The pain of sheep hunting is great, but the pleasure is even greater.
It was not as if I did not know sheep hunting could be hard. I had already bagged all four types of North American wild sheep with my bow. But as I crawled up that snow-covered bluff, I could not remember so much discomfort.
It was all my fault. I wanted a Dall sheep bigger than the 32-inch, tight-curl ram I had taken a few years before. So here I was, climbing near-vertical terrain in the Mackenzie Mountains for the second time in a decade.
There are outfitters, and then there are outfitters. I was with one of the best. Duane Nelson had been a good friend since my first Dall sheep adventure 10 years before, and I had hunted with him almost every year thereafter in his game-rich area. I had always bagged moose or caribou, and I had always dreamed of hunting sheep again. But I had not dreamed of tackling a mountain so severe.
My ordeal took shape by accident. Lane Dyck was Nelson's top backpack guide at the time. Lane and I were planning to hike somewhere, but we had barely unloaded the bush plane and settled into base camp. We had not yet studied maps of terrain within striking distance of Nelson's powerful river-running jet boat. Then four tiny white dots appeared on a rock pile directly above our tents. I mean directly. I had to crane my neck to see them high on the mountain that loomed over camp. The largest ram popped into focus through my 45X spotting scope, and I sucked in my breath. Even at more than a mile, his massive 1¼-curl horns looked huge.
"Nobody hunts up there," Duane explained as he joined us and inspected the almost sheer rock wall rising thousands of feet toward the sheep. "That mountain stands on end. We've ridden all around it, and there's no way to the top with a horse."
Bingo! Lane and I looked at each other, looked at the mountain, and grinned. Minutes later, we were assembling our backpack gear: A dome tent built for two. Enough freeze-dried food for a week. One change of warm clothes apiece. First-aid kit, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and compact butane stove. Optics and camera gear. By nightfall, we were ready to assault the mountain.
Most Dall sheep hunts begin with a floatplane ride to a remote location. Even from the comfort of a bush plane, sheep country looks steep and difficult.
The next day was torture, plain and simple. Our sheep mountain turned upward almost 90 degrees, a series of bluffs stair-stepping toward the sky. Twisted bushes and wind-ravaged trees clung to shale slides and ledges, but the landscape was largely bare. There had to be basins up high with grass for sheep, but we could not see them.
Eight hours later, Lane and I inched along a ledge across a snow-dusted slab of rock. We flopped over the top like played-out rainbow trout, rested a minute, and looked around.
Six Dall rams stood on a grass-covered hill 200 yards away!
The next instant, freezing fog and snow blotted out the scene.
Lane and I snooped around, found a flat patch of grass, and pitched our tiny tent. The wind was picking up, and visibility was less than 50 yards. We crawled into the tent, unrolled our sleeping bags, and waited out the storm.
Duane Nelson and I have shared many campfires together during our long friendship.
Bowhunting for sheep is not necessarily complicated. You move and glass with binoculars and spotting scope, searching until you spot a trophy ram. You plan an approach with the wind in your favor and landforms to hide your stalk. You move fast at first, slow down the final 150 or 200 yards, and never let yourself be seen. A few rolling rocks seldom hurt, because sheep are accustomed to unstable mountain terrain. Being in top physical condition is a must.
For maximum advantage on any sheep, you had better be deadly accurate out to 45 or 50 yards. When I say "deadly," I mean you have the ability to hit a ram's nine-inch vital chest zone every time.
Wild sheep are not much bigger than mule deer, so a 50-pound hunting bow will ensure adequate arrow penetration. However, I recommend a heavier draw weight to increase arrow speed to at least 250 to 275 feet per second to give more leeway in the open country, at steep angles, and over deceptive distances. Many angle-compensating rangefinders on the market today not only give you actual distance to your target but also aiming distance on steep up and down shots. Such rangefinders are invaluable for any mountain hunting.
"Look at this!" Lane exclaimed at 7 a.m. the following day. He was peeking out the half-open door of the tent.
The same six rams we'd seen yesterday were 75 yards away, gawking in amazement at the bright yellow blob. I grabbed my binoculars, focused — and relaxed. Four were juvenile "banana-heads," and the other two had tight, barely full-curl horns in the 30-inch class. I already had one bigger than that.
