Bryce’s Sheep Hunt
By Bryce McGough
Getting a Tok Management Area Sheep permit is difficult, and depending on how you want to get into the Tok management area, it can be even tougher. You have two choices, walk in or fly in. We decided on the more traditional hunt. The details on getting there are less important than the hunt so I’ll skip that part altogether. Anyone who’s ever been sheep hunting will tell you this is one tough hunt.
After glassing miles of ridges and draws, locating a couple hundred white rocks, we finally located an actual live sheep. It had to be some five to six miles away but at least we could tell it was a ram. We set up the spotting scope and saw it was a nice full-curl ram. As we were setting up base camp, now something past 8:00 at night, a quick glance through the spotting scope was enough for some serious excitement. Out from behind a rock, right next to this full curl ram comes this “way past” full curl ram. Our best guess at that distance was 41/42”. That discovery was not helpful in trying to get a good night’s sleep.
We got up at daybreak, coffee’d up, packed up and took off. We guessed by the direction the sheep took the night before that they went over the top and we might find them in the next valley. It wasn’t that they were simply five miles back, these rams were up there, as in way up there and over some of the steepest terrain I’ve ever encountered.
On the way up, we came face to face with a grizzly about 50’ away. At first, all we could see was his behind but eventually he turned to look at us. We thought we might be close enough to the rams that a shot meant to chase him off would be all the rams needed to leave the area. Even though we had a tag, our goal was not a grizzly. Fortunately, not particularly interested in each other, he ran off.
We topped the ridge at about 2:00pm. Nothing. A couple ewes and lambs was about it. The rams were gone. We took lunch and patrolled the ridge top for a while but couldn’t find the rams and, even equally as disappointing, couldn’t figure where they might have gone. On our second ridge patrol and totally exposed, we spotted them. They hadn’t gone over the ridge as we anticipated. In fact, they came down the mountain toward us. Although a few ridges over, we had walked past them. Both were sitting out in the open on top of a long sloping ridge ending on a 50’ cliff with a 360 degree view. The closest we could get to them without being seen was about 8 to 900 yards away. At least now we were able to study this ram at a much closer distance. Our new estimate has him around 42/43“. Trust me, when you see a world class animal like this one, patience is not easily acquired.
It was 4:00pm, still early, and we elected to wait them out until they moved. By 5:30 they were still there and from all indications, they were going to stay there. We decided to split up. My dad would go down below the rams and try to push them up toward me. About an hour later the rams finally moved. It looked like this plan was going to work! Of course they took off in a direction away from me so I had to change positions. I raced around the backside of a ridge and move in for a closer shot. I'm maybe 500 yards away now but still too far for a shot. I take off behind another ridge and come out what I thought was going to be closer. They were still traveling away from me so I didn't gain much ground. They disappeared behind a small draw so I backed off again and ran around another ridge and just said this is it, I have to take a shot. So I reached the other side of the ridge and found a perfect rock bench to lay my gun on. I focused on the other end of the draw and waited.. My hands covered in perspiration, all I could hear was my heartbeat. I could hardly take the anticipation. So I waited.. and waited.. and waited. About 5 minutes went by and I couldn't figure out why they were taking so long, but I elected to wait some more. Well about 15 minutes went by before I figured out that as I ran around my last ridge they must have turned and ran straight up the adjacent mountain and ran over the back side. My opportunity was lost.
7:30. I'm at the top of this mountain and I have maybe an hour and a half left of daylight. I look for the quickest route down and go for it. In short, I end up in a canyon with a 10' waterfall behind me and a 15' waterfall in front of me, 20' walls on either side of me made up of shale and moss. I can't go back up the 10' waterfall behind me because that was a one-way ticket dropping down that and I certainly can't make it down the 15' waterfall without a following helicopter ride out of there. So I take the lesser of the evils and go for the vertical wall. In order to climb I have to kick and punch to create steps and handles. Now that I am exhausting so much energy, exactly half way up my body lets me know right away that I have forgotten to eat anything in hours. I get a hunger attack so bad that my kneecaps start bouncing like crazy and I realize I have to eat something or I am going to lose footing and take a dive on the rocks. I plant my whole body against the rocks, grab 2 trail mix bars and eat them in record time. Now with some energy regained I finish the ascent.
With about a half an hour of daylight left I book it down the mountain. Keep in mind, after chasing off a grizzly earlier that day on our way up and knowing he was in our area, coming down the mountain through tangled alders in the dark will raise your blood pressure substantially.
Drenched in sweat, I reached base camp around 11:00. To my surprise, my dad was not back yet. I expected him to be there and worried about where I've been. Now I'm worried. We lost daylight hours ago. Knowing what I just went though I feared the worst, thinking he got into a similar situation as me and fell and injured himself. At 11:30, he shows up. As it turns out he just took a much more difficult route through the alders. We washed up and hit the bags.
