Ram of Pilot Mountain: The Story of Jack O’Connor’s Biggest Sheep
First published in January 1951, this story of Jack O’Connor’s record-book Dall sheep is among his best
Editor’s note: Jack O’Connor hunted wild sheep all over the world and inspired many big game hunters through his writings as Outdoor Life’s shooting editor. His biggest North American sheep, a massive Dall ram, was killed on Pilot Mountain in the Yukon. Here’s the story of that adventure, originally published in 1951.
THE FIRST TIME I ever hunted Dall sheep—those beautiful snow-white rams with golden eyes and yellow horns—was up in the glaciers around the head of the White River, near where the southwest corner of the Yukon Territory is jammed right up against Alaska. The area is beautiful and wild, and for thirty years the late Jean Jacquot outfitted parties there. The creeks were named for outside sportsmen and their wives—Count Creek for a member of the European nobility, Edith Creek for the wife of a hunter.
For a month I did nothing but look for a great Dall head, heavy, massive, long of curl, and large of base. I picked up some other game as I went along, but what I was looking for was this super ram. I worked hard for him, but he never came within range of my binoculars.
I remember one day when my guide Field Johnson and I made a long climb to the top of a range, then a three-mile stalk through the darnedest canyons ever dreamed up, to look over a bunch of fourteen rams. I didn’t fire a shot.
Toward the end of the trip, while we were working out of a jack camp, cooking over smoky willow fires, getting wet, freezing, I took my two rams the law then allowed. I am sure I got the two best heads I saw. Each was in the record class, but not that dream ram.
Perhaps, I thought, my big fellow awaited me in the Pelly Mountains, northeast of Whitehorse, where the white Dalls and dark Stones come together to form the hybrid, so-called Fannin sheep with gray saddles but white heads and necks. No luck! I hunted there, but during as tough a two weeks as I have ever put in, I didn’t fire a shot at a sheep.
All this time my big dream ram was waiting for me in a dinky little range I could see from the Alaska Highway. A couple of times I had noticed it and said to myself, “Looks as If there might be a few sheep there!” Then I had forgotten it as hardly worth the gamble. But fate works in curious ways, and last August Red Earley of Texas and I found ourselves tying saddlebags and scabbards onto our saddles as our outfit prepared to leave the old Whitehorse Dawson road. We were out to try our luck in this range I had seen so many times with its blue peaks tipped with snow thrusting up from the dreary, dark-green spruce forest.
At first fate seemed more or less against us—and had been from the start. Herb Klein, the companion who was to hunt with us, had developed a strep throat at the last moment and wouldn’t be able to join us for a week. The little range into which we were packing hardly seemed rough enough or extensive enough to hold many sheep, and it seemed too accessible. To top it off, the rain caught us a few miles from where we had left the road, and when I say rain I mean rain.
Water poured down on us in sheets. It got so bad that for a while we abandoned our saddle horses and took chilly refuge under some spruce trees. Anyone who has ever pitched camp in a blinding rainstorm knows how much fun it was. Finally, though, we had the packs off, a fire built and the tents up, and gradually we got dry and comfortable.
It seemed to Red and me that we were hunting Pilot Mountain on pretty scant evidence. Ours was the first party of trophy hunters ever to go into it. Actually the country hadn’t been hunted by anyone in years. We saw an old Indian meat cache one place, but what trails we encountered were not pack trails but old dog trails that were long unused. Neither Moose nor Charley, our two guides, had ever been in the range before, and what dope we were operating on came from an ancient Indian meat hunter we had encountered in a camp on the road.
There were, he told us, some sheep on Pilot Mountain—not many but some. We would find them, he said, if we went up the main valley through the pass. Just on the other side we would come upon two small lakes. Beyond them we could look to the rit and see a big basin rimmed with shale slides and rocky peaks. In this basin we would find this beautiful, snow-white Dall sheep of the arctic and subarctic ranges in the Yukon and Alaska. The old man had not been in the range for ten years, he told us; but the last time he was there he had shot a young ram for meat and had seen several.
To Red and to me this seemed like a long gamble. Many things can happen in ten years. The sheep could have moved to another range. Wolves could have killed them off or driven them out. We were all the more skeptical when, as the rain continued, we glassed all the surrounding peaks and shale slides and found not so much as a sheep trail.
