Sheep Hunting the Breaks
As a hunter living in Montana, I get to see many different landscapes and ecosystems. From the Rocky Mountain Front to the great plains, from the Sweetgrass Hills to the breaks of the Missouri, Montana has it all. Montana’s 680-20 sheep tag is one of the most coveted sheep tags out there. Most people apply for years and don't draw until late in their lives, but I was fortunate enough to draw one at age nineteen.
One and a half years into the “real world”, I had already figured out that I wouldn't have sixty days to spend in the field like I did my senior year of high school. This hunt had to be a couple of four- to five-day hunts and a couple of three-day weekends. I spent several weekends throughout the summer learning the area and learning about sheep. The Missouri River Breaks were a whole new world for me.
For my first sheep hunt, I wanted to canoe the river, camp on the banks, and hunt my way up the ridgelines. One of my best friends, Max Miller, had a few days free to join me, so we loaded our boats and set out. Arriving to camp on the afternoon before opening day, we set up our tents, got some lunch, and started our way up over the ridge to scout into the next canyon. Right away we spotted a dozen rams across the canyon. We could tell immediately that there were a few shooters in the group, and we started to plan for the next morning.
Opening morning came after we spent a sleepless night, and anxious to find out where the sheep would be, Max and I skipped breakfast and ran up the ridge. Right away we located the sheep… and a pair of other hunters in two 4-wheelers running around all over the roads. We could tell they were probably looking for the same sheep that we were after. Two hours or so after first light, we noticed two guys in orange working their way across the hillside. We sat for an hour or two to see if the guys were going to make a shot. Finally, a huge ram stepped away from the group and they took him. We watched him tumble down the hill. Max and I looked at each other then, both of us obviously pretty disappointed with how things were going so far.
We watched the rams work their way toward us, and we started to get excited because there were still two beautiful rams in the bunch that we wanted to get a good look at. Our excitement faded however, when we saw the sheep turn around and head straight in the opposite direction toward a big section of private land. Defeated, we packed our things and worked our way as far up the ridge as we could go, but we never saw another sheep. Just as the sun was going down, we returned to the boats, repacked, and set off down the river. In a little while, just as the sun dropped below the horizon, we spotted a young ram with a few ewes. We pulled off the river and watched them until dark, but we saw no mature rams. We camped for the night on a small gravel bar in the middle of the river.
We got up before dawn, packed our gear, and continued down the river. Spotting as we floated, we only saw one young ram on the wrong side of the river, out of the unit I had drawn a tag for. We arrived at the takeout point at mid-day and talked with the local ferry operators. The rumor was that there were a few nice rams nearby. Early the following day, we headed up a long winding canyon that everyone else in the area seemed to have overlooked, maybe because they knew it was a long difficult hike in with no guarantee of finding anything to shoot at. Hours later, defeated, tired, and out of time, we found ourselves at the end of the canyon having never sighted a single sheep.
Later in the season, after a few more unsuccessful weekend hunts, I asked my parents to come along. Ever since drawing the tag, that was one thing I knew I wanted-- to get out there, at least for a while, with my family. I really couldn’t wait to get out into the Breaks with them and a tag they’ve been putting in for their whole lives, so we set it up to make the hunt as a family.
Scouting in the summer with my parents had opened their eyes to just how brutal this terrain was. They knew there were limits to how far they would be able to travel, so we made the following plan:
Run the jet boat up the river a few miles and climb a prominent ridge.
We did that. It was a long hike but the view alone was worth it. After spotting for a while, we started finding sheep way off in the distance. But they were too far away and on private land. As the sun started to go down we made our way back down.
Talk to the locals and check the weather.
The local ferry operator told us there had been a few rams spotted a little farther down the river. We made our way downstream as storm clouds rolled in. Soon I spotted three promising rams a long way off. We knew that if it rained very much we would be stuck in place for days, so we checked the satellite phone for weather. The forecast called for a low of 54℉ and 10% chance of rain. We decided to go after the sheep.
We made our way up the winding canyon as the sun came out from behind the clouds. Spotting the sheep in the same place, we moved up the opposite ridge to get a better look at them. Two of the rams were definitely too young, only a couple years old, but we couldn’t see the third one very well. He lingered behind trees, bushes, and other sheep. Finally, he gave us a perfect picture. He was a beautiful ram, my parents were there, and we only had a couple days left to hunt. We decided he was the one we would take.
Five hundred yards from our trophy, we made a plan. My father would stay in position and keep an eye on the sheep as my mother and I dropped back off the high ground and worked our way along the bottom of the ridge out of sight of the sheep. By the time we were right below the rams, however, we discovered that the slope was so steep that we couldn't see them. We retreated and then hiked up an adjacent ridge to a place where we had them in range. The sheep were sitting on a flat spot about the size of a small house with pretty much a straight drop below them. Let me note that in this particular place we could not even see the bottom of that vertical drop. With some difficulty, I set up to shoot from the bottom of one vertical face to the top of the other vertical face 300 yds away. Luckily, in the Missouri River Breaks, there are these random holes on some of the faces, ranging in size from small voids the diameter of a good-sized barbecue grill to craters that could swallow a school bus. We found one of these bus-sized crevasses, and although Mom was not too happy about sitting next to a bottomless hole in the earth, we were able to get a solid rest. The sheep were still bedded down, and the one I was after just so happened to be behind a bush. The waiting game began and after an hour or so of precariously perching above that deep cut, we got our opportunity. Finally the sheep I was after stood up and stepped from behind the bush.
After the successful shot, we all celebrated. I think my parents were more excited than I was. They had watched their son, who had worked so hard for it, achieve a lifetime dream. There we were, tired, sore, bruised, and blistered, but the feelings we shared must be among the most satisfying in the world. I knew then that I wanted someday to experience, as a parent, those same feelings as well.
Every person I met on this adventure was always willing to help out, share tips and ideas, show pictures of the rams they found and even provide the GPS coordinates. My parents and I packed heavy loads through muddy creek bottoms at one o’clock in the morning, our way lighted by the stars, the moon, and the last of the battery charges left on our phone flashlights. We fell down and got back up again and again. We crawled and pushed each other up the last 100 yards of the final ridge, covered head to toe in blood, sweat, and mud. And we took the trophy ram. In the end, this sheep tag was more than just another hunt for me. It was more than just a rare opportunity to take the animal of a lifetime in a rugged, legendary land that hunters dream about. It was for me, at the age of nineteen, an occasion to learn more about myself, my family, my friends and the world than anything else could have taught me. Thank you to my parents for raising me the way you did. Thank you to my Friends, Family, and Followers for making things like this possible.