I consider myself exceedingly fortunate to have been born in Western Washington, to have grown up there, and to have been able to raise my two sons there. It meant, among other things, that once hunting became a passion of mine, I was able to introduce my boys to it at an early age. Another bonus was that I could hunt Rocky Mountain goats within an hour-or-two-drive from my home. The first seven different species of North American big game I harvested as a hunter were all taken in the Evergreen State, where I could hunt close to hearth and family. The Rocky Mountain goat was my fourth species—which is why this story leads off Chapter #4 in BAREBOW!
Washington State no longer offers limited-draw goat or sheep tags for Game Management Units (GMU) that are restricted to bowhunting only, but back in the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, when I was applying for goat tags, there were several GMUs offering archery-only opportunities. Surprisingly, not many bowhunters back then were interested in applying, so it was relatively easy to get drawn. I guess archers were just starting in those years to develop confidence that they could take deer and elk successfully with their “primitive weapons,” and few had yet embraced the bolder dream that the wild game of the high-mountain alpine regions could be approached within bow range and laid low with an arrow.
Once drawn for a goat tag back then, you had to wait for three years before you could apply again. Over the space of 20 years, I was lucky enough to get drawn four different times—involving three different GMUs in the Central and North Cascades. Until I started hunting wild sheep at a later stage in my life, nothing gave me as much pleasure as goat hunting did. This was purely because the vertical habitat they prefer to frequent (at or above the timberline) is so breathtakingly beautiful (especially in good weather) and so very challenging for two-legged creatures like myself to move about in. Their alpine environment is simply a magical world apart from all other realities I have known.
They say that mountain goats are related to the pronghorn antelope of the prairie states and provinces. Personally, I believe the Rocky Mountain goat is a grossly-undervalued and -underrated big game animal. Because their horns (both male and female) are quite short and nondescript (in comparison with the long, majestic, spiraling horns of the mature males of the wild mountain sheep populations), most hunters rugged enough to gain access during hunting season to the lofty worlds they both inhabit seem to take the attitude that only the wild sheep are worth such physical punishment and painful self-sacrifice.
Furthermore, it is very easy to determine the sex of a wild sheep. Not so with the goats! Unless one can get very close to a goat, it is quite difficult to tell which sex it is. Occasionally, nanny-goat horns will be even longer than many billy-goat horns, although they are always a bit more slender at the base. Because of the large potential for confusion, goat hunting is legal for either sex in most jurisdictions, but getting close enough to tell the difference—and especially to launch an arrow—is a supreme challenge for the bowhunter.
Mountain goats are much easier to hunt than wild sheep in certain respects, but they are more difficult in others, especially for the archer. Often you have to get right out on the same sheer rock surfaces the goat has already negotiated with ease. For the bowhunter, the challenge is primarily one of staying alive until you can finally get close enough to draw and shoot.
Goats dare to walk in places (as if with suction cups on their hooves) that your most athletic bighorn ram would never even think of going! And the precipitous terrain goats usually hang out in makes them virtually invulnerable to ambush. In goat hunting, getting above your quarry without being spotted is the primary challenge. Succeed in that, however, and you will often have a shot opportunity, given sufficient patience.
I believe 1969 was the first year I got drawn for a Washington goat tag. The area encompassed Ramparts Ridge and Hibox Peak just east of Snoqualmie Pass in the Central Cascade Mountains. It wasn’t one of the exclusive archery-only goat units, but it did have a large goat population. Since it was so close to my home in Bellevue, I was able to hunt it every weekend during the extended, two-month season. On opening weekend, I backpacked a small camp up onto the high ridge between Rachel Lake and Gold Lake, and, when I hiked out Sunday evening, I stashed everything in a heavy plastic sack underneath the overhang of a large boulder. When I returned the following Friday (carrying almost nothing on my back), a rude shock awaited me. Everything in the storage sack was soaking wet—including my down sleeping bag!
