To Hell and Back

BIGHORN SHEEP These six hunting units in southwestern Montana are the last places in the Lower 48 where you are guaranteed to pull a sheep permit if you apply. Even nonresidents don't need to hire an outfitter to go. Unlike in most other bighorn sheep units in Montana, pulling the permit is the easy part. The unlimiteds are so tough that experienced sheep guides who've tried to conquer them have left limping and shaking their heads. Why? Much of the country is so sheer and rocky that using horses to pack in a camp is impossible. Everything goes in and comes out on your back. Couple that with the fact that sheep numbers are so low that you might have to hike a hundred miles or more to get a shot at a ram. Oh, and did we mention that the unlimiteds are infested with grizzlies? Most sheep aficionados agree that the biggest rams in the unlimiteds live, not surprisingly, in the toughest unit, 501, which encompasses a large portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness between Red Lodge and the Paradise Valley. "It's like hunting on the moon," says Tim Schinabarger, a sculptor who has successfully hunted several of Montana's unlimited units, including 501. "The Beartooths are Montana's toughest mountain range. Going after sheep in them means you've got to put in miles and miles of backpacking." Schinabarger helped his wife, Roxanne, hunt 501 in 2003. Between scouting and hunting trips the couple put in 37 days, hiked 125 miles and climbed and descended more than 30,000 vertical feet before she at last shot her sheep, an exceptional, broomed-off ram that scored 165 Boone and Crockett points. "To do well in 501 you've got to be darn near obsessed, ready to wear out a pair of boots and aware that you'll be dealing with grizzlies," says Schinabarger, who had a sow and two cubs charge into his camp during the hunt. "But if you've got the time and are prepared and committed to the hunt, you can shoot a nice representative ram." Mike Lovely has hunted sheep for 25 years and bought the rights to outfit 501 from famed guide Jack Atcheson Jr. "Jack used to say that God deposited ninety percent of the rock in Montana in 501, and I'd say he was about right. I've had clients who've hunted in the Brooks Range up in Alaska and down in Mexico come here and tell me it's the toughest sheep country in all of North America." Indeed, when people call Lovely about hunting 501, he tries to discourage them. He tells them that they'll be crawling around in scree slides and boulders above 9,000 feet, that they might go eight days without seeing a sheep and that they could face everything from heat to blizzards to gale-force winds. "It takes a special kind of person, someone who's as tough mentally as physically, to succeed in the unlimiteds," Lovely says. "Older hunters seem to do better than the younger guys, who all seem to spend too much time watching the Outdoor Channel rather than getting ready. But nice rams are killed in the unlimiteds every year. It all comes down to the hunter and what he's willing to endure to succeed." Contact: Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (406-444-2950; fwp.state.mt.us). Guide Mike Lovely, Rollin-Boulder Outfitters (406-932-5836; rbo@mtio.net)