2018 Colorado bighorn sheep hunt
The bighorn sheep hunt preparation
It took me 19 years to draw this Colorado bighorn sheep ram tag and, this year, Colorado gave out only three tags for my unit, one of which I got. As soon as I received the news in late spring that I was awarded a tag, which I am told I had only about a 2% chance of drawing (even with 19 points), I knew what I was going to be spending my summer and fall doing: scouting, studying, and dreaming of hunting a Colorado bighorn ram. I immediately started to research as much as possible and quickly found it hard to find information on the unit, the area, and the species in general. Due to it being such a limited hunting opportunity there is not a lot of accessible information.
One of the first decisions I needed to make was deciding if I was going to hire a guide or go about my hunt do-it-yourself (DIY). Although I talked with a very competent guide who knew not only the area well and had previous success harvesting nice rams out of the unit, he also knew my dad, Stan Grebe (of course!). However, I decided I would go about this hunt in a DIY fashion for a couple of reasons. This area I was going to be hunting was accessible enough for me to do several scouting trips during the summer as the trailheads were a couple of hours from my front door.
Also, something that really excited me about this hunt was the challenge itself to go against the tough terrain, train like I never have trained before for a hunt and to try to “out hunt” one of the greatest animals in the western US. They live in some of the most extreme terrain imaginable, have hawk-like eyesight and can climb sheer cliffs at ease so I humbly welcomed the tough hunting challenge. Don't get me wrong: I don't have anything against guides and will definitely use them when needed, but I decided early on this was going to be a DIY hunt.
From June through early September, I completed nine pre-hunt scouting trips—one about every other week. Depending on the high mountain lake basin I was scouting it was usually several miles one way in (six to eight miles) that was accessible by hiking only and always included thousands of feet of elevation gain.
Throughout the summer we tried mountain biking in with a trailer (that used to carry my kids) to carry our packs, finding new trails, etc., but never found an easy way in! All in all, my boots logged just over 200 miles of backing in preparation for the hunt and now I know the meaning of getting in “sheep shape.”
This is probably a good time to give out a couple giant thank-you’s! First, I need to thank my wife, Abby. She not only puts up with my hunting passion, but encourages it! She also has not gotten sick of my mantra of ”this is a once-in-a-lifetime tag;” however, she is starting to ask how many of these once-in-a-lifetime tags I will be getting in my lifetime! She also occupied me on several scouting trips and camping trips as she enjoys getting outdoors as much as I do and truly being in God's country and I couldn't ask for a better camping partner or life partner for that matter.
Next, a big thank you to my good friend and business partner, Lee Fredrick. He was my right-hand man on several scouting trips, the sheep survey trip, and accompanied me on the hunting trip. Not only that, we spent countless hours discussing hunting, hunting gear, hunting tactics, hunting everything, which is always one of my favorite topics of discussion. We also leaned on each other to ensure we were both getting in sheep shape all summer.
Finally, a thank you to the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Specifically, Josh Dilley and Jeff Yost. Getting to know them has been great and Lee and I were invited up to be a part of their annual sheep survey, which was a very enjoyable two-day backpacking trip with some great people with great knowledge of the area and Colorado big game.
As the opening day neared, I decided which lake basin I was going to set up camp in and, although no rams have ever been recorded taken out of the lake basin I chose, I was confident we would find some as I saw rams in there during the weeks prior. One thing I learned about spotting bighorn rams is that they are hard to find! I spent hours all summer glassing high mountain terrain and only saw nine rams. I am sure there were more up in those mountains, but their camouflage is amazing. During one instance earlier in the summer, Abby and I spotted four rams a couple of hundred yards away and then lost them in plain sight only to find them again feeding not far from where we lost them. When they want to disappear, they certainly do.
Lee and I geared up two days before the tag opened and decided we would take our time hiking in and acclimating to the elevation. I am glad we did because my full pack/gear weighed in at just over 75 lbs and Lee's pack didn't look too much smaller. We found a nice grove of trees near a stream to set up our camp and tents right at 11,000’ above sea level and spent the rest of the afternoon making sure our camp was in order and talking about the next day's agenda. We ended the evening with a great dehydrated meal over a backpacking stove, which always tastes good after a long hard hike and hit the tents. The next morning, the day before the season opened, we got up and hiked up to a nice vantage point where we could see the entire lake basin and had a 360-degree view of the mountains and rock outcroppings reaching up to 13,000’. It is hard to put into words, but these high Colorado mountains that are carved out of old glaciers with natural lakes and streams in them are some of the most beautiful and majestic places I have ever been.
