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Becoming a Sheep Hunter

December 2023
Story by Mark Huelsing
State: Alaska
Species: Sheep - Dall

“Just throwing it out there. If there is any chance you think you could swing a sheep hunt this year, I may have an interesting opportunity that would be worth a phone call. I know that it is probably a long-shot on short notice.”

I will never forget reading that email from my friend, Mark Rowenhorst, owner/operator of Limitless Alaska Guiding. That message came in February, just months before sheep season. Most people dream of hunting sheep for years, or even decades. I was certainly among those dreamers, but I never allowed myself to truly believe that my dream might become a reality. However, in the weeks following that email and the ensuing conversations Mark and I shared, I realized my dream would become reality in just a few short months.

I had hunted with Mark the year before. It was a challenging mountain goat hunt in Southeast Alaska. After a lot of setbacks, we were able to harvest a billy on the final day of a nine-day hunt. It was a grueling and rewarding adventure that I will never forget.

This sheep hunt would take place outside of Mark’s traditional guide areas. He knew the country a bit, but not intimately. Leading up to season, he made several scouting trips that proved to be productive. There was one ram in particular that caught Mark’s attention, and on subsequent scouting trips, he was able to relocate him each time. The ram easily exceeded full curl with protruding, twisting tips.

As exciting as it was to know this ram was out there and that there was a real possibility of finding him on opening day, I was also uneasy about hunting him. Being completely new to guided hunts, it felt weird to have someone scouting for me. I wasn’t sure how I would feel to hike in and shoot a ram on opening morning if I didn’t fully “hunt” for this animal myself.

The adventure began two days before opening day with a hike into sheep country. The following morning, still one day before the opener, we located the ram. Fierce winds forced us to drop from the ram’s basin and find a sheltered spot to set camp. After setting camp at midday, we returned in the heavy winds and rain to find the ram again that evening. Weather conditions continued to deteriorate, and we made a plan to take shelter that night and get up early on opening morning to pursue the ram.

Waking up on opening morning was easy, in part because I never slept much. Wind and rain had been rocking our tents all night. Of course, the pure excitement of opening day would have made it hard to sleep, even if my tent weren’t smacking me in the face all night. After a pre-dawn hike and now with just enough light to use our optics, we perched ourselves at a good vantage point to relocate our target ram along with the two buddies he had been hanging with. However, only the two younger rams could be found. “Our” ram was gone.

Later that day, we crossed paths with the hunter that killed “our” ram just before we could. There isn’t room enough in this whole magazine, much less in this one article, to recount all of the details and circumstances of chance that led to that outcome. A wild story for another time, I suppose. This ram wasn’t “our” ram. It never was. We knew that nothing was a done deal until it was over.

The weather insisted on kicking us while we were already down. The winds increased to more than 70 mph, and not even our Hilleberg shelters could bear the impact of those gusts. Despite finding the most sheltered location we could, using every guy line and stake we had, and reinforcing every anchor in the ground with heavy stones above, our tents were laid flat with bent and broken poles, and we found ourselves with no suitable shelter from the wind and rain.

In the first few days of our hunt, we lost a trophy ram, we lost our shelters, and we lost all ability to keep hunting on this mountain in these conditions. However, we had not lost our resolve. We tucked our tails and had no choice but to hike out, get new gear, and come up with a new plan.

A day later, under packs loaded for eight more days of hard hunting, we began a difficult hike into a completely different part of the unit. Alaska being Alaska, no inch is given easily, and we had to fight for every bit of progress as we pushed deeper into the sheep mountains. Many hours and many miles later, we set camp at a spot that would provide excellent glassing opportunities into far-reaching terrain.

In the morning, we were able to locate a couple different groups of sheep that we would ultimately end up pursuing in the following days. Those days were filled with more wind, more rain, and more miles spent crossing glaciers and climbing slopes. We were wet, chilled, and exhausted. We were sheep hunting.

Despite our best efforts in pursuing, stalking, and glassing the sheep in this area, we weren’t rewarded with a legal ram. Our work was done in this drainage, so we decided to make a big push through a mountain pass and explore a new part of the range, putting us even deeper from where we started.

On day seven, as we hiked past the boundaries of my comfort zone, I was also in a mental battle of discontent about all of the setbacks we had endured, how much the weather had limited our ability to hunt effectively, and the fact that we couldn’t locate another legal ram. However, I knew that all of the struggles would make any eventual success that much sweeter.

I wanted nothing more than some good weather that would allow us to hunt hard. Instead, we spent 80% of day eight in the tent, riding out another storm system. We used our bodies to prop up our new shelter when wind gusts would smash the tent walls, and we played Uno when the winds allowed us to relax.

On the morning of day nine, we finally awoke to some fair weather and also got a decent forecast from our InReach. I was excited to be out of the tent and on the hunt. We spotted a group of sheep three miles from camp and began a glacier traverse to head in that direction. Hours later, we found ourselves debating the best way to close the distance toward that group of sheep, which were now 1,500 yards away on the far side of a ridge that stood between us.

Just as we were about to make our move, Mark spotted two rams in a different direction about 900 yards away. After taking a closer look at both of the new rams through the spotter and confirming they were mature, we created a new plan to close the distance on them. The stalk was on.

For the next hour, we strategically worked our plan and used every bit of micro- terrain available to try and stay out of sight of these two rams. Our stalk was a zigzag, rise-and-fall approach across a steep mountainside. Even the hard steps and big slips were enjoyable knowing that we would be in position sooner or later.

Upon reaching a rock outcropping that was the final barrier between us and the rams, I snuck a glance at the bedded rams and ranged them at 278 yards. Carefully crawling into a prone position on the steep outcropping, I found footholds to keep my feet planted and prevent me from slipping backward. I got behind the rifle as Mark peered around a rock edge to put the rams in his spotting scope. With both rams bedded and neither alerted, we had time to look them over. Both were mature. Both were legal. The lower ram was heavily broomed on both sides, which I was particularly fond of. I told Mark, “I am going to take him.”

He replied, “He’s yours.”

Breathe. Squeeze. Impact. The bedded ram’s head lay down. I couldn’t believe it. Honestly, I still can’t. I went on a Dall sheep hunt and successfully killed a mature, double-broomed ram.

After getting to him and laying my hands on him, Mark and I sat and just enjoyed the moment for quite a while. A majestic animal laid to rest, overlooking a massive glacier, and under unbelievably rugged, snow-capped peaks. Despite the blanket of fresh snow that fell that night, we managed to finish the 15-mile pack out the next day just before dark.

That opening day ram wasn’t meant to be. If I shot that first ram, I would have been a sheep killer and I am sure I would have been happy, but losing that ram allowed me to have a much more fulfilling and rewarding experience. It allowed me to become a sheep hunter.