By Mike Deming
Some of the very first articles I ever read about sheep hunting were from Jack O’Connor, in the faded pages of old sporting magazines that my great uncle had stacked up in the corner of his den. Jack was getting long in the tooth when most of these articles were written, but the tales of hardcore hunting in the north country grabbed my attention like nothing else. Yes, to the point that everything Jack wrote became like a bible to me. I was fortunate enough to get a copy of one of his books for a Christmas present one year and although my English teacher was sure I was illiterate, I will assure you that I absorbed every word in that book as if it was an instruction manual for life.
The adventures Jack was able to take were mostly set aside for the wealthy, as a trip to that part of the world was an event to even get to the trailhead, let alone get to where you might harvest an animal or two. These areas were rich with game, but travel was by horseback, boats and rafts which could take a man more than a month to pull off in many cases. It was even better if he survived the experience and got his trophies back to his final destination. To me, this was what hunting was all about and as a teenager, I was willing to hang up my school books and become one with the woods of the north. However, my beer budget with a Champagne taste would have to wait until I got a little older and more successful to accomplish.
By the time I was able to partake in my first sheep hunt, I had already done seven years as a U.S. Marine and was starting my second career in the financial market, which would allow me to part with the $6,500 it would take for this experience. My outfitter was far from superior or even qualified, but my physical fitness level from the Marine Corp allowed me to be successful in spite of the hand I was dealt.
Over the next two decades, I was fortunate enough to pursue Dall Sheep on many occasions as both hunter and observer. Some trips were successful, while others were just a great experience in the vast expanse of the north country. I had no idea that I would one day be following in the footsteps of my childhood idol, Jack O’Connor and sharing my experiences in the pages of outdoor publications.
The country hasn’t changed much, but the hunting and the experiences have changed greatly since those early hunters pursued these great white sheep. The invention of the Piper Cub, which is the taxi of this country, shrunk the vast landscape to a manageable size. With a good pilot and some work in the off-season, those remote sheep could now be hunted in a week or two instead of months. This greatly reduced the number of sheep seen on a hunt as well as those who were successful.
With over fifty years of this being the case, you have to make a few good decisions to tip the success meter to your favor. The first and foremost, as with any sheep hunt, is to be in as good of physical condition as you can muster. Regardless of how hard you train, you will always feel like you could of and should have done more once the hunt comes.
The next decision is to pick a rifle and train with it to be an extremely effective killer. The further you can shoot, the greater your chances of success will be. The last big decision is choosing who to hunt with. If you are a nonresident of Alaska or Canada, you have no choice, but to hire an outfitter. Unfortunately, there are more bad ones than good ones out there and since we evaluate outfitters for a living, I can assure you that this is a solid fact.
Since I have experienced both bad and good, I wanted to make sure we picked the right outfitter for our latest trip.
Scott McRae of Alaska Summit Guide Service’s name came up on my radar on more than one occasion. Numerous industry professionals had spent time with him in the field and had good experiences. He was not the cheapest and he wasn’t the most expensive and when I talked with him, he couldn’t care less whether you were royalty or just a blue collared, hard-working guy doing your first sheep hunt. You were going to be booked on a first come, first serve basis and he and his team were going to work their butts off to make sure you were successful. Definitely my kind of guy and when he said that he would be out in Utah in a few weeks and would stop by to meet, I was pretty sure he was the one.
When I met Scott, he was the epitome of a sheep hunter and exactly what I expected. He had a slender build, graying hair and looked like he could walk for days without stopping. His friendly personality, as well as his great history of success on trophy quality sheep, had me convinced to part with the necessary dollars to do a sheep hunt with him the following year.
My hunting companion for this trip was going to be my longtime friend, Jeremy Sage. He is passionate about hunting and had never tagged a sheep before. He is a tremendous marksman, trains religiously and is a great guy to have in camp. However, both Jeremy and I had been thrown curve balls during the year, leading up to our hunt. Jeremy had some major knee surgery and was questioning his ability to give it 100% and I had taken on a workload that limited my training ability. Knowing this is one of the keys to success. I was a bit worried prior to heading to Alaska. However, we were both committed to giving it our all. Knowing that we would have ten days to get it done, as well as one of the best outfitters in the business, we took it in stride.
Scott met us at the airport and was coming off of an already successful hunt. Due to weather, we would be delayed in getting to the field by at least a day. This is a common issue when doing these types of hunts, so make sure you are patient when you do your planning. It actually took us until the third day to get to the area where we would hunt and since you can’t fly and shoot in the same day, we would be at the start of our fourth day prior to even having a chance. Jeremy was a bit concerned, but Scott assured us that there were some great shooters in the valley and we would get our shot over the next few days.
