Dall Sheep Hunt - 2007
By Michael Eichele
[floatright][/floatright]This story begins in the same way as many of my other hunting stories - with the year(s) prior. It was near the end of the season for 2006. I had finally mustered up the courage to hike over a very long ways away from my normal hunting grounds. I had seen a big ram a few weeks prior at the head of a far off drainage but hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks. In fact I had seen him in the same spot for several seasons including his last sub legal year which was 2003 which was also the last year I scored on a ram.
Each year I would hike up to my saddle that I use for a spike camp and look for him and every year he was there. On my last trip out for sheep in 2006, I decided it was time to leave my comfort zone and make it over to his area. I would take only the bare needs for hunting and survival, a sleeping bag and a bivy-sack in lieu of a tent. I had to descend about 1000’ and then make my way across a huge rugged valley and then back up about 800’ to get to his domain, which can be hard since it was an approach from below.
Sheep are very keen observers of the goings on of below! There was no way I could approach from above. The terrain above him would have been suicide. As I reached the valley floor and made my way across the valley, I was resting and peeked through my binoculars back up along the ridge that I came from. To my surprise I saw a ram bedded on the top of the ridge a couple of saddles up from the saddle I camp in about ½ mile from it! He wasn’t huge but was large enough that he had legal status potential.
He was definitely worth a closer look. Since I hadn’t seen the big one for a couple of weeks and was just hoping to bump into him, I opted to size up the one I knew for sure was available. It turns out that there were 2 other rams with him but they were obviously not legal. So back the way I had come. I worked my way back up to the top. I had selected a saddle between them and mine. The plan was to get to that saddle and then hike 100 yards above to the peak where I could look down on the rams. I would have been 100 yards from them.
When I got to the saddle, I dropped my pack and grabbed only my rifle, rangefinder, and spotting scope. I was working my way up to the peak when I saw a horn moving from around the peak. I froze even though I was in a very uncomfortable position. When he rounded the corner he zeroed in on me immediately. He was one of the smaller rams. We had a 30 minute staring contest. I had lowered my head so that I had to look up at him and closed my left eye completely. My right eye was only squinted so he couldn’t see my eyes or me blink.
Sheep have extremely keen eyes and at 80 yards they can watch you blink! After about 30 minutes he slowly looked another direction and then suddenly jerked his head back my direction. This went on for another 5 minutes or so. Then his buddies showed up. They all zeroed in on my location and after a minute or 2 they turned tail and left.
I sprinted to the top where they were hoping to catch sight of them again. When I got there they were 170 yards away in the next little saddle. They weren’t spooked they just moseyed away. I didn’t get a perfect look at him as he was always moving and didn’t turn enough to give me a good angle. From what I did see he looked so close to legal and I wanted to harvest him in the worst way because the entire season was unseasonably cold and they were living in the snow so his coat was exceptionally thick and heavy. It was very beautiful.
I elected to pass on the shot because I wasn’t 100% sure he was legal let alone 125% sure as I like to be before I drop the hammer. I watched as these regal animals made way over another ridge. I stood up and just soaked it all in. I had hunted hard off and on for 5 weeks and my sheep season was now over. There was another week left but I had an elk hunt in NM to attend.
July 2007, I decided to fly the area with a super cub and look to see if the big one had survived another season. I did not see him. I flew over to where my spike camp saddle and to my surprise there were 5 rams just below where I had seen them the year before. The biggest wasn’t a monster but merited a closer look.
I returned opening day with my friend Charlie. I helped him harvest his first ram in 2003. It had been 3 seasons of skunking out and in 2008 my honey hole would be on a drawing permit basis only. I had to get one last dance in and harvest a ram! We left Anchorage at 14:00 and were in our sleeping bags at 00:30. We got up at 03:30 and began hiking up to my saddle. We dropped our spike camp and began working our way up the ridge.
When we got about ½ a mile up we found all 5 rams way down low. So low they were where I was when I spotted them the year before. The biggest one just didn’t look legal and we almost went further up the ridge. For some reason we lingered around and chatted for a while. A bit later 3 of the 5 rams were working their way up to the ridge. They were veering off to get to a huge outcropping of rocks to bed for the day.
I sized him up for a while and could just not put a 360 degree curl on him. It was obvious that his right horn was broomed (broken) and his left horn was just short of 360 degrees. Now for the good news. In Alaska a ram is legal for harvest if it is a “full curl”. Alaska’s definition of a full curl is if at least one horn in 360 degrees of a circle or if both horns are broomed or if he is 8 years old or older based on their annual growth rings.
So, he was broomed on one side but not both and his complete side was not quite 360 degrees. The fact that rams typically don’t broom their horns until they are 8 or older compelled me to look for rings. I found what I thought was his 3rd ring which is found at the ½ curl area and counted forward and came up with 7. I counted and recounted and could only confirm 7 rings. He got a bit closer (715 yards) and I thought I saw another ring below what I though was the 3rd. If that was the case, the one I thought was 3 would be 4 and that would make him 8. He also had a lot of real estate between his 8th ring and his base so there was a strong chance he was 9.
I wanted to be sure so I didn’t set up for a shot. The mirage continually increased and I couldn’t count them anymore. We watched them work their way up to their bedding area until they disappeared behind a huge rock wall. We ourselves took a short nap until I was woken up to rocks falling. I looked up and saw another one of the smaller rams working up to them. We decided to try and work our way around the back side of a peak to another saddle that would likely give us a vantage on the bedded rams. We would constantly keep an eye on the rocky area to make sure no sheep were popping out to catch us flat footed.
