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Oregon Big Horn


By Michael G.

Oregon Bighorn (DIY style)  

 

I had only been applying for a few years when lightning struck and I drew a Bighorn Sheep tag.  After recovering from the shock, I called my hunting partner and advised him to hold open that week in mid-September.  In Oregon, some people apply forever and never draw a tag.  If one is so lucky that they pull a tag, there is no chance for a repeat in their lifetime.

 

I had put in for the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge for one main reason; this was a hunt that Nice Big Horncould be done on one’s own, without an outfitter.  I have no complaint against outfitters or their fees; I just couldn’t afford it. Over the next few weeks, I received many ads from outfitters offering their services. 

 

The really big Rocky Mountain versions of Bighorns are not available at Hart Mountain, just their smaller California cousins.  Few if any Californians make the record book, but that doesn’t mean they are not meaningful trophies. The reason for choosing this area is that you can access the hunting from a regular campsite. That doesn’t mean it’s easy; just that it is doable. Hart Mountain is what the geologists call a tilted fault block.  One side is a long slope, ending in a steep cliff on the other.  As viewed from a distance, the upward slope appears smooth, but makes for rugged walking.  The cliff portion has eroded sufficiently that it can be traversed, but I heartily recommend this be done going downhill rather than the reverse. The elevation change from the rim to the flat below varies from about 3000 feet to perhaps half of that. 

 

Hart Mountain is a federal refuge so no motorized vehicles are allowed except on designated roads and at the one campground.  This campground has few facilities beyond tables and some scattered outhouses.  The crowning glory in this camp is the natural hot springs.  The springs are somewhat improved with a stone wall around them, having been dug out into a general pool shape.  Probably 20 or so people could squeeze in if necessary. After a hard days hunt, crawling into that hot water has almost magical properties.  There is no roof, so turn off your flashlight (no electricity or yard lights here), lay back, and look at the brilliant night sky from an elevation of 6000 feet. I have discovered that taking a glass of wine along doesn’t hurt either.  Please use paper or plastic cups so there is no chance of getting glass into the pool. Another aspect of the refuge is that only those with a valid tag may carry a rifle.  Also, no extraneous shooting is allowed. If you want to double-check your scope setting, please drive into the public lands.

It is 
quite warm during the day.  With no refrigeration and no desire to carry an insulated container, it makes you stop and think about the food you carry. Mayonnaise sandwiches are definitely, not on the menu.  We settled on energy bars, candy bars, PB&J sandwiches, and water that got warm, then hot, as the day wore on. 

 

We were on the trail by first light.  It is about three miles to the rim area where rams are likely to be found.  At the rim, one traverses north or south while glassing each gully and canyon for quarry.  In a typical day, a dozen or more miles are covered.  I was carrying my pre-64 Winchester model 70 in 30-06 caliber.  It sports an older Leupold gold ring scope in 3x9 with the duplex reticle.  The gun and scope are older ones, but then so am I.  Thus, it seemed a pretty good match.  I had an approximate trajectory written on a small paper and taped to the stock. I also carried a plain pair of crossed or buffalo sticks.  You can buy some very nice commercial models these days, but mine are simple and cheap, and they work. My chosen load for the rifle was a 180 grain Nosler partition over 47 grains of 4895.  I know, I know….you can buy newer bullets and all, but this load still works just fine. 

 

That first morning we had just gotten to the rim when Jim excitedly pointed out running sheep below.  “Look,” he whispered, “that’s old Handlebars.  Can you get a shot?”  It was a crossing shot over 400 yards away and offhand.  In short, “no,” and I wouldn’t even try one like that. Jim didn’t want me to try it either; he was just hoping the thing would stop before disappearing, which it didn’t.  We finally spotted other hunters a good distance off who had spooked the ram.  It was too bad that with almost no one with tags in the area, we happened to be only a half mile from another party.  Jim had explained earlier that “Handlebars” was the name he’d given to one of the largest California Bighorns around.  He said that for a ram to get listed in the record book it had to score 185. He felt this particular ram would make the cut.  It became a moot point, however, since we never saw it again.

