King of the Hill

By Chad Waligura ~

“He could see the ram almost straight up the shear mountainside. Just one more step and he could get the crosshairs on him. It was all he could do now to keep from shaking.”hunting pg - skramstad

The early years…

Brad Skramstad, who grew up bird hunting with his dad and older brother in North Dakota, moved to Montana with his family when he was fifteen years old. Hunting had always been a large part of his youth. He used to fetch birds for his dad when he was too young to shoot, then killed his first deer at fourteen because that’s the minimum age you could get a license in ND. The following year in MT, Brad tagged his first mule deer, bear and antelope, which made the transition of moving a lot easier. Hunting there was just as popular as it was back home.

Sometime during his twenties, Brad caught the bug for big game hunting. He made friends around Kalispell, MT, found a passion for elk hunting, starting putting in for sheep and moose tags every year and got involved in the RMEF (Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation).

Brad’s life was right on track. He found a wonderful wife, had children, a good job and a zest for life. He’d just turned 40 years old and made a promise to take his twelve year old daughter on her first hunt that fall. Then came a fateful day that would change his life forever, June 19, 1995. That was the day something went horribly wrong at work. Brad fell into a deep pit and broke bones in several parts of his body, the worst of which were the ones in his neck. “I was going in and out of consciousness so I don’t remember much,” he recalled, “but I knew something was bad wrong. I couldn’t feel my legs, and they had a lot of trouble getting me out of that hole.”

When they did get Brad out, he was taken straight to the nearest hospital where he stayed a week in ICU. There, a neurosurgeon stabilized the C-6 fracture in his neck with screws and a titanium plate. Then he was shipped to Spokane, WA, for rehab as soon as the break healed. Brad was still in pretty rough shape though. “I still had broken bones in my body when I got to Spokane,” he said, “That plate in my neck was coming loose so I had to go to a different hospital so they could re-operate on my neck and set the bones again. Then it was back to rehab as soon as I recovered. I was pretty much in a state of shock.” Life as Brad knew it had totally changed. He was now a C-6 quadriplegic staring at an uncertain future.

While in rehab, Brad met a vocational therapist name Rick Villalobos who was into shooting and guns. When he found out that Brad loved to hunt, he arranged a few trips to a rifle range so they could work on shooting again. Brad and his therapists tried and tried, but he couldn’t figure out a way to shoot the gun. He even tried pulling the trigger with his thumb, but that didn’t work either. (Brad knew he could do it, but it’d never be the same as before. Such is the plight of all paralyzed hunters.)

Three months after his injury, the rehab gave Brad his release and sent him home. A week later, he was on a moose hunt with his brother Dennis. “I couldn’t shoot or anything, but I wanted to go along so badly,” Brad admitted, “I’d been cooped up too long and needed to get out. It was early October and I wanted to be in the woods.”

The follow year, Brad tried deer hunting out of his brother’s truck. He didn’t have enough stability to keep his rifle steady and wasn’t able to pull the trigger, but at skramstad 2least he was out there doing what he loved. “It was frustrating. Real frustrating!” he confessed. “I went a lot of tough years of trial and error trying to figure it out.” It was during these years that a miraculous thing happened for Brad. In 1997, he had a tendon transplant where a piece of tendon from his bicep was transplanted into his hand in order to give him more grip. It was done so he’d be able to hold a cup or pick things off the ground, but a peculiar result of the procedure was that Brad discovered he had more strength in his index finger. He thought he might be able to pull the trigger with it too.

He could!

Two years later, Brad shot a doe. A year after that, he drew an elk tag, a deer tag and an antelope tag all for the Fall season. To get ready for these hunts, that summer he bought a SR77 gun rig by Blackberry Technologies to mount on his chair. Not surprisingly, Brad was chomping to get his big game hunting career going again. It was the one thing besides his family that kept him going every day.

All Brad’s patience and determination was about to pay off. That season, he took a nice bull elk, a mule deer and an antelope. He was back!

A hunt for the Ages…

It was just an ordinary night when Brad’s wife and daughter came into his bedroom and told him “congratulations.” The word sent his thoughts racing. “What? For what? Did I draw a moose tag?” he wondered aloud. It had to be moose he thought since he’d been putting in for 28 years already. “Not quite,” his wife answered. Immediately the wheels started churning in Brad’s head. “A sheep!” A rush of excitement ran through his body, leaving it a tingling mass as he lay there thinking over the possibilities. It had to be sheep since it was the only other tag he’d applied for. Brad hadn’t built up as many points as he had for moose is all. It’s the last thing he thought he would ever draw. Another fateful day in June had just found him.

Brad lay awake in bed most of that night, staring at the ceiling, sheep tag on the way, trying to figure out how in the world he was going to make it happen. He’d never heard of a quad hunter even attempting to take a bighorn sheep. They roamed the high mountains, places not easily accessible to someone in a wheelchair. The only reason he’d kept putting in for the tag after he got injured was because he thought he’d have it figured out by the time he drew the tag.

