Story and photos by: Cody Voermans
Last September, I sat down with my 97-year-old grandfather to share a good whiskey and the story of my recent Dall Sheep hunt in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Pouring two glasses of single malt, I started the conversation describing every detail of northern sheep country. From willow-choked creek bottoms and wandering streams to knife edged ridgelines, I left nothing out of the description.
Being a lifelong mountain hunter and craving one more adventure, Grandpa clung to each of my words as if his boots were as dirty as my own. When I handed him a photo of my ram, our glasses were empty, but the story was just getting started. He looked at the photo, leaned back in his chair and said, “Kid, that’s hell for purdy.” Roughly translating his cowboy vernacular, the phrase meant “Kid, that’s a beautiful sheep.” I smiled at how often both of us use that descriptive phrase and reaching for the whiskey bottle, I said, “You’re hell for right, Grandpa, let’s have another drink and I’ll tell you about that ram.”
Jack O’Connor once wrote, “After his first exposure, a man is either a sheep hunter or he isn’t. He either falls under the spell of sheep hunting and sheep country or he won’t be caught dead on another sheep mountain.” Tavis (Tav) Molnar, the owner of Arctic Red River Outfitters (ARRO), and I have been good friends for almost 30 years. In that time, Tav has become keenly aware that I’m hopelessly under the spell of mountain sheep. I’m sure it was no surprise to Tav - when he called in late July offering me a last-minute cancellation sheep hunt - I quickly accepted and packed my gear for a trip to the Mackenzie Mountains.
Two short weeks later and still in shock at how fast the logistics of this hunt came together, I found myself deep in the Mackenzies with two guides, Kent Robertson and Ben Stourac. As far as guides go, there couldn’t be two finer people to lead a sheep hunt. Kent, a no-nonsense work horse with the sheep-spotting eyes of an eagle and Ben, a soft-spoken unassuming character with a rare mix of generosity and western humor.
During the first three days of the hunt, we hiked 30 miles of prime sheep country and looked over 26 rams spaced out in small groups on upper slopes of the mountains. Most were young rams, but three were exceptional trophies I considered taking. At ARRO, the goal is to harvest rams 10-years old or older and while one of those rams was a beautiful full curl, he was slightly too young. The other two rams were past 10 years old but each was broomed off well back of full curl and not the long-horned ram I hoped to find on this hunt. I decided to pass them all.
Late on the fourth day, we found ourselves on a high ridge glassing a yet un-hunted valley stretched out to the west. Below us, a braided stream snaked its way along the valley floor. On either side, a row of peaks, void of vegetation in the upper half, chewed up the skyline like a giant sawblade. This was ram country and the view fueled our anticipation for locating an exceptional ram.
Unfortunately, that afternoon was the end of Ben’s time on my hunt. He was slated to guide a new sheep hunter in the coming days and by early evening, Tav had landed his Super Cub on a nearby airstrip to transfer Ben back to base camp. I was disappointed to see Ben leave. He had a knack for keeping conversations light-hearted and I enjoyed hunting with him more than he knows.
After Tav and Ben flew out, there wasn’t much remaining daylight. Kent and I hiked to a low ridge north of the airstrip and made our camp for the night. Just before dark, Kent boiled water for a Mountain House meal and I sat down to glass nearby ridgelines for sheep. Almost immediately, I spotted a lone ram feeding halfway up the mountain adjacent to the airstrip and I quickly got Kent’s attention. I was looking a long way, maybe two miles with binoculars, but I had the impression this ram could be something special.
Any sheep hunter, uncertain of a ram’s trophy quality, need only watch the demeanor of his guide to make an accurate assessment. In this case, Kent, who was seated and calmly boiling water for our meal, leisurely set up his spotting scope for a look. The moment his scope came into focus, Kent’s relaxed posture tightened. He sat up on his knees and cupped his right hand alongside the scope’s eyepiece to block peripheral light and steady the view. Seeing that, I knew Kent’s opinion of this sheep even before he said, “Cody, I think you found your ram.”
When it was my turn behind the scope, the ram was quartering slightly away from my view. At that angle, I could see his deep curl extend down well below his jaw line and then sweep back up over his nose, rolling over with perfect tips in an Argali shape. “My God Kent,” I said. “That ram’s a giant.”
Unfortunately, Kent and I knew a stalk wasn’t possible in the evening’s failing light. We were resigned to watch the ram feed until dark and then pray he would stay put through the night. I can’t say for sure, but I believe any sheep hunter, no matter their religious beliefs, would ask a higher power for help in keeping a ram like this one on the mountain until morning. I know I did.
The next morning, I was up at the first hint of color on the eastern horizon. Sunrise was still hours away and Kent was still snoring soundly in his tent, but from my anxious perspective, that color was enough to start looking for the ram.