But Red and I talked a good sheep hunt, to bolster our lagging spirits during the time the rain continued to pelt down. We related our respective feats on previous trips into the head of the White River, in the Stone-sheep country in northern British Columbia, and in the bighorn ranges in Alberta and Wyoming. Every time the rain freshened and the clouds clung lower on the peaks we’d draw closer to the stove in the cooktent and shoot a couple of more rams.
Moose Johnson, my guide, was not the least pessimistic. “Don’t worry,” he told us. “We’ll get rams. If we don’t get ’em here we’ll get ’em somewhere else. Plenty big ram in all these little ranges.” Moose and I, we discovered, were practically twins. Both of us were born on the same day of the same month of the same year—he in the Yukon, I on the Mexican border. But while I was wasting my time behind a desk, Moose had spent most of the years of his allotted span hunting. He and his distant relative Field Johnson, with whom I had previously hunted, are the most famous of all Yukon sheep guides.
But rain cannot last forever and there came a day when we began to notice that the dirty gray clouds were lifting from the sodden peaks, Then we began to see holes in the overcast that showed blue sky. The rain slackened and then ceased, and on the morning of our third day in camp we awoke to find the weather good enough to go out in—and we were in the sheep-hunting business.
Our first camp had been one of desperation, so the plan was for Moose, Red, and me to go up the canyon, find the mysterious basin, and hunt, while Charley, Harold the horse wrangler, and Odin the cook broke and moved camp to a new location. Then that night when we came in, we would cut the trail of the outfit and find camp all set up again.
Following the directions of our ancient Indian, the three of us rode up the canyon four miles. We came to the pass about which he had told us. Beyond it, sure enough, were two little lakes. We climbed up above timberline on the bench to the right, and there we saw a Great Basin hemmed by mighty peaks. To its left was another, smoother basin that rose gradually to a ridge about three miles away.
We got off our horses. Moose took my 9 x 35 binoculars and almost instantly said, “I see three sheep!”
There they were, clear at the head of the second basin, feeding on the rich alpine grass. Moose declared that they were rams, but under those light conditions and at that distance neither Red nor I could swear to it.
From where we first glassed the sheep, we followed a draw and kept out of sight until we were a bit more than a mile from them. Then I set up the spotting scope and found the sheep in it. They were rams all right, three of them. They were not, however, anything to make a trophy hunter’s heart beat particularly fast. The best one had a full curl and was around seven years old. The others were younger and smaller.
We took turns staring at them, trying to decide whether to make the stalk or not. Suddenly Moose said, “I see another ram. I can just see his nose.”
“Let me take a look,” I said.
A Glimpse of a Horn
Exactly where Moose said it would be—in a hollow about twenty feet to the right of one ram—was the tiny white triangle of a Dall ram’s nose. As I watched he shifted his position, and I could see the golden base of his right horn.
“Moose, I can see the base of his horn now,” I said, “and it looks big.”
Moose and Red took turns at the scope and on the strength of that glimpse of about six inches of horn base, we decided to make the stalk.
Red and I had already agreed that I was to have the first crack at rams and he was to have the first crack at grizzlies, if we were together when we encountered game. I had always been very lucky on grizzlies, whereas Red had been lucky on everything but; in many years of hunting grizzly country, years in which he had seen many, he had never got a good shot at one.
So off we started. If we could climb out of the canyon and over the ridge we could ride above the sheep. But while we were climbing out we’d be in plain sight of the rams and about a mile and a half away. I was afraid of spooking them and voted to tie our horses and begin the stalk on foot, so we’d be less conspicuous during that initial climb. Red, who’d rather ride than walk, and Moose outvoted me.
“Don’t worry,” Moose said. “Sheep won’t get scared. Nobody hunts them. They don’t know people.”
So we led our scrambling, puffing horses up that almost straight-up-and-down slope until finally we got them over the ridge and out of sight. Our last look with the glasses showed that the rams were still there, lying down and chewing their ends. With their telescopic wide-angle eyes they had no doubt seen us, but since we were not traveling toward them they paid no particular attention.
Finally Moose held up his hand. We stopped and dismounted. The sheep, we figured, should be about 200 yards away down the slope within easy shooting distance. I took my .30/06 out of the saddle scabbard, camera out of the saddlebags. Red unlimbered his .300 Magnum.
