DIY Rams

Scoring a bighorn sheep tag is literally winning hunting's biggest lottery. Draw odds hover around half of one percent, and are even stingier in the best trophy units. Unless you squander your kids' college fund and buy an outfitted sheep hunt in Alberta or bid six figures for one of the auction tags around the West, you have to keep playing the odds if you want a shot at a Rocky Mountain bighorn ram. I'm lucky enough to be good friends with a guy who this year drew a ram tag in Montana's Missouri River Breaks, a unit that has produced five of the 10 biggest rams on record. He is Mark Copenhaver of Helena, Montana, and I was flattered that he asked me to come along on his hunt of a lifetime. He was hunting a record-book ram, he said, but more important to him was to have a fair-chase hunt on public land. We'd be hunting in one of America's newest national monuments, the 375,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, a wonderland of rough canyons, timbered ridges and badlands that drop into the remote White Cliffs section of the Missouri River.
We started scouting in July, and met with Montana Game Warden Ryan Linder, who pointed out to Mark favorite sheep areas and spots where he's seen big rams in the past few years. Linder also warned us about the difficult access issues surrounding the public land. While the core of the national monument is BLM land, only a handful of two-track roads provide legal access, and most of those require permission from the landowner before you can cross. Linder, who flies helicopter surveys of the Breaks sheep, said he saw a half-dozen rams this year that would score 190 or above.
The heart of the breaks is rough, steep gumbo canyons and rocky knobs, perfect escape cover for bighorns. In some ways, the Breaks habitat is the missing link between the mountainous terrain of Rocky Mountain bighorns and the high, dry canyonlands of the desert bighorns of the Southwest and Mexico. This shot is looking down Cow Creek, toward the Missouri River.
A couple of days before this month's opener, Mark and I returned to the area with our friend and award-winning taxidermist Dale Manning. Dale runs Custom Birdworks Taxidermy in Missoula, and he's a great judge of bighorns. Last year he tagged a 186-inch ram in Montana's Rock Creek unit. We spend three days behind spotting scopes and binoculars, glassing likely sheep habitat.
In order to access some of the best sheep habitat in the breaks, we have to sign in at a permission box to cross private land.
Sheep camp was this picturesque old homesteader's cabin perched on a timbered knoll deep in the Missouri River Breaks. It was nice to come back to walls and windows--instead of a tent--after long days scouting rams.
We spotted bands of young rams all over the breaks, mostly groups of four or five, but one band numbered over a dozen rambunctious males. They reminded me of 8th graders on a playground, full of fun and misdirected testosterone, head butting and play fighting. In a few years these four rams will be bruisers.
Two days before the season, Mark and I had spotted a tremendous ram, a lone veteran that we estimated would score in the mid 180s or even 190 inches. The ram ran when he spotted us, so we spent the next couple of days looking for better rams elsewhere. But on opening morning of the season, Mark wanted to relocate that solo ram, which we nicknamed "Spook" for his elusive behavior. Mark looks for him in a maze of steep canyons and remote bowls.
Finally, we spy Spook, bedded on the shady side of a juniper about 1,000 yards away. To get to him we'd have to drop down into a canyon, scale a steep canyon wall and hope that he would be in rifle range. If not, Mark was betting that we could at least get a good look at the ram through our optics. After we gather Dale, we start down the first canyon.
Not quite mountain hunting, but the breaks sure aren't like flatland hunting, either. The terrain is so steep and broken, and footing is so treacherous on the broken soil, that it takes us about a half hour to make the first 500 yards. Finally, we ascend the ridge that should put us just above the ram's bed. Will he still be there?
Mark leads the way and prepares to top out on the ridge above the ram. We are all sweating like coulees.
But we're not done hiking yet. The September sun has plenty of heat, and down in the canyon bottoms there is no wind to cool us down.
We top the ridge, but we're still nearly 400 yards from the ram. Mark sees an approach that will take us closer, but we'll have to belly-crawl the final 100 yards. Mark finally tucks in to a spot that's 295 yards from the ram, still in his day bed. We take turns assessing the ram through our optics, and Mark decides to take him. A single shot ends the hunt, and Mark collapses with exhaustion and emotion.
We may be 300 yards from the ram, but he's still a ridge away. That means we have to hike down to the bottom, rock-hop along a scoured waterway, then pick our way up a sheer face. It takes us a half hour to scale up to where the ram lies in his lookout. Mark's first look at the heavy, curled horns make the long stalk seem like an instant.
After years of applying for this sheep tag, and months of preparing for the hunt, Mark is ecstatic with his trophy.
After he tags the carcass, and we take some preliminary photos, Dale brings out the measuring tape. Mark's primary aim was to have a high-quality hunt with his buddies, but he's also curious about a preliminary score. The horns go just shy of 40 inches.
Mark poses with his trophy, the rough gumbo breaks behind him. He has taken a 9-1/2-year old ram on public land. The sheep will make the record book; we green score it at about 186 inches.
The sun is out and there's no time to waste. We cape the ram for a full-body mount and hang the four quarters on the shady side of a tree to cool. It will be a long hike out, and we want to ensure that we don't loose any meat to the heat. Once back at the cabin, we ice down the meat, and prepare the cape to be salted. After a celebratory evening, we take a group photo on the front steps of the cabin. Three buddies, a remarkable ram and a memorable hunt in legendary country. Bighorn country.

Outdoor Life goes bighorn sheep hunting in Montana's Missouri River Breaks.