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My Adventure: What are the odds — Bagging a bighorn

Klamath Falls man bags a big Rocky Mountain bighorn on Montana hunt
Photo by Lee JuilleratDave McKay is nearly hidden by his ram's massive, curled horn.

In a normal year I look up the Montana sheep hunts for Rocky Mountain bighorn and pick out units that are available to nonresidents. I try to pick ones that have better odds of drawing than the hard-to-draw units.

This year I was moving and didn’t have time to look them up, so I chose 680-20, a unit of the famous Missouri River Breaks. To my surprise, I drew the tag even though the odds are 1 in 1,000.

As a truck driver from Klamath Falls, I didn’t have much time to scout the unit or the money to hire a guide. None of my hunter friends could take that much time off, so I was alone on this hunt of a lifetime. Turning 70 this year probably didn’t help my odds. I’m a long-time pastor, so I prayed for help.

With a Sept. 15 opener, I decided to get there a week early to scout. It took two days to drive to Big Sandy, Montana. I found a nice place to camp at Judith Crossing on the Missouri River. The BLM campsite was green and shaded by large cottonwood trees. Every morning I was greeted by bugling bull elk and the crowing of ringneck roosters. I even saw a guy arrow a nice six-point elk on the banks of the Judith River.

The people I met at the campground were very friendly and helpful, giving me information about the area. I met two young men, Ty and Andy, who camped next to me and also had a sheep tag. Ty got up early one morning and arrowed a nice mule deer buck in the head at 35 yards. Andy had a sheep tag, and they took their jet boat up the river, hiked several miles up a steep canyon and shot a nice ram. These guys worked and hunted hard, and I enjoyed their company.

In the meantime, I got sick and thought I had COVID. When I traveled to Havre for supplies, I drove in the wrong direction for 80 miles before I noticed. We have all heard about brain fog being one of the symptoms of COVID, so I turned around drove to Havre and got a COVID test. The nurse saw my throat was red, so she also gave me a strep throat test. I drew a sigh of relief when the test revealed the lesser sickness, but I missed opening week and was laid up in camp.

My camping spot was a long drive from where I was hunting, so I slept in the back of my pickup for several nights to stay close to the public land. I talked to several other hunters who had scoured the northern part of the unit and had seen only a few ewes and a young ram. Things were looking rather bleak, but I tried to keep a positive attitude. The breaks were steep, rugged and tough to hunt, as you often get “cliffed” out when trying to climb up or down.

I finally located some BLM land and walked two miles out a ridge. The farther out I walked, the narrower and steeper it became. It overlooked a big canyon coming up from the Missouri River. I didn’t see any sheep and was thinking of turning back, but I decided to push on and look over the edge.

As I was glassing across the big canyon I saw some movement in the brush about 100 yards up from the bottom of the canyon. Then I spotted three rams feeding together on the steep sidehill. Two were immature and one was a full curl ram. I estimated him to be over 180 (points on the Boone and Crockett Club rating scale) with heavy bases and broomed horns. I decided to take him, but then decided to self-talk to slow myself down. I have a tendency to get excited and rush my shots, so I decided to slow down as they were unaware of any danger.

I’m glad for that decision, because out of the brush walked a chocolate ram with longer horns and big bases. Instantly I knew this was the ram I wanted to take. I ranged the chocolate-colored ram at a little over 300 yards and, as it was a steep downhill shot, I was glad to have my Leopold Range Finder with TBR to give me the correct hold on the ram’s shoulder.

Scrambling for a prone position, I talked to myself again, “Pick out a spot on his shoulder, take a deep breath and slowly squeeze the trigger.” As the Kimber 300 Short Mag rocked my world and moved my scope I was unable to see a clear hit. The two smaller rams ran up the steep slope. The chocolate ram ran downhill, with the other big ram following. He didn’t show any signs of being hit, but I suspected he was because wounded animals generally run downhill. I decided to make sure with a second shot that slowed his progress. He continued to run to the bottom of the canyon and came to rest at the dry creek bottom.

He could not be reached from the steep cliff I was on, so I had to find another way to reach him. As you can imagine, I was very excited and decided to do what experienced hunters do because they have learned from their past mistakes. I picked out some landmarks, because the landscape looks very different when you get closer to it. I picked out a red mountain top east of me toward the Missouri River to guide me to the ram’s final resting place.

At this point it was noon, and I knew I had to get moving. I hiked the two miles up the ridge to my truck and drove down to the river. When I reached the river, there were several canyons heading in his direction, and I wasn’t sure which one to take. Then I looked up and there was my red mountain marker that directed me up the right canyon.

Parking my pickup at the base of the canyon, I started the hike, which ended up being just over two miles. As I walked up the creek bottom, I had to scramble several times around cliffs and dry waterfalls. When I finally arrived at a big bush that I had also marked from above, there was my ram lying with his head on the bank of the dry creek bed. Boy was he a beauty. Definitely a (Boone and Crockett) book ram, but more importantly a beautiful chocolate-colored ram.

I took some pictures and field-dressed him as quickly as an elderly gentleman can. I decided to take a hind quarter with me, and I was glad I did. I retreated to the river and slept in my truck at the Ferry Crossing Campground. Arising early, I hiked up the canyon and packed out the head and cape. When I reached the campground, I took a two-hour rest. Then I made the third trip up the canyon to retrieve the rest of the meat.

It wasn’t my first bighorn ram success. In 2009 I drew a Desert Sheep Tag in Nevada and shot the biggest ram in that unit in seven years. So now I am halfway to my dream of a grand slam, but due to time and money and my wife’s laughter as she types this, I consider myself blessed with these two great hunts.

David McKay lives in Klamath Falls.

Share Your Adventure

The Mail Tribune wants to share your adventure. We’re looking for accounts of hikes, climbs, river runs, fishing trips, bike rides, ocean outings, camping trips, wildlife encounters and anything else you’ve done outdoors. Email your story (shoot for about 500 words) and pictures to Mail Tribune features editor David Smigelski at dsmigelski@rosebudmedia.com.