Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A horse named Ovis: a sheep story

Ovis (C. Craig)
Well his name isn't really Ovis, it’s actually Taco, but for the six days he carried my butt up and down steep rocky trails we didn’t know that – he was borrowed from someone else you see. ‘New Horse’ was his more used alias but ‘Ovis’ seemed fitting for a horse that carried me on my first attempt at hunting Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis).

My interest in pursuing these icons of mountain game has remained on simmer for the last few years and I should admit this with some self-criticism. This is because the constraints on sheep hunting in Alberta are essentially self-created. Barring a few areas with licences on a draw-only basis, most sheep can be pursued by residents of the province with an over-the-counter tag. That’s right, you buy a tag, lace up your boots and pursue Big Horn rams! Of course these licenses are for ‘Trophy Rams’ only, limiting the hunter to rams with a very strictly controlled minimum horn length (tips must pass an imaginary line that extends from the front of the horn base past the front of the eye). Legal rams are therefore not exactly a Sunday morning doddle to bag but hey, only ones ambition, skills and physical condition separate you from pursuing one of the apogees of the hunters’ realm. Why didn’t I try this earlier?

High country above camp. The ewe came from up there.
(J. Pattison)
In addition to these tags one may also apply for a ‘Non-Trophy’ license which entitles you take any age Big Horn ewe, or ram under one year old, in a specific area. The ‘Non-Trophy’ approach was planted in my mind by an acquaintance with some mountain mileage on his boots.  He advised me to apply for one of these licenses and then still carry a trophy ram tag. This way one can get out and learn to hunt sheep - and that learning curve is as long and steep as a scree slope my friends- while still having the option to bring home a ewe. Finding a ewe has a probability far higher than for that curl-horned laird of the alpine meadows that keeps sheep hunters barely on the right side of sanity.  I also read some experienced sheep hunters espouse the virtues of ewes as first class table fair, which I have learned is quite true. I luckily managed to get my dirty mitts on just such a tag…

Riding the sheep home
The idea to hunt sheep this fall was hatched with friend John during a Black Bear hunt this spring. John is not only a keen and experienced hunter but also the breeder of no-nonsense quarter horses and the possessor of expert equine skills (you can peruse his fine steeds here). With the mention of a horse trip around the campfire our sanguine plan for a first sheep hunt in the Willmore Wilderness was born.

And so it was with great ebullience that John, Christine and I set off riding into Big Horn glory on a clear September morning.  And ride we did. In order to get into the area where the non-trophy and trophy tags would both be valid we had committed to a ride that proved to be a little longer and lot more technical than we had thought. That in many ways was a blessing in disguise as the riding itself, far from being just a mode of transport in this wonderful motor-free wilderness, was a fantastic experience. I can tell you nothing about horses or riding but from the little riding that I have done in my life, John’s horses are by far the most disciplined, level-headed, agreeable and reliable equines I have had the pleasure of being around!

Our first night found us well short of our intended destination and with a long ridge climb ahead. We opted to bivvy in what we termed ‘Moose Marsh’. In the wee hours of the morning we were awoken by a rutting bull Moose, grunting and raking his way closer to our camp. The second afternoon found us decide on an absolutely idyllic camp site, still short of our mark, but with a good looking wade across the Sulphur River and access into sheep meadows up either a creek bed or a ridge line.

We opted to access the high country the next morning on the ridge that I thought, with some temerity, ‘looked like a nice hike’. Later we looked back on the scree slope we shuffled up are decided it looked like a decidedly stupid place to ascend! Anyway, it got us into sheep-meadows that had sheep trails, tracks and droppings.

Ascending (J. Pattison)
After the first round of glassing (and depleting our water) we split up – Christine and I were to meet John a couple of hours later on a not-too-distant ridge. It was while glassing on this final ridge (OK, more resting) that a band of ewes walked past us at about 60m. I had my opportunity, the .308 spoke and I secured a ewe that was for me a realistic and tenable goal for a first ever sheep hunt.

