A Hart Mountain Bighorn’s not Meat Till it’s in the Pan
By Gary Lewis
Hunting is more than meat in the pan, and more than a moment's decision to squeeze the trigger. It's the anticipation, the chase, and the time spent with a father or child on a crisp September morning when hope rises with the sun.
That's why 14 year-old Bend resident Harry Caron applied for the California bighorn sheep tag on Hart Mountain. He had one chance in 319 to score a California bighorn sheep tag in 2003, but draw it he did. When the postcard showed up in his mailbox, Harry and Gene, his father, knew they had a challenge ahead. The hunt would start September 4th. They had three months to prepare.
They started that day, walking and running to get in shape. By August, they were carrying full packs on runs and climbs, in preparation for the hunt.
Harry had been saving his money for a left-handed Remington Model 700 30-06. He went ahead and bought one. Gene, an employee of Nosler, Inc announced at the bullet plant in Bend that Harry had drawn the tag. Word passed on to Beaverton-based Leupold that Harry needed a scope. A 3x-9x variable model complete with base and rings came in the mail. Michael's of Oregon pitched in with a gun case and scope covers.
Over the next few weeks, Harry spent many hours with his bolt-action 30-06, shooting 165-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips at distances of up to 300 yards.
September 4th dawned clear and cold. The hunters climbed to 8000 feet on the mountain and settled down to glass for sheep. Rather than bring a spotting scope, they settled on binoculars to save weight. Using 10x50 Leupolds, they looked into every canyon and along every ledge, spotting antelope high on the ridge and mule deer in the aspens.
Finally they found a band of five bighorns bedded under a rim two miles away on the other side of a deep canyon. Then they planned their stalk. The sheep were two ridgetops away. Each canyon between was one thousand feet deep. It took Harry and Gene four hours to get within sight of the sheep again.
Now there were only two rams visible. Harry glassed them again from 450 yards away, a big ram and a younger one. He felt confident with his gun and load out to 300 yards, but didn't want to risk a shot beyond that range. He needed to get closer.
Gene and Harry crawled out on a sliver of a ledge and looked down again. The sheep were 300 yards below on a dangerously steep slope, at the extreme limit of Harry's range. Bedded now, only their horns showed above the sage. No shot.
Backing up carefully, the two men retreated to the ridge and found another path that led them closer. Peeking over the top of the ridge, they saw the animals again, 100 yards away, almost straight down.
Gene whispered, "You've got to anchor him with your first shot or he'll bail over the edge and into the canyon." If the animal jumped at the shot, he would almost surely fall 700 feet to the valley below. “Shoot him through the spine so the bullet exits through the left front shoulder.” Gene held his breath.
Harry pulled himself into the rifle, found the big ram in his crosshair, and did just as he was instructed. When the bullet struck, the ram lunged and rolled 150 yards to stop against some low shrubbery on an impossibly steep slope.For a few minutes, the two waited and let the thrill of the moment pass before they picked their way down to the animal.
Before Gene would let Harry touch it, he tied a length of rope from the ram's leg to a nearby bush. Even as he was tying it off, the sheep began to slide again.
The ram's horns measured 14 inches in circumference around the base and each horn taped over 31 inches. As difficult as the hunt had been to this point, now it became downright dangerous as they struggled to turn the sheep into meat on the cliff to which they clung.
There on a slope that any sane person would call a cliff, they took pictures and carefully caped and boned the magnificent animal. Gene, who has hunted his whole life, said he has never been in a more dangerous situation.
Finally, they were ready to make their first trip out. Harry took the head and cape on his pack, while Gene carried 60 pounds of meat. It took the two men over two hours just to climb a quarter mile from where the sheep died to the top of the rim. With every step, Harry and Gene had to grab a handful of soil or shrub to keep from losing traction. It was 4:00 in the afternoon when they topped out on the rim. They still had five miles to go before dark, five miles of climbing in and out of deep canyons.
Luckily, there was water in the bottoms of the canyons and the two were able to fill their canteens and rest in the shade before starting out again.
When night fell, Harry and Gene were still one canyon away from camp, high on a ridge beneath a canopy of stars and a waxing moon. The only shelter was an old sheep bed beneath a wind-twisted juniper. Father and son huddled together and shared what was left of their lunch: a few pieces of jerky and some M&Ms. The wind roared down the canyons and the temperature dropped into the low 30s. They huddled into their jackets, listened to the coyotes sing, prayed for morning, and talked about how good it would feel to soak in the hot springs when they were finished.
As soon as they could see well enough to walk, they started out again and made it to the truck at 9:00 am. But they weren't finished. Another 50 pounds of meat waited for them on that slope three canyons away. Gene and Harry shared a quick breakfast and headed back for the rest of the meat. Not a bit was wasted.
At the end of it, they soothed tired muscles in a hot spring and talked about what they had seen. Both of them knew they had tested their limits. From the start to finish, not a bit of the hunt had been easy, but it had all been worth it.