A once in a lifetime hunt
Drawing a tag to hunt bighorn sheep is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
In fact, some people never draw a tag, so imagine her surprise when 12-year-old Jordan Rourk-Phillips drew a tag on her first attempt.
"It was the first time I had ever drawn a tag myself," she said recently. "I was really excited and I ran out of the house a couple of times."
Rourk-Phillips' tag was for the Whitehorse Unit, tucked away in the Trout Creek Mountains near the Nevada border.
Once they knew that Jordan had drawn a tag, her family went to work.
"The day after my dad found out that I had drawn a tag my dad went on a scouting trip for a couple of days," Rourk-Phillips said. "And then we went on a four-day scouting trip. After that we went to Dave Vaughan. He had a tag the year before and he showed us everywhere on the map where he saw big rams. I would say that we spent at least three or four weeks planning."
Part of the planning involved talking to cowboys who worked in or near the Whitehorse Unit.
"There are no secrets in sheep hunting," Jordan's stepdad Matthew Kline said. "I will probably never get a tag so everybody tells you everywhere they see sheep. If they already have a tag, they will never get one again because it's once in a lifetime and if they don't have a tag they may never draw it, so it's not like keeping a deer or elk spot secret. You ask somebody from down there, one of the cowboys on the ranches, and they don't care. They just say 'well we saw sheep over there.'"
Armed with information about where sheep had been seen, Jordan and her stepdad set out to make sure that she would have a successful hunt.
They set up camp in McDermitt, Nevada. Scouting the area, they found three nice rams on Battle Mountain, which they tracked for three days prior to the season opening on Saturday, Aug. 19.
Watching the rams' bed down in the same area each night, Jordan and her stepdad were certain that they were going to have a successful hunt.
On Saturday they were at the site early and sure enough the rams were there.
However, Jordan was unable to get a shot as they stood up. The rams began walking toward a water hole that they had used each of the prior three days, so Jordan and her stepdad jumped into their jeep and drove around to the water hole.
However, the rams never showed up. After a lengthy wait they were told that the rams had been spotted at a dead run racing past where they had initially been spotted. Eventually the rams disappeared over a ridge and neither Jordan nor her stepdad ever spotted them again.
Following the setback the duo spent the next two or three days looking for a new group of rams to hunt.
Finally on Wednesday, Aug. 23 the duo decided to hunt Indian Creek Canyon.
"Everybody up there said that two out of the three tags for the Whitehorse unit are killed somewhere near Indian Creek every year," Kline said. "It's just a great canyon, except it's a hell hole. One of the other tag hunters was an adult man and he had three other guys with him and they watched those sheep for two days and they said 'there's no way we are going down into that hole'. So I said well me and this little 12-year-old girl we are going down in this hole."
"It was so steep and so rugged that you couldn't get a four-wheeler near there," Rourk-Phillips said. "So we went down there and we were looking and looking. Then some guys from FONAWS (The Federation of North American Wild Sheep) said 'heh we just spotted some rams, do you want us to show you where they are at.' We said sure, so we went down there pretty close to the rams and found them and they were like 'are you sure that you can get down there?'"
After looking over the terrain, Kline and Rourk-Phillips decided that despite the steep terrain they could make their way down a ridge and possibly get a shot.
"It was completely straight up and down with sage brush and some shale rock," Rourk-Phillips said. "But we looked and saw a ridge that would block us from them our entire way down."
After a lengthy hike Kline decided that they were getting about as close to the rams as they could get and the two began to belly crawl.
Rourk-Phillips said that they belly crawled for at least 100 yards before finally getting to an area where they could see the rams.
"We finally got out on top and my dad said 'oh, there they are'" Rourk-Phillips said. "He range-finded them and it was 500 yards away and that's farther than I have ever shot so he said 'are you sure you can do this?'"
Rourk-Phillips said that she told her dad that she thought that she could make the shot.
After getting comfortable, Rourk-Phillips put her scope on a large ram with a gps collar and finally took a shot.
"My dad was watching and he said I missed him by an inch low," Rourk-Phillips said.
The rams began to run, and when they finally stopped they were even farther away.
"My dad said 'OK, now they are 575 yards,' but I still decided that I wanted to take a shot at them, so we were looking and looking in my scope and I said oh, there's the collar. His collar — that's how I found him every single time that I missed. So I got all comfortable and I shot again, but I missed him a little high."
After the second missed shot, Rourk-Phillips thought that the rams would disappear for good. Instead, they circled back and started running back toward the hunters.
