After 15 years of applying for a Wyoming bighorn sheep permit, OL Editor Andrew McKean finally drew this year. Come with him to the high country east of Yellowstone National Park for this once-in-a-lifetime hunt.
I’ve been applying for rams in the Cowboy State longer than I’ve been a father. And I’ve become accustomed to getting my refund in the mail every spring. But this year, the envelope from Cheyenne was fatter than usual. Inside was a backcountry hunter’s version of a Lotto jackpot.
I drew in Unit 2, located between Yellowstone Park and Cody. Because it’s predominantly a wilderness unit, nonresidents are required to hire an outfitter. I settled on Lee Livingston (livingston-hunts.com), on the strength of recommendations but also his reputation as a no-nonsense backcountry horseman.
I struggled with my choice of rifle, and prior to that, about whether to hunt with my bow. But I settled on what I expect to become a classic mountain rifle. It’s a new model from a new company, Forbes Rifle, LLC (forbesriflellc.com). Longtime mountain gun enthusiasts are familiar with West Virginia gun maker Melvin Forbes and his New Ultra Light Arms. The new Forbes Rifle is a semi-production cousin of the NULA. I chose a left-handed model in .30/06. The rifle weighs just under 5.5 pounds and fits me like a custom gun. I topped the rifle with a Leupold 4.5-14 VX-III scope. You’ll see on this photo from the field that I taped a bullet-drop table to the stock to remind me of holdover at various yardages.
We trailed in to Wyoming’s backcountry a couple days before the Sept. 1 opener. The crew included Lee Livingston; his 18-year-old son Wesley, who wrangled for sheep camp; my buddy Mark Copenhaver from Helena, Mont.; and myself.
Base camp was a clearing along the North Fork Shoshone River. It’s a historic place. It’s the site of Buffalo Bill Cody’s last hunting camp, exactly 100 years ago. Buffalo Bill, along with several other dignitaries, brought Prince Albert of Monaco here to hunt bear and elk. They had a big time, and blazed a giant spruce tree with the name “Camp Monaco,” the date, and a grizzly bear print. That tree stood here until the fires of 1988 killed it.
Later, the section of trunk containing the historic blaze was cut out and flown to Cody. It currently sits in the Buffalo Bill Historical Museum, and anchors a remarkable exhibit of Buffalo Bill’s life and times. Hunting out of Camp Monaco a century after Buffalo Bill stalked this same country gave me a sense of context. When he was here, this was a verdant forest. A quarter century after the apocalyptic fires of 1988, this is now a burned-over landscape of charred spars and deadfall.
Still, there’s a lot of wildlife back here. Elk, mountain goats, moose, mule deer, and sheep all find places to make a living in the wilderness.
Grizzlies, too. This area has the highest concentration of grizzly bears anywhere in the Lower 48. I carried bear spray. Lee carried something with a little more bark, a .45.
It takes a lot of looking to find animals in the huge country. Every day started the same way, well before light. We’d cook breakfast, saddle horses, and ride to high ridges where we could glass rock faces, avalanche chutes, and alpine meadows for sheep. We’d glass all morning, take a break in the middle of the day, and then glass west-facing ridges all afternoon and evening. I had two main spotting scopes. My main spotter is an 80mm Zeiss Victory DiaScope with a 20-75-power eyepiece. This world-class optic was actually a gift for winning Zeiss’s Outdoor Writer Award in 2012, and it’s a hunting tool I cherish. My other scope was Meopta’s new MeoStar S2 82mm spotter. The Cabela’s branded version of this scope won Outdoor Life’s Great Buy award this year. Both acquitted themselves marvelously in sheep country.
For hours every day, I was glued to my glass. The scanning paid off, though. We spotted a couple dozen ewes and lambs on one long ridge system, and three rams on another. None of the rams was the thumper I was waiting for, but we resolved to climb to them by the end of the week if we didn’t see anything better. Finally, midweek, Lee played a hunch. He had heard about a lone ram in a high basin. The rumor didn’t square with his expectation of September rams, which he says are almost always associated with timber. They gravitate to stringers of high-country timber for cover and shade. But the hunch was worth checking out. So while Mark and Wesley went one way to glass a different ridge, Lee and I saddled and rode miles up the drainage.
We glassed the basin for what seemed like an hour, and just as we were about to get back on the horses and trail back down to camp, I scanned the very highest meadows, far above timberline. Almost like it was scripted, my binocular settled on a bedded sheep. It had horns. One look through my spotter confirmed it was a good ram. We saddled up and rode to 10,000 feet, then got off and hiked to the top of the basin.
When we finally peered into the basin, the ram was gone, but I soon found him, picking his way among cliffs at the bottom of the bowl. I made a heart-pounding stalk, and finally had him in my scope at 304 yards.
It took two shots, but he was down. Unfortunately, he wasn’t down for good. He cartwheeled on the pitched slope, finally self-arresting in the talus by one horn. It took me a half hour to climb down to him.
And it took Lee another hour to lead the saddle horses and pack mule down to the ram. I argued for packing the sheep up to the basin, but if Lee can’t use horseflesh for work, he’s simply not happy.
Finally, I had my ram, after 15 years and untold amounts of work. You can see in this shot how steep the country is. I still argued against taking horses down this, but Lee asked if I could ski. “Good. Then you’ll do fine.” And that’s all he said about it.
But Olive the mule had plenty to say, and she expressed herself with great reluctance. All three steeds were wild-eyed and nostril-flaring. Every step they took knocked 20-pound rocks to the valley below. It was a long, spooky descent, really more of a controlled fall than a hike, with Lee leading Olive and me leading our saddle horses.
But finally we made it. The horses’ hocks were bleeding. My knee was ripped and my boots shredded. But we retied the load at the bottom of the mountain and started our long, heroic pack back to Camp Monaco.
Back at camp, I kicked off my Lowa boots, retrieved a little flask that I was saving to celebrate, and relayed our adventure to Mark and Wesley.
That evening, I hung quarters and helped cape out the remarkable head. I found this bullet in a rear quarter, a perfectly expanded slug from the 180-grain Federal Trophy Copper load I shot.
I haven’t stopped smiling yet. He’s a grand old ram, 9-1/2 years old, who lived and died in the world’s most gorgeous country. I’m counting the days until my next sheep hunt, but I don’t expect it to be in Wyoming. I can’t imagine how I’d top this animal or this experience. It’s time to let another hunter have the opportunity.
it took editor Andrew McKean 15 years to finally get his Wyoming bighorn tag. Here is a play-by-play of his once-in-a-lifetime hunt.