May 15, 2017 | By SAM WILSON Daily Inter Lake
Five days into a soggy, luckless sheep hunt in the Missouri River Breaks last September, Jean Moore was not having a good time. At the age of 66, the life-long hunter and Swan Valley resident had spent the past three months training for the once-in-a-lifetime hunt, for which just one in every 285 applicants for a bighorn ram tag each year actually draws one.
“I was lying there at night, saying, ‘Why do I even hunt? Maybe it’s time for me to quit,’” Moore recalls, characterizing the prevailing mood in the camp as “subdued.” “The next day was foggy, we couldn’t see the front of the boat, and we ran into a gravel bar.”
Camped out in the Missouri Breaks with time running out on the hunting trip, her spirits had sunk considerably from the elation of finally drawing a coveted ram tag from Montana’s sheep-hunting lottery, after more than 50 unsuccessful years of entering the drawing.
Born in Missoula and raised in Drummond, Moore said she never considered herself a tomboy.
“But I always liked outdoorsy things; hunting, hiking and riding horses,” she says, adding, “I never played with dolls, really. I always wore six-shooters and cowboy boots.”
Her grandparents owned a ranch in the town, and she said her grandfather “spoiled me rotten,” getting her out of school to hit up horse sales in the area. Her brother, Dean, is the only one of her four siblings who also hunts, and the duo still hold to a long-time tradition of hunting near Elliston each year.
“We’ve been hunting there so long that everybody that lives around the creek knows us. They call us ‘Dean and Jean, the hunting machine!’” she adds with a laugh.
After graduating from high school, Moore briefly attended the University of Montana before moving to Arizona to ride race horses in 1972 and ’73 before returning to Montana. She first met her husband, Mannie, at a gun show in Kalispell, after she picked up Hank Williams Jr. from the hospital following his nearly fatal fall on Ajax Peak in 1975.
“Yeah, he’s a friend,” Moore grins. The country music star wanted to “have some fun” after weeks of lying in a hospital bed, she explains, so he grabbed a fistful of hundred-dollar bills and they headed for the Flathead. At the Eagles Club, Hank Jr. wanted a buffalo skull. “I asked a friend, ‘Who’s got that?’ and he pointed to a booth in the corner and said ‘See that tall guy? That’s Mannie Moore.’”
Several years later, the couple was married in the middle of a snowstorm on Finley Point, where she says they ended up pulling half of their guests out of the ditch when their cars slid off the road. After raising Texas longhorns for years on their Rollins ranch, Moore said her husband’s deteriorating health forced them to sell the property and move into a more modest home. Mannie is on a modified paleo diet and eats only wild game, and Jean keeps him supplied with deer and elk that she mostly hunts by herself.
But it’s the bighorns that have long been an obsession for Moore. Holding her camouflage-clad tablet computer, she flips through photos, noting casually that “almost all of them are sheep and grandchildren. And Chase Reynolds,” she said referencing the NFL running back who also hails from Drummond.
She can remember some of her earliest entries in the state’s sheep-hunt lottery, paid for with the deposits from bottles she collected as a kid back in her hometown.
Last September, with the Missouri Breaks socked in by fog and time running out to bag her ram, Moore was thinking that her lifelong goal may never be realized.
Auspicious as that start was, however, she thinks the fog ultimately gave her hunting party a leg up on the sheep, who would have otherwise climbed up into the cliffs had the visibility been better.
“I had this epiphany, that maybe we should just cut the engine and float back by where we first saw that ram.” Sure enough, she soon spotted it, bedded down with another ram and asleep in its perch.
Jean and her nephew, Blake Moore, disembarked from the boat and started working their way up through the drainage, crawling on their bellies until they ran out of cover. In her rush to cash in on a long-awaited chance at the ram, she had forgotten her shooting sticks.
“I belly-crawled down to this big rock, and by that time the sheep were up and going away from us downhill. All he would give me was a straight back-shot, straight away from me, which I won’t take because it’s not ethical,” Moore said. “And right before he got to the top of the hill, he gave me a quartering-away and I shot him quartering away, to the front shoulder.”
Moore, an eight-year employee at Snappy Sport Senter in Evergreen, was recently featured in the April/May edition of Eastman’s Journal, a national hunting magazine, for her story recounting the hunt. She’s still excited to finish having the ram mounted and installed with the other hunting trophies that take up much of the limited space in her above-garage apartment outside Bigfork. But she says the value she sees in hunting lies more in the journey than the destination.
“What the trophy represents is not so much the animal; it brings back every memory, every emotion,” she says. “When you look at one of my trophies I’ve mounted, I can remember everything that went into that hunt. It’s a way of cataloging memories, and it’s honoring the animal, too.”
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.