In 1989, I was fortunate enough to draw a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep tag in my home state of Washington. This BAREBOW! Chronicle combines two different stories from BAREBOW!’s 14th chapter. Both misadventures occurred on the same unsuccessful hunt, yet both are worth telling.
The Umtanum Unit for which I was drawn was an archery-only unit, and it straddled most of both sides of the Yakima River, from Ellensburg to a point about 10 miles downstream, through what’s known as the Ellensburg Canyon. Most of the rugged cliffs along the river were on the south bank, so that was where most of the sheep were to be found—or back in the high hills above and beyond those cliffs. It was a 16-day season in mid-November, and my plan was to hunt every bit of it, if necessary.
Knowing how very lucky I had been to draw one of only three archery sheep tags for the unit, I made several pre-season scouting trips across the Cascades to familiarize myself with the area and its various access points. Since most of the sheep were supposed to be hanging out on or near the river (getting ready for their annual mating rituals), I made plans to concentrate my time in that part of the unit. The big problem, however, was getting across the river, because the Canyon Road went down the north bank, and at no point did it cross over. What did cross over—but in only two places, roughly six to seven miles apart—was a set of railroad tracks. Thus I could cross one of the trestles on foot to gain the south side, but (if I wanted to hunt that “middle” stretch) I had to hoof it for several miles down the tracks in order to reach the cliffs I figured offered the best chance of surprising a ram at close range.
Two weeks before the season opened, I had experienced something extraordinary that left an indelible image in my mind. I’d been scouting the area for two days, and before driving back over the mountains that second evening I decided to try my luck with my fly rod on a section of the Yakima inside the Ellensburg Canyon. As dusk settled quickly upon the river, the trout began hitting my light elk-hair caddis pattern with regularity. A huge moon soon rose above the south bank to add its silvery sheen to the dimpled surface of the flowing current. I shall never forget one especially vigorous “take” of my dry fly. As I set the hook by raising my rod tip, I lifted my gaze to the beautiful face of the moon in silent appreciation for the gift of light that had allowed me to see the rising trout. What greeted my eyes, as I stood there waist-deep in the river, was the stupefying silhouette of a full-curl bighorn ram—perfectly centered within the radiant orb of the full moon. Diana, the Goddess of the Moon (and the Goddess of the Hunt), was on display in all her glory, while tethered to her shimmering, silken threads was a magnificent specimen of an animal I had dreamed of hunting all my adult life.
He stood there motionless, looking down at me, from his perch atop a rock outcropping no more than 50 yards above the river. So stunning was the sight that I forgot about playing the rainbow on the end of my line. I just lowered my rod and stared in disbelief at the ram above me, wondering if this most unlikely phenomenon was something I dared interpret as a good omen for my upcoming hunt. When I left the river 10 minutes later, the ram still had not moved a muscle—save merely to turn his head. Back at my truck, I wondered if I’d been dreaming. Had he simply been a figment of my imagination?
When the first morning of the season finally came, I hustled across the upstream railroad bridge in the pre-dawn gloom and headed for a little spring I had found on one of my earlier scouting trips. More than once, I’d observed—from across the river—rams drinking at that sidehill spring. It seemed like an awfully good place to spend the first couple hours of the season. While no sheep came in to water there that opening morning, I did have a surprise encounter with a thirsty coyote. Having sat myself on the slope between two bushes, roughly 20 yards above the spring, I hadn’t been in position even 15 minutes before I heard the rustling of grass directly at my back. Turning my head at a snail’s pace, I suddenly realized a coyote was sitting on his haunches just a few yards behind me. With bow already in hand, and an arrow on the string, I managed awkwardly to draw and simultaneously contort my body sufficiently around just in time to get a shot off as the wily canine went into motion. I think my broadhead brushed fur, but nothing more serious.
The following morning rolled in with heavy fog that enshrouded the entire Ellensburg Canyon. Long before dawn, I crossed the lower railroad trestle on foot and headed up the tracks for the middle part of the canyon. I was dying to try my luck in the cliffy areas I had scouted from the hills across the river during the pre-season. Though all cliffs pose certain dangers to the human hunter, I had noticed there were several horizontal ledges, at different elevations, running across the cliffs for many hundreds of yards at a stretch. Each of those ledges had a sheep trail on it, but what I had not reckoned on was the fog.
