Written By: Justin Helvik (@jhelvik)
A haze from the wildfires made it difficult to view the ridgeline two miles above me. One of the white rocks I was staring at moved; an outline of a bighorn sheep emerged. Crowning the sheep’s head were the massive horns that give the Bighorn Sheep their name. Rams, six of them, were feeding in the morning alpenglow.
Thirteen days, over hundreds of miles trekked, and climbing the equivalent elevation of Mount Everest...that was the sweat equity I had invested in my backcountry, Montana Bighorn Sheep hunt before I even laid eyes on my first ram. I knew hunting sheep was going to be difficult in this remote unit, but I had no idea of what was going to unfold for me. This story isn’t just about the pursuit of the most coveted big game species in Montana-the Bighorn Sheep. Rather this is a story about my journey as a hunter coming full circle and finding my why. My struggles and triumphs in this rugged backcountry transformed me; just like fire and ice transform a mountain over time.
Some people, mostly non-hunters, questioned me as to why I would want to kill one of these magnificent creatures. Clearly, this wasn’t just about harvesting meat. Other hunting friends questioned me as to why I would apply in these rugged, remote units that typically did not hold “trophy” quality animals. The real answer to these questions remained a mystery to me until I spent more time in the mountains experiencing, rather than listening to civilization.
My sheep hunt led me to experiences that I never would have been exposed to if I were not a hunter. One morning, while glassing from the valley floor, a stark movement caught my eye. Out of the timber appeared a mature black bear. Without notice he sprang into action; sprinting across the mountainside. A few seconds later, out of the woods sauntered a boar grizzly bear. I watched in awe and admiration as the large omnivore nonchalantly fed and investigated his home turf. This was his home and I was but a mere transient, bipedal creature.
One afternoon when returning to camp I spotted a bear within a stones throw from my base camp. He eyeballed my tent as he meandered by and then disappeared into the timber. I cautiously approached camp, then heard a crash and tree limbs snapping. I looked directly above me to see a frantic bear clambering out of the tree. In a whirlwind, I resituated and knocked an arrow. The bear hit the ground running and circled around to get a better look at me. He was a mere 35 yards away when he stopped. We locked eyes; measuring up one another. The bear eventually retreated and I was left standing there with a sense of wonder and fulfillment.
Despite not seeing any sheep early on in scouting, all of those miles of trekking and searching for rams were not in vain. After spotting those first rams I was rewarded once again the very next day as I located eight more rams in another secluded basin. I realized that I had probably glassed over these rams several times before. Thanks to my perseverance and willingness to learn from my own mistakes, I was rewarded with a sense of cautious optimism. With only a week before archery season, I no longer felt like I was wandering aimlessly.
Finally, the time arrived. I headed into the mountains once again, this time with a bow strapped to my 5900. My secluded basin yielded rams once again. I watched opening morning as six rams fed across the basin from me and eventually bedded on the backside of the ridge I was glassing. One of the rams stood out. He was obviously a mature ram with a potbelly and swayed back. His horns were full curl, a true specimen for the area. When he skylined on the 10,000-foot ridge, I was struck with awe. There is something truly majestic about a mature, full curl ram. I quickly maneuvered around the basin to see if I could find the bedded rams so I could make a stalk. I found them again, about 300 yards away. They were in a position where it was nearly impossible for me to close the gap. This was not their first rodeo. The older ram, who I estimated to be at least eight years of age, didn’t survive in this predator-rich environment with humans, mountain lions, wolves, and grizzly bears by carelessly placing his bachelor band in a vulnerable position. Instead of making a careless move, I retreated back to camp.
That evening I returned to my perch above the ram’s hidey-hole. There was no sign of the six rams. The sunset and darkness began to fall when two rams appeared on the distant peak. They quickly and methodically worked their way down into the basin as the sun faded. The following day I returned to pick apart the basin with my spotter. It didn’t take long to find the duo. They were both respectable rams. They butted heads several times and postured for dominance as they fed. They continued to feed directly towards me, stopping to lap up some snow, and finally ended up bedding directly below me in the crags. My rangefinder read 124 yards with the steep angle. Once again, I found myself unable to maneuver into a position for an archery shot. I was amazed at the places these animals laid up for a siesta. It would have taken ropes and rappel gear to reach the rams safely from above. Once again, I tucked my tail and retreated.
That evening I positioned myself on the other side of the basin and planned to ambush the two rams. Sure enough, they appeared once again in the basin to feed. I quickly and quietly made my way into the bowl. I felt that this was my first legit chance at letting an arrow fly. The terrain was steep and rocky, with no vegetation to conceal my stalk. I was trying to reach a pinch point above a rock band. My premonition was nearly spot on but I was a hair late. I got pinned down about 140 yards away. I couldn’t make a move; I could only sit and observe. The two rams had picked up a smaller buddy along the way. When the gray light entered the valley, I fell back once again.
The following week I returned with Jeremy, another sheep addict who I had connected with, only to find a small band of rams including one decent ram. They quickly vacated the area and took off down the ridgeline never to be seen again. The once large group of rams were dispersing into smaller bands and they were becoming harder to find. There was no sign of the two mature rams from the week previous. I was finding fewer sheep and more grizzlies. I turned my attention to a sow and three yearling cubs feeding just 300 yards away from us. They were digging up rocks and climbing whitebark pine to feed. Further down the ridge right next to our camp strolled another grizzly. The sheep had moved out and the grizzlies were getting too close for comfort.
