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Brad Dokken / Forum News Service, Published February 09 2014

Grand Forks hunter makes most of bighorn opportunity

Grand Forks, N.D. - Branden Bartholomew has enjoyed some memorable hunting trips, including moose in Alaska, but the Grand Forks man says it will be difficult to top the bighorn sheep hunt he experienced last September along the Missouri River Breaks of north-central Montana.

Named for the rugged badlands-like terrain that breaks from rolling Montana prairie to the upper Missouri River some 2,000 feet below, the Breaks are known for producing trophy bighorn sheep. But the odds of a nonresident drawing a tag in the lottery for the two hunting units along the river are slim, Bartholomew said, and he’d been applying for more than 15 years.

In the process, Bartholomew had accumulated 13 preference points, a number that proved to be very lucky one morning last June, when he checked the sheep lottery results on the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ website:

He’d drawn the only nonresident sheep tag for hunting Unit 482 north of Lewistown, Mont., on the south side of the Missouri River.

“The whole thing was amazing. It’s something you never expect to happen,” said Bartholomew, 60, a surveyor for the city of Grand Forks. “It truly is bigger than winning any other lottery – just the way the whole thing is set up and tailored in Montana.”

Bartholomew’s hunt culminated in a Boone and Crockett record-book ram that was 10½ years old and measured 182 inches. That’s impressive, to be sure, but it only happened because he got drawn in the lottery.

The unit and adjacent 680 on the north side of the river each offered 15 resident ram licenses – more than any other sheep unit in the state – last year, Bartholomew said, but nonresident licenses were limited to 1 percent of the resident allocation in each of the units.

Even to an optimist, those are slim odds.

“I was lucky enough to go to Alaska a couple of times and get a moose tag, and I got a very nice bull up there, so I felt so lucky at that time, too,” Bartholomew said. “But whenever you insert the business of a drawing, that’s when the real luck begins.”

Go with the flow

Kevin Burns, an avid sheep hunter from Kalispell, Mont., had scouted the area twice, including a trial run of the canoe route about three weeks before the Sept. 15 sheep opener, and had spotted a massive ram with a set of horns he estimated at 200 inches both times, Bartholomew said.

“No. 1,” as he came to be known, was within the same 30-yard area during both of Burns’ scouting trips.

“At that point, it was looking like this whole thing might be kind of easy because he had seen this ram twice” in the same area, Bartholomew said.

The crew launched their canoes Sept. 12, the Thursday before opening day, at the Stafford Ferry access point and set off downriver to make camp. They spent the next couple of days scouting.

“We saw lots of other sheep,” Bartholomew said. “We saw a couple of ram bands, we saw some single rams and we saw some ewes.”

What they didn’t see was No. 1. “No. 1 was gone,” Bartholomew said. “Nobody knows where he went.”

During his scouting trips, Burns also had seen a second ram about a mile and a half away, with horns he figured would score 190 inches or more.

Plans of pursuing that ram fell by the wayside when another group of hunters set up camp below ram No. 2 the day before season.

Turn for the better

For lack of a better option, Bartholomew suggested walking about a mile and a half downriver and setting up the spotting scope to scan the horizon.

That’s when they spotted four rams in a group on a side hill along the river. One of the rams looked darker, more massive than the other three.

Bartholomew said his benchmark before the hunt was 180 inches, the minimum size for a ram’s horns to qualify for the Boone and Crockett record book. The rest of the crew figured the largest ram would score 187 to 189.

“We went over there, and (the rams) were gone,” Bartholomew recalls. “This is just icing on the cake for Day One. Everything is going wrong.”

The crew was about to head back to camp when they spotted the four rams again. The sun was fading, and Bartholomew suggested they call it and return the next morning.

The rams by this time had ascended one of the buttes. Now, it was just a matter of waiting for the biggest ram to step away from the other three and into shooting range.

Watching from below, Bartholomew was set up on a rock and waiting with his .270 Remington when the biggest ram gave him a clear uphill shot at 206 yards.

One shot, and the ram was down. “I wasn’t shaking or anything,” he said, “just focused on holding steady and touching the trigger. It worked out fine.”

Next came the treacherous ascent to reach the ram.

“It’s just completely vertical and there are these, like little rain troughs that run down the side of the breaks,” Bartholomew said. “The only way you could get up there was to stuff your toes in those cracks.”

Home stretch

It was too dark for photos by the time Bartholomew dressed the ram, so they covered the sheep with jackets to keep scavengers such as magpies at bay and hiked back to camp. They returned the next morning to take photographs, prepare the skull and hide for mounting and debone the sheep.

They were in the canoes by noon and back at the downstream landing by 4 p.m. A short time later, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks official inserted a numbered plug in the horns to certify the ram had been taken legally.

Bartholomew says he’s getting a life-size mount of his record-book ram and a European mount of the skull and horns. The meat, he says, is “very tasty,” similar to elk and with a fine texture.

From drawing the tag, to experiencing the rugged scenery on a route Lewis and Clark once followed and ultimately shooting the ram, Bartholomew said the hunt was an adventure he’ll never forget.

“For some other guys that hunt the world, it’s probably just another hunt,” Bartholomew said. “But for me, it was truly the biggest deal I’ll probably ever be involved in.”

Just as big, perhaps, as winning the lottery.

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer

for the Grand Forks Herald