The Unparalled NWT: A Dall Sheep Hunting Perspective, By Matt Jurad

Considering a Dall sheep hunt? The Northwest Territories should be at the top of your list.

For many hunters a sheep hunt is nothing more than a dream, something that is considered and then put on the back burner, or even forgotten completely. The reasons vary: money, time, physical conditioning, the list could go on. But for some it is a goal that beckons, a true bucket list item that must be scratched off the list. Something they save and strive for for years. For others, it’s an all-encompassing lifestyle and a non-negotiable annual pilgrimage. If you have found yourself dreaming of embarking on an adventure into the north country to pursue wild sheep, in my opinion the Northwest Territories should be at or near the top of your list.

Many sheep hunters have cut their teeth hunting Dall’s and for good reason. Perhaps it’s because they’re the most plentiful of the thinhorn species. Or their accessibility and affordability, relatively speaking of course. I followed in the footsteps of many of my hunting heroes and chose the Dall as my first sheep hunting adventure as well and hunted the Yukon Territory as opposed to the Northwest Territories. At the time, it was a close call between the two but for a variety of reasons decided on the Yuon Territory. With the resulting 41-inch monster we took on day two, I wouldn’t change that decision for anything. But I’d call that beginner’s luck, and although we saw several shooters in those two days before I took my ram, most hunters will never take a 40-inch ram in their lifetime. The Yukon was exceptional, with good numbers of sheep, incredible landscapes, and a variety of other game animals spotted throughout the trip as well. The weather was fair, and the outfitter and guides simply top notch. It was a trip and a destination I’ll never forget.

After that first Dall, my sheep fever set in for good and over the past few years my adventures have taken me all over North America’s sheep country. I took a great Rocky Mountain bighorn in BC, which was without a doubt the hardest hunt of my career, and a nice Stone after two attempts, also in BC. I was waiting, fingers crossed, to draw a Desert bighorn tag in my home state of NV in more recent years when I got the itch to book another hunt for Dall’s but this time in the NWT. As mentioned, I’d come close to booking an NWT trip for that first Dall hunt and as many will tell you, the north country gets in your blood and I was dying to get back up there. The NWT was calling my name.

I did a ton of research before booking that first sheep hunt and had heard great things about the NWT. Many experienced hunters had told me there was more opportunity to take a Dall ram in the NWT than in any of the other provinces or even Alaska. My research on a variety of concessions had confirmed this with very high success rates reported by the outfitters I’d had my discussions with.

Now many years into my sheep hunting career, with my FNAWS under my belt, I still haven’t heard of a bad concession, or outfitter for sheep in the NWT, a huge reason you should look into this province as that can’t necessarily be said for other regions. I have the privilege of knowing some of the best sheep guides in the industry and they all guide in the Mackenzie Mountains, and say it is the best, hands down for Dall’s. One close friend recently told me that if all of his hunters were in proper “sheep shape”, and proficient with their chosen weapons, he would be 100% on guiding Dall’s there. That’s a number that carries some weight. He also said that he has seen bands of rams numbering 40+ on numerous occasions in the Mackenzies.

Let’s rewind for a minute to my point about outfitters. Just because I haven’t heard of a shady one, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t research them on your own. And by no means should you choose one because he offers you the best price or because they have the best social media feed. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take a great deal due to a cancellation, especially if you’re lucky enough to be on a good outfitter’s short list. What I’m saying is that in hunting, like most other parts of life, you get what you pay for. Besides, if you’ve come this far and saved and worked hard to afford a sheep hunt an extra $3 – $5K will mean nothing a few years down the road.

A very important factor to focus on in your research is the average age of rams taken in the concession. On my hunt we were passing up 8 and 9 year old rams daily, looking for that truly old ram, and this was simply amazing! This sort of experience is entirely due to the outfitter’s management of their area with a focus on age and quality of rams, not quantity harvested. And be sure to look at harvest photos from the last three years, this will tell the story of the concession as much as anything else.