That night, Brad recalled a story that one of his sheep hunting friend once told him. He told Brad that during the rut, sometimes rams would come down out of the high country in order to breed the ewes. ‘And if they could get lucky and catch one lower down,’ he thought, ‘it might just be doable.’ Now, Brad would get a chance to find out for himself.

The next day, Brad called friend and outfitter Dan Eckstrom who hunted in the 210 unit that he’d drawn for. He explained his situation to Dan, told him what he could and couldn’t do since his SCI, and talked about sheep hunting. Dan had that special ‘can do’ attitude that Brad was looking for. They discussed Brad’s abilities and possible strategies for the hunt. Dan told Brad that what he’d heard about rams during the rut was true, that sometimes a ram will come down to breed, and maybe low enough to take a shot from a vehicle if they got really lucky. Dan and Brad hit it off right away. Dan told Brad to sit tight and he’d call him when the sheep rut was starting so he could come in to hunt. There was no use coming before then. It was November 8th when Brad got the call.

Brad had his bags packed and was ready to roll. He and his buddy Dennis headed out early the next morning, leaving on a quest that as far as they knew nobody had ever attempted. The L Diamond ranch where Dan guided waited for them 150 miles away. “It was exciting!” Brad recalled, “We all felt like something big was happening.”

He and Dennis arrived at the ranch and met Dan for the first time. That night, Brad went to bed nervous. He knew if he didn’t get a ram that he’d probably never get another chance. And a five day hunt can start zooming by if you don’t get anything the first two days. He could hardly believe that he was about to go on a sheep hunt!

Dan knocked early the next morning. They’d be hunting the Rock Creek drainage in the mountains that day, riding the highest mountain roads and looking for any rams that might be big enough, or close enough, to take. The weather was ideal for sheep hunting, clear and cold, which made for great glassing. They found nothing that entire first day.

On the second morning, they located a nice ram way up in the mountains. Since he was too far to shoot at, they kept easing on down the road to look for another sheep. They could always come back later and check on him. After seeing nothing for the rest of the day, the thought of that first ram was starting to grow on them. Dan decided they better go back and see if he might’ve come down. And… well… he had!

During the day, the ram had come down with a ewe, but he wasn’t quite in gun range yet. They stopped parallel to the ram and waited to see what he would do. As Brad got ready, which meant getting out on his lift and raising his rifle up as high as it would go, he could hear the ram chasing that ewe around above him. Rocks tumbled down the side, bouncing all around them. “Talk about blood-pumping excitement! That got it going,” Brad said. When he raised his rifle up as far as it could go, the scope barely cleared the van’s roof.

All the while, Dan was watching the ram and judging his size. He told Brad it was a good one. He also told Brad to get ready because he was coming down!

Brad could barely catch his breath. He could see the ram almost straight up the shear mountainside. Just one more step and he could get the crosshairs on him. It was all he could do now to keep from shaking. Brad peered through the scope, totally focused on the shot. He wouldn’t waste any time looking at his horns or anything else, just the vitals when they came into view. He wasn’t going to miss this chance if he got it.

The ram stepped out on a ledge some 200 yards away, broadside. Brad was ready with his Browning A-bolt 308. He didn’t have time to admire this magnificent animal. One shot into his shoulder and the ram rocked back and forth, stumbled slightly, then came tumbling end-over-end all the way down the slope, crashing skramstad 3with a thud behind some timber. Brad watched in fear of the ram busting his horns up during the fall. “The first thing I yelled to Dan when he went over to check on him was ‘Did he break his horns?’” recalled Brad, remembering how it had all happened so fast, “I was still in shock of what I’d done, what we’d done. Dan yelled back that he was OK! He was just as excited as I was I think. After we took photos, Dan loaded up my ram and drove it around to everyone he knew to show them what kind of trophy bighorn that his quadriplegic hunter had taken. That was a great day!”

Brad volunteers his time helping the Flathead Valley Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) and as a volunteer district chair in Montana. This year marks his 10th year of committee service. He also helped organize and underwrite the costs of Jack Creek Preserve Youth Camp. Jack Creek Preserve is dedicated for the use of youth conservation and archery hunting. Youth from across the country were able to participate in the 2006 camp. From there, Brad went on to help with various wildlife conservation projects in Montana like fence removal, habitat improvement and acquisition. He is currently a member of Safari Club International, National Rifle Association, Paralyzed Veterans of America and a life member and habitat partner with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Brad’s passion for the outdoors and hunting never waned after his injury. The only thing that changed was the adaptive equipment he now uses to hunt. After several years of trial and error, Brad has taken elk, deer, antelope, wild turkey and a bighorn sheep. He is currently waiting to draw a Montana moose tag after 28 years of applying.