Oregon FNAWS
Hunt Stories - Chris Zurbrugg
Chris Zurbrugg 1
Quest for Rambo
by Chris Zurbrugg
Ever since I can remember I've been obsessed with wildlife and the outdoors. As a kid I never went anywhere without my dog and my gun. I enjoyed fishing, trapping, hunting and nothing else. I really haven't changed much since then. Something my wife wrote in our previous year's Christmas letter sums it up well. She wrote, "No doubt some of you have heard of OCD. Well, I have diagnosed that Chris (that's me) has a variant of this, OCHD: Obsessive Compulsive Hunting Disorder. Like an owl caring for its owlets, the man has an overwhelming compulsion to bring home meat for his family. Elk, deer, bear, duck, pheasant, turkey, javelina, beaver, clam, halibut, salmon, crab, you name it. This is all fine and good, but every once in a while, I wish he'd slay a tree of apples instead."
It was the 18th of June 2009, and I had my wife get online to check if I drew any tags, because I was too impatient to wait three more days for the results to be mailed to me. I had put in for everything imaginable but felt pretty confident that I would draw my elk tag for the Snake River Unit. When the screen popped up, I saw that I was successful for "Snake River" in bold letters and without looking any closer said, "I figured I would draw my elk tag." That's when my wife noticed that the silhouetted animal on the screen wasn't an elk. Without even knowing that I had applied for a bighorn sheep tag, she said, "but that's a picture of a sheep." After staring at the hunt number for a minute in disbelief, I scrambled for the hunting regulations booklet and confirmed that I had drawn a bighorn sheep tag. I can't even put into words how excited I was, so I won't bother trying. Let's just say I'm glad my house is still sitting on its foundation.
Even though the results on the computer screen seemed legit, I still had my doubts. It was just too good to be true for someone who had never won anything from a raffle ticket, a door prize or even a cake walk, never mind winning this kind of lottery! I decided to buy my tag ASAP, before the Fish & Game Department changed their mind or realized their mistake. When I went to buy the tag, I gave the person at the counter my hunting license info. After a couple of minutes I noticed the blank look on his face. He soon told me that the computer didn't show that I could buy the tag. Now I really had my doubts again. He ended up making a phone call and found out that I couldn't buy the tag until July. I gained a few more gray hairs from that experience. When July came I was back to buy the tag. This time I was successful. After the purchase I went straight home and put it in the gun safe like something more precious than a bar of gold.
I didn't waste any time getting on the phone to pester anyone who knew anything about this hunt. The big game regulations had an ad for the bighorn sheep/Rocky Mountain goat workshop and orientation which was to be on July 18th in The Dalles. It also had the phone number for Don South, who I called right away. Don was a great help with my many questions, and he gave me the phone number for Larry Jacobs, who knew the country I was going to hunt like the back of his hand, and like Don, who was heavily involved in FNAWS (Foundation for North American Wild Sheep). Larry invited me over to his house and was a wealth of information. He even printed me maps and pointed out good areas to look over. He gave me names and phone number of landowners in my hunt area to call to get permission to hunt on their land. I think Larry is into hunting and wildlife in general as much as I am, so we really hit if off well. I kept in touch with him and picked his brain often.
I wanted to get a scouting trip in before the orientation, so I contacted the landowners, who got me in touch with other landowners. I have to say that Imnaha must have some of the friendliest people on this Earth. Maybe that is where Larry is from. They all gave me their gate codes to get around their land, offered me places to stay and get water, and even called me back to give me added info they thought I might need. Somehow they must have known how important this was to me. So on July 10th I took a couple of buddies, Shane and Les, to Imnaha for a four day scouting trip, where we glassed until we were bleary-eyed and hiked our hind quarters off. We learned where most of the access roads were and marked many good spots to glass for sheep. We saw many ewes, but the only rams we saw were on the other side of the river in a different unit. We did enjoy seeing some turkey, quail, elk, and deer, and even got the privilege of watching a clumsy bear fall out of a tree while trying to reach for plums. Another highlight of the trip was watching Les back paddle up a steep hill after nearly stepping on a rattlesnake. The bear could have learned something from him about graceful mobility. I never had the time to try fishing the Imnaha River, but it sure looked inviting. Besides a flat tire on the highway, my quad not liking the 90-100 degree weather and seeing no rams in my unit, it was still lots of fun and very educational.
