Nine Years In the Making, By Joseph Friesen

I always thought sheep hunting was an out-of-reach dream. Traditionally, hunting in my family was about chasing mule deer, elk, and moose. Sheep were an elusive mountain animal that only elite hunters had the audacity and skills to pursue. I would never have dreamed I’d become a Stone sheep hunter, and especially not with a bow and arrow.

The idea to actually bowhunt Stone sheep started after a series of events in the summer of 2006. I was 16 and my brother Johnny was 20. We wanted to explore the beauty of northern Canada and planned a road trip to the Yukon. There we met a hunting guide who told us about an area in northern British Columbia for hunting Stone sheep. We would pass the area on our drive home and were excited to check it out. I had packed my bow just in case we decided to try hunting moose or elk on our drive home.

1

We had no idea how unprepared we were for this first backcountry mountain hunt. We did not have any lightweight backpacking gear. We ran out of gas for the stove. It poured rain for a portion of the trip which flooded our leaky, old Walmart tent. Despite these hardships, we were thrilled to find sheep.

One afternoon we spotted a group of rams far away and in our excitement decided to hike after them for a closer look — without our tent and sleeping bags. We spent that miserably cold night on the side of the mountain, huddled in our backpacks, hoping that in the morning we’d be able to setup for an ambush. The rams did not move far overnight, and we did manage to stalk within 100 yards of the rams before they spooked. After surviving four more days in the mountains with cold oatmeal breakfasts, cold Chunky Soup dinners, and wet sleeping bags, we made our retreat to the truck. That short glimpse into sheep hunting ignited a dream to one day return. Next time we would be much better prepared for hunting the mountains of northern British Columbia.

It would not be until August 2015 that Johnny and I would retrace our steps back to those very same mountains. During those nine years, both of us gained a significant amount of experience hunting in the backcountry and harvested several Stone sheep rams with our rifles. These experiences taught us that a successful archery Stone sheep hunt was going to be a tough task. This is our story…

3

We arrived at the trailhead at midnight and woke up early to hike into the alpine. After getting up high, it only took a few minutes to spot sheep — a group of eight rams. The biggest ram of the bunch was not mature enough to be considered legal. Throughout the day we spotted several more groups of ewes and lambs. We knew from our last trip that spotting large groups of ewes and lambs was normal in this area and that finding a mature full-curl ram would be the challenge.

The next day began with an early morning hike to our glassing point. We found the usual ewes and lambs, and this time, a different group of 13 rams. Needless to say, we were excited! Even with this find, the biggest ram turned out to be only seven years old and shy of being full-curl. Time was not on our side, so we spent the rest of the day hiking and exploring as much of the mountain as we could. We found groups of ewes and lambs as well as some local mountain goats but alas no mature rams to speak of.

4

The next two days consisted of glassing, moving our tent, and hiking as much as possible. Basically, what you’d expect from a sheep hunt! We tried our best to glass every single basin and valley and continued to find sheep, but no mature rams.

Our fifth day was a beautiful sunny day and our tactic was the same: cover as much ground as possible. We hiked two summits this day and were exhausted. With 45 minutes of daylight left, we were back at our tent and I was looking forward to an early bedtime. Johnny was behind the spotter and found a band of 25 rams across the plateau — these rams needed closer investigation. We literally ran the 2.5 km in 20 minutes, and now had to relocate the group. We slowly peeked over the edge of the plateau. The bulk of them had already vanished, and only four of the rams remained. Nothing legal — and by that time our fading daylight was gone. The hike back to the tent felt like it would never end but gave us time to reminisce about that night in our backpacks chasing rams on our rookie adventure years ago.

5

Despite the physical exhaustion setting in from our intense hunting strategy, that night passed slowly. We woke up knowing exactly where we wanted to hunt that morning and hiked with our camp to where we’d left the rams the night before. Unfortunately when we arrived at our planned destination, two other hunters that had been camped closer to the rams were already set up on top of the band. Talking with these hunters, they informed us it was their last day. They would hunt the rams one last time while we would set up camp beside them and hunt a different area that evening. We found yet another band of seven rams. A beautiful seven-year-old was the biggest ram, but he was just shy of full curl. We fell asleep that night again full of anticipation to hunt the big band of rams in the morning.

