"How long could I prowl his bedroom without setting off alarms?"
Story and photos by Dwight Schuh, Editor
THE DALL RAM lay on a point some two miles away. As I looked through binoculars, he appeared to me little more than a white speck amid green tundra and gray boulders. Yes, that speck was a Dall sheep, but at that distance it appeared insignificant -- and unattainable.
"That's a big ram," my guide, Clay Lancaster, said as he studied the ram through a spotting scope. "He's nine years old and has heavy horns. Take a look, Bo, and see what you think."
Clay's 13-year-old son, Boden, has roamed the mountains with his dad since he was old enough to walk, and Clay has taught him to camp, hunt, observe -- and judge sheep. Bo slid behind the scope and studied the ram.
"He's big, all right," Boden said. "But looking at the Roman nose, the sway back, and the sagging belly the way you've taught me, Dad, I think he's 10 years old."
As Boden moved away from the scope, Clay looked again. "No, I don't think so, Son. He's nine," Clay said. "And for sure he's big. We need to go after that one. You guys ready?"
While stuffing things into my daypack, I glanced at my watch -- noon on July 23. Our biggest obstacle was a band of 20 ewes and lambs below the ram. The fact is, if you can see sheep, they can -- and will -- see you. Any careless move on our part would send those ewes and lambs into flight, and the ram with them.
To prevent that, we backed off the rim onto a flat, out of sight of the sheep, and circled a mile west of the ram. Returning to the rim for another look, we were happy to see the ewes and lambs feeding down the mountain, leaving the ram by himself.
That cleared the way for us, and an hour of clambering down through a boulder field brought us within 250 yards of the ram and at his level. For a rifle hunter this would have marked the end of a successful stalk. For us, the stalk had yet to begin.
And for now it seemed to end. Given the ram's position, we could move no closer. He would see us. Unless he moved to a more favorable position, we were stuck.
Finally the ram rose to feed and then lay next to a big rock that blocked his view. While keeping an eye on the sheep, we scrambled quickly up a draw out of the ram's sight and crawled up behind a huge boulder.
That put us within 150 yards. As Clay and Bo stayed above me to shoot video, I slid down a rocky chute on my rear end to a big rock where I could hide and evaluate my final move. My Nikon rangefinder said the ram was now 80 yards away, about twice my effective shooting range.
Seeing no way to move closer, I hunkered behind the rock, studying the situation -- and fretting over the wind. In this broken terrain, it shifted constantly.
Suddenly the ram jumped from his bed and walked suspiciously uphill, stopping several times to look back. Clearly he had smelled me. The stalk was over. Again I glanced at my watch -- 6 p.m. We had spent six hours stalking this ram, all for naught.
Perfectly silhouetted against the evening sky, the ram stopped on the ridge above us for one last look back. What a sight. His left horn swept out in a classic flare. With his right horn broomed back a couple of inches, he was not a perfect 10, but he was a solid nine. I would be elated to take such a ram.
As we walked back to camp in the prolonged Arctic twilight, Clay reassured me. "Don't worry. I know where's he's going. We're not done with that ram yet." I liked his optimism. But would we really get a second chance at such a fine ram?
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The Tlgacho Mountains are not physically difficult to hunt. We walked the flats and glassed for sheep in the surrounding canyons.
Sheep hunting is purely a visual pursuit, making high-powered optics essential. With a spotting scope, Clay can judge the age of a ram more than two miles away.
FOR NINE YEARS this moment had been building in my heart. You see, I first hunted Dall sheep in 1977, also with Clay Lancaster and Nahanni Butte Outfitters (see "A Thirst for Sheep," Feb/Mar 1998). Fogged in at base camp for four days, we'd ended up with only four days in the field, short time to search for a big ram. So I took the first mature ram that came my way, a beautiful 11 1/2-year-old, full-curl trophy. However, he was not large, maybe a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, and rather than quenching my thirst for a big Dall ram, he only whetted it. Thus, haunted by dreams of a perfect 10, I returned to the Northwest Territories (NWT) in July 2006 for a second round with Nahanni Butte Outfitters.
