20 Years of Hunting Mountain Sheep

The author killed his first mountain sheep ram in 1986, the last in 2005. The adventures along the way were priceless.

20 Years of Hunting Mountain Sheep

Long before I ever set foot in the tall peaks of Alaska, before I drank from an icy cold mountain spring and decades before I ever laid eyes on a Dall sheep ram, I was addicted. I just didn’t know it yet.

As a young boy growing up in a small southern California farm town, my dad would give me a buzz cut in the fire station where he worked. Afterward, if I was quiet and didn’t bother anybody, I was allowed to throw a dime into the old cigar box in the station fridge and take out an icy bottle of Coca Cola. I could sit on the couch and read through the copies of Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and Sports Afield as long as I had some Coke left. It was then that the adventures of Jack O’Connor riding weeks into the mountains of the Far North on a mixed bag hunt began to fascinate me. I learned to nurse a drink long before I set foot in my first tavern just so I could keep reading.

It was then that I knew I wanted to ride horses into the mountains of Alaska and hunt grizzly bears and Dall sheep.

In 1986, at age 34, my dream came true: a three-week Alaska horseback hunting adventure into the Wrangell Mountains with longtime outfitter Terry Overly. At the time of the trip, I was an associate editor for Peterson’s Hunting magazine. On that hunt, I shot a beautiful grizzly bear, big caribou bull and my first Dall sheep ram, all with a rifle. We had a near-fatal Super Cub mishap, horses bogged down in quicksand, a grizzly charge and many more crazy adventures. I saw the Aurora Borealis for the first time, and climbed up, down and all around those magnificent mountains; I was hooked on the drug. The sheep hunting addiction was so bad that I quit my job and moved to Alaska in 1991. I made the move for several reasons, but primarily so I could sheep hunt every year. And I wanted to bowhunt them.

 

My First Bowhunt for Mountain Sheep

The year 1991 was a seminal one. In mid-January, the U.S. invaded Iraq in what was known as Operation Desert Storm. Apartheid was dismantled in South Africa. The average income in the U.S. was $29,430; interest rates were 6.5 percent; gas cost $1.12/gallon; and eggs were $0.85/dozen. The Twins won the World Series, the Bulls won their first NBA title to start their run of six titles in eight seasons, and the Buffalo Bills’ Scott Norwood famously missed a last-second field goal that allowed the NY Giants to win the Super Bowl, 20-19.

It was also the year I arrowed my first Dall sheep ram.

In those days, I was shooting a Golden Eagle compound set at 78 pounds with fingers, heavy 30-inch 2317 aluminum shafts and 125-grain replaceable-blade broadheads. Back then, it was a pretty hot rig, launching those huge arrows out at a blistering 220 fps! The gap between my 20- and 50-yard pins covered about the same space the gap between my 20- and 90-yard pins do today. Of course, we had no laser rangefinders.

Again, I was hunting with Terry Overly in mid-August, this time with guide Rick Alexander. One sunny day he and I rode our horses up a long river valley, tied them off, then climbed 2,500 vertical feet before we began running the ridge, glassing as we went. By and by, we spotted a lone full-curl ram bedded on a spire overlooking the valley below. With the wind right, we crawled as close as we could, then had to slide on our butts down about 100 yards of loose shale so we could cross a small rock bridge to get close enough. How he didn’t hear us, I’ll never know, but we found ourselves hunkered down about 45 yards from the bedded ram, with a 60-degree upslope between us. After about an hour, he stood to stretch, at which point I drew the bow, guessed the range, put my bottom (50 yard) pin on his bellyline, and let her fly.

I will never forget how high that arrow arced above the ram’s back before gravity started it back down, and how I panicked I was, thinking there was absolutely no way that I had not shot over him. I will also never forget the whack that arrow made when it somehow smacked him in the ribs, and how he tumbled down a vertical shale chute for 1,500 feet before coming to rest. I’ve never done drugs, but I can’t imagine a high any higher.

As far as rams go, he’s a dink, measuring a mere 33-inches around the curl, with small bases. Who gives a poop? If he had been the world record Argali, I could not have been prouder! I purposely did not have him mounted so that I could hold his horns in my hands whenever I wanted. And I do, to this day.

My first bow-killed Dall sheep ram, taken in 1991 in the Wrangells on a guided hunt with Terry Overly and guide Rick Alexander. Check out that high-tech archery setup.
My first bow-killed Dall sheep ram, taken in 1991 in the Wrangells on a guided hunt with Terry Overly and guide Rick Alexander. Check out that high-tech archery setup.

They Tried to Kill Me

In 1994, I thought I was a pretty tough guy. I mean, here I was, 42 years old, fit as a fiddle, with lots of Alaska hunting under my belt. When a buddy bailed on me at the last minute, I decided, “Why not?” and foolishly went Dall sheep hunting solo.

The air taxi pilot dropped me off on a remote strip in the Talkeetna Mountains three days before opening day. I backpacked a day to my campsite, then scouted until opening morning. I’d found some rams, so I loaded my hunting pack, climbed over the ridge, and started hoofing it along an old caribou trail near the top (yes, caribou often climb as high as sheep in the heat of summer, to stay cool and avoid the mosquitoes that dominate the lowlands).