We worked along the ridge for 10 minutes or so and after just looking for any sheep I looked at my footing and took a step. Just then Charlie whispered loudly to STOP! I looked up to the rocks and saw a ram’s head peeking around a small cliff. We stared each other down for about 5 minutes and he turned and went back the way he had come. Fearing that we had blown them out of the country we blitzed it to try and get around the peak to catch them fleeing out the other side.
After a few hundred yards or so we could see how rough the side hill below the peak was and elected to pass on going any further. We sat there and glassed for a few hours and chatted for a while. It was getting late and we decided to head back to spike camp. While we were working back, clouds were rolling in above and below us and level with us clouds were forming. I have never seen this in my life. It was almost super-natural watching clouds materialize out of nothing mere yards in front of you! The valley below and the rocks that harbored the rams was getting socked in. After a few minutes they were completely socked in.
When we got back to one of the many saddles we had traversed through we decided to hang out there for a bit to see if they would come out to feed and hoped the fog would dissipate. After about an hour we heard rocks falling. More and more rocks kept falling. We knew the rams were on the move. The falling rocks were getting closer to us and higher. We could tell from the falling rocks that they were very close to us. After 20 minutes of that the fog behind us started to break.
I told Charlie I was going to get into position and if I could tell for 125% he was legal, I would set up and take the shot. If I had guessed right, they would appear in the saddle we were overlooking. I set my custom 300 RUM rifle up on its bipod and loaded a round into the chamber, set the safety and while it seemed level, my level said otherwise. I leveled the rifle by adjusting the bipod. I set up my spotting scope and waited.
The fog to the right of the saddle began to clear and I ranged the bottom of the saddle at 178 yards. I then ranged the peak above it at 350 yards. YES! I thought, I won’t even have to adjust my scope for anything in this saddle. A few moments later the fog to the left broke and the rams became visible. I aligned the spotting scope on the bigger ram and looked for rings. He turned his head just right and the sun light lit his horn up like a house on fire! I could easily count 8 rings for sure. I counted over and over just to be sure.
I looked up at Charlie who was 20 yards above me and gave him the nod that I was taking the shot. They were about 200 yards away. When I moved to get into my shooting position, they spooked. They ran off a bit and disappeared. They came back up to cross another small hogback.
I ranged him at 360 yards. I found him in my scope, centered up the chest and began to squeeze. A small part of me wanted to just jerk the trigger but I dismissed that thought and told myself I was doing fine and to just keep building pressure on the 2.5# trigger. To my surprise, the fire breathing dragon belched.
When I came off the recoil I saw the ram was down. He rolled a ways down the drainage and stopped. There is always a sliver of doubt in your mind as to if he was really legal so it was a very, very long trip down the chute. Immediately after reaching the ram I picked his head up and counted rings. I was so relieved when I counted 9 actual growth rings! He was legal last year after all. That is ok though. He just got bigger and fatter and grew to have more character having broomed one side and just plain maturing a bit more.
We set up for a photo session for a bit and began the butchering. Dall sheep meat is unmatched table fare. Even on the old rams every bite is like eating filet mignon! We didn’t waste anything.
After de-boning the meat we caped him out for a mount packed up and began our grueling ascent back up 1000’ of loose shale to the ridge. We got to the top just about dark and finished our way back to spike camp ascending and descending in the dark. We got to camp about 01:00, made dinner, crawled into our bivy sacks and went to sleep under the stars, aurora borealis and an ever so dim glow of sun light over the next mountain range’s horizon.
The next day’s pack out would prove to be 8 hours of pure torture and agony under the hot August sun but we made it! Bug bitten and scorched, dehydrated and hungry but successful. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my last year of open season in my honey hole.
Equipment that made it all possible
1: This story really emphasizes the need for the finest optics money can buy. Without the best glass, I never would have been able to judge this ram’s legal status. It would have been a shame to pass on this handsome specimen loaded with character because of inadequate glass. The scope used was a Swarovski 20-60X65mm. Binoculars used were Swarovski EL 10X42. Laser rangefinder was the Swarovski 8X30. The rifle scope was a Night Force NXS 3.5-15X50 equipped with an external bubble level.
2: External bubble level on the rifle scope. Sheep country is extremely deceiving. When I set up for the shot it looked like my rifle was level. By looking at the level, I could see that it was not. To get it level I had to fully extend the bench rest size Harris bi-pod on the left side and leave the right fully retracted. This is a huge difference in bullet impact. In this scenario, the ram was quartering away very hard. Even at 360 yards as hard as the rifle was canted, it could have been at best a complete miss. At worst, it could have been a bad shot.
What we did right
1: There were two of us to look for sheep that pop out to catch you flat footed as they do. Without Charlie’s eyes, I may have blown the stalk.
2: We were patient. It would have been easy to pass on him since he didn’t at first glance appear to be legal. We took advantage of the optics we had and sized him up.
3: We were observant. We observed rocks falling as they made their way to their bedding area. Then when things were fogged in thick and heard the same rocks falling, it tipped us off to the fact that they were coming out to feed.
4: We double and triple quadruple checked the legal status before pulling the trigger. We counted 8 rings in the morning light and the evening light. By passing on him in the morning to try and get another look meant possibly never getting another opportunity. This is better than rushing to conclusions and facing the wrath of the game department who takes the harvesting of illegal rams very seriously.
5: When we were at the top of the ridges we kept a very low profile so as not to be detected. Sheep have eyes equivalent to our 7-8X binoculars and are very skittish of human silhouettes.
6: Despite being very tired from the day before hike and only getting 3.5 hours of sleep, we got up and made our way to the rams to beat any known and unknown competition. This paid off as there turned out to be 5 other hunters another mile up the ridge from our last vantage point.
Michael has lived in Alaska for 10 years. He has killed 5 Dall rams. The largest was 38" long with 14 1/2" bases. The longest was 763 yards.
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