My obsession with sheep hunting started four years ago when I went on my first Stone sheep hunt in the Cassiar Mountains of British Columbia. I was mesmerized by the remote alpine country that these monarchs inhabited and loved the physical and mental challenges of sheep hunting.
I quickly learned that an important question you must ask yourself when pursuing sheep is, “are you actually tough enough?” That first year my hunting partner got stomach flu in the alpine and couldn’t hunt for several days. We waited it out until he recovered enough to hike, only to have another hunter shoot the ram we were after.
The following year I returned to the same mountain with my best man two weeks after my wedding. Once there, we sat in a small backpacking tent for four days watching movies on his cell phone while we got beaten with heavy rainfall and fog. When the weather finally cleared, we spotted a legal ram on another mountain. Unfortunately, during the descent while trying to traverse to the other mountain, my buddy injured his leg and couldn’t continue. The next day he limped the 18 kilometers back to our pickup spot while popping Advil like they were Skittles.
After the second failed sheep hunt, I decided that the only person who would hinder me from hunting Stones would be myself and arranged a solo hunt. I contacted Seymour and Tanner Unruh at Steamboat Mountain Outfitters – they provide horse packing services for BC resident hunters — to arrange the transportation into northeastern British Columbia sheep country. The year prior, I had an awesome hunting experience using Steamboat’s service while hunting elk and I knew we would get into some country rich with wildlife.
In early August Tanner and I hit the trail. It was a two-day ride into basecamp and we made excellent time. With just the two of us, it was a well-oiled operation. Tanner would wrangle the horses in the morning, I would cook breakfast, and we would pack the horses together.
The base camp location was in a valley surrounded by two mountains, with a lot of bush in between. We arrived at camp in the afternoon and I decided to take out the spotter, go for a walk, and see what I could see. The second I trained the spotter on the ridge of one of the mountains in view, I saw two rams! Even while looking through the spotter from a few kilometers away, I could see one had nice curl and flare upward that indicated a potential full curl. I returned to camp very excited and decided that this would be the spot I’d make a play for the next morning.
I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and got my pack together. Tanner made his usual hearty breakfast and coffee. It was before sunrise and excitement was in the air. I ate breakfast, loaded the pack, and was off at 5:00 as the sun rose and light hit the valley.
During the walk in, I realized that this valley had a lot of ground that I would have to cover. I tried my best to follow game trails, but the dew-soaked bush drenched my rain gear. As I walked, I stopped and glassed a large brown animal 200 yards up the trail. It turned out to be a very nice 50-inch bull moose in full velvet right on the trail.
I jumped to another trail and carried on up the valley to where I could attempt to get onto a ridge and eventually hit the alpine. As I continued, I spooked another small moose that scurried away upon my approach. It was hard not to notice that this spot was clearly a game-rich area that would probably be excellent hunting later in the fall.
I continued up the valley, climbed a rock bank, and made it onto another plateau of bush but still hadn’t made it to my desired ridge. For three more hours, I bush-bashed and eventually came to an alpine ridge where I could start hunting.
Careful not to skyline myself, I walked the alpine and glassed as I went. I set up with the spotting scope where I could see most of the mountain and the ridgeline where I saw those two rams the day before. A few hours passed, and a nasty thunderstorm came rolling in quick. As I watched it coming in from the north I dreaded its arrival and when it eventually hit it was particularly nasty, dumping buckets of rain and hail. As soon as the lightning flashes started, I decided that I would have to get off the top of that mountain.
While exiting, I noticed movement in some nasty crags below the ridge where I was sitting. I stopped and glassed the area, and lo and behold, there were five rams. I was only 250 yards away and now totally oblivious to the nasty system of weather unleashing on me. The rams fed away on the grassy shelves that no human could walk on without climbing equipment. I never did get to see whether any of the rams were legal, though two had some nice mass. They quickly fed to about 800 yards away as the lightning strikes became more frequent. I packed my stuff and ran my way down the mountain as quickly as possible. I returned to basecamp with every item of clothing I had either drenched from rain or sweat from the descent.
The next morning I got up at my usual 3:30, feeling the effects of eight hours of wet hiking the day before. I was happy to have seen those rams and lucky not to have spooked them. I was confident I would run into them that day if the weather held up. Again, Tanner made a great breakfast for my three-hour hike up the mountain. This day was hot and humid, but I was in full rain gear because the entire bush was soaked. As a result, I drank most of the three liters of water I packed on the way up.
Once in the alpine, I switched into predator mode, shedding my rain gear and stowing my hiking poles, ready for a sheep to walk out in front of me. I decided to head a different way from the day before. Glassing every forty yards, I side-hilled carefully and walked slowly up a little draw. Suddenly, the back of a ram’s head came into view. I immediately ducked down and tried to get into a kneeling position to see the ram while staying out of sight. I could see the brims of other rams’ horns just beyond his head. I could not get any closer as I feared another ram would surely spot me. The wind was perfect, blowing right in my face so I exercised some patience.
