"Ram!" It kicks you in the heart when you hear it hissed by your guide, or better yet, when you whisper it to yourself on a solo hunt.
by Dwight Van Brunt | Jun 25, 2020 | BIG GAME, HUNTING, Slider
“Ram!” It kicks you in the heart when you hear it hissed by your guide, or better yet, when you whisper it to yourself on a solo hunt.
They surely do have a hold me, those monarchs with the curling horns. Always have, at least since I can remember.
Over the years, they’ve taunted me to climb where I ought not have climbed in mostly failed efforts to lash one on a pack frame and bring it down the mountain so it could be mine forever. Sheep fever. I’ve got it bad, loving and resenting this grand affliction in equal parts.
Sheep hunting is a game best played by young men of means. Somehow I’ve managed to do it enough that I’m able to set aside the slightest doubt that, with exception of the great bears, no other hunt in North America is an equal.
It would be easy to give much of the credit to the overwhelming majesty of the places they live, at least as much as to the barbaric structure of an old ram’s horns and what they do with them. Ram. Unequaled as a moniker, it kicks you square in the heart when you hear it hissed by a guide, or even better, whisper it to yourself after days, weeks, or possibly years of searching alone. That single moment is worth all the worn-out boots, the squandered college tuitions and the blown-out knees that will nag on you for the rest of your life.
I was lucky on my very first sheep hunt, outfitting from Jim Harrower’s lodge on Alaska’s Stoney River. Initially grounded by rain, we waited for the better part of a week for the sky to clear, and when it finally did, we flew to a drop point. That first hunting day was pure torture –14 hours of following a guide through devil’s club and dense alder thickets. Too tired to pitch the tent, we used it as a tarp for the sleeping bags, hustled dinner and spent the short night trying to recover.
At first light, we sized things up.
“That rock,” said the guide while pointing toward a speck at the top of the mountain, “we’ll climb for that rock. Jim said an old ram hung out in a bowl up there all summer.”
Up we went, then I took a rest over that rock and shot my first ram, a beautiful Dall sheep. We rushed through the dressing and boning, hoping to get off the cliffs before dark. Too tired for words, we split and picked our way down. I heard the guide fall and thought the worst after following the trail of his mangled gear and shattered rifle down a chute. He’d stopped just short of a drop that would have been the end, but he banged up his Sako rifle, a gift from his father.
“I’ll heal up,” he snarled, “but my rifle looks terminal. I think it hung up and broke my fall.”
After crawling down the face for another half-mile, we reached a little creek and spent the night among the more comfortable rocks. We made the bottom at dusk the following evening and staggered to the waiting airplane.
“You guys made that look easy,” Harrower remarked. Neither of us was amused.
The next two expeditions for Dall’s sheep were unsuccessful, but tagging a black wolf and a pair of big Arctic caribou beat back most of the sting. Between those hunts my son was drawn for a Missouri Breaks bighorn. Guided by Keith and Nikki Atcheson, Ross picked a great ram from a bachelor group of seven. I still don’t know which of us was happiest.
Almost by accident, a chance for Stone’s turned up. The Yukon’s Pelly River country nearly beat me to death, but we kept at it until my tag was tied to the most beautiful ram I’ve ever seen.
Then came an Arizona tag for a desert bighorn, certainly the surprise of my life considering how very few are issued. Hunting north of Tucson with the Mattausch brothers, we spent nearly two weeks taking inventory until finding the old man I really wanted. Sharp winds knuckleballed four shots wide of the mark, but the fifth went home. Twelve years old and with one horn nearly cracked through, that battered ram is a trophy for the ages.
Right now, I’m waiting out the results of the Montana draw. Along with thousands of other hunters shooting for the moon, I’ve cast my lot for the Breaks. If it happens, I’ll call Keith and Nikki. Ross will surely join us, and come September 15, we’ll await sunrise together on the backside of the slope where we bedded him, the grandest ram of all. Just before I push my rifle over my pack and squeeze, I’ll thank him and his kind for calling me to the mountains.
They surely do have a hold on me, those things with the curling horns.