One Epic Hunt

One Epic Hunt

Story and photos by Butch Whiting 

Originally published in Eastmans' Hunting Journal 

This sheep hunt started like many others: a remote possibility with potential for greatness. 

Any legal ram is a trophy, but my heart was set on a true adventure with giant full-curl potential. Statistics suggested that only a few giant rams are taken every couple years outside of “draw areas.”

Sheep hunting is often associated with big money. Individuals pay insane amounts for a tag or even save their entire life for a guided hunt. One of the luxuries about living in Alaska is the FREE, over-the-counter Dall’s sheep tags!  I wanted to hunt on public land with an over-the-counter tag, just like other resident sheep hunters.

The Area Selection

For months I poured over topos, talked with biologists and pilots, and conferred with a consortium of successful sheep hunters and guides. I came away with a notepad full of unlikely leads. Sheep hunters are tight-lipped when it comes to the honey holes that big rams frequent. It wasn’t until I decided on a partner for this hunt that my intel grew stronger and my plan started to materialize. When I asked one of my best friends, Larry Bartlett, who is also an Alaska Adventure Planner, if he would be interested in going after sheep, he just smiled and asked when we were leaving.

After some research, Larry said he’d narrowed our options and had some leads on a mountain drainage with the potential of taking a nice ram, but the distance to this area would make the trip somewhat arduous.

It was subtle, but Larry’s definition of “arduous” was concerning. When he says an adventure is difficult, he really means that most mortals would quit or potentially harm themselves during the pursuit. I was in.

Gather Information

Larry mentioned that a few of his friends had hunted this area and they all reported shooting their rams around ten miles from the drop off. However, they also recalled a sheep that sported what looked like 4-wheeler tires on its head, a massive ram roughly four to six miles further up the drainage. None of these hunters felt this ram was accessible due to the extremely rugged terrain. A pilot had also mentioned that he’d seen a monster ram nearly 20 miles into this area that would likely live and die without being hunted due to its proximity to inaccessible terrain. A smart old ram of mythical proportion…could these reports be true?

Confirm the Intel

A month before the trip, Larry and I met with the old bush pilot that mentioned the big ram. He pulled out his map and drew his calloused, leathery finger across the page, pushed his glasses up his nose and circled the spot where he’d seen the bruiser. He said, “Boys, if I were 30 years younger we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But if you want 'Epic', you’ll have to work for him.”

A bush plane takes off into the Alaskan wilderness in search of a massive, yet elusive, Dall sheep. 

The last tip came from an unexpected source, a university-funded geologist. He had been working all summer studying shale formations and collecting rock and soil samples across the Brooks Range, from Canada to the Dalton Highway. I only smiled as he described a huge ram he’d seen across the river channel, roughly 18 miles from our intended drop off.

I don’t take stock in word of mouth, especially when sheep hunting is discussed, but Larry and I had enough unrelated sources of fresh information to feel comfortable with our selected area. The final 72 hours before stepping out was spent preparing for our 10-day, 40 mile round-trip pursuit for Epic.

Stay Focused on Target

Sheep season started on August 10. We flew in on the 7th and landed on the only tundra strip in the valley, some 12+ miles from sheep country. We quickly set up camp to cache our salt for capes and some comfort items. 

On day one, we made our way up the U-shaped river valley to access our area. For the first six miles we traversed tundra and numerous braids of an ancient glacial tributary. We passed bachelor herds of trophy bull caribou along the ridgelines, tempting us to sway from our goal. By day two, we had seen a dozen or so shooter caribou and a big grizzly, but we stayed focused on a big ram.

Dismayed, we had hiked fourteen miles and still hadn’t located a ram. As we glassed the surroundings, we noticed a plane flying a straight-line course suddenly turn for a mountain about six miles away. He spent ten minutes or so circling this massive chunk of granite and shale, and then continued on. A few hours later, another plane flying from a different direction executed the same maneuver. Larry and I both thought these pilots were scouting and there was undoubtedly a ram on this large chunk of terrain we called “Vortex Mountain.” When a third plane repeated the actions of the first two, we were confident.

After confirming intel and narrowing the search for the massive ram, the hunters prepare to fulfill their Epic hunt. 

Game Day

We started our approach at two in the morning. We thought it would take us at least two hours to make the walk, most of which was straight up and down. In position at 4:30 a.m., we immediately located two rams two miles away. After glassing, it was obvious that they were not the same rams we had seen the night before; these were a couple of quarter curl dinks. They were slowly working toward us, and after an hour, were right underneath us. We had a conundrum - we couldn’t spook them because we assumed that the ram we wanted might be coming into view at any moment. They kept us pinned down for almost five hours as they meandered by our hide site. They knew we were there, but they didn’t know what we were.

