Dall sheep hunting is my annual reset button. In all of the miles of leg-burning, foot-smashing, heavy packing, nearly all of my worries disappear. After a long flight from Fairbanks, my hunting partners Steve and Gary Hallenbeck, our friend Jeremy, and I set out on a 12-mile pack from the air strip to our spike camp in the Brooks Range. My head was full of a year’s worth of daydreams about white sheep and golden curling horns.
From the get go, things seemed encouraging, as we spotted a full curl ram bedded on his rocky perch within a couple hours of getting boots on the ground. Since you can’t fly and hunt sheep on the same day in Alaska, we would have to wait until the next day to go after him, but seeing that ram was a good sign.
Jeremy hasn’t lived in Alaska the full year required to hunt sheep without a guide, so he was after caribou. Fortunately for him, we were almost immediately on top of big bulls. This was the first one we saw, and oddly enough he was right up with a band of sheep. Sometimes, in warmer weather, these big bulls will be up in the high country to get away from the flies, which will burrow and lay eggs inside the caribou’s skin. I’ve seen caribou driven so crazy by the bugs that they run deliriously for hours down through the riverbottoms trying to find some relief.
On our day of hunting, I spotted this nice double-broomed ram about a mile above our spike camp, and Gary decided he wanted to try and take him. He was perched with two smaller rams up in some nasty crags, so Steve, Gary, and I got out of sight and climbed up to a small plateau about 300 yards below them. Once we were in view, we were easily within rifle range, and as the rams stood up and started moving farther up the rocks, Gary dropped the biggest sheep with one shot. One of the bad things about the steep country Dall sheep inhabit is that often they will roll quite a ways down the hill after the shot. This one took a pretty good tumble, but fortunately it wasn’t busted up too badly. Gary had never killed a broomed ram before, so he couldn’t have been happier.
After the steep trek back to camp, we spotted a band of small rams, including this dirty looking sheep. He had a half curl, suggesting he was about four years or so from being legal, but I think that he could be a true Fannin (a Dall sheep with black hairs; some believe Fannins to be a cross between a Dall sheep and a Stone sheep). The ram I shot last year had black hairs all down its back, but this one looks even more dramatic. The dark hair could be dirt stains, but because of where the coloration is located I think he’s a Fannin. He has several hard years ahead of him before he’s legal, so I may or may not ever get the chance to find out for sure.
After spotting a handful of potential shooters, Steve and I loaded up with a couple days’ worth of food and began making the ascent to get a closer look. While we had an elevation advantage, we used it to glass the otherwise obscured pockets of country across the river and spotted several nice rams. The two words that best define sheep hunting are “walking” and “glassing.” Many of the sheep you locate are more than two miles away from where you are, and if you don’t have a high-quality spotting scope, you might as well stay home. We were once again using the Swarovski 20-60x65mm spotter, and I have never used a finer piece of glass. From more than two miles away, we could get a good idea of whether or not a ram was worth a closer look.
We worked our way up to a spot about 1,000 yards from the rams, set up our spike camp, and grabbed a bite to eat before making a game plan for the evening. While they may be a far cry from a five-star meal, freeze-dried foods are a huge help in cutting pack weight, and most of them have a respectable amount of calories. Most of the time, a sheep hunter can expect to burn 8,000 to 10,000 calories per day (more than you can carry in food to replenish), so getting every calorie you can is crucial.
We had a good view of all the rams in the basin, including one very pretty flared ram that we figured was around 37 inches. However, there were 48 rams in all, and 600 yards of uphill open ground stood between us and the outer limits of rifle range. We approached them gradually and snuck just inside 400 yards without busting them when they decided to move out. I think they got a whiff of us, but they weren’t very spooked. As I got to my planned shooting position, all 48 rams moved in two tight groups across the hillside. They were too bunched up for a shot, and the herd looked like a sea of white and horns through my riflescope. By the time they were strung out enough to have a shot, my rangefinder read 520 yards, which is a very makeable shot for me. What I didn’t realize is that I didn’t have the angle-compensating mode activated on the rangefinder, and I proceeded to shoot right over the back of the 37-incher three times. I was devastated.