I never did figure out how it happened (perhaps some animal like a porcupine rooting around under the boulder had made the sack vulnerable to the heavy, midweek rains) but that Friday night was the most miserable I had ever spent anywhere. Even the matches in my stash were too wet to start a fire. Clear skies had returned, and, though it didn’t quite freeze that night, I lay in my wet bag, shivering violently until sunup. Once vertical, I spread the bag out over some huckleberry bushes to dry in the sun throughout the day. Come nightfall, however, most of the down inside was still very damp, so the second night was not a whole lot better than the first.
The only positive memory I retain about that particular weekend is the image burned into my brain Saturday evening of a billy goat silhouetted against a scarlet sunset, standing motionless as a sentinel, on the very lip of Ramparts Ridge, looking down upon the Interstate 5 traffic in the valley some 1,500 feet below. He was, in fact, seven or eight yards out from the perpendicular cliffs—as if suspended in space—perched atop a stalagmite-type needle that rose from below and was barely attached to the Ramparts themselves by only the narrowest of knife-like ridges. So utterly mesmerizing was the sight, framed against the long-lasting embers in the western sky, that I sat there watching this Lord of the Crags from 75 yards away, until total darkness finally inked him out. My damp sleeping bag was just a stone’s throw from there.
My second successful “draw” for goats occurred in 1973. This time, the tag was valid for the GMU known as the Goat-Davis Mountain area. It was set aside for archery hunting only. A bowhunting friend of mine named Mark Haugen knew the unit quite well, as he had scouted it heavily two years earlier, and had helped his brother, Bob, collect a Boone and Crockett goat that became the new state record taken with a bow. During the early part of the season, Mark also spent some time with me in the area, trying to pass on some of the topographical knowledge and “goat-savvy” he had gained in 1971.
The early September weather was just outstanding, and on the fourth morning of the nine days I had set aside for this hunt, I starting hiking toward the sharp, little, ridge-upthrust where Bob Haugen had arrowed his big billy. After a good hour of the grunt-sweat-and-mop routine, I reached my destination and immediately sat down to rest and begin glassing. Within seconds, I noticed a lone goat bedded on a narrow ledge in the middle of a small cliff not quite a mile distant. It was well below me in elevation, and a shallow sub-alpine valley separated our two ridges. Quick examination via binoculars told me it was quite a large goat—probably a billy—and that his body was oriented facing my direction. If he hadn’t already seen me, he surely would once I began descending the shale slope I needed to negotiate in order to cross the valley over which he lay in watch.
The cliff he was in the middle of was perpendicular and flat vertically, but its hundred-yard length was somewhat rounded horizontally. Bounded at either end by substantial bands of vegetation, the vertical face had two narrow, parallel ledges running across it—one about 30 feet above the other. My quarry lay on the lower ledge at about its midpoint. A game plan began to crystallize in my mind as I continued to study the terrain. He would be watching me intently as I came down off my summit rock and through the alpine, so I realized that success in getting a good shot opportunity was going to depend largely on how correctly I anticipated his animal psychology.
Most wild animals possess a certain amount of natural curiosity, and Mark had told me I could count on that (up to a point) with Rocky Mountain goats. I decided to aim my descent towards a crossing of the brook in the valley below that would be a good half-mile downstream from the billy’s daybed. I was betting he would want to keep me in sight, even to the point of leaving his bed and walking along the narrow ledge that led to my end of the cliff.
My hunch proved correct. Just before I reached the little stream, my forward motion, together with the curvature of the cliff’s face, caused the goat’s bedded form suddenly to disappear. Instantly, I sat down and waited for him to show. It didn’t take long. Soon, his white head, beard, and mane were silhouetted against the blue sky, and—choosing deliberately not to glass him again—I commenced to execute the rest of my strategy.
