Alaskan Dall Sheep – ‘There it is!’, a Double-Broom Success Story…
During the 2011 hunting season, my friend Chris Foster from Sitka drew an Alaskan Dall sheep tag and harvested a beautiful double broomed ram. This sheep had tons of character and was really the first set of horns that I was able to really check out up close for an extended period of time. It didn’t take long after getting my hands on those Dall sheep horns to realize what I had been missing.
Like every hunter who puts in for what is commonly referred to as a ‘donation to Fish and Game’, I selected my choices for a myriad of draw hunts for the upcoming 2012 season, got out the credit card, and then waited. It turns out that 2012 was my year. I had gotten used to not seeing any tag numbers next to my name on that certain Friday at 5 PM when they release results of the drawing, so I didn’t make sure I was at the computer at 4:50 pushing the refresh button like a lunatic. I actually almost forgot about it. Like any other good friend would do, my buddy Jon looked up his name, then all of the other people he knew, then posted a congratulatory note on Facebook. My name was one of them!
A draw-tag for a full-curl Alaskan Dall sheep ram was mine! As luck would have it, Colton Conner, a friend of mine with whom I’ve hunted with off and on for 20 years also drew the same exact tag. He is a school teacher and also coaches sports. I called him while he was in Fairbanks coaching basketball and the first words out of his mouth were “Let’s go together!” I was game, and couldn’t think of a better hunting partner.
Now began the six months of mental and physical preparation. Immediately I began the physical preparation. This was actually easier than I had hoped for because it just so happened that a ‘weight loss challenge’ at work was to begin right after I won my tag. Of course I signed up and since most of the people I work with were doing it as well, it was as if our workplace turned into a nutrition and workout center! After a few dedicated months I was down 25 pounds in weight, was gaining muscle mass and leaning out considerably. I didn’t get to spend as much time in the mountains as I had hoped but after many hikes with the family around Hatcher Pass, the Butte, and elsewhere with a kid on your back, I was at least feeling OK about my mountain endurance.
Two months before the hunt I really started to focus on the logistics/gear side of things. First we had to actually figure out where we were going to chase these white mountain creatures. I had a few contacts from folks who had drawn this tag previously and made those calls first. This is where the beauty of a draw tag tends to shine. Because not everyone can hunt a given spot, other hunters who have intel on the area are more prone to share a few bits of info here and there.
Since the start of the school year and an early season sheep hunt don’t coincide very well, we had VERY little time for this hunt. That means we weren’t going to be afforded the luxury of a long walk-in to a super-remote area. I got a few good pointers about some accessible drainages from the highway but was leery about the short-runs being fairly boxed in and not allowing for much glassing and limited ground to cover. I know there are hundreds of guys in the state that are crazy sheep hunting fanatics and the plethora of knowledge on the subject they have in their heads could fill volumes. I personally think my buddy Pete Imhof is one of those guys. I probably got on his nerves talking about the hunt but I was all ears on his pointers and direction on where to go. I liked where he was pointing me toward and did some more research and made another contact from a lead that he gave me. After I called the second lead, Dave, the deal was sealed…we had our spot.
The gear side of things wasn’t a huge issue as I had much of the gear already but I did pick up a few items such as a backup stove, some new merino wool clothing, a new camera, etc. I also ended up borrowing a Kifaru Timberline backpack since I had recently sold my Mystery Ranch pack, so this Kifaru was a HUGE bonus. What a great pack! (Thanks, Becca!)
I think that many hunters who win a draw tag like this find that August can roll around sooner than expected! Colton was making a push up the AlCan Highway while I was tying up loose ends as far as gear and logistics. On August 7th, Colton arrived home and was game for leaving early the next day. I wanted a day and a half to look at the area we were hunting so we pulled out of the driveway at 6 am on the 8th. After about 7 hours of traveling, we were at our pullout where the trek to base-camp would begin.
