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Once in a lifetime


Brandon Aufenthie draws rare chance to shoot an Oregon bighorn sheep

by: SUBMITTED  - Wilsonville's Brandon Aufenthie recently stalked and killed this sizable bighorn sheep on top of the Abert Rim in Lake County in southern Oregon. His shot measured 338 yards.Lake Abert is Oregon’s only saltwater lake. The nearby Abert Rim, meanwhile, towers over the south shore of the lake. It is one of the highest fault scarps in the United States, rising more than 2,500 feet above the valley floor. The rim includes a vertical basalt cap that stretches vertically over the last 800 feet of elevation.

This area is not usually included on lists of must-see locations for tourists. After all, it’s a desolate place in Lake County in southeast Oregon known mostly for the alkaline lake water, brine shrimp and amazing hang gliding conditions.

But for Wilsonville resident Brandon Aufenthie, the Abert Rim will always be remembered as the spot where he tracked and shot his first bighorn sheep, a 250-pound beast that has turned out to be a lot better eating than expected.

“It’s an awesome experience, I’d love to do it again,” said Aufenthie, who graduated from Wilsonville High School in 2008 and now works for Rayborn’s Plumbing in Tualatin as an apprentice.

The thing is, at age 23, he’s not likely to see that chance again in his lifetime.

Drawing a bighorn sheep tag is probably the most difficult feat an Oregon big game hunter can accomplish. With roughly 70 tags issued each year for the entire state, the odds generally run around 250 to 1 for someone hoping to hunt the elusive animal.

Further, a hunter may only obtain one bighorn sheep tag in his or her lifetime. Period. There are a few exceptions to this involving the annual Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife auction of a limited number of controlled hunt tags, including a single bighorn sheep tag. Last year, the bighorn sheep tag attracted a winning bid of $110,000, which puts the odds of actually acquiring that tag in perspective.

“That’s very true,” said Aufenthie, who drew one of four possible tags issued for the Warner Unit. And after weeks of preparation, he traveled to Lake County in mid-August with his father, Tim, for a week-long expedition.

“I don’t know anybody who’s actually got a tag,” Aufenthie said. “My dad’s been putting in for 30 years, and I’ve been doing it for about eight years since when I first started hunting. I was pretty surprised when I got it.”

The Aufenthie family owns a cabin near LaPine in central Oregon and has a long tradition of pursuing hunting and other outdoor sports. Brandon began hunting deer with his father at age 14 and shot his first spike buck the same year.

Later, he also managed to take a cow elk, along with an antelope near John Day in eastern Oregon. But the idea of drawing a bighorn sheep tag kept gnawing at the back of his mind.

“I guess I just did it every year,” he said. “The reason I picked that unit was there were four tags available, and in most units there are just one or two. I thought my odds were best, even though I knew nothing about the area.”

Scouting and red eyes

The Aufenthies traveled to Lake Abert four days before the Aug. 17 opening of the Warner Unit sheep hunt.

Before that, Brandon Aufenthie attended an ODFW-sponsored meeting in The Dalles for holders of sheep tags. There, they spent time talking with agency biologists familiar both with bighorn sheep and the various areas of Oregon where they can be found.

That gave him some idea of what to expect and how to go about finding the animals, which were transplanted to the Abert Rim area in the late 1970s from nearby Hart Mountain.

The rim is roughly 25 miles north of the town of Lakeview and is accessed by U.S. Route 395, which runs for miles along the shore of Abert Lake. This makes finding the rim easy. But it’s also a 2,500-foot climb to the top, where the sheep tend to stay.

“You just have to glass and glass the entire Rim,” Aufenthie said, referring to the constant use of binoculars and other optical gear. “The rocks and what not, they’re so hard to see, but you can barely make it out. If you see something you’d get your spotting scope out and zoom in and see what it is. My eyes are still hurting after the trip; they were bloodshot the whole time. You can’t see them with the naked eye, so it was kind of frustrating not seeing anything.”

They spent four days prior to opening day scouting the rim and its environs. The mid-August sun beat down mercilessly on the hunting party stuck in the open terrain.

“That was miserable,” Aufenthie said. “The sun was getting on you, the horseflies, you’d sit there for 30 minutes and look and see nothing, but once you see something it gets your hopes up.”

On opening day, the Aufenthies rose well before dawn to prep for a two-plus mile hike to the top of the rim. In spite of the daunting climb, they had made the decision earlier to buck conventional wisdom that suggested hunting the sheep from the side of the escarpment.

“You can’t hunt them from below, they’ll see you,” Aufenthie said. “You’re supposed to hunt them from the side and sneak up on them. You’re not supposed to hunt them from the top, but that’s what we did. We were watching them and saw a group of nine and watched where they hung out, where they bedded down and where they were feeding.”

From a secure perch on the top of the rim, they watched the sheep from a mile off. As the animals slowly drew closer, the party waited for one particularly large speciman to come within range of Aufenthie’s .257 Weatherby Magnum, a high-velocity chambering gun ideally suited for the task.

As the sun rose and morning temperatures approached 90 degrees, that patience ultimately paid off.

The shot, when he took it, was perfectly placed from a measured 338 yards away.

“I haven’t shot anything that far away,” he said. “It was maybe 200 yards with the antelope. They don’t really run when you shoot, they don’t scatter in the timber, they just hang out. Since we were up top, we had a good view.”

After posing for the obligatory trophy photos, the party dressed and packed the animal off the rim and back to the campsite. The head and horns were sent off a taxidermist in LaPine, while the meat now is taking up space in the family freezer.

“The horns are giant,” Aufenthie laughed. “I took it to a taxidermist, and it usually takes months to finish. I’d say 95 percent of the hunters get (their sheep) mounted because it’s a once in a lifetime thing.”

Compared to elk or deer hunting, which often takes place in heavily wooded terrain much closer to sea level, hunting sheep is a completely different ballgame, he added.

“One thing I heard that I learned is you have to be in shape,” he said. “The terrain is so steep, it was a big workout and a lot of people couldn’t do that. The scouting and stuff, all you do is get out of the car with binocs, but once it comes to the actual hunt, that’s where the work begins. You definitely have to be in shape for that and know how to shoot.”