Friday, August 14, 2015

Danny's Ram Hunt

It's hard for me not to brag about my little brother. I am pretty proud of him. Last week in some of the most precipitous mountains in the state, Danny got within shooting distance of big rams every single day of his hunt. 

Danny chose to hunt an area based on the physical challenge only and knew that the trophy potential was extremely limited. In spite of this, in just four days, he pulled out a ram that will likely miss the all time B&C book by only 6 inches or so. That is in no way meant to be taken as a proclamation of grand hunting prowess. Only to put the animal into perspective.

Everybody wants to be Cameron Hanes these days. I don't want my readers to think that I'm trying to bill my brother as the "hunter athlete". I don't even feel comfortable with that term or that movement. Danny's not like that. He's a regular guy, dedicated to excellence in his business and his life. He constantly seeks the hardest challenges and the biggest adventures. That's it. Danny didn't draw this tag to try and be something he is not or fit in with a current trend. He drew this tag precisely because it is who he is. If I didn't write about it he wouldn't tell anybody.

Two weeks before the season, Danny made his way to this remote basin. Every time he went out, he found good rams. But this close to hunting time, he wasn't finding the numbers he was hoping for.

This ram is as far from the trailhead as one could get. He is not the biggest ram on the mountain by any means, but Danny would have been thrilled to hunt him. 

The week before the season, Danny hit the jackpot. Harold Fahrenbrook, the best bowhunter that nobody has ever heard of, took Danny to one of his honey holes. Harold has taken two bighorns out of these mountains with a recurve (a feet that him and Rick Duggan can both claim). Harold and Danny are cut from the same mold. The two of them set out for four days, and they planned to keep walking until they found sheep. And find sheep they did!

These three rams made Danny's decision on where to hunt an easy one. He didn't need to spend any more time on the mountain. He knew where he would be on opening morning. 

This lone ram was hanging out in a large basin all by himself. This was one of the most huntable locations that Danny saw on his scouting trips. He did not find this particular ram again.

I am still recovering from two reconstructive foot surgeries that have kept me off the mountain all summer. It really sucked watching Danny go on so many scouting trips by himself. Having a buddy to do these tough scouting trips with makes it so much easier and more enjoyable, I felt terrible that I couldn't be there for him.We hunt together. It's what we do. It's what we've done since we were 4 & 5 years old. I can clearly remember the first squirrel that either one of us shot with a bow. Of course it was my brother, but I was right by his side when he shot it, and I was right by his side when the squirrel bit his finger.

Luckily, our great friend Del was game to hit the mountains. Even luckier, Del brought three of the best llamas in Colorado. Danny and Del have packed out more than a few big bulls on just two of these bad boys. The llamas aren't quite in hunting shape yet, but they were still nice to have.

Our cousin Chad also drove out from Nebraska to give Danny a hand.

Chad is a pleasure to have on trips like this. There has never been one time in our lives that he has been discouraged, not once has he had a bad thing to say, quit, pulled up short, or done anything other than be completely enjoyable. Chad has always, and will always do whatever it takes. He is just like Danny in that there is never a hike too far or a climb to hard. Not only does he have the physical ability to breeze through a tough hunt, but way more importantly, he has the attitude and mindset to welcome the work and revel in it! That's probably why he has gone into new areas that he has never visited and pulled elk out on a regular basis over the past 10 years. Chad loves a challenge, he loves a new experience, and he has the work ethic to be successful when the odds are not in his favor. He is the perfect guy to rely on.

Del routinely makes deep packs and long stays into the mountains by himself, and he usually comes out heavy. He's a true woodsman and a good friend to have on a hunt like this. Del returned to town after the first two days because of work obligations. I could not tell if he was joking or not, but he said that he felt sorry for Danny every time he left camp to go on a stalk. Those words coming out of Del's mouth are pretty funny and I took them as a sign of respect for the kind of stuff Danny was doing every day. When Del wants to have an easy day of elk hunting, he takes a route that knocks me on my butt!

This gnarly hillside was home to a big group of rams. Danny was approaching from below on his stalks. Chad and Dan worked out some hand signals so that Chad could communicate to Danny where the sheep were. They had names and signals for rock outcroppings they named the Upper and Lower Pinnacle, Stegosaurus, The Dome, and several more. The ability to communicate like this was the difference in the hunt.

Chad on his glassing perch.

Danny's home for the hunt.

Getting dried out after some nasty storms rolled through.

A sheepy hillside that Dan is ascending in the following picture.

Dan is on the edge of the left shoot, making his way up the mountain after a big ram.

One of Dan's stalks. You can see the rams pretty easily but you might need to click on the picture in order to see Dan. He was about 35yds from the rams in this instance.

