Oregon FNAWS
Hunt Stories - April Cooper
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April's Finest
by April Cooper
Three days after undergoing ACL reconstruction surgery on my right knee, our phone rang. The 09 drawing tag results were in! My husband, Tim, hurriedly gathered my hunting license and read the numbers aloud to his uncle on the end of the line. Tim's license was in his truck, we would check those next. Through the cell phone I could hear what sounded like excitement but I could not make out any words. The next thing I knew Tim looked over at me with a smile that I could tell meant something good. I was expecting to draw an elk tag, but that wouldn't have made him this excited. What could it be? Then he said the words that I can still recall with perfect clarity. "You drew a sheep tag!"
At this point I thought that perhaps my prescription pain killers were making me hallucinate. "What?" I asked. "Are you sure?" I asked not fully ready to believe.
"Yes! Dave says you drew your traditional bow deer tag, your elk tag, and there's a picture of a big'ol ram next to the big horn sheep result!"
That's where things get fuzzy. I remember the feeling of dancing on the ceiling and cart wheeling, but considering I couldn't get off the couch, I know that's impossible. What I do remember for sure is that the news spread like wildfire and all evening as our phone rang off the hook, I sat on the couch, still not quite ready to believe that this was happening to me, but feeling like the luckiest girl in the world, hoping that it might be true. When I finally came out of the prescription drug haze enough to work my phone, I sent a text message to my one girlfriend who would fully understand the magnitude of my news. Minutes after sending the text, she called me. She couldn't believe it any more than I could so we both said the only thing that could be said at a time like that. Holy cow!
The next morning I had Tim load me up into my wheelchair and wheel me into our local Bi-Mart to see if I could buy my tag. Once I had that tag in my hands I could believe that there wasn't some mistake with the online results. Unfortunately, the clerk at the counter said that the tags wouldn't be available until July 1st. That didn't stop me from trying again a week later with no success.
Once the shock of drawing the tag wore off, I began to realize what a challenge I had ahead of me. Hunting sheep is a challenge in itself, but my surgeon told me I would need 4-5 months to heal from the surgery. I had twelve weeks. At my first physical therapy appointment I made sure that my therapist knew what time frame I had to be ready to traverse some steep and rugged terrain. She said that twelve weeks would be the minimum amount of time needed and that was only if I was committed to working really hard everyday at it. She also said that under no circumstances was I to do any packing of it on my back. I said bring on the therapy!
My surgeon was a little more apprehensive about the situation. He was aware that I needed to be ready by elk season but when I told him about my sheep tag he gave me a look that said "you've got to be kidding me"! Once I explained that this was a once in a life time hunt and that I would be going regardless of my condition, he told me that he'd be ordering me an ACL brace that I had to promise to wear. I assured him I would.
As the summer wore on, I spent my free time (what little I had with a three year old and a six month old) doing lots and lots of therapy at home and working on my long range shooting. Tim spent his time contacting previous tag holders, talking to the biologist, and helping me learn everything I could about hunting sheep. Tim, and my brother, Colton, went scouting in July but it was so hot that the rams just weren't coming out of their pockets of shade, and so they came home without finding any rams. I wasn't discouraged though. Tim and I have both hunted deer and elk in the same unit, so we knew the area well and had seen the sheep on several trips in the past. I knew that if anyone could find me a ram in that unit, Tim was the guy.
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It seems like our whole lives had become consumed by the upcoming hunt. Every evening was spent looking at maps and planning the hunt, and every weekend was spent shooting my rifles and more PT. Even our three year old son, Gage, had gotten into it. Every night as we said his prayers, he would add "and please don't let mama's bighorn sheep get eaten by a cougar". His new favorite hunting DVD was, of course, a Big Horn Sheep hunt.
When September finally rolled around, Tim, Colton, Uncle Dave, and our friend Terry, headed out the week before the season started to get camp set up and to scout, scout, scout. My dad, our friend Mike, and I drove over two days before the season to help scout the day before, and Tim's Uncle Steve, my cousin Shane, and our friend Trent all showed up the day before to help with the actual hunt. All in all we had ten people in camp.
The day before the season Mike headed down a ridge Tim had asked him to look at and located two rams during the late morning and watched them bed down in the afternoon. That evening we were able to locate them again but even through the spotting scope they were too far away to see how big they were. At this point they were the only rams seen in the four days of scouting, so they were our best bet for opening morning.