I could see that this ram was a decent one, but could not confirm he was full curl. If I could see that he was, I could have stood up and shot at 35 yards. It was impressive to see these rams so close, and I tried to keep concealed. I had to wait this out and see if this ram moved his head to get a better view. Eventually after an hour and a half of waiting, the wind changed directions and began blowing my scent to them. I knew the game was up. Sure enough, his horn moved and the ram walked away in the direction he was facing. I belly-crawled with my pack and rifle for 40 yards to see where the rams had gone. They were feeding away into the alpine, already 150 yards out. They continued to move along the ridge but showed me an incredible display of head-butting as they went. It was an amazing sight to see, but I still wasn’t sure who was legal and who was not. I fumbled with the spotter and tripod to get set up while they moved further and further away.
Eventually they got to a rock pinnacle in the middle of the alpine with a steep drop behind it. I called this the “fortress” as a ram could sit on it like the king of the mountain surveying his domain. I tried not to move as the bugs relentlessly pestered my face. The five rams were on the fortress now with a clear view of me at 800 yards. The rams sat there for several hours facing different directions. There were two rams that had good mass and curl and I focused on those. I knew the rams sensed I was nearby because they looked in my direction more than any other.
After approximately three hours, the dark, larger ram got up, stretched, and turned his head completely to the side. I could see the tip of the horn on the other side on a perfect horizontal plane. He was full curl — this was my ram! I studied his body markings as to be able to distinguish him later. As well as being the darkest ram in the group, he had a very noticeable and unique white patch on his left shoulder. I called him “White Spot” (after the BC restaurant chain) and I knew that I’d be able to identify that ram anywhere.
Shortly after, the rams started to get up and move. The leader, a seven-year-old grey ram, led the band up and over the fortress into a grassy cliff behind. White Spot got up last and started to feed down the slope towards me. I kept ranging him as he came…700 to 650 to 600 to 550 to 500 yards. At 500 yards I had the rifle ready. I had practiced shots at 700 yards and I was confident in my shooting abilities, but he was still coming! Right at about 500 yards, realizing that he was being left by the band, the ram turned and disappeared into some cliffs. I saw him again climb up with the other rams and disappear over the back end of the fortress.
I was kicking myself — maybe I should have taken the shot! I waited in the same spot for several hours to see if he would reappear. The sun was beating down, and I had run out of water that morning so with no sign of the rams, I packed up and descended into the valley and base camp. That night Tanner made dinner, and my spirits were still high as I expected to see those rams the next day.
I again rose at 3:30, but was moving more slowly after two days of very tough hiking. I carried on the same routine and hunted the same way as the day before. Thinking for sure I’d see those rams in the alpine. I came over a ridgeline and was excited because there were rams bedded on the fortress. I glassed for several hours and realized that these two rams were different from the band of five I had seen the day before. After a few hours, they fed and moved about the alpine, but they clearly were a different band. They eventually fed away and went out of sight. The weather changed and showers, wind, and hail dumped as I hunkered under a siltarp for hours, waiting the storm out.
The day came to a close and I didn’t see “my” rams at all that day. Over dinner that night I wondered if I hadn’t seen them because I was missing prime time, from first light to two hours after dawn. I made the decision to sleep up in the alpine the next night.
I knew from my parched day on the mountain there were no opportunities to access water once I got up there, so I packed all the water I could carry. I filled my three-liter platypus, a one-liter bottle, and even borrowed Tanner’s protein bottle for more water capacity. As it was “summer” and I had a down jacket and down pants, I decided to take my tent but not my sleeping bag or pad. I thought I would be fine with all my clothes and my fancy down layers. Because I was loaded with water, I decided to leave the spotting scope as well because I knew the ram I was after and wanted to save weight. In retrospect, these were all foolish decisions.
That morning Tanner made me the most calorie-intensive meal he possibly could so I wouldn’t have to bring much food up top. He came through with eggs, pancakes, meat gravy, and other goodies. His meals are always delicious and are good fuel for the high calorie requirements in sheep hunting.
Mid-afternoon I was nearly to the top of the mountain when I could see yet another really nasty weather system blowing in. By the time I got to the ridge the wind was howling. There was a game trail that clearly had grizzly bear sign scattered sporadically on it. It was old and I was confident he had not been there recently but I still decided to camp off the trail. The only clear spot was on an angle but the weather now included full gale-force winds and it would have to do. I scrambled to set up my tent and did so in record time. My Hilleberg was designed for these occasions and held firm through the wind and rain. The rain persisted and I decided that I had better try and get some sleep while I waited out this weather.
I slept in every item of clothing I brought on the trip complete with down jacket, pants, and down booties. All was fine until about 2 a.m., when I got so cold that I couldn’t sleep any longer. I simply sat up and reflected on how careless it was to not bring my sleeping bag or at least the Thermarest.
Just before first light, I emerged from the tent and was ready to climb to where I had last seen my rams. As I hiked, I saw a cow elk feeding solo in the grass just above the treeline; yet another nice game animal that the area supports. Eventually she noticed me, stared, and finally, gave a few warning barks.
