August 10th is an important date for hunters all across Alaska; it’s the season opener for multiple species to include Dall sheep. However, if you’re age 10-17 you have a special season for Dall sheep from August 1st through the 5th. This short five-day window offers young hunters an incredible opportunity to hunt over-the-counter sheep areas with limited competition. The only conditions are that the hunter must possess a Hunter’s Education Card and harvest counts against their accompanying adult’s sheep tag as well.
Preparing For The Hunt
This spring, Aubrey turned 10 years old. She studied her Hunter’s Education packet hard, practiced shooting, knocked out the lengthy workbook, and passed her practical field day course. Having met all the necessary requirements, we picked an area, poured over maps and trained in the hills. By the end of July, we were as prepared as we could be.
We had planned to leave on the evening of July 30th, as soon as I got home from work. Our departure was nearly derailed when Aubrey’s medication didn’t arrive on schedule. Spending hours on the phone, Mom was able to get the medication overnight delivered to our house via a courier service and the injection went on schedule. Aubrey has had a tough life medically, battling Kawasaki Disease before she was 3 and living with T.R.A.P.S., a rare genetic disease that requires a strict schedule of monthly injections. All the pain and the daily struggle she goes through has made her incredibly strong and determined to conquer life.
When the work whistle blew at 5:00 on Wednesday, I hit the door running. Finally home free, I changed clothes, shoveled food into my face, and kissed my wife and youngest daughter goodbye. One more quick stop to get my Dad who would be accompanying us and we were on the road!
Getting to our first point of entry, we unloaded and strapped our packs on. We had roughly five miles to hike for our first camp which went fast with fresh legs. Throwing the tent up before dark, we boiled water and ate dinner–all the while glassing the surrounding mountains for little white dots.
Day Before The Hunt
In the morning, my Dad confessed he had forgotten the insoles for his boots so he would be hiking back out to the trailhead where my Mom would be waiting for him. While he marched out, Aubrey and I pushed up and over a large ridge to access the valleys on the other side. We marched along searching each draw and hillside, but we spotted no rams. Deflated after a very long and hot day, we hiked back to camp.
First Sheep Spotted
My Dad leaving his insoles at home actually gave us a stroke of luck. On his way back out, he had spotted several rams with two showing potential. We quickly broke camp and moved closer to the rams. After pouring over each ram in the group, we decided none were quite legal. This left us with a dilemma, these were the only sheep I knew of in the area and none were big enough. Do we move locations or keep crawling these mountains in hopes of finding the big one?
I made the call and we decided to move to an area we had hunted in the past that we knew held sheep as well. Waking up at 4:00 AM on opening day, we made the drive to our second location and set off again. Pushing hard we punched deep into the area and again got camp set just as darkness was setting in.
Hunt Day Two
As daylight broke on the second day of the season, we ate breakfast and set off for the day. It was going to be a long one but we had high hopes for what was to come. Hiking several miles along a valley floor and then up and over a steep saddle, we took a short snack break. While my Dad and Aubrey were resting and glassing, I decided to check a bowl which has held rams before. As I hiked away, a curious wolverine decided to come loping in. Circling the saddle and testing the wind, it came inside 75 yards while my Dad and Aubrey watched. Deciding there was nothing interesting to be found, the wolverine went about its way. Not seeing any sheep we left and sidehilled above a cliff band to access a ridge that we could hike and check the valleys below.
Distant Sheep Spotted
After hours of picking our way through boulders and glassing each valley below, we finally found a ram. Unfortunately, he was nowhere near legal. Frustrated, I crammed snow into my water bladder which was getting low enough to be concerned. Glassing far hillsides and ridges, I spotted 15-20 sheep several drainages away. When I showed them to my Dad he was less than impressed. Seriously you couldn’t find any closer?
Coming back across the cliff bands, I reached back to help Aubrey through a sketchy spot. In doing so, I knocked a softball-sized rock loose which careened down the hill and nailed my Dad right in the hip. He played it cool enough but there was a noticeable limp for several miles back to camp.
Day Three, More Hiking
Day three of the season had us packing camp to move several drainages closer to the sheep I had spotted the day prior. We slogged along crossing creeks and marshy areas, up and over several steep ridges and made it to a suitable campsite about 6 miles from the sheep I had spotted. The good news was that the new area held even more sheep than I had first spotted. Before dark, we had found over 20 ewes and lambs but more importantly several rams as well. None of them were quite what we were looking for but it was encouraging to be seeing sheep in those numbers. Another neat thing to see was a black bear who climbed close to 3,000’ of elevation in a matter of minutes, truly incredible.
