Many years ago I came to terms with the reality that I would never hunt sheep, maybe mountain goats but even that would be a stretch. I was OK with it and just accepted that that’s how it was going to be. Since I am a school teacher, my plan was to just get a job or even volunteer for a summer with an outfitter and that would be the closest I ever get to a sheep hunt.
Then, in the spring of 2016, after living in Ontario our whole lives, my wife said: “I think we should move”. Wow, what a turning point in our lives. She said she liked BC but “I’ll follow you anywhere”. Yup, she’s amazing. After thinking about cities in the Yukon and Alberta, British Columbia was the obvious choice. I was lucky to find a job in Smithers, BC and by the spring of 2017, all the plans were in place to head off that summer. Since you need to reside in BC for six months before becoming a resident I knew the 2017 hunting season was out the window, but I was already planning for 2018. At our kitchen table, still in Ontario, I was talking my wife’s ear off about what I was going to hunt. My plan was to start with mountain goats close to home and gain some experience then head north for stone sheep when I felt ready. My wife looked at me and said: “You have been dreaming about this for most of your life, how do you NOT start hunting sheep right away?”. Didn’t I say she’s amazing? So the decision was made right there, I had never been to BC before, but I knew that come August 2018 I would be hunting stone sheep as a resident of British Columbia.
Fast forward to July 2018 and everything is in place. I have my equipment dialed, I’m physically ready, and I have a plan. I poured over internet threads and google earth images/maps and did my best to pick out an area that I thought would be remote enough to get away from crowds and also might hold sheep. I really wanted to scout it out but I never made the trip up north before the season. Instead, I would go in a few days early and try to locate sheep. This being my first backpack hunt in BC and certainly first sheep hunt my goal was just to spot sheep and if I could do that I would be happy. Killing a legal ram was a 5-year goal, I didn’t expect to kill on my first hunt, especially solo. Having said that I am a confident person and I do always prepare to be successful, so in the back of my mind, I felt like I could make it happen. OK, enough background info, let’s get to the hunt.
As I stood at the trailhead I was awestruck by the beauty and ruggedness of the mountains. The plan was pretty straightforward, follow a horse trail then bushwhack up a creek to the base of a mountain, climb the mountain then hunt sheep, simple right?
Well, the creek was not what I was expecting, bushwhacking along it was not possible. It had banks 50′ high that pushed me further away from the creek. No worries though, I would just keep heading down the valley. One mile later and this bush sucks, just thick and not easy going. Then suddenly the greatest gift was bestowed upon me, I walk right onto a horse trail and it is heading down the valley. I have to say though, I was torn on whether to feel blessed or cursed. I wanted to head to an area with no pressure and if there was a trail headed back here it meant other hunters as well. Either way though, I was happy for the easy-going.
In total, I traveled 8 miles and made it to the base of the mountain. It was about to get steep and it was 9:30 pm. Great time to make camp by the creek and enjoy my first night on a backpack sheep hunt.
Day 2 – Two days before the opener
Early in the morning I broke camp and started up the mountain. Guess what? the horse trail headed up right here. It switchbacked up through the steep timber then broke out into a high mountain valley. It was in this valley that I hoped to find sheep. As I followed the trail there was plenty of moose sign up here as a glacier creek flowed through creating a wetland of lush vegetation. The valley walls were steep and rugged and as I walked I spotted five mountain goats. I could feel the goat tag in my bino harness as if it were calling to me. I made it to a waterfall and stopped for lunch. The goats continued walking along the walls of the valley then angled down towards me, at 300 yds I admired them but knew I was there for sheep. I wondered if I would say the same thing on day seven.
I climbed the waterfall and found a perfect place next to the creek to set-up camp. The mountain goats disappeared, finding shade no doubt as the afternoon sun beat down. I set up my tripod and started to glass the valley walls hoping to find sheep early in the game. I was lost in the rugged beauty and could not believe how blessed I was to be in this situation. As the sun dropped I continued to glass until I spotted my first sheep. I cannot describe the feeling when I heard the rocks tumble and brought up my binos to see two ewes and a lamb precariously perched on the rocks above. It was not excitement but something more, a mix of surreal and thankfulness maybe. It was indescribable.
Day 3 – One day till the opener
I awoke in the dark and treated this like a hunting day. I wanted to get on sheep and have a plan for the next morning. The sunrise was gorgeous and I was mesmerized with the beauty of the landscape, but I was also terrified. If I find any rams on the walls how will I ever get to them, I thought to myself. Then the two ewes and lamb stepped out again. They traversed the vertical walls well out of reach of any normal human then headed further away and bedded down for a couple of hours. Once back on their feet they headed up out of the valley to the plateau’s that existed on either side of this valley.
I feared this would be true, but I was prepared for it. The sheep lived at the top of the mountain and didn’t come down into the valley I was in. I was going to have to find a chute and climb up and check out the flat spots up above. I loaded up my day gear at 10:00 am and headed up. I need to get way up there. It was a steep climb over wet, jagged, and loose rock but I made it up without incident. At the top I could see for hundreds of miles and the terrain was magnificent. I climbed a gentle slope and an immense plateau carried for miles around with a rising mountain slope 2 miles away. I set up to glass the slope then heard footsteps behind me. I wheeled around and spotted three ewes feeding a mere 50 yards away. I slipped out my camera and snapped a few shots as they fed out of view.
