Tracking Nevada bighorn sheepSix months ago, when I drew permits for Montana elk and Nevada desert bighorn sheep, I began fretting and worrying that perhaps I had been too optimistic about my abilities to collect either animal. A double-fusion back surgery in late July did nothing to allay those fears, my back and legs being as bad or worse than prior to the surgery.
By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun
(First of two parts)
Six months ago, when I drew permits for Montana elk and Nevada desert bighorn sheep, I began fretting and worrying that perhaps I had been too optimistic about my abilities to collect either animal. A double-fusion back surgery in late July did nothing to allay those fears, my back and legs being as bad or worse than prior to the surgery.
I managed to shoot a decent six-point bull the first day of elk hunting in November, then turned to the December desert sheep hunt. For a number of years, I had been dealing with Roy Lerg, a Smith, Nev., sheep guide of considerable reputation, who annually recommended areas he thought I could handle with my limited physical capabilities. As it turned out, after 18 years of applying, I drew a permit for a unit in the Monte Cristo Mountains some 35 miles northwest of Tonopah. Through e-mails he suggested we hunt the last 10 days of the season — Dec. 11-20 — to avoid lots of hunters in the field.
So on the 9th, Laurie and I depart Bozeman in my Dodge Ram, spend the first night in Wells, Nev., and continue on through Ely the next day. We pass through country neither of us has seen before. We’d cross a mountain range, drive through a seemingly endless, lonely basin, skirt the edge of another mountain range and motor through another basin. It is like that for hundreds of miles. Finally, at dusk on the 10th and after some 835 miles, we arrive in Tonapah, Nev. Halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, Tonopah sits at 6,033 feet elevation, is home to about 2,300 residents. (It had a population of about 10,000 in the early 1900s during the mining boom years.)
As planned, we meet Roy Lerg at 6 a.m. on the 11th at the motel’s breakfast room. Roy is 58 and has been guiding sheep hunters since he was 24. On our drive to the Monte Cristos in his 2004 one-ton Ford diesel pickup, he tells me that “he quit counting at 100,” when I ask him how many successful sheep hunts he had guided. “But it’s probably something like 120,” he adds.
We spend the day, poking along backroads in the dry, lava country, glassing the high slopes and looking for sheep. Roy spots a total of 18 ewes and lambs through his spotting scope, and later announces that he sees two young rams. “Look for the pyramid-shaped rock.” I find a pyramid-shaped rock but can’t see a sheep.
“Where is the ram in relation to the rock?”
“He’s right on top of it.”
Then I notice a pyramid-shaped outcrop many times as large as the rock I am studying, and twice as far distant, and there on the top of it is a young desert bighorn ram. He looks light in color — almost like a Dall sheep — in the bright sunshine. The second ram has departed.
Laurie joins us the second day, however, we don’t see a single sheep all day.
On the third day it snows three to four inches. At one point Roy sees tracks crossing the road, so we pull over and glass. Immediately, I spot two ewes about 250 yards away in the lava cliffs. They appear much darker in color than the rams we saw a couple days ago.
“Desert sheep hunting takes patience,” Roy tells me at one point, and he does indeed exhibit patience. He calmly and methodically searches and glasses, and announces the fourth day that we will concentrate on the west side of the mountain range where the elevation is lower and the country is largely free from snow. On this day we see two small rams and 17 ewes. Laurie is able to view the first desert sheep she has ever seen.
When we meet the next morning Laurie tells us, “This is the fifth day of hunting and the 15th day of December … multiples of three, you see, and I like your chances of success today. Roy and I tease her about her numbers fetish, and we leave once again for the Monte Cristos. I’ll tell you more about it next week!
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974