The plan was that Tim and Mike (the camera/video guy) would head down the ridge the rams had been seen on to take a look and see if one of them was a shooter. To save the wear and tear on my knee, I was going to wait at the top of the ridge with my dad until we heard from Tim. The rest of the group was heading out the opposite ridge to watch the action from there.
We headed out at 5:30 from camp that morning, and as I sat there on the ridge top I knew that this was going to be a day I would never forget. I watched a beautiful sunrise with my dad, and silently prayed that I wouldn't screw up a once in a life time hunt with nine witnesses and a camera to catch everything! My knee was feeling great (on Dr.'s orders I was wearing my brace) and I was going to use trekking poles to help take some of the strain off of it. I was hoping that all of my hard work and determination was about to pay off!
Close to an hour later, we heard from Tim on the radio. He had seen the rams at 819 yards and one of them was a shooter! He was sure he could get me closer and told me to start heading down the ridge. At this point the reality of the situation was setting in. I was actually going to hunt one of those magnificent animals! Excitedly we took off down the ridge. It took nearly two hours of working our way down through the rock bluffs and rocky slide outs to get to where Tim was waiting. The rams had bedded down in a steep draw with some burnt timber but they were within 400 yards.
Tim headed back to meet us and said that the rams had spotted him and were starting to get nervous so we slowly crawled our way down to a rock outcropping that provided a blind of sorts to get behind. I took my first peek at the rams through my bino's and knew that this was going to be the ram for me. I could tell he had some mass and some length and he had the look that I had been wanting. I didn't even look at the smaller ram. I was going on complete faith that Tim had taken a good look at both of them and had accurately determined which was the biggest.
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I pulled up my .300 Winchester and put the cross hairs on him. He had moved behind some burnt pine trees and I couldn't shoot without hitting limbs. The rams were really nervous now, and they both started working their way up the draw and away from us. I still didn't have a shot that didn't involve shooting through limbs or trees until he finally made his way up to a bluff 425 yards way. Tim whistled at him which caused him to pause and look back at us. It was now or never. I held the cross hairs right on him and squeezed the trigger.
My first shot hit him and he spun around and headed back down the draw towards us. He had worked his way into a brush patch and I couldn't see him for several seconds. It was close to 30 seconds after the first shot that I was able to shoot again. I shot three more times before he finally went down in another brush patch.
I couldn't believe it - I just took down a ram! After a little celebrating (okay, a lot of celebrating) we started working our way down to him. This was no small feat. He was in such a steep, brushy, and rocky part of the canyon that it took nearly an hour to cross the draw and find him. I still remember Tim saying that he wouldn't even have killed a bull in terrain like this, which is saying a lot coming from Tim.
Because of all the brush where he had laid down I didn't get to see him until I was within feet or so. Walking up on that ram was an amazing experience. He was such a beautiful animal and his horns were bigger than I could have hoped for. Actually getting to climb behind him and put my hands on his massive horns was incredible. I had done it! I knew that I had taken a true trophy! I also knew that the hard part was just about to begin!
After the shooting stopped Dave, Steve, and Shane started working their way down the opposite canyon and climbed their way up to us just as we were getting the last pack board loaded up with meat. We originally thought we could work our way down out of the canyon to an old ranch road and drive the ram out the bottom. Unfortunately, there were too many rock bluffs that would have been too dangerous to take packs down, so back up the draw we headed.
The hike out of that draw and back up the ridge was the longest and hardest hike I have ever done. It was so steep in sections, that I was climbing on my hands and knees up the canyon, grabbing clumps of grass and brush to pull myself up because it was too steep to stand on. We climbed up a rock bluff that I'm sure would have made a mountain goat nervous. To make matters worse, it was over 90 degrees out that day with no breeze to speak of. Six long hours after loading up the pack boards we finally made it back to the truck. Even though I was blistered, bloodied, and more tired than I thought humanly possible, those six hours of shared agony spent with my friends and family are memories I will treasure forever.
The feeling of pride and accomplishment of this hunt is one that I can't describe. Not only was I fortunate enough to draw a once in a life time hunt, but I worked hard all summer to recover from my knee surgery, to hunt on some of the roughest terrain, and took a trophy ram with my friends and family there to share the memories (and the packing!). My ram was unofficially scored at 183 6/8.
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Watch the hunt video on YouTube: Rocky Mtn Big Horn Sheep 2009 - April's Trophy
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