Bighorn Sheep (Ovis Canadensis)
The record books proclaim Alberta to be the place for the finest Bighorn Sheep hunting in the world. Back in 1911, a world record ram was shot in Alberta. That monster was taken by Fred Wyler and scores 208 1/8 Boone & Crockett. While other fabulous rams have been shot in Alberta since then (with many of them scoring over 200 points), only one was bigger than Wyler's: it was shot in 2000 by Guinn Crousen and tops the 90 year old record by 2/8".
"The older the ram, the better the ram" is a maxim widely accepted by Sheep hunters. Bighorn Sheep are heavy-horned and, as a result, often 'broom'. ('Brooming' is when Sheep wear down horns, often accidentally, through digging or fighting). A 40-inch ram is the Holy Grail of Sheep, and it is very difficult to find an old ram that reaches anywhere near 40 inches after the loss of the lamb tips from brooming. However, most Sheep hunters value an old, heavy-horned ram as the finest trophy in Sheep hunting; therefore, this task requires a diligent and disciplined hunting practice.
Alberta is home to the heavy-horned Bighorn Sheep. The Albertan Sheep outfitting industry is well respected, and Bighorn Sheep have always been a premier trophy for sportsmen from around the world. Most early expeditions were by pack train in the fabulous ram country near the Rocky Mountain spine as well as in Banff and Jasper National Parks. These front ranges produce fine Sheep hunting, partly because of the consistent warm west winter winds, called Chinooks by Blackfoot natives. Chinook means "snow-eater," an apt name for breezes that clean snow off the west facing slopes. Chinook winds preserve grass for the Sheep, so they stay fat and healthy during the 'killer moons' in March and April (when many big-game animals suffer after the typically lengthy Alberta winter).
With plenty of lush grass for the ewes, the mother Sheep are strong and healthy. Well-fed ewes birth big, sturdy lambs. Healthy mothers also give nutritious milk, which will give lambs a healthy start; this results in big-bodied lambs and Sheep, which grow correspondingly big horns in maturity. Generally, adult rams stay segregated from ewes, except during the rut.
Southern Alberta is reputed to have the biggest rams in the province; in recent years, however, hunters have found tremendous Sheep in the north country as well - including a few scoring over 200 Boone and Crockett (and the new world record)!
Sheep outfitting in Alberta is largely done in traditional style, with packhorses and tent-frame camps. The exception is an archery-only zone near Canmore, where much of the hunting is easily accessed on foot. This hunt occurs in the late season and provides a tremendous opportunity to harvest trophy rams with archery equipment. These November hunts can be bitterly cold and require a hardy breed of hunter.
During rifle season, which is in September and October, most outfitters book 14-day hunts. Hunters should note that few bighorn sheep trips offer combination-style hunts. Seasoned Sheep hunters know that there will be long days in the saddle and that the climbing will be tough on legs and feet. It is absolutely essential to get the body in shape and it is probably just as important to toughen up the mind. You have to rough it a little bit to hunt Sheep and there may be long days and cold nights. Sometimes the weather will sock in and days could be spent in the sleeping bag listening to the pounding rain or the whisper of falling snow. A great attitude is therefore important to survive a long hunt in the mountains.
Bighorn Sheep have excellent eyesight, and it is almost impossible to approach a bighorn without being seen; therefore, Sheep hunting involves glassing. The best guides will carry spotting scopes and binoculars of the finest quality. Many Sheep behave like whitetail deer or elk these days as they stay in the timber for most of the day. You may have to search for hours to find sheep, and you will often wait until late before leaving the mountain for camp.
Look high on the mountain, but do not forget to search in the valleys as well: big Sheep can be found down in some of the rockiest gorges and in the timbered foothills. Old rams seem to prefer the very highest peaks. There is no predicting where you will find rams. Bighorn Sheep are active during the day and generally dormant at night. Sheep dwell on mountain slopes in summer, and they migrate to foothills in winter. Bighorn Sheep graze during the day, and at night they return to a bedding spot.
Always be safe in the mountains and pack emergency gear. You cannot have too many clothes if the weather changes unexpectedly. Follow safety rules and prepare well, which includes mental and physical conditioning. A good mountain rifle is imperative. Probably more important are the hours spent fine- tuning your shooting skills and learning the trajectory of your chosen calibre.
Technology has advanced in many ways and the GPS is a great safety device to have in your pack. Range finders can take the guesswork out of shooting. Judging distance in the mountains is easier with the light pocket range finders now available.
Sheep hunting will become a lifestyle, if you give it a chance. After one trip to Alberta for bighorns, most hunters simply have to return. The Alberta wilderness, replete with elk, moose, and grizzlies, is unchanged by time and politics: the Rockies are too remote to be altered by civilization. Indeed, Alberta's beautiful mountains and Bighorn Sheep are an irresistible draw for trophy hunters.