We were taking a break in the warm sun. On a small, grassy knob overlooking the lush valleys of Chugach State Park in Alaska I saw countless varieties of vegetation and numerous shades of green. And thousands of feet below, a silver ribbon of glacier water rushed toward the river a mile away. I thought life couldn’t get any better than that moment. We were on our way to find a huge Dall ram that was most likely behind us and over a couple of ridges.
My outfitter, Rod Schuh, had hunted the ram for several years, but the ram always managed to evade him. Estimated to be over 40 inches last year, the ram had to be well into the 40-inch class this year. Rod had tried hunting the ram from below, but could never get to him and had to settle for second best. So, he wanted to test a different approach and take me over the top-behind the ram. With Rod, my guide Charlie and his new packer Darren we set out to take on the ram. But there was a problem: the face of the ridge adjoining the “hog’s” bowl was a steep vertical incline. During our break we glassed a gently sloping ridge across the valley. I scanned the ridge, but at two miles it was difficult to see any detail, especially with the heat waves.
Rod suddenly switched to his spotting scope, “Charlie, I think I see a nice ram over there. Take a look.”
Charlie broke out his massive 60-power scope and heavy-duty tri-pod. These guys were “real” sheep hunters. They spared nothing when it came to equipment.
“He’s got a little flair, and no brooming that I can see,” Rod noted.
“I like the drop and he seems to carry his mass around pretty good. I think he’s over 40 inches, maybe 41,” Charlie replied.
“These heat waves are driving me nuts. They’ll go away when the sun starts to drop, so let’s sit here for a couple hours,” Rod suggested.
Waiting was okay with me. We all had our boots off to give our feet and ankles their required regular maintenance. After walking and climbing for over six miles that day, I needed a rest anyway. The cool, gentle wind coming off the glaciers, the tall grass swaying in the breeze and the puffy clouds drifting by were so relaxing that I began to think about taking a nap. But there was some serious hunting to do.
Later that day Rod defined our perplexing situation, “We can try to get over the two ridges, or we can go after the ram across the valley.”
Do we go for the ram that would likely be high in the record books, or do we go for the ram that might just make the books? I’d been on two unsuccessful Dall sheep hunts in the past five years. While I wanted to go home with a prize trophy, I was tired of losing out completely. I suggested we talk over my options.
“If we can get over the second ridge, what if the sheep aren’t there? What if we spook ‘em? What if we can’t get to ‘em? I’m leaning toward going after this one. If we can’t get to him, we can always go after the ‘hog.’ We still have eight days left to hunt. Rod, how about you go up and check out the second ridge while we keep glassing this ram?”
It was useless for all four of us to make the climb without knowing if we’d continue. Rod made the trek, and returning, he said it would be iffy. And if it was “iffy” for Rod, it was probably a no-go for me.
“Let’s go for the known quantity.”
I’d made my decision. The ram was about two miles away, but we couldn’t go straight across the open valley without spooking him. We’d have to back track. We put in another two miles that day so we’d have a head start the next morning-when the real hunt started.
I first met Rod at an outdoor sports show where I grilled him about how we’d hunt if I drew a permit in the Chugach Range. I didn’t need or want a third, unsuccessful hunt! My expectations for a guided hunt are reasonable: honest effort, palatable food, serviceable gear, respect for the animal and the environment and honesty in every aspect of the experience. Of the dozens of hunts I’ve been on, very few have met all my expectations. But as my hunt with Rod progressed, my expectations were not only being met, but exceeded. We used horses for the first 12 miles of winding trail that led to our hunt area. We crossed a stream that would have been a real challenge on foot. And at the end of the trail, we began a five-mile trek up a gently sloping valley. This ain’t so bad, I thought. But the rock faces and glaciers were probably smirking at me.
On the first day we’d spotted three small rams and one small grizzly. The second day, we crossed a glacier with our ice picks and scoped out three legal rams. But Rod thought they were too young to consider. While we had dinner, the three rams we’d scoped out came over the ridge we’d crossed about a half-mile back and checked us out. Then they bedded down for the night. I got the feeling they wanted us to leave their territory.
The next morning greeted us with brilliant sunshine that burned off the frost and reflected off the glistening horns of the three rams. But that day we would concentrate on hunting a set of three bowls. Rod was sure there were about 15 rams in the area because he’d seen them when scouting with his plane a few weeks earlier. But we only spotted three billy goats-one with horns in the 9- to 10-inch class, and two in the 8-inch class. Rod and Charlie traversed as many of the surrounding ridges as possible, while Darren and I glassed the center bowl.
