Story and Photos by: Melissa Frost
Originally published in Eastmans' Hunting Journal
As a flight nurse, I often work 24-hour shifts.
When we are not flying, it is time to sleep. One of those long nights I remember waking up and thinking. “I have to check the drawing results. I was groggy when I logged into my account but woke right up when I saw “Bighorn Sheep – Successful.” I immediately thought, “No way. There is no possible way this is accurate.” In complete disbelief I logged out of my account because this was surely an error – I must have accidentally logged into someone else’s account (like that’s possible). I took a second attempt at logging in, and there it sat on the screen: “Bighorn Sheep – Successful”. It’s something you dream about, you hear stories about, but you never think is going to actually come to fruition for yourself. I instantly was overwhelmed with nervousness, excitement, and complete shock. I can’t believe I get the opportunity to do something people wait their entire lives to do. How blessed am I?
Results were posted on Father’s Day. I called up my Dad who has taught me everything I know about hunting and sportsmanship. “Happy Father’s Day Dad! I got you a gift, but it won’t be here until late October.” I said. “Oh ya?” He responded curiously. “We’re going on a Bighorn Sheep Hunt. I drew the tag.” From that moment on, the plans began. We bought maps, studied them. I contacted Sheep Mountain Outfitters and solidified my spot for them to guide me on this hunt. This is a true once-in-a-lifetime tag, I wanted to make sure I do this right, and they know how to do this better than anyone. I then invited my hunting buddy MaryJo; the only person I know and love that knows the depth and meaning of this hunt. I had to have her alongside.
A few months went by and the excitement just kept snowballing. We had to wait for fire season to tame down and weather to cool. Once it did, my dad and I went into my unit on a scouting trip. I have never hunted sheep before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I remember telling him “I hope we see one today.” Well, we did. We saw one. That one was followed by so many more. They’re such majestic animals. We watched them for hours and hours. We gave ourselves sore eyes and headaches from staring through optics until we ran out of light. They were just starting to rutt – the rams were practicing fighting, some more serious than others. I remember videoing and catching them clacking horns. You see it on TV all the time, but there is nothing cooler than seeing and hearing it right in front of you.
The day before season we loaded the pickup and headed to camp a few hours away. We met up with the Sheep Mountain Outfitter crew and some other sheep hunters. Marty & Mia Sheppard and Ryan Buccola led us down the river in their river boats. That was something I hadn’t done before, but wow, what an absolute blast the jet boats were. The entire ride I just kept thinking, “I can’t believe how blessed and fortunate I am to get to experience this.” We spent the afternoon glassing the cliffs and watching sheep effortlessly move up and down the steep terrain like it was flat ground.
I hadn’t hunted sheep before, but I knew what type of ram I liked. I wanted a mature ram, a lot of mass, and something special to give him character. Just before dusk, we spotted one that fit the bill. He was roaming with a large band of sheep, but you knew him when you saw him. His hide was a creamy dark chocolate color, way darker than the rest. His horns were just gorgeous; full of life and years of stories to tell. My favorite part of him was the chip out of his right horn from fighting. I loved the chocolate hide and I loved his chip. Of course, he quickly got the name Chocolate Chip. I told everyone right then that “he’s the one I want”. We continued to look at them all until the sun set. There were so many beautiful rams, but Chocolate Chip was incomparable. The next day, we would go for him.
Very little sleep was had that night. How can you sleep the night before the biggest and coolest hunt you will ever do? We got up to a very chilly morning on the river, but the adrenaline kept us nice and toasty. We went down river several miles, parked the boat, and spent the morning looking for Chocolate Chip. It didn’t take us long to find him and make a game plan. The only problem was that he was at the top and we were at the bottom. We split our hunting crew up; myself, Dan Blankenship (guide), and my hunting buddy MaryJo would hike the mountain while my dad, Marty, Mia, and Ryan would stay across river and help glass to keep track of the ram.
The next part of the day I wish I could say I was ready for, but I wasn’t. Over the first few hours we hiked to the top of the mountain. The stairway to Heaven is assuredly less steep. Because of where the sheep were, we couldn’t strategically zig and zag up the hill. It was straight up several thousand feet. It was undoubtedly the hardest physical exertion I’ve ever done. I remember thinking to myself, “I have to get him today. If I don’t, I am not sure how many more times I can do this.” Sweaty backs and trembling legs; we kept pushing. The wind was in our favor, the herd was the next ridge over, and all the cards fell perfectly for us. A few hundred yards from the top, the herd popped over the hill towards us. We tried to make it to the top of the ridge to hide, but we were just too far and too tired to make it fast enough. We hit the deck like an army drill and laid still for what felt like hours. The sweat quickly dried, the wind was beating us up, and the shivers set in. I couldn’t put my coat back on because any movement would’ve ruined our stalk. So, we waited. Cold and shivering, we waited. The entire herd made their way over the ridge towards us. We laid there and watched them exist in nature without influence. What a sight it was. Eventually, the hustle and bustle of the large herd and distracted rutting rams allowed for Dan and I to set up for a shot. We slid down on our butts about 50 feet to a small rocky platform perfect for a set up. I got comfortable on my belly, we dug holes in the ground to make sure I was as steady as I could be, and I lined Chocolate Chip up in my cross hair. Unfortunately, with so many sheep, there was no clean shot. I patiently followed him in my crosshairs, as he mingled through the group, but he never presented me a clean shot. After a while, luck was in my favor, and the band headed back over the ridge in the direction they had come from. Now we could finish executing our plan.
