By Steve Johnson
AK, Dall Sheep
Two long years of waiting was finally over and I was headed west on the biggest hunting adventure yet. Three planes later, I found myself at Ultimate Alaskan Adventures’ main camp where we checked gear and prepared my pack for 10 days in the Alaska Range.
Preparation for this hunt started months prior as I collected the proper gear, practiced with my rifle, and prepared my body for the strains of the mountain. Physical preparation was my main focus. Working out five days a week was something I did in my early 20s, but it was no longer something I made much time for. I welcomed the challenge and enjoyed the preparation as I saw my strength and endurance increase. I knew that hiking the mountains with a 10-day supply of gear would be tough and that focused preparation would pay off, so I committed to it every day.
At 150 miles into the Alaskan Range, I was ready for my first Super Cub ride into spike camp. The view from the small planes passing well below the mountaintops isn’t something even a picture can capture. The sheer size of the landscape is something you can only feel when your boots hit the ground. The breathtaking views are ingrained in my mind but are hard to put into words. You just have to go.
At daylight, the plan was to hunt the bowls and canyons that flowed from the glaciers down to the rivers. As we climbed to our first spot to glass, we encountered a big sow grizzly. She was very interested in her new visitors, and it wasn’t long before she was within 100 yards and closing. Even though I had a grizzly tag, we preferred not to shoot a sow. Lucky for us, we were able to persuade her that there were easier meals on the mountain without conflict.
As luck would have it, we found a ram bedded down low in the first bowl we glassed. Super excited to see my first sheep, we set up the spotting scope to get a closer look. It wasn’t long before we decided he was short of the full curl requirements in Alaska to be legal. We continued hiking and glassing all the way back to the glacier without another encounter.
After we decided there weren’t any legal sheep in the canyon, we hiked back to the river and up to the next canyon. There, we set up camp for the evening and did some glassing on the river. There certainly aren’t animals behind every bush out there, but if you look closely, you’ll see caribou, moose, and others moving about the thick brush near the river. The days that followed were similar, hiking into the canyons and looking in every crevice for white specks hiding among the rocks. It turned out, sheep weren’t hanging out on every mountain or in every bowl.
On day five, we found ourselves in a new area and quickly found sheep. We found one lonely old ram at the top of the mountain that was particularly interesting. After some time behind the spotting scope, we decided this was the sheep we needed to go after, estimating he was at least 9 or 10 years old. As we watched him feed along the mountaintop from the river below, it was clear even to me that he was king of the mountain. His dirty face and heavy horns set him apart from every other sheep we’d seen. As we watched him that afternoon, we estimated that he was 2,500 vertical feet above us and getting to him and back off the mountain safely that afternoon would have been a major challenge. Not wanting to pack an entire sheep off the steep mountain in the dark, we elected to wait until the morning to begin the stalk. We watched him feed along the top of the ridge, even going over to the top of the mountain at one point, and were hopeful we’d be able to find him quickly in the morning.
To say it was a long night would be an understatement, but daylight was finally here! We had our usual oatmeal breakfast and prepared our packs for the climb. We left anything unnecessary at our tent to cut down on the weight of our packs in hopes of a successful stalk. As sunlight hit the mountainside, there was no sign of the old ram and a new vantage point was required. We hiked into the unknown canyon and knew we had to take our time, looking carefully as he could be anywhere at this point. As we crested the first knob, we spotted him across the creek on the opposite side of the canyon working his way out toward the face of the river. We quickly dropped below the hill and climbed back down to the creek and across the other side.
By the time we got high enough to see him again, he was working out of the canyon toward the side facing the river just below the bluffed out rocks. Hiking up through chest-high brush quietly proved to be a challenge, but being over 1,500 yards away, he never noticed us. He began to feed around in what looked like rocks, but we assumed there were minerals and water in the cracked rock formations. This allowed us to continue closing the gap and stalk closer. As we moved up the mountain, the brush line came to an end and we ran out of cover between the old ram and us. A quick laser with the rangefinder and I knew we were within my comfort zone for a shot. Months prior, I had flown out to Wyoming and spent four days at the Gunwerks long-range shooting school where we shot and practiced out to 1,300 yards. When I saw we were 623 yards from the sheep with no wind to speak of and a perfect place to lay out prone, I had no doubt I could make the shot count.
The old ram was very content to feed along that rock knob, which gave us plenty of time to set up for the shot and ensure we had everything in place. The guide spent the last few minutes looking him over to make certain he was legal and finally gave me the go ahead for the shot. As I settled in, I focused on the shot but couldn’t help but think back on all the preparation and effort it took to get to this point. I squeezed the trigger on the 28 Nosler, and the sound reported the bullet had found its mark. I quickly followed up with a second shot with the same report. The old ram stumbled a little and then gently rolled down the hill. When we finally made our way to him, I was thoroughly impressed with his massive body size. He was much bigger than I had thought he would be. When they aged him, he ended up being 12 years old and the oldest ram the guide had ever guided a hunter to.