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The Sheep and the Knife That Took 50 Years to Meet

July 2020
Story by Heath Payne
State: Alaska
Species: Sheep - Dall

March 6, 2018, I was sitting at my desk at work when I got a notification on my cell phone saying I had a Facebook message from a buddy. The message said that I had just won a sheep hunt. Having no clue, I asked what he was talking about. He replied, “Huntin’ Fool, you were just drawn on the Dall sheep giveaway hunt to Alaska.” I then remembered that they had called me about some upcoming drawings. They needed my choices on what hunts I wanted my entries to go towards. After verifying and watching the replay of the live drawing on Facebook, I started getting excited and told my 10-year-old the news. The hunt was for August 2019 with Alaska Dall Sheep Guides, which seemed forever, but it also gave me plenty of time to prepare.

As the hunt neared, I remembered a pack-in Coues deer hunt I had done with my dad in a place he called Baker Springs, Arizona when I was just 12 years old. We packed in seven miles, drank out of streams, ate old military rations, and had a tarp to sleep under if it rained. We had none of the fancy gear that thankfully companies like KUIU make today. No rangefinder, no Swarovski spotting scope, no lightweight gun, but I didn’t know the difference, I was just excited to go. It by far was the hardest but most memorable hunting trip I ever did with my dad. I’m 45 now, and my dad was around 42 when we did that hunt. I can’t remember what I ate for dinner yesterday, but I can remember everything about that trip. I can still see the firelight bouncing off the boulder we camped next to. I can remember fool’s gold shining in the river as we got our water out of it, wondering if it could be real gold. I remember falling as I hurried down to my kill with excitement and banging Dad’s favorite gun on a boulder. I still own that gun and the scope, and it still has my mark in it where it slammed against that rock. It’s like it was yesterday in my memory for some reason. I shot my first and only Coues deer on that trip and knew I had to include my son on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure despite his age.

I contacted the outfitter and asked if I could bring my son. He asked about his experience level and how old he would be since we were still over a year out from the trip. I could tell he wasn’t too keen on the idea when I told him he would be 11, and he tried to talk me out of it. He said they had never had someone his age in camp, etc. I assured him he could do it, and for the most part, I told him he was coming and negotiated a price to bring him along.

Fast forward to August 2019. As we are checking our gear list, I grabbed my skinning knife and saw my dad’s knife staring back at me with his initials and the date 4-12-69 inscribed in it. That was exactly 50 years ago. My parents were married January 6, 1969. They got married just before he left for Vietnam, and she sent him this knife in Vietnam for his birthday. It’s been sharpened so many times that it’s only half its original size. It was used to clean a lynx on the Yukon River that first year, two elk in New Mexico that Big Daddy and Uncle Mike killed in the early 70s, my first deer when I was 10 in south Texas, and on that Coues deer when I was 12. It was lost by yours truly in Francitas, Texas on the bank of the Carancahua River in the 80s and recovered five years later in the mud. It was lost in Colorado in 2003 after my brother, Blair, and I decided to use it as a screwdriver to remove an air cleaner on our four-wheeler that stranded us miles deep in a canyon. Boy was he pissed at that one. I went back for it with a metal detector two years later and was able to find it. These are just a few of its hundreds of adventures. If this knife could tell stories. It had gutted, skinned, and caped hundreds of animals, but never a Dall sheep. This was dad’s dream hunt that never came to be. He was taken from us in 2013 by a swarm of killer bees while doing yard work. I knew it had to go with us, and I thought this was the perfect time to pass it down to my son. We added the knife to his gear and headed off to Alaska.

We landed in Anchorage and waited for our shuttle to a smaller private airport that would take us on our next leg of the trip. We went from that plane to one that held eight of us to the Super Cub, which only held the pilot and one passenger. We individually flew that last stretch into what would be our base camp for the next 10 days. Once there, we met up with our guides who had been on the ground for 10 days scouting and had around 50 rams already spotted within a 10-mile hike.

The day before the season opened, we set out over the river and up the mountain so we could be up top at opening light. As daylight appeared from the tiny opening in our tent, we saw that we were in the clouds and couldn’t see more than a couple hundred feet. Anxious to hunt, we couldn’t do a thing but wait. They said this could go on for days in this part of Alaska, but luckily, the clouds broke at around 11 a.m. and we made a play on a group of eight rams which had two possible shooters. We trekked a couple miles and got within 1,000 yards of them. We picked out a shooter, but the only way to stay out of sight of the group of rams was to backtrack and come in above them. As we were making our way around, we came across two new rams in a different location. Now we had eight rams to our right and two rams to our left, both in positions that made it impossible to make a stalk on one without the others seeing us. We changed gears and went for the two on the left. We slowly made our way up a shale mountain, attempting to be quiet and not cause a rockslide. We got to where we thought we should be able to see them but nothing. They were nowhere to be seen, and now we were second guessing this decision.

We sat for a bit, trying to come up with a new plan, when one of them popped up on a boulder peak. He was not the one we wanted, but we now knew he must be near. I ranged that ram at 340 yards and set my gun up accordingly for when the second ram decided to come out of hiding. Not two minutes later he appeared. We settled in, and I took the shot. The ram took a couple steps uphill and then started rolling and rolling and rolling. As I watched him roll, I prayed he didn’t break a horn. He rolled a good 300 or 400 feet and went out of view. We gathered our things and made our way to a knoll from which we should be able to see him. As we got to the knoll, we looked over and could see a good 1,000 feet down. There was no ram to be found. As we made our way to the bottom of the mountain, we surprisingly found the ram undamaged, horns still intact. I used my rangefinder to measure where he was originally standing, which was now 500 yards uphill. After congratulations and a bunch of pictures, I remembered the knife. We pulled out Big Daddy’s knife and finally used it to cape its first Dall sheep exactly 50 years later.

Thank you to Huntin’ Fool and the guides and packers who made all this possible. Sheep hunting is no joke. It takes a ton of work and coordination to get everyone and everything you need to such remote areas. Thank you to my dad, Big Daddy, for taking me hunting as a kid and teaching me the things I now pass on to my son, Tripp. We will never forget our adventures, and Tripp will carry your knife and its stories proudly.