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December 2018
Story by Justin Shaffer
State: Alaska
Species: Sheep - Dall

I think I speak for many Alaskans when I say that the first or “real” Christmas happens around the middle of February each year. This is when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game releases its draw results. Each year, it’s a cult-like ritual where I’m glued to the computer, refreshing the link repeatedly, waiting for the results to populate. When they finally opened, I scrolled down to see that I had drawn the DS190 tag. I was going to be hunting sheep in the Chugach.

It was no accident that I had selected this specific tag to apply for. It was in this unit that I first cut my teeth on sheep hunting back in 2003. After a long, tough week of battling the mountains, I killed a beautiful full curl ram on day eight of a seven-day hunt. Besides having firsthand experience in the unit, it was also selected for its relation to my location. I live at the base of the Chugach Mountains in Anchorage just 30 minutes from the area, and on top of that, it’s less than a five-minute flight from one of my best hunting buddy’s hangar. Therefore, it was no surprise that he was one of the very first people I called. Kyle congratulated me and immediately started talking about what our preseason scouting strategy was going to be. Initial plans were put into place, dates and a hunting partner were chosen, and the countdown began.

Fast forward to the beginning of August and just a little over a week before the opener. Preseason plans and scouting had been coming together without a hitch. Kyle and I had spent countless hours flying and scouting the unit and had turned up a giant ram that we now concentrated all our efforts on. All of the planning was falling into place, but one text quickly changed that. My scheduled hunting buddy was nailed with a last minute work commitment that he couldn’t get out of. This put me into scramble mode to find a new partner. I scrolled through the Contacts list in my phone, looking for potential replacements. I sent out a text message plea to a handful of guys, and I don’t think the text had even fully sent out when I received a message back from my longtime Ranger buddy, Matt, replying, “I’m in.” Matt had just recently retired from the Army after 27 years of service and now had the time available to fly up. He is a beast of a man and a 75th Ranger Regiment legend. We went to sniper school together back in 1999, and he was the guy I chose to pin on my Ranger tab when I graduated.

By the end of the week, Matt was in Anchorage, our gear was packed, and plans were finalized for the hunt. We were then on four-wheelers, making the ride to the trailhead where we would start the long pack to a spot we had picked on the map. Eleven grueling hours later, we found ourselves 5,000 vertical feet higher, sitting in a saddle we planned to call home for the next 10 days. Our campsite put us 1.8 miles away from where Kyle and I had last seen the sheep a couple days earlier. We felt like this was as close as we could get without pushing the sheep out of the unit.

We proceeded to set up camp, organize gear, and make plans to watch our ram until opening day arrived. The next few days from sunup to sundown were spent on top of a peak, locked in behind our glass, watching the sheep and telling war stories.

Matt and I had spent the majority of the day before the opener on the hill before returning to camp to finalize our gear and plans for the morning stalk. With only a few hours left in the day, I told Matt I was going to climb back up the mountain and put the sheep to bed. As all the previous times before, the sheep were in place and I watched them bed up for the night. This is when “Murphy’s Law” struck and our opening day plans rapidly changed. With a couple hours of daylight left, I decided to glass the opposite drainage to see if I could find Matt a bear. Within a couple minutes of scanning, I picked up some movement below, but it wasn’t a bear. It was a couple hunters climbing out of the bottom of the drainage and up the opposite hillside towards the bowl the sheep had been in. As panic quickly set in, I barreled off the mountain as fast as I could back to camp. I scared Matt who was napping in the tent when I ripped the door open and yelled, “We got company!”

After a quick recap of what I had seen and an even quicker plan for me to spend the night solo on the mountain with the sheep, I started repacking what I would need. After all the months of prepping and planning and the three days spent camped out on the sheep, there was no way I was going to let somebody else beat me to that ram. With a quick plan of attack to meet up in the morning, I took off towards the sheep. A long, steep hike later, I found myself skirting just below the other hunters’ campsite. Continuing on undetected, I made my way as close as I dared to get to where I had last seen the rams. There, I found an old sheep bed which I dug out as best as I could and set up my emergency blanket into a makeshift leanto. True to its word, the weather forecast of an all-night rainstorm held true. I buckled down and rode it out.

As soon as I had enough light to see through the riflescope, I made a quick wind check and set out after the rams. It wasn’t long before I caught movement of the lead ram working his way around the hill below me. Just like they had the previous days before, they were leaving their bedding area high on the ridgeline and heading into the bowl to feed. I quickly got down into a good shooting position where I could just see the tops of the sheep as they worked around the ridge. One by one, they fed by until all 11 rams were now in sight. At just 100 yards away, I was waiting for the biggest ram to turn broadside. Just then, I felt the wind switch to the back of my neck and straight down to the rams. As they quickly caught my scent, they wheeled and started to bail. This gave me just enough time to settle my crosshairs on the old ram’s chest and squeeze off a round. The big ram rocked backwards, stumbled, and was down within seconds.

It was several hours later before Matt made it around to me. I hadn’t touched the ram yet, wanting to share the moment with my friend. After some hugs and high fives, he told me the hilarious story about having to wake up the other hunters out of their tent because the 10 remaining rams had run around the mountain and were hiding out in the cliffs just a couple hundred yards below their camp. He told them that I had already killed the biggest ram but there was another shooter in the group if they hurried. When Matt left them, they were last seen running down the ridgeline in their underwear and boots, chasing after the sheep.

After breaking down the ram to start the long pack back to camp, I texted Kyle to let him know that we had done it and that I owed him for all his time and help. We spent the rest of the night prepping our stuff and the ram for the pack out the next morning. In true Alaskan Chugach fashion, we woke up to fog, wind, and a freezing rain-snow mix to wish us off on our way back to civilization. Just like the long hike in, we waddled our way under heavy packs down the mountain and out the drainage as the mountains and weather punished us one last time. When we finally made it back to my truck, we found a note on the windshield. It was from the others guys congratulating us on beating them to the big ram and letting us know they had killed the other shooter ram in the group.

In the end, we logged just over 40 miles trekking across the mountains. My ram was aged at 12 years old and taped out at 38" long with 14" bases. This pushed him just over the 160" mark, making him my biggest to date. I couldn’t have asked for a better adventure or partner to do it with. RLTW!