A Perfect Mix of Backcountry Misadventures and What-Not
I lay on the ground under the heavy weight of a full pack, trying not to pee my pants from the intense pain of just having my shin driven hard into a rock. It was a nice dessert after the full meal of yellowjackets that had just stung me six times only minutes earlier.
For those few minutes, it may have been hard to remember that I was in the middle of perhaps the most fun and memorable hunt I’d ever been on. Soon, however, the pain subsided and my mind returned to the truth of this day; a day with good friends that I’ll never forget.
The Right Mix
After several years of unsuccessful draw results, I had finally hit a streak on trophy species in my home state. I drew mountain goat in 2010, pulled an easy moose tag in 2011, and then, finally, I drew a seemingly mythical sheep tag. I’d put in for nearly every western state for many years, and honestly was long into the “acceptance phase” of knowing that I’d never actually have a sheep tag…yet there it suddenly was, staring me in the face.
I’d joked with my good friend, Will Naillon, about drawing the tag. He said if I drew, he was in, so of course my first call was to him, and he was. I then called Dioni Amuchestegui – a fit young hunter of Basque heritage who I’d become great friends with in recent years due to our mutual love of big mule deer. He couldn’t have jumped in any faster if he tried.
I was committed to keeping our party small and personal. Having a large entourage of scouts has never appealed to me and isn’t my personal style. I simply wanted a friend or two with me – enough to share in a memory, but not so many it tipped the scales. I had strategically picked an old, wise scout and young, fit pack mule, both of which proved to be wise choices. The entertainment value of each participant was also excellent.
An Unexpected Change in Plans
Following plenty of conversations, research, and planning, our goal was to be in a particular drainage the day before the opener. However, as the hunt neared, Idaho’s much-adored former Governor, Cecil Andrus, passed away. Will had family and friendship connections, so he wouldn’t be able to make the opener.
Knowing that Will was just as much a part of this hunt as anyone, Dioni and I had no desire to start the hunt without him. Thus, we half-heartedly went up high in the unit on opening day and glassed, mostly just killing time until Will’s arrival.
Once back in cell service, we learned that Will would be home a day later than expected. So, we spent the second day of the sheep hunt multi-tasking – meeting with some people to photograph big mule deer racks for my nearly completed book, Idaho’s Greatest Mule Deer, 2nd Edition.
Later that evening, we joined Will just in time to catch his son’s high school football game – a picturesque event with some of Idaho’s tallest mountains making for a perfect backdrop. It may seem odd, but even with my first sheep tag in hand, I was perfectly at peace with watching the game and knowing the adventure awaiting us.
Bright and early the next morning, we were off for our backpack sheep hunt. The dirt road miles flew by, overshadowed by anticipation and great conversation.
Finally, we parked the truck, shouldered our packs, and began the hike into rocky, rugged sheep country. Multiple creek crossings in slip-on boots led to some unexpected chafing on my heels – enough to bleed. It wasn’t terrible, but nothing matters on a sheep hunt as much as your feet, so I patched up and hoped it wouldn’t get much worse.
After a few miles, we reached our chosen location and pitched a quick camp. Dioni and I broke out top-notch tents, looking all cool and prepared. Meanwhile, ol’ Will just lay there waiting. “Hey, Will…you gonna set up your tent?”
“What the hell would I need a tent for? I sleep with the animals. Besides, I like to watch bats.” It was at this point we knew we weren’t worthy of the company of such a legend.
That got us into a discussion on gear. We soon found out Will also didn’t use any water filtration. “Why would I pack around such a nuisance?”
Celebrating All Kinds of Things
After camp was set, we hiked up 1500 feet to a vantage point to peer into a large, mostly timbered drainage. Our grizzled scout ate a little bit of crow, acknowledging that those “damn ski poles” we were using on the climb might just have some merit.
We all set up our tripods and broke out quality glass, each of us content at that point with our hunting partners, agreeing that it was a rarity to be on a hunt where everyone had what they needed, and was focused on making the hunt a success.
Glassing soon proved difficult, even with good optics. Our worst fears were becoming realized – late summer wildfires were raging and visibility was highly variable depending on prevailing winds.
A couple hours into our glassing, the smoke cleared enough for us to reach more of the drainage. We soon spotted some sheep…a band of rams! Two were yearlings and another two were in that four to six-year-old range. The final ram was noticeably larger – a full size class above the others.
I said, “Okay, no one say a word. Let’s all size him up on our own, make our own judgments, and then compare notes.”
I don’t remember who spoke first, but to a man, we all felt the same. He was definitely a shooter for this tag. Going into my hunt, 170 was the goal, with tempered expectations easing me into the idea that I’d likely go home with something in the 160s. Big rams just aren’t the norm in this area. It was easy to see, though, this ram was more than I had hoped for – heavy and long.
The rams were only perhaps a mile away, but the extreme elevation loss/gain and rocky terrain made a late-afternoon stalk infeasible. Instead, we were content to watch the rams awhile, take in stunning and intimidating views, and enjoy a full quota of witty and sometimes cocky banter.
That’s about the time I looked over and saw Dioni taking a pull off a bottle of Big Horn Whiskey – something he’d brought in as a surprise to commemorate the hunt. “A might bit early to celebrate, isn’t it?” I smirked.
Dioni, not missing a beat, simply deadpanned, “You can celebrate all kinds of things, Ryan…” It was a perfect response…and he was right. It was a day and a scene worth celebrating.