"They ran so far below us that I couldn't see them anymore, but we heard them running across shale below us," Rourk-Phillips said. "So my dad found them 100 yards away from us and he goes 'shoot it, they are right there.' I got up and oh gosh, they are 100 yards away, but they were still moving and I couldn't get a good shot at them. We were whistling and whistling, but they wouldn't stop."
Rourk-Phillips said that the rams finally saw the hunters and spooked and started running faster.
After running for about 100 yards, the rams stopped briefly on a rock face. Jordan steadied the gun on her dad's shoulder and pulled the trigger.
"He ran a little and dropped and started rolling down the hill," Rourk-Phillips said. "I was bawling my eyes out because I was so happy and so excited. My dad said shoot him one more time and finish him off and I finally shot. I was so happy and my dad was hugging me and he was happy."
By then it was mid-afternoon and Rourk-Phillips and Kline still had a difficult climb ahead.
"My dad said you are going to lead me up to the sheep because it's your trophy," Rourk-Phillips said. "He videotaped me walking up to the sheep and took a whole bunch of pictures. Then we realized that we had no pack frames and we were almost out of water.
They made the decision that they would gut and bone the sheep and then leave the meat surrounded by some of their clothing and hike out of the canyon without the meat.
The duo planned to return early the next morning.
However before they had finished processing the meat, they heard someone yell whoop, whoop.
"It was one of the FONAWS guys," Rourk-Phillips said. "They were actually watching the entire thing through their scopes and one of them had grabbed both of our pack frames and a whole bunch of water and had started hiking down to us to help us. They were older, so we were really surprised. They actually saved our butts. It was awesome."
Kline added that the man who came to help was in his 60s.
The trio finished boning the sheep and loaded the back and started the steep climb out of the canyon with Rourk-Phillips carrying the head and the two men carrying the meat.
"I was falling all over the place," Rourk-Phillips said. "I would take a step and my dad would have to be there with his hand because I would fall back and I would fall to the side. It was just so uneven and awkward and just really hard to carry."
"The head weighted 60 some pounds and Jordan weights 90 something and she's about ready to die," Kline added.
However, the duo was about to get more help.
Early in the morning, they had met an antelope hunter from Astoria.
That hunter, who was in his 30s, had seen them starting down into the canyon and said that if they needed help to be sure to call.
Later in the morning, he had gotten his antelope and he had already finished hunting and returned to camp.
Still after a phone call he and his wife made their way to the top of the canyon and started down into the canyon on four-wheelers.
When they had gone as far as they could with the four-wheelers, the hunter hiked the rest of the way into the canyon, taking the head from Rourk-Phillips.
"He took the head the rest of the way out for her," Kline said. "After she got that head off of her back, she still packed both day packs and the gun all the way out, while we kept the meat and the head. But she took the head close to half way up, so I'm super proud of her that she did that."
They finally reached a fence near the top of the canyon and the remaining FONAWS guys and the antelope hunter's wife took the meat over the fence to the four-wheelers.
The group finally reached the top of the canyon just as the sun went down behind a rim.
"We hiked the rest of the way up with nothing on our backs, which was really nice of them," Rourk-Phillips said. "We all celebrated and they all told me good job and they all told my dad good job because of how awesome he worked with me. They said that was the most awesome stalk they had ever seen, so they all congratulated me and my dad and I said thank you for all of the help. We had so much help and we were so grateful."
Rourk-Phillips added that the trip was truly a once in a lifetime experience and something that she will never forget.
"I can't even explain it," she said. "My dad helped me so much on this hunt. It was really special. It's the funnest thing ever. It's great bonding time with family and it's just such an amazing time. It was awesome."
Kline also said that the experience was amazing.
"I have killed a lot of deer and elk," he said. "I didn't even get to pull the trigger and it was the best hunt I have ever been on in my life. I'm super proud. She never lost her confidence even though it was quite a long shot and she missed a few times. But she kept saying 'I can do this dad, I can do this,' and she did. It was a great hunt."
Although the hunt is over, Kline said that there is one more part to the story.
"At the end of the day, Jordan said 'I know you are killing something, but all this made me want to do is help sheep more,'" Kline said. "Instead of saying I got my sheep so I'm done for my life, she said this experience made me want to help these sheep more, like volunteer. Hunters are the true original conservationists. Most non-hunters don't think that, they just think that you want to kill something. You would like to kill something, but you want your kids and grandkids to be able to hunt these animals 100 years in the future, and she said that. She said 'I want to go on these trips to relocate sheep and take their blood and see what diseases they have.' That made her want to do more, which I was pretty impressed from a 12-year-old."