Unfortunately, the 2006 trip started off even less favorably than the first. Michigan hunters Tony Zahn and Tom Basch, and I flew to Ft. Simpson, NWT, on July 21, where Clay's uncle Jim Lancaster met us at noon. Tom's and my bow cases, both of which fortunately contained the tackle we needed for hunting, had arrived. However, our backpacks, which held most of our clothes, along with boots and sleeping bags, had not.
The airline guy made some calls but could not locate our packs, and he had no idea when they would show up -- maybe a day, maybe a week. In desperation, we visited the local variety store -- in Ft. Simpson, population 1,500, we could not find a Cabela's or Wal-Mart -- where we bought some underwear, T-shirts, net bug jackets, and wide-brimmed hats. At 4 p.m., we checked one last time with the airline guy and got the same answer -- "Who knows?" -- so we gave up and began the long drive and boat ride to base camp at Nahanni Butte.
There we borrowed backpacks, sleeping bags, and some additional clothes from Clay and the other guides and deemed ourselves hunt-worthy. Sort of. Now all we needed was some decent weather so we could fly to our hunting area.
Bo Lancaster, left, and his dad, Clay, cook breakfast in camp o
n a beautiful July morning. The rock barriers serve as windbreaks for tent and kitchen.
THE NEXT MORNING, even that seemed in doubt. The sky was clear, but the wind was howling. Nahanni Butte Outfitters flies all hunters into the field via helicopter, and the chopper could not fly safely in heavy wind. So, for the morning, we remained grounded. I quadruple-checked my gear and settled in with a book. As Yogi Berra would say, it was déjà vu all over again.
Fortunately, by early afternoon the wind died down, and at 3 p.m., chopper pilot Barry Scott took Clay, Boden, and me on a beautiful flight into the Tlgacho Mountains. At least we were in sheep country.
Even then we got one final shot of anxiety. Peeking from the tent one morning, we peered blindly into a sheep hunter's worst nightmare -- fog. Sheep hunting is purely visual, meaning, if you can't see, you can't hunt.
In no hurry to go anywhere, we ate breakfast, and then Clay gave me some lessons on aging rams at a distance, strictly by body stature. As we were talking, the fog began to lift, and Clay suddenly pointed. "Look, there's a ram right there, on that far ridge. Let's decoy him in," Clay said.
Quickly, he ducked into the tent, pulled on a white jacket, and crawled out into the open, baaaaing like a sheep. The 2 1/2-year-old ram spotted Clay immediately, and over the next half hour he steadily came our way, curious, until he stood less than 20 yards from Clay, gawking as if he'd found his long lost mother. We just about had to chase him out of camp. Clay's impersonation of a ewe definitely earned a solid 10.
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FORTUNATELY, THE FOG LIFTED and at noon of our second day in the field we began the six-hour stalk that ended for naught. Buoyed by Clay's optimism about relocating the ram, Clay, Bo, and I left camp at 9 a.m. on July 24, walking directly toward the point where the ram had disappeared. We would start there and work our way around the mountain until we found him.
With binoculars and spotting scope, we probed the canyon depths and shadows, but by noon we had not seen a single sheep. To rest our eyes, we lay back on the soft tundra and dozed a few minutes.
When we got up to move farther along the rim, we immediately saw a sheep lying on a green bench, a half-mile below.
"Where did that one come from?" we wondered.
Immediately setting up his scope and studying the sheep, Clay said, "We're back in business. That's the same ram."
The sheep lay on a small bench among some stunted spruce trees. Discussing a plan, we decided I would stalk down an avalanche chute while Clay and Bo followed with the video camera. One goal on this hunt was to record a program for Bowhunter Magazine TV, and Clay was not only the guide but also designated cameraman. I trusted him to run camera, and he trusted me to stalk on my own. We were both happy with this arrangement.
The avalanche chute turned out to be shallower than we had thought, and I had to lie flat on my back and slide slowly downhill, feet first. Even at long range, the ram would see me if I made one mistake.
