Luck of the Draw
By James Archer, Hunter Gammon Archer
UT, Desert Bighorn Sheep
Imagine if your son or daughter drew a Desert bighorn permit having never hunted big game before. I’d been applying for Desert bighorn sheep in Utah for nearly 20 years and had received more unsuccessful letters/emails than I care to remember. In 2016, I started including my two sons in the application process to increase our cumulative odds up to a whopping 2%. As luck would have it, my youngest son, Gammon, drew the once-in-a-lifetime tag with only two bonus points.
Now the fun began! I figured we’d spend the summer doing the research, investing time to learn the area, and locating the sheep. It was the ultimate self-guided hunt. There was one small issue, though. Gammon was a college student and had committed to working at an Alaskan fishing lodge during the summer, so the research fell to me. In my mind, it was going to be a grand adventure.
I hit the ground running. I tracked down information from the Division of Wildlife, contacted hunters who had harvested rams in the unit before, and purchased enough maps to fill a school binder. With this information in hand, I planned a three-day exploratory trip to the unit over Memorial Day weekend with my very supportive wife.
After circumventing the Delaware-sized unit, I felt like I’d landed on the moon. My experience chasing other western game clearly didn’t translate well to the expansive southern Utah desert and its legendary bighorns. I was in over my head and needed to enlist an experienced hunting guide or this once-in-a-lifetime hunt was going to be a disaster.
After making a few calls to people within the sheep hunting community, I was connected with one of Utah’s most experienced Desert bighorn guides, Randy Johnson, and his partner, Brett Caldwell. I explained our situation, and as luck would have it, Randy had one slot left on his 2018 calendar. We booked a 10-day hunt with High Desert Sheep Guides starting September 15th – opening day.
I spoke with Randy on multiple occasions during the summer about gear, sheep populations, hunting conditions, physical preparations, and trophy expectations. He was a wealth of information, and we felt well prepared as the season approached. Randy planned to spend several days before the hunt scouting the unit for rams and setting up camp in a unit he had spent countless years hunting.
On the day before the opener, our three-generation group (my dad had joined us) headed south from our home in northern Utah to meet Brett Caldwell and head into camp. Brett, like Randy, has a long history of success hunting Desert bighorns in southern Utah and came prepared with photos of several rams Randy had located. Brett was quick to remind us that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we should remember we had a 10-day hunt scheduled so not to feel pressured to harvest the first mature ram we saw.
We arrived in camp, and Randy shared his experiences from the previous couple days. He had located a quality ram and had watched it that night following a group of sheep through a canyon notch that provided access to water. He expected the sheep to return through the same notch in the morning. We had a plan. At first light, Randy and Brett would accompany Gammon and me into the area with Parker Fails, our spotter, strategically placed on a nearby high point.
Like many hunting plans, the morning dawned and the sheep were nowhere to be seen. Randy and Brett were confident that they were in the area, so we spent the balance of the day glassing various canyons and bluffs in search of cream-colored rumps. The guides both spotted several groups of sheep but not the mature ram we were in search of before the stifling heat of the day pushed us and the sheep into the shade.
During the midst of our afternoon siesta, Parker relocated to another glassing location and was able to view a previously spotted band of sheep from a different angle. In that group, he observed what he thought was a mature ram that deserved a closer examination. With this information, our group headed his direction so Randy and Brett could determine the size of the ram.
One quick look and Randy recognized the mature ram from the previous evening. My son was excited to attempt a stalk. The ram was mixed in with a group of approximately 10 sheep that included a couple smaller rams all actively chasing ewes as part of the fall rutting activity. The two guides, Gammon, and I started to close the distance of approximately a mile and 600 vertical feet. Over the next hour, we gained elevation and neared the ram’s location via a concealed ridge leading to a secluded bench area that held the sheep. As we neared the top of the ridge, two separate ewes spotted us and spooked around the bluff. At the direction of the guides, we pushed on to the top with the expectation that the mature ram may be visible.
We topped the ridge, and just as the guides had expected, the largest ram was peeking out from behind a rock outcropping only 165 yards away. The ram quickly ducked out of sight, but the guides had my son get into shooting position, expecting the ram to reemerge, and he did in the exact same spot and in a better position for a shot. Gammon didn’t have experience shooting big game, and the pressure of the moment resulted in a miss on his first shot. With Randy’s calming influence during a very chaotic couple of minutes, Gammon was quickly directed to another shooting location and was able to harvest the Desert bighorn-of-a-lifetime.
As a hunter, I may never have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hunt Desert bighorn sheep, but that’s just fine. Watching my son’s success will forever be etched in my memory as will the animals that make this beautiful country their home.
A special thanks to our great guides, Randy, Brett, and Parker with High Desert Sheep Guides. It would be hard to imagine a more knowledgeable, hard-working group. Lady luck certainly smiled on Gammon to draw a tag, but it was just as lucky to get to experience this once-in-a-lifetime hunt with such a wonderful group of people. Finally, a big thank you to our family who supports these adventures.