I continued to glass the slope for the next hour and then focused on the plateau. What I saw left me speechless and almost emotionless, I think I was in some kind of shock. One mile away was a band of 12 rams were causally feeding in the afternoon sun. They slowly made their way to a dark sandy area then mostly bedded down with a few butting heads and just mulling around. The shock went away quick and every emotion flooded through my body. There were a few sheep that looked to have potential but one stood out from the rest. His dark coat made the others look pale and insignificant and although I could tell he was not full curl his massive horns were a dead give away that this ram was special. It was game on!
An afternoon storm rolled in so I donned my rain gear and continued to watch these beautiful creatures. They eventually got up and headed further away to bed down as the storm intensified. The winds picked up and I needed to find cover. I decided to head back to camp. As I climbed into the tipi the winds died and the rain petered out. I decided to start packing things and move camp up on the plateau. There was a small spring with water and it had some cover away from where the sheep were. I made it back up there and got things set-up and went back to glassing for the evening but nothing was spotted. I enjoyed the sunset with the knowledge that a legal ram (or at least I had a good idea that it was legal) was close by and I had a plan for the opening morning.
As I laid in the tipi that night I knew I was all in, this was no longer just a nice backcountry hiking trip with hopes of seeing sheep. Everything had gone perfectly except that I was further in then I had planned and calculated. I was now 14 miles from the trailhead. I trained hard and had pushed myself in the past. I thought of the Goruck heavy event I did a few years back, 24 hours straight with 30 lbs pack, 36 miles total covered and numerous PT sessions in that time. I was confident that I could get this ram out if successful but I also knew I was stretching myself.
Those thoughts really just slipped in and out, but that image of the dark ram with massive horns never left. Whatever it takes, I’m willing, I thought to myself and I drifted off to sleep.
Day 4 – It’s go time
I woke up at 4:30 am with excitement and confidence, almost overconfident. Oatmeal and coffee almost tasted bad this morning and I was trying to control my emotions. I emerged from the tipi and breathed in the crisp mountain air of an August morning. My first sheep opener, I couldn’t believe it, I am officially a sheep hunter. I thought back to all the moose and deer openers and the blessings of successful hunts and I just soaked it in. I got to my glassing spot and waited for the dull grayness to disappear. As the morning glow began the day I was simply floored by the spectacle that lay before me. On the grassy slope a little over a mile away 30+ sheep materialized and I counted 13 rams. I watched for about 15 mins and then made my decision. I chose to be patient and would let the sheep come to me.
From my intel the day before I guessed that the rams would come down on the plateau and bed in the same place at midday. I slipped through the lulls of the landscape and circled around to get set-up on their “bedding area”. By 7:30 am I was in position 150 yards from where they bedded the day before. From this spot I was still able to glass them on the slope directly north of me. I watched the sheep head up and bed down. Suddenly, I caught movement on the ridge northwest of me. I brought up the binos to see two white rumps and flashes of horn walk out of sight. No problem they’ll come back to me, just be patient, it’s only day one.
An hour passes and I can still see the band of bedded rams on top of the slope north of me, I’m just waiting for them to come to me. Again movement on the northwest ridge, I bring up the binos to see four hunters headed up the ridge right towards all the sheep. I just about puked. My heart has never sunk lower in my life. The hunters are heading right into the band of bedded rams that I can see from my position. They have a better angle than I do. My decision to be patient is going cost me. I don’t feel like being a jerk and trying to cut these hunters off by racing towards the rams. I continue to watch the hunters in my scope to see what their move is. Suddenly, they drop to the deck. Spotting scope pulled out, two hunters resting their rifles on packs. I am sure they have spotted the rams I saw go over the ridge earlier and they are trying to determine if one is legal. Here’s my chance.
With the hunters occupied by the rams over the ridge, I’m going for the band of 12. I pack up and start racing across the plateau and up the mountain. I have a landmark picked out because the sheep are out of sight as I approach. I hit my landmark and break out the tripod and spotter, I can’t see anything. Suddenly a 3.5 yr old rams walks out of a dip in the landscape and heads to the east. Then another small ram stands up but beds again. The band is only 240 yards away but I cannot see them bedded down in a depression in the landscape. I feel the need to be aggressive so I move 10 yards to the east to get a better vantage point. The whole band pops up looking my way and I freeze. As I scan the rams with my bare eyes two stand with potential. The rams casually walk away and I bring up the binos to see that the lead ram is heavy from behind, much larger than the others. I am 80% sure he is legal but that means nothing, I need to be 100%. He leads the band directly north and out of sight.
