Skyline Sheep Hunt in the Steens

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

"Turn around. And look at your dad." Steve whispered.

600 yards away, 28 year-old Mason Payer sat staring into the canyon trying to find the sheep. He was focused on the wrong spot. The sheep were there. If Mason would turn, he could see them.

Mason had said, 'no radios' and Steve Payer agreed. But until Mason turned around, his only option was mental telepathy. 'Turn around. Look at your dad,' he commanded.

The season was nine days old; only five days to go.

Before work one morning, back in June, Mason clicked on the ODFW web site to see if he'd drawn any tags. He saw a picture of a sheep. It took a moment before he realized he'd pulled one of the most coveted tags a hunter could draw in the state of Oregon.

That was the day he started his 'sheep-shape' program. He and his wife climbed Misery Ridge at Smith Rock and walked the Deschutes River Trail, Mason carrying 40, 50 and 60 pounds of weight in his pack by mid-summer. He shot his 7mm Magnum at the COSSA Range east of Bend. "I liked ringing those gongs all the way out to 400 yards," he said.

Summer's usual camping trips became scouting trips in the Steens Mountains. Mason studied topo maps to find the hardest places to get to. By mid-August he'd settled on a couple of canyons.

The season would begin August 18. They set up camp the Wednesday before, then climbed the main ridge to the summit on Thursday morning.

Friday night, they put a herd of nine sheep to bed and hiked out to camp in the dark. On Saturday the rams were right where they were supposed to be. "When I should have been patient, I got excited," Mason said. "I held for a 350-yard shot." He missed.

Sunday, the hunters were back, but a storm drove the party off the summit. By the time they reached camp, snow was falling sideways, and no letup was in sight. They headed for home.

"I was mentally out of the hunt by that point," Mason said. "For me, the hunt was so much tougher mentally than physically. It was hard to stay motivated. There was all the pressure that comes from the fact that it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With deer and elk there's always next year. You always have another chance. With this one, you have two weeks and you have to make it happen." And you can't make it happen if you're not out on the mountain.

By Wednesday night, the hunters were back. Nothing was going to come easy. Thursday, Friday and Saturday they chased rumors of rams near Stonehouse, French Glen, Little Indian canyon and the Alvord Ranch.

"I was starting to get worried," Mason said. "We were scouting new areas and there were no rams." On Sunday they returned to where they'd begun. Steve watched a canyon to the west and Mason glassed a smaller canyon.

"I happened to look down and saw the rear end of a sheep. I pulled back and put my face mask on. And then saw another one out in the open." But it was hard to find a rest for a steady shot. Mason waited while the rams fed out into the open, 250 yards below. Twice he had his finger on the trigger, taking out the slack and twice he put the safety on again.

The sheep fed out of range.

In the back of his mind he held onto a little glimmer of hope. A long way out on the edge of an alpine bowl, the rams bedded down.

"I grabbed my rifle and took off along the offside of the ridge from where they were." Jogging, with the wind to cover the sound of his approach, he closed the distance.

He climbed out on a rocky outcrop and realized he wasn't far enough back to the east to see them yet. Topping out on another finger ridge, he looked into the bowl. No rams.

'Turn around. And look at your dad.'

Something told him to turn and look back. There was dad pointing east.

Seven bighorns were strung out left to right in a line about a hundred yards away. Mason found a notch in which he could put his rifle and bipod. His heart pounding, Mason picked a ram. 'Turn broadside.'

There. The ram went broadside, the trembling crosshair found its pocket behind the shoulder, Mason's index finger took four pounds of pressure out of the trigger and a Nosler Partition bullet found its mark. Six rams ran out of the canyon.

It took 20 minutes for Steve to make his way down to where Mason sat with his ram. Together they worked to bone out the meat and cache it in the shade.

Father and son hit the trail to the summit to get the last load of meat at 10:00 the next morning.

At the end of it, meat in the cooler, head and hide in the salt, they knew they had pushed themselves to the limit. From start to finish, not a bit of it was easy. But it was worth every minute.

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