Lessons Learned from My First 100 Rams
Bring extra ammo, run like hell, and never trust a mule. Plus other wisdom I’ve accrued as a sheep guide
I am 29 years old and have built my life around hunting bighorn sheep. This journey started when I was 17. I had gone to a wilderness guide school in Montana and decided it was far too cold there. So I returned to Southern California and called someone I thought was the only outfitter in this part of the state. That person was Terry Anderson, a legendary sheep guide. I worked under him for seven years before striking out on my own.
This year marked my 100th successful bighorn hunt. Here’s some of what I’ve experienced and learned along the way.
No. 100: The Hunt That Almost Killed Me
This was it, my 100th ram. It was the night before the opener and, with expectations of triumph and glory, I felt confident. I had two hunters in camp at 13,000 feet in the White Mountains of California. Our pre-hunt preparations had gone exceptionally well, and we had spotted two fantastic desert bighorn rams. Now it was just a waiting game.
That night, I was tending the stock and went to gather Warren, a big dun mule that was feeding contentedly in a small, secluded alpine meadow. My plan was to picket him for the night to keep him from wandering off, but when I got close to him, he fired out with both back legs, connecting viciously to the center of my chest. I felt bones crack, and all the air left my lungs in an instant.
My first reaction was fear. I thought my time had come. Flashes of my daughter, Lucille, crossed my mind as I fell to the ground, helpless and unable to breathe.
Chris, a close friend and guide who was in camp, ran to my side and stayed with me until I regained my breath. I knew I was hurt, but due to the remoteness and elevation of our camp, rescue wasn’t an immediate option.
I monitored myself through the night. The next morning, before riding the stock off the mountain to get to the hospital, we did a slow and painful (at least for me) hike over to the rams and shot the two impressive giants.
The celebration I had always imagined for reaching this milestone didn’t happen. Instead, I ended up in a hospital getting treated for internal bleeding from my lacerated liver.
No. 1: Total Shit Show
Wet behind the ears and eager for knowledge, I set out with a crew to learn all about sheep hunting. The hunter was a retired Forest Service firefighter, and it was his first sheep hunt too.
Early that morning, we were on a great wide-flaring ram. As we set up for the shot, I saw clear signs that a major case of buck fever was setting in. The hunter was shaking and sweating, and soon the silent desert morning was interrupted with one gunshot after another while the other guides and I attempted to call the misses and give corrections. The rams ran away, but we cut them off for a second attempt. More misses.
The hunter then turned to us and said he was down to the ninth and final round he’d brought on the hunt. Instead of shooting one last time, we called it a day and spent the next day retrieving more ammo. After several more days of hunting, we found a nice ram in a good spot—and this time sneaked in so close, we could smell the bighorn before making it happen.
No. 17: Making the Shot
I wasn’t sure if the powder got wet or there was some other malfunction, but when the ram turned broadside and the shot was squeezed off, the primer popped. Then I heard a sizzle, followed by the thundering report. It was about a 1.5-second delay from the trigger pull to the bullet sailing through the air. The ram dropped, and I still don’t know how the muzzleloader hunter managed to hold steady through it all.
No. 85: An Amazing Recovery
My best friend and hunting companion, Geoff Rowley, had started a new knife company called Civilware. He produced these awesome little handmade knives, and I was ecstatic when he gave me one. My brother and I were in a remote area at 12,000 feet scouting for rams. After cutting some salami, I set the knife Geoff had given me on a rock and left it there. It wasn’t until a day later, driving in my truck, that I realized I had lost it, I assumed forever. I was embarrassed, so I kept my misfortune to myself.
Three years later, while stalking a ram in those same mountains, I sent Geoff up to a glassing perch about a quarter-mile from where I had lost the knife. After crawling up to the point, he spotted the knife in its weathered sheath on some rocks. I came clean, and we laughed about the misplaced knife that a marmot must have carried to that rock pile. As a bonus, our hunter killed a nice ram that day.
No. 38: Learning to Improvise
We wanted to enjoy the tenderloins after a successful sheep hunt. Since it was a backpack hunt, we had no pan, so we searched for a thin, flat rock. I put the rock on top of my MSR Pocket Rocket and melted sheep fat on it to keep the meat from sticking. The tenderloins were amazing—and this has become a tradition on our high-elevation hunts ever since.
No. 92: Sliding Into a Grizzly
It was one of the worst September storms I’d seen in the mountains of Alberta. We had about 3 ½ feet of fresh snow, and I had to hike up to a peak thousands of feet above me to see if there were ram tracks on the back side. I didn’t see any sign, and my legs were weak and shaky from a gigantic day. As I descended back to the snowmobile, I found I could slide downhill quickly if I kept to the spruces, where the grass was deep and the snow shallower.
