Alaska Sheep Hunt 2011: Three Rams in One Day

As with pretty much every sheep hunt in Alaska, this one started out with a long pack into the area we would be hunting. We had about 12 miles to cover and many streams to cross. As daunting as the task was, the trip will only got harder from here. All of my sheep hunts are unguided, which adds a challenge and sense of accomplishment. An unguided sheep hunt on public land in Alaska is one of the most physically challenging hunts in North America. Here is the story and photos of how my 2011 sheep hunt unfolded. See the video of my Dall Sheep hunt. Editor's Note: Live Hunt Host Tyler Freel is an extreme backcountry hunter, native Alaskan and sheep fanatic. Through Live Hunt, Freel will go on several trips this fall taking photos and videos of his adventures. This sheep hunt is his first trip of the fall.
After a long day's pack, we made it to our base camp site before the season opened. The strategy is to find as many legal rams as possible before the season actually starts, pin point the largest one in the area and then hunt him on opening day. But first we had to set up camp. I've used different tents over the years, but this season I used a Bibler tripod bivy pitched under Kifaru's supertarp shelter. The bivy is light, but provides no gear coverage and is very claustrophobic if you get weathered in. So with very little extra weight, this was a good system. The supertarp is very versatile and simple. Pitched with 2 poles into the wind, it can withstand just about anything, and it is light enough to stick in the daypack for unplanned nights on the mountain.
After getting camp set up, we didn't waste any time getting on the glass. One of the biggest challenges for sheep hunters is spotting and judging rams. We were often looking at sheep between 1 and 3 miles away.
The first night Steve, one of my hunting partners, spotted this fancy-horned ram. Even from more than a mile away (we took this photo through a spotting scope), we could tell that this was no typical ram. It was the prettiest ram I have ever seen on the hoof. See a blog about photoscoping.
Crawling out of the sleeping bag with sore feet, but an amazing view the next morning, it was time to find my ram.
During a sheep hunt, more time is usually spent glassing than anything else. At one spot, we had a group of caribou cows & calves walk within 10 yards of us. This calf sure didn't know what to make of us, but it didn't stick around long to find out.
Although sheep are white and sometimes stick out like a sore thumb, it takes careful glassing to find them, as these hillsides have hundreds of nooks and crannies where they could be hidden. Every night when I'd shut my eyes I would see the rams I'd been looking at all day. The images were burned into my mind.
We found these two good-sized rams on that same hillside about 1.5 miles away. Judging sheep is very difficult at this range, but with a high quality spotting scope like the Swarovski 20-60 HD I was using, it is possible to get a pretty good idea of how big a ram is. Here's a good guide on how to field judge sheep.
Weather can move fast in the mountains, and in this case it was sunny all day ... then we were hit with an hour-long downpour. There was nothing to do but wait it out.
We found this big guy in a small canyon behind camp. We wanted to glass over as many sheep as possible before the season started to get an inventory of what the area holds.
We saw this ram a few minutes later farther up the ridge. He's not huge, but has good mass, a deep curl, and would probably go between 36" and 38" horn length. With dall sheep, the average full curl ram is about 33-34," and the "Holy Grail" is 40" (much like a 30" mule deer, or 60" bull moose).
Again, from more than a mile away, it's very hard to fine-tune the judging, but this ram would definitely be worth chasing, and I was going to be looking for him the next day once the season opened.
Although it took some looking, we were able to keep tabs on the big ram we saw the first night, figuring he would measure just about 40 inches. Even from far away, you could see the massive curl he had. Many times you will only locate a sheep by seeing his head sticking out from behind a rock.
The bad thing about these spotting scopes is that eventually you have to take your eye away from them and look up at that distant mountain. Then you realize how many miles and how much agony lies between you and the ram.
After a couple of days of hard glassing, it was finally the night before the season opener. This time of year in the Brooks Range, it never gets totally dark. So with the rams we wanted to shoot located, we prepped our gear for a midnight stalk despite the fog we could see rolling on the horizon.
Tim and I took off up the hill and were soon fully socked in with fog and rain. After about two hours of climbing and getting soaking wet, we found this big cleft in the rocks right at the spot I figured we would be able to see the sheep from. It was big enough to fit us and our gear. It allowed us to dry out a bit while we waited for the fog to clear.
After about an hour, the fog broke up enough for us to glass the rams we were after. We were pretty much pinned down in that cave, so we meticulously glassed over every ram from about 1,200 yards, narrowing the field down to one big ram. Right at midnight, the fog rolled back in, and we decided to use it to make our final stalk.
The fog ended up helping us a lot. We got within 250 yards before we could see them bedded on the steep slope. We dropped our packs and scooted forward into a spot where we wouldn't be skylined just as the fog cleared again. We laid there freezing and wet for 2 hours looking at the rams, waiting for enough light to get a little better look at the big one's horns. Finally I'd seen enough to know he was the one. At 3 a.m. he stood up to stretch and one shot from my .25-06 at 224 yards put him down for good.