We spent the night on the mountain and came back down to camp the next morning to find that Jeremy had taken a really nice bull caribou.
This was Jeremy’s first caribou, and a dandy at that. The rack had a ton of character, with double shovels, good bez tines, and nice tops, along with a less common, gray velvet. Caribou are one-and-a-half times as big as a sheep, so Jeremy was in for quite the packing trip.
After loading up with more food, Steve, Gary, and I were back on the move. We went another mile or two up the drainage and climbed up towards a ridge top where Gary had spotted a nice ram the night before. Here, we were checking out a band of sheep that was skylined about half a mile above us. For the DIY sheep hunter to be successful, there is absolutely no substitute for spending hours behind the glass. At every rest stop, any time a new piece of country comes in to view, the glasses need to come out.
We set up our secondary camp and moved about a mile farther up the ridge where we spotted a really nice ram. We were fairly certain he was one we’ve been after for a couple years. He’s just a little over full curl, but his horns drop well below his jaw line, which indicates that he’s probably over 40 inches and a true trophy. The ram bedded down for the night in a good spot, and it only took us about an hour to get within range.
We worked into a position 400 yards above the bedded ram. I was completely set up, crosshairs on the sheep, but the way he was bedded put his horns directly in front of his kill zone. I told Steve to get him to stand up, as nearly always they will stand and look at you for several seconds before making up their mind as to what to do. I couldn’t believe what happened next: Without hesitating, the ram rose to his feet, turned around, and took off at a dead run, not stopping until he was over the top of the mountain. With this second strike, I was getting a little discouraged. Before this hunt, I had gotten every ram I’d ever gone after. All we could do was trudge the mile and a half back down the ridge to camp and keep looking.
The next morning we were up bright and early, hiking back up toward a high saddle that would allow us to look into a valley behind the mountains over which the ram I missed had gone.
One of sheep hunting’s lesser obvious challenges is water. There are quite a few of these small alpine creeks, but sometimes water can be scarce. This can be a huge problem because when you’re working this hard, a hunter needs to be drinking 4 to 6 liters of water per day to stay in the game.
As soon as we reached the saddle, we immediately started spotting sheep. In fact, we quit counting at 150, as sheep were spread throughout the upper end of this valley.
After some tedious evaluation and glassing, and much to my surprise, we located the ram I had missed two nights before.
Steve and I were each scanning different parts of the valley, and when he first spotted the ram, it was only 300 yards below us. But in the time it took me to get over there, the ram had walked out to 500 yards. In his evening feeding routine, he gradually fed farther and farther from us. He was headed up a lush creek across the basin from us.
I sat there for hours watching him. The wind was whipping so hard I had to put on all my clothes and my rain gear and drape my sleeping bag over me just to keep from shaking. Although the air wasn’t that cold, the wind that funneled through that saddle was bone chilling. I watched the ram’s every move, but there was no way to make a stalk. There were sheep everywhere, and I would get busted before I even started. As the evening went on, the sheep gradually consolidated and began to bed down for the night. This half-curl sheep near the one I’d missed bedded down only to have a bigger one came up behind him, ram him in the hind end, and steal his bed!
As the sheep settled in, we came up with a plan. Sheep don’t see very well when it starts to get dark, so we found a spot that would be in rifle range, pinpointed his location, and waited. At about 11 p.m. the light was fading fast, so Gary and I quickly made our way across the hillside toward the ram. We had made it to a little over 400 yards when two rams below us spooked and took off up toward the others. The main group didn’t see us, but they were alerted by those rams. When they stood up, I laid down and shot the ram before he could move and get mixed up with the others in the low light. It was completely dark by the time we got to him, so I gutted him and we made our way back to our sleeping bags.
While we were in the spike camp of our original spike camp, we used a Kifaru ParaHootch (a smaller version of the SuperTarp) to shelter us, and laid out our sleeping bags underneath. Even though we had adequate shelter, we still nearly froze. It’s always pleasant to wake up freezing every hour or so and have to roll over because half your body is numb from lying on the rocks. It works, though, and after that last night on the mountain, Gary and I made the walk back down to my ram.
