SI Vault
William A. Fisher
September 15, 1958
A celebrated hunter who goes above the timber line after mountain sheep describes a rocky world where days of climbing and waiting and freezing may reward him with a trophy
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September 15, 1958

A Shy Target On High

A celebrated hunter who goes above the timber line after mountain sheep describes a rocky world where days of climbing and waiting and freezing may reward him with a trophy

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I've observed often the rear-guard action in bands of rams. While feeding over a basin rim they will send one ram back over the top a few minutes after their arrival to trip up any enemy pussyfooting after them. An alerted ram seeks no hiding place. While he is pondering a decision to bolt he takes an awe-inspiring stance, appearing to grow in stature as he throws his head up and back. His great neck bulges and rounds, his forelegs stiffen. He is a picture of regal belligerence.

Young are born in late May or early June in Alaska, around mid-April in the southwest of the U.S., the mother dropping out of her band to hide alone for her confinement. She returns to the group when her lamb, or set of twins, is strong enough to frisk along at her heels. She is a fine mother, attentive, devoted and instructive until her next year's get pushes the youngster on his own. One enemy of the lamb is the eagle, who swoops from above to sink cruel talons deep into his tender back, lift and drop him over a precipice where the predator can return to feed at his pleasure. At 2 months of age, he has grown enough to be fairly safe from eagles, but now the youngster's worries are wolf, lynx, cougar, wolverine and hunters. Bears relish sheep meat, but rarely are smart enough to get a taste. Rocky bluffs protect the young one, if he sees his enemy in time. Against the hunter he has his fabulous eyesight, his color blended into his surroundings and his strong springy legs that can carry him where no enemy can follow. He has everything he needs for protection, but no offensive weapon. So he soon learns to make his defense near perfect. He seldom looks up, as no danger comes to him from above. If his life runs a serene course for his expected 13 to 16 years, he will remain in his particular chain of mountain ranges, as his ancestors have done for countless generations before him. He will grow fastidious in his choice of food, clean snow-melt drink, and resting place—a gentleman among animals.

His horns, in his first two or three years, will grow six to nine inches. As the horns of sheep are not cast or shed at any time, each animal carries with him a personal biography. Each year adds a deep wrinkle, evidence of physical well-being. In good years of plentiful food, the wrinkle ring is more widely spaced. As he matures, the rings grow closer together until in his old age they're hard to differentiate. If his head is to be desired by a trophy hunter, he will have to top 40 inches on the outside curl with corresponding massiveness of horn at the base. His horns will form a full curl rising at the tip as high as the level of the eye and over the plane of the nose when viewed from the side. If he is a Rocky Mountain or desert bighorn he will disappoint his hunter by "brooming" the ends of his horns against rock and shale and fraying them in fights with other males. If he is taken by an Indian, his hide will make a coat and his horns form spoons or large ladles. In the old days, the best bows were made from strips of ram's horn overlaid with sinew.

Most important to the Indian, the sheep will be appreciated for his fine, fat sweet meat. Indians broil the whole, skinned-out head on a stick over the campfire, the men taking turns with that most prized tidbit-sheep's eyes. They believe that reverent eating of the eyes confers the power of the sheep's vision on his hunter. (This conviction holds only for men. Let an Indian boy dare to eat sheep's eyes and he is forever blinded.) I have never met anyone who knows game who does not consider the meat of wild sheep the best of all. It has a flavor all its own, not at all strong. A piece of the meat is considered the greatest gift even by local people in sheep country. Under severe conditions of weather and exhaustion, never have I left the good cuts on my sheep behind for eagles, but have always brought the meat back, staggering down the sheerest scree slope for the bliss of broiled sheep steaks.

A sheep hunt follows a precise pattern of search and ride, search and climb. You need the kind of patience that will hold you perfectly still in a cramped and miserable position on ridge after ridge, for hours of meticulous, square-by-square scouring with binoculars. Every seeming stump, rock, shadow, bump must receive attention not once, but over and over again—for sometimes the rocks get up and walk off! You are pitted against an adversary who has watched you from his spur, if you are careless or unlucky, for hours before you have been able to see him. Added to his eight-power vision is the wit that can interpret your actions at several miles with astonishing accuracy. He must not see the slightest movement before you are in position to shoot. And he must not scent his hunter. At high elevations, uncertain eddies of wind, often going against the prevailing blow, may sweep an alarm to sheep. As these currents flow upward, this is still another reason to get above the quarry. Yet the first impulse of alarmed sheep is to ascend higher on any mountain on which they have encountered danger or sense something disquieting. And the higher your ram gets, the more commanding is his vantage point over yours.

The ideal shot enters near the base of the neck, high enough to break the spine and kill instantly, far enough back to avoid damage to cape and head. Not often is there time for such deliberation. Under most conditions the conventional shoulder shot is best choice. Sheep take a lot of killing. A terribly wounded animal, unable to climb, will abandon his fellows in a precipitous downhill flight to cover, where he will die a miserable death. Every effort should be made to kill clean.

Whether you are hunting with rifle or camera, the best hunt is the most arduous. Divide that best into two challenges on our continent—the dangerous and the difficult. Bear hunts can be dangerous, but compared to the difficult, such dangerous hunts, in my mind, rate a poor second. And a sheep hunt to me epitomizes the difficult; any other kind of hunt is mere preparation for it. Anyone who hunts sheep now should, for his own pride and the future of game, take only trophies. Let the small-and middle-sized rams grow and multiply. Watch them and let them alone while you go for the real prize. You'll feel good, and if you succeed, you'll know an emotion that defies description.

I can only say, as a summing up, that anyone who has spent hours and days at the quest and then goes into the mountains with another purpose, often will find his immediate purpose is neglected as he looks up, scanning the ridge lines for the majestic profiles of the sheep. I can remember one hunting trip in 42°-below-zero weather in the Saint Elias range of the Yukon.

I was hunting wolves that day, not sheep, but as I always do when in sheep country I trained my scope from time to time up the high, white, barren foothills in the hope of spotting rams. And when I did, I let the wolves go hang. Taking a rough fix on the crag where I had seen the brief but telltale flick of motion, I plowed my way for two hours up through a hidden traverse approach. But in that vast, upended mass of rock, I lost both my bearings and the sheep; none of the surrounding peaks looked familiar, and, as so often before, I was ready to admit that I had climbed in vain.

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