After being motionless for what seemed like forever, we knew we had to make something happen…it was time to gamble. We could only hope the ram we were after wouldn’t be alarmed by these two dinks as they spooked.

As we crested the ridge, anticipation ran high. We were optimistic as we made our way over the mountain pass and around the scree slopes for another two miles. We eased down the mountain, peeking in the draws and ravines for the ram we had spotted the night before. After scouring the area with no rams spotted, we decided to eat a snack. As I rested on my pack and looked at the river about 4,500 feet below, I spotted three rams. I scrambled to get the spotting scope out of my pack, and just as it was positioned, they were gone. The terrain had negated my ability to take a hard look at them. Convinced they were legal rams, we decided to make an assault to reach them before they crested the crags on their course.

Scree Run from Hell

A few hundred yards of rocky hillside became a half-mile of glacial moraine with unstable rocks the size of beach balls. Every 100 yards or so, we would kick a rock the size of a suitcase loose, sending them careening down the hill and with every bounce, kick a few more loose. Some of these incidents were nothing short of landslides. I thought that we were making so much noise, if these sheep were on the mountain, there was no way they couldn’t hear the mining operation that Larry and I were conducting as we scrambled along!

At one point, I grabbed a suitcase-sized rock to stabilize myself with my uphill hand. It kicked loose and I was the only thing between it and the 1,000-foot plunge that it had been waiting its whole existence for! I lunged forward as it lurched, diving as the rock literally came over the top of me, grinding a souvenir scratch into the barrel of my Weatherby Ultralight. As the rock bounced in fifty-foot intervals down the mountain, I thought to myself that I had not done anything this treacherous since I was in Tora Bora, Afghanistan in 2002. I second-guessed our decision to make a move on these unidentified sheep when I looked over to see Larry pressing forward. Now committed, I warily pressed on.

As we completed the crazy scree run, I anticipated glassing the rams at the top of the knob. Instead, when I reached Larry, he had already peeked over.

As I ditched my pack, Larry asked, “How did that treat your feet?”

As he was filming me, and I was thinking I need to maintain a camera presence, I really wanted to say, “That was the most treacherous side hill of my life!”

I then asked Larry, “You see them?”

“Yes, right there right below us! You need to hurry, we don’t have much time!”

“Shooters?” I asked?

“Yes.” he replied.

After a scree-run from hell, the Dall sheep Butch and Larry had been searching for were finally in view. Butch, pictured here, wearing Kryptek Cadog

Moment of Truth

I crawled up to the edge of this sheer cliff with rifle in hand and immediately saw the rams 100 yards below. Because of a near 60-degree shot angle, Larry sat on my legs so I could get the barrel of the rifle far enough over to shoot, and as a bonus, not go for a head dive down the mountain. 

As I drew down, we could tell the two were the rams we had seen the night before. The third ram dwarfed them both. Forget ATV tires, he looked like he had two tundra tires from a bush plane on his head - no doubt, the ram of a lifetime. The girth of his body was double the other rams, and through the scope I saw the telltale Roman nose as he butted the other rams around. His mass was so ridiculous that we knew we had found Ol’ Moss Head from the scouting reports.

I centered up the shot, shooting down through the back of this giant like I was firing from a treestand. I squeezed the trigger, and the ram looked like it had been hit by lightning. Instantly down, the ram slid and bounced down the mountain like a roll of nickels down a stairwell. We had just killed a giant.

Ram of a Lifetime

It took us twenty-five minutes just to reach the ram, but it wasn’t until I put my hands around Epic’s magnificent horns that I saw the rumors were a reality. He was full curl with jaw-dropping mass. The horns were broken off each side at the third and fourth growth rings, and still we counted eight obvious growth cycles. We did it!

Success! Butch and his ram of a lifetime. 

Return to Reality

Our hunt had ended and the real work began. The adventure was not over. 21 miles from the drop-off, we took an alternate route back to base camp with well over 100 pounds on our backs. Even though this route was shorter in miles, it proved to have some of the most challenging terrain either of us had experienced. All things considered, every aspect of this hunt was epic.

The local biologist estimated that 'Epic' had broomed 6-10” off each side and was likely 12 to 13 years old. Larry and I worked hard to make this adventure a reality, and we were richly rewarded for our efforts. 

Months later, I recall this hunt as flashes of pain, brutal torture, discouragement, anticipation and sweet reward. These memories are what fuel my desire to hunt.

The arduous hunt resulted in success and a ram, aptly named "Epic."

Posted in Stories from the Hunt