Shall I dare say it…we did a fly in hunt this year. Oh the humanity!
Getting past all that, it’s a good story.
Most fly in trips start out with a plane flying away deep in the heart of the sheep mountains, a monologue about being left alone in the middle of Alaska, reality setting in…That wasn’t quite our experience. Reality set in as we laughed at the sight of the distant mountains, miles away. “We really don’t know how to do a fly-in hunt do we?” I said to Steve. But our hunting budget appreciated the additional effort required of us. So in reality, not much changed. Proving Trail Adventures, proving to ourselves that we are not fly-in guys.
So with boots on the ground, this hunt started like all the rest, hike a long ways before even getting to the mountains. It always amazes us how far our legs can take us and by evening we had dropped our packs on a level shelf above a brush choked stream, tight against flanks of the mountain ridges that had appeared so distant hours earlier. Tent poles clicked together in the fading light, sheep grazed above us, minds filled with the hopeful promise of rams somewhere before us in this looming maze of mountain drainages, ridges, steep slopes, rugged cliffs and towering peaks. Choosing our way through this obstacle course and finding legal rams in a landscape we had never set foot in before was sure to be a challenge.
Up before the sun, like all good sheep hunters do, by mid-morning we had fought our way through the drizzly clouds, gained a vantage point and were glassing the mountain ridges and valleys before us. The pounding wind forced cold in and subdued our joy of having attained that first big climb into the peaks.
Scattered sheep and one lone ram was spotted two miles away. He looked worthy of a closer look due to what appeared to be a broken horn on his left side. We weighed our choices, maintain the high ground or descend to the valley for a look. We hate giving up elevation but he was the only ram around.
Part way through our decent, two more rams walked out into our view and across a high slope heading off towards some rough country. The lead ram was a very nice full curl (left) by broken (and almost full curl on the right). My heart skipped beat, this was the type of horn configuration I had been dreaming about for over several years.
The way they were moving indicated they were spooked and I mentioned to Steve, “This is where we see other hunters.” Sure enough, a group of 5 camo clad, rifle toting, pack wearing mountain climbers emerged from a drainage in their assault on the ridge separating the two spooked rams from the lone bedded ram. We relinquished the first ram to them and altered our course to head deep into the mountains the other direction, seeking other rams and solitude.
The miles moved under our feet one step at a time. Late evening, a passing glace at a high shale slide, my eyes caught a lone sheep moving into a little bowl. It was the spooked ram from earlier, the same full curl by broken horn. He’d covered about the same amount of ground as we had but his route had weaved through the high peaks and his body language indicated he was still on high alert. He would be a tough ram to get on. We kept an eye on him till dark and woke early. Binoculars at first light, we picked him out among the rocks. He was still there. We started our stalk, climbing up. Behind us a hidden bowl opened up across the valley. As we gained elevation this hidden bowl began revealing hidden rams. The more we climbed, the more this bowl opened. First one ram, then three then seven, finally eleven rams! We stopped several times to observe them with the spotting scope. At least one was full curl and several others were close. But they were for another day, we were committed to the task at hand.
Just below the ridge we planned to peak over and find the lone ram, we saw fresh sheep tracks. We peaked over anyways but we knew we’d missed him. Our own tracks followed his around the mountain and there he was. All alone grazing in a vast amphitheater a couple miles away. Time for a new stalk, and a new climb, once we figured out how.
Back at the bottom, we started a new approach on the now bedded ram. We weren’t confident we’d get close enough. After a long climb and a peak thru some crags…the rangefinder showed 620 yards. Much too far. Hope was for him to feed towards us when rest time was over, but odds were against us due to his directional habit. He eventually got up and moved away…time for another stalk.
The ram bedded again on a high shelf. Vertical cliffs atop the amphitheater prevented a stalk from above. Straight up at him was the only option if we wanted to push this yet today. Lambs and ewes were scattered below him like sentinels. An evaluation from up high gave us promise that we might be able to sneak through the willow lined creek bed until the contour of the mountain could hide us from view. Much crawling, much pausing, much sneaking when sheep heads were down. Soon enough, we’d passed by the lambs and ewes (within 200yrds) and now had the final push up a narrow gully to a rock promontory that should give us good coverage of where the ram would potentially emerge from.
