It was a close race between finally drawing a Nevada sheep tag and having knees too old to hunt sheep. Fortunately for me, the tag, or should I say, tags, won. As luck would have it, when the 2014 Nevada hunting tags were released, I found myself with tags for a California bighorn and a desert bighorn. The odds of that occurring are about the same as my being named homecoming queen at Stanford.
The area I drew for desert sheep, the Stonewalls, is a productive area but about two thirds of it is on the Air Force bombing range in central Nevada. Access is only allowed during the actual hunt, so I was not going to go have a change to scout. I needed a guide.
I immediately called several knowledgeable friends and explained my plight. They each recommended a couple of guides and only one was on everyone’s list — Gary Coleman of Nevada Highridge Outfitters. I had met Gary and his partner, Keith Montes, at the SCI Show and thought they were good guys. I got right on the phone, as the better guides are booked up quickly, and arranged a hunt for the desert sheep.
After about hour of thinking, I called Gary back and also booked the California bighorn hunt. I know this hunting area well, but the rarity of the tag caused me to realize I need to improve my odds for success. Reopening my wallet turned out to be a very good decision.
I had two skills to hone before the hunts started – walking and shooting. The outfitters could provide spotting skills and sheep hunting knowledge at a level that I would never equal, but I was solely responsible for getting my 66-year-old bones up the hill and being able to shoot when I got there.
The California bighorn season opens September 1 and runs through the end of October. After a summer of shooting, hiking and anticipation, the other eight hunters, their guides and friends were hard at it from day one. Gary suggested we hunt the last week of the season as the hunters would be done and the rut would bunch the sheep up in the Montana Double H Mountains. I was concerned that someone would shoot “my” ram, but it dawned on me that the guide’s experience dictates when to go.
When we met in the little town of Orvada, the season had been open six and a half weeks. I had come to know some of the other tag holders via the Internet, who had sent pictures of themselves with their California bighorns. Everyone had scored and gone home. I was quietly worried about “my” ram.
My college buddy, Steve Dawson, traveled down from Montana to join us. Steve spent his working years in Alaska and has done a lot of Dall hunting. He would be a helpful set of eyes.
The hunt started in the Montanas and, just as Gary indicated, the sheep were bunched up. The first day we must have glassed an unbelievable fifty rams, but none we wanted to shoot. I’m a little “trigger happy,” but my companions provided counseling.
The second day we checked some spots in the Montanas, and moved south to the Double H’s. We were seeing a lot of sheep as we glassed our way along the base of the mountains. About midday, Gary and Keith spotted a group with two promising rams. We planned a stalk up a drainage just south of the one the sheep were in. Gary, my friend Steve, and I started up while Keith and his friend, Andy Bradley, manned the spotting scopes and watched the show from the valley floor.
The climb was uneventful except at one point, we had to hunker down as a young ram meandered his way down a trail and passed within fifteen feet of us. The larger rams we are hunting had probably run him off the ewes and Gary captured his visit on camera. We thought we’d gained the altitude needed and moved north to peek into the neighboring drainage. The wind was wrong but it was too late to do anything else.
We looked over the edge and found six rams and four ewes staring back at us. They were moving up the far side of the drainage, but were not panicked and stopped occasionally. The two large rams were shooters. We scoped them both and made a choice. The ram I wanted stopped a couple times, but was too close to other sheep to risk a shot. Finally, he stopped in the clear at 325 yards, standing broadside. This was as good as it gets hunting. I carefully squeezed the trigger and down he went.
The Nevada Highridge guys caped and boned him out, then we returned to the valley floor with our sheep. It was a warm and sunny day, hunting in a t-shirt with a beautiful ram with 16-inch bases, and soon several cold beers and a great dinner at camp. Life is good!
Three weeks later, we fond ourselves in Tonopah, Nevada for the desert bighorn hunt. On Friday, we attended the mandatory explosives class required for access to the Nellis Air Force Range. Months earlier, we submitted our personal background questionnaires so we could be cleared for entry to the range.
The hunt opened on Saturday. Gary and I hunted hard for the next four days. We saw eight to ten rams a day, but never put a round in the chamber. Our hunting area was not large, and we, unfortunately, crossed paths with other hunters several times. We decided to stop hunting and return the last week of the season. Hopefully we would have the area to ourselves. Nevada High Ridge had elk, deer and other sheep hunts on, so Gary was fine with taking care of other duties and coming back the first week of December.
Soon we were back in Tonopah to continue our hunt. The other hunters had all tagged out, so we had the unit to ourselves. Our first day back, actually day five, we hunted some very rugged country, saw a lot of sheep, but passed them all up. The sixth day we planned to hunt the most mountainous part of the area, but the weather did us in. Thick clouds settled on the mountains. Visibility was limited to about 100 yards. We sat in the truck until midday, listening to the strange little FM station of out of nearby Goldfield, wondering what to do next. We needed to drop some altitude and get out of the clouds. Gary suggested an attractive looking spot called “Grand Canyon.” We moved to the mouth of the canyon where visibility was good and we four-wheeled deep into the inviting looking spot. As the sun set, we were back at the truck without firing a shot. We had seen many sheep and we knew the big guy had to be there somewhere.
Day seven was worse than day six from a cloud standpoint. After a frustrating hour or two sitting in the truck, we went back to Goldfield, had coffee and a great breakfast at “The Dinky Diner.” We returned to our hunting area and it was still socked in, but for a sunbeam burning through the clouds illuminating the “Grand Canyon.” Across the valley we went, and retraced our path from the day before.
We hadn’t gone far when Gary spotted three rams bedded on a little ledge way up on top. The spotting scope revealed one, and possibly two, good rams. Of course they were looking right at us. We got back on the four-wheeler and moved forward until we were out of sight. Then we sneaked back and got in a narrow, steep rocky little draw that we could use to climb to the rams’ elevation. It was a rotten climb, but it was short. After about forty-five minutes, we worked laterally about 100 yards and there they stood, looking right at us and ready to bolt. Gary flung his backpack to the ground and said, “Shoot!”
“Which one?” I asked as I cranked a shell into the chamber and flung myself on the pack.
“The middle one,” he replied
The ram dropped in his tracks at about 200 yards and it was over. It took us a while to pick our way over to him. He was very handsome and showed the scars from many a head-butting contest. The ledge he was on provided us with a classic desert bighorn photo opp.
The odds of getting those two tags in one year and then taking two great rams are astronomical! I have been fortunate to enjoy several fine hunting trips in my life, but his takes the cake. I will always be grateful for the opportunity.-Greg Vroman