At the bottom of the chute, I was still 300 yards from the ram and had to cross a boulder field to get closer. Through binoculars, I monitored his movements, and any time he was feeding or looking away, I crept from one rock to the next. An hour later I sat 100 yards from the ram.
For the moment, he had me pinned down, but after he'd fed for a while he bedded just below some spruce brush. It appeared the spruce blocked his view behind, and the wind was blowing steadily uphill. This gave me a chance to circle above him, and 30 minutes later I had closed within 50 yards.
Now another problem arose -- with my every step, dry lichen on the rocks crunched under the soles of my shoes. At this close distance, the ram would hear me. To prevent that, I slipped off my shoes and crept forward in my sock feet, as silent as a cat. With that, my confidence soared, and I soon knelt 20 yards from the ram.
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When I peeked over the bank and found myself 13 yards from the feeding ram, I nearly panicked. This photo, taken off HD video shot by Clay Lancaster, shows me at full draw, just before I released the string.
Of course, he was far from mine. At the moment, I could see only the tops of his horns over the spruce brush. Still, the moment seemed surreal. For nine years I had anticipated this moment, but it had always seemed only a remote dream, nothing ever attainable. Even yesterday, when we'd actually located the ram, he had appeared as nothing more than an insignificant white speck in the distance, an impossible goal for an archer. Now I could see his horns bobbing with each breath. The whole event seemed impossible. Could I hold it together long enough to finish the deal?
When the ram finally stood to feed again, I would find out. Shifting to my right, I found an opening and was just drawing to shoot when he stepped forward over a bank, out of sight.
The tension grew. How long could I prowl his bedroom without setting off alarms?
For 10 minutes I sat motionless, my bow up and ready, but he remained out of sight. Wanting to know where he was, I crept to the point where he had disappeared.
Peeking over the bank, I almost panicked. He was still right there, 13 yards from me, facing straight away. My mind raced. This is too perfect. It can't be for real. I'll never get him. Alarms are going to sound...
Afraid he would see or hear me draw, I crouched below the cover line, drew my bow, and slowly stood. He was now broadside. Fixing the green, 20-yard sight pin behind his shoulder, I released. The ram bounded 30 yards, stopped, looked back, and toppled over backwards. I cart-wheeled into the bushes.
IN MANY WAYS, a big Dall ram with a bow had seemed unattainable, impossible, yet here I was kneeling beside a beautiful ram, with heavy horns, pointed and wide-sweeping on the left side, broomed back on the right. He was very real, a solid nine.
While waiting for Clay and Bo, I glanced at my watch -- 6 p.m. We'd started the stalk at 2 o'clock. Four hours. Adding those to the six hours the day before, we'd spent 10 hours stalking this one ram. With a perfect outcome.
Clay and Bo arrived a couple of minutes later and pounded me with hearty congratulations. Then Clay knelt and counted the annual growth ri
ngs on the ram's horns. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine... ten!
"You were right, Bo," Clay said, smiling at his son. "You've learned well. He's 10 years old, just like you said."
Sitting there by my sheep, I tried to absorb it all. Initially, I had judged him a nine, but given the seeming impossibility of the task, the beauty of the ram, and my overwhelming sense of triumph, I judged him a perfect 10 after all.
For nine years I dreamed of the opportunity for a Perfect 10 moment, and this was the result. From a distance, Clay had judged the sheep at nine years old, but 13-year-old Bo got it right. The sheep was 10.
Author's Notes: I hunted with a Mathews Icon, Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 250 shafts fletched with Bohning Blazer vanes, Rocky Mtn. Turbo 100-grain broadheads, Carolina Whisker Biscuit Rest, Montana Black Gold sight, Nikon 8x42 Premier binoculars, and Nikon Laser800 rangefinder.
Thanks to Clay's skill with the camera, we captured the entire hunt, including the stalk, on video for Bowhunter Magazine TV. Watch for this show sometime after July 1, 2007. To plan your own Dall sheep adventure, contact: Nahanni Butte Outfitters, 232 Falcon Ridge Way, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada T1J 4R9; 403-380-2789; fax 403-380-6126.