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Montana Big Horn

By Tom Kuglin

The two hunters appeared out of the timber and slowly crept in for a shot. Eighty yards became 70, then 60 yards, as they followed the tracks across the hillside. Sensing their presence, the ram jerked his head up from a patch of grass. Jeni Garcin shouldered her rifle and took aim.

Montana bighorn sheep tags are one of the most coveted in all of hunting, and in 2012, 28 year-old Garcin got lucky. She drew one of the first two tags issued by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks for West Rock Creek outside of Missoula, Montana in three years.

Until 2009, West Rock Creek produced more trophy class rams than almost any other unit in the world, supporting a very robust population of sheep. But that winter, a deadly pneumonia outbreak hit several Montana herds hard, killing over half the 342 sheep in West Rock Creek, and shutting down hunting in the area.

Bighorn sheep tags are rare across the state. In 2011, over 23,000 hunters applied for only 127 Montana ram tags. In 2012, a hunter paid $300,000 at auction for a single permit to hunt one sheep anywhere in the state. Garcin’s tag cost her $125 as a Montana resident lucky enough to have drawn. Now, she and her fiancé, Hank Flatow, were ready to find out to what degree the ram population in West Rock Creek had recuperated. As a longtime friend, I was invited to tag along.
Montana Big Horn

"Are we having fun yet?” Flatow whispered, when we stopped to rest for a minute, after a three-mile hike quietly compressing the snow under our boots in the predawn of a late October day.

An Alaskan hunting guide by trade, Flatow, 30, lives to hunt sheep. He has personally guided or assisted on over 30 sheep hunts and actually proposed to Garcin a few months earlier while she accompanied him on a Dall sheep hunt in Alaska.

Growing up on a ranch in Idaho, Garcin did some hunting with her dad and brothers, but concentrated more on riding horses and rodeo. That all changed when she met her fiancé. She started hunting more, using her skills with horses to accompany Flatow on adventures into the Montana wilderness. On this particular morning, she was catching up with us after lagging behind for a while.

“I was trying to walk in your footprints to keep up,” she said. “I just gave up, and decided to go at my own pace.” 

Flatow's breath clouded the air with a whiff of Copenhagen and excitement.

“No problem,” he said. “We’re right on time.”

We eased out of the timber onto a grassy hillside. The sunrise cracking over the rugged Pintlers to the east provided just enough light to scan the ridges below us for rams. We all settled in behind our binoculars.

Garcin spotted two rams on a distant hillside. Then a third appeared. We put the spotting scope up to examine the rams closer. Two had very small horns, but one was much larger, and had beautiful horns that flipped out at the tips.

“What do you think?” Garcin asked.

“He’s really pretty,” Flatow said.

But this was not the ram we came to find. Although beautiful, Garcin and Flatow had seen several bigger ones in the previous days. We kept glassing. 

The longer we sat, the more the cold morning air crept through our clothing. Garcin, who was wearing green wool pants and a North Face fleece, covered by a blaze orange vest, pulled the earflap down on her light-colored plaid Stormy Krommer. I did the same. A light snow began to fall.

We worked down a ridgeline, continuing to glass into various draws. I stepped from behind a tree and noticed a ram across from us on the other hillside. He turned his head, slowly walking away. The sun hit his horns, setting them aglow.

“I like him a lot,” Garcin said.

We spent the next hour moving up and down the ridge to get different views of the ram. We counted the age rings on his horns, like those on a tree, and determined he was five years old. Although not as big as we hoped to find, his horns were heavy and came around to almost make a full curl. There was not much to dislike about him.

Local taxidermist and Alaskan Dall sheep guide, Mark Hill, and Jeni’s father, Marc Garcin, rendezvoused with us on the ridge to examine the ram. They had spent the morning looking over another area for sheep. We had agreed to meet up on the ridge when discussing our plans early that morning.

“I think that’s a shooter, Jeni,” Hill said.

Garcin took a last look through the spotting scope at the ram lazily basking in the sun’s rays.

“My dad and brother are here,” she said to Flatow. “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s go do it.”

With that, the two took off to circle above the ram. After about 15 minutes, the ram got up from his bed and went around a sharp corner on the hill. Those of us watching could tell Garcin and Flatow would have a tough time seeing him from the direction they approached.

 “He’s going to bust them,” Hill said nervously.

A few moments later, Garcin and Flatow took a final step, and the ram came into their view. Garcin quickly shot only a second before he could get away. At our distance, the ram fell before the sound of the shot echoed across the draw.We approached, and Garcin hugged her dad and brother. Miles on foot and hours looking through binoculars faded into distant memories.

“I’m sad it’s over,” she said. “This is all we’ve been doing since September.”The ram may not have been one of the giants this unit once held. But that took nothing away from the enormity of the moment.

 “I’m proud of her,” Flatow said to the group. “She really does good in the mountains.’’“Now I have to start putting in for Alaska,” she replied.

Flatow smiled from ear to ear. Garcin laughed and shook her head. She had realized a dream she never even knew she had before she met her fiancé.