The hike down the mountain to camp that night was perfect – good friends, lots of quips, the knowledge of having a quality ram to pursue the next day, and no rush. It was exciting, yet relaxing, and words like stress or tension had no place here. We simply ate dinner, made fun of each other, talked of great hunting days, and remarked about how perfect it was. We made our plan for the next day and then turned in for the night. Well, Dioni and I did. Will just rolled over since he was too tough and old to need a tent.
As always, the alarm came early. We did all the normal things – ate, yacked about what we might unfold, prepped our packs, and then we moved out. Will split off to our previous evening’s vantage point to hand signal us if and when necessary. Meanwhile, Dioni and I moved in toward the rams.
It was a tenuous hike in, crossing back and forth across the drainage bottom, trying to find the best way in through fallen timber, nasty brush, and rockslides. We were later getting there than expected, but we were happy to catch the rams a mile away heading for what appeared to be a mid-morning siesta in a large timber patch.
We began the climb, paralleling the rams’ path up to similar elevation, albeit on the opposite side of the draw. Once we were at similar elevation, we took stock of our options. There were several directions the rams could go once they eventually exited the timber patch. Only one of them was immediately favorable. The rest would create situations that would involve much more lengthy stalks and perhaps add additional days.
We settled in for the stakeout, ranging different shot scenarios and discussing possibilities. Without a lot else to do, we decided Dioni would take first watch while I caught a nap and then we’d switch. Each of us did tremendously good work at our current tasks! Dioni was like a hawk, watching as if his life depended on it (verified by Will glassing us from time to time). Meanwhile I slept like a professional. Sleep should be judged on how expertly I performed it that morning.
Some indeterminate time later, I awoke. Dioni was still locked in behind the glass, but it was easy to see he needed a nap, so we switched.
His head had barely hit the rock pillow when we heard rocks rolling in the direction of the rams. I barely overcame my sympathy for Dioni, but somehow I managed to look over and see the band of rams moving at a steady pace that appeared to have purpose. They were likely coming down to water, but no matter their mission, it was the one favorable route they could have taken. This quickly put them directly across from us at the same elevation at 320 yards!
I got into shooting position while Dioni jumped back behind the spotter. There was a brief moment when my mind tried to grasp the fact that I was about to actually shoot a ram, and then a round from my Browning X-Bolt .300 Win.-mag. was on its way. It connected, and a second shot put the ram down. We were both stunned…did that just happen?
We grabbed our gear and scrambled across the draw, stopping to take pics of the other rams, which ended up along our route following the shot. We took our time to approach with caution in case he wasn’t dead. Meanwhile, Will, who had watched it all unfold, was on his way to meet us. We arrived at the same time and found the ram dead in a timber stringer nestled inside a rockslide.
It’s hard to explain, but I didn’t want to be the first to touch the ram. For all the banter, I wanted Dioni and Will to know how much I appreciated what they had done and the commitment they had made. Dioni would be the first to touch the ram. Will was next. I’d be last.
I could never put to words what was experienced on that hillside that day, so I won’t. Three friends, a big ram that exceeded expectations, the view, the rarity of circumstance, the peace before the pack out – it’s something only mountain hunters can understand.
Too Perfect; Someone Must Pay
Once the process of photos, field dressing, caping, biological samples, and getting heavy packs ready was complete, we carefully picked our way down the treacherous rockslides and steep slopes.
I should have known that all had gone too well, and that something had to be sacrificed to please the hunting gods. That sacrifice was about to be me. Dioni, being by far the youngest of our group and thus having the most spring in his step, was first in line. Will took the middle, and I was the caboose.
As we zippity-doo-dah’ed our way down the hillside, we passed a yellowjacket nest. In typical fashion, the first guy (Dioni) woke ‘em up; the second guy (Will) ticked ‘em off; and the third guy who was just minding his own business paid the price. Six stings on both arms later, I realized that Mother Nature had exacted her revenge for my killing her ram.
We continued on down and I was still having a bit of a self-pity party when we encountered some tall grass in the creek bottom. Lucky me, I got a stick caught between my ankles, and the tall grass kept my stride from coming forward. It was a perfect natural hobble, and soon, I came crashing down, driving my shin into that big rock mentioned at the beginning, with the full weight of that heavy pack driving it down just as hard as it was able.
I lay there moaning in agony while Will and Dioni looked back with blank stares as if to say, “What the hell’s wrong with Hatfield?”
After camp was torn down and we had reached the truck, we all had the tired but satisfying feeling of accomplishment that comes with a successful hunt. But something about this hunt was different, and we all knew it.
Seven months later, I’m finally writing this story, and yet our group private message string continues, now nearly as long as the miles we hiked. To a man, we all say that it was one of the best – if not the best – hunts we’ve ever been on. It was a rare combination of fun, success, personality, effort, and fortune that can’t be bought or even worked for. It simply has to be gifted to you once or twice in your lifetime. Yes, I was the shooter, and I got to take the ram home, but the memories and the bond we made are shared equally and permanently.
As I look at this gorgeous ram, now completed on a beautiful pedestal mount with a juniper base, there’s a bottle of Big Horn Whiskey set nearby. Only three people are allowed to drink out of it, any time they stop by to pay homage and relive an exceptional few days in Idaho’s rugged sheep country.