I climbed to the top and as I walked, two curious cow caribou ran past me only 30 yards away. They eventually moved off, flagging, and I continued on. I got to the fortress only to find that the same two rams that were there yesterday were still there. My rams were gone! I had blown my chance — I had spooked my rams off this mountain, and these two other rams had taken their place.
Frustrated and tired, I decided to glass adjacent mountains to see if I could find some sheep. As I didn’t bring my spotter to save weight, I was cursing myself once again for being so foolish. I was stuck with only my binoculars and my 5-25x rifle scope for optics. I glassed with the rifle scope (not ideal) and eventually saw sheep on the adjacent mountain. It was around four kilometers away but I thought I could see a darker sheep with what looked like a speck of head gear. Maybe my rams had moved mountains?
I arrived back to base camp that night and asked Tanner if we could move camps. I wasn’t sure but thought that my ram might be on the other mountain. Tanner was very supportive as we had agreed ahead of time that we would move camp if needed.
We had a big breakfast and broke camp. I couldn’t help but be worried that I was leaving behind a good chance to harvest a ram. We packed the horses and moved on. A journey that would take a Stone sheep 45 minutes, took us 8 hours. That afternoon we arrived at the camp, set up the tents, and unpacked the horses. There were still seven hours of daylight left in the day so I elected to go up top and see if I could find my rams.
As I moved up the grassy slopes, a nice six point bull elk appeared 150 yards away. I cursed the idea that I was hunting in August, because I had now passed several animals that would be legal just a month later. I eventually got to the top and set up to glass. I saw a large group of ewes and lambs along the cliffs, followed by a group of 4-year-old rams feeding in the alpine. At this point my feet were torn up, and we had just moved camp to a mountain that held lambs, ewes and banana rams. I was exhausted and disappointed. I decided then that I only had one more day of bush-bashing and thunderstorms left in me. Tomorrow would be my last day.
I got back to camp and told Tanner my deflated intentions to leave a day early. He was very encouraging, but I could tell he was a little disappointed to be pulling out early with no ram. He was as consumed by this hunt as I was. We had a quiet, reflective dinner that evening. I slept in and woke around seven the next morning. I was wearing down. Tanner made the usual hearty breakfast and I made off to tackle the mountain one last time.
Once on top I immediately spotted rams, but they were the small ones. They fed not far away and bedded at a point where they could watch the ridge. I decided to walk down and away and see if I could get a good view of the whole mountain. I spooked another group of lambs and ewes as I carried on. The sun beat down and I took a nap. I was getting exhausted.
In the afternoon I decided to go back to the spot where I had seen those sheep the day before. As I walked, another two ewes and two lambs curiously came to investigate me; one ewe coming within ten yards. As I walked, the skies turned grey and I could hear thunder in the distance. “Great,” I thought. How appropriate would a thunderstorm be for my last few hours of hunting? I put on my rain gear and trudged on, without caring if I spooked anything on that mountain. The sheep gods had spoken, and I would have to wait yet another year for my ram. Or so I thought…
I trudged up to the top of the mountain and about 20 lambs and ewes stood up at 20 yards. They seemed frozen in their position, so shocked to see such a strange creature right at the top of the mountain. There were also some saw some small rams feeding that didn’t bother looking up.
I looked again and noticed a heavier ram was feeding by them. This was a different ram than I’d seen earlier that morning. I took out the spotter and looked and then three more rams came into view. One of these rams had the unmistakable white spot on his left shoulder. I had found him.
Thunder crashed in the background, but I knew this was my only chance. I ranged the ram at 420 yards. It was a shot I could make. I belly-crawled along the top to get within 360 yards and got myself comfortable in the prone position.
This must have seemed extremely strange to the lambs and ewes beside me as I set up, belly-crawled, and got ready for a shot. The ram was in the perfect position when I fired and the bullet flew true, hitting exactly where I’d aimed. The ram ran one direction while the band bolted the other way. I fired again and with that the ram was down.
After the shots, the mountain seemed eerily quiet. I silently packed up all my things and slowly walked down the slope towards the ram. I simply couldn’t believe it had all come together a mere ten minutes before I was going to give up. Talk about lesson learned to keep your head in the game.
When I finally got to my ram, I put my hands on him and had a very loud and boisterous celebration. It had finally happened! I took a few photos and videos and started the 2-hour pack off the mountain.
Tanner had heard the shots and got the horses together to help with the retrieval. He got the horses as high as he could before hitting the alpine and was able take some priceless video of my last few hundred yards packing out my ram. Despite my exhaustion you can see the elation on my face. On previous trips, I’d often thought about how I would celebrate my first ram, at times thinking I’d be so elated that I would build a bonfire and dance around it like a wild man.
None of that happened. Instead, Tanner and I quietly sat and ate sheep backstraps and sipped scotch. I reflected on how much respect I had for an animal that lived in an environment that nearly broke me after only eight days in the middle of summer. And how lucky I was to even have the chance to chase them.
It seemed an appropriate finale to my triumph.