Although he wasn’t as big as he looked, this is probably the prettiest ram I’ve ever killed. He’s broken off right at full curl on the right horn, but his left horn is well over full curl. This sheep is special to me because he is the first one that has given me the slip. Finding him again and being able to take him after being down in the dumps for a couple days made it even sweeter.
I know I say it a lot, but it cannot be overstressed that optics are everything on a sheep hunt. I used the Swarovski 10×42 EL Range bino that I used for my brown bear hunt, and they didn’t disappoint. The only issue I had was not realizing they weren’t automatically in the true ballistic range mode, but that was my fault. Having a high-quality rangefinder/bino combination is hard to beat.
After caping and cutting up my ram, it was time for the real work of the sheep hunt to begin. Tired and out of food but happy, we packed up the heavy loads of meat and began our four-mile trip back to spike camp for a much-needed dinner.
The first half mile was all uphill back to the saddle where we had left our camp, then it was all downhill from there. Picking our way across several slides of loose rock and shale was pretty arduous, especially considering one wrong step can result in a broken leg or worse. Being more than 300 miles from the nearest medical help, we made sure to take our time picking through the bad spots.
Our empty stomachs couldn’t wait to get back to camp before being filled. Once we made it back down to the river bottom we found a patch of alders with plenty of dead wood (a rare thing for this patch of country), built a small fire, and wolfed down five pounds of fresh sheep meat as quickly as we could cook it.
We used a thin, flat rock as a frying pan by placing it over the edge of the fire. The fatty piece of meat greased the rock as it cooked.
After days on end of nothing but freeze-dried food, fresh meat is quite the treat. Not only is it a welcome break from the bland backpacking food, but it helps restore your energy levels. On this type of hunt, your body will basically eat itself, robbing precious protein from your muscles for energy. Fresh meat like this helps to counteract those effects. Plus, it’s a lot easier to pack it out in your stomach than on your back!
We made it back to camp a few hours later, and weren’t too happy to see fresh grizzly tracks. Apparently we weren’t the only predators roaming the valley.
An even more disheartening sight, we found that the sow grizzly and her cubs had eaten all of Gary’s sheep meat and destroyed his cape. We would later find out that they also chewed half of the velvet off of Jeremy’s caribou antlers and ruined his cape as well. A lot of grizzly bears are just trouble, and this sow was teaching her up-and-comers how to steal meat from hunters. They will probably keep it up until they get shot.
It’s hard to imagine the brutally cold, dark winters here. This country is beautiful, but without sympathy. The evidence lies all around in the form of the bones, skulls, and hair of those that didn’t make it through the winter. We found the remains of sheep, caribou, fox, wolverine, and an eagle.
While Gary and I were busy packing out my ram, Steve climbed a mountain behind camp in search of one of the several nice rams we had seen over the past few days. He was only gone for about an hour before he spotted 14 rams in the creek bottom below him. He instantly knew that this 38-inch ram was a shooter, and dropped him in his tracks.
Yet another challenge of sheep hunting is the descent. Steve had climbed up the spine of the ridge, but when he and Gary returned to pack the ram back down the creek, they ran into this waterfall.
A lot of these drainages have waterfalls, and some of them are completely impassable. Fortunately, Steve and Gary were able to find a way to climb down the side of this one.
Although we had been out for the better part of 10 days, it was hard to believe that our hunt was over. Here, Gary starts the long trip back to the airstrip. Several times I’ve packed my entire sheep and camp out in one load, but we decided to go easy on the knees and make it two trips. After 14 hours and 36 miles, we were just a plane ride away from home.
I sometimes get complacent and take these experiences for granted, but this was truly an amazing trip. Steve, Gary, and I live and breath sheep hunting. After this year, the three of us have taken a total of 19 rams, and it never gets old.
Live Hunt host Tyler Freel and his buddies spent a week in Alaska’s Brooks Range chasing trophy Dall sheep and caribou. See their story and photos here.