The next weekend I headed over to The Dalles for the sheep orientation put on by FNAWS and the Fish & Game Department. I am both blown away and humbled by the amount of work and time these people put in to help a small group of hunters prepare for the hunt of a lifetime. I had the chance to talk to game biologists, guides, taxidermists, and people involved in medicating, tracking and doing anything else related to bighorn sheep. I stayed there, sucking up all the info I could, until the end of it, and then followed them to a campground a few miles away where they fed me food and more info. They were a great, fun group of people to whom I will be forever grateful to. I hope I can join them next year, if I can be of any help.
In mid-August I headed back to Imnaha for a five day scouting excursion with just Shane since Les couldn't make it. I think Les was still nursing the blisters on his feet from the first scouting trip the month before. We stopped by the ODFW office in Enterprise on the way to get my hunt area boundaries marked on my map. From the secretary to the biologists, everybody there was very helpful in answering any questions we had. We spent an hour or so there and then moved on to Imnaha. As soon as we passed Imnaha, we went down a long gravel road where we had camped before. About half an hour down the road we started seeing good sheep country, meaning steep terrain with lots of rimrocks. We stopped to scan the mountainside with our binoculars. It wasn't too long before I saw a white speck in the shade of the rimrocks. I took out the spotting scope for a closer look. Shane and I spent the next 1 _ hours watching two rams. At first they were bedded down, but soon they got up and made their way down to the river where they went out of sight. It's too bad it wasn't my season yet. We could have easily got close to them. Both animals were three-quarters curl rams, but one of them was really nice. For the next few days we covered every piece of ground we had missed on the first trip, marking out on maps good places to spot and places to cross the creeks where the poison ivy wasn't as thick as usual. I think it would be pretty hard to sheep hunt with your eyes swollen shut due to a reaction to poison ivy. No matter how diligent we were to stay away from that stuff, we still had itchy spots all over us. Despite the poison ivy we had a great time seeing the rugged country and watching all the wildlife. One evening we were driving back to camp on a curvy, winding road carved out of the side of the mountain, when we spooked a couple of coyotes who couldn't see us but heard us coming on the quad. We were rounding a corner, when all of a sudden there was an airborne coyote right in front of us sailing off the bank above the road. The way he belly flopped onto the road with all his legs sprawled out made me think that he was looking back while running forward and didn't see the drop off ahead of him. The only thing hurt was his pride, and he wasn't about to stick around for Shane and I to make fun of him. Besides the bear falling out of the plum tree, that's the only time I've seen a wild animal pull a blunder. The only rams we saw on this trip were the two we spotted on the way in. I began to figure out that this probably wasn't going to be the cakewalk I was led to believe it was going to be. There weren't many rams in my unit, and I just happened to choose the unit with the steepest, most rugged terrain I had ever seen. I wouldn't have changed a thing either. The harder you have to work for something, the more proud you are of your accomplishment in the end. Not only does this apply to hunting but to life in general.
