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Old Flare – A B&C Audio Adventure



By Lester A. Kish
21st Big Game Awards Program| From Legendary Hunts

To say that hunting is a sport of luck is an understatement. In 1990, I had the good fortune to draw a bighorn sheep permit in Montana’s Unit 213, near Anaconda. With odds exceeding 100 to 1, just drawing the permit was an incredible stroke of luck.

Unit 213 has a transplanted herd that originated from sheep trapped in Montana’s Sun River area. In a little over 20 years, the herd had become a producer of super rams, with the herd consisting of over 400 sheep.

Then, late in the summer of 1991, the population crashed due to an epidemic of pasteurella pneumonia. Writer Duncan Gilchrist and I visited the area in February 1992. Range that supported upward of 150 rams during the winter of 1991 contained only 22 sheep. While later counts were a little more encouraging, the total herd had been reduced to about 30 percent of pre-pasteurella levels. In addition, the majority of the big rams perished during the epidemic.

I would not be able to write this story if my permit were for 1991 since most of the big rams had died prior to the hunting season. What a difference a year makes.

During August and September of 1990, I made several scouting trips to the area. Sheep were plentiful, and I was able to find the favored haunts of the rams. One day, more than six hours were spent watching a group of 14 rams. Two of the rams were huge. One sported a massive, deeply dropping, heavily broomed set of horns. The other ram was even more incredible. He had it all. Built like those of an argali, the horns were long, massive, relatively unbroomed, and flared. I would later learn that this ram had been observed, photographed, and even videotaped by Duncan Gilchrist and others during previous winters. The ram had aptly been nicknamed Flare. The shadows lengthened and darkness fell as I walked off the mountain. Sheep season was still three sleepless weeks away.

September 15, 1990, finally arrived and with it the opening of the Montana sheep season. Ironically, I had scheduled my vacation for this date. Imagine, nine whole days to hunt ram.

The weather was superb, though actually too warm during the first days of the season. My hunting partner, Jo, accompanied me the first two days. We saw lots of country and quite a few sheep, but nothing exceptional, so the hunt continued. I was glad that Jo had the opportunity to share the thrill of glassing for rams in the high country. Few people have been so fortunate.

From the third day on, I would be hunting alone; Jo had to go back to work. Early that third morning, I climbed out of Lost Creek Canyon. From my vantage point, I could see an expanse of rock and timber. Occasionally a ram or two would appear briefly in an opening and then disappear. Some rams were respectable yet not tempting enough to make me want to end the hunt of a lifetime. Vivid memories of those giant rams seen during preseason scouting kept me from getting too excited about taking an average ram.

That afternoon, I hiked out and moved camp to another area. I would concentrate on the area where I had earlier seen Flare. With camp moved, I did some hiking and scouting. Around dusk, several rams were spotted, miles away. While I could not be sure, I had a feeling that they might be the same bunch I had watched for six hours during the preseason. Would the big rams still be with them?

For some reason, I did not get any sleep that night. I almost wore out the switch on my flashlight by checking the time every few minutes. At 4:00 a.m., I couldn’t stand the waiting so I got up and made some coffee.

Soon after, flashlight in hand, I was hiking up the ridge toward the rams, hoping they were still bedded. I knew my intended approach well. I had worked and reworked the stalk during the sleepless night. The rams were approachable, provided that they stayed put.

The sheep hunting mystique was real; Jack O’Connor was right. Once you contract sheep fever, you are a goner.

What were the odds that this was the same bunch of rams that I had glassed for hours during the preseason? Better yet, what were the odds that the old argali named Flare would be with them? It just had to be the same bunch. I knew it was the day for a big ram. The sky brightened. Soon, the first rays of morning sunshine would illuminate the neighboring peaks of the Pintlars. Spectacular scenery is usually available on demand when sheep hunting, and the Pintlars obliged each time I looked over my shoulder.

Only the sheep hunter knows the inexorable lure of hunting the high country. While I had spent years stalking the Rockies for other mountain game, those experiences paled in comparison to this hunt. The sheep hunting mystique was real; Jack O’Connor was right. Once you contract sheep fever, you are a goner.

At first light, I reached a vantage point overlooking the head of the drainage. Out came the spotting scope. Were the rams still there? You bet! There were 12 rams in all, with the big argali lying in the center. It was a most incredible sight.

I packed away the scope. It was crunch time. The rams were a little over a half-mile above me. I backed out of sight, threw the old legs into gear, and headed up the mountain.

I soon reached the lodgepole timber. Continuing on, I made sure that I was well above the rams. Then I cut across the slope in their direction.  Eventually, I reached the drainage head. Grass appeared through the timber but I saw no rams. Like a snake in the grass, I bellied down the slope. A single horn appeared. More slithering, and more horns popped into view.

They were only 70 yards away. From a prone position, I could not see the rams. The grass was too tall. Up on my knees, I could only see heads and necks — not enough for a shot.

The biggest sheep on the mountain was right in front of me and I could not do anything. Man, was I nervous. I waited an honest 20 minutes as rams started getting up to feed. Finally, the big one got up. Caught in the open, I had to shoot offhand. Deer and elk running through the timber seem to be easy targets to me, but a huge ram, standing in the open, was almost impossible.

Every ram but Flare was staring at me. I shot, missed, and all hell broke loose. The stampede was on. Just as he was about to disappear into a gully, I broke his back. I could hear rocks rolling. Then the ram appeared down below, and he was trying to get up. I put two more shots into the rolling ram. All was quiet.

When I reached the ram, I was shocked. He was the most incredible animal I had ever seen. Unfortunately, I did not take much time admiring him. It was only 7:45 a.m. but the sun was already starting to feel hot. Hastily, I took some pictures and set about the caping and boning chores.

The next 12 hours were pure hell. It was hot and dry. I ran out of water. I wanted to get the meat and cape off the mountain in a hurry. By maintaining a relentless pace and leapfrogging loads of meat and the head for short distances, I got closer to the car with each load. That way, I did not have to hike all the way back to the kill site once any one load was all the way out.

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“You look worse than the sheep,” Jo said. “You certainly smell worse.”

I got back to camp with the last load just as it was getting dark. Rather than spend the night, I packed up my gear and drove home. When I pulled in late that night, Jo was up in a flash. The smile on my face said it all. Yes, I got one, a pretty good one.

I was all scratched up and had a chunk of hide rubbed off my back from the friction of the pack frame. In addition, I had lost 10 pounds in 4 days of hunting.

Next morning, I went down to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks headquarters to get the horns plugged. Fred King, an Official Measurer for Boone and Crockett, was in the lobby. When I walked in, he asked how the sheep hunting was going. “Come out to the car and take a look,” I said.

The reaction when I opened the tailgate was, “Oh my God!” We carried the head into the lab. Soon, people were popping out of the woodwork to admire the sheep.

“Is he a big one?” someone asked. “Yes, he certainly is. Maybe a new record!”

He was plugged as 80 MT 361. When the tape hit the left horn, it stretched to 20 inches, 30 inches, and then 40 inches, with more to go. The tape finally stopped at 49-2/8 inches. Even the short horn measured 45-5/8 inches. Geez, what a sheep!

Sixty days later, he scored 200-7/8, thus making him the new state record for Montana, the land of the giant rams.

Friend and taxidermist Dale Manning from Missoula, Montana, did a superb job on the shoulder mount. Now, when I look at old Flare (or Oscar, as I prefer to call him), I relive the excitement and rigors of the hunt. I also dream of the day when I can again pursue great rams in the high country.



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