse was not done. He continued to buck, perhaps just to prove his point or to say, “Next time let’s take the long way around.” I couldn’t agree more.

The following day was another eight-hour horse ride to spike camp. There, we laid our bedrolls near the edge of a babbling brook surrounded by steep mountains.  The horses were hobbled and set free to feed and I sat glassing the rock walls for sheep. We rested all night with a clear sky overhead and the occasional horse bell ringing in the distance.

Adam Bruno wrangled our horses in the morning as Sid Cacioli finished cooking breakfast. With frost still on the ground and breakfast in our bellies, Shane and I rode out of camp past a natural salt deposit where the local animals take their ration. Two hours later we were on top of a mountain, glassing what seemed to be a vast land of rocks the same color as our sheep. Stone sheep can blend in so well that, unless they’re on the move, spotting them can be a challenge even with good optics. If there is any sheep hunting advice I can offer, it’s to have good optics and good boots. Mountain Extreme Kenetrek boots are light as a feather, fit like a glove, and wear like iron. Swarovski’s 10×42 EL series binoculars have been my choice since they were first manufactured in the late 1990s, and now the EL Range is even better.

While glassing, I spotted four rams more than a mile away. Shane quickly set up his spotting scope and determined there was a shooter in the group.  By then it was pushing noon and the sheep had bedded down.  It looked as though we could close the gap to 300 yards with the use of the landscape, or so we thought. Murphy’s Law was dealing out cards and we had yet to read our hand.

Two hours later, we crested the ridgeline and the rams were gone.  Soon, a group of ewes and lambs fed down past us as we sat in the remaining brush line.  Once they passed, we advanced to the top of the ridge and studied the situation. The rams had left, though their beds appeared still to be warm–or at least that was what we wanted to believe. We decided to sit tight.  At times, they were only 10 feet away and the video I got is spectacular.

P8040046_-YoungI was sitting in the rams’ bedroom, hoping they would return for another stay as the sun continued to pass overhead and time slipped by.  Shane commented that he had only five cigarettes left and that his personal sundial for the day was casting a shadow on the last cigarette.  The horses were a way down the mountain and spike camp even farther.

Glassing the area below us, Shane dropped his binoculars and said, “I can’t believe it, but here come our rams.” If they followed the same path as the ewes, it wouldn’t be long before the echo of my shot bounced off the mountain wall. Scattered brush covered their vitals as they slowly fed toward us. With three hours of daylight remaining, the rams laid down.

Thirty minutes passed before the rams stood again. When they did, they showed signs of confusion as if they were going to reverse direction. Just then, the “Mac Daddy” ram took the lead and headed in our direction. They slipped behind some small spruce trees and then emerged on the ridgeline trail in a single line as if in a processional event or even a funeral.  Walking horn to bumper with no separation or shot opportunity, they approached our position straight-on.

The rams looked like they were on a string at 250 yards.  There was one big rock outcropping that would soon block our view for an extended time and when they cleared the cornice they’d be at 100 yards.  I rested my Blaser 7mm on some shooting sticks as Shane leaned over and whispered that he felt the tension building. I, too, felt the tension. It was as if time stood still and I wondered if Murphy would join the party again.

Five, ten and then fifteen minutes went by and nothing happened. I kept glancing down the steep west side of the ridge just in case they give us the slip.  Shane watched the east side and reported nothing. We decided to power down the camera and wait, and then sit for another 15 minutes.  The sun would be setting soon. The pressure to advance forward for a peek was blocked by my experience.

I glanced to the east over Shane’s head and spotted a sheep.  “Shane,” I whispered, “There’s a ram at 400 yards on the opposite hill.”  As Shane turned his head, I could see the other three rams feeding away from us.  “Holy cow!” said Shane. “How could they have slipped by us like that?”

P8040030_-YoungThe rams were at a tough angle to judge horn mass or length, and judging the animal could take time we didn’t have. Shooting a ram that’s not legal is unacceptable and the authorities will keep the trophy.  There is no room for a mistake. Legal rams must be a full curl or seven and a half years of age.

I adjusted for the shot. With the rifle resting on my pack, I turned the elevation turret on the scope to adjust for four minutes of angle, equaling 425 yards distance on my setup.  Shane studied the horns closely, trying to count the annulus rings for age. The first ram fed over the skyline and only three remained.

The remaining sheep swapped positions on the hill again and I called out the middle upper ram as the best. Shane danced back and forth and said, “Wait.” The rams fed 20 yards farther and Shane said, “That’s correct. The upper ram is your boy.”

The ram stopped moving just as I hit rock bottom of my exhalation breath. My trigger finger was in tune with all that was happening around me, and with only a two-pound trigger, there was no pulling the bullet back. The sound of lead hitting its target was like music, good music, only this time it was funeral music.  The sheep was dispatched with a direct hit to his pump and he fell to rest immediately.   Shane turned with a smile and said it was incredible that I got him, followed by a knuckle knock and then a bear hug.

The ram met requirements for both age and full curl. After the drying period, it scored 161 3/8.– Rick Young

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