Suddenly, the snow turned to blood, and I was on top of a fresh grizzly kill. Not a second after I realized this, I heard jaws popping and a deafening huffing from right over my shoulder. My only thought was to get away from its meal, so I jumped up and did what everyone says not to do: I ran from the grizzly. That turned out to be a life-saving decision. It didn’t chase me.
No. 87: Going Down
Goose down and mountain hunting don’t always mix, as I found out after taking a healthy tumble. When I stopped rolling, I was surrounded by a cloud of feathers. I was relieved to find myself uninjured, but that feeling was short-lived as my warmth blew away in the wind.
No. 51: The Toughest Hunter
Jim Craig, 75 years old, is the toughest man I’ve ever met. While hunting sheep, he’s been ripped apart by a grizzly and had a horse flip over on him. On his way to hunt desert sheep with me one time, he even got sideswiped by a semi. He was in the hospital for a couple of days before they released him; when he showed up in camp, he was black and blue from head to toe.
But that didn’t stop him from following an ambitious 24-year-old sheep guide on a difficult stalk up a steep mountain for his ram.
Crawling the last 20 yards, Jim whispered to me, “Do you have a pad I could kneel on? My bolts are popping through my knees.” The bolts were from old injuries, and he was bleeding through his pants. But I got him a pad, and got to watch a true sheep hunter do what he does best and shoot a great desert sheep.
No. 6: Discovering My Calling
I was 18, and it was my first time guiding a client on my own. It was a backpack hunt, and our bags were loaded down with everything we would need for 10 days in the mountains. I forgot sunscreen, and the sun was so intense, I ended up cutting parts of my socks off and tying them over my nose and ears. We shot a ram that turned out to be much bigger than I had initially thought, and I realized then that I could hunt these animals for the rest of my life.
No. 22: A Wrong Turn
My hunter said the 450-yard shot on the ram was no problem. His rifle was dialed in, and he knew his stuff. The first shot sailed 3 feet over the sheep’s back. The second shot did the same. On a hunch, I spun the turret on his scope back one full revolution—and his third shot found its mark, and the celebration of an incredible ram began.
No. 88: The World Record
Jason Hairston’s ram, Goliath, changed my life. He was a ram I’d been chasing for years. I saw many stages of my life come and go in the pursuit of that amazing animal. His size set him apart from any other sheep, and his odd behavior made him the most challenging ram I’d ever hunted.
To have finally killed him with one of the most prominent men in the outdoor space, Jason, the founder of Kuiu, couldn’t have been more fitting. Tragically, Jason later passed away, and that hunt was the pinnacle of our time afield together, and I’m thankful I got to share it with my friend. Goliath is still the largest Nelson bighorn on record and the California state-record desert sheep. Jason and Goliath are both legends that I will remember for the rest of my days.
No. 75: A Lucky Miss
It’s too common for hunters to arrive in camp with a rifle caliber bigger than necessary. I prefer smaller, flatter-shooting cartridges for sheep. Something like a .270 WSM or 6.5 Creedmoor is about perfect. I have seen, however, one unlikely exception. At 300 yards, I watched a bullet hit below the ram. I had just gotten the hunter lined up for a second shot when the ram tipped over and rolled down the hill, stone dead. When we got to it, I saw that indeed my hunter had missed—but fragments of rock from the bullet strike penetrated the animal in several spots. So, if you’re going to shoot under a ram, I recommend a .300 Remington Ultra Mag.
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No. 20: A Shocking Confession
My hunter and I were stalking a heavy-horned ram. As we got within rifle range of the ram, I laid my pack on the ground in preparation for a 275-yard shot, angling slightly uphill. The hunter looked at me like I was crazy and explained that he had never shot prone—he just shoots standing. Yes, standing. Obviously, I was stunned to hear this. Shooting prone and getting quickly into position, whether off a pack, a rock pile, or a log, is by far the best shooting technique to master for sheep hunting.
We got a little closer, and I had him sit behind a boulder for the shot. It was a clean miss; the ram went over the hill.
We went back to camp, and the hunter went home for a few days. When he came back, he said he’d practiced shooting prone, and a couple days after that, that’s how he got his long- and golden-horned ram of a lifetime.
No. 5: The Dream Hunt
Cody was a young man who worked in a mine in Nevada. He wasn’t a rich executive or business owner, but he did manage to draw a coveted tag for a California desert sheep. He depleted his savings and hired us to guide him. After getting his ram, a beautiful 174 B&C, he sent me a handwritten letter telling me what the hunt meant to him. That note sits above my desk and is one of my most prized possessions.
No. 0: My Ram
I’m fortunate that I get to pursue wild sheep and hunt them in the prettiest places in the world year-round. I often get the question, “How many sheep have you personally killed?” To this day, I have never tagged a sheep of my own. I often wonder what would be going through my head if I was to shoot my own ram: Would it be different from the many I have helped others get? Some day I hope to answer that question. But for now, guiding others on these unique hunts and giving them memories of a lifetime is enough.