I haven’t done TOO much sheep hunting (yet) in my day, but I do know that one of the big wildcards while hunting these Alaskan slopes can be water. You never know where it might or might not be! I had initially decided to camp low where water would be but made a last minute decision to push up the ridge and camp high. Just a few hundred feet below base camp was a fairly sizable lake where we filtered and packed as much water as we could. We got to base camp in the early afternoon and made an easy evening of setting up the tent and getting a dinner cooked up. The weather we had on this trip was unreal and every evening brought with it breathtaking scenery. Everyone not living in Alaska should be jealous! Our anticipation for the opening day was building…
We didn’t set any sort of alarm since the next day was just a mission to get into a good spike-camp location. We left base camp mid-morning in a fairly dense fog that was moving in and out of the adjacent glacial valleys along our ridge. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t nervous about the water situation. I was looking in every shallow depression for moisture and kept my eyes peeled for snow. So far, nothing. We were still fairly low, steadily gaining elevation when I suddenly looked up to see a young ram looking our direction. I softly barked at Colton to freeze while we stood out in the middle of a HUGE saddle and we lucked out as a heavy fog immediately swallowed the ram while we scrambled behind the only cover around, a large rock. This little bugger had us pinned down for over an hour! We waited until he made his way back up the ridge as the last thing we wanted to do was to start pushing sheep all over the mountain before we could even legally hunt them.
Immature Alaskan Dall sheep ram
We made our way to where the ram was and Colton immediately saw four sheep, three of them being very immature. We never got a good look at the fourth ram, but we suspect he was the ram that made his way into my cross-hairs a day later. From here, we could see a long way up the ridge line and it was apparent that making more elevation wouldn’t make much sense…here was spike camp. What was also VERY close to spike-camp? Water. Lots of it, which meant one less thing to worry about. To say that our spike-camp location was a sweet little spot seems like an understatement. We had water, a natural wind blocking rock face, and excellent glassing within 50 yards. Throughout that afternoon and early evening, we put eyes on many rams, with a handful that would’ve been worth pursuing.
Our second evening again consisted of unbelievable scenery while we tried to burn up time before we could possibly notch a tag we had in our pockets. I think we went to bed earlier than expected just because we figured we could pass the time faster while sleeping! While we were turning in, we set the alarm for 4:45 am so we could hit the mountain hard as we had such a small window of opportunity to hunt.
*BEEP BEEP BEEP* I awoke on the opener and one of my fears for this hunt was a reality. I peeked out of the Shangri-La SL2 tent that we slept under only to find some of the thickest fog I’ve seen…back to sleep. After tossing and turning on the morning of the opener, we couldn’t stand it any longer and got up at 7:30 and could still barely see past our immediate area. After breakfast the situation began to improve and we decided to follow the fog as it gradually lifted in elevation up the mountain.
We made it to a good little vantage point, and coupled with the stubborn fog, decided to stay put for a while. Since the previous night met me with a raging headache, I decided to get a shale/tundra nap. After about a half hour, I woke up and asked Colton if he’d seen anything and also noticed that the fog was giving way to the sun a bit. With no sheep activity, we were going to keep following the fog. I stood up to pack my puffy jacket away in the backpack and caught a case of super-bad timing. I look up to see two rams, one very good ram with long horns tipping out a good ways, trotting away at no farther than 300 yards. I blew it! We’ve only got two full days on the mountain to do this and I BLEW IT!!
Needless to say, we hoofed it up and over the ridge where the rams had gone only to find them over 1,000 yards away where they met up with 4 other rams who apparently also got the memo that hanging around was going to be unwise. The rest of the opening day was uneventful with nothing more than a handful of crazy caribou that kept circling us, and acting surprised when they walked by us again…and again…and again. Anyone who has hunted caribou knows what I’m talking about. We hung out at 6600 feet for quite some time. Gaining anymore elevation would have only gotten us into a bunch of snow.
