Experience Sheep Hunting

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Get ready to take on one of the most incredible hunting experiences

When I sit back and analyze all of my hunting adventures, I have little hesitation in surmising that hunting wild sheep has to be right at the top of my list. They just happen to live in some of the most splendid environs on this planet and the sight of a mature ram on the precipice of a rocky outcropping, high above the valley floor, is nothing short of awe inspiring. Then, when you add to that equation the physical demands just to put yourself in a position for a shot at that ram, how much better can it get!


It’s all about location

In North America, hunting wild sheep is essentially a western experience. Western Canada is blessed with some of the finest sheep hunting in the world. Without intending to generate a taxonomical debate, there are two species of wild sheep in Canada: thinhorn sheep, of which the subspecies Dall’s and Stone sheep belong; and bighorn sheep, to which the subspecies Rocky Mountain and California bighorn sheep belong. As far as distribution, Alberta has only Rocky Mountain bighorn, while British Columbia has all four – both bighorns, Stone and Dall’s. The Yukon has both Dall’s and Stone and the Northwest Territories has only Dall’s. The real challenge is finding them. Aside from the easy, but costly, approach of hiring an outfitter, there is the do-it-yourself approach, which entails gleaning as much information as you can on sheep distribution from biologists, fellow sheep hunters, trappers and, heck, I have even talked to prospectors. I also studied every hunt record I could find, which was followed by spending hours analyzing maps and satellite images to at least begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. From that point on, however, it all boils down to the school of hard knocks. And I can assure you, as a self-taught sheep hunter, I had my fair share. My first few sheep hunts were all but a bust, but they laid the foundation for many follow up successful hunts. So don’t give up if that elusive ram still haunts your dreams.


Getting there

Getting in and out of prime sheep range is no small feat. You can walk, or should I say climb, ride a horse or fly and then climb into sheep country. Or you can, as I have often done, drive a robust vehicle to the end of some road and then walk, at times up to 15 miles from road’s end. This is where a hunter who either hires an outfitter or packer with a string of horses, or who has their own pack string, is way ahead of those of us who have to rely on shanks mare to get us there and back. A sturdy mountain horse can eliminate miles of lung and limb-busting hiking and, occasionally, can even get the hunter to within striking distance of a ram. I have used every technique and without question, while they can be pricy, I have always enjoyed the pack string experience the most. Not only are you able to pack in a better camp, including better food, but also you are a lot more mobile when there.

My second choice is to fly into a remote lake within prime sheep country and then hike from there. It at least allows one to establish a decent base camp and can often eliminate miles of preliminary hiking. Just remember that once you get there, you also have to get back out and, if you were lucky enough to take a fine ram, the meat and horns also need to ride out on your back. On one such occasion, after a 12-mile hike out of the mountains, I weighed my pack – crammed full of all but priceless boned-out sheep meat, the horns, the cape and my sparse camp gear, it collectively weighed in at 128 back-bending pounds, so plan accordingly. It took me the better part of a week to recover.


Physical preparation

Clearly one of the most important aspects of a successful sheep hunt, but one seldom given the consideration it deserves, is that of physical preparedness. Sheep hunting will often stretch the endurance of even a well-conditioned hunter, let alone, dare I say, a couch potato. I once read that after his or her first sheep hunt, hunters will either never hunt sheep again or will become addicted. A lot of that, in my opinion, relates to the conditioning of the hunter, as well as his or her gear. If you can’t climb the mountains sheep find home, or if you develop blisters in the first hour, the rest of the hunt will be sheer misery. Prior to every sheep hunt I would fall into a routine that always included, along with other conditioning standards, jogging miles every day and climbing every flight of stairs I could find. Additionally, I would load up my pack with 40 pounds of gear and hit the trail. It paid off, as I was able to get in and out of a lot of sheep country over the years. Oh yes, there were still times when I was sure that my lungs were about to collapse or that my legs were about to liquefy into a pool of jelly. But I made it and, in the process, I collected unsurpassed memories for a lifetime. If you are planning a sheep hunt, even if booked with an outfitter, my advice is to make the effort to get in shape. You won’t regret it.


Making it happen

Rams usually like to hang out as bachelor groups in lofty, out-of-the-way reaches within a given mountain range. They will usually hole up together in these areas for much of the summer and fall, but hunters, predators or even weather can move them out prematurely. So, the trick is to be the first hunter in the area. I always like to arrive a few days prior to the season and spend those days glassing every nearby mountain until I have a group of rams spotted for opening morning. Plan on spending the majority of your hunt simply glassing – it may take days of eye-straining effort before a band of rams miraculously appears, as if out of nowhere. It’s an awesome sight. At times, due to either extremely hot weather or a premature snowfall, sheep will move down below the tree line, so don’t hesitate to glass these areas as well. Once located, the rest is up to your stalking ability and, wherever possible, work your way to above the ram or rams, even if it means circling around the mountain. On a number of occasions I have even belly crawled up to within 25 yards or less of bedded rams. But fail to recall for even a moment that sheep have terrific eyesight and unquestionably they will make you pay.

Last, sheep are not particularly hard to kill so a mega magnum rifle is not required. Here I like a flat-shooting, lightweight mountain rifle with a barrel length of no more than 22 inches. A .270 WSM that weighs in at less than seven pounds when topped with a compact scope is about ideal. Then, make your shot count and you will have memories and a trophy of a lifetime.


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What to take

The equipment that is available for today’s sheep hunter is just marvelous. Many companies now have an array of equipment that is solely designed for the alpine hunter, from tents to optics, so I’m going to get right to my recommended list of absolutes for the do-it-yourself hunt. The list, while detailed, preferably should not be deviated from. Additionally, and while not every item on the list will end up in your pack, the goal is to keep the total weight of your pack down to 35 pounds or less, a weight that most hunters can handle.

  • Quality mountain rifle
  • Lightweight, well-fitting pack with a good hip strap
  • Quality pair of lightweight binoculars
  • Compact spotting scope (while not a must, it can save you countless miles of hiking)
  • Handheld GPS
  • Quality, lightweight one or two-person tent
  • Quality, lightweight sleeping bag and a short, compactable foamy
  • Sufficient dehydrated food for three meals beyond your intended stay, as the weather can be most unpredictable at these elevations (include high energy bars or trail mix as a supplement)
  • High-quality boots that can handle the mountainous terrain and ensure that they are well broken in
  • Compact first aid kit
  • Compact stove and cook set with extra fuel and waterproof matches
  • Layered clothing that can handle ever-changing weather, including a hat, lightweight rain gear and extra socks
  • Lightweight flashlight, a folding knife, extra ammunition, a compact camera and licenses
  • Biodegradable liquid soap – great for not only washing your dishes, but also for cleaning up a cape
  • Lightweight fly and small diametre nylon rope
  • Water bottle
  • Small container or bag of salt, sufficient for one application to a cape
  • Personal locator device – it could save your life

You may even wish to add a compact range finder to that list, which on occasion can certainly put your mind at ease as to a go or no-go shot.

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