By Kim Woodward
This is the story of my 'once in a lifetime California Big Horn Sheep hunt.'
Written my way.
It all started when I went to the mail box and received notice that I had drawn a
Big Horn Sheep Tag for the East John Day River, 2006. It was quite a surprise
because I didn't even know I put in for it. You see, My husband Clay Woodward is
a hunting guide here in Central Oregon, (Centerfire Outfitter) and every year he
will briefly discuss various hunts with me and send me off to put in for the draw.
I'm usually pretty lucky. He on the other hand has yet to draw a
California Big Horn Tag.
After the word got out in our small town, I received phone calls to congratulate me.
One came from a long time friend and hunting acquaintance of ours Don Smith.
He told me of "how he put in for the very same tag for many years, and to
this day has never drawn this tag." This made me realize just how amazing
this adventure was going to be.
So, we began making contacts, reading maps, and putting various supplies together
because initially we had plans to float the John Day River. However, while I was
gathering information about floating the river, waterproofing everything, food for
a week, and pack out what you pack in (including human waste). I decided to hunt
the gorge from the top down instead of the bottom up. It was just Clay and I.
My husband had told me that I should make the most out of this one time adventure,
double check my supplies, document the hunt, etc. So, I did. But, I refuse to write
a typical hunting story with all the boring technical hunting terms.
So, here it goes.
The first morning I was so excited I woke up raring to go. The sky was clear,
even though it was early you could tell it was going to be a beautiful day.
It wasn't anything I had expected. My life as a hunting guide's wife has been
somewhat a sheltered one until now.
You see, Clay being a guide for most of his life, and me coming from the valley
just a few short years ago is some what comical to our friends and family.
Previously, when I would come home with a trophy animal it was usually because
Clay knows the lay of the land, weather, wind direction, etc. Not because I'm
a great huntress. And that's o.k. with me. But this time I had to hunt. We hiked
straight up and straight down. My legs would shake from strain and at times I
was cold and miserable. Clay would glass and spot sheep with his high powered
spotting scope that were so far away you couldn't see them with the naked eye.
Then he would say "were gonna have to get a better look at them."
And that would mean we had to hike. A lot. The sheep were amazing acrobats.
At times we were so close you could watch there every expression. They were very
inquisitive animals, they would rather get close to you than let you get close
to them. At one point a young ram came so close and was so curious Clay joked
about feeding him out of his hand. We did get a good look at about 30 nice rams
the first day.
The second day, was more exciting than the first. It was a typical November day,
cold and windy. My eyes were watering, and I wanted to huddle under juniper
trees and drop down below giant boulders to protect myself from the weather.
It was all a huge learning experience for me. We saw 3 different colored rams,
salt & pepper, buckskin and chocolate (which happened to be my favorite color.)
We hunted a different drainage than yesterday and saw about the same number of
rams as the first day. We had seen a lot of rams, each one unique in some way.
So, I came up with my own system, I named the biggest one we saw for the day
and had Clay come up with an educated guess on what he thought the ram might score.
Ultimately leaving it up to him to get me back to the same spot where we saw it
last if I decided it was the one I wanted. By the end of the second day, we must
have hiked 20 miles straight up, down, and side hill watching ram after ram go by,
I was beginning to get anxious.
Day three began the same as the first 2 days, except it was raining and we were
fogged in. I'll bet you couldn't see 50 yards in front of you. I began to panic.
If the weather doesn't clear, I won't get my ram. So, Clay said we'll hunt down
below the fog. Which to me meant more hiking! But now I felt more desperate.
A new found energy that only lasted about 6 hours. It was noon straight up,
I was cold, tired and hungry. We stopped for lunch and almost like magic the sun
came out and cleared the fog. Off we went to find my ram. It wasn't too long after
the sun came out, Clay spotted a 'shooter'. It was the first time in 3 days,
almost 40 hours of hunting, that he saw one that I was suppose to get ready
to shoot. Boy was I excited. We hiked side hill, stayed below the sky line,
kept the wind in our favor, but before we got to the big ram Clay looked up and
between us and the 'shooter' was a young ram looking right at us. We sat still
and quiet and so did that young ram. Finally he left and so did my 'shooter'!
I was so discouraged because I thought my moment of opportunity may have gone
down the mountain.
Day four felt like day ten. All the hunting and hiking was getting to me. All the
rams started looking the same. They are very hard to judge, it's difficult to
compare mass and length of horn unless the rams are together. It was the fourth
day and after looking at close to 100 rams I had decided I wanted a dark colored,
(chocolate) heavy horned, broomed ram. But, I was beginning to wonder if we would
ever find him.
While looking at a mature ram across a big canyon, we spotted a group of ewes and
two mature rams about 2 miles down the ridge that we were on. One of these rams
appeared to be worth a closer look. Time was not on our side, we had less than
an hour of daylight and over two miles to cover. We got into a small draw and ran
to the top of the ridge. The sheep were out of sight so we hustled down the ridge
about a mile and a half. We stopped just shy of a small rise, I stayed back while
Clay crawled to the top. Before I had time to catch my breath Clay crawled back
down and said "there's your sheep, but he's out of range, and we'll have
to hurry". We dropped our heavy packs and half crawled half ran down the ridge.
There were a few juniper trees and some tall sagebrush for cover, the wind was
good and the sheep hadn't seen us. We slowed the pace when we felt we were getting
close, but we still couldn't see the sheep. There was a small rise ahead of us,
and as we peaked over there stood four rams, and nine ewes looking right at us.
Clay said "there he is, shoot him"! But I couldn't get a shot without
standing because of the tall grass and sagebrush. I stood up, shouldered my rifle
and just before I pulled the trigger Clay said, "Not the one on the left!
He's on the right" just then the sheep bolted and I couldn't get a shot.
We ran about 100 yards and could see the sheep again at about 175 yards. My ram
went behind a juniper tree and as he came out I was ready. He stopped to look back
and I shot him behind the shoulders. He ran 50 yards and dropped. As we approached
the downed sheep, I was amazed at the massive, beautiful horns. We spent the next
few hours taking pictures, and taking care of the cape and horns. Then the hard
work began packing the meat, cape, and horns out of the canyon. We made it back to
camp around 1:00 o'clock a.m.
I like to compare this hunt to labor & delivery. It feels like hell while your
going through it, but the end result is worth all the pain.