We woke to nasty wind and rain; the fog was so thick that visibility was 20 yards at best. The other hunters had left, but this was far from an ideal day to bowhunt one of the most elusive game species. I had plenty of time to think about how hard it was to hunt Stone sheep with my bow. It was starting to feel futile. We were still anxious to leave the tent and hunt, despite the weather, as our time was running out. After lunch the visibility increased slightly, and we went to check out the basin with the rams. While slowly hiking through the basin, we came across a group of six rams. I was able to stalk within 75 yards, but there were no legal rams. We returned to the tent feeling beaten from the relentless wind and rain. The tent stakes had to be reinforced with wire and boulders; we feared our tent would blow away from the extreme wind.

6

By this point, we were into our eighth day and this was our last chance since a long hike awaited us to get back to our truck. The fog had cleared but the brutal wind remained, nonetheless we got back at it. We hiked our circuit around the mountain but the rams seemed to have disappeared and must have been hiding in the timber out of the nasty weather. By 3 pm we were well past our pre-determined deadline to start hiking out. There was one last basin to explore, and then we had to begin our retreat out of the mountains. It was looking like it would be yet another retreat of defeat. As we glassed this last area however, our spirits were quickly lifted when we spotted two mature rams together down in the basin. At this point one thought was, forget about the rams because the chances of being successful with a bow are too slim and it was time to get home. The other option of course was, go for it. I had worked nine years and eight days to get here. I was going for it.

We began the long hike around to the other side of the basin, as there were cliffs all around the top except for one small access point where we could descend down to the rams. We eventually got to where the rams had to be a couple hundred yards below us. The terrain was getting steeper, and as we side-hilled down, rocks began rolling and making a ruckus. It did not take long for these two rams to spook, and in a matter of seconds we were stuck in the open with two rams 200 yards above us. They stared directly at us, knowing something was out of place. It was now 6 pm, and daylight was starting to fade as time was ticking by. The rams settled and bedded down on the open hillside. Johnny was able to sneak out the spotting scope from his pack. At least we would get a chance to see whether the rams were legal or not. He determined one ram was seven years old and probably full curl. The other ram looked to be eight years old and full curl as well. At this point we knew it was worth trying to get closer. I was able to retreat out of sight while Johnny stuck behind the spotter.

My first strategy was to gain elevation and stalk in from the side. This would save a significant amount of time compared to stalking from above. I got to about 80 yards and there was no possible way to get closer; this was not good enough. Time was running out. The only remaining option was to try and stalk from the boulder cliffs above. This meant I had to ascend the basin as fast as possible and then carefully descend again from above the rams.

My lungs were burning as I pushed as fast as I could to the top, where the brutally steep descent through the boulders would begin. There was no way to rush this. One slip or shifting boulder could spook the rams and all the effort would be a waste. I inched my way closer one boulder at a time. With only 30 minutes of light left, I felt like the rams had to be close. I could see where Johnny was hiding and used that as my reference.

A few steps further and I spotted the backside of the first set of horns. It was the seven-year-old. I then found the other ram feeding a few yards to the right. I ranged them at 80 yards. I still had lots of cover to get closer and they seemed more focused on Johnny down below. I made it a few more yards when the eight-year-old began to walk to the left. He was now in the wide open and bedded down facing towards me. He was 67 yards away, but a 45-yard shot with the incline adjustment — the angle compensating rangefinder was a huge help here. The ram had me pinned; crouched in the boulders with nowhere to hide. The minutes seemed to go by slowly but the light was fading fast. This ram was not going to move before it would get too dark. I was glad to have enough time to calm my nerves and mentally rehearse the shot over and over again.

It was now or never. Light was fading. Ever so slowly I pulled an arrow from the quiver and got it nocked. I was expecting the ram to stand and run as soon as I drew. I pulled back as slowly and discreetly as possible. I was at full draw and the ram didn’t twitch a muscle. I settled my pin behind the shoulder. The release went and I heard the distinct thud of a solid hit. The ram made it 30 yards and crumpled. It took all of ten seconds.

10

I could not believe what had just happened. I also couldn’t believe the ram was not tumbling down the mountain towards my brother — this basin was steep! The horns got wedged under the body and held him in place. It was too dark for photos by the time Johnny made it to me but we excavated a small ledge with our boots for the ram to roll onto; now we could admire the majestic Stone. He was a clear full curl and we could now officially age him at nine years old. There is a good chance this ram was just a lamb when we first came to these mountains. Nine years later we carried him out of the mountains to nourish my family. For those of you that know the sheep hunter’s creed, this story will hit home. We managed to get back to our tent at two in the morning. After a short night’s rest, we packed our bags and hiked out, finally successful in our pursuit of an archery Stone sheep ram.

 

Posted by JOMH Editor