Next day, we packed up again and off we went. We had a pretty good idea where the rams might be so we snuck up a couple miles from camp using a ridge for cover. We climbed to a number of pretty good vantage points, glassing the entire area over and over but couldn’t seem to find them. About three quarters of the way up we split up, not by design, but we were looking for a better way around this massive rock. I went to the right, and my dad climbed way up to the left.
As luck would have it, when I came around the rock, I could see up a number of these little draws. I stood there for a few seconds. All of a sudden, there they were, both rams about a half a mile away. Fortunately both were looking straight away from me. It occurred to me that on all my hunts, my dad was usually with me. I didn’t know where he was so I made an executive decision, time to take the training wheels off and make the stalk on my own. Now in order to start gaining some ground I faced about 50 yards of complete exposure towards them down some shale rocks until I would have cover from a small ridge ahead of me. I studied them for probably 10 minutes, making sure they showed no interest in my direction. Not knowing how long of a window I had, I had to make the decision.. "GO!" My adrenaline kicked into high gear as I rushed down as fast and carefully as I could over the shale rocks until I was out of sight. Since I was only paying attention to the careful placement of each step I had no idea if they heard or saw me, and as most sheep hunters are probably aware of, shale is quite difficult to walk on and remain "stealth."
I reached the base of the ridge. I dropped my pack a few yards from the top and inched my way up. It had been about 15 minutes since I saw the rams last. I half expected them to be long gone as several of my steps were far from quiet. I was almost certain I had blown it. I peeked my head over. I almost couldn't believe it but there they were, just as relaxed as when I last saw them. I finally got a chance to see this massive ram up close and it practically took my breath away. Here I am on my 7th sheep hunt and have only seen a 7/8 curl at best in all these years and now I'm looking at a curl that I thought only existed in magazines taken by people who spent a fortune being guided. I had no idea how I'd be able to calm my nerves and be able to take a successful shot.
I lay on my stomach on a grassy part of the ridge and put the ram right in the center of my scope. I am at an uphill advantage maybe 450 yards away, my heart is pounding so hard that with every beat my scope dances all over the ram. I have never fired on an animal anywhere near this distance. So I am going to be shooting downhill at a distance I am far from familiar with."Where the heck am I supposed to aim?" I am not going to gamble this opportunity away all on just a chance that I might succeed. I made the decision to pull back and work my way to a lower part of the ridge for a closer shot, running the risk of being heard once again.
Patience is in pretty short supply. On the up side, they still hadn’t spotted me. One lifetime later, I gained another 100 yards. The last 50 was a belly crawl up a shale slide, in conjunction with a nosey little half curl that popped up out of nowhere and just about blew my cover. I was frozen in place about 5 feet from my destination, completely exposed to this small ram grazing about 100 yards from me. If he had raised his head up once in my direction or caught my scent it would have been all over. Thankfully luck was on my side. He never looked up, and eventually faded behind a hill. Now in a much better position, I figured this was it. Again on my chest this time I'm laying on shale, but I didn't care. I propped the 300 on this little rock as best I could. I can’t explain how bad I was shaking. The ram was oblivious.
You might expect this next part to end up like any typical hunting story. Line up the shot, wait for the right moment, squeeze the trigger and down goes the animal with a nice hand shake and photo op.... Nope not me.
I still had a problem with the distance. I guessed the distance at about 350 yards. Since the beginning of our trip, it seemed like it took a lifetime to finally get to this very moment. I just stared at the ram through my scope for a while, almost like I was waiting for someone to say, "Ok, shoot." But aware of the silence, I knew that the fate of this day was all up to me, so I just said to myself, "Well, here goes nothin." I took a deep breath... exhaled slowly...Fired.
My shot exploded on the rocks over his shoulder. Panic shot through me as the 2 rams jumped up and headed up the mountain. I racked another round and fired. Again the rocks just above him exploded. This time I rose to one knee, racked in my final round and fired. Rocks again blew up inches over the ram. The rams disappeared behind a short ridge and I made a mad dash toward them, trying to gain some ground. I got about 20 yards closer, dropped to a knee and loaded 3 more rounds into my rifle. The ram popped out from the ridge and I fired my 4th shot, then 5th shot. More rock explosions. I racked my final round once again and fired. This time no evidence of where my shot landed. "Did I hit him?" I thought. He dove behind another small ridge. I reloaded my gun again and had to really clear my head and calm myself down or else I might as well have been shooting from the hip. I propped the gun back on my knee and took several slow deep breaths and focused my scope on the ram’s only exit. The ram popped out and held a perfect broad-side pose as he looked around. I fired my 7th shot.
