A Montana Bighorn Ram, Half a Century in the Making

After 50 years of putting in for a bighorn tag, 68-year-old hunter Rick Kinzell finally gets a crack at a ram

montana bighorn ram
It was the spring of 1965. Lyndon Baines Johnson was President, the Vietnam War was escalating, and British rock music was invading America. As a typical 18-year-old Montana high school student, there was a lot going on in my life, with upcoming graduation and finalizing plans to attend college. But the first of many entries on my to-do list was “Mail Permit Application for Bighorn Sheep.” I had been smitten with the bug to hunt sheep by Jack O'Connor, legendary Outdoor Life writer. His articles made me feel like I was his hunting partner on each of his adventures. So vivid were his stories that I would re-read them until the pages became tattered and fell out of the magazine. O’Connor’s tales of sheep hunting got into my bloodstream so deeply that I couldn’t really concentrate on anything else until my very first application was completed and mailed before the deadline. Off it went to Montana Fish and Game, along with a silent prayer for success. Little did I realize I had just begun a yearly ritual of “drawing disappointment” that would repeat itself for the next 49 years.
missouri river breaks
missouri river breaks
Fast forward to the spring of 2015. As a 68-year-old who still loves to hunt, life has been kind to me. I have retired from a good job and have been married 43 years to Sue, my tremendous wife and hunting partner, as well as being blessed with two great sons, Teage and Trent. Retirement is a mixed blessing. I now have time to hunt, but my body can’t handle steep, nasty sheep country like it once might have. So it was with no little trepidation that I submitted my 50th application to hunt bighorn sheep in Montana. Then I forgot all about wild sheep and went about my life until I got a phone call from Trent. All I heard was “Congratulations,” “Ram,” and “Missouri Breaks,” but that was enough to first draw tears of joy, and then for me to draw up a hunting plan.
family
family
I had good company for my hunt. My wife and boys joined me in the Missouri River Breaks a couple days prior to the Sept. 15 opener in order to get to know the area and spot for rams. We covered as much of the rugged hunting district as we could and were impressed by the population of bighorn sheep we saw. As we continued to move and spot, we saw several great mature rams, but nothing with horns that elicited what my sons called the WOW! factor. On September 18, three days into the season, the four of us were on a high plateau, sharing two spotting scopes in order to thoroughly glass a large drainage below us. Things were really quiet until Sue, looking through her binocular, softly said, “WOW, you may want to look at this ram.” Both sons looked and uttered the same _"_WOW!" With my heart pounding I put the spotting scope on the ram and couldn’t believe what I saw. With the sunlight reflecting off his horns, "WOW!" __was putting it mildly. This ram dwarfed the three other very respectable rams he was with. It was only 7:30 in the morning, and after a brief planning session—all of us trembling with excitement—my sons and I embarked on the most arduous stalk of my life. The horizontal distance was probably only two miles of broken terrain, but bisecting that two miles was Dog Creek Canyon, a rugged and steep drainage with 700-foot near-vertical sidewalls. It wasn’t going to be easy for a senior citizen, even if I was pumped up with hunting adrenaline.
close up trophy shot
close up trophy shot
Because of the rugged terrain and my age, the boys kept the pace reasonable. We found sharp crevasses that were created by erosion that allowed us to painstakingly descend the first cliff. We crossed the boot-sucking waters of Dog Creek and used similar crevasses to ascend the cliff on the side where the sheep were. Once on top of the bluff we carefully kept track of the wind direction as we quietly advanced to where we had last seen the rams. We approached a clearing in some trees, and there were the four bighorns. We watched as they climbed a bare, steep pinnacle and bedded down with a ram facing each direction of the compass. All we could see of the largest ram was the very top of his horns. The crest of the pinnacle prevented a clear shot, and it was impossible to get any closer without being seen. We ranged the distance at 257 yards and decided to wait. It was the longest 90 minutes of my life until a sudden a shift in the wind or some noise startled the rams and the four were on their feet instantly. After a few seconds they started to mill around and the largest ram began to move to the edge of the pinnacle. My sons quietly gave me the range and verified that this was the ram we had been watching. I will remember the sight picture through my scope for the rest of my life, as I pulled the trigger on my Kimber .300 Win. Mag. The sound of the 180-grain Barnes Vortex bullet delivering a fatal shot behind the ram’s shoulder and seeing him drop was like a dream come true. The jubilation from the three of us could be heard for a long ways. Fifty years of applying, hoping, and dreaming had just become a reality with my family at my side.
hero shot ram
hero shot
Once we got to the ram we confirmed this one definitely had the WOW! factor. Now the work began for pictures, field dressing, and packing the heavy trophy out on our backs. The pinnacle the ram was on was so extreme that in order to take pictures we had to prop rocks against his body to keep him from rolling down the slope. Because of the steep descent, most of which I slid down on my rear, and with so much weight in our packs, the return trip was very slow. By the time we got back to the shallow water of Dog Creek, the setting sun was casting shadows in the deep canyon. Thoroughly exhausted, I built a small fire on a large flat slab of rock next to the creek. With the air turning cool, it made a warm place to rest. Teage and Trent left to haul the horns and part of the meat up the last 700-foot cliff to where the pickup was parked, and would walk back to get me and the rest of the gear. Upon their return, I got off the rock to gather my rifle and backpack when all of a sudden the top of the slab exploded with a loud report, sending shards of stone in all directions. The rock must have become superheated from the fire. It was its own WOW! factor and a sure sign for us to leave. It had taken us exactly 12 hours from initially spotting the ram to getting the trophy and a tired, happy senior citizen back to the vehicle where Sue was anxiously waiting. What a trek it was.
ram head mount
ram head mount
When the scoring results came back for my Dog Creek ram, it confirmed the WOW!: 192-1/8 inches, a Boone and Crockett head. It is truly a great trophy to sweeten the memory of our team/family stalk. And what a way to conclude a 50-year hunt for my first bighorn.