The Sheep Hunter
November 04, 2010
The time had come, and I was ready. Through hard work I had finally put myself in a financial position to pursue my dream. I'd been bowhunting since 1979 and was grateful to have taken many whitetail deer, bull elk, black bears, and a mountain goat. Still, something was missing. Sheep!
As you can see by this June 28 shot of our NWT spike camp, weather this far north is very unpredictable.
With a lot of research and the help of Mark Buehrer of Bowhunting Safari Consultants, I booked an archery Dall sheep hunt with Nahanni Butte Outfitters, a company well known for bowhunting success.
After a two-year wait, I arrived in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, with four other bowhunters from across the country. From there, we traveled up the Liard River by boat to base camp, and then by helicopter to our individual spike camps. It was a 10-day hunt, but two of those days were designated for travel. When we arrived, the wind was gusting 50 miles per hour, making travel on the river impossible. We had to overnight in Fort Simpson. Only seven hunting days left.
Once at base camp the following day, I organized my gear and found a place to shoot my bow. This was only my second mountain hunt, but a goat trip in western British Columbia the year before had somewhat prepared me mentally.
With improved weather, my guide Jim Lancaster and I flew out to our spike camp. The next morning, we awoke to six inches of new snow. Having had great weather on my goat hunt, I could not appreciate the challenges the snow would present until we hiked up the mountain and began to glass. Trying to find a white animal in a completely white landscape is difficult, at best. After a futile 45 minutes of this, and with the snow now coming down sideways, we retreated to the cover of our tent. Little did I know we would spend the next 36 hours tent-bound due to gusting winds and whiteout conditions. Jim and I turned to our books and sleeping bags to wait it out.
Day five broke cold and clear. After a Mountain House breakfast, we were on our way back up to our first lookout. The ground was still covered with snow, again promising difficult glassing. Arriving at our vantage point, we soon spotted three rams on a grassy bench 400 yards below us. Fortunately, this was a windswept area, making the sheep relatively easy to see. Jim put the spotting scope on the largest and deemed him a shooter. The stalk was on.
Getting the wind in our favor, we were able to move slowly downhill, undetected, to within 100 yards. My next move was to drop into a trough, which led me out of sight within 25 yards and level with the sheep. Then all I had to do was pop up and shoot. The only problem was that when I popped up, the sheep were gone. Looking back at Jim, I saw him looking to my left. Coming into view were the three sheep, nonchalantly walking back up the mountain the way we had come down. The good news was that we would know where to start hunting in the morning.
Day six brought clear weather, but the air was too cold to melt the snow. We spent a long day unsuccessfully trying to relocate those three sheep -- or any other legal ram.
Iâ€ˆactually spotted my Dall ram from this glassing point above the clouds.
Warm temperatures the next day melted much of the snow. After another hike to the top, we spent the early morning glassing various drainages with no luck. About 10 a.m., I glassed over an edge to the east we had not yet covered. There was the ram we'd stalked before, 600 yards down the mountain in a wide open, unstalkable position. Jim and I watched the ram and his two buddies for the next five hours until they fed across the mountainside, finally bedding just downhill from a rock the size of a school bus. The wind was blowing straight uphill. Perfect!
Thirty minutes later, I reached the base of the rock, and after climbing up onto it, I stood 25 yards from the rams. Neither the bedded ram nor his friends saw me draw, and the arrow was on its way. The ram jumped up and ran, but he traveled only 100 yards, counting the roll downhill. Jim and I spent the rest of the day high-fiving, taking pictures, caping, and living the dream. I had finally become a sheep hunter. This story does not end there, however. Upon return from the NWT, I came down with an acute case of "sheep fever." After in-depth research, I booked a Stone sheep hunt with Barry Thompkins of High & Wild Safaris for the next year and a bighorn hunt with Flint and Frank Simpson in the Canmore Bow Zone of Alberta for 2007.
The Stone sheep season in British Columbia opens August 1, but I arrived at Barry's base camp three days early to scout and hopefully locate a ram by opening day. For the next two days, my guide, Kelly Powell, and I scouted by horseback, covering much ground, but could not locate a legal ram.
Thus, on July 31, we loaded a packstring with two weeks worth of gear and food and headed into the mountains to a spot Kelly had chosen for our spike camp.
The next morning, we awoke to a torrential downpour and couldn't even leave the tent, giving me flashbacks to my hunt in NWT. Fortunately, the next day dawned cool and clear. With backpacks ready, Kelly and I began hiking to the top. By all accounts, Stone sheep are the most difficult to harvest by bow. With this in mind, I was mentally prepared for a full 12-day hunt -- and the possibility of failure.
We spent the entire day traversing the spine of the mountain, glassing various sheep off each side. About 3 p.m., we spotted two legal rams right at timberline. They were feeding together down the mountain between us and camp. Once they bedded, I moved to get the wind in my favor and closed to within 100 yards. But when I stood to look for them, the rams had disappeared.
On day two, we had climbed an hour up the very steep mountain when we saw the same two rams, bedded. The wind was perfect to traverse the mountain directly to them. In doing so, we had to cross three steep scree slides, keeping well out of the rams' sight the entire time. But when we peeked over the ledge of the last chute, guess what? They were nowhere to be seen.