Bullseye. I saw his legs give way and I followed with a shout of victory. He dove headfirst off a 40 foot cliff and disappeared behind a ridge. I rushed over to the ram and when I arrived, man I just couldn't believe it. As I looked my ram over I realized this was not like any ram I have ever seen mounted, like the several at my parent's house and various other houses of hunter enthusiasts. No, this ram was truly a "trophy ram."
So I knew this was a ram of a lifetime, an honest curl and a quarter. I walked around a couple cliffs and signaled to my dad, who I spotted sitting way up on this ridge. Because I was shooting way down in these canyons, he never heard me shoot. We didn’t have a tape measure with us but we guessed at about 42".
Now you might expect that the excitement is over. All the sweat and bruises have finally paid off. After all the work we've put in our hunt, it was a success and now it's over. Let's pack him up and go home... Nope not us.
We were running out of time to get it field dressed, caped and meat on the frames. We finished a little after 8:00. We decided to take a different route down. Even though we would have had to pack him back up the mountain, we knew the route was passable back to camp if we had backtracked. Instead, we chose a canyon directly in line with our camp. Big mistake.
10:00pm.. we had scaled down three waterfalls, my dad made two unsuccessful attempts to rip his knee caps off from falling in the creek bed, I tore one leg completely off my rain pants and were now facing a 45’ sheer cliff waterfall. By this time it is pitch black and we are both using flashlights. We can't go back up the waterfalls so our only option is to head straight up the side of the canyon which was just solid alders and hope to land in the next valley that is also in line with our camp. The alders were so thick our progress was limited less than 100 yards per hour.
There is a point when the perfect storm of events makes for seriously poor judgment. Mix these nasty alders with two 80+ pound packs, 17 hours of physical abuse, exhaustion, fatigue, dark, disoriented and borderline hypothermia. Not the best time to be deciding anything. It was now 1:00 in the morning, we couldn't move 10 feet without taking a break and collapsing in complete exhaustion, so we had to make the painful decision to drop the packs or they were going to kill us. We had the presence of mind to put the packs near some sort of landmark where we could locate them the next day. We found a large mound of rocks to place the packs against and called it good. After another hour of walking blind through this alder nightmare with no sense of direction, we finally reach the creek bed of the next valley. To help you understand what we were going through, imagine yourself a couple miles up a mountain, completely engulfed in the middle of acres and acres of alders, with no vision past 10 feet in any direction with flashlights, having nothing to gauge your location, barely being able to hold up your own weight, 1am and maybe 35 degrees. On top of that, hoping to God that the next valley is more forgiving then the one you just crawled out of.
2 hours later we reach camp. Just beaten... that doesn't even describe the feeling as we crawled into our bags.
To get an idea as to how far back this was, we left camp at 8:30 the next morning and didn’t get back to camp until 10:30 at night. It took us over 14 hours just to walk up the mountain, jump back into that god-forsaken nightmare, find our packs, which no doubt was a miracle in itself, and walk back down.
No matter how much you prepare for these sheep hunts, walking, running, climbing mountains, you are never quite prepared for how tough they can be.
It took us another day to get out, but it was worth every bruise and all the sweat. Unofficial measurements when we got back to camp had the ram at 11 ½ years old and horns at 45” with 14” bases. This is what you get when you have a carpenter do the measuring (that would be my dad). We had the official measuring by a Boone & Crocket representative and the actual measurements were 44 5/8” by 13 5/8” with a total score of 173 4/8”. We’ll have the final official measurement taken after the 60 day waiting period. Where you place in the record book is less important than if you are on the book. Everyone wants to be number one, hopefully this ram will be in the top 150 of the largest rams ever taken. Not bad.
My father, age 67, has hunted about every North American big game there is. I have hunted with him since age 8 (now 27) when I got my first caribou. He still to this day is the reason I make an extra effort to train so hard before a big hunt. If I don't then it is a challenge in itself to keep up with him. My brother, Mike Gratland, I believe said it best that even though he hasn't said it, I think his goal is to be 85 years old and still be on these sheep hunts with his grandsons and be everyone's model of what can be done at 85.
If there is one thing I have learned from this trip is something my dad said, "Always go with the winner." As you noticed I was put in the same terrible situation twice, having a waterfall in front and behind me with the side of a canyon being the only escape. Both situations could have been avoided if we just went back the way we came. Instead we were exhausted and wanted the straightest shot going back to camp, but it meant traveling an unfamiliar path. But hindsight being what it is, now I know that even though it may appear a longer trip back to camp, I will always go with the winner.