The final approach. You can see the rams sky-lined in this picture.

On the fourth morning of the hunt, Dan set out before the sheep bedded down. The plan was for Chad to keep an eye on the sheep and then do his best to communicate to Danny where to go.

After he got to the bottom of the drainage, Danny sat down to pull some food out of his pack. Four days of intense work had finally caught up to him. He looked back to find Chad. Chad was waiving his hands frantically. Chad gave him the Stegosaurus signal. Danny pulled a tortilla out of his pack and kept going without rest. He knew what that meant.

The rams had bedded in one of the best possible locations. Danny picked up the pace. There are deep cuts in the rock outcropping that they named Stegosaurus. Danny could creep through those rocks without being seen and get on top of the sheep without problem. He knew that there were three big rams in the group, any of which he would be an absolute fool to pass up.

Chad never had a dull moment. He was positioned with a Swarovski spotting scope on both sides of himself so he could keep tract of all the sheep. He had to be sure that he didn't miss any that would bed down in a spot that could blow the whole hunt.

Waiting for the wind to switch gave Danny a chance to take some pictures of the rams he was stalking.

Little guys figuring out who the future king will be.

And the big guys showing them how it's done!

Getting to the top of Stegosaurus was more like rock climbing than stalking. Danny had to set his bow on a ledge above him, wedge a rock in front of it to keep the bow from falling, and then crawl his way up to it. He repeated this for at least 150ft of the final ascent. As Dan peeked his head over the rocks he saw horns all around, just 15 yards away. Danny knelt back down to take his quiver off. He had a very narrow slit to shoot between rocks, and his bow wouldn't fit with the quiver attached. When he started peeking over the rocks again, he saw all the sheep on their feet. The wind was swirling terribly and Dan assumed that they smelled him.

These bighorns were arrogant about their physical ability to evade predators. They weren't spooky in the same way that elk and deer are spooky. Their senses are just as good, but instead of running into the next basin they would just scale a couple hundred vertical feet in a few seconds. Then they would pompously look back down at whatever puny threat groveled below. It's like the sheep had an "I dare you to chase me" attitude.

Their haughtiness worked out for Danny in this instance. Having smelled him the sheep just stood on alert, unsure of where he was, but confident that they were safe in their craggy precipice. Danny drew his bow behind cover and then slowly rose. They named the biggest ram Shaggy, the old ram hadn't rubbed off all of his winter coat and long strips of hair hung from his body. Danny spotted Shaggy first, but the big ram was in the middle of seven other smaller rams, making that shot not an option.

Dan quickly scanned the rest of the sheep. All the way to the left stood one of the three big rams, all by himself. In less than 20 seconds the hunt was over.

Danny was shocked at the sadness he felt as he approached the dead ram. Walking up to an animal that you have just killed is always bittersweet. This time, in this country, with this view, and with the immense respect for how these sheep live, the feeling was more intense. Dan spent an incredible amount of time in these mountains. Every day these rams are in the middle of the most hostile natural forces in this part of the state. Mother nature isn't more intense anywhere around here. She also isn't anymore beautiful.

Hunters know this, but to kill an animal is not drawn from a desire for blood or death, it is quite the opposite. Immersing yourself in their world, learning about them, studying their movements, and ultimately taking their life, provides the hunter with more appreciation and thanks than can possibly be understood - unless you've done it yourself. That is the precise reason that hunters are the best protectors of wildlife and wild places. They partake in that animals life and death. Hunters love the creatures they pursue in a deeper way than the non-hunter can ever know. And they prove it with their money and with their efforts. There was no fist pumping on this hunt, no childish actions or celebratory dances. Just a lot of time alone, long sits, and hard walks.

After killing the ram, Danny had a long time to wait for Chad, who made his way over to take a few pictures and help take care of the meat.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife aged the ram at 12 years old.

Three hours after the shot, Chad finally showed up. 

Not wanting to make a trip all the way back into this mountain, Chad and Danny took the ram back to base camp in one trip. I asked Danny what that was like. He said it was work. That's the only way he could explain it to me. Work.

Writing about the physical experience could hardly do it any justice so I didn't really try. Mountain hunters know what this hunt entailed. The mountain was constantly beating on Dan and Chad. The strong winds never stopped. Daily rain showers that turned into hail and snow almost turned the hunt into a survival situation several times. But Danny never stops. He doesn't get even slightly discouraged, he doesn't sleep in, he doesn't look for an easy way. He goes hard all the time in everything that he does. There is no mountain too tall, no stalk too far. He will always keep going and  he will always be happy about it.