The sheep were still standing there when another bank of snowflakes enveloped the tent.
Late that afternoon, the fog and snow lifted to the tops of nearby peaks. Lane and I cooked some noodles, gulped some tea, and hiked to a nearby rock ridge. Beyond this vantage point yawned a grassy-green canyon. Smack in the middle were four sheep. Even with my naked eye at 600 yards, I could see horns on three.
"Now we're cookin'," Lane exclaimed as he zoomed to 45X. "Take a look!"
One sheep was a banana-head. Two were 36-inch rams, with thin tips rising to the eyes.
The fourth was bigger. His fat horns dropped below the jaw line and swept above the nose. The tips flared dramatically, an indication of extra length. I guessed him at 38 inches.
"He's good enough for me," I whispered. "But I can't try him now. The wind is wrong."
The canyon was bounded on three sides by ice-covered bluffs. A sheep could climb out with ease, but stalking downward with the wind in my favor could be dangerous — not to mention that ev
en a half-blind ram would spot me in a heartbeat.
My second Dall ram was huge, with massive, deep-curling horns that barely missed the 40-inch mark.
The only approach was up-canyon along the broken bottom or boulder fields to either side. Undisturbed, the rams might stay put for weeks on end, stuffing their bellies and lounging like middle-aged men. I could afford to wait until the storm passed and the wind direction changed.
Spot-and-stalk hunting in mountain terrain is complex. You need great optics. You need good camouflage. You need tough, quiet footwear. You need stamina to climb and move fast when the time is right. You need patience to sit tight when the time is wrong. You need experience to map a route to game with the wind right. You need terrain broken enough to hide you. You need reasonably silent footing. And you need a whole bunch of luck.
It's like a giant chess game. Skilled players often succeed at stalking. But every strategy and every move must be pondered with care, and the opponent still wins a lot.
Lane and I munched Nutri-Grain bars, read our books, and slept for the next 24 hours.
Visibility was nearly zero. Finally, with evening light dimming and my Dean Koontz murder mystery down to its last 50 pages, the wind faltered and switched. Within an hour, a million stars were twinkling overhead.
The next morning, Lane and I hiked back to our vantage point. We saw rams immediately, but now there were 10. The six we'd seen before had joined the second bunch. They were all bedded on a green slope beside a boulder field.
"You stay here and watch," I told Lane. "This might take a while."
I scrambled down a chute to the valley floor, splashed across a stream, and climbed the other side. The sheep were hidden behind a ridge.
Gray rocks varied in size from basketballs to VW Bugs. As I picked my way toward the rams, a wind fanned my face. At least for now, stalking conditions were right.
Almost two hours later, I peeked above a bathtub-sized boulder. Two rams were feeding 75 yards away. The long, flaring horns on the larger sheep were unmistakable.
I ducked, spied a route between rows of rocks, and belly-crawled ahead. Ten minutes later, I peeked again. The big ram was quartering toward me, inside of 50 yards. I slipped out my laser rangefinder, planted the reticule on the ram, and punched the distance button — 46 yards.
Seconds later, I swung my 50-yard sight pin low behind the ram's right shoulder. The 75-pound bow thumped, and the arrow sizzled on its way. A split-instant later, my broadhead sliced through hide, muscle, one lung, and the liver. The ram ran in a circle, faltered, and collapsed.
What followed was a 12-hour backpack with sheep meat and horns, plus a second round trip in a snowstorm to retrieve tent, sleeping bags, and the rest of our 120-pound camp.
But Lane and I kept grinning throughout the ordeal. My ram measured 391â„8 inches around the curl with 12½-inch bases. He placed in the top third of the record list with a score of 1511â„8.
Backpacking for sheep can be a pain, but success is the perfect cure.
Editor's Note: Parts of this story were taken from Chuck's exciting adventure book, Super Slam! To buy this heavily illustrated, 350-page volume, call toll-free 1-800-916-2575. Or send a personal check or money order to Chuck Adams Books, PO Box 10, Cody, WY 82414. Price is $19.95 plus $3 shipping and handling. Chuck will personally autograph your book upon request.