By Ed Boero
OR, California Bighorn Sheep
I’m one of those people who checks their draw results constantly on the day I expect them to be released in anticipation of drawing a coveted big game tag. I’ve played the points game for a number of years and generally know which tags I’m likely to draw in any given year. At age 63, I’m also trying to use all my points before I’m too old to use them. As a result, I’ve had some terrific hunts over the last 10 years. In 2018, I decided to do an Alaska fishing trip with my son and do an over-the-counter archery Roosevelt elk hunt in my home state of Oregon. My strategy would be continuing to build points and applying for once-in-a-lifetime tags. I assured my wife that I would likely have a very light fall hunting schedule. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In June, my wife and I were on a month-long trailer adventure in eastern Oregon and Idaho and I happened to check my draw results. I was surprised to learn that with 17 points I had drawn a limited-entry moose tag in Montana. Man was I lucky! A week later, the Oregon results came out. I didn’t expect to draw anything in Oregon as I was about a year away from the elk unit I want and I’m rebuilding antelope and deer points. I checked the results and thought I was unsuccessful across the board. No big deal, I still had a great moose hunt to plan for.
We got home from our trip in mid-July, and I was sorting 30 days of junk mail when an Oregon Sheep Foundation envelope caught my eye. I opened it, assuming it was an invitation to another wildlife dinner/auction. I was completely shocked when I read the salutation, “Congratulations on your Oregon sheep tag…” I immediately checked the address on the envelope, and it was addressed to me. At that point, I thought it might be a prank from one of my friends, so I checked the Oregon website, and sure enough, I had drawn a John Day sheep tag. I had somehow missed that small detail when I had checked my results in mid-June. What in June appeared to be a light hunting/fishing schedule would have me away from home for 50 out of 70 days in the fall.
Oregon does not have a point system for sheep, so drawing a tag is completely random and impossible to plan for in advance. With hunting and fishing trips planned for September and October, I really only had late July and August to plan for the sheep hunt. My first call was to my friends, Randy and Candy Yow. They are two of the best hunters I know and immediately agreed to help with the hunt. I invited my friends Don Sheets, Terry Hamilton, and Troy Corum from Benchmade Knives, and my team was set. My next decision was whether I should float the river and hunt from the bottom up or access the river canyon through private land from above. After a fair amount of research and conversations with landowners, biologists, previous tag holders, and members of my team, I elected to hunt from above. I felt it would provide me with greater flexibility and allow me to see more of the country. I was able to scout one day in the early fall between other hunts and planned to scout a few days prior to the season.
We arrived at the unit four days before season and with the sheep in full rut. We located several nice rams and many groups of ewes. While ewes tended to remain in the same general areas near a food source, the rams were moving constantly in search of a ewe ready to be bred. As a result, a ram we spotted one day might be a mile away in a completely different canyon the next.
On our second day of scouting, we found a really nice ram that appeared to have a full curl below the jawline, good mass, and was clearly larger than any other ram we had seen. He had really nice lamb tips, which flared out, so we nicknamed him “Pretty Boy.” We found him again two days later, and he walked within 200 yards, allowing us to get a very clear view. After reviewing the film of all the rams we had seen, we agreed he was our number one choice for the Saturday morning opener. On Friday night, we found him again chasing a ewe about a mile away on a ridge across a deep canyon. We went to bed that night hoping he would stay on the ridge and we could locate him Saturday morning.
On Saturday morning, we awoke early with great anticipation and arrived at our spotting location at first light. After four days of scouting, it felt great to finally be carrying a rifle. Unfortunately, the fog had moved into the river canyon and we could not see more than 100 yards. We could only hope that Pretty Boy had stayed in the same general area. At about 9:30, the fog started to lift and we spotted Pretty Boy and his ewe along with about 20 other sheep feeding on the same ridge right below a saddle. We made plans to cross the canyon, climb the ridge, and stalk down the ridge to a location where we could get a shot. Before we started our hike, Pretty Boy, his ewe, and the rest of the sheep fed over the saddle and out of sight. For the next 90 minutes as we climbed 1,200 feet down the canyon and 800 feet up the adjacent ridge, we could only hope the sheep would bed near the saddle. As we got close, Randy mentioned that they could easily have fed down into the next canyon and be in a different drainage out of sight. As luck would have it, we peeked over the ridge and there was Pretty Boy and his ewe within 100 feet of the saddle with the rest of the sheep well below them. The wind was perfect for our stalk.
We crawled along the top of the ridge, using rocks and brush for cover. As we crept forward, a covey of chukars threatened to flush, blowing our stalk. We stopped and waited for the birds to wander quietly away without flying. At 250 yards, I set up and no sooner got my scope on Pretty Boy than he stood, offering a perfect broadside shot. I looked at Randy, and he was covering his ears. Candy was giving me the trigger pull sign, and I realized it was now or never. I looked back into the scope, picked my spot, and squeezed the trigger. At the shot, I saw dirt fly behind the ram and had a sinking feeling in my gut thinking I had shot high. The ram ran a few feet and stopped, and I was able to make a second shot. As it turned out, both shots had found their mark right behind the front shoulder. I raised my arms and heard my friends from a mile across the canyon cheering. They had seen the entire stalk from their vantage point. We rough scored my ram at 167", and he truly lived up to his nickname. I couldn’t be happier.
The John Day Canyon is one of the most interesting, wild places I have ever visited. The scenery is spectacular. We were fortunate to see a wide variety of wildlife each day. I’d like to thank Oregon Fish and Wildlife and Oregon FNAWS for their efforts to bring wild sheep back to Oregon. I’ve been told that the John Day River Canyon holds more than 400 sheep. I’d also like to thank my friends, Randy, Candy, Troy, Terry, and Don. What a great team, and thank you for making this a memorable hunt.