At 0630, a giant boulder came loose on the mountain above me, knocking me over a cliff. I went down feet first, 150 feet or so, bouncing like a pinball. When I got stopped on the edge of a 300-foot drop, I knew I had a broken leg (my fibula was snapped in half, the tibia cracked, and the ankle broken in six places). Additionally, I had two mangled fingers on my left hand. I didn’t even take my boot off, knowing if I did and the ankle swelled, I’d never get it back on. Since the air taxi pilot wasn’t coming to look for me for four days, and I couldn’t climb back over the ridge to my tent, I ended up leaving everything but my survival gear and butt-crawled 10 hours down the mountain to a spot near a small seep where I planned to camp out and wait. Late that afternoon, a FedEx cargo jet cruised high overhead. Luckily, I was able to raise them by using my handheld radio by using the emergency aircraft frequency, 121.5 MHz. They answered, and ended up contacting a hospital in Anchorage, which dispatched a LifeGuard helicopter to rescue me.

That’s the short version. I ended up with all the toes on my left foot fused straight, a plate on my fibula that’s still there and damage that left the calf muscle about half the size of the one on my right leg.

It’s only a flesh wound, right? I killed a ram in the Wrangells, with a rifle, the next year.

 

The Brooks

I’d always wanted to bowhunt the Brooks Range in northern Alaska, so one August, a friend and I made the trip. He flew his Super Cub from Fairbanks to the little town of Coldfoot, and I drove my truck 400 miles up the dirt Haul Road, carrying supplies that included five 50-gallon barrels of Avgas (aviation gas). My truck was trashed, but who cared? We flew up the Chandalar River, landed on a gravel bar, secured the plane, backpacked 12 miles up a creek drainage, set up camp and then started hunting.

On day two, we found a nice lone ram, bedded on a pinnacle overlooking the river. It took all day, but we finally got the wind right, and climbed above him, I made a well-executed shot (if I do say so myself!) of 47 yards, and he died quickly. We had him boned out and back at the tent before dark.

The storm rolled in that night, a nasty, sleet-filled sky racing through on a 20-knot wind. The creek was rising rapidly, so we loaded up and headed for the airplane as fast as we could, carrying 90 pounds each. It took us eight hours to get there, and we were exhausted, but the weather was closing in fast, and Dave basically said, we need to try and get out of here to a strip I know of, or we could be trapped here for days. OK, so off we went, bouncing through the weather like a little rubber ducky, and managed to land on that gravel strip. We slept in the airplane, and the next morning made it back to Coldfoot. Had we not done so; the weather was so bad we would have been stuck on the sandbar for a week.

My Brooks Range ram is a dandy, 37-inches around the curl with 13.75-inch bases.
My Brooks Range ram is a dandy, 37-inches around the curl with 13.75-inch bases.

The Alaska Range

One year I beat the odds and drew a coveted limited-entry sheep tag to hunt in the Alaska Range. Once again, an air taxi service dropped me, a friend and his wife (who had also drawn) at the base of the massive Johnson glacier, and we were off.

After a couple of days, I decided to load up my gear and backpack up the glacier a few miles to see some new country. It proved to be a good call because I found three really good rams bedded in a tight little canyon just off the ice. I set my camp up a half-mile away, and the next morning went on the hunt.

I found them close to where they had been, happy as clams. I let them bed down, then made a long, circuitous stalk to get above them. When I found them again, they were a hundred yards down the slope, with no way to get closer. Now what? I looked around and found a sheep trail that led from their general location up through a small saddle. Nothing to do but set up and wait, hoping they would, at some point, feed up this way.

And they did, a full 10 hours later. I shot the lead ram at 52 yards and had the pleasure of making two full pack load trips to get camp and ram back to where Harry and Betty were camped. The bonus? She rifled a really nice ram as well!

My Alaska Range ram, taken on a drop-off backpack hunt. That night it dumped 8 inches of snow.
My Alaska Range ram, taken on a drop-off backpack hunt. That night it dumped 8 inches of snow.


Memories to Last a Lifetime

I was nuts for sheep hunting for nearly 20 years. I hunted with both rifle and bow, choosing the bow when I could spend the required time afield to give myself an honest chance. I’ve been in the back seat of a Super Cub that launched itself off the edge of a glacier without enough speed to fly, the pilot assuring me the fall would give him enough speed to get some lift. Can you imagine? Another time we were camped overnight on a glacier when the wind blew so hard that, even though we had the plane tied down tight, we literally had to hang onto the wing struts all night long to keep it from being blown over. Had that happened, we would probably still be there. Horses mired to their necks in quicksand, late fall blizzards, grumpy grizzlies, blistered feet, Gen One backpacking gear, total and complete exhaustion, it was all part of the game. I still have not fully recovered from that fall back in ’94.

My biggest ram ever, taken on the glacier backpack trip. He measured 42 inches on one side, 39.5 inches on the other, with 14.5-inch bases.
My biggest ram ever, taken on the glacier backpack trip. He measured 42 inches on one side, 39.5 inches on the other, with 14.5-inch bases.

Over the years, I managed to kill a total of 12 Dall rams — three with my bow — and one Stone sheep ram. Two of my Dalls are true giants. As a resident, I could hunt relatively cheaply, a good thing, since today Dall sheep hunts cost a nonresident more than a new compact car. For that reason alone, I doubt I’ll ever go back. If not, that’s OK. When I need a fix, I simply pour two fingers of Kentucky’s finest, pick up those horns, sit in my chair, close my eyes and dream. The memories will be with me forever.

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