Back home it was crunch time. I had a little over two weeks until I would leave for my hunt. Mentally I was already there. I had my wife find me a good set of binoculars and a rangefinder on eBay. She also helped put together food and camping gear. I kept busy bugging people on the phone, packing hunting supplies, and upgrading my quad by adding storage space and mounting a spare tire on the back of it. There wasn't time for anything else that wasn't related to this hunt once I drew the tag for it. The lawn didn't get mowed. The weeds didn't get pulled. My shop was declared a disaster area. Eventually my wife jokingly threatened to fasten a pair of ram horns to her head so I would pay attention to her. God knew what He was doing when He brought us together, because nobody else would have put up with me being mentally absent for so long. My wife called this condition BOB: Bighorn on Brain. Anyway I recruited another good friend, Steve, to the hunting crew. Shane would show up the first or second day of the season due to his work schedule, and Les apparently was still nursing his blisters, so he couldn't make it. (Actually he had other valid reasons, but I like to rub it in!) Steve and I met at Don's home a couple of days before our departure to receive more insight from the sheep guru. At the end of that evening I felt that I was as ready as I could be.
Steve and I set out early on September 9th for Imnaha. My season started on the 12th, so we had an ample time to scout. We camped as close as we could to where Shane and I had seen the rams on the second scouting trip. We hiked around and glassed that ridge until nightfall on the 11th, seeing only two ewes with two lambs, several elk, and a bear that I let pass by despite having a bear tag. I knew I needed to be focused on sheep hunting and couldn't afford to spend a day tending to a bear I had shot, while I should have been focusing on my ram. It was an easy decision. We would leave camp while it was dark, come back to camp for about an hour or so to fuel up the quad and ourselves, then head back out again until it was too dark to see anything. We would come back to camp, have dinner, watch for a few shooting stars, and head off early to bed. I soon discovered that Steve was as hard core of a hunter as there ever was. It was reassuring to have him on my team.
Opening day arrived and we set out to watch that same ridge. Steve covered the area where we saw the ewes and lambs, and I went where I could see a different part of the ridge as well as the next ridge over. I hadn't been glassing 15 minutes when I spotted a single ram in the rimrocks. I called Steve on the radio and soon he was with me. The ram had good bases, but didn't curl around as far as the record-book ram I wanted. He was extremely dark-colored, and I was awestruck how majestic he looked when he would perch on the edge of the cliff to assess his surroundings. I figured I would get a bigger one but questioned if I would find one more beautiful.
The second day we got up at 4:30 a.m. just as Shane pulled into camp after driving all night long. I had Shane crawl into my preheated sleeping bag to catch a few winks, letting him catch up with us whenever he was rested. Steve and I decided to head to the top of the ridge to see if the rams were held up on top. The 3000 foot climb was quite the workout. It was steep the whole way. A few parts filled me with dread thinking of the trip back down. Once we got to the top, we spent the rest of the day hiking around and glassing down for a change. We didn't see any sheep, but we did get to watch a very respectable four by four mule deer buck and enjoyed our birds-eye view of the country. It looked just like the view out of an airplane. About an hour before dark, I trimmed a couple of my neglected toenails on my sore feet with a pocket knife, and we headed back down toward camp.
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Every day was an adventure. Everything from climbing cliffs to harassing rattlesnakes kept my tail wagging. I even got an hour-long fishing lesson from Steve who had done some guiding on the Deschutes River. One day Steve told us of some kind of drag mark that went across the road not even a mile from camp. We went over there to discover evidence of a struggle on one side of the road followed by a continuous drag mark across the road to the other side. We followed the drag marks into the brush to find a freshly killed deer covered up with grass. There wasn't much doubt in our minds that this was from a cougar. Once we found cougar tracks on the road, we were convinced. It would have been nice to stay there and wait for the feline to return, but the sheep were more important.
Steve needed to return to work on the 15th, so Shane and I were the only ones left to hold down the fort. We started concentrating on ridges further from camp, because we were starting to erode away the one we were camped near. This meant an early morning 30-45 minute quad ride so we could be glassing at first light. We hiked up the benches for better view points and walked into any trail we could find. We did see some ewes and a couple of small rams which was encouraging.
We were careful to avoid all the poison ivy, the rattlesnakes, and the black widow spiders that frequented a local outhouse. The door of the outhouse even had a special sign on it warning visitors of the spiders. The sign was a mere understatement. There must have been a major black widow hatch in the outhouse, because they were everywhere, and I mean everywhere! Not being careful to look over the TP could have resulted in a traumatic experience, but probably even a worse fate for the poor spider.