After hiking a couple of miles, I began looking for an ascending ridge that would carry me up to the eastern end of the cliffs. I finally found a route that looked promising, and a half hour of climbing brought me to a well-used trail that led right into the heart of the area I wanted to hunt. Uneven patches of white and gray overhead suggested that a sunny day might eventually be in the offing. For at least three hours following the invisible sunrise, the fog insisted on remaining “as thick as pea soup.” And, it was about to play quite a trick on me that would cost me a trophy ram before it all burned off beneath the tepid onslaught of a weak November sun.
By following the sheep trail along the extended ledge, I inserted myself perhaps a third of a mile into the cliff-section of the Canyon. The fog was so dense at times I couldn’t see 30 feet in front of me. Suddenly, the loud sound of loose rocks being forcibly rearranged ahead of me sliced through the still air. Until then, only the gentle sounds of the river far below had infringed on the total silence of the eerily-beautiful morning.
It quickly became evident that there were at least several rearrangers of the loose rocks. As I stood there listening intently, trying to peer into the heavy fog, it dawned on me I was actually seeing moving “shadows” in the ubiquitous sea of gray. One shadow struck me as resembling a round disc floating in space, but changing location and switching modes constantly between semi-visible and invisible. All at once, I realized I was seeing the full-curl side-view of a mature ram’s head. How far away? Perhaps 80 to 100 yards? I could only guess. I’d been studying the moving shadows through my binoculars—which only made the guessing game as to distance all the more problematic. Frankly, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what atmospheric tricks of sight or sound the 100 percent humidity might be playing on my senses.
I did suspect, however, there was at least a 50-50 chance the sheep would eventually start traveling my direction. As this thought took hold, my eyes began searching for a nearby ambush spot that could afford me sufficient concealment for a high-percentage shot opportunity. Twenty feet back from the outer edge of the rocky bench where I was standing, the cliff continued upward with its nearly vertical ascent. I noticed close at hand a basaltic outcropping which overhung the trail. Its 15 feet looked climbable, so I started pussyfooting my way toward it.
Since the air was so deathly still, I knew I didn’t dare make the slightest sound underfoot. However, no sooner had I taken three of the six or seven steps necessary to get myself completely off the trail than I heard the unmistakable noise of sheep traveling on loose scree. What’s more, they were coming my way! Immediately, I hastened my pace (hoping their sounds would cover mine), but I was already too late! Suddenly the head of the lead-ewe emerged from the fog not 20 feet away, and her body followed suit. She stopped, riveted her eyes for a second or two on the exposed, vertical profile of a Homo sapiens blocking her path, then slowly lifted one front leg and turned to retrace her steps. This ignited a chain reaction amongst all the invisible “shadows” following her lead. As the cacophonous rearranging of loose rocks reached near-landslide proportions, my superb chance at the fog-bank ram never materialized at all. Without a doubt, he had been bringing up the rear of the procession.
As is so often the case in hunting, timing is everything. A second or two—a step or two—can make all the difference! What I learned too late on that eerie November morning in the Ellensburg Canyon was that the band of sheep milling around in the thick fog had only been about 35 yards away from me to start with! The short story following this one also illustrates the “make-or-break” nature of timing.
* * *
About halfway through this 16-day hunt for a Washington State bighorn, I crossed the Yakima on the downstream railroad bridge early one morning and decided to spend the day exploring the high country well up and behind the cliffs overlooking the river. Fog made the initial part of the climb interesting, but by around 9:30 most of it had burned off, and the rest of the day was sapphire weather.
I was nearing the top of the climb, when suddenly a bruiser of a full-curl ram appeared out of nowhere on the hillside 100 yards above me. He was exhibiting strongly-amorous behavior towards a lone ewe I had not noticed in the haze of the early-morning sun. As she proceeded to lead him around by the nose, the two passed just out of my view. Since I had no cover whatsoever where I was, I laid my bow on the ground and belly-crawled across a dry creek-bottom to where I could see them once again. Even though my bow was but a scant 15 feet behind me, my thoughtless move ended up costing me dearly.