As the sun continued to rise, we knew glassing for rams was a patient man's game and so we were going to stay there until mid-day. Around that time, I was taking a break from my regular glassing areas and was looking as high up as the accessible terrain allowed and that is when I spotted him. A lone mature ram was feeding higher than I have ever seen rams before—just below sheer rock cliffs that were several hundred feet high, ending when they met the sky above. As we watched him graze, we were looking for additional rams as everything I read, researched, and observed that summer suggested rams would be in bachelor groups this time of year. However, after scanning the entire area, we were amazed that this was an old, single, mature ram. At one point, Lee asked me if he was a shooter and I replied, “If we could figure out a way to get him, yes.” The problem was he was unhuntable for the time being as he was perfectly situated below the rock cliffs, but high up with a view for several hundred yards, if not miles and he would see anything coming towards him with several escape routes nearby never to be seen again. I knew he was a shooter though because I could see he had a big body and good mass on the horns. I didn't want to get too hung up on horn size and field measuring as 1) I wasn't skilled enough to accurately field measure a ram even though I read a lot about the methodology. Even the subject matter experts say it takes years of watching rams in the field to get good; 2) the tag lasts 30 days and historically has only a 50% success rate so even with 30 days to hunt there is no sure thing when ram hunting; and 3) most importantly, I wanted to enjoy the hunt itself so I told myself I wanted to take a mature ram period and didn't have any size requirements in mind.
With that, Lee and I watched him until a squall moved in and forced us back into our tents, which, with the rain hitting our tents, created a great sound machine for a midday nap. Once the storm passed over, we moved to a different vantage point that exposed more of the high mountain that we last saw the ram on. After a couple hours of glassing the exposed mountain face, I admittedly was a little shocked and disheartened because the ram had disappeared like Houdini! We had a view of the entire mountain face and looked over every rock to no avail. We retreated back to our tents as another squall moved in and dropped some more meaningful rain on us.
That evening, as the temperature dropped considerably, we came out of our tents with a couple hours of daylight left and we were on a mission to find the ram. As we were glassing, Lee said, “I got him again,” and, somehow, he had moved 500+ yards to his left without us seeing him. He was still incredibly high up on the rock outcroppings and I spent the rest of the evening glassing him every five minutes, watching him move to his left as he would disappear and then show himself again with just the slightest body turn or mountain terrain change.
As I checked my watch hourly, I laid wide awake that night in my tent until finally 5:00 a.m. came and it was go time: opening day of my ram tag! Lee and I talked about using a different vantage point to try to spot the ram from the day before, but we ended up going up to a higher vantage point where I felt like we could see more of the mountain basin in general. I wasn't sure of that decision, but, when hunting, there are all sorts of what ifs, could have beens, and blown opportunities...at least for me in my hunting ventures. After a while, we decided that Lee would drop back down to get a better vantage point and I would stay put and keep glassing from where I was. Around 7:30 a.m. as the sunlight was now coming into more of the basin (and I was kicking myself for losing the ram once again), I was glassing far up and to the left, checking off areas to glass, when I spotted him. Sure enough, he was still high up and was still moving to our left to a high saddle separating two mountain peaks. After I confirmed it was the ram from yesterday, I told Lee I spotted him and that I was going to go pursue him. Although they say don't try to pursue a ram from below because their eyesight is so good, I didn't have a choice because he was already high above us and on the move to his left to cross over a saddle, heading toward a different mountain basin. Once Lee came back to where I was, he set up his spotting scope and I dumped everything, but my gun and the essentials out of my daypack and headed out. Although the morning was very cool, hiking in this elevation quickly warms up the body so I dropped three layers and headed out to my left, making sure I stayed low by the lake embankment at first so as to stay out of view by way of the sheer mountain cliff between me and the ram. As I looked back at Lee, I could see him glassing me and the ram, but I couldn't see the ram since he was essentially straight above me several hundred yards. Lee would later say he felt like he was in a real-life hunting show watching everything unfold in real time going between his spotting scope, binoculars, and his naked eye.