 

The remainder of the day was uneventful in terms of rams, but most interesting otherwise.  There were ewes and lambs plus miscellaneous mule deer, antelope, eagles and hawks, seen at various times.  Once, while we were quietly resting in the shade of a juniper tree, a coyote strolled close-by, intent on a hunt of his own. On the second day, a large rattlesnake politely made his presence known.  That didn’t stop me from jumping about two feet in the air and nearly hyperventilating, but the snake calmly crawled off into the rocks.  No doubt he viewed us as much too big to eat and probably not very flavorful. Arriving back at camp after dark, the earlier mentioned hot springs lived up to its reputation of offering comfort.

 

Early on the third day we spotted three larger sheep a distance off and down a ridge.  The spotting scope revealed all rams. Jim, an expert, declared the largest one would score 170 points. We watched them while they played the head-butting game.  Since we could hear the contact, one person spotted while another timed the interval between the hit and the arrival of the sound.  The three second delay suggested a distance of about 3/5th of a mile or one kilometer. Our free guide suggested we go down after them while my partner went back to the truck.  It’s more than a ten mile drive to the road we could see far below, but much closer as the crow flies and very steep.  Jim said we would meet up down there whether we connected on a ram or not.  In either case, going on down is preferable to trying the climb back up. 

 

With some excitement and determination, the two of us set off down the steep gully.  At the bottom, we headed up in an attempt to gain the ridge where we had seen the sheep.  In a wonderful stroke of luck while we were headed down, the out-of-sight sheep were heading up!  We nearly met each other head on, with us spotting the three only at about 150 yards away and nearly straight up.  I whipped out my cross sticks and sat down with the rifle deployed.  Jim told A Great Trophyme which of the bulky bodies was the one with the largest head, and I fired. The biggest one fell dead at the shot and rolled part way down to us.  Jim asked me to call the shot and I told him “through the heart”.  Well, that was my aim point but, in the excitement, I had forgotten that I was shooting nearly straight up.  In fact, if we had both been on the level, the bullet had entered very close to the correct spot.  As it was, the 180 grainer ranged up through the lung and shattered the spine on exit, resulting in a clean kill.  It was tempting to say that I had meant to do that, but I was too happy to say much at all. 

 

As we approached the downed animal, Jim said, “Oops, I may have misstated his size.” As it turned out, the game commission scored him out at 166 7/8.  I felt this was pretty close to the estimate made through the spotting scope at more than a half mile!  This mature ram was somewhere between twelve and thirteen years of age with heavy brooming on both horns.  He was a trophy indeed. 

 

Jim immediately began capping out the head and boning out the carcass.  It was a real treasure to watch an expert at work.  My share was to move this and that, put the meat chunks on rocks to bleed out a bit more, and hand out food and water when needed.  Finally, we bundled everything up and headed downhill.  With the meat and head, plus all the stuff we carried, the two loads were substantial.  I’ve never had to stop so often to catch my breath when going downhill.   My hunting partner was on the road below and watching through binoculars as we approached.  When we were about a half mile out, he started towards us with a sweatshirt around his neck.  I could not imagine why he had that on him in this heat.  As we met up, he put the sweatshirt down and I could see the sleeves were tied in knots at the ends.  He had slid a cold beer in each sleeve and we stopped right there to enjoy them.

 

Later in camp, the taxidermist finished his work with the cape (he had arrived with a 5 gallon bucket of salt) and we Hanging on the wall!trimmed the meat and put it in coolers. I was apprehensive about eating bighorn since I can just handle lamb, and mutton makes me gag.  Also, this was an old and crusty veteran who had spent many years being a tough guy.  As it turned out, only the “sheep” name is the same and wild bighorn resembles any other quality game animal.  My wife agreed and we had many a delicious dinners, thanks to this contribution.

 

This DIY hunt was definitely one done on a budget.  My total costs consisted of the tag (currently $122.50 for residents), some food and water, gas, a few maps and a single handloaded Nosler bullet.  The head mount was extra, of course, but I felt it was worth every penny!