Sheep Hunting Tips & Tactics
by Robert Hanneman
We all have an animal that is our favorite to hunt and my preference is the Bighorn sheep. I do not consider myself an expert sheep hunter, but I have been on my fair share of sheep hunts. I have had the opportunity to assist and/or film California, Dall, Desert and Rocky Mountain sheep hunts. Unfortunately, I have never killed a bighorn sheep myself and I dream of the day that I will hold those horns in my hands and know they are mine. At three different times, I have had in my possession a tag for bighorn sheep in Montana, but they have all been in the unlimited area and I never found a ram I wanted to harvest. For the last twenty years I have been applying for sheep tags, and with over 100 sheep points across the West, I know my time is coming soon.
Allow me to share with you some tips and tactics that I think will improve sheep hunting for anyone.
We have all heard mention about being in sheep shape and the truth is that no matter how good of shape you are in, most sheep hunting is going to kick your butt. Being in the best shape you can be in will make the hunt less painful and more enjoyable. At some point on almost every sheep hunt I have been on, while we are packing a ram out of some hell hole, the hunter has said, “Never again will I do this.”; “I can not believe I paid for this.”; “I am getting too old for this.”; and “I cannot believe you talked me into this!”. Then hours later back at camp they cannot wait to do it again.
Anything you can do to train for an upcoming sheep hunt will help you succeed. Here is my workout routine to prepare for a bighorn sheep hunt:
Two times a week I will hike an hour and a half up a mountain with a 50
pound pack. The trick for me is to load my pack with water so I can come
down the mountain with an empty pack. There is no reason to be packing the
weight off the mountain. The chances of twisting a knee or ankle are too
great. Especially with a sheep tag in your pocket.
Three days a week I do a cardio of some kind.
Two day a week I lift weights in the gym.
Now that I've told you about what kind of shape you need to be in, I'm going to follow it up with telling you that you're going to spend a lot of time on your butt glassing. Bighorn sheep live in big country so let your optics do the work for you. Always try to keep the sun at your back while glassing.
Judging a ram-
Bighorn sheep have been extremely well managed and documented. Each state has a pile of information on all herds within its borders and the biologists are always very helpful in regard to sheep hunts.
Many people think sheep are one of the toughest animals to judge. There have been many articles written on judging bighorn sheep and I will share with you my method. On every bighorn sheep hunt I go on, I spend hours going over previous years' harvest reports and horn statistics. Genetics, access to food on the winter range, location and topography all play a role in the horn development. Not every unit has the ability to produce record book rams. Here in Montana 16 inch bases are common in some areas, but you will not find many sheep in Wyoming with 16 inch bases.
Now let's say I draw a tag in Colorado, I am going to get all of the information the State has available on that unit. I will look at harvest reports from all the sheep taken in that unit, and find out if any bighorn sheep have been transplanted into the unit recently. I will then look at the information from the area where the sheep were taken, and make a graph on the rams age, horn length and horn circumference. With this information I will know what the average sheep taken looks like and the measurement of the largest ram harvested.
Remember that if you are off one inch on the ram's base measurement it can swing the ram's score by eight inches either way. For more information on how bighorn sheep are scored check out the Boone and Crockett website.
Using the graph mentioned before, let's say the average ram taken in your unit had 30” horns and 13.5” bases and was 7 years old, and that the largest ram ever taken had 33” horns and 14.5” bases and was 11 years old. This information will help you be able to more accurately judge bighorn sheep in the unit you will be hunting. The biggest downfall to my method of scoring is that if you find a lone ram, you are more likely to misjudge him on the high side. Most of the time in the early season hunts you will find rams running in groups and you can judge them off each other and compare it to your notes. Remember you are not likely to kill a B&C ram in an area that has never produced a ram of that class. This information will be more helpful to you than any bighorn sheep scoring video ever could. It is never very helpful to watch a video of a190” ram killed in Montana and then head to Wyoming after a 160” ram because everything is going to look really small.
Montana is known for its world class Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Here is the rough measurements I use for judging the bighorn sheep in our better areas here in Montana. These numbers are for a ram with normal taper to his horns. A ram that carries his mass better than average will score more and a younger ram with thin horns will score less. This information on Montana rams was giving to me by an old sheep hunter that passed away several years ago.
170 ram 38”X14”
180 ram 40”X15”
190 ram 41”X16”
Do not let the score of the sheep drive your hunt. Most states do not produce high scoring rams. The best advice I have for any bighorn sheep hunter is shoot the ram that you want to look at everyday on your wall. I have seen some of the most beautiful rams that only scored 160 inches. I also have been on a hunt where the tape measure ruined the hunt for the hunter. Be happy with what you kill because the odds of drawing another tag are slim.
Going on Bighorn sheep hunts-
The number one way to get better at hunting bighorn sheep is to tag along on as many sheep hunts as you can. I try to invite myself on between two and five sheep hunts a year. Sometimes I know the people and sometimes I don’t, but it never hurts to just ask if you can join them. Most guys will always take you up on the offer. It never hurts to have an extra pair of eyes for glassing or a strong back for packing.
Stay off of the skyline!
Be in the best shape you can be in.
Do your research and have all your maps.
Know your weapon and be skilled with it. You never know if you will get
Buy the best gear you can afford especially your boots and optics.
Put your binoculars on a tripod for glassing.
Don't try to rush the hunt. Take enough time off work to enjoy the hunt.
Invite only people on your hunt that will be helpful.
Take quality pictures and video of the whole hunt.
Cape the sheep out for a full body mount. You can always change your mind
later and this way you are covered either way.
From the rarity of the tag, the beautiful scenery, the the freedom of solitude, and the deep sense of accomplishment on undertaking such a task, it easy to see how sheep hunting can become an obsession.