Moose borrowed my binoculars and walked a few feet to where he could peek over the ridge. Then he almost fell ever backward. From his frantic signals we could tell that the rams had moved and were right beneath us.
Red and I joined him.
There the rams were, so close we could see one of them blink his eyes, sixty-five paces from us. Three were just as we had sized them up with the spotting scope but the ram we had almost missed was magnificent, with great incurved and outswept horns. He and two other rams were lying with their rumps to us. The fourth—the one I had seen blink his eye—was lying broadside.
As I sat there with my rifle across my knees a flock of thoughts raced through my mind. I ought to take movies instead of shooting. It was immoral to take a magnificent ram like that after such an easy stalk on the first day of the hunt. This baby would go better than 40 inches, and the only other 40-incher I had ever shot was a Stone that had fallen to my rifle only after a tough month of climbing, stalking, sweating, looking over more than 100 heads. I thought of going back to the horse for the movie camera. I wished I had my 35 mm still camera and its telephoto lens. I thought that in spite of our agreement I ought to give Red the shot.
“You take him, Red,” I whispered.
“No, go ahead.”
“No, he’s all yours.”
“Shut up and shoot.”
“Don’t shoot him in the head,” Moose whispered to me. “Don’t ruin the scalp.”
The Fat Was in the Fire
I didn’t have much choice. The ram was facing directly away from me. I had either to break his neck and ruin the scalp or try to drive a bullet through his vitals with a rump shot. I hated to shoot him either place. Then the ram that was facing sidewişe decided the matter for me. He either heard us whispering or caught a glimpse of us out of the corner of his eye. Up he jumped and away he went. Instantly the other rams followed. The fat was now in the fire.
I threw up my rifle and pressed the trigger with the crosshairs sharp and black against the broad white fanny of the great ram. Nothing apparently happened. I worked the bolt, shot again. The ram ran perhaps ten feet more and went down.
The three survivors dashed around a point with Red right after them, and I ran to the top of the ridge where I could see the shooting.
“Take the ram in the lead,” Moose shouted.
Red sat down and his big .300 cracked. His shot was just to the right. By the time he got lined up for his second shot the rams had strung out single file and the lead ram was about 300 yards away. At the rifle crack the ram went down.
With the shooting over, I went over to look at my ram—and almost fainted. It was the most beautiful ram head I had ever laid my eyes on, long, massive, symmetrical, the sort of trophy the sheep hunter dreams about but seldom sees. I had known it was good, but not that good. Here was the ram I’d dreamed about all those years!
“Good heavens,” said Red when he joined me, “that will go 45 inches!”
“Forty-one,” I said, not daring to voice my hopes.
“Forty-three,” Moose said.
I really had ram fever now. I sat down to ease my shaky legs.
“I’ve got a steel tape in the saddle bags,” I told Moose. “If you’ll get it we’ll measure this baby!”
Circumference at base of each horn was 15 ½ inches—terrific for a so-called thin-horn sheep. Longest curl showed 45 inches. However, the first measurement later proved optimistic and the longest curl was less than 44—still one of the greatest heads ever to come out of the north country, and surely one of the most beautiful. The only thing I regretted was that he came so easy, but I suppose I earned him knocking myself out at the head of the White River and in the Pelly Mountains.
He not only had the largest head I’d ever got a look at on a live sheep, but he was the largest and heaviest Dall I’d seen. From the top of his shoulder to the bottom of his chest he measured 22 inches, and he was 44 inches long from chest to rump. A month after he was shot his dry horns and skull weighed 30 pounds! Since he was built with the round barrel and broad fat back of a beef steer, he couldn’t have weighed less than 250 pounds on the hoof, maybe more.
We Lived on Ram Meat
When we went down off the mountain that day, we took the heads. The next day we went up and brought down all the meat with a couple of packhorses, and the whole outfit lived on those rams until we got a moose. It was darn good living, too!
Alex Davis, our outfitter, was sure this magnificent ram of mine would win first prize for the year in the Boone and Crockett Club competition for big-game heads. Then our delayed companion, Herb Klein, showed up, rushed out, and got a Yukon ram to make mine look puny. But that’s another story!
This text has been minimally edited to meet contemporary standards.