By JAYSON JACOBY
Deran Dexter knows his first bighorn sheep hunt in Oregon will be his last, and he figures that makes him the luckiest hunter in the state.
He's certainly the youngest.
Deran, who turned 12 on Feb. 9, bucked odds that have foiled, for more than 40 years, hunters six times his age.
The Baker City boy drew a tag that entitles him to shoot a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep ram this September in Hells Canyon.
Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Commission allows hunters only one bighorn tag, ever a true once-in-a-lifetime chance.
But most hunters never get that chance, even hunters who have put in for a bighorn tag every year since 1965. That's the first year the state, which imported bighorns after hunting and disease extirpated the animals from Oregon in the 1940s, resumed sheep hunting.
andquot;Dad's been telling me this is a rare, rare tag,andquot; said Deran, who will be a seventh-grader this fall.
andquot;I know many, many old men who have been trying (for a bighorn tag) since they were young,andquot; said Jason Dexter, Deran's dad. andquot;I figured by the time Deran's 60 he might have a chance.andquot;
But Deran didn't have to wait nearly that long.
He got a bighorn tag the first time he tried for one.
Actually, Deran got his tag the first time he could try you have to be at least 12 to hunt bighorns and other big game animals in Oregon.
Deran might be the first Oregon pre-teen to receive either a bighorn sheep or a mountain goat tag, so far as officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) can determine (a goat tag is a once-in-a-lifetime deal, too).
So precisely how improbable is Deran's good fortune?
Well, the computer that randomly hands out hunting tags doled out three tags for the Snake River No. 1 hunt that Deran applied for along with 996 other hopeful hunters.
andquot;One in a thousand that's pretty cool,andquot; said Joel Hurtado, who works in the big game statistics program at ODFW headquarters in Salem.
Deran, who smiles often but speaks rarely, at least when a reporter is sitting on a sofa in his house, allows that he's pretty excited.
andquot;But my dad's more,andquot; he said.
His dad doesn't deny the charge.
Nor does he contest Deran's story about the almost-midnight phone call.
andquot;You woke me up,andquot; Deran said to his dad. Father and son share a smile at that.
It was this past Sunday night and Jason was talking on the phone with his brother, Jeremy Coley, who also lives in Baker City.
Jeremy was checking ODFW's Web site to see who drew which hunting tags. Jason applied for several tags for himself, his wife, Jeannie, and Deran.
Jeremy typed in Deran's hunting license number and then narrated, to Jason, what he saw on the screen.
andquot;He drew a Desolation unit deer tag,andquot; Jeremy said. Then he paused for a long moment.
andquot;And a bighorn sheep tag.andquot;
A bighorn sheep tag? Sure. Right. Good gag, brother.
andquot;No he didn't,andquot; Jason told Jeremy.
andquot;I'm not kidding,andquot; Jeremy replied.
Jason didn't respond.
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andquot;I was waiting for him to say he's joking,andquot; he said.
Jeremy stayed silent. He wasn't joking.
andquot;I still didn't believe it,andquot; Jason said.
So he drove across town to Jeremy's house.
Jason perused his brother's computer monitor. He printed the form. Then he drove home and dialed the number of the Boise home where Deran was staying with mom and stepdad.
Deran's reaction to the news, once he shook off his sleep-induced grogginess, was succinct.
Deran already is getting ready for his bighorn hunt, even though the season, which runs Sept. 8-23, is more than two months away.
He's no novice.
Deran says, with palpable pride, that he killed his first wild turkey just this spring.
But he admits he needs to put quite a lot of bullets through the barrel of the 7 mm rifle with which he hopes to bring down a full-curl bighorn in Hells Canyon.
andquot;We went out the other day and he was hitting milk cartons at a hundred yards,andquot; Jason said.
Jason said Wayne Bloom, a volunteer youth hunter education instructor from Baker City, has offered to help Deran get his rifle sighted in.
Marksmanship is worthless, of course, if you can't get within reasonable range of your quarry. To that end, the Dexters intend to start scouting Hells Canyon this weekend.
Jason said he figures they'll focus first on the northern part of the Snake River unit, in the Imnaha River country.
andquot;It's just going to take a lot of scouting,andquot; he said.
Jason has solicited help from an experienced guide Tom Van Diepen, a Baker City hunter who killed a bighorn ram in Hells Canyon 11 years ago.
In the meantime, Deran expects he'll spend quite a bit of time pursuing another of his favorite hobbies: hiking.
He'll need to toughen his legs and his lungs just a week after the sheep season ends, Deran and his dad will move west into Grant County to go after a buck in the Desolation unit.
There's no topographical rival to Hells Canyon over that way, but neither is there an abundance of gentle terrain.
All told, it looks to be an awfully interesting if exhausting first hunting season for Deran.
And his last season but only for sheep.
Deran ought to be able to hunt deer and elk for decades; no one-tag lifetime limit on those animals.
Deran and his dad do need to figure out at least one nagging detail, though, before they embark on their adventure.
andquot;Who's carrying the gun?andquot; Deran asks.
andquot;You have to,andquot; Jason answers, chuckling.
andquot;How steep is it going to be?andquot; Deran wonders.
Does Deran realize Hells Canyon is the deepest gorge in North America?
And if he doesn't, should Jason enlighten him?
andquot;You'll see,andquot; is the answer Jason settles for. andquot;We'll be up there this weekend.andquot;