As I started to find a way to gain elevation, it was apparent the only way up was to climb/crawl up an avalanche chute that was rocky and steep and opened up at the top of the bench where I assumed the ram was headed. As I started climbing, I could feel the lack of oxygen in the air and I got my typical heart-beating-out-of-my-mind feeling and tried to control my nerves and breathing. As I made my way about halfway up the avalanche chute I could hear the ram above me walking on the rocks and I knew we were getting close to each other. As a side note, Josh Dilley, who I met earlier this year, said he has found several rams by noise first then by sight, which I have also experienced. Most rams I have ever glassed I found by listening for rocks and then glassing. In these high mountain basins, although the wind can blow you off a ledge, it can also be completely still and the rams will walk over rocks with ease and the noise will travel. So, with the sound of hooves on the rocks, I dropped everything but my rifle and my shooting sticks and carefully chose every place I put my feet down for the next 100 steps. As I kept looking down for where my next step was going to be to try to not loosen any rocks and looking up the 60-degree avalanche chute, I spotted the back of the ram. He had no idea I was there so I got low and set up my rifle. I bellycrawled up in elevation about another 10’ and then quickly set up my rifle on my shooting sticks and put the cross hairs right on his vitals. Without hesitating, and feeling incredibly calm for the situation, I pulled the trigger and instantly heard the compression of the bullet hitting the ram and knew I put a good shot on him.
From my vantage point, I saw his head go down and then feet go up in the air and I knew he was down with a clean quick kill. I vaguely remember hooting and hollering only to be echoed by Lee who was down below doing the same thing.
I thanked God for the great harvest and then tears of joy overcame me as the emotions poured out. It was a combination of joy, excitement, and raw emotion as many of you know my dad, Stan Grebe, passed away a couple years ago. He was an avid hunter and taught me and my brother how to hunt so a part of that emotion was for missing him.
I didn't have time to range my shot beforehand, but, once I knew the ram was down, I ranged him at 91 yards. I made my way up to the top of the avalanche chute to find a magnificent ram waiting for me.
As any hunter knows, once you get an animal down that is when the real works starts so Lee made his way up to me with two frame packs and we carefully quartered and caped him out that morning, making sure neither the ram or ourselves rolled off the cliff!
We strapped up our pack frames as tight as they could go for the haul out, which was no easy feat as we had to descend the same avalanche chute I was crawling up hours before. The day started at 5:00 a.m. and Lee and I got the meat and horns out in one grueling backpacking trip with each pack weighing in at an estimated 100 lbs. At one point, Lee helped not only by adjusting the horns in my pack as I almost went head over heels down the avalanche chute, but he also carried my rifle and miscellaneous equipment.
Once we got down the mountain and on the normal hiking trail, we ran into two hikers and they asked if they could take a picture with me looking exhausted with the ram horns sticking out of my pack atop the meat. I am not sure why, but random strangers thought I must have been a sight for sore eyes, enough for them to ask if they could take a random person’s picture.
Once we got the meat to the truck and on ice, we hydrated as much as possible and made another trip up back to break camp and then backpacked everything out that late afternoon. We were exhausted at the end of that day, but still feeling so jacked up about the hunt I would do that haul out 100 times over. After waiting 19 years, I never would have thought I would have taken a ram on opening morning of the hunt and it was so incredible I am still in awe of the whole experience. I truly believe what you put in, you get out of life and, for me, one of the most important attributes to being a successful hunter is just putting in time. Time to scout, time to get to the know the hunting area, time to get to understand the species, etc. and, since I feel like I was able to do that for this hunt, it feels incredibly rewarding.
Colorado requires that hunters register any harvested ram for it to be recorded, photographed, and documented as to ensure the animal was not poached.
They documented the ram to be:
- 10-year-old ram
- Left horn 35 1/8”,
- Right horn 34 4/8”
- 7/8 curls
- 15” bases
I already have the meat to Steve's Meat market in Old town Arvada, which does a great job processing wild game meat and I will be getting a shoulder pedestal mount done by Chuck Chubbs with Bears Den Taxidermy, who does great work. I can't wait to enjoy the meat and the mount!
Until the next once-in-a-lifetime hunts presents itself, happy hunting.