There was one other sheep tag holder in my unit, and we kept in touch letting each other know if we saw anything. They were having as much trouble finding rams as us. One evening their truck came into our camp a couple hours after dark. The father and son combo looked like a train-wreck, but the smiles on their faces told me that they success in the back of their pickup. They got a good looking three-quarters curl ram. They told me that there was one more ram a tad smaller in the herd, and it also had a locator collar on. The next day we set out to get a peek at him. We took our quads five to six miles up an access road. I stopped to look at a rugged side hill and immediately saw a ram up near the top. I called Shane on the radio and told him I found a huge one. Shane turned around and came back. I think the old bugger had been hunted before, because he took off and ran out of sight before I could get my pack on. Knowing what I know now, I should have kept going until I was out of sight, then come back for the stalk. I am still surprised that he spooked even though we were 1200 yards away. Anyway we spent the next two and a half hours working our way to the top of that ridge to find out that the monster gave us the slip. We did end up seeing the ram with the collar later on, but after seeing the monster ram, I wouldn't settle for less until the last day of the season.
The days went on as before. Early to bed and early to rise, glassing all day until the moon rise. We hunted hard, but every moment was worth it. One day at the end of an all day hike, I mentioned to Shane that I had the Grizzly Adams theme song stuck in my head. This was immediately followed by Shane singing the whole song word for word. He had me laughing so hard, I couldn't have joined him even if I had remembered all the lyrics. Unfortunately my time with Shane was up. He also had to get back to work, so on the morning on the 21st he headed out. I was flying solo now, but I was still determined to make my dream come true. I ran into some elk that morning with a five point bull in the herd. Not long after that I also ran into some bow hunters and pointed them in the right direction. They never caught up to the elk, but they were determined to help me bag my ram. The next day I rode up to the same spot and I spotted the collared ram. Being determined to find the monster ram I had spotted earlier, I moved on. I stopped a little while later to do more glassing. As I was starting to head off again, I heard someone blow an elk bugle. I stopped to see my bow hunting friends up above me pointing up the mountainside at the collared ram. I had got their radio channel from our conversation before, so I tuned in and told them that I had already seen him and was looking for the bigger one I had seen the day before. It was good to know that I wasn't alone, even though my other hunting companions had gone back home.
Even though I'm not much of a cook, my wife had plenty of food packed for me and the abundance of apple trees along the way kept me going. When I felt that my hygiene wasn't up to par, my clothes had enough dirt to start a farm, and I was tired of eating apples, I decided to kill three birds with one stone. I simply waded into the river fully clothed, with my fishing pole to find dinner. By the time I was done, my clothes and I were thoroughly rinsed off, and there was enough fish caught for my meal. Since it was so hot I was dried off before the fish were finished cooking.
My dad showed up on the evening of the 23rd. I don't know if he really wanted to help or just get me back to work, but the company was welcomed. I had the pleasure of taking him up steep rock faces while we handed each other my gun when we needed both hands to climb up. We witnessed some big branch bull elk bugling at the top of their lungs. It was amazing watching the giant creatures scream at each other. We saw a couple of bear and also had the pleasure of harassing another large rattlesnake. After all this I was now certain that Dad was into this hunt as much as I was.
The next evening we drove back to Imnaha to use the phone of a local rancher. I knew my season was coming to an end, so I called up Larry to get some more advice. Larry had volunteered to come up to help me, and he didn't get any argument from me. He ended up coming out to help me for the last two days. Why someone who I had only met twice would drive all the way across the state to help me, I'll never know; Larry truly carries the spirit of FNAWS. He worked as hard or even harder for me than I worked for myself in the preceding 17 days. We scoured the mountainsides from dawn to dusk, and the day before season ended all we had found was a group of sheep including the dark colored ram I had spotted on opening day.
