Montana has a number of unlimited bighorn sheep hunting districts. Located north of Yellowstone, they only require a tag purchased in the spring of that year, unlike every other district in the state, which require entry into a lottery. Sheep hunting being as popular as it is, success in these lotteries usually takes a decade or three of accumulating preference points. Montana’s unlimited districts provide a unique opportunity; AK residents aside, they’re the only places a US citizen can hunt sheep without spending years working the lottery or spending tens of thousands of dollars on a guided hunt. An opportunity I had to take.
After a bit of research I decided on district 300. This felt like a bit of a cop-out, as it’s a much smaller and less wild area than the districts over in the Beartooths, but a perusal of the biological publications available made it plain that I would be much more likely to see sheep there, specifically in the steep hills just north of Yellowstone.
The conventional wisdom concerning the unlimited districts, 300 in particular, is to get out days before the season opens, find a legal ram and follow him religiously, then stalk and shoot at first light on opening morning. Tales of guided scouting for weeks pre-season and tracking sheep with aircraft abound. Statistics speak a plainer story; the quota in 300 has been 2 rams for most of the last decade, and there have been numerous years when no rams have been killed. Theses places are unlimited for a reason.
As the summer schedule developed in became clear that hunting opening weekend would be out of the question. I resigned myself to eating the tag, but poor weather had the quota unfilled by the end of last week. Game was on.
An early afternoon departure and fast drive and hike had me up on a ridge for the last bit of light Friday evening. It was a great spot, nestled between outlandish conglomerate rock pillars, bits of petrified wood everywhere, and great light on a whole mess of terrain. I glassed some cows in the low (7500′) meadows, then some not-cows nearby: elk. Getting the spotting scope on them revealed that one of the five was a nice bull. A good start. Glassing the other direction, I almost let out a yelp. Sheep! Two light dots eventually revealed themselves as a group of five ewes, casually moving around some steep ledges, eating a little grass. As light faded I watched them wander into the trees (center left, above) and vanish.
A legal ram in the unlimited units must be 3/4 curl, defined as having horns long enough that a straight line drawn down from the front of the horn base and through the eye will intersect the horn tip. Thankfully all the above sheep were plainly ewes, sparing me the need to climb closer and find them the next morning to sort out legality. There was no reason to assume that mature rams would be hanging around a band of ewes in late summer, but seeing sheep was encouraging.
With limited water in my pack and none up on the ridge, I dropped down through thick timber in the dark and after much sidehilling on elk trails, made camp on the edge of a meadow, positioned to drop to the creek the next morning.
The Outdoorsmans tripod adaptor for binoculars is a brilliant piece of gear.
Water strategy would end up shaping my tactics for the whole trip. That morning I drank up and brewed coffee by the quick and cold creek, then headed up the ridge with a gallon in my dromedary. I felt the weight of all that water, but the day was hot with amazingly little breeze for 10,000′, and I drink a lot. After hiking and glassing, then more hiking and glassing all morning and most of the afternoon, I needed to reverse back down to a small lake, tank up, then head west to be in position to glass some new basins that evening and the next day. Other than this lake, and the creek down in the valley, there were no known water sources.
That’s when I screwed up. Hefting my full drom by the hose, which you shouldn’t do, the little plastic elbow adaptor snapped. Never mind being unable to use the hose, it’s tough to carry a gallon of water when your bag has a little hole in it.
I cut the elbow down flush with the plug which fits in the small screw cap on the drom, and cut little circular caps to fit inside out of granola bar wrapper. This kept all but a few drops from leaking out of the full bag, and being careful to keep it upright in an outside pocket, I was back in business.
Thus far in my short hunting career, there comes a time when it’s hard to maintain focus, and easy to dwell on the other things on which your time would be better spent. In this case, it was easy to look south, 3 miles and 2000′ lower, and think of the trout and grayling I could be catching in the serpentine meadow creeks. I tried to stay with the task at hand, moving carefully and glassing basins, but it was still hot and having to take my pack off to drink was not efficient.
Soon enough, a clatter in the trees below; hooves on talus. Sheep! The trail I had been hiking was the border between the national forest and Yellowstone, and the sheep were on the park side, but animals are always exciting. To be diplomatic I left my pack and rifle against a tree, and crept back down the trail before slowly edging into the woods where I could eyeball the herd I’d spooked. Over a dozen bighorns, mostly ewes, with a good crop of lambs, and one ram who was miles away from 3/4 curl. This was a relief, as I could just relax and watch the sheep feed away around the ridge. Going back up to trail, I could see by their tracks I’d gotten within 10 feet, just over the ridge, before they saw or heard me.
Camp that night was one for the best-ever list; a patch of tundra right at 10,000′, at the head of the drainage system I’d been hunting, 20 feet from a massive cliff. The NPS boundary is probably 4 feet behind my tent, above, and it was an odd challenge to pick a rock-free patch of grass which wasn’t in the park. One of the weirder things about hunting this area, as the boundary trail up on the ridge is almost unavoidable when moving between basins.
I tried to sell this Solomid last month, and am glad I didn’t as the impressive stability and quietitude in the wind was very handy that night.
Sunrise, and sunset, were both tremendous.
Glassing the next morning, I saw the only other hunters I saw all weekend leave their horses and camp and hike up the ridge ahead of me to glass. I’d watched them do the same thing the day before, plain as day skylined 3 miles off. The trail would take me right by them if I kept on it, and past that back to the car, but working the terrain they’d be in seemed unlikely to be productive.
As I contemplated my strategy, wrapped up against the very cold wind, a mountain goat wandered across the nearby cliff, eventually bedding in the far right patch of vegetation. Right situation, wrong species, as the wind would have been good for stalking him from above. Instead, I decided to hike back past the goat on the ridge, and drop down the slope, contouring down to the valley floor on a path which would take me through as many high alpine tree groves and open patches as possible. The sheep I had seen yesterday had been in the trees, and much of what I had read about these areas emphasized that sheep lived in the forests, so down I went.
Remarkably I saw no bears all weekend, but did find this very large and very fresh griz scat soon after dropping off the ridge. A good reminder that one’s behavior while hunting is exactly what you shouldn’t do in bear country.
The hours-long descending traverse was damn hard work. Steep grass and dirt in open sub-alpine forest gave way to steep technical dirt slopes, a few conglomerate canyons to cross, and eventually thick dark forest. As it had been all weekend, everywhere, the ungulate sign was dense and ubiquitous. Sheep and elk and goats use this country hard, but finding them in the act is still tough work.
I popped out in the bottom meadows tired, covered in pine needles, out of water, and ready to be done. The only thing I could think of doing was to keep doing the same stuff over again. I stopped and glassed plenty on the way out, seeing more goats in the process and shooting one dusky grouse, but mostly I was ready to get a sandwich and be home. Which, late at night, I eventually did.
There are certainly no regrets about buying the tag and getting out there. I’m sure I made plenty of mistakes, but it seems like I did plenty of things right and majorily just did not have luck on my side. Just seeing all the sheep and goats that I did feels quite affirming. I may not come back to this district next fall, but I’m almost certain I’ll buy one of the unlimited tags next year.