When talking to an outfitter, do not leave any stone unturned, ask a million questions. It is your right to do this, and (usually) years of saving and hard work that’s on the line so don’t hesitate. The stupid question is the one you don’t ask. When I went in 2014 it was over $20K, and that was before commercial flights, bush flights, hotels, food, and tips. Let there be no surprises when it comes to an investment like this. Talk to references, they are a wealth of free information, and they will love telling you about their hunts. I am a reference for many outfitters, and love getting phone calls from everyone from rookie sheep hunters to seasoned veterans. I get to relive them yet again by telling these stories.

From a travel perspective, you have the take the time required into account. Getting from the States all the way to the hunting area in the NWT was an adventure in itself. Some people hate the air travel, I look forward to it. From the Reno airport we were required to take six planes in order to reach the actual starting point for the hunt! It was cool to start out in a large commercial jet and end up in a 3-seater float plane but this amount of travel takes a toll. Be ready for it and get plenty of rest before your trip. It was also my first hunt in which we had to take two bush flights on the way in and out. Base camp was very remote, so from Norman Wells we boarded a twin prop Otter, and from there it was into the rugged Mackenzies to land in an alpine lake. It took another six planes to get back to Reno as well, but despite the fatigue from the trip, with a 10 year old ram in my duffle the trip home was a pleasurable one!

We were there for the early hunt in mid-July, meaning we could not do a combo sheep/caribou hunt but I chose this hunt because several of my friends who had been there before said there may be more rain, but a lower chance of snow, of which I am not a fan. But to each their own. We had a little bit of everything when it came to the weather, but nothing too extreme and nothing that negatively impacted the hunting beyond normal sheep hunting conditions. We had the usual off and on rain showers, some sunny warm days, some days socked in with fog, and even a little snow. Overall I thought it was pleasurable for how far north we were. But remember that an early hunt doesn’t guarantee good weather in the NWT, you’ll still need a little luck and plan your gear to cover all conditions. Your apparel system will be put to the test!

With all this in mind we still haven’t covered why the NWT is my favorite Dall sheep hunt destination. Without a doubt it would be the sheer ruggedness and beauty of the Mackenzie Mountains and this alone is worth every penny spent. The landscape in the other western provinces, and Alaska is by no means disappointing, but for those of us that experience the NWT, we are impacted more profoundly. The mountains seem as if they are still being carved. Like great movements of the tectonic plates are still shaping the deep, glacier cut valleys before your eyes. The bedrock is literally jutting from the ground like it broke through yesterday. A feeling as if you have stepped back into prehistoric times comes over you as you traverse the terrain. There wasn’t a part of the valley we hunted that disappointed us, or the camera lens for that matter.

The remoteness of the valleys, along with the fact that the outfitter didn’t hunt every area each year made for a uniquely wild experience as well. We would see caribou walk by and not even pay attention to us. A red fox followed us like a puppy vying for attention, getting to within mere feet of us until a group of cackling ptarmigan stole his curiosity and he bounded away. One afternoon we walked only 200 yards below a large group of Dall ewes and they could have cared less. It made us feel as if we’d travelled back in time hunting when the legends like O’Connor were still pounding the northern mountains in search of twisting horned monarchs.

Before we ever left for the trip I made it a point to look at Google Earth and find where we would be hunting. I did this to appreciate how extreme this trip would be, how remote and far north the area was located. Base camp wasn’t too far south of the Arctic Circle, pretty cool in my book!

And just like all of the other provinces I’ve hunted the people were amazing. Everyone from the outfitter himself and his wife, to his guides and base camp staff were really wonderful people. The guides made the hunt extremely fun, and their extensive knowledge of the area and game was just icing on the cake. I’m sure you’d get that with any good outfit though, I’m lucky to have had great guides on all of my northern hunts.

I can honestly say that if I had to choose one place to pursue Dall sheep it would be in the Mackenzie Mountains of the NWT. Whether you are wanting another Dall, or simply just want to do it once for the experience of sheep hunting I do not think written words or digital images do that place justice. You have to see it for yourself. The game, the terrain, the weather, the colors, the crisp air. It will leave a lasting impression on you, just as it has upon the ones who have experienced it for themselves.

Safe travels and good hunting!

 

 


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Posted by JOMH Editor