Easy Sheep Country?


I’m not exactly certain why, but I’ve been wanting one more Dall sheep for some time. Perhaps more explainable is that I wanted a ram from Alaska’s far-north Brooks Range. The Brooks lie across northern Alaska like a giant barrier, dividing Arctic from interior—but it’s good sheep country, also fairly low and somewhat gentle.

Of course, this is a relative thing. Die-hard mountain hunters will have us believe that all hunts for sheep and goats are cliffhangers. This is simply not true, and if you look at the body shape and age of many sheep hunters (yours truly included) you must know it isn’t true. It depends a whole lot not just on altitude and steepness, but also access, hunting methodology, local game management and density of game. Some mountain ranges are higher and steeper than others. Many have roads that get you at least partway up; a few, all the way up. Pure foot hunts are usually more difficult than horseback hunts, which are usually more difficult than hunts that start from vehicles.

Blind luck is also a major and somewhat random factor. Despite all else, I would submit that any hunt concluded successfully on the first or second day wasn’t all that tough. And the corollary: Any hunt that goes a week or ten days is demanding and, if a mountain hunt, probably tough enough. But it’s not really a level playing field (no pun intended). Europe’s only wild sheep, the mouflon, is naturally more a creature of forest than mountain. Her six ibexes and numerous (disputed) races of chamois are generally mountain dwellers, but thanks to Europe’s intensive game management, it’s common for a permit to be limited to three days—and most hunts are successful.

Asia is a grab-bag. The several urial sheep are naturally creatures of foothills rather than the highest peaks. They can be hard to find, but at worst hunting them is a hike, not a climb. Argalis vary widely in difficulty and snow sheep are among the toughest. The Chinese blue sheep, hunted up to 18,000 feet, should have been tough—but sturdy mountain ponies were used to gain elevation and, once there, herds of blue sheep dotted the high ridges like cockroaches in a cheap hotel. Hunting blue sheep in Nepal is a different story, one of the more difficult Asian mountain hunts: At least two days uphill hiking are required to get into the game reserve and, once there, density of sheep is much lower.

Boddington and guide Jordan Wallace with a fine Dall ram — nice and heavy, broomed on one side, taken in the latter half of a backpack hunt in Alaska’s Brooks Range.

As is usually the case, Asia’s numerous wild goats are generally more difficult than her wild sheep, but in my experience, game density usually makes hunts relatively short and routinely successful. There are exceptions. The turs are always tough, in part because the Caucasus Mountains are so damn steep—but luck is a factor: I took my three turs in just three hunts. All required serious climbing, but none were long enough to be cliffhangers. One of my most difficult Asian mountain hunts so far was the Anatolian chamois in Turkey. The country wasn’t so bad, but there just weren’t many of them!

Our North American mountain hunting is a different deal, in part because of the way we manage our wildlife. Which often means maximum opportunity. If you draw (or purchase) a limited tag then success is high, and in my experience, such hunts aren’t all that tough. But it depends on the mountain range, hunting pressure and one more factor I haven’t mentioned — weather!

Weather can be a major factor in any mountain hunt! Over the years I’ve waited out fog, rain and worse, but I’d never actually lost a hunt to bad weather, which means I was due. Like I said, for somewhat unknown reasons I wanted a Dall sheep from the Brooks Range. Although lower and gentler than much sheep country, the Brooks is far enough north that weather is always a concern. In 2015, Donna and I tried a backpack sheep hunt in the central Brooks and we got our comeuppance. On the first day, we had glorious weather and a band of rams in view, but we’d flown in that morning, so that was a no-hunt day. It was also the last time we saw the sun! We climbed to where the sheep were—several times—but every time we got up there the clouds came down, along with rain, sleet, hail and horizontal snow.

In August 2017 I tried again, this time with my old friend Dave Leonard. As such things go, the Brooks Range really is easy sheep country — not so high and certainly not all that steep—but it’s also country where backpack hunting is the only option. I can assure you it was much easier some years back than at 60-something years old! A lot depends on your luck. Dave flew us in to base camp, a mining camp in a river valley. The next day we set up spike camp in sheep country after just a ten-hour climb. From there, late that evening, we had rams in sight.

They were still a long way uphill, but that’s where luck comes in and it can be good or bad. With good luck, we could have moved on them early the next morning and accomplished our mission. Regardless of how much sweat expended, it would have been an easy sheep hunt. With bad luck, which we had, we got pinned down too far to shoot. This time weather wasn’t a major factor. We had plenty of rain, but out of a high ceiling so not much fog. Even so, those rams disappeared utterly, which made a potentially easy sheep hunt a lot more difficult. And then, a few days later, just before dark, they reappeared on a low ridge less than a mile from camp.

Getting around and above them was a whole different story, a long, tough day—but throughout that day guide Jordan Wallace and I both thought we had them. And we did, ending the hunt with a close, easy shot in the early afternoon. The mountains are clearly getting taller and steeper! I’m reasonably certain this wasn’t my last mountain hunt, but even in what really is relatively easy sheep country it may well have been my last backpack sheep hunt!

 

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