Promontory gained, we crawled up to a vantage point. Steve spotted the ram, he’d already moved and was 340 yrds away, standing alert and ready to make for the high saddle that would mean escape. We knew he’d winded us, but we were close. So much slow and sneaky for a few moments of fast action. And the ram rolled down the shale. Relief and excitement.
Ravens keyed in on the commotion almost immediately. Winter was soon to be upon this country (late September) and they were circling the ram and landing in proximity before we could walk up to him.
We camped that night up high and slept in. A ram in the bag outside our tent. The dall’s flaring horns punctuated the stunning view out the tent flap.
With heavy loads we made our way back to the valley floor and the idea of rest for the day trumped any more efforts that day. Fire, roasted tenderloins, and preparations for additional days of ram hunting was the order of the day. We were way back in, it was the last week of sheep season, no one else was going to be around, rams were in close proximity. Rest was easy. We hung the ram from cord over cliffs in order to (hopefully) keep it out of reach of scavengers that may thieve away our meat, hide or horns.
Gale force winds storming in the night kept us hunkered down till noon. But eventually we couldn’t stand the wait any longer and decided to climb up after the rams in the hidden bowl and shoulder the wind. The rams were still there but two were missing, one being the obvious full curl. Everyone else was at best, just shy. We climbed up to the side peak which allowed us to look down into a little cut. Oh, there you are. 350 yards almost straight down. We had some deep discussions about bullet trajectory, hold-overs, wind doping. It was certainly a makeable shot but would have been an impressive one none the less. We almost always opt for patience in these situations. We opted out of the shot. Back down the ridge we set up our post, hoping the rams would eventually feed out onto the open slopes as we had seen them do the previous days. The distance would still be long, but straight across, a much higher percentage opportunity, if the ram cooperated.
As the cold wind blasted us, we took turns at the watch. One set of eyes on the where the ram might show, the other on the leeward side of the ridge, pacing to stay warm. Eventually, a white back would appear. Then the crest of dark horns…gradually, the full curl ram came into view. But the ridge covered vitals and the ram fed away, out of sight. Cold, wind, wait some more. Here he comes again. This time we’re not confident it’s him. As if to help us, the other 7/8 curl ram crests behind him and our decision is made. Few times have I ever witnessed such a peaceful death. There’s a poof of white hair, a couple staggers and then he simply lays down and lays his head over.
Darkness seems to fall often when we’re carving up a ram. It’s usually a good indicator that patience ruled the day and led to our success. Head lamps illuminate the process and aid our descent down the mountain. Ptarmigan cackle and flutter at the edge of the LED glow that chases them as they ghost into the night. It was pure enjoyment on yet another mountain traverse in the dark.
We’d been packing camp and twelve days of food around with us every day since we started. This day we’d do nothing of the sort. The tent would stay put for once. Stories and artwork fill the pages of our journals. Meat is roasted over a campfire. As I reflect by the babbling mountain water I hear the Lord say “drink.” I plunge my face for a long cool drink, but he is saying so much more.
We are always amazed at how our packs, fully loaded with camp, food and gear can suddenly accommodate an additional 50 pounds of meat, 20 pounds of head and horns and another 20 pounds of hide. It’s a wonder and mystery. The first couple miles of hiking under such a load makes you feel like a superhero…but only for the first couple hours. After that, it’s just work.
At the end of a full day in the packs we meet up with the group of five from days before. One of the guides is a friend. We’re invited to share a camp with them. What a treat. The fire is lit, stories are told, and four sets of ram horns are admired. Hey, I thought resident and non-resident sheep hunters weren’t supposed to get along. But there’s nothing but camaraderie here.
Tomorrow is another full day to reach the airstrip. Eight days total to tell the entire adventure.
That’s our ride home, circling the strip once before nosing down for us.
We’ll be home before dark.
Our rams are great. Any legal ram is once one puts in the effort these hunts require. Bothe rams are eight years old. Perhaps half-brothers, just like Steve and I.
Scott’s ram – 36 x 32 x 12.75
Steve’s ram – 34.5 x 13.0
Sheep Hunting Gear List
All the gear and food used in the Lace'em Up video listed in a free download.
The Keys to Success
What it takes to be successful as a dedicated backpack sheep hunter.
7 Rams, 7 Mountains
Steve completed the first ever walk-in Alaska sheep slam this past August 2012. Read about his journey here.