When it was announced in early October that the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge would be closed to the public because of a federal government shutdown, Mitch Heiken was in a panic.
“We thought that we were screwed, basically,” Heiken said.
That’s because his wife, Linda, had drawn a coveted either-sex bighorn sheep tag for Hunting District 622 — an area that roughly runs from the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge on the west to Timber Creek on the east along a portion of the north shore of Fort Peck Reservoir. The CMR refuge extends around the entire lake and includes most of the region’s prime habitat for bighorn sheep. With the shutdown, hunters and other recreationists were told to stay out of the CMR.
“It just about made me sick,” Heiken said. “We didn’t know what to do.”
Bighorn sheep tags are coveted and difficult to draw. In 2013, 1,675 residents applied for six either-sex sheep tags in HD 622. The odds of drawing the tag were less than 1 percent. Linda Heiken, 52, was lucky enough to succeed in her third year of applying. At age 55, Mitch has been applying for 20 years and still hasn’t secured one of the tags.
“That’s a sore subject,” he said. “That’s a problem with our system. Us old guys should get some preference.”
When Linda first told Mitch she had received the either-sex bighorn tag in the mail, he didn’t believe her. Once he saw the tag, though, he told her that although it might be an either-sex tag, there was no way she was going to shoot a ewe.
“Our goal was not to shoot a record-book ram, we just wanted to shoot a nice ram,” Mitch said.
With the tag in hand, the Heikens could hardly wait to explore the region of northeastern Montana that was largely unknown to them.
“It’s sort of like when there’s a Christmas present under the tree, you want to check it out,” Mitch said.
So in August they took the highway north, then motored another 75 miles on gravel and two-track roads across the rough country before deciding to camp on a hilltop to avoid the numerous mosquitoes near Fourchette Bay.
“About midnight, a big old rain cloud rolled in,” Mitch recounted.
All he could think about as rain pounded the tent was that they were 2 miles from the main road and that the country is legendary for its gumbo mud halting vehicle travel after a storm. Then, two hours later, lightning started to spark followed by heavy winds that collapsed the tent. It was as if Mother Nature was trying to tell the couple that they were in for some trouble. On the plus side, though, the wind dried out the road.
In all, they took seven trips into the country — three before the season opened on Sept. 15 for rifle hunters, and the other four afterward. Mitch was worried that weather would keep them out of the country, so they took every opportunity possible to learn the country. They tried backpacking, but Linda nearly stepped on a snake, then they saddled up their horses to explore the steep, corrugated terrain.
“You don’t think it’s as tough or as hard as the mountains, but you see something in the spotting scope and it might take you three hours to get there,” Mitch said.
The hunters weren’t seeing many bighorns, though, and the ones they did see were ewes, lambs or small rams. They did spot plenty of elk, however.
“People told us all of the big rams were on private land, but I wasn’t even going to look,” Mitch said.
Then on Oct. 1, with no spending authorized for many government services, the federal government furloughed most of its workers and shut down access to many of its facilities, including federal lands like the CMR refuge. Mitch was unsure what to do. He couldn’t call the refuge to ask if they would enforce the closure, since no one was at the office to answer the phones.
Mitch was talking to friends in Malta after finding out about the closure. They suggested he contact the owners of a hunting club within HD 622. Maybe they would make an exception and allow Linda onto the property to fill her tag. Mitch said it “rubbed him the wrong way” to pay for access, but he didn’t want Linda to risk the chance that the CMR might not open before the season closed or bad weather shut them out. So he called the hunt club, eventually offering to pay a trespass fee. The group agreed and gave the family seven days to fill the tag before the elk rifle season opened.
“When you finally hit the lottery, you don’t want to screw it up,” Mitch said.
In his long history of hunting, Mitch had always found that the bigger the trophy, the bigger the sacrifice made. That’s why the couple took the preseason scouting trips and then returned often to hunt.
“So it wasn’t like we didn’t pay any dues,” he said.
But when they arrived with Mitch’s son, Scott, to hunt on the private property, two rams ran past as they were setting up camp. One of the landowners asked if Linda wanted to shoot one of those, but Mitch declined.
“We’ve got to look around and pretend like we’re hunting,” he said. “That night we drove around and looked at 24 rams, five really big ones.”
After returning to camp and cooking up a burger, Scott questioned why his father didn’t want Linda to shoot one of the rams that first night.
“It’s too easy, that’s what’s bothering you, isn’t it?” Scott said.
Mitch agreed, but in the end decided that after seven trips and 14 days of hunting and scouting, it would be OK to have an easy hunt, go home and start hunting elk. The next morning, they got to sleep in because the landowners didn’t want them disturbing a group of bowhunters. But when they did arise, there were 16 rams about 90 yards from camp.
“It was nice to be able to watch them and relax and let the adrenaline settle down,” Linda said.
For two hours on Oct. 16, the trio stretched out atop a tarp and watched the rams through binoculars and spotting scopes, comparing them and waiting for the perfect shot. Linda had practiced out to 600 yards, so the distance was no concern. A bowhunter since her early 20s, she said she’s always been cool-headed when drawing back her bow or pulling the trigger. It’s afterward that the adrenaline makes her knees shake so hard that she has trouble getting out of the tree stand. Since she started rifle hunting with Mitch, she noted, Linda has shot seven animals with seven shots.
When Linda prepared to shoot, though, the rams were so close to each other that Mitch was worried one shot might drop two rams.
Linda had decided on the ram she wanted, one with a Roman nose. She aimed behind the shoulder of the ram and pulled the trigger on the 7mm Remington magnum rifle. The ram leapt to its feet and ran 100 yards downhill into a tangle of burned and downed timber. Getting the ram out of the deadfall and up the steep hill made it seem more like a real sheep hunt. The next week, the CMR was opened to the public.
The 7 ½-year-old ram’s horns ended up scoring 181, making the state’s minimum score for the record book. A full-body mount of the animal will one day stand in the couple’s home.
“The camp is the hunt to me,” Linda said. “Getting the animal is the icing on the cake, because, we have a lot of fun in camp. That’s where the memories come from.”