Hunt Day Four
Day four of the season we picked our way down a long corridor glassing up into each bowl and exploring the ones that held high pockets of water. Nearing the end of the valley with nothing bigger than 7/8th curl rams, I spotted the high plateau I had seen sheep on two days prior. From our elevation, we couldn’t see what was on it though. Turning to my Dad and Aubrey, I said I would never forgive myself if we didn’t get up there. Knowing it meant bushwhacking across the valley and gaining serious elevation, the only one excited about it was Aubrey.
Reaching the top of the plateau, it was empty. Frustrated, Aubrey and I went one direction while my Dad went the opposite to look into each valley on the other side of the plateau. Aubrey and I turned up two ewes but that was it. Very disheartened I turned to Aubrey and explained we had done everything we could and at this point it was in God’s hands.
She was disappointed as well but we rallied back to where we had left my Dad who hadn’t spotted any good rams either. We took a short break for water and snacks. As we ate, I glanced over my left shoulder and noticed a sheep laying on a ridge roughly 1,000 yards away. I hadn’t noticed it before and a quick glance with my binos said it was a ram. Three seconds with my spotting scope said it was a great ram!
Just like that, everything changed. We hastily threw our gear into our packs and dropped elevation to avoid the ram’s line of sight. Scrambling across the hillside we made our way to a vantage point that should have put us 200 yards away, just above the ram. While we were stalking in blind, we missed that the ram had gotten up and walked several hundred yards from where he had been.
Two More Rams
This time when I spotted him, there were two additional rams. Looking through the binoculars, I couldn’t tell which was the biggest ram since they were now 700 yards away. Sneaking back, I grabbed the spotting scope and crawled to where I had been previously. Looking through the spotter there were two great rams and one that wasn’t big enough. Aubrey peered through the spotter and picked out which ram she liked the best. There was no cover between us and the rams. This left us no choice but to wait it out.
Eventually, the rams stood up and began to feed towards us. From 700 yards…to 500…to 300. While within range, this put us at a disadvantage due to the roll in the hill that blocked her barrel from a clear shot. We quickly belly crawled to a better spot and got Aubrey set again.
“OK girl, take your time, settle the crosshairs and wait for him to stop.”
Almost on cue, the ram stopped and Aubrey dropped the hammer. Aubrey’s first sheep was down!
Aubrey’s First Dall Sheep!
After loads of hugs and a few pictures, we caped the ram and deboned it. Loading the meat evenly between my Dad and I, we started down the hill towards camp. It was now close to 9:00 PM which meant we had little time before total darkness. Bushwhacking our way back became extremely frustrating and painfully slow in the fading light.
At midnight I made the call. We were sleeping out with the minimal gear we had on us. Hanging the meat from the brush, I emptied my pack and had Aubrey climb inside. She threw on her puffy and we covered her in the rain fly from a pack. My Dad and I put on whatever clothes we had and laid on either side of Aubrey to help keep her warm.
At 4:00 AM it was finally getting light enough to see better pathways through the brush and we set off again. At 8:30 AM we came crawling into camp starving hungry and absolutely bushed. After a quick meal and airing out the meat, we sprawled our sleeping bags outside and took naps. It was far too hot inside the tent. When noon rolled around we got up and broke camp to start the long trip home. Grinding it out, we hiked until close to 11:00 PM which put us at a good stopping point for the night.
On our final morning, we broke camp and crammed everything into the packs. Setting a steady pace we made the climb up our final ridge. Nearing to the top, we saw three other people crest the ridge–it was my brother-in-law and two of my nephews! They had heard we were making a monster pack out and wanted to come lend a hand! Fresh off of their own hunt, my nephews had both got caribou during the youth draw tag season. They weren’t even fully finished cutting up meat when they dropped everything to help. With lightened loads, we made awesome time back to the trucks.
A Hunt We Won’t Forget
In seven days time, we hiked over 65 miles with 35,000’ of elevation change. Aubrey carried her own pack with her own gear, never complained, never quit, glassed liked crazy, and smashed a giant ram. This amazing hunt with my Dad and my daughter will be one that we talk about for the rest of our lives.