However, this particular spot held the only water we had seen on the entire mountain, so we decided to pick an ambush spot here and wait. Some 45 minutes later, I saw two pairs of horns coming back around the mountainside. For the next eight hours, we were pinned behind several large boulders as the rams
grazed, drank, and bedded 80 yards directly above us.
We flew to our hunting area by helicopter. The chopper saved us days of hiking, but it didn't make the hunting any easier. In the NWT, you can't hunt for 12 hours after flying.
One ram was very dark with heavy horns, and the other had a much lighter coat with good mass and longer horns. I set my sights on the lighter one. Around 8:30 p.m., they had moved uphill enough to get out of sight. Kelly and I then made a bold plan. With the temperature dropping and the wind blowing downhill, we decided I should stalk straight up. The sheep trail was so steep that I would be out of their sight until, hopefully, within range. Slowly, I began my move uphill.
Reaching a bench, I was careful to keep small conifers between me and where I thought the rams were bedded. Finally, unable to see either sheep, I was afraid to move closer.
Suddenly, the lighter ram stood and moved 10 yards to his left, looking my way. Apparently he had heard me. After staring for 10 minutes, he turned to leave, offering a brief broadside shot.
He just happened to be standing at the base of a tree I had previously ranged at 42 yards. I drew my bow, stood, aimed, and released. The arrow hit at the back of the rib cage. The ram crossed a draw and stood at 58 yards, where I delivered the coup de grace. Luckily, as he folded, his horn caught on a blow-down, saving him from a potentially long, horn-breaking fall off the cliff.
I came down with a serious case of "sheep fever" after taking this Dall ram on my first-ever sheep hunt.
By midnight we finished caping and taking pictures and stumbled into camp at 3 a.m. I felt incredibly lucky, tired, happy -- and all the more eager for my upcoming bighorn sheep hunt. For four long years, I had anticipated hunting with well-known outfitters Flint and Frank Simpson. All sheep hunts take place in steep terrain, but this particular hunt had a reputation for being more difficult than most due to wind, snow, ice, and potential subzero temperatures. Veteran sheep guide Luke Seminoff was assigned to guide me.
The trip started with great hunting weather -- balmy, 20-degree days and crystal clear skies. But legal rams seemed to be in short supply, and as we ventured farther and farther into the mountains to find sheep, the hunt became more of a mountain climbing expedition than a bowhunt. To make things worse, the beautiful weather turned "Alberta-like," with temperatures plummeting to -30 degrees. Nevertheless, we continued to scour the mountains for rams.
By November 29, 2007, my 17th day of hunting and the next-to-last day of the sheep season, I had yet to come close to drawing my bow. I had lost significant weight and was so fatigued that I feared I could not continue. This was secondary to Giardiasis (an intestinal parasite), with which I was diagnosed upon my return home. As bad as I felt, I was not about to quit. So I struggled up the mountain one more time that day in hopes that things might go my way.
Early that morning, Flint and I had spotted a nice ram bedded about halfway up the mountain. We followed the ram all day but could not get in front of him. By midday, we spotted him on an adjacent ridge separated by nonnegotiable terrain. Our only choice was to move back down, find where he crossed, and hope he would backtrack at the end of the day. By the time we picked up his track, it was 4:30 -- only 15 minutes of shooting light left.
My success continued the following year with this beautiful Stone sheep.
Luckily, the ram stood, turned our way, and began closing the distance. Just then, I could see his brown coat moving through the conifers above me, only steps from a broadside shot. He then stopped, vitals covered, sensing something was wrong.
So there I was, 2 1/2 weeks into the hunt -- exhausted and freezing -- with a nice bighorn standing one step from a 45-yard broadside shot. He was nervous, and clearly his next move was to bolt. With nothing to lose, I drew and took two steps to the right, giving me an open shot. Aiming with my 35-yard pin on the steep slope, I released.
The ram traveled only 150 yards, and looking at him through binoculars, I stood in awe. I could not believe my luck in harvesting three rams in my first three sheep hunts. By this time, it was too dark to get to him, so we hiked down with plans to retrieve our prize in the morning.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, with temperatures up to a manageable -10 degrees. Knowing our sheep lay up the mountain made the hike much easier. After pictures and caping, we went back down to celebrate the toughest hunt of my life.
I fought through fatigue and a case of Giardiasis to complete my quest for this bighorn ram.
So, there you have it -- my sheep hunting career. Will I ever accomplish the archery grand slam of North American sheep? Probably not. Sheep hunting is an expensive proposition, and getting more so each year. Unless I draw a desert bighorn tag in the U.S., or win a raffle -- both very unlikely -- my quest for an archery grand slam ends here. I will never be able to afford to buy a desert sheep hunt in Mexico.
That doesn't bother me, as it all depends on how you look at it. Am I fortunate to have experienced three great sheep hunts, or unlucky that I probably will never experience the fourth? No matter what happens from here on, I will always consider myself to be the former. After all, I am a sheep hunter. Author's Notes: On all three hunts, I shot a Mathews bow, Easton A/C/C arrows, and Rocket expandable broadheads. I wore Meindl boots and glassed with Swarovski 10x42 binoculars. I also found Bushnell's ARC angle-compensating range-finder to be rugged and accurate.
I would like to thank the Lancasters, Barry Thompkins, the Simpsons, and their guides for helping me fulfill my dream. They all run professional, well-organized operations. The author makes his home in Birmingham, Alabama. This is his first feature for Bowhunter.