By Austin Atkinson, December 2015
It’s day five of your hunt and the taste of last night’s Mountain House still lingers in your mouth. Your guide’s long strides have turned to short belly-crawl movements, working slowly toward the cliff’s edge. Your guide signals for you to move up alongside him and chamber a round. This is the moment you have waited years for – safety on, scope caps off, and you’re almost ready to skyline yourself and see the sheep you have been pursuing all day. As you review in your mind the steps to squeezing off a steady shot, your guide makes one last judgement call on the ram through his spotting scope. “He’s not quite legal.” he whispers, hesitation in his voice. How could this be? He looked like a big ram from below. Questions flood your mind, and doubt rushes in like a freight train. It must be the wrong ram. How many more climbs do I have in me? I can’t go back down; I have to get a ram.
The hunt scenario I have just described happens more often than not on Dall sheep hunts. Perhaps it contributes to the “sheep fever” fellow hunters are all too familiar with. Each year, I am privileged to speak with dozens of hunters on the phone and in person in regards to planning their sheep hunts. For most of them, a Dall sheep hunt represents their first quest at taking a species of wild sheep. For some, they already know what they are looking for and know how to ask the right questions. I want to share a few of these questions with you, should you embark on the exciting task of planning a guided Dall sheep hunt in an over-the-counter general area.
In Alaska, the process of locating, stalking, and taking a legal sheep does not happen by chance or by pure luck. Efforts by all parties must come together to produce success. I recommend asking some or all of the following questions to prospective outfitters.
HOW MANY LEGAL RAMS CAN I EXPECT TO SEE ON A HUNT?
Some of the mountain ranges in northern Alaska have experienced significant die-offs due to extreme winter weather, and hunters’ success rates have been devastated over the last two seasons. Don’t feel strange in asking an outfitter and his references how many rams their hunters typically see on a hunt.
HOW MANY LEGAL RAMS SHOULD I HAVE A CHANCE TO STALK ON THE HUNT?
Keep in mind that your outfitter will most likely have other clients in the field the same time as you. Having multiple rams to stalk would be great, but understand that there may only be one ram they will put you in position to hunt.
WILL I HAVE AIRPLANE ACCESSIBILITY DURING THE HUNT?
Some Dall sheep outfitters serve as transporters as well and have the ability to move you to a different area once your hunt has started. Make sure to understand the accessibility and movement options regarding your hunt. If you start your hunt in an area with virtually no legal rams, it may not be physically possible to hike to a new area. It is also wise to know of your airplane options in case of emergency. In addition, ask questions regarding air charter costs and extra flights for gear, which may not be included in the hunt package.
HOW FAR IS IT FROM THE DROP-OFF LOCATION TO THE SHEEP AREA?
Super Cub airplanes allow hunters to access the backcountry of Alaska, but your hunt may still include a grueling trek to your hunting camp. Horses may be an option with some outfitters but are not as common as you might think. Surprises are no fun in the middle of nowhere, so ask questions and be prepared.
EXCLUSIVE GUIDE AREA OR STATE LAND?
Federal lands in Alaska are managed under a concession system, meaning only those outfitters who have been awarded guiding rights can operate in the area. This can mean significantly less hunting pressure, but it does not always mean more sheep. Alaska resident hunters or those guided by second-degree kindred family members can hunt sheep on federal land, but unauthorized guides cannot. On state land, however, there is no limit to the number of guides allowed to operate nor the number of clients they can have each season.
WHAT IS THE AVERAGE SIZE/AGE OF RAMS TAKEN IN YOUR AREA?
I recommend looking at all of the rams taken by hunters in the past 3-5 years to get an accurate feel for the type of rams you will be seeing on your hunt. To be legal on general hunts in Alaska, a ram must be broomed on both horns, have at least eight annuli rings, or have at least one horn that is full-curl by regulation specifics. Tight curl rams that are easy to identify as “full-curl” tend to get shot early, so make sure to understand the other legal minimums to be prepared to analyze prospective rams. If you take a sub-legal ram, you will be held responsible, in addition to your guide. I recommend educating yourself so you will be prepared to judge rams to the best of your ability. Don’t get wrapped up in only dreaming about a 40" ram. Age, mass, and flare will contribute more to the trophy quality of your ram.
WHAT ABOUT RESIDENT HUNTERS?
Resident hunting pressure is a real topic to keep in mind when hunting in Alaska. If you are fortunate enough to live in that blessed state, you can hunt Dall sheep every year unguided, in most units. With the rising amount of air taxi transporters operating in Alaska, there is a chance that they could be dropping off hunters in your guide’s area unannounced.
WILL I BE ABLE TO HUNT OPENING DAY?
Keep in mind that almost all general sheep seasons in Alaska open August 10th and run until mid-September. If you elect for a combo hunt or a hunt later in the season, there may have been hunters in the same area before you, guided hunters and/or local residents. More than half of the rams taken in Alaska each year are harvested during the first week of the season. However, late hunts may have their advantages as weather and pre-rut activity will move rams into new areas.
Starting with the 2015 season, Alaska regulation now prohibits the use of aircraft to spot or locate Dall sheep from the air after the season has started. Aircraft can only be used to move hunters, guides, and their gear after the season has opened.
Finally, the question I get asked more often than any other is, “If I see a legal ram on opening day, do I take it or pass?” If you can’t afford to go home without a ram, shoot! If your budget and schedule allow you to hunt for a ram that well exceeds the bar, even if it takes multiple guided hunts, then you could pass. We all know that we should hunt each day in Alaska as if it is the last day of the hunt, as the weather can make it so. Sheep hunters everywhere will agree that there is more to the hunt than just the harvest, but with the current demand for Dall sheep and high prices for outfitted hunts, make up your mind before you go on if you will pass or shoot.