Sunday the 27th came around, the last day of the season. I found the herd that I had watched the day before, and had Dad keep an eye on them while Larry and I went to the top of the ridge to look for something bigger. We saw a massive mule deer buck on the way up, but no more sheep. We crested the ridge and spotted a couple of ewes, but no rams. Larry knew of another place where he had spotted rams before, so we made our way around the rimrocks to different remote points. We went through the most treacherous terrain that I have ever dreamed of. There were places so steep that I was on my belly, hanging on to clumps of grass to keep from sliding off steer rock faces. Meanwhile Larry walked upright, unfazed. That's when I figured out why Larry was so involved with FNAWS. He has to be part sheep himself! I never got a good look at his feet, but I am certain that he has hooves instead. I am still in awe how someone almost 20 years older than me can be so sure footed. Two o'clock came around and all our efforts were exhausted (especially me), so we headed back down to see if we could find the sheep that Dad had been babysitting. Apparently a helicopter had spooked them to the area where we were going down, and Dad had lost sight of them. As we made our way down, I looked over a cliff, and there they were, directly below us 100 yards straight down. I immediately saw the dark colored ram and lowered my gun over the edge of the cliff. After the blast of my gun, he was rolling down the hill until he stopped against a rock.
We worked our way down to the ram, took several pictures and went to work caping and quartering him up. We overstuffed our packs and headed down the mountain. This ended up being no fun at all. By gaining all the extra weight, the ground kept giving away from under me. It seemed that I did more sliding than walking. I knew that if I fell and rolled, it was possible that I wouldn't stop until I hit the base of the ridge 2000 feet below us. Suddenly the black widow spiders in the outhouse didn't seem so bad. Dad was supposed to talk us down since being on the ground he could see the easiest route down. The only problem with this was that he lost his radio on his way up to help us. To make matters worse, the sole of one of my boots tore half off during one of my not-so-controlled sliding excursions.
But on the upside of things, Dad caught up with us about half way down and relieved me of the head and cape. Larry kept going down while Dad and I retied my pack together. Dad told me that he had watched that ram all day long and it reminded him of the sphinx as he proudly laid down and held his head up high. All the time Dad was saying to the ram, "Buddy, you haven't got long!". Everything was going better now until we came to a spot where we had two ways to go down. I told Dad to let me hang onto the head while he peeked around the corner for an easier way down. Instead of giving me the head, he set it on the ground where he was at and conveniently it started rolling down the hill, gaining speed and bouncing higher and higher the further it went down until it bounced out of sight into a brush patch. We decided that we should follow the head down that route. Thankfully, somehow nothing got damaged. We made it the rest of the way down without incident, loaded Rambo on the quad and made our way to camp. Larry had to be at work early the next morning, so he immediately packed up his things and set out to drive all night to make it to work on time. In the 40 years that I've been on this earth, no one, who barely knew me, has even come close to doing anything so nice for me as Larry did. Also my dad, Shane, and Steve all went way beyond the call of duty, and I will feel that I will always owe them. I'm also grateful for the ranchers who let me hunt on their property and use their telephones, for the people who told me where the rams were, and for the people who told me where they weren't, and for my friends and family who helped me scout and let me borrow everything from generators and freezers to quads and trailers.
The 20 day hunt will always be a treasured memory of mine. Along with those who helped me, I gave it my all. I passed up several bear I could have shot, only went on four short fishing excursions, wore out three pairs of socks and a pair of good boots, conquered the peaks of the four ridges I was hunting and lost 13 pounds while doing so. Even after a week at my return home I would still dream most of the night of climbing up the ridges glassing for sheep. I have never been more focused on anything in my life. I may not have gotten the Boone & Crockett ram that I had dreamed of, but in my book he's one of the most beautiful and majestic creatures that God put on this earth and will always be one of my most prized possessions.
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