In the low light, it was difficult to identify white shapes on the mountain. I strained my eyes, studying each one through the spotting scope, but could only identify what I termed, “Rock Rams” with my effort. It wasn’t until an hour later when the sun finally lit up the mid-slope of the mountain, that I found him. I’m not sure if it was by luck or the prayers I made the night before, but the ram was feeding on a ridgeline not far from where we left him. In the morning sun, his horns looked even more impressive than they had the previous evening and I knew this was the ram I wanted.
Spotting the ram, I must have made a stir and woke Kent. A short time later, he strolled over to my tent carrying two cups of instant cappuccino, hot off his cook stove. His boots were unlaced and he was in no hurry. “Ah hell, Kent,” I said. “I guess that coffee means we’re not going sheep hunting right now.” Kent smiled, handing me a cup and responded, “No man. Let’s relax and wait for him to bed before we head up there.” Accepting the coffee, I held back my impatience and agreed a successful stalk would likely depend on a stationary sheep.
Kent and I enjoyed three more cups of coffee while watching the ram that morning. We guessed at where he might eventually bed and analyzed every possible stalking route to those locations. Around 10:00am, Kent made a prediction I’ll never forget. He said, “Cody, it’s about time for the ram to bed. I bet he heads for that bench under the cliffs to his right.” Ten minutes later, that’s exactly what the ram did. When the ram reached the bench, Kent said, “Ok, now he’s going to kick the ground, turn around in a circle and lay down.” Almost on cue, the ram did exactly that. Kent Robertson deserves an honorary PhD in the study of Dall Sheep.
The moment the ram bedded, our relaxed, coffee-drinking demeanor shifted to intense focus. The business part of this hunt had started and neither of us wasted any time squaring our gear for a stalk. From where we stood, the best route would take us two miles along a series of low ridges and then up a steep talus slope to a cliff band directly across from the ram. Over that distance, we would be out of view of the sheep and could only hope he would stay bedded long enough for us to get there.
Stopping only to fill our water bottles at a creek, it took us two hours of steady climbing to reach the cliffs. Kent and I dropped our packs at the cliff base and I loaded my rifle, half-expecting, half-hoping the ram to be where we left him. From there, Kent and I crawled the last ten yards over the ridgeline.
I was in front of Kent and had just eased over the ridgeline when I spotted the ram, still bedded on the bench. I was in full view of the sheep, but the Altitude gear from Kryptek broke-up my outline perfectly, and the ram was completely unaware of our presence. Surprisingly, two younger rams we hadn’t seen from our camp were also nearby. A four-year-old was feeding about 50 yards below the bench and another, perhaps a five-year-old, was bedded 20 yards right of the big ram.
Easing forward, I found a prone shooting position alongside a small bush and ranged the ram at 400 yards. Kent, a few feet behind me, began counting age rings on the ram’s horns through the spotting scope. After a few minutes, the younger ram below sauntered up the slope to the right, causing the big ram to turn his head. Kent excitedly whispered, “Oh, look at those tips Cody, my God. I can’t see well, but I can count nine rings on him.” Hoping the tenth age ring was hidden by hair at the base of the ram’s horn, I whispered, “So, he’s ten then?” In a clear and almost urgent response, Kent whispered, “Yep, green light Cody, green light.”
Hearing that, I quickly dialed the scope to 400 yards and I settled my cheek on the stock. Unfortunately, the ram was bedded, quartering toward us, on a five-foot-wide bench with a vertical rock wall at his back. Just a few feet in front of him, an extremely steep talus slope extended down 300 yards before dropping into a vertical gorge near the bottom of the canyon. A poor shot could send the ram cascading down into the gorge, leaving only a ball of meat and hair in the bottom. I decided the best chance to anchor the ram on the bench was to wait for him to stand and then place the first round on his spine, dropping him quickly. At that distance, the margin for error was extremely small, but my PROOF Research rifle consistently holds two-inch groups at 400 yards, and I was confident I could make the shot.
I eased the safety forward just as the ram stood for a mid-afternoon stretch and slowly turned to his left. When he was broadside, I centered the crosshair on the ram’s spine, high in the crease behind the shoulder, and heard Kent say, “Go.” Calmly, I squeezed the trigger until recoil broke my view. I heard the bullet hiss across the canyon and return a familiar thump as it found the mark. Instantly, the ram crumpled over all four feet, square in the middle of the narrow bench. Before I could reload, Kent said, “Good shot, Cody. That’s exactly what we needed.”
It took Kent and I about half an hour to maneuver around the basin, following the cliff line to the downed ram. At one point, Kent stopped to arrange gear in his pack, allowing me to move ahead and reach the ram first. Standing over the sheep, I admired him from every angle. I was in awe not only of the size of his horns, but also the unusual circumstances that led me to that moment. Just a few weeks prior, I had no thought of sheep hunting, yet there I was, standing over a ram as large as any I had ever dreamed of taking. All I could think was, “That’s hell for purdy.”
Kryptek Altitude Recommended Gear List:
- Tora Pant
- Bora Softshell Jacket
- Arma 1/2 Zip
- Takur Raingear
- Ghar Insulated Jacket
- Takur Gaiters