It’s been quite a fall for David Suda.
In late August, Suda, 22, of Grafton, N.D., found out he’d drawn a North Dakota bighorn sheep license, one of five resident hunters to draw the coveted once-in-a-lifetime tag from nearly 17,000 applicants.
A sixth tag fetched $83,000 in March at an auction sponsored by the Midwest Chapter of Wild Sheep Foundation.
When Brett Wiedmann, a big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson, called Suda with the news that he’d drawn a sheep license, the Grafton hunter said he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Just the previous night, Suda said, he’d been talking with a friend about what they’d do if they ever drew a sheep tag.
“And the very next day, I got a phone call that I drew,” Suda said. “I couldn’t believe it – it just completely shocked me. I didn’t know I’d go on a dream hunt at 22 years old – especially in my home state”
But wait … the story gets better.
On Friday morning, Oct. 30, about half an hour into the opening day of North Dakota’s bighorn sheep season, Suda made the most of his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by shooting a trophy bighorn that will be North Dakota’s new state record ram.
The massive horns on Suda’s ram racked up a green score of 190 inches before the mandatory 60-day drying period, eclipsing the previous record of 179 inches, said Wiedmann, who oversees the Game and Fish Department’s bighorn sheep efforts and scored the ram onsite.
The ram will be officially scored in a few weeks.
“That’s a mega-ram there,” Wiedmann said. “That ram is nice anywhere in North America. It’s the real deal.”
Bigger than expected
Wiedmann works closely with sheep license recipients both before and after the hunt. Hunters call him after shooting a ram, and he drives out to the site to register the sheep and collect biological samples, age the animal, score the horns and insert a plug in the horn certifying it was taken legally.
The 7-year-old ram Suda shot was even bigger than Wiedmann expected it to be when he’d seen it on the landscape.
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“I knew about this ram, and I had no doubts he’d be the state record, but he was bigger than I thought,” Wiedmann said. “I had him in the low 180s, and we taped him out, and it netted almost 190. And of course, when we officially score him, sometimes they even get a little bigger.
“To have a ram that big is a lot of fun. They were pretty pumped.”
As a bighorn sheep biologist, sharing in the thrill of a successful hunt in the rugged Badlands setting is the highlight of his year, Wiedmann says. Hunters have taken 256 rams in North Dakota since the first season in 1975, and the success rate has been about 99%, Wiedmann said.
All of the hunters with tags this year were successful, he said.
“All the work we’ve put into our bighorn program, that’s the payoff, when these hunters get to go on an amazing hunt and harvest amazing rams,” Wiedmann said.
Weeks of scouting
For Suda, the trophy was the culmination of weeks spent scouting and thousands of miles driving between Grafton and western North Dakota. Hunting buddies Jens Johnson and Ryan Seil, who both live in Williston, helped him scout.
A sales rep for the Walhalla, N.D., branch of the Wilbur-Ellis Co., Suda also helps his dad and uncle with their farming operation. Having understanding bosses and co-workers was a huge benefit in taking the time off he needed to prepare for the hunt, Suda said.
“I was very lucky,” he said. “I’d go out for about four-day weekends and scout the weekends and then come home. Within a six-week timeframe, I was out there probably four or five days every week. I spent a lot of time out there before the season.”
They spotted the ram he eventually shot on their very first scouting trip to the area in mid-September, Suda said. The ram was “substantially bigger than anything else we saw,” said Suda, who hunted in bighorn unit B4 north of Interstate 94.
“There wasn’t even anything in the same ballpark as him,” he said. “When he would walk out, you could just tell – he was a stud.
“It was amazing watching him.”
Amazement turned to apprehension a week before season when the ram, which Suda had been scouting for weeks, disappeared.
Fortunately, Suda had permission from three different ranchers in the area to access their land, which gave him options for finding the ram again.
“We couldn’t find him for three days,” Suda said. “That ram had pretty much stayed on one specific ranch the whole time, and that’s the ranch he left the week before (season) and he actually went to a ranch farther south. We got super lucky and ended up finding him right before season opened.
“Those three days were very stressful.”
‘It happened fast’
Joining Suda in the field opening day were Johnson and Seil, his scouting partners; his mom, Cori Dvorak; and stepdad, Tim Dvorak, of Grafton.
Long story short, Suda shot the ram a half hour into opening morning in a rugged area the locals call “Sheep Canyon.”
“It happened fast,” he said. “I was looking at a ram in the crosshairs right away and went, ‘It’s not him,’ and we kept moving. I went to one side (of a butte) and my buddy went to the other, and he started yelling my name. He asked me if that was him and I said, ‘I don't’ know what you’re talking about, I can’t see him.’ He said, ‘Look down.’
“I looked down, and he was right there at 250 yards, and I shot him.”
As with any big game hunt, the hard work came after the kill, and the next several hours were spent quartering the sheep and preparing the cape for a full-body mount Suda is having made of the ram. It was nearly 5 p.m. by the time they got back to the pickups.
“They were in some really steep stuff,” Wiedmann said. “Bighorns live in the steepest, nastiest stuff out there so when you get one down, it’s a lot of work to get them packed back out.”
While Suda’s bighorn will be the new state record, Sawyer Burchill of Hunter, N.D., shot a ram that also topped the previous state record, with a green score of 185 inches, Wiedmann said, making it the new No. 2 ram in North Dakota. Kody Durbin of Crary, N.D., shot a ram with a green score of 178, making it the No. 5 ram in North Dakota.
Like Suda, Burchill and Durbin are in their early 20s.
“I told (Burchill), I said, ‘You would have shattered the state record, but unfortunately, you’re No. 2 because (Suda’s ram) was even bigger than yours,” Wiedmann said. It’s the fifth time in six years that North Dakota’s bighorn ram record has been broken, he said.
Both Suda’s and Burchill’s rams will be entered into the Boone and Crockett’s all-time record book for bighorn sheep, a distinction reserved for rams of 180 inches or better, Wiedmann said. At the same time, Durbin’s ram will make the Boone and Crockett awards book as a one-time listing.
“The rams just keep getting bigger in North Dakota,” Wiedmann said. “That’s the first time in our history we’ve had two all-time over 180, which is fantastic.”
Oh yeah, a mule deer ...
As if Suda’s hunting season couldn’t get any better, he also drew a mule deer buck tag for the Badlands after eight years of trying. A week after shooting his record-setting ram, Suda shot a 170-inch-class mule deer buck in the Badlands.
In a normal year, that would be the highlight of the year, Suda said, but the bighorn hunt is something he’ll always remember – and always treasure.
“Honestly, the hunt was a dream come true – everything worked out,” he said. “I got the ram I wanted, we worked really hard prior to the season, and we put a lot of time in. I had two young guys that are big hunters and also two of my best friends with me, and to do it with your friends and have your parents with, it’s something you don't ever think will happen. Honestly, it was just unbelievable – it was 110% unbelievable.
“I still can’t believe it,” he added. “I look at that ram every day; and I probably will for the rest of my life.”