We hiked the last few hundred yards to the ridgeline, and I vividly remember my legs trembling so much that I bear crawled to the top. This terrain was no joke. We made it, and the view was something a hunter can never forget. We dug out our smushed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches handmade by Mia. Turns out, PB&J’s taste like a steak dinner when you’ve just hiked up a mountain. I was so grateful for those. We finished eating, and then huddled together and made a plan. We would walk the ridge down, re-assess their movements, and go from there. The walk across the top was so refreshing. It gave me a chance to catch my breath, centered my thoughts and remind myself, “I can do this.”
It wasn’t long before Dan found Chocolate Chip again. The ram had finally bedded down, and this was finally my opportunity to set up for the shot. We hiked back down the hill a little way until I could just visualize his horns through the grass. I took an ample amount of time getting ready and made sure I was 100% comfortable. Everything felt right. I was steady, I was calm, and I was determined this would be it.
For what felt like the next eternity, the ram just laid there. I waited and waited until butt was numb, my hands was frozen, and the wind kept pounding directly in my face. I was nearly at my breaking point when he finally stood up. Slowly he turned broadside to me, limping and tender footed from another season of being the king of his herd. I watched and waited patiently until a small clean shot to his vitals finally opened, I squeezed the trigger. Yep, after all that I missed that ram clean as whistle. I shot over his back by a few inches. I had shot my gun many times and I even knew how much my bullet would drop at this this distance. However, I had never shot downhill in such steep terrain. “Keep it together Melissa, you can do this” I told myself. I reloaded, lined up in the kill zone, and boom. I heard my bullet connect. That sound is unmistakable. The herd ran off and Chocolate Chip ran a few steps attempting to follow, but he could not. My bullet found it’s mark and the ram abruptly fell over lifeless. Thank goodness, a clean shot and quick death. All I remember is crying hysterically thinking “how is this real life? I really did this? I really just harvested a once-in-a-lifetime bighorn sheep?” It all was so surreal. Even now that is a feeling I try to relive every day.
The three of us walked down the steep terrain to toward the ram and I lost my footing many times. We all took a few tumbles that resulted in at least one broken finger, but we finally made it down to the ram. I couldn’t do anything but cry. There were no words to grand enough to describe what I was feeling. This ram was so beautiful and majestic. He was old and mature. Everything a sheep hunter could hope for. He’d lived a full life and in a short time given me a lifetime worth of memories and joy. How fortunate am I to have lived this in real life? I couldn’t be more thankful.
We rolled him down the steep terrain as far as we could. Nobody else needed to endure that hellacious terrain unless necessary. My dad, Marty, and Ryan got in the boat, crossed, the river, and climbed to meet us at the ram. I walked straight up to my dad, hugged him, and the water works began again. “Thank you” is all I could say. I would never have even dreamt of doing this if it weren’t for my dad raising me to be a hunter.
We spent the next bit of time taking hundreds of pictures, laughing and reminiscing together. A lot of Gatorade was had to catch up on an entire day of rigorous exercise. After that, we started the steep pack out. Thank god downhill to the boat, and then an exciting boat ride up-river to camp. It’s a family tradition to pull off the “kill bottle” after a successful harvest, however, the kill bottle was accidentally left at camp. First on the agenda: celebrate appropriately with a pull, or two, off the bottle.
That night, I was surrounded by some of the people who mean most to me, and some people who I had just met. These are the type of people you don’t have to know long to call family. We ate the most delicious dinner prepared by Mia, relived the day, soaked up the warmth of the fire, and counted our blessings.
I could write endlessly about this hunt and never capture a fraction of the emotion felt through it. I got to live the absolute best day of my life surrounded by the most amazing people, and it’s something I can never express enough gratitude for. Without each and every person involved, it wouldn’t have happened. Through the entire hunt, start to finish, all I thought was “I am so thankful and so blessed”. This hunt is called a “once-in-a-lifetime” for a reason. If it happened more than once, it wouldn’t be the most extraordinary day of my life.