Steamboat Springs It was the moment he had waited 27 years for.
Lonny Vanatta booked the hunt a year before, flew to Mexico, drove 10 hours and spent five days in the rugged mountains and four hours crawling across the broken terrain, and finally he was there. A small group of desert bighorn sheep stood just 60 yards away.
That’s not close, he explained, but it’s not too far, especially for a seasoned hunter like Vanatta.
He stood and pulled his bow taut. He took aim, let the arrow fly and watched it plow into the ram he’d chosen. It was the second largest in the pack but also the closest. The arrow buried deep into the beast.
Then, the animal ran away.
Catching the bug
Vanatta grew up prowling Routt County’s backcountry, hunting and fishing alongside his father. He eventually went into business for himself as a hunting guide, and now Vanatta Outfitters is one of the most recognized outfits in Routt County.
He was 29 when he first embarked on the quest that certainly hasn’t defined his life but has consumed plenty of his waking moments.
A presentation about a Canadian hunt for Dall bighorn sheep at a meeting of a local archery club, the Wapiti Bowmen, planted a seed for Vanatta.
He booked his trip, and when he got that bighorn sheep, he had taken his first step toward the North American sheep grand slam: hunting the Dall and stone bighorn sheep in Canada, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in Colorado, among other places, and the desert bighorn in the American southwest or Mexico.
Even from the first hunt, it wasn’t easy.
“For hunts like that, you pack everything into a backpack that you’ll need for two weeks,” he said. “We hiked in about 30 miles, then you can get six, eight or 10 more miles in a day while on the hunt.”
That was 1986. He still was chasing the goal of a slam in 2013.
The mountains of Mexico’s Baja peninsula don’t bear much in common with those of Routt County.
The elevation doesn’t compare, but the terrain is steeper, rockier and more difficult to transit than anything found in Vanatta’s traditional stomping ground.
“I’d only compare it to the most rugged country in the Zirkels, and I’m not sure even that compares,” Vanatta said. “It’s some of the most difficult terrain I’ve ever hunted.”
Vanatta and friend Chad Bedell landed early last month in Cabo San Lucas, the tropical resort destination on the tip of the Baja peninsula. They then drove nearly halfway back to the United States to a hunting camp prepared in the mostly abandoned fishing village of Agua Verde, overlooking the expanse of the Gulf of California and the brilliant blue of the Sea of Cortez.
He set out with his guides for the next two days, hunting the nearby slopes and cliffs, hoping to get lucky early in his 10-day hunt.
It wasn’t working. He marveled at the skills his guides possessed — “their ability to see animals at a distance was really impressive” — but it wasn’t happening. Twice, they set out to hunt in earnest, stalking rams spotted from a distance. The first try turned out to be too small of a ram. The second attempt was called off as the ram being pursued made its way into cliff-laden terrain.
“The thing about hunting these sheep, they live in such rugged country. The opportunity doesn’t happen often even to get a shot at one,” he said. “Doing it with a bow, that makes it doubly hard.
“The lows emotionally with hunting sheep can be quite low.”
Two days into the hunt, he had no idea how true those words would be.
Racking them up
The easiest take of the grand slam turned out to be the Rocky Mountain ram.
It was more difficult than it might seem — these are, of course, the animals that have a habit of lingering near Colorado highways, their presence always reliably signaled by cars tapping their brakes and gawkers pulling to the side of the road.
Hunters must be at least 400 yards from any highway, but Vanatta accomplished that task in 1988 on the first day of the hunt.
He then got some luck, winning a raffle for a stone sheep hunt, and that one proved plenty difficult. The 1989 trip involved another flight in a small plane to a remote corner of Canada for a 30-mile hike.
On the eighth day, he took what at the time was a world record stone ram for a bow.
“It was pretty cool to be able to take an animal with a bow that you could say was the biggest in the world,” he said. “He has been beaten now, but I can still say I shot a world record.”
That made it three down, one to go.
The most frustrating aspect of the grand slam for Vanatta turned out to be the quest to securing the appropriate tags. In fact, that’s what turned the hunt from a several-year endeavor to a nearly three-decade trek.
Vanatta applied and applied and applied for a tag to get the desert bighorn sheep in one of the appropriate states, mainly Arizona and Nevada.
Finally, the weight of the years was too much, and he took the only possible shortcut. Tags in Mexico are sold by the government and tribes inhabiting the lands.
After one final delay — a severe drought in the area persuaded Vanatta to push his trip back a year — he finally was on the hunt.
After two fruitless days hunting near the camp, the team packed for a one-night swing into even rockier terrain. Finally, on the fourth day of the hunt, the group found a promising herd of 10 animals including eight rams. They weren’t even far away: 324 yards according to Vanatta’s rangefinder. The only problem was the hunters were at the top of an enormous cliff, and the sheep were at the bottom.
“There was no way we were going straight down at them,” Vanatta said. “We had to make a roundabout stalk. To cover that distance, it took four hours.”
That's when he crawled in, took his shot, buried his arrow in his target and watched it run away.
The ideal place to hit an animal is right behind the shoulder, digging into vital organs including the heart, lungs and liver. Vanatta hit right in front of the shoulder, however, ripping mostly through muscle.
“You talk about the emotions of sheep hunting, that was about as low as you can get,” he said. “I spent all this money and waited 27 years for this day.
“It was a 10-day hunt, and I got my first shot on Day 5, so maybe I would have gotten another chance. Maybe not.”
The group tracked a blood trail the rest of the day but didn’t find the ram. Sure the ram's wound wasn’t fatal, Vanatta already had tried to wrap his mind around a sour ending. The group decided to give the search one last try in the morning and camped again even though they were out of food.
Then, in the morning, a pair of guides who’d set out early found the dead ram with a broken arrow sticking through the muscle just enough to nip a lung.
“Your emotions can get quite low, but when you do harvest one, the rewards are about as high as can be,” Vanatta said. “A lot of people in Routt County and Moffat County grow up hunting things like deer and elk, and that can be great. Killing a North American wild sheep, though, well, it’s quite rewarding.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com