To cut a long story short the recovery was arduous (It seems that they are never easy with sheep). We opted to carry the ewe down a rather dense creek bed come avalanche chute that led to the riverside camp far below. I have a great debt of gratitude to John who had the ability to move faster than me down the creek, with a sheep on his back, and was instrumental in the recovery. Next time we pursue sheep, he is up first for a ram. Christine dutifully toted rifles, took photos and ever the nurse, noted that our butts, bloodied from wet gutted sheep, made us look like patients suffering from a gastro-intestinal bleed... She also laid down the sensible law that saw us leave the sheep up a tree a mile from camp, instead of risking a serious injury as darkness fell on our recovery efforts. The following morning saw us take the horses as far we could to help us with the recovery on the last stretch. Many thanks to Scout the wonder-horse who could probably pack a bundle of angry Rattlesnakes through an inner city riot without looking at all concerned. 

A small part of a successful trip. The ewe was destined
for that spot of river in valley below. (C. Craig)
Overall a truly incredible wilderness trip that provided a wealth of insights on hunting, conservation, the value of wilderness and time spent with great people. I learned a lot about the area we hunted (which is vast, so ‘a lot’ is relative) and about sheep hunting. This trip was certainly a catalyst in my avidity to hunt sheep in the future. The goal now is to add these insights to my sheep homework list and get out there again. Perhaps I should also do more balance training with weight on my back!

PS – I just learned that Ovis / New Horse (Taco) placed second at a recent mountain horse trial competition. That’s my boy! ;-)

I’ll let some photos do the talking:
Scout the wonder horse (C. Craig)
Paleo diet, anyone? (J. Pattison)
What's for breakfast? (C. Craig)
Glassing, snoozing and admiring Browning's fancy new sling
for the A-Bolt! (J. Pattison)
My feeble attempts at packing the sheep! (J. Pattison)
Now how do we get this up out of bear reach?
(J. Pattison)
Chris on Thunder (J. Pattison)
What's for lunch? (J. Pattison)
Those who care let you ride with your hat like this...
(J. Pattison)
Sheep packing (C. Craig)
The human pack horse!
© Brian Joubert 2011


  1. Hats off! That sounds like an amazing experience. Congratulations again.

  2. Brian,

    Wow...what a great story, and to be sure - an even greater experience to have taken part in. I must say that I am extremely jealous of the fact that you can pick up an OTC sheep tag every year, in spite of the odds for success. Here in the states it is nearly impossible for a non-resident to draw a sheep tag in one of the many states that offer such opportunities. Heck, even residents in states such as CO have been trying to draw for 20+ years, and have yet to pull a tag.

    Thanks for taking the time to put this together, and for documenting the trip so well. Kudos!


  3. Thanks Mark!
    I know, it is quite a privelage. If one does get a ram here the head must be submitted to the authorities to be verified and then you may not buy a trophy ram tag the following year. We do have some draw only areas and those are typically about a 6 years wait minimum - but they are very good areas! One draw area is archery only but is on the boundary of Banff Nat Park so holds some good rams.

    The odds are not 'excellent' but having said that the really dedicated hunters do get their rams.

    The non trophy tags are fairly easy to get if you pick a more remote area (like the one I got).

    Having my friend offer to use his horses was perhaps the greatest privelage of this trip.

  4. Wow! What an incredible story and awesome adventure! Looks like so much fun! I want an Ovis! Thank you for sharing Brian!

  5. Brian, it sounds and looks like you had an incredible adventure! Awesome stuff! I really enjoyed the story telling.

    Pretty good odds, too. So you were only out there a couple of days? Three at most? Wasn't sure from the story, but it sounded like three. Very cool!

    I haven't put in for a sheep out here in Cali yet. One of my friends, Nate Welsh, drew a tag last year and got himself a beautiful ram. After I get a deer out here I'll look at drawing a tag. Right now I am sticking with the OTC tags.

    Thanks for sharing this and best of luck during the other hunting seasons, too!


  6. Thanks Al,
    We were out for 6 days in total, 4 them in the saddle. I too rely mainly on OTC but next year, according the ancient calendar of Orion, is the Year of the Moose!

  7. What a great hunt ! Earlier this month I did a "non-successful" backcountry elk hunt in the Zirkel wilderness in CO, and next time we are definitely using horses, at least for packing. Read about it at http://theprogressiveoutdoorsman.blogspot.com/

    You should send me your email address, as we both spend a lot of time on Tovar's blog and I may have Canadian-specific questions for you.


    Erik Jensen
    Minneapolis, MN

  8. Will do Erik and thanks for the comment.
    I'll do my best, I am hardly an expert, more a 'keen learner' on these topics!