Archery Hunting North American Wild Sheep
By Rebecca Francis
Sheep hunting is an extremely difficult task under any circumstance due to the rugged terrain they inhabit. However, it is particularly difficult to get with in bow range on a trophy ram. They have incredibly keen eyesight, and maintain a huge advantage by living on mountain peaks to detect any danger approaching them. My first sheep hunt was in pursuit of Dall ram over 15 years ago. I took a beautiful 40 inch Dall with my rifle at just over 500 yards. Sheep hunting fever got in my blood, and has never diminished. I have been on several sheep hunts since then and with each hunt I have encountered new experiences that have taught me more about how to hunt them. I do not claim to be an expert on sheep hunting in any way. However, I want to share the tactics that helped me to harvest both a Pope & Young Rocky Mountain Bighorn ram, as well as a 42 1/2 inch Dall ram that would place number three in Pope & Young.
The North American Wild Sheep include Rocky Mountain Bighorn, Desert Bighorn, Dall Sheep, and Stone Sheep. Sheep are majestic animals and their exceptional beauty draws you in for keeps. They are very tough animals to pursue not only because of their astounding ability to perceive danger, but because they are very social animals that tend to remain in groups throughout most of the year. All bow hunters have experienced the increased difficulty of sneaking up on a group of animals rather than a single animal. With each additional animal, the risk of being winded, seen, or heard increases exponentially. This is particularly true with sheep because they inhabit steep, rugged, and often times very open or inaccessible terrain to protect themselves from predators. With all those eyes, ears, and noses on cue, it makes it nearly impossible to slip into bow range. There are also times that rams will travel on their own, but it makes sense to utilize their highly social natures as an advantage with a new tactic I learned about.
I have spent many hours on my belly attempting to inch closer to a ram. It is reasonable to get within 100 yards of group of rams, but once they detect something is wrong, they don’t wait to find out what it is. They escape without hesitancy, normally fleeing to higher ground to gain a better vantage from their predator. It was after many failed attempts of trying to stalk into bow range, that I decided to try something different. My husband had seen a video of a hunter making his way toward a desert bighorn by mimicking the behavior of a ram. We were sitting at 10,500 feet in the Whiskey Mountains of Wyoming with three bighorn rams staring right at us as we discussed this new tactic. I had already spent two weeks of disappointment trying to get close enough for a shot, and at this point the three rams had busted us right out in an open boulder field. I decided it was worth a try. What did I have to lose? They were watching us closely about 400 yards above us.
The hunter on the video had utilized a white towel to achieve the appearance of the white patch of hair on the hind end prevalent among bighorn sheep. We had been backpacking for two weeks and had not only not thought to bring along a white towel, but didn’t have the precious space available in the backpack needed for it. I had no other choice but to employ my only resource, so I lowered my pants to reveal my white long johns. I re-buttoned my pants around my knees and prayed that it would work. I hunched over and alone, slowly started working my way toward the rams. The wind was good and I spent the next hour or so working closer to the rams, stopping every so often to mimic feeding, changing directions, and acting like nothing was wrong. I was completely shocked when the rams started working their way toward me to keep me in sight. I would move closer, and then they would move closer. I finally made it to 28 yards and took the fatal shot.
At first I thought this was just a stroke of luck, but I applied the same tactic on my record book sized Dall ram. I realize that this is a method that may not work in all situations, as no tactic is fool proof. But I experienced nearly the exact same reaction in the Alaskan Chugach mountain range with my Dall ram. The difference is, a Dall sheep is solid white, so before I left for the hunt, I purchased a $3.00 hooded painters suit to take with me in the hopes that I could once again utilize this approach. The painters suit had a shine to it that I felt would startle the sheep so we rubbed the suit in dirt to dull the shine. As with my bighorn ram, I attempted multiple generic stalks on Dall rams trying to sneak in on them without being noticed. Each attempt ended in failure as the rams would either see, hear, or smell me before I reached bow range. Disappointed I decided to try the technique of mimicking a ram when we came upon a group of six rams feeding on an open grassy hillside about 500 yards away from us. Again, I had nothing to lose because there was absolutely no cover to sneak in on them, and darkness was approaching fast.
I applied the same behavior as before and after making sure the wind was right, I bent over, stepped out in the open, and slowly worked my way closer. Again, I stopped to pretend I was feeding. I would zigzag closer, changing directions every so often so I would not alarm the sheep. Like in Wyoming, they worked their way closer to me, curious as to what I was. As I disappeared behind a rock outcropping the largest ram did not want me out of sight so he ran straight toward me. We met face to face, a mere four feet from each other. He knew something wasn’t right and bolted back to join up with his unspooked group. Still not completely aware of the problem he stopped at 70 yards to look back. Without hesitation and no time to range him, I raised my bow, held my breath, and released the lethal shot.
I am not suggesting in anyway that this is a win all approach, however, I truly believe in the right circumstances that this is a method that can lead to success. I have attempted this tactic on other sheep without a weapon in hand, and each time I was able to successfully reach bow range. I have only tried this with Bighorn and Dall rams, but intend to test it on Stone and Desert if and when I have the opportunity to hunt them.
Some of the circumstances I don’t believe this method would end in success is if it is overused and the sheep have been clued in on it. I know in Alaska, the white suit is not a new idea. It has been tried for years. It worked successfully until the sheep caught on to it and outsmarted the hunter. One reason I feel it worked for me in Alaska is because I was hunting in a remote area that had not been over hunted. It was also evening time and the sheep didn’t seem to be quite as spooky. The same is true in Wyoming. We had hiked into a very remote and rugged area where the sheep had not been hunted hard. On the next mountain over, the sheep were continually hunted because of the ease of approach. They would flee the second they spotted you, no matter how far away you were.
The bottom line, this is a great technique to try, but shouldn’t be a primary method to rely on. I have been very successful with this tactic, and on multiple occasions, I have had the opportunity to join a group of sheep and observe them closely in awe. I have been close enough to see their eyes blink, watch their chest move with each breath, and enjoy their interactions. Bowhunting or not, it is a tactic that I will continue to test.