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Sports >  Outdoors

One hunter’s decadeslong quest for bighorn in the rugged canyons of the Salmon River

By Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – Rich Carignan scrambled up a craggy ridge in Idaho’s steep Salmon River country.

The climb, one of many that October day, put him in position to take a 400-yard shot at a bighorn ram. Carignan steadied himself, squeezed the trigger and missed.

The ram fled at the crack of the rifle but stopped, giving Carignan another shot. Again he found the big brute in his scope and squeezed the trigger. Again he missed an animal he’d long dreamed of bagging.

He felt numb but oddly content as the ram with a heavy full curl disappeared up a rocky draw.

“I was satisfied I got the opportunity to harvest one,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would get another chance, and I was actually OK with it.”

Living a dream

Carignan was just 5 years old when Jack O’Connor, the legendary outdoor writer who lived in Lewiston, died. Nonetheless, he counts himself a fan of the famous scribe, who thrilled generations of hunters with his descriptive and suspenseful tales of pursuing big game in the deserts and mountains of North America and across the savannas and plains of Africa.

The 48-year-old Lewiston resident, who grew up at Kooskia, Idaho, also belongs to a subset of O’Connorphiles – those especially captivated by the writer’s yarns about wild sheep hunting.

“When I was a kid, me and my dad were interested in Jack’s stories, and he was big into sheep hunting,” he said. “By the time I was 16, I wanted to try to get one.

“They are just amazing animals – where they live and how they look.”

Carignan began entering the annual drawing for Idaho’s bighorn sheep hunting permits around the time he graduated from high school and continued to do so nearly every year. In the spring of 2020, after 27 futile attempts, his name was drawn.

“A few tears rolled down my face,” he wrote in a story published in the Idaho Wild Sheep Foundation magazine.

Hunting is a curious mix of skill and luck. Random chance played a role in Carignan finally winning a shot to pursue bighorns. Standing near his mailbox, his eyes scanned the letter from Idaho Fish and Game. He realized his permit was for a unit adjacent to the one for which he intended to apply.

“I was too confident,” he said. “I went in and filled out the (controlled hunt) application and wrote down the (unit) number. It was the wrong one, but it worked out.”

Preparation

Carignan dove into the planning required for a successful sheep hunt. He pored over topographical maps detailing the nearly vertical area near the mouth of the South Fork of the Salmon River and its many draws and finger ridges that make it ideal habitat for bighorn sheep. He spent hours online peering at Google Earth, which gave him the same view that golden eagles have when they soar over the canyon.

He and his dad, Richard Carignan, made scouting trips to the canyon, bumping down the road to Mackay Bar and pounding trails under the hot July sun. He also made it a point to hike and run several times a week in the months leading up to the hunt to boost his physical endurance.

Go time

When the season opened, Carignan hit it hard. It was still hot, and his early forays proved a bust. On his second trip, in mid-September, he found ewe groups and started to home in on areas where the big rams could be lurking. On that trip, he spied one respectable ram, far across the river, but opted to pass it up and concentrate his efforts in October when the days would be shorter but mercifully cooler.

For that, he brought on a partner, his friend Steve Schilling. The two had known each other for decades and shared many hunting and fishing adventures.

They set up a spike camp and prepared for days of hiking and glassing. While on a thin and steep ridge, Carignan spotted the big ram he would later miss. But the animal was elusive and slipped into a chute.

The only chance the friends had at getting a shot required them to backtrack, lose precious elevation so they could hike downriver and scramble back up the next ridge. That’s the nature of do-it-yourself sheep hunting. Success almost always requires a significant physical commitment.

Tired and sweating, they found a perch with a wide view, grabbed their binoculars and “picked apart every rockslide and crevice for about two hours.”

They were about to move on when Carignan found the animal. He had invested numerous hours of scouting, study and exercise to get himself to this point. He’d been hunting for days, gained and lost thousands of vertical feet, camped in some of Idaho’s most stunning scenery and located multiple sheep.

There were only two tags issued in his unit, and the other hunter had harvested early, leaving it all to him. In short, Carignan was doing what he long dreamed – pursuing wild sheep in wild country. Perhaps that is why he was fine with the missed shots that would follow.

“It was a pretty cool feeling,” he said. “I was the only one that had the right to hunt those (animals) in that whole unit. I was all alone.”

Carignan quickly figured out why his two shots failed to connect. The big ram was above him at a 40-degree angle. He held low to compensate. But his range finder had already factored in the angle when it spit out the distance.

“I overcompensated,” he said.

Hunt not over

Carignan and Schilling picked their way down the ridge and headed for their camp, glassing on the way. It was after 5 p.m. when Schilling spotted something in his binoculars across the river.

“Big ram,” he said.

Carignan rested his rifle on a rock and found the animal in his scope. It stood broadside in a rockslide at about 350 yards. He squeezed the trigger. The big ram lunged, stumbled and then regained its feet. It bounded downhill and died just before reaching the river.

Emotions washed over Carignan.

“After 27 years of dreaming of this moment, it was happening,” he wrote.

The two friends found a place to ford the river. The cold October water that reached their chests made their bones ache. Coming back, they had to hold the ram’s heavy head and horns as they floated it across the South Fork. They found themselves neck deep before they regained the shore.

Once there, Carignan was able to pause to admire the animal and take in the moment.

“He was absolutely gorgeous and even larger than I thought,” he said.

Sharing the experience

Back at home, Carignan met with his dad, the one who had introduced him to O’Connor’s stories and helped him prepare for the hunt.

“He was just as happy as I was,” he said. “That is something both of us have been dreaming about forever – him, even longer than me.”

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