Spotting Alaskan Dall sheep out of range
8 pm. Still nothing. We gobbled down dinner and decided to use the last remaining few hours of daylight to slowly hunt back toward spike camp and get eyes on the valleys that we passed on the trip up, so we packed up and headed down. A few hundred yards from where we left, I saw a good ‘take a picture of me on this cliff’ opportunity and handed my camera to Colton. He obliged and snapped a few obligatory sheep hunting photos. He handed me back the camera and I happened to look about 2,000 feet below the cliffs and shale slides to see two sheep. I quickly got off of skyline.
“Sheep….two sheep…two rams…ones heavy…broomer for sure on his left…maybe a double broomer”. IT WAS ON!! Talk about going from ‘We blew it’ blues to chambering a round into my Tikka thinking ‘THIS COULD HAPPEN!’ in a matter of seconds!
The two rams we spotted met up with two other small rams and the group headed down the valley and then kindly started to move straight up an adjoining ridge straight toward us like we had them on a string, until they moved out of sight at just over 300 yards. We moved up and down the immediate area looking at both sides of the knife ridge the sheep were headed up, trying to get eyes on the rams again. We figured where they might be, and it was an area where I would have to go out on the edge of a rotted snow drift. The rams weren’t there at this time and Colton thought it might be a good idea to go farther up the ridge to see if we could see what the backside of the snow drift looked like. If it would’ve sloughed off, yours truly would’ve taken a nasty tumble. After climbing higher, we weren’t offered any self assurance that the drift would hold, so we just headed back toward where we thought they would be coming up, and I was going to roll the dice.
Not often you can take a full curl double broomed Alaskan Dall sheep at 80 yards
I looked over the same snow drift that I had previously and was apparently a bit overzealous in doing so. The sheep were at 80 yard and I immediately had three sets of eyes boring holes into my silhouetted figure against the blue backdrop. As luck would have it, these three rams that were aware of me being there were the three very immature rams of the group (two of them looked like bruiser mountain goats!). The stud boy of the group was in front, still slowly plodding along. I fumbled with Borris (we have affectionately named our Swarovski spotting scope) for a few fleeting seconds before throwing it back to Colton and getting my rifle. I was almost immediately prone on the snow, with the safety off, and about 2 pounds of pressure on the trigger while looking at a perfect view of the rams left horn which was heavily broomed. I wanted one more good look at his right horn. In the meantime, I was feverishly counting annuli. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and I was only 3/4 of the way around his horn. I was confident at this time that he was at LEAST legal in age alone. Just then the ram turned toward me just a hair, showing his other broomed horn. Legal…no brainer.
Boom! I sent the first 180 grain Nosler Accubond behind his shoulder and the ram acted as if nothing had happened and only dropped his head a few inches. I instantly reloaded. Colton simultaneously stood up to get a visual on him and said “Hit him again!”….I obliged. The second round impacted right where the first did. Up on his hind legs he went, and straight over backward. One roll. Two. “Come on, baby, stop, stop, stop” was all I was thinking. Over the cliff he went.
Successful Alaskan Dall sheep tag notched on the opener!
Despite what was potentially going to be a heinous recovery, we hooted and hollered with the best of them! Wow, what an adrenaline rush! Everything happened so fast and so perfectly that I couldn’t have asked for a better setup. Now for the recovery. We glassed from the ridge top and couldn’t see anything, which didn’t give us any warm fuzzy feelings. We decided to go below and back up around the small cliff that the ram was standing on to begin our search. We had to traverse beneath a sizeable patch of snow, which didn’t have any distrubance markings on it. Colton had high hopes that the ram got caught between the cliff and where the snow melted away. I wasn’t holding onto that hope but was mentally preparing for a cold night under the stars at the bottom of a very steep and rocky slope. Colton was in front of me, which brings us back to the subtitle of this story. “THERE IT IS!” he shouts. Not 10 yards from where he was shot lay my first ram. I’ve tipped over large moose, bear, and caribou but there is nothing quite like harvesting a nice Alaskan Dall Sheep! We were STOKED!
Alaskan Dall Sheep Success
Alaskan Dall Sheep taken with Tikka T3 .30-06
Alaskan Dall sheep hunt dream photo with glacier in the background complete!