I rose, turned away from him, and walked downstream for at least 100 yards. I could almost feel his eyeballs “drilling” me in the back. Without ever looking directly his way again, I hopped across the brook and headed uphill on a slight diagonal away from him. Shortly, I forced my steps into heavy brush and continued to gain altitude so I knew he would not be able to see me any longer. Once I knew I was above him again, I took a careful peek through the vegetation and could see that no patch of white hair was any longer visible. I was confident his psychological security-blanket had been restored, and that he had simply gone back to his comfortable bed. If Man has any advantage over Beast in the ancient contest of the hunt, it is strictly cerebral, never instinctual. Every once in a while, it is possible to outsmart a wild animal.
Thirty minutes later, as I finally took my first step up onto the beginning of the higher ledge that overhung the goat, I remember thinking victory was almost within my grasp!
Ever so quietly, I worked my way out onto the narrow shelf. One section of it tightened down to less than a foot, but soon it widened to about five feet as I reached the spot I believed to be directly above the trophy goat. I peered over the edge of the precipice, expecting to see a living, breathing mass of white hair less than 30 feet below. Bingo! There he was, right where he was supposed to be!
I took two steps back from the lip, laid down my bow, and carefully slipped off my daypack. The billy seemed absolutely clueless. Having “outsmarted” him, and having reached such a proximate degree of intimacy that I could literally spit on him, I felt a foolish feeling of cockiness begin to invade my psyche.
With an arrow now on the bowstring, I stepped forward, came to full draw, and leaned over to make the vertical shot straight down. It was only then I realized I had a serious problem. Shooting an arrow at a 45-degree angle downward is one thing, but a 90-degree-plumb shot presents a totally different challenge! Namely, where do you position the lower limb of your bow? In front of your legs? Behind them? In between them? I had never even thought about it before, let alone practiced such a shot!
Remaining uncomfortably at full draw, I tried out all three choices and discovered all three involved considerable contortion of my body. Since I feared the old goat would soon sense my presence, I finally opted for placing the lower limb in front of my legs. Taking dead aim at his backbone, just above the lungs, I decided to end his life instantaneously by severing the spinal cord. Suddenly the arrow was away, and to my horror I saw it impact the rocky ledge a foot to the left of where I’d aimed it!
Leaving behind a few long white hairs which my broadhead had shaved from his side, the startled billy went sailing off his perch and landed 25 feet below on the apron of a steep rockslide—all the while keeping his feet and running till he jumped up onto a boulder some 60 yards away. I guess he couldn’t resist the impulse to take a look back at what it was that had spooked him. By then, of course, I had a second arrow on the string, and, after taking aim as quickly as I could, I let fly another shaft which self-destructed harmlessly just below his front feet. In a trice, he was “out of there,” and I know I’ve never seen any Rocky Mountain goat run so fast.
The reader is no doubt asking what it was that caused my first shot, at such very close range, to be so far off the mark. Well, what sabotaged my most humanely-murderous intentions was the old, triangular, heavy leather chest protector I was wearing! It was designed to cover one’s pectoral muscle and hold one’s clothing in tight against the body. Unfortunately, as I had tried to make my shot, aiming straight down, I was leaning over so far at the waist that my chest protector fell away from my chest without my noticing it—just far enough to get in the way of the bowstring as it shot forward, and to screw up the path of the arrow. Talk about learning a lesson the hard way! This experience was my first, serious introduction to Murphy’s Law. It would not be my last.
By dark, I had made it back to my camp. I was famished after a long, strenuous day, so I boiled enough water for two freeze-dried dinners, consumed them voraciously, then “piled into the sack.” I think I was too tired to fret over the day’s hard luck, and in the morning I found I had fallen asleep before even managing to get the zipper pulled up. The new day brought more sunshine, fresh spirits, and renewed hope for success. I knew I had four more days to hunt in God’s country before Mark would return to join me on the weekend.
Editor’s note: This article is the eighth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks–join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the seventh Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson