One Last Ram for Grandpa
By Dan McLeod, Hunter Mason McLeod
YUK, Dall Sheep
We lay ghost-still, belly down in a nest of rough shale boulders capping a high ridge. The stunted tree line lay thousands of feet below us, and a brassy, smoke-stained sun traced a lazy arc through the hard blue sky above. The sun’s relentless warmth had persuaded us to remove several layers of clothing during the course of our crawl through the boulder field. Now, at the end of our stalk, we found ourselves pinned down under the vigilant glare of a young half-curl ram.
The hunter was my son, Mason, an easy-hearted, broad-shouldered young man who waited with a patience that belied his youth. Hunting had been his passion and pursuit since he could first walk. At only 16, he already had dozens of big game hunts and many beautiful trophies behind him. The unending days in the field had distilled in him a patience that was long, quiet, and still – a patience it would take to kill this old ram.
As the sun fell slowly through the cloudless sky, the half-curl ram began to feel less threatened. Finally tiring of his vigil, he turned his gaze out over the valley and bedded down, facing away. Swiftly and silently, Mason and his guide wriggled ahead of me. Finding a vantage point at the lip of the ridge, the young men discovered that the shallow basin below them held five more rams, and amongst these five, the 12-year-old battle-scarred warrior that had become the object of their hunt. Although he could not see or smell his pursuers, he felt their presence. This feeling of danger drove him into motion. Suddenly, the entire group was on the move!
The guide’s gaze locked with Mason’s, and his eyes burned with an unspoken message. Sensing the urgency, Mason inhaled deeply to steady his pulse. His jaw muscles corded as he steadied both his breathing and his rest, found the moving ram in his scope, and began to take up the slack in his trigger.
This adventure had begun with a call to Ross Elliot of Ruby Range Outfitters, an outfit I had guided for in the mid-90s. I knew this area carried exceptional numbers and quality of Dall sheep, and I knew this would be the perfect place to share a traditional horseback hunt with my son.
The first day of our hunt dawned sunny and clear and found us down at the float docks of the lake. Mason and I met our pilot, a long-time Whitehorse local, and were shortly loaded and taking our place in the queue of planes taxiing north. With a bone-rattling roar, the Cessna 185 clawed free of the water and hurled us skyward into a crystal clear Yukon morning.
Landing at the main camp, we met our outfitter, Ross Elliot, and our guide, Aiden McKibben. The base camp at Gladstone will always hold a special place in my heart as this was where I met my lovely wife, Rena, our camp cook over 20 years ago. Gladstone also was the kick off point for the first sheep hunt I ever guided.
2018 had been a difficult year for our family as my dad (Mason’s grandpa) had been taken from us by cancer only two months before the hunt. My dad had instilled a love of sheep hunting in both my boys and me. Days before we left, my mother brought me Dad’s spotting scope, fleshing knife, and steel. Mason immediately stated, “Grandma, I’ll be carrying that spotting scope with me for this hunt.” Although only 16, he understood the significance of bringing Grandpa’s spotting scope along, and it made us feel as though Grandpa was with us on the hunt, taking one last ride up to the sheep mountains that he loved so much.
The morning after we landed, we were well mounted on sturdy, surefooted horses and put the lake behind us. We made our spike camp in a remote and untouched mountain bowl. We could glass for sheep right from our camp and immediately sought a vantage point down the valley to scout the area.
The following day found us summiting to over 6,000 feet. With our newfound elevation, we could see today what we had not been able to see before, the rams were on the very tops of the mountains. We found 24 rams in bands of various sizes at all points of the compass around us.
Later that day, while glassing a ridge directly across from us, I happened to catch some movement on the skyline of the next mountain back. Grandpa’s spotting scope revealed this to be a band of eight rams. Although miles away, we could see through the scope that two of the eight had real trophy potential. We couldn’t judge the rams accurately over that distance, but we all felt pulled to pursue this band.
Two and a half days, a few more horseback rides, and another spike camp later, we topped out on the highest mountain around. We found rams all around us in the high country. Moving into a new basin to glass and not wanting to skyline ourselves any longer than necessary, we moved quickly through a saddle into the top of the basin.
In one of the worst kinds of sheep hunting luck that I have ever experienced, a band of 12 rams on the ridgeline trail walked right into us as we traversed the middle of the saddle. All we could do was drop to the ground in full view as the rams walked up on us. They immediately collapsed ranks into a defensive posture only 100 yards away. We could clearly see two heavy trophy rams in the band – one broomed on his left side only, and the other broomed on both sides.
The rams stayed huddled together in a defensive ball. We had no ethical shot on either trophy ram as there were constantly other rams either in front of or behind them. The group milled across the saddle and out of sight in a teeming white ball, then lined out and crossed the valley below us. The band split into two groups, with one group bedding in sight just over a mile away and the second group crossing a finger and moving out of sight into a basin beyond the ridge.
Carefully glassing each group to determine where the bigger rams had gone, we moved south along the knife-like spine of the ridge until we reached a point directly above the bedded group of rams. From 390 yards, we scoped the biggest ram, a double broomed ram 10 or 11 years old. Mason elected to pass, leaving the rams bedded and undisturbed.
Continuing south around a peak, we moved at a snail’s pace, glassing every step of the way. Suddenly, Aiden caught a glimpse of white. More rams were below us and further south along the mountain. We moved back to allow the natural curve of the slope to hide us, circled even further south, and hit the deck, belly crawling in through a field of rugged, lichen-covered shale. Mason and Aiden inched painfully ahead of me until they ran out of cover and were pinned down by the young half-curl ram.
As the big old ram began to move, Mason instinctively knew that this was the same ram he had seen through the spotting scope over two days before. His breath slowing, nerves as steady as the rock he lay in, Mason made allowance for the movement of the ram, took the slack out of the trigger, and gently squeezed off his shot. The metallic crack of the .270 WSM shattered the warm stillness of the alpine afternoon. The band of rams broke into a dead run with the old warrior beginning to lag behind, the evidence of Mason’s shot blooming bright and red upon his shoulder. Covering no more than 100 yards, the mighty ram expired. The remaining seven rams balled up in confusion, unsure of themselves without their fallen leader.
As we sat together quietly, I gave thanks to our Creator for this pristine alpine sheep country and for Mason’s incredible and beautiful old ram. Reverent and still, we took a moment to think about Grandpa, his love of sheep hunting, and all he had taught us about hunting and life.
We gathered our packs, and Mason led us down to his beautiful 12-year-old, 38" trophy. Standing humbled at the side of the fallen old ram, we were filled with the unique satisfaction of an old school horseback sheep hunt, reverence for the mountains and the rams, and happiness that we had found one last ram for Grandpa.
We would like to thank Ross Elliot and Ruby Range Outfitters for an outstanding hunt.