After 34 years of trying, Cottage Grove hunter Tony Leffler won a particular kind of Oregon lottery this year when he drew an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) tag to hunt bighorn sheep.
This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one he’d been looking forward to since he was 16 years old, came with a mixed bag of elation and suspense.
“Every year, a lot of people don’t get sheep,” he said. “If you do draw the tag, it’s not a given that you’re going to get a sheep. You’ve got to hunt for it.”
Leffler was among only 82 hunters selected in the state on June 20 for a bighorn sheep tag out of 24,000 applicants and one of two who received tags for the Coleman-East Guano unit, a region in Southeast Oregon bordering Nevada.
ODFW requires that tag winners first attend a class (offered online this year) which educates hunters on terrain, conditions, differences between sheep type, how to care for the meat and how to prepare for taxidermy.
As the hides cannot be bought or sold, Leffler said, the single-opportunity hunt required plenty of preparation. And the land itself poses its own challenges.
“It’s one of the toughest hunts just because of the area and the rocks, the juniper trees and the ability for the sheep to hide,” he said.
Selecting six friends for the expedition, Leffler’s party set up one day before the season opened last month at high elevation to get a lay of the land.
With one group camped at around 7,000 feet and another at around 4,400 feet, the party started scanning, or “glassing,” the area, which Leffler described as more than a simple peek through binoculars.
“You’ve got to use expensive spotting scopes because they’re so far away,” he said.
With a herd of sheep spotted the night before the season started, the next morning party members followed fresh tracks and eventually stumbled upon the herd, only 100 yards away.
While setting up to video record the event, however, a party member’s two-way radio suddenly sounded off and startled the sheep.
“And within 20 minutes they’re almost clear at the top of a rim that just took us two and a half hours to get down,” Leffler said.
Without enough water to continue, the party turned back and vowed to learn from the mistake.
With another day dawning, two party members took the rim to spot for targets as Leffler followed their directions.
Though the spotting party found the sheep, they weren’t sure where Leffler and his party were, though he was warned he might be close because the sheep were “acting funny.”
“About that time, I look over and there’s a sheep 200 yards away standing there looking at us on top of a rock,” said Leffler.
The hunters immediately dropped behind large rocks and waited out what turned out to be a group of six rams. Though the rams eventually came into view, Leffler wasn’t able to shoot.
“We had to sit there and we had to stare out for probably an hour and 45 minutes waiting, because they wouldn’t move and I couldn’t get a clean shot,” he said.
Finally, an opportunity presented itself. Leffler took the shot and the rams scattered. With only five sheep spotted running off, Leffler’s hopes were high and he pushed through rough terrain to the spot he’d fired on.
“To go from where I shot it 225 yards away — from where I was standing to get to where the sheep were — it took us 45 minutes to get over there because it was so steep and rugged,” he said.
Finally spotting his sheep, one more shot secured his target and he and his party hoisted the ani-mal out of the rocky landscape.
“It helped having the number of guys I had to help me,” said Leffler. “If I had to do it with me and just one other guy, I don’t know if I could have done it.”
Despite the ram measuring at a 16-inch base, Leffler wasn’t so much interested in its size.
“I really didn’t care about score,” he said. “I just wanted a good-looking ram.”
As well as satisfied to have a mount, Leffler said ram meat is “phenomenal.”
Along with his family support, Leffler attributed his successful to others rallying to help.
“Having great friends to help me — that was key,” he said. “The amount of help I got was overwhelming. It was really appreciated.”
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