Hunters are fond of saying that success correlates with time in the field, that it only takes one (more). Numerically this is true, but not all hours afield count the same. Animals use the landscape deliberately, and substituting brute math for knowledge uses cliche as fiction; that even given time and attention native logic is beyond us.
My chief hope for this fall is to hunt deliberately, getting into the essential facts of each place as my quarry sees it, resigning as needed based on my own shortcomings plainly seen, rather than perseverating in the name of blind hope.
First up, unlimited sheep, district 300, to be specific. I did this hunt 5 years ago, and have long intended to return. The area is sublime, and the 10 day season fits nicely into the autumn, provided one is content giving away the first weekend of archery deer and elk. The operant cliche here is that it is a game of coincidence, that some years no legal rams are to be found outside Yellowstone. Indeed, in both years I’ve hunted, no sheep were shot. But if a ram were to be found, where would it be?
In every outdoor activity I’ve pursued with any seriousness there has been a tipping point, where learning has flattened and often, where interest wanes. First, it was 18 years ago on a 22 foot plywood wall, and a series of opposing, textureless pinches and the smallest left foot chip we had, a stab up out and left to a sloper at the lip of the four foot roof, and when after six weeks my foot stuck, and inverted heel hook rockover to full extension slap to the top. Well into 5.13, I later realized, and likely the most difficult thing I’ll ever climb.
Another instance may well have been the bison last fall, a trip whose innocuous profundity looms ever larger with each passing month. Competence and preparation dulled epicness out of existence until well after we were back on pavement. My hope for sheep this fall was a day or two of the same, playing a clean glassing game after a big hike in, leaving the most probable collection of ridges and swells with the greatest available certainty I had seen what was there.
Skills were tested straight away, as after an 8 mile hike I arrived high to rolling fog, which for hours only opened beyond 50 yards for irregular seconds. First I saw the family of goats feeding along 70 yards below, and with nothing else to do besides make coffee again, I glassed their feeding and urination habits intently. Then I saw a dozen cow elk, a few miles away, pushed from the timber across a bald ridge. They stared back intently for minutes, each clarion pullback from the fog revealing little alteration in their position or mood.
And finally I saw some sheep. Three white rumps, stoutly obdurate in a way only sheep butts are, a mile away on the other mountain, for four seconds only. The fog didn’t truly clear for another half an hour, though it gave enough glimpses 8 times over of the intermediate ridge, such I could plan and replan my approach, and well consider the virtues of charging on over before discarding that in favor of patience. And at last patience was rewarded, early afternoon winds cleared fog for good, and I saw one sheep after another after another.
I did not shoot anything that day. I pounded water and had dinner for lunch, but fatigue spread out from behind my eyes as the evening flowed into the valleys and I ended up cliffed out atop a conglomerate pillar, which sat off the far end of the mountain like Klimt redrawing the Argonath. The sheep and goat shit which had, hours and miles earlier, reassured my judgement now just annoyed me, mostly at their substandard trail building. Traversing along to the real trail, barnacled to the cliff, my feet popped shards of rock from the dirt, and one hasty handhold parted itself out, a melon of history absent in my hand.
I saw over 40 sheep in one day. None of them were mature rams. In the last five years since I decided to actively learn about bighorns I’ve seen them across the state, and seeing more in one day was only a secondary benediction; the first invocation of hunting competence was finding them exactly where I had assumed. Sheep favor a defined edge, the littoral where abundant feed snaps into steepness, or escape terrain. Reading a paper five years go that detailed the significant majority of Montana bighorns observed within 500 meters of escape terrain is one thing. Knowing what that looks like first hand is another. And for this year, that is enough.