With my binos focused once more on the big ram above me, all of a sudden I heard the clattering of hooves in the draw right below. I rolled over to see a clearly-legal, 3/4-curl running full bore directly at me—coming up the same bottom I had just slithered across. I quickly realized this ram hadn’t even noticed me yet. His attention was fully riveted on the older ram above. Abruptly, the junior ram put on the brakes and stopped only 15 yards away. He stood there staring for a good 30 seconds—not at me, but at his much-resented rival higher up on the hill. If I had simply had my bow in hand, I’ve little doubt I would have killed that ram right there! Unfortunately, I had committed the hunter’s cardinal sin of getting separated from my weapon. Soon both rams were gone just as quickly as they’d come, and I found myself wondering if I’d ever really seen them at all.
Once my climbing was over, I found myself in rolling sagebrush country—high, desert-like terrain that had many shallow draws pressed into its surface. There was sheep sign everywhere. Not until mid-afternoon, however, did I actually spot another of the critters in the flesh. A solitary ram popped into view a half-mile away. Seemingly headed on a mission, he soon disappeared into a crease in the landscape that ran at right angles to my own line of travel. Since he did not re-emerge, I began a cautious stalk—acutely aware I had precious little cover.
After slowly traversing most of the distance to where I’d last seen the ram, my ears were unexpectedly assailed by the loud sound of crashing horns. Two rams! I thought to myself. There must be at least two rams in that little draw below me! I dropped to all fours and crawled forward through the sage until I reached the rim of the draw and could see into the bottom, perhaps 80 yards distant. The sight was enough to warm the cockles of any sheep hunter’s heart. Not two, but three rams stood in the open, mere feet from each other, and one was a real crackerjack! The others were both legal, also; thus getting an arrow into (or through) any one of them became my challenge for the remainder of the afternoon and evening. If I could get close enough, I’d try to take whichever one offered me the best shot-opportunity. I wasn’t going to be choosy. The head-butting and cracking of horns continued periodically throughout the afternoon. All three rams exchanged blows, and I soon got the idea that it was all just practice—warm-up exercises for the deadly serious battles that would begin around the end of the month.
I kept hoping one or another of the rams might decide to leave the ravine and head my direction. By 4 p.m., I started worrying about the amount of daylight left. Aside from the occasional sparring, nothing seemed to be happening, and I finally concluded it was up to me to make something happen. As I studied the topography around me, I realized the only way I could approach the rams sight-unseen would be if I could somehow get into their draw at its upper end, undetected, and then come back down the bottom of its considerable length until I reached the natural earthen berm which nearly choked off the gully only 20 yards shy of where the rams had spent the last hour-and-a-half. If I could manage to reach that ambush spot before my quarry moved on, and before the air currents moving up the draw reversed their direction, as the cool of evening settled over the landscape, then I knew I would have an excellent chance of filling my tag.
Did I have enough time to get there? That was the big question. It really turned out to be a race against the clock—primarily because, in order to stay out of sight, I had to circle more than a mile up and around, just to get into the throat of the draw unnoticed. Once there, I hustled back down toward the rams as fast as I could—knowing evening was coming on fast, and that there was little time left before the fateful changing of the thermals.
Just as I spotted the six-foot-tall berm roughly 70 yards ahead, the crack of horns colliding rang out again. “Great!” I exclaimed under my breath. “They’re still there!” I slowed my pace, concentrating on quietness now, and feeling reassured, since I knew the “wind” was still in my face. As I covered the last 20 yards to the berm, I nocked an arrow and made ready to shoot. Then, all of a sudden, disaster struck! I felt the cool air moving against the back of my sweaty neck. Three steps short of being able to peek around the end of the berm, I heard the sound of flying rocks and pounding hooves. Only a cloud of dust hanging in the air was left to tell me they had been there, less than 25 yards away. In my race against the thermals’ timetable, I had arrived five seconds late.
The long hike off the mountain to the river, down the railroad tracks, and back across the bridge to my Subaru took almost four hours. It was accomplished mostly by flashlight, but it was well justified by the day’s excitement, and it gave me time to reflect upon the criticality of timing. Also, to ponder what—if anything—I might have done differently. The season ended with my tag unfilled, and my extreme disappointment was not yet tempered by any foreknowledge that five years later I was destined to be hunting bighorns once again, high on a mountain in the Alberta Rockies—where Lady Luck would smile upon me in a very big way.
Editor’s note: This article is the twenty-ninth 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 twenty-eighth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson