High Above the Hawks for a Steens Mtn. Bighorn
By Gary Lewis
Some days are mountaintop days. June 20, 2006 was one such for Bend resident AJ Conte. The 8th-grader had drawn one of two tags for a bighorn sheep in the Alvord-Buckskin No. 1 hunt at the southern tip of the Steens.
It's hard to imagine who was more excited, AJ, his father Tony, or his mother Susie. But Susie's enthusiasm was divided by the fact that she had drawn an antelope tag. Her hunt would take place the week before her son's. Scouting time would be divided between the Beaty's Butte unit and the Alvord-Buckskin hunt area.
When they heard about AJ's good luck, the Bend Sportsman's Warehouse donated a pair of Danner boots and a set of Predator camo clothing. Leupold donated a 3.5x10 riflescope and Alpen donated binoculars.
Susie and AJ spent much of the summer in the desert, taking turns with the spotting scope and the rifle, shooting rocks to get in practice. On August 12, Susie took a nice pronghorn buck with her Ruger 270. Time to go sheep hunting.
It is country that stands on end: volcanic rock, tall pinnacles and shale slides with views out into the Alvord desert on the Nevada border. Sheep make a home here, moving from peak to peak, staying in their high country strongholds.
On one hill, AJ counted 17 rams. Through his Alpen 8x42s, he kept his eye on two rams he'd nicknamed Cocoa and Whitey. But on the day before the hunt, no animals were to be found.
Tony, who had joined his wife and son by this point, said that it was a rather discouraging day, until, just before dark, a band of six rams showed up. The hunters watched as the rams bedded down. Then they planned the morning's hunt.
AJ would hunt with local John Williams and videographer Jim Sessions, of Bighorn Outdoors. All three were experienced sheep hunters. Tony, Susie and Tyler Saunders settled in behind spotting scopes to direct the action.
During the night, a bigger ram had joined the herd. AJ dubbed him, 'Chocolate.' Now there were seven.
With the sun coming up, AJ, John and Jim walked a quarter of a mile along the base of the hill. They began their stalk to the north, believing that the sheep were headed north, while the sheep had turned and were headed directly at them. Hunters and the hunted crested out on the ridge and the sheep spotted them.
AJ picked out the biggest of the escaping rams, swung with it and missed the shot. The sheep bedded down four miles away, atop a bald knob, where they could command a 360-degree view.
By that evening, the hunters had found another group of rams and watched them bed down on a large table rock. The climb took the hunters over the top of the hill. The rams were bedded below. Sunday morning, Jim spotted the biggest ram and stayed behind to film while AJ and Tyler moved in.
They had to wait while a smaller ram looked them over then turned around and fed in the other direction. “We ranged the big one at 264 yards then Tyler and I crept down and ranged him again at 226 yards. He was still bedded down and we had a better angle now. I wanted to wait for him to stand up so I could get a better shot.”
He snugged the rifle into his shoulder and kept his finger out of the trigger guard while Jim rolled video tape and Tyler kept watch.
45 minutes later, the ram stood. AJ's bullet splintered rock and the sheep took off at a run, rounding a rocky spire.
Tony and Susie watched the show unfold from afar, their spotting scopes bringing them close to the action. The rams had returned to feeding.
When AJ was in position again, the ram stood and the young man with the Ruger 243, topped with a Leupold scope and stoked with Federal Premium ammo and a Nosler Partition, squeezed the trigger.
Tyler, Jim and AJ worked to quarter and skin the animal. Tony and Susie clawed and crawled their way up the shale slide to stand beside their son on the mountaintop. Below them, hawks wheeled on desert thermals and sand shifted before the wind. And somewhere, a band of bighorn rams relaxed in the heat of the day.