The first thing Pete Fredericks did after drawing one of a few bighorn sheep tags for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was buy a lottery ticket.

The 68-year-old had entered the state's hunting tag lottery system for 22 years and had a less than 1 percent chance at getting the tag. He figured the moons and stars were aligned in his advantage.

“I didn't win the lottery. Guess my luck ran out with the sheep tag,” he joked.

The sheep tag yielded the hunt of a lifetime — and not simply because he has to wait another seven years before entering the lottery again. Fredericks harvested a bighorn ram with horns measuring 190½ inches, well over the threshold for inclusion in the Boone and Crockett Club's “Records of North American Big Game” book. The club is one of the oldest wildlife conservation organizations in North America and created the first big game scoring and data collection system.

The Missouri River Breaks, among other locations in Montana, have produced more of those trophy rams than almost any other place, said Ron Aasheim, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks spokesman. He attributes the high quality of the state's animals primarily to genetics. He also cited habitat and noted that the state is managed with a goal of producing trophy animals.

The number of hunting tags for a given region is based on annual population surveys and the health of a given population. Hunters put their names into a lottery system to win one of the tags. Someone who wins the lottery for an animal like a bighorn sheep, mountain goat or moose has to wait another seven years before entering again to fairly distribute the limited hunting opportunities.

The lottery system takes into account the number of years a person unsuccessfully enters a lottery. Hunters are awarded bonus points, akin to having multiple lottery tickets, for each year they enter the drawing without winning.

“The more years of patience, frustration, the better the chances,” said Aasheim, who has unsuccessfully entered the lottery for a bighorn sheep tag for eight years.

All those years without a bighorn tag weren't frustrating for Fredericks, however. The lifelong hunter has taken enough animals over time that the appeal of bagging an animal is less than that of the process leading up to the killing shot.

“It's the challenge of being out there and finding them, being able to understand how they live and where they go and what they do. Kind of being part of the whole environment rather than being an intruder who just goes out there and shoots something,” Fredericks said. “Just a feeling that I get when I'm out there.”

Fredericks called a friend who had drawn a sheep tag years ago to help with the hunt after learning he secured a tag. That friend called another friend, and the three set off with a trailer and a jet boat to start the hunt. All three had hunted the area previously and were familiar with where to find the animals.

Four days into the hunt, they spotted a number of ewes with several rams trailing behind along a bench about half a mile from the river. The animals started to trot away and ran behind a ridge. They were climbing through breaks in nearby cliffs by the time the hunters gained the ridge.

“Something caught my eye and on the right side, in another chute, this ram and another ram started to go off in another direction,” Fredericks said.

He sat down, braced himself for the kickback from his Remington .280 rifle and lined up the 235-yard shot. The large ram turned broadside and Fredericks hit him in the chest. The ram collapsed and slid into a little hollow where the three hunters found him.

It was less than half a mile back to the boat, but Fredericks said he was exhausted from carrying the ram's cape and head.

Looking forward, Fredericks still has an elk and deer tag to fill this hunting season.

“If I don't fill either one of those tags, I've had a great season. I mean, let's face it. I had a great season,” Fredericks said with a laugh. “I'm still, as you can probably tell, I'm still high over this.”

Jason Bacaj may be reached at jasonb@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.

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