After some discussion, we decided to move our camp up higher, above the treeline. It seemed to be safer, away from the bears food source. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep well that night, thinking that every noise we heard was a griz. The wind, snow, and sleet hammered our Stone Glacier Skyscraper tent atop the ridgeline. At 10,300 feet, the mountains made their own weather. “This is sheep hunting,” I told myself. As uncomfortable of a situation as this may have been, I could not help myself from grinning a bit. This wasn’t just hunting, this was a true adventure.
The next morning we woke up, still intact, and made our way up to our glassing knob. Nothing. The once, ram-filled vista, was void of sheep. We were able to locate five bull elk, one of them a decent bull, and a boatload of mountain goats.
With rifle season only one week away, my optimism began to dissipate. I started to pack up after a few hours of glassing when Jeremy said, “wait a minute, I see three white rumps way off in the distance”. I quickly unpacked my spotter. Sure enough, it was old friends from the previous week. They had moved about three quarters of mile down the ridgeline and were feeding in an open park in the timber. A sense of relief overcame me. I decided to wait until the rifle opener to pursue them in hopes that they would stay in the vicinity.
The day before rifle opener, I made my way to the same basecamp above the timberline about two hours before dark. I quickly set up camp and proceeded to glass in hopes of finding rams. Bingo. There they were, about 1,000 yards away feeding in the basin. I now had a history with these rams. I watched them until dark and returned to my tent filled with anxious anticipation.
This was a solo endeavor. There I was alone, camped above the treeline in grizzly infested habitat, with two beautiful rams bedded less than a mile away. Looking back now, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was just me and the mountain. No one to help me. No one to blame my troubles on. A calmness overcame me as I fell asleep. Good things were going to happen.
The following day, I was huddled up in my puffy pants and jacket staring through my spotter. The sun began to peer over my shoulder, filling the basin with a striking radiance. It took me twenty minutes before I spotted the bachelor group. They were up and feeding. The waiting game commenced. I had to determine which direction they were going to bed. I sat there, glued to my spotter for what seemed like an eternity. The rams appeared to be heading up to the opposite ridgeline to bed in the rocky crags.
Without any notice, one of the rams took off on a sprint back down into the basin. All of a sudden, he reared up on his hind feet to ram another challenger who had entered the scene. “CRACK”, the rams butted their heads and stood there posturing to establish dominance. After some sparring and my target ram establishing dominance, they made their beds in the very bottom of the basin. It was go time. This was the moment I had been waiting for. Some people wait for this moment their entire life.
I navigated around the peak and began my stalk from the backside. I moved as quickly as possible, traversing the steep, scree-filled mountainside. I crawled up to a vantage point where I thought I could see the four rams. I only saw two smaller rams with the older rams out of sight. I sat down and began to pick apart the basin. It didn’t take long for movement to catch my eye. The mature rams were making their way up to the rocky cliffs just below my glassing point. I quickly ranged them. The distance was barely in my comfort zone, but I thought I could close the gap even more. I quickly dropped off the knife blade ridge and made haste to another saddle. I bellycrawled up and got in the prone position. They were still making their way up but doing so with more urgency as the sun seemed to be chasing them into the shadows. I ranged them once again. It was now or never.
I settled my crosshairs right behind the bigger rams shoulder and squeezed the trigger when he came to a stop. The basin erupted with the report from my rifle, the ram lurched forward from the impact. I chambered another round and fired again when clear. The ram fell within seconds. I’ll never forget that very moment in time. The bitter-sweetness and the finality of it all. There was no celebration. I didn’t have anyone to high-five or congratulate me. I laid there, nearly paralyzed from the magnitude of the moment.
I could not help but grasp the significance of that juncture in time as I held the magnificent horns of the ram. Just like his horns nearly came full circle I had come full circle as a hunter. I realize now that my reason for hunting is because that is what I am. I am a hunter.
I hunt for food. I hunt for the challenge. I hunt because it is a family tradition. I hunt for the adventure. I hunt to suffer so that I can appreciate the niceties I have in my life. I hunt to seek solitude. I hunt for the comradery. I hunt because it connects me to something greater. My sheep hunt revealed to me a world that few people will ever get to experience.
Yes, one can see nature by driving through Yellowstone National Park, but few will ever truly experience nature like a hunter. I have been serenaded by a pack of wolves, played hide and seek with grizzlies, and stared into the golden, iridescent eyes of a mountain lion. I have traversed with mountain goats on knife blade ridges, picked fights with mature bull elk, wallowed with bull moose, and climbed peaks with the majestic Bighorn. I would be lying if I claimed there wasn’t a certain part of me that is sad when I take an animal’s life. I do so with a thankful heart and the utmost respect for the animal.
My experiences on the mountain put everything into perspective. On this hunt, I suffered. I failed. I sensed fear. I found courage. I felt the bittersweet emotions of a successful hunt. I return from a hunt with a renewed appreciation for life. Too often, people in our society lose touch with reality and ultimately lose touch with themselves. They become comfortable and forget who they are at their core. Now when asked why I hunt, my answer is simple, “Because I am a hunter. At my core, that is what I am.”
About the Author: Justin Helvik is an avid backcountry hunter who also enjoys mountaineering, canyoneering, and whitewater rafting. His adventures have taken him to some of the most remote peaks and canyons found in North and South America. He and his family live in Bozeman, MT where he is an educator in the school district.