Colton and I with our double broomed Alaskan Dall sheep
After many pictures, we were now looking at about 9:30-10:00. We quickly rolled the guts out of the sheep and since he was laying on a big snow field, we packed his body cavity full of snow and left him on ice for the night. We stumbled back into camp at 11:45, chatting back and forth and reliving the sighting, positioning, taking of, and discovery of the expired ram. We were hungry and tired, but were also walking on cloud nine.
The morning of the 11th brought GORGEOUS weather (along with some heat) to accompany our trek back up the mountain to recover our ram. We made quick work of breaking the sheep down and getting it back up to the top of the ridge where we had a nice work space to de-bone the meat and to continue to work on the cape and head. After getting done with the work, we glassed hard for the rest of that day until early evening. Not seeing anything, we started the journey back to spike camp.
We were now out of food in our packs and since Colton had a drop-dead date that he needed to be back for work, we made the decision to go back to base camp and basically call it a hunt. We would’ve loved to have taken a second ram if we had more time, but for the amount of time we were working with, we were very pleased with the end result. Back to base camp.
After a long day of hiking/hauling sheep, gatorade powder and sheep tenderloin with Montreal steak seasoning is a meal fit for kings…well at least kings on a mountainside! We munched on fresh Alaskan Dall sheep meat, drank our Gatorade, and snacked on trail mix all while soaking in the sun as we enjoyed yet another beautiful evening.
Fresh Alaskan Dall sheep tenderloin…hard to beat!
So about that sub-title again. Colton let out a ‘THERE IT IS!’ when he was the first to put eyes on the down ram and he did it the next day, saving me several hundred dollars. This became the best remembered phrase of the trip.
We packed up camp, loaded the sheep into the packs, strapped on all the gear, burned the garbage (we cleaned up garbage left behind from another set of sloppy sheep hunters from a previous year), and headed out. We had a pretty thick bushwhack to get through before we got back to our now-favorite game trail that took us all the way back to the riverbed. In our very unscientific method of classifying how bad a bushwhack is, we have class 1 through class 5. This was a legitimate class 4 bushwhack with approximately 85 pounds on my back. After a while, you tend to go through it with less finesse and more brute force. Somewhere along the lines, my rifle fell out of my pack off of where I was carrying it. No big deal, right? Well it is when your hunting buddy is taking a slightly different route through the jungle of alders/dwarf birch and you don’t notice for half of a mile. We took a much needed sit-down break and after deciding to push on, this is when I noticed that the rifle was missing.
“Dude, where’s my rifle?!
“What do you mean? It’s GONE?”
“Yeah, its GONE, you didn’t see it?!”
“NO, and I’ve been right behind you for a long time!”
I was sick to my stomach. I also went through a brief mental phone call with my wife where I heard her asking “How do you just LOSE a hunting rifle?”, but that’s besides the point. We unbuckled the packs, took another drink of water and started the hike back up the game trail looking for the rifle and mentally preparing for a day of beating the brush looking for a green and black hunting rifle.
Well it wasn’t on the game trail and we made it to a tiny clearing where we had broken out of the brush. It was all but impossible to re-trace our steps, but we gave it our best. We backtracked a few times calling out “This might look familiar” and after about 5 minutes I just stopped, as did Colton, and got immediately discouraged. This is when he said it again….’THERE IT IS!’ My Tikka was back, and the only reason he spotted it was from some bright orange stitching on my neoprene scope coat…LUCKY DAY!
Alaskan Dall sheep horns and meat filing the Kifaru pack!
A two-hour leg burn, a six hour drive, a stop for a burger, and a trip to the taxidermist on the way home and this whirlwind of a trip was in the bag. Like any other adventure in the great outdoors of Alaska, it would’ve been a great time being in the field with such a great hunting partner anyway, but coming home with a set of horns made it that much sweeter.
Alaskan Dall Sheep burgers, anyone?
Click HERE for Alaskan Dall Sheep hunt video link!