The rams were not spooked so I feel I am still in the game. The wind is coming from the east so I decided to circle west and see if I can catch up with the band. I travel for just under a mile and then spot the other hunters. They are lower than me and I am between them and the sheep, I am in a good position. I look to the northeast horizon and spot rams. I quickly scampered to some cover and get set-up, spotter on tripod, rifle rested on pack and face first in the dirt. I am only 300 yards away. There are sheep everywhere. Ewes and lambs walking around and all are bedded tight together. It’s 9 am, the light is perfect and I have a good angle to judge these sheep.
I start counting rings on the biggest one and I am 99.9% sure he is at least 8. I have views from side and back, he’s legal I’m sure, but there are sheep everywhere and when I switch from spotter to rifle its hard to pick out the legal ram. Eventually, he stands up. I count the rings again in the spotter, yup, good to go. On the rifle now, aiming, and he beds down again. OK back to the spotter, back to watching. This position is uncomfortable, I am angled down lying on rocks. I start slowly moving rocks and making a flat level spot to shoot from.
Where are those other hunters? Did they see the sheep? Did they see me? Do they know I am set-up on these sheep? Is it a guide and hunters? I have heard of horror stories about guides blowing up hunts for residents. is that true? Are they setting up on these sheep as well? Will it be a race to shoot once that ram stands up? Should I stalk closer and be aggressive? Is he really legal? Oh crap, is he legal? Was I sure? My mind is racing.
- 12:30 pm Mirage has set in and I can’t count rings, I am second-guessing myself. I’m hungry, I don’t want to rummage through the pack.
- 1:00 pm One ram is coming my way, he’s only 120 yards away now, he’s not legal but the rest will follow. I’m sure of it.
- 1:30 pm Sheep are scattered out in front of me but the rams are staying bedded.
- 2:00 pm Clouds come in and scope is crystal clear. Yes! He’s legal, no doubt. He stands up. On the rifle and he lays back down. Where are those other hunters? I gotta be quick next time he stands up.
- 2:30 pm All rams are up and moving except the two largest. Perfect, so much easier to keep tabs on the legal ram.
- 2:45 pm Four rams come and bed with the legal ram. I swear it I am going to die, my heart cannot take this up and down. The adrenaline high’s and lows are killing me. I haven’t eaten all day, I suck back a little water and calm myself. The four smaller rams have gotten back up again.
- 3:00 pm He stands up broadside, he’s legal, he’s absolutely beautiful. I’m on the rifle, steady, aim, squeeze.
As the shot rings out every sheep freezes but mine drops out of sight. Is he down, did he take off? He appears from behind a dip and stands broadside, as I’m aiming again I know I hit him on the first shot, he is the only ram that moved at the shot. I squeeze again and he drops. I just got a stone sheep!
I try to breathe but I’m shaking, I Inreach message my wife then my dad, I wish he was here. I like solo hunting, but this is the first time of the trip that I feel alone. I just want to celebrate with someone. The other hunters appear “Hey, looks like you got a sheep” he yells to me. He watched it all go down and gave me space and opportunity to take the ram. It’s him, his wife, and their two daughters, they have a horse camp down in the valley. We chat while walking up and then he gives me space to go check out my ram.
The hunters bids me farewell and leave me to the task at hand. I start breaking down the sheep as the worst storm I have ever experienced hits. I am forced to run for cover, the wind is so intense and the thunder is actually hurting my ears. I huddle in the rocks at the location of the shot. The storm eventually passes and the weight of my situation hits home. I am over 15 miles from the trailhead for some reason it only makes my smile grow. I finish taking care of the ram and prepare to load up but when I pick up the pack my smile fades. I am wiped from the day. It has been an emotional roller coaster and this pack feels like 100 lbs. I can’t do it. I’m not sure how I am going to make it out. Under the strain of the pack, I start heading back to camp.
As I get close to camp I stash the meat on the snow by a creek. Back at camp its dinner time. I text my wife and tell her it might take me a few days to get out, not sure if I can do it in one trip. Sleep. The following morning I pack everything up and see how it feels after a full night of rest. I think it is manageable. Under the weight of the pack I understand the difficulty of this whole task and why it is not a common thing. I soak up a few minutes of just staring at the socked in slope that fed my ram a day earlier. I wonder if I will ever be back. Now it’s all mental, get down this technical chute and after that, it’s just putting one foot in front of the other.
I started at 6:00 am and by noon I was out of the steep stuff and had covered 6 miles. I was sore and tired but overall felt good. From noon until 3:00 pm things got tougher. At 3:00 pm my body just couldn’t do it. As much as I willed I could not walk for longer than 45 mins before I needed a break. My hips and lower back were rubbed raw and my legs burned. Walk for 45 mins, rest, repeat. I carried a small bottle of water and drank at streams (unfiltered, I didn’t care about getting sick after I was out) and refilled my bottle.
By the end it was agony. I was a quarter of a mile from the highway but hit the 45 min mark and I simply could not do it. I just laid on the ground for 10 mins with the pack on. Finally, I made it to the highway at 6:30 pm, dropped the pack on the spot and another hiked two miles to get my jeep. Once the pack was off I was OK.
So, what does it take to get a stone sheep?
- Move across the country
- Countless hours gleaning info online
- Training your butt off
- The right gear
- An amazing understanding and encouraging wife
- A Dad who taught you everything about hunting