Keys’ strong guidance helps Sapa complete Grand Slam of bighorn sheep hunting

Desert sheep Montana hunter Dick Sapa poses with the impressive desert bighorn ram he harvested on the first day of this year’s desert bighorn sheep season. Sapa, the first nonresident hunter to harvest a ram out of the Black Ridge herd, completed his Grand Slam of bighorn sheep with the desert ram. The Black Ridge sheep herd was started in 1979 and now is estimated to number around 200 animals.

Joe Keys has many good memories after more than two decades as a big-game guide and outfitter, but this November certainly stands out.

Keys, who owns Keys Guide and Outfitting in Mesa, helped Montana hunter Dick Sapa harvest the first desert bighorn ram allowed a nonresident hunter from sheep unit S56 on Black Ridge.

That game unit is bordered by Colorado Highway 141 and the Dolores River on the east and south, the Utah border on the west and the Colorado River on the north.

“We saw quite a few nice rams during the hunt but this is certainly the nicest of the ones we saw,” said Keys, who started guiding when he was 19.

The Black Ridge area is difficult to hunt, with steep, isolated slickrock canyons and dense stands of pinyon and juniper trees.

Keys had done some earlier scouting in the area and decided the best way to approach the hunt was from the river.

“I had scouted both on top and down along the river and saw more rams by the river so I figured that’s where our best chance would be,” Keys said.

He said he had located six possible rams, but when he, Sapa and Durango guide and taxidermist John Gardner went looking, they discovered the sheep had spread for four miles or more along the river.

“We set up camp in the middle of where we had seen the rams and spent a day locating the sheep,” Keys said. “One band about two miles from camp had a nice ram in it but then the ram ended up walking way down river.”

Division of Wildlife terrestrial biologist Stephanie Duckett said sheep from the Black Ridge herd occasionally wander into Utah, which meant Keys had to keep an eye on his map as he neared the border.

“We sort of knew where the big ram was, so in the middle of the day we got back into our boat and floated down” to where the ram was located, Keys said.

He understandably hedged on pinpointing the canyon where he saw the big ram.

“That’s how I make a living,” he said. “Let’s just say it was along the river someplace west of Grand Junction.”

Keys was using a 22-foot motorized snout, a fast and maneuverable boat designed like a large cataraft, commonly used to ferry larger parties on big rivers such as the Colorado through Grand Canyon.

Keys guides a lot of river trips during the year and found the large boat perfect for a river-based sheep hunt.

Because the desert bighorn sheep season covers Nov. 1-30, Keys had to carry a week’s store of supplies for him, two other guides and Sapa and his son.

“It’s nice to have a boat that size, it really makes things easier,” Keys said.

By the time Keys and his client had floated to where they thought the ram was, the sheep had moved again.

“We had to spend some time looking and finally found him,” Keys said. “There are a lot of sheep in that country but it’s so rough and so huge, it’s really a tough place to hunt.”

One thing made it easier. With little moisture having fallen up to the time of the hunt, Keys knew the sheep would gravitate to the river for water.

Once they located the ram, it was time to decide whether that was the ram Sapa wanted.

Even though it was the first day of the hunt, it was obvious the ram Keys had spotted was too good to pass up.

“Oh, yeah, this was a first-day shooter, for sure,” he said. “You don’t want to let something like that go.”

After the kill and the sheep was dressed, Keys, Sapa and Gardner hopped back into the boat and hightailed to the takeout at Westwater, just as the sun was setting.

“Days are so short in November, and by the time we got back to the launch at Loma, it was dark,” Keys said with a laugh. “We finally found our camp in the pitch dark.”

The ram has a five-eights curl (the minimum allowed is a half-curl) with the tip of one horn broomed, or broken off.

Keys said it’s common for a mature ram to lose what’s called the “lamb’s tip” off his horns, possibly from rubbing on the rocks or perhaps in battle with other rams.

The DOW aged the ram at 9.5 years, Keys said.

“It’s really a beautiful ram,” Duckett said. “The herd is really healthy and seems to be doing quite well.”

This was the first time a nonresident hunter could apply for this once-in-a-lifetime hunt, reflective of the growth of the Black Ridge herd.

The ram was noteworthy for Sapa as well. The desert bighorn completed Sapa’s quest for a Grand Slam, one each of the four species of bighorn sheep.

He earlier had harvested a Dall, Stone and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.


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