STORY AND PHOTOS BY TREVOR EMBRY
If it can go wrong, it will.
That had become my mantra for sheep hunting over the past several years. My first sheep endeavor with a tag in my pocket took place in 2016. A good friend and I set aside two weeks for what was sure to be an epic adventure, only to see it spiral into two weeks of fog, flight delays and less than eight hours of actual glassing visibility in the mountains.
Not to be deterred, I planned my second trip in 2017, but later found out that spring that I’d struck gold and drew a rare nonresident archery bighorn tag.
I took off from work for the entire season and traveled south in pursuit of the wrong color sheep. It took 19 days to even lay eyes on my first legal ram, narrowly missing and shaving hair off his back with a deflected arrow that will haunt me until the day I die.
I traveled back to Alaska with my tail between my legs after 24 days of giving it my all. Call it stubbornness or call me a glutton for punishment, but I was already looking ahead to the next sheep adventure. I had paid my dues and put in my time, and 2018 would be the year of redemption.
I could tell a lie here and say that I spent the entire year training for my epic adventure that awaited me. Except I was far too preoccupied catching salmon, running bear baits and enjoying everything the Alaska life has to offer. In reality, sheep season crept up on me like a cat on its unknowing prey. I found myself in early August gathering gear with overbearing thoughts about my lack of physical preparedness. As I’d later prove, you don’t have to be akin to a buffed Greek statue to kill a sheep.
You simply have to have the mental fortitude to not give up, ever. I may not find myself the first one up the mountain, but I simply wouldn’t come back down until I was in danger of losing employment or I had finally taken a sheep.
I DROVE TO MY hunting area, gathered 12 days of food rations and took off for the mountains. I had some generic intel from friends about a drainage to explore and had mapped out a large loop through the mountains to continue from there if I couldn’t turn up a sheep.
Several hours and 8 or 9 miles later up the main access from the trailhead, I passed four hunting groups and had yet to see a sheep. Two full days before the season even began and I was being reminded quite literally by the other groups that I was simply too late.
My hardheaded mentality set in and I pushed beyond to carve out my own place in the mountains and find a band of rams. This was an exploratory trip for me, and if nothing else I’d get some epic views and a lot of miles on the boots.
I spent the following day glassing the far ridges from the saddle I camped on trying to figure out which direction to head next, only to turn up some small banana-horn rams and bands of ewes and lambs. Time to move on to plan C.
Towards last light I wrapped around the backside of the mountain I was on and finally spotted a band of eight rams that included two or three worth a closer look. I retreated back to my sheltered camp to feast on a Mountain House and begin to pour over the maps and formulate a plan.
ON OPENING MORNING I awoke early to the sound of hooves and tumbling rocks right outside my tarp. I eagerly peeked out while hoping my curse had been lifted and I would be gifted with the sight of an easy ram nearly in camp.
Instead I was greeted by a new band of ewes and lambs making their way from one drain to another. I sat and had breakfast with my new friends before breaking camp and dropping into the valley below.
I later got back in sight of the band of rams and was able to study them from a different angle than from the evening before. I had ruled out one of the three potential shooters, but this still left me hopeful.
After they fed up behind a glacier crossing into another drain, I continued on towards the base of the glacier to find a camping spot for the evening. I set camp, turned on some podcasts and again began glassing after deciding to give my legs a rest.
About halfway through a Randy Newberg podcast, I looked up to see three hunters walking into my camp to talk. I greeted them to find out one was a guide, another a cameraman and the third a humble tag holder. fro.
We exchanged thoughts on the rams’ potential in the group and wished each other good luck in the coming days. To ensure I wasn’t hallucinating, I asked the hunter his name as they were leaving.
THE FOLLOWING DAY, THE rams showed back up in a drain outside the guide- use area the other hunters could legally hunt, leaving them to me for a closer study. I waited for the winds to settle and moved into a glassing vantagepoint about 400 yards away and watched them for the rest of the day.
Being a new sheep hunter, the last thing I want to do is to shoot a sublegal ram. While fairly confident the biggest of the group was an 8-year-old, I had made a rule for myself before the season: I’d only shoot one that was for sure full curl or that I aged at 9 or older.
After literally days of watching them, none of those eight rams fit those expectations. I retired to camp and decided at first light I’d move on to greener pastures.
Fast forward to 3 a.m. and I woke up to a torrential downpour and shifting winds that made me quickly gather my belongings and break camp in the dark.
I was out of water and the descent out of the drain was too dangerous to attempt in the dark. So I instead climbed up to a glacial seep to drink water and wait for first light.
The rain broke right as the sun began to lighten the field of view just enough for glassing. I decided to look over the rams one last time while having breakfast before moving on. I finished my meal, bid the rams farewell and strapped on my pack.
Finally, the sheep hunting gods smiled on me for making the right decision. I noticed a lone ram coming around the peak of a mountain some 2 miles off in my direction. I broke out the spotting scope, and realized he was definitely worth a closer look.
I avoided the temptation to move in closer for an ambush, nervous that the other rams would almost certainly bust me and alert their incoming friend. I instead stayed in the cliffs and watched for two hours as this ram fed his way up the drain and made a direct line for me.
As he got to 300 yards I had made up my mind: I was looking at my first ram. I traded the spotting scope for a riflescope and followed him along the shale path he took up towards the cliffs I was hiding in.
He paused at 150 yards and a moment later he was mine. I dropped down to size him up, nervously covering the 150 yards as quickly as I could without losing footing. I’m fairly certain I went a solid two minutes without breathing until I could confirm what I already knew.
I had killed my first full-curl ram.
SEVERAL CURSE WORDS, ONE near-death experience and several heavy miles later, I made it back to the truck a full week ahead of schedule. I had finally accomplished a three-yearw mission.
Solo sheep hunts are by no means easy, and often by no means even enjoyable. It takes a strange breed of man to so willingly punish himself. Most seasoned sheep hunters up here kept telling me it’s the greatest type of hunt one can embark on.
I’m not sure I’m sold on the theory just yet, but I can’t wait to go collect more memories next August as I make my mind up. Be safe and shoot straight. ASJ
Editor’s note: Trevor Embry lives in Anchorage and is “a pharmacist by trade and a bowhunter by heart.”