Photo Story: Janis' Bighorn Sheep Hunt

Photo Story: Janis' Bighorn Sheep Hunt

George Dieruf, the gunroom manager at Schnee’s Sporting Goods in downtown Bozeman, Montana, is 73 years old and has been applying for a Montana sheep tag since he was 13. The unit he applies for has a .31% chance to draw, and he’s applied for 60 years unsuccessfully. It doesn’t matter which state you apply in, bighorn ram tags are hard to come by. I drew in Colorado after applying off and on for 15 years. Compared to George, I drew relatively early. It’s not lost on me that I cannot appreciate the magnitude of my luck, the opportunity, and the experience as much as someone who’s applied and hoped for six decades.

Drawing and subsequently holding a once-in-a-lifetime tag comes with a lot of pressure for success. To up the odds, the unit I drew a tag in is known for limited success and low sheep numbers; it’s a unit that’s hundreds of square miles with sheep herd numbers less than one hundred.

But there’s also pressure to enjoy the experience and not let success come too early. After all, you may never get to do this again. And there’s pressure to shoot the right animal; an animal that you’re going to be happy with. With only 100 sheep in the unit, I was looking for one mature ram. A mature ram is eight years or older, and there are likely only six to eight in the herd. That’s the definition of a needle in a haystack. As the hunt approached the pressure built, but luckily it subsided once I was in the field. Then I soaked up the scenery and focused on the task at hand.

I began scouting by myself for three days. The high country can be a lonely place. The one critter that keeps you company is the pika—its constant chirping reminds you that you’re not alone and that there is life up here. Their chirp sounds like they’re annoyed with my presence, but I don’t know, they might chirp all the time.

Wilderness photographer Charlie Williams showed up for opening day, and we hunted for a week. Then my guiding buddy Steve Reid joined in for four days. You can break sheep hunting into four parts: hiking, glassing, sleeping, and eating. It’s simple and that’s the beauty of it.

Below are Charlie's images that reflect two weeks of those activities. For a deeper look into my hunt for a Rocky Mountain bighorn, you can check out the three-part series on my Instagram highlights titled CO Bighorn Sheep Parts 1, 2, and 3.

JPS 1 We headed into Colorado’s sheep country with high spirits, fresh legs, and five days’ worth of food. The approach was nine miles and took about four hours. The “sheep country” I hunted was mostly above treeline, which in Colorado occurs around 10,500 feet. It’s rocky and dry, with seemingly not much to eat.

JPS 2 It is incredibly rugged and beautiful simultaneously. Summer’s grasp on the country is visible through green deciduous trees, but we only feel it for two hours in the middle of the day. Upon closer inspection, there are dots of yellow throughout the landscape and every leaf is rimmed gold. Fall loosens summer’s grip by the minute.

JPS 3 The sheep aren’t intentionally hiding from us, but their natural habits keep them well hidden amongst the steep, rocky slopes. Every inch of the mountain must be scanned and then re-scanned until you’re absolutely sure there are no sheep. That moment is when one usually pops into view.

JPS 4 The first step was to find sheep. Then it was important to me to video and photograph them for comparison later. Not being well-experienced with sheep, I didn’t know what I was looking at at first. When I would restock food I would send photos to sheep experts like Jay Scott who would help me age them. Having a bank of videos of known sheep helped me gauge sheep I saw later.

JPS 5 The weather was what alpinists dream of. Every day of my hunt was a day you could summit Everest, and it allowed us to travel light. My last trip into sheep country, I only brought a base layer and my puffy Uncompahgre Jacket. Although I carried a tarp, many nights we slept under the stars. It is rare to have a two-week stretch of weather like this in the alpine of Colorado. Most days around noon, when the thunderheads start to build, you better be getting below treeline because a thunderstorm at 11,000 feet is no fun.

JPS 6 Birdbaths, as Eduardo Garcia calls them, are an instant attitude adjuster and soul refresher.

JPS 7 Steve Reid joined me for four days. These adventures are best shared.

JPS 8 The weather was incredible; a tarp was all we needed.

JPS 9 Sheep country tends to make you feel small. I was lucky to draw at 43 years old, semi-young and abled body, and not at 63 years old, where my body might limit my ability to trek in these mountains. I plan to hunt the mountains to 75, then I’ll happily become a full-time whitetail hunter.

JPS 10 Exhausted, I caught a 10 minute nap at the bottom of a talus field while Steve and Charlie filtered water. Call it talus or scree; this sheep hunt included lots of walking over rocks, big and little, stable and loose.

JPS 11 Glassing a ridge two miles away, little did we know that we sat on the same mountain (probably around 1000 yards away) as the ram I would eventually kill.

JPS 12 While looking for a campsite at dusk, I spotted two rams on the horizon. It was serendipitous. The time those two spent within my line of sight was fleeting, but the universe threw me a hot tip.

JPS 13 It was a nightly ritual just before bed to look at a few videos I had taken of the rams prior to the season. It also kept my spirits high after days of zero sheep sightings.

JPS 14 Scanning the close horizons, I knew the rams from the night before weren’t far.

JPS 15 The shot rings out and I quickly get back on target just in time to see the ram start tumbling.

JPS 16 We had limited cell service for 13 days, but full bars when I killed my ram. It’s an emotional moment that comes along with such a long and arduous hunt. Lots of calls were made thanking all those that helped me reach this point: piles of mentors, colleagues, and family. Thank you all!

JPS 17 The bighorn sheep is the monarch of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a symbol of freedom, wilderness, and a healthy ecosystem. Before the season, I found a giant 12-year-old ram—that’s the one I was looking for and he’s the one that urged me up 3000-foot ascents. But as it often happens in hunting, you’re looking for one specific animal, but then you cross paths with simply the “right one.” Steve Reid told me, “You’ll know your ram when you see him.” My only regret is that I didn’t watch him feed on that magnificent mountainside another 10 minutes before I shot, ending my time as a sheep hunter.

JPS 18 The impressiveness of the horns is undeniable. His horns with a skinned head, lacking the lower jaw, added up to 26 pounds. No one has yet to pick them up and not drop their own lower jaw in awe of the mass. On a mature ram, the weight of his horns can be equal to the weight of all the other bones in his body combined.

JPS 19 Every five minutes, I realize what’s transpired and find the closest person to me for a fist bump. For me, it’s a culmination of half a lifetime of hunting. The high is real.

JPS 20 This is the pack-out crew. Real friends drive two hours to hike 6 miles one way to help pack meat. I’m fortunate to know these men.

JPS 21 It’s bittersweet to pack up sheep camp for the last time. The pressure of being a sheep tag holder is gone—and that’s a relief—but at the same time, I wish I had another 14 days to spend in sheep country.

Bighorn sheep face a multitude of challenges in their effort to exist as a species, including habitat loss and disease transmission from domestic sheep. I hope that everyone who wants to has the opportunity to hunt sheep or just see sheep in their lifetime. It’s a life-changing experience.

*To promote sheep existence and further sheep hunting opportunities, please consider supporting organizations like the Wild Sheep Foundation, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, and support state wildlife agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife. *

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