Experts offer tips for bighorn sheep hunters and wannabe hunters
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This year 331 lucky hunters, 294 residents and 37 nonresidents, drew a Montana bighorn sheep license. Bighorn hunting season opened Sept. 15, in all but a few districts in the state. The season ends Dec. 1.
"Take it from someone who has been waiting 35 years, this is a hunting experience that needs to be savored," said Gary Olson, a biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for 25 years. Olson works with bighorn sheep in the Teton River area and has applied for 35 years for a bighorn hunting license.
Another FWP biologist, Bill Semmens, works in the Anaconda area and is also very familiar with sheep.
"Quality hunts aren't measured in horn length, but in the treasured time spent with family and friends out in sheep habitat," Semmens said. "If a hunter draws a license, and is lucky enough to harvest a bighorn that they are happy with when they pull the trigger, then they've had a quality hunt that hundreds, maybe thousands can only dream of having."
Someone who has actually drawn a bighorn license himself twice, with the trophies to show for it, would go even further.
"The hunt itself is the important thing," Mike Trevor of Helena said. "I once hunted with a friend who had a ram license. After logging 30 days of hunting and looking over 100 rams, he never shot one. He was looking for a trophy that might make the Boone and Crockett record book and we didn't find one. Just shooting a ram wasn't the point, the hunt was."
Here is what these bighorn aficionados recommend to first-time bighorn sheep hunters or those who are only dreaming this season.
Do your homework. Practice identifying trophy class rams, if that is what you're after. Look at a lot of pictures, study trophy mounts and practice scoping out bighorn sheep in the wild so you can judge whether the animal you're looking at will be the mount you want on your wall.
Learn to visually assess the curl of the horn from the base. Does it maintain its mass? Does it get spindly at the tip? Visit taxidermists to see different rams and use the Internet.
Choose your weapon well in advance and know it inside and out. How far can you shoot reliably? How does your rifle work in the wind? A large caliber gun may be important to have with sheep, some believe. Others say a smaller caliber, a .279 for example, will do the job provided you make a good first shot. The goal is to hit that animal and keep it there. A bighorn ram hit in the lung might still go a couple hundred yards. That might be acceptable on a grassy ridge, but on the Rocky Mountain Front that animal may go right over a cliff.
Invest in good optics. The pros suggest a good spotting scope with the best optics you can afford, a great scope on your rifle, and reliable binoculars.
Take your time. On the flip side, don't wait until the last minute. Don't shoot the first animal you see, but be sure you have a mature ram before the territory is snowed in and not able to be hunted.
Be patient. Remember if the sheep aren't there one day, they are very likely to be there the next.
Be in good physical shape.
"These animals are in rugged areas," Olson said. "You really do need to be in great physical shape, ready for all kinds of weather and able to work at high altitude."
He also suggested hunters carry overnight articles in a daypack. "By the time a kill is made and the animal is skinned and caped out, it's often midnight and you may have to spend the night," he said.
Trevor said hunters should keep in mind that bighorn sheep have tremendous eyesight. The first choice is to stay out of sight during the hunt, avoiding the skyline if at all possible and minimizing the time you spend out in the open.
Semmens said hunters might want to check with local FWP biologists and landowners for specific observations on bighorn sheep behavior in an area. Based on his years of experience working with sheep, he said there doesn't seem to be a universal rule. Some bighorn sheep will bolt for safety as soon as they see a person, while others seem more comfortable, once they see a human, to keep the person within their field of vision so they know where the threat is.
You can't over plan when you finally draw the bighorn sheep hunt of your dreams.
"Access is also something hunters need to think about well in advance, especially in the Rock Creek area," Semmens said. "You need to get out and talk to the landowners about access, plan how you'll be able to get the harvested sheep out of the area, get a good landownership map and most of all, know where you are when you pull the trigger."
Trevor agrees on that last point. But his final words are ones only the lucky few can share.
"One advantage of hunting sheep early in the season is that it is the best game meat you could hope to taste," Trevor said. "The meat of wild sheep is more like the best elk meat you've ever eaten; it is gourmet quality."