I caught my sheep bug in 2010 while I was helping a good friend of mine, Andy Locke, fill his California bighorn sheep tag in Oregon. I am convinced that all it takes to catch the sheep bug is to place your hands on those massive horns. It’s almost like a spell is cast upon you.
Since then, I had applied in multiple states every year, trying to get lucky on a draw tag. I also attended many outdoorsmen shows, such as SCI and the Reno Sheep Show, where I always threw my name in the hat for some sort of sheep hunt draw/ raffle as well as some magazine hunt giveaways. Many times, these raffles have better odds of winning a sheep hunt than drawing a sheep tag in a particular state. I had talked to quite a few outfitters at some of these shows and was trying to decide on a Dall sheep hunt in Alaska or NWT, but I just had a hard time writing a check for the amount that some of these hunts go for.
I rarely keep track of when these drawings take place, so I was totally caught off guard when I got a call from Huntin’ Fool in March of 2016, saying, “Pete, I’m about to make your day.” I thought it was just another salesman calling. When he told me he was Austin Atkinson of Huntin’ Fool and that my name had just been drawn for a Dall sheep hunt in Alaska in the Winter Membership Drive, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I was finally going to have a sheep tag with my name on it. I would be hunting with Mont Mahoney of Alaska Dall Sheep Guides in the western Alaska Range. All I had to do was fly to McGrath but also wait almost 18 months for the hunt as it was for August 2017.
I was very excited about the hunt and had a lot of time to prepare, but I just had to put it out of my mind for a while. Being an avid hunter for over 40 years, I already had most of the gear that I needed for a backpack hunt in the Alaska outback, but this special hunt deserved a new, special rifle. I contacted my friend, Sterling Becklin of ERA3, who put together a long-range shooter in 6.5 Creedmoor with a folding stock that fit in a backpack perfectly for me.
Time went by quickly, and before I knew it, I was heading to Alaska to hunt Dall sheep. Five plane rides and two days later, I was sitting in base camp having dinner with four other hunters, their guides, our trusted pilot, Mont, and the camp cook. What an awesome group of guys all telling stories about past hunts and enjoying each other’s company out in the Alaska wilderness. My guide would be Brian Rhead. I could tell by his demeanor and his gear that he was a seasoned guide and was serious about his job.
The next day, Mont flew us into our spike camp area in his Super Cub a day and a half before the opener. After hiking to our spike camp, we climbed a few hills to spot for sheep. We set up our spotting scopes, and it didn’t take long before we were seeing white dots on the green mountains. We decided to move closer to get a better look, and when we did, we spotted over 30 sheep spread out over the mountain before us, and at least 15 were rams. The light was fading, and we decided to come back in the morning and really look them over.
After some Mountain House and a good night’s sleep, we were back on the mountain only to find that the sheep had moved closer to us. Now they were about 1,500 yards away with nothing but open area between us. Out of the 15 rams we saw, only 3 we could guess were legal. A legal ram must be 8 years old, have a full curl on at least one side, or be broomed on both horns. Even with good optics, it took a lot of studying with the wind howling to tell that two of the rams were legal, but one stood out. He was a beautiful ram with evenly flared out horns.
It was an awesome day watching a hillside full of beautiful white sheep grazing on the mountain across from us. We even watched a wolverine as he made his way down from a glacier, no doubt looking for something to eat as he lumbered his way down the edge of the river that was coming out of a beautiful blue glacier to the east. That’s when we heard a plane land and takeoff from the landing strip we had landed on the day before. Soon, we could see two other hunters hiking our way. This was not good! Nobody wants to compete with other hunters for the same animals. Brian thought the same thing and hiked down the mountain to let them know that we already had this mountain covered. They graciously turned around to hunt a different mountain. We put the rams to bed and formulated a plan to hike to a hill below the sheep in the morning before light and hopefully be within range when dawn broke.
It was a sleepless night as all I could think about was that beautiful ram and hoping our plan would come together in the morning. The wind howled all night, and there was a definite change in the weather. We woke up early and carefully made our way up the riverbed at the bottom of the mountain in the dark and climbed the hill to where we thought the sheep would be above us. As dawn slowly began to break, we could see the sheep above us, and after a while, we spotted the ram with the flared out horns. I love it when a plan comes together! He was at 460 yards and walking into a slight ditch out of our sight. After waiting about 15 minutes, he appeared at 420 yards, broadside and staring right at us. He was at about a 45-degree angle uphill to me, and I had a hard time getting him in the scope. I thought I had adjusted for the angle and squeezed the trigger, but I shot over him. The second shot went high as well, but I calmed down on the third shot and anchored him.
We hiked up to the ram, and it was an emotional moment when I finally put my hands on his horns and had to take a moment to thank the Man in charge. By now, the rain was blowing sideways on the mountain. We were told by our pilot that we would either have to wait out the weather for a couple of days to be picked up or we could hike back to base camp. We would have to hike uphill through a scree field a couple miles across and through a saddle and then it was all downhill from there to base camp. Easy. We decided it would be better to hike out to base camp and eat great food than to endure a few more days in a wet tent eating Mountain House and waiting out the storm.
About halfway across the scree field, I think we both regretted that decision because with our packs weighing well over 100 lbs. each and two steps forward and sliding one step back, it was almost all day getting through that saddle. We pitched our tents a few hundred yards on the other side of the saddle, got into some dry clothes, and passed out until the next morning. That was definitely the toughest pack out I’ve made in all my years of hunting.
We made it back to base camp around noon the next day, and when the camp cook asked me if I was hungry, I said, “Sure, keep it coming.” I ate eight eggs, half a pound of bacon, and six pieces of toast, and I was still hungry from that hike out, but I was too embarrassed to ask for more. What a great adventure!
I want to thank Huntin’ Fool for putting together their Membership Drives with such great quality hunts. It was everything I could have hoped for in winning a hunt like this. I would also like to thank my wife for putting up with my hunting addiction for 35+ years. Like I always say, you can’t win unless your name is in the hat!