As it turned out, I didn't have to utilize the ballistic turret since the shot was basically right at my zero range, but it was nice to know I could put it out a bit farther if need be. The 30mm tube on the Swarovski Z6 gave me plenty of clarity even in the low light conditions. Read more about the Swarovski Z6 in my blog.
This was the sixth ram I've taken, and there sure was no ground shrinkage. He had a splintered left horn (I believe from fighting). The afternoon before, I saw him sparring and knocking some of his buddies around. I'd wanted a ram with one broken horn for some time, and being able to watch his character, pick him out, and harvest him after a challenging stalk was a huge personal accomplishment for me.
His right horn was also slightly broken or broomed as well, but he was still measured at 37 ½" with 13 ½" bases when the horns were sealed. He's a pretty, deep, heavy 9-year-old. He is definitely my best full curl ram.
Halfway through cleaning this ram, I noticed that he had a black tipped tail. I've heard it's not too uncommon in areas of the Alaska Range near the Canadian border, but I'd never heard of one being found elsewhere in Alaska.
Upon closer examination, I noticed that the sheep's back was peppered with black hairs. Dall sheep are pure white, and this, coupled with the black tail, would make this ram a Fannin (the mysterious sheep that are thought to be crosses between Stone sheep and Dall sheep). However, they are only known to be found in Canada and very few areas along the Alaska border. I have never heard of one being taken from the Brooks. According to Grand Slam Club's criteria, this ram will count as my Stone/Fannin sheep in the grand slam program, which is very exciting!
After the shooting is over, I always start out by caping the sheep for a shoulder mount with a cut right up the middle of the back, splitting into a "Y" up to the base of each horn.
A taxidermy quality cape is easy to skin, just skinning it down from the back. You can see the silver dollar-sized exit wound. I was shooting Hornady 117gr SST bullets in my .25-06 and once again was very impressed with their performance. The ram was down within 10 yards.
Although the bullets held together well and had minimal hide damage, it pulverized the ribs and soft tissue on the entrance side and made short work of the lungs. I would use this bullet on anything from black tail deer to interior grizzlies without hesitation.
"Just a little tired." With the meat, horns and cape packed up, it was time to head back down to camp at 7a.m. Pictures don't really do justice to how steep it was, our camp was below the fog bank downhill. In some ways, packing heavy weight downhill is much more dangerous and painful than climbing. Especially on tundra and rocks, every step must be chosen carefully. A broken or sprained ankle or knee is always just one errant step away.
This terrain is rough on the feet, and good boots are a must. I was using a pair of the Lowa Tibets. They have a comfortable footbed with plenty of support. Sheep hunts will shred many boots, but these had excellent traction and had very little tread wear.
We finally made it back down across the river to camp at 9 a.m. after a long, cold, wet night.
While we were closing the deal on my ram, Gary (pictured) and his brother Steve camped out on another mountain to wait out the fog. Gary took this nice ram shortly after Tim and I made it back to camp from our overnighter. He measured 36 ½" with 13 ¼" bases, and died in front of a beautiful background.
A few hours after getting Gary's ram, Steve spotted the ram we'd been watching for days. He was more than happy to drop the hammer on this bruiser.
This was a beautiful, symmetrical sheep with a heavy curl and both horns right at the 40" mark.
After everybody had got their sheep on opening day, it was time to break camp and head home. It was hard to believe that sheep season had once again come and gone so fast.
Although it can be pretty warm during the day, even in August, temperatures can drop below 30 degrees at night. I always bring a 20 degree rated sleeping bag with synthetic fill like the Mountainsmith Kenosha and it kept me very comfortable. Down fill is good, but if it gets wet at all, it is useless, so I always go with synthetic. The wrong bag can make for a miserable hunt!
As we were breaking camp, a State Trooper patrolling the area by helicopter landed and did us a favor, sealing our rams in the field so we didn't have to do it when we got back to town.
The biggest gear change I made this year was my pack. I'd used an external frame pack since I started hunting sheep and have always been skeptical of internal or soft frame packs from what I've seen and how they fit. After reading Aron Snyder's review, I was glad to have the opportunity to use Kifaru's new Timberline pack and was thoroughly impressed. It is very lightweight and even with 90-100lb loads, it was by far the most comfortable pack I've ever worn. The pack has plenty of support and room for a hunter's camp, sheep, and then some.
Dog tired. Aching body. Throbbing feet. Several miles left to walk. That's the life of a sheep hunter if you're doing things right.
Much of this land is untouched. Who knows how many generations of caribou have walked down this trail.
As heavy as the packs are and as nice as it is to get home, the hike out is always somewhat somber, saying goodbye to these mountains for another year. I am always struck by the beauty, ruggedness, and vastness of sheep country. Since my first hunt 7 years ago I have been obsessed with sheep hunting. After I punch my tag I always have a huge sense of accomplishment, but it's soon followed up by sadness that the hunt is over. If you have it in your blood, you'll understand why I'm already thinking about next year. For more photos of Tyler's previous sheep hunts go to Live Hunt: The Alaskan Kid.

On opening day Live Hunt Host Tyler Freel and his buddies took four beautiful Dall Sheep rams in the Brooks Range. See the photos and story from their incredible hunt here.