The Danger Of Being Downwind
By Grayson Lacey
WY, Rocky Mtn Bighorn Sheep
The wind is always on every hunter’s mind. We pay close attention to it and plan accordingly. When the wind shifts unexpectedly, though, it can jeopardize the odds of success, especially if you suddenly find yourself downwind from a 30,000-acre wildfire like I did on the night before opening day of the 2018 bighorn sheep season in Wyoming.
My Wyoming sheep hunting adventure began over 20 years earlier when my dad purchased my first bighorn sheep preference point. I am fortunate that he faithfully continued to do so every year. After graduating law school, I entered the Wyoming sheep draw for the first time in 2007 but did not get drawn. Over the next 10 years, I got married, started a family, and established a career, all of which took precedence over sheep hunting in Wyoming, but I continued to accumulate preference points.
By January of 2017, I decided to reenter the draw. My father introduced me to Mike Wakkuri of Elk Mountain Outfitters, with whom he had moose hunted the previous fall. Talking with Mike on the phone, I realized why my dad had enjoyed hunting with him so much and knew beyond a doubt that I wanted to sheep hunt with him as well. Mike is, first and foremost, a family man. We talked about our kids and their sports endeavors almost as much as we did about hunting during this first call. While Mike patiently answered all of my questions about their sheep hunting operation, he really got excited when we started talking about a big long-horned ram that he had seen each of the last two seasons. I sent Mike my deposit and immediately began getting back in sheep shape. Four months later, I was disappointed to learn that I was, once again, unsuccessful.
Mike and I kept in touch, and I did my best to stay in shape. Both of Mike’s 2017 sheep hunters killed huge rams, but they never saw the long-horned ram. Just before Christmas, Mike called and said that one of his buddies had just texted him a photo of the long-horned ram taken after sheep season ended. He had survived! Now, he just needed to survive one more Wyoming winter and I needed to draw a sheep tag.
As they say, the third time is the charm. On May 10, 2018, I was ecstatic to learn that I had drawn one of two non-resident bighorn sheep tags for area 19 in southeast Wyoming.
About two weeks before the season opener, Mike called and said that he had located the big long-horned ram while scouting. The days that followed seemed to last a lifetime. It was hard not to fantasize about what appeared to be an increasingly likely opportunity to hunt a ram of this magnitude.
Three days before I flew to Wyoming, Mike called back with bad news. Lightning had sparked a wildfire in the area. The fire was several miles from where we planned to hunt, but strong winds were causing it to spread quickly. After confirming that Mike and his family were not in any danger, our attention shifted to the fire’s impact on the upcoming hunt. Even though Mike had not seen the long-horned ram since the wildfire began, we decided to proceed as planned and to closely monitor the wildfire.
I met Mike along with his “offensive coordinator,” Brandon Flanagan, in Wheatland, Wyoming two days before opening day. A curtain of smoke blanketed our view of the mountains from town. The area we planned to hunt had remained outside of the wildfire’s path, but obviously, smoke was everywhere. We hoped that the sheep had not been pushed out by the nearby fire, but there was only one way to find out.
We spent the next day and a half scouting. It’s hard to concentrate on glassing for rams with the distraction of a 30,000-acre wildfire on the horizon. Mike’s top priority was always our safety. I never felt like he put us in a position of risk. Despite his safety-first approach, Mike maintained his sense of humor and even joked that the long-horned ram was “not worth dying over, but he’s close.”
The afternoon before opening day, we set up spike camp a safe distance away from the wildfire with a containment line along the fire’s border in our direction. Nevertheless, we continued to monitor the wind and received regular updates on the fire. That night, the wind shifted unexpectedly, placing us downwind from the wildfire. The night sky along the ridge in the direction of the wildfire suddenly looked like a sunrise in the middle of the night. Worried that the fire might have jumped the containment line, we broke camp immediately and relocated to a new area.
Hours later, we were climbing a mountain several miles away as sheep season officially opened. While we did our best to remain optimistic, it was hard to ignore the unfortunate reality of our circumstances. The towers of smoke on the horizon constantly reminded us of where we had planned to hunt and where Mike had last seen the long-horned ram. We had two close encounters with rattlesnakes but did not see any sheep that day. I spent much of that afternoon reevaluating my expectations of the size of ram I was willing to pass on. It was a mental exercise that I always knew was possible, but I never expected to be having such thoughts on the first day of the hunt.
The update on the wildfire the following morning confirmed that the containment line remained intact, and my spirits were lifted. Reassured that it was safe, we returned to the area that we had originally planned to hunt and resumed our search for the long-horned ram. Over the next day and a half, we saw multiple bands of rams, but the whereabouts of the long-horned ram remained a mystery.
While glassing several mountains late on the third day, Mike suddenly exclaimed, “There he is!” The long-horned ram was instantly recognizable in the spotting scope even at a distance of more than two miles. We attempted a stalk that afternoon but were unable to get any closer than about 800 yards. With the light fading, Mike wisely suggested that we put him to bed and return the next morning.
After a sleepless night, we returned and found the rams near where we had last seen them. Mike and Brandon planned a perfect stalk. The wind was in our faces as we came over the top of the mountain and approached the rams from above. They were bedded beneath some trees 150 yards below us when I got into position with my Cooper .300 Win. Mag resting snuggly on my Eberlestock pack. While we waited for the rams to get up, I went from nervous excitement to methodically planning the shot repeatedly in my head to eventual calmness.
Four hours later, the rams began feeding. As each ram stood, I moved the crosshairs onto his chest and waited for Brandon’s confirmation. Naturally, the long-horned ram was the last one. He started walking, and when he paused broadside at 190 yards, I squeezed the trigger.
It appeared to be a good shot, but to our surprise, none of us saw him fall or run. He just vanished. We climbed down to where the ram had been standing and were perplexed to see no ram and no blood. After about five minutes of searching, we stumbled upon the dead ram. He had fallen into a slight depression that concealed him from our view and allowed us to walk right past him moments earlier. It was a fitting conclusion to an unconventional and unpredictable hunt.
With great admiration and respect for this ram-of-a-lifetime, I touched his massive horns for the first time and was overwhelmed with gratitude. I thanked God for this extraordinary mountaintop experience in His perfect creation. I was grateful to Mike and Brandon for their friendship, hard work, and perseverance. The notes my wife and son hid in my bags provided needed encouragement during the challenging hunt. My thoughts shifted to my dad back home and the many priceless memories we have shared hunting together. With trembling hands, I read Psalm 121 printed on the old laminated index card that my mom had made for him prior to a sheep hunt many years ago, which he also carries in his left shirt pocket on every hunt. Dad refers to these treasured verses as “the sheep hunter’s Psalm.”
“I lift my eyes up to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Ps. 121:1-2.
The thoughts of wildfire, hardship, and uncertainty had been replaced with humble gratitude. While packing out the ram and long into the night, we reflected on our unforgettable and amazing adventure. I listened with profound appreciation as Mike shared the stories of his encounters with this ram over previous hunting seasons. For the first time in days, I forgot about the wildfire.