Blackpowder Bighorn on Beatys Butte
By Gary Lewis
Sykes put down the phone and told his customers he had to go outside. He shut the door and stepped out into the alley. Here, with no one to see him, he did his happy dance.
He'd made the phone call to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to check on the results of his tag applications and learned he'd drawn hunt No. 570C for bighorn sheep in Oregon's controlled hunt lottery.
A bighorn sheep hunt is thought by many to be the most expensive game of all. At auctions, bids of $200,000 or more are not unheard-of. A desert sheep hunt in Mexico will run you $50,000 and a stone sheep hunt in Canada will cost $30,000. But any Oregon hunter could draw a bighorn tag this year and it doesn't have to take a life's savings to make the hunt of a lifetime.
In the drawing, odds average about 1 in 200 for a bighorn tag. For that once-in-a-lifetime hunt, an Oregon resident will pay only $101.50.
Sykes bought his tag then began an intense regimen with a personal trainer. With three months to go, he picked up the telephone and rang every biologist who had ever worked in the Beatys Butte unit. Each time he got a tip, he marked it on his map.
As patterns began to emerge on paper, Sykes planned his scouting trips. For the next few weeks, every chance he had, he packed his family into the truck and headed south on the six-hour drive into the desert.
Most experts recommend a flat-shooting rifle for a sheep hunt, but Sykes was determined to make every aspect of the hunt as hard as possible. He chose a 54-caliber Lyman Great Plains Rifle. Shooting a patched round ball, he'd have to be close. And that was just how he wanted it.
Opening day, the mood was electric. With a team of friends in camp to continue the scouting, Sykes and John Williams headed back to the spot where, two days before, Sykes had located two big rams.
At mid-morning, the hunters found a herd of ewes and lambs. They moved a half-mile to see the sheep from a different angle, and finally, three rams came into view. One of them was a big one.
Williams had his binoculars up. "That's him. That's the one," he said, reaching for his rangefinder. From their vantage point, the sheep were now less than a hundred yards away.
Sykes slipped the rifle from his case. "Just keep telling me how far out he is," he whispered. "I haven't loaded my rifle yet."
With practiced hands, he reached into his possibles bag. Pour in the powder. Pack it down. Put a patch on the barrel...
Sykes looked up. The ram was standing alert now, nervous. Sykes' hands began to tremble. Shaking now, he got the round ball out and put it on the patch. With a starter, he pushed it down. In two strokes, he had rammed it on the powder.
He grabbed the shooting sticks and the rams began to move. "One hundred-five," Williams whispered. "One-oh-eight." He took his sheep call from his pocket.
Sykes eared back the hammer and pinched a No. 11 cap on the nipple.
"One-fifteen." The rams were trotting now. Williams blew on his call. The sheep halted, but Sykes wasn't ready.
"One-eighteen." Williams sounded the call one more time, dropped it and punched the button on his rangefinder. "One-twenty-four."
Sykes was on the ground now, his rifle in the web of the shooting sticks, his right leg doubled beneath him, left leg bent for support. The big ram had stopped and was looking back. Broadside, but his horn covered his vitals.
Sykes stroked the set trigger. Click. He put the pad of his index against the hair trigger as he'd done so many times in practice. When the ram swung his head back uphill, his shoulder was exposed and the hunter applied the last pound of pressure to the trigger.
When the smoke cleared, Sykes climbed up to his ram alone. He reached down and touched the horn, traced the curl and the growth rings and ran his fingers through the hair. His three-month journey from happy dance to harvest had come down to a split-second decision to shoot. But he knew it had been a team effort that put him in position behind the shooting sticks.
When the head was scored, the horns measured 168-1/8 inches under the Boone and Crockett system with a final score of 158. Sykes had taken the trophy of a lifetime on public land in Oregon's high desert.
This year, approximately 90 bighorn tags will go in Oregon's big-game drawing. The deadline for application is May 15. Maybe this is your year.