Even though we didn’t see any sheep, Rod suggested we glass the area for a few more hours. There was no way to see every nook and cranny from any position on the surrounding ridges. But after an hour I was fidgety, and suggested we walk down the ridge that separated two of the bowls-one with a glacier and talus slide, the other with some vegetation, a small lake and two streams.
“Are you sure? It’s a good mile and 1,000 feet down,” Rod asked.
“We can’t hunt ‘em, if we can’t find ‘em.”
We stopped at a cliff that ended the ridge, and spotted six rams. Within 10 minutes the count jumped to nine, three of which were legal. Rod estimated one at 38 inches. We glassed them for a few hours and four more appeared. The total band 13 strong. But they bunched up and nudging each other with their horns. With the sun glistening off them, it was a breathtaking sight. Then the rain came.
“We need to get out of here, or the rocks will get slippery and we’ll be stuck here for the night,” Rod said.
Stalking The Ram
On day five, we started the stalk. First we had to climb to a pass about 1500 feet up. We were within 100 feet of the top, when Rod and Charlie, who were ahead of Darren and I, shouted “Watch your step by that small vertical face you’re getting to. It’s a little nasty.”
That was an understatement. I had to make it across eight feet of unstable rubble and loose dirt hardened from the nightly frost. It was the only passage in front of the vertical face, and the slope was a good 75 degrees. I studied that eight feet for a long time, and questioned my sanity. Then I chose my foot plants, and started shimmying along the rock face. Being nose-to-rock, I had to feel for hand holds. About half way, my footing began to give way. With most of my weight supported by my hand holds, I used my air-bob soled boot to slowly dig out another foot hold. Stay calm, be patient, be sure, I repeated to myself. Both Darren and I made it around the face.
Then we dropped over the ridge into the bowl, picked a place for camp, stripped our packs to the minimum and started up the mountain on a sheep trail. We had a good 2½-mile walk and 2,500-foot climb to get close to the ram. When we were within 1,000 yards of where we’d seen the ram yesterday, Rob peeked over a knob.
“There’s six or eight rams down there, and two hogs! Two of them are over 40 inches!”
The rams had a perfect spot, with a 360-degree view, ample feed and small, moss-covered plateau for bedding down. After a half hour of glassing, Rod and Charlie picked out the biggest ram. Now the serious, quiet stalking began. We dropped down over a ledge, tip-toed across the mountain face and edged up to the next knob. We were still too far and moved on to the next knob, but were still too far. At 450 yards away and 300 feet above the rams, we were as close as we could get.
I thought I could make the shot with my custom rifle chambered in the 7mm Lazzeroni Maverick. At 3,150 fps muzzle velocity and ½ MOA accuracy, the 150-grain bullet should do the job. The “cheat sheet” taped to my stock indicated a bullet drop of 12 inches. Using Charlie’s jacket for a rest, I settled the crosshairs on the ram’s spine above his front shoulder and began squeezing the trigger. He was walking away from us, down the center of the ridge. When the rifle returned to its rest after the recoil, I expected to see the ram crumpled in a pile. Instead, he was high-tailing it out of there, and my dream vanished before my eyes!
We watched him run about 500 yards on the right side of the ridge, then stop and begin feeding. Later, the two other biggest rams joined him. When they went out of sight over the ridge to the left side, Rod commanded us to “rock and roll.” We took a dead run down the right edge of the wide ridge. When we got near to where Charlie thought they might be, he peeked over a knob the size of a car, ducked down and whispered, “On your bellies!”
I snaked up to him and peered over the knob. “Which one is he?”
“The one on the left, facing right-300 yards. Watch your muzzle, there’s rocks in front of you.”
I cranked my scope up to 6 power, found a gap in the rocks and settled the cross hairs on his lower chest. With my rifle zeroed at 300 yards, and a clear shot down the gentle slope, I wouldn’t miss this time! I took time to let my heart rate drop and my breathing slow. I took three deep breaths before I began a slow, methodical squeeze. I tried to time my shot between heartbeats. At the muzzle blast I actually got up on my knees in order to see the ram drop. I had heard the typical “whoomp” of a bullet finding its mark, but I also heard the bullet whine away off to my left. The conflicting information confused me, but the scene didn’t. The three rams trotted up the slope to our level and disappeared around the last knob between a creek and us.