For the next two days, we glassed up and down the valley looking for one of the full curl rams Scott had identified as our target rams. However, the multiple flights in the cub to shuttle all of us had likely pushed them up and over into the next valley. The plan was to get up early the next morning, give one last look in the current valley and then go light and climb up and over the four-thousand-foot mountain and peak into the next valley. Not exactly an ideal situation, but what we were going to have to do to find our sheep.
When I rolled out of bed the next morning, I pinched a nerve in my back. The muscles spazmed severely and I was unable to even stand upright, let alone walk four thousand vertical feet. I assured the group that I would be okay to lay in my tent throughout the day, while getting some hot water in my waterbladder to hopefully loosen up the tight muscles so that I could hunt in the coming days.
From my vantage point, I got to see Scott, Jeremy and the packer climb for the better part of the day to where we had last seen some rams leave our valley. They checked on me via radio to be sure I was still okay and to let me know they would be dropping into the next valley and likely out of radio contact. However, three hours later, the radio crackled with static and I could make out that they had found a band of rams and Jeremy was going to take one. Several minutes later, I heard the crack of the rifle. Then another crack and another. Multiple shots are usually never a good thing, but my doubts were relieved when Scott said, “We got a good one, but we won’t be back until well after dark”.
I heard the guys roll in about 4 am, but was unable to get out of my sleeping bag to even see the ram. It took me nearly an hour to vacate my small tent and get to my feet around eight. A great ram graced our presence and the cape was drying on some nearby brush. I was so happy for Jeremy to be able to take his first ram.
The guys were up by ten and I got to hear the entire story. There were eight rams in the band and according to the sign, they had been living there the majority of the summer and early fall. There wasn’t much cover and Jeremy was going to have to utilize his best shooting skills to pull it off or come back up another day in hopes of them being in a better spot. Jeremy was sure that he could make the shot, but with no trees, long grass or mirage to evaluate wind, the first shot had to be the determining factor. His second shot hit pay dirt and a follow-up shot insured the big ram was down for good and Jeremy’s bucket list item was punched.
With my back not getting any better, I decided to pull the plug on the remainder of the trip. Some horrible weather was in store and I learned long ago to get while the getting is good when you are this far into the north country. I know that I’ll be back with Scott McRae and Alaska Summit Guide Service to pursue these great sheep in the future as the Sportsman’s News Pro Membership Sweepstakes has committed to do one of these hunts with Scott each and every year. So, if you aren’t a member, make sure you get your chance to win this great hunt in the future at www.promembershipsweepstakes.com. If you would like to book your own hunt with Scott McRae, visit him at www.alaskasummitguideservice.com or give him a call at 907-350-9457. He also offers quality hunts for moose, mountain goats and brown bears, as well as combination hunts. He runs a very limited amount of hunts each and every year to maintain high quality as well as a personal hands-on approach to the outfitting business.
When doing a sheep hunt, where you will have everything you own on your back for multiple days, you want products that have been thoroughly tested by yourself. This means to get it way before your hunt and start testing it out. Once you are in the field, a product failure means you will do without. Items like a backpack failure could be a major detriment to your entire trip. A high quality sleeping pad and sleeping bag are essential to feeling refreshed and ready to go for ten days or more in the mountains. I will often carry a slightly heavier pad to ensure that I sleep well and I’m not fighting rocks all night long. I utilize Sitka Gear as my clothing because it has been tried and true through the years. I can honestly say that their rain gear is worth every penny you pay for it and it will take a lot abuse from the elements. When you are sitting on the mountain in a major downpour, you won’t ever regret spending the money. The layering system that Sitka provides also allows you to regulate your temperature very well when you are climbing as well as when you reach the summit. Boots should have at least 100 miles on them before you ever get to your hunting area. You should have utilized them on more than just a treadmill and walks around the block. You should load up a fifty-pound pack and hike the steepest stuff you can find. Make sure they don’t break down and better yet, don’t give you major blisters when hiking like this. Excessive blisters can ruin your hunt and make success impossible. Get a weapon you are extremely proficient with and practice, practice, practice. Hopefully you can practice in extreme uphill and downhill shooting environments because that’s the name of the game in sheep hunting. Learn to shoot off of your pack as well as shooting sticks. Buy shooting sticks that work for you and get used to them. Most importantly, train, train and train. All of these tips and advice are essential to being successful on an extreme mountain hunt and you can never hear it too much.