I don’t expect anyone to believe me.
The butte spilled at a right angle, diving from flatness into finger ridges then flowing into mud that twisted leisurely out to the lake, several miles away. Careful belly crawling that put half my face over the edge told me that the sheep had in fact bedded, and not run off. A further 15 minutes of crawling, wrangling rifle and tripod and binoculars and cactus in my butt, could not give me a shot. The family group was 100 yards down and 40 yards out, bedded steps from the crease where sun-drenched grass and clay turned to rocks and dense evergreens. One of the ewes was stubbornly bedded facing straight uphill, and while I could wiggle both my eyes and my barrel out either the left and right edges of a sprawling cedar shrub, I could not do so without staring straight at the sheep, and the past three years of coming up short had me both hasty and paranoid.
More crawling, this time backwards but still with cactus lobes amongst the weeds and in my knees, let me grab my pack and crabwalk below the imaginary horizon line to the next nub of flatness, which let me crawl forward and then sideways until the ewe I wanted was framed 4 inches between branches. My tripod was deliberately extended and softly clicked into place, a round gingerly chambered, and crosshairs sighted between dark brown shoulder blades. Clickboomthump and the sheep stiffened, paused, and rolled out of sight.
It wasn’t there. The ovals flattened into the grass were there, as were the many tracks leading west down the hill, and the almost impossible brush into which the sheep had visibly rolled, then vanished. No blood, not a drop. Just clods of clay flung everywhere from eight sets of hooves fleeing a foreign noise.
The forecast had forced my hand, which now that I was in the field I was both grateful and sad about. The Missouri River badlands, like many arid places of the American West, have extensive clay soils. They’re not so good for trees, but they don’t have to be, because they rarely get rained on. When they do, the readiness with which the dirt sticks to anything of consequence is justly famous. I won in approaching from the wrong side, driving 90 minutes from the pavement on reliable gravel roads. Biking to the waters edge was mostly a waste of time and effort, after the first mile I was off the edge and into the slime and in another mile dragging an 80 pound bike up the slightest rises, and scraping masses of gloop off to even coast downhill. The derailleur made it 2/3s of the way to the lake before a little too much mud and a little to strong a pedal stroke tore the hanger in half. Which is why aluminum bikes have replaceable hangers, why I always carry an extra, and why I left the bike under a tree and walked the rest of the way.
The lakeshore was slime, hacked by cow hooves for 70 yards from the edge of the grass down to the late summer water. 20 mph winds cut a quartering swell across the one mile crossing, so I tempered the heck out of my little black boat, only to find the temperature of the lake warmer than that of the steady rain. The rain had started at 4 that morning, and continued with only a change in tempo for the next three days. Everything was wet; my camp in a little cove so saturated that it took 2 foot sections of sharpened driftwood, driven to the hilt, to keep things tight against the 30 mph gusts on the second night. I returned to camp that night with my rifle scope fogged, a loose adjustment knob on my binoculars, and no sheep seen. How I could find them, if they were even there at all, was not obvious, especially the next morning when all three of my lens clothes were still damp. The old beds and tracks had been where I’d expected, and the mule deer and elk had been abundant as I bumped them through the gloom, but in hunting nothing ever exists until it’s there in your lenses, no matter how compelling the information had been that pointed me towards this little patch of forest in an ocean of wetness.
On a map the Missouri Breaks don’t look like wilderness. Even the little patch of official Wilderness I had chosen to scour was surrounded by roads, either actual roads, in the form of the dirt fingers which were all but visible in all directions, or the virtual road of the lake. It wasn’t surprising that the rain and slime had shut down all vehicle traffic, as far as I could see, but the boat traffic was all but continuous. Fishing, checking on lakeside cattle, and one assumes hunting were on the menu. It felt odd to be out so far, isolated by weather and an 8 mile multi-modal trek to the car, and seeing so much evidence of people so often.
The critters obviously had no issue with the traffic, or any perceived lack of wilderness character. The first night I cut across a hillside of mid-level gullies in haste to make camp before dark, and kicked up a dozen mule deer in 15 minutes. On day two some deep tracks in a freshly swampy bottom had me following sign for 300 yards to the biggest bull elk I’ve ever seen live, and true to form when late on day three the clouds blew east and sun started sliding in 10 minutes on a glassing knob revealed the distinct profile of sheep. Bodies browner and stouter than deer, white rumps whiter and starker than elk, they were right where they ought to have been the whole time, feeding across some small meadows hanging between mudstone caprock and bottomless gullies. To make the abundance ever more absurd, when I had taken 30 minutes to track down all traces of my disbelief and determined that the shot sheep must have run off with its herd, and I had tracked them half a mile through the muck without a trace of blood, saw them, picked out the dark ewe, and shot it through the lungs, a comically tall 3×3 mule deer ran off up the hill.
All trip I’d been wondering why I was there. Hunting is only sort of fun under the best circumstances, which do not include three days of walking around in the rain with 5 pounds of mud sticking to each shoe. By the second night, when conditions seemed to have sabotaged both my equipment and my patience, I had concluded that after three years of fruitless sheep hunts the desire to be on the other side of having killed a sheep was all I had left. The first year I saw more sheep than I would on the next three hunts combined, but an unlimited hunt was supposed to be hard and mostly fruitless, so I seemed to have come out ahead. The second year was an uphill battle against lots of other hunters, but had I stuck to my glassing knob for another hour I would have most likely seen the group that got shot at before anyone else. Last year I had a tag in dream terrain, but waited just one weekend too long to catch them in summer habitat. This year I didn’t want to come away empty, but I also would have had a lot more fun backpacking through what ended up being the storm which smashed out a hot and horrid summer, and left the mountains coated white as I drove back west the next day.
The monotonous paved hours back home weren’t the worst part, nor were the soft patches on the gravel road, through which I ruthlessly gunned our small hatchback, terrified of loosing momentum. The worst part was the initial packout, the couple miles down the wash and then along the soggy lakeshore back to the tent. Faced with a big climb to take the direct line down the ridge or a couple dozen small climbs to sidehill gullies straight back, I chose to follow the thalweg, which put me knee deep in muck and turtled backwards on a bed of snot every dozen steps. Even the flat dirt beach walk was treacherous, as being 70+ pounds heavier than normal had my feet disappearing at random, and me at constant fear of loosing a shoe. The road walk out the next day was not fully dried, and considerably heavier, especially pushing a bike with an inoperably bent chain, but predictable footing trumped all and the car appeared far faster than anticipated.
Two weeks distant the dust has started to settle, and while I remain less than content with my mentality during the hunt, I’m proud of the plan and how it was executed. The watershed moment was kneeling amongst head high sage, taking the sheep apart while my midlayer steamed in the only direct sun all trip. Backstraps, quarters, and neck meat were all deboned, bagged, and cooling atop bushes, and when I cut the head free with the sighing snap of windpipe and spinal cord the blank blue eyes and newly bloodstained horns spoke back to me: “Not yet Dave, not yet.” So the dark red meat made the 400 mile trip home, to be frozen and eaten and shared, and the head was left atop a granite erratic with a view of the plains marching off to Canada, there for me the next time I go sheep hunting and am better prepared to embrace the uncertainty.
And that first shot? It penciled in just right of the spine and threaded between both lungs without hitting anything significant, leaving a 1 inch exit circle in the chest, with no bleeding and no bone damage. I don’t believe me either.