Our favorite Alaska hunting guide Tia hunts a Dall ram with D’Arcy Echols custom-built 416 Remington — not exactly everyone’s idea of the perfect sheep rifle. How’d it work out? Tia tells the tale:
Barely daring to breathe, I inched forward, my entire body rigid and pressed to the ground. Attempting to blend into the sparse cover, I searched about for yet another rock to hide behind. If I could just get a few feet closer… Suddenly the smallest ram began acting nervous and looked about him. He knew something was up. Swiveling my head ever so slowly, I searched for the other two rams. The one I had been watching and pursuing for the past two days was nowhere to be seen. All at once the smallest ram locked onto my subtle movement and immediately began racing up the jagged mountain, alerting the others. My heart began to sink.
Sheep hunting had been on my bucket list for years. My first memories include my father returning from some distant northern range, smelling of wood smoke and adventure. I always hoped he would take me along on those hunts, but I couldn’t find a way to convince him I would be a great packer at three-years-old.
Unfortunately, sheep season falls during my busiest sport fish guiding season. I seldom have time to escape during the mid-August silver salmon rush. But when my childhood best friend Luke Tyrrell invited me on a sheep hunt in the Brooks Range, I jumped at the chance. It was my ultimate dream hunt and I couldn’t say no. I had recently received my long anticipated, custom-built, Echols Legend rifle in 416 Remington and was itching to try it. A dream hunt with a dream rifle… perfect pairing.
Some may question my choice of a 416 Remington with a fixed 2.5X Leupold scope for a sheep hunting rifle. If you one of these skeptics, I refer you back to last month’s blog where I explain in detail my rifle choice. If you still find yourself unconvinced, visit the National Collection of Heads and Horns at the Bronx Zoo in New York where on display is the largest sheep ever taken in North America. It was shot with a 404 Jeffery by L.S. Chadwick. My D’Arcy Echols 416 Remington weighs no more than most sheep hunting rifles. It’s impressively accurate and surprisingly flat shooting. Mostly, however, I was just plain excited about having it. You know that new rifle feeling? Gotta scratch the itch.
Luke, owner and operator of Tyrrell’s Trails (tyrrellstrails.com) met me in Fairbanks where we drove up the Elliot Highway and into the Brooks Range. On a small airstrip we loaded his PA-12 (similar to a Super Cub) heavy with hunting supplies and headed out.
The flight allowed ample opportunity to take in the astounding beauty of the country. Serrated peaks melded into steep valleys and drainages. All the red and gold of fall’s final hues were on display. Glacier-fed lakes drained turquoise waters into countless rivers. In a tight drainage with massive peaks rising straight up on either side we found the only place flat enough to land the small bush plane and set up base camp. The following morning we quickly packed the bare essentials for a few nights out and began hiking toward the head of the drainage.
Miles later, we dropped our packs and flung ourselves wearily atop them. As we sat, sweating, eating dry sheep strips with granola bars, and admiring the stunning scenery, I spotted three rams up a side drainage. Out came the Swarovski spotting scope. The rams were more than two miles away, yet it was remarkable what detail could be discerned with the aid of that superior glass. The rams were lined up on a vertical face, one above the other with the largest at the top. He appeared to be older, heavier, and most importantly full curl! Sheep are like bears, though. One should take adequate time to judge and assess before pursuing. As a big game hunting guide I can tell you that bears are perhaps the most challenging animal of Alaskan big game species to judge for trophy quality, so having a good spotting scope is essential. Similarly, sheep take time, study, and good optics to discern a trophy. But time was of the essence. Despite the long hours Arctic summer daylight, our light was fading. We packed up and headed toward those rams.
Hours later we had hundreds of feet of elevation gain and loss to our credit, but we still hadn’t glimpsed our three rams. Turning back and trying again tomorrow seemed the only reasonable course of action.
That night as I unlaced my Kenetrek boots and examined my feet, the words of many sheep hunters echoed in my ears: Blisters. Wet and bloody feet. Those were synonymous with sheep hunting. Except I had none. I was astonished. No rolled ankles. No blisters! Not even a hot spot. And the ankle support and grip of those boots had proven ideal in that steep, gnarly country. I am in awe of the old-timers who used to do sheep hunts in heavy, ill-fitting boots or — like my father — in Converse All-Stars! I wonder how many sheep hunters have turned back or been just miserable from feet torn to shreds by inferior boots. But my last thought for the day was not one of boots, gear, or gun. Before crawling into my sleeping bag I stared up at the northern sky and thought of how lucky I was to be on this hunt.
Rays of morning sun peeked over the mountains. Blowing to cool hot oatmeal and instant coffee, we once again spotted the three rams. We called them The Three Musketeers. They had traveled about five miles from their original location. Now they were at the base of a mountain on a steep plateau of rock at the very end of the ravine we were camped in. It was time to make a move.
Upon reaching the plateau, we made a game plan: first gain elevation. Then climb above the sheep. Then find a spot to shoot from. Clambering over boulders as quietly as possible, we made our way up and above to an outcropping of rocks. I peeked out from behind the largest boulder. Not much over 350 yards directly below us, Athos, Aramis and the largest ram, Porthos, grazed in a lush, green field. It was such a pristine and verdant scene I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a leprechaun dancing about a pot of gold. All three rams meandered, drinking and munching, completely at ease.
Luke looked at me, “With some of my clients I’d say just take the shot from here, but I doubt you want to do that…and with that scope?” It was a question he already knew my answer to. I wanted an up-close-and-personal stalk, not a long distance shooting experience. And so began an arduously slow and painfully long stalk. Back down the mountain, around an exposed face and across a boulder field. All this with swirling winds. Hours later, as we closed a 200-yard gap, I caught site of the smallest ram. “I am going to see just how close I can get” I told Luke.
As I sneaked in, the smallest of the rams detected my movement and was up and running. The other two rams were sure to follow but I had yet to spot them. Then, from behind a large boulder, both appeared, keyed into their pal’s quick departure but still reluctant to leave the area. Half heartedly they followed up the slope. The largest ram stopped, turned broadside, and looked back at me from just 160 yards away. I poked my 416 over the top of a boulder, worked the bolt to chamber a big 416 cartridge, aligned the reticle, and squeezed the trigger. The big sheep crumpled immediately and didn’t move. As my shot echoed through the range Athos and Aramis bolted up the mountain and out of the valley.
There is nothing quite like the feeling from the first Dall sheep you harvest. For me it was an overwhelming gratitude and joy mixed with remorse for ending the life of such a captivating and regal creature. I stood and exhaled the last of the tension. Luke rushed up to give me a quick hug before going back to retrieve the packs we’d dropped. This gave me private time to admire my magnificent ram and take in the beauty of the area.
As we butchered, Luke mentioned how shocked he was by what little meat was blood shot. He said the last hunter had shot a ram with a 270 Winchester and the bloodshot portion was perhaps twice what my 416 had damaged. But Luke also remarked on “What a damn huge hole the 416 made through the ribcage!”
A day and a half later we had hauled the meat and our meager camp back to the airstrip. We celebrated by searing fatty sheep ribs over an open fire while admiring heavy ram horns. The next morning as we flew back over the Brook’s Range I studied the passing landscape. Miles away and in a different ravine two rams zigzagged up a ridge line. As I craned to watch their white bodies become specks and eventually disappear from view, it struck me that what I thought was a bucket list hunt may instead have become an addiction!
Tia’s guiding job seems to have kept her tied to salmon since her one and only sheep hunt, but I suspect she has the itch to sneak in another.