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ALASKAN DALL SHEEP HUNT – A FATHER & DAUGHTER ADVENTURE – BY RYAN WATCHORN

This story has to start with the fact that I have been truly blessed to have hunted all over North America, and that hunting has been a North Star in both my family life and career.  

That said, nothing, and I mean nothing, on planet earth prepared me for the sheer joy and fulfillment of hunting with my own children, of which there are three (Maddy, Claire and Alec). Is there any other experience that is more enjoyable, connecting, or inspirational than time spent with those you love most, in God’s greatest environment…. the Outdoors? If so, I have yet to find it. Maddy, my oldest daughter, started hunting with me at age 8.  Since then she has taken turkey, deer, antelope, pheasant, duck, black bear (biggest killed in camp) and now the Dall sheep.  

Our sheep adventure started in February when a cancellation hunt became available.  Upon seeing the quality of the outfitter and animals located there, it quickly became a no brainer, and I booked the trip on the spot.  Mark Peterson, WTA owner, quickly convinced me, after having hunted several times with my daughter, that she needed to go, as the hunter, and that we needed to film this adventure….so the decision was made.  It became a business trip.  At least that’s what we told the school, as we had to miss a few days.

Needless to say, Maddy was beyond excited about the hunt and our preparation and training began. Now this worked perfectly in my favor as it motivated me to get in shape, plus she also needed to train for the upcoming volleyball season. Day after day, week after week, we trained, we hiked, we shot, we bought gear, and we bought more gear.  We stayed very true to this regimen as we only had 6 months to get ready for a very challenging hunt.  We found a workout machine called “Jacob’s ladder”.  Living in a near flat environment, it provided us a workout to simulate the mountain elevations we would have to conquer, along with squats, biking, running, lifting, etc.  Even after all of that, I knew it would still be very challenging.  

Then comes the shooting, this kid can flat shoot and we do it a lot.  Our friends at Gunwerks built her a custom rifle for this hunt.  It was their 7 s.a.u.m.  It is a very fast, flat shooting, accurate rifle and we pushed over 200 rounds from this rifle alone before we left.

I have been in camp before where shooting seemed to be an afterthought.  That afterthought resulted in hunters going home empty handed.  This is NOT a mistake to make.  The saying of “I don’t have time, I make time” has never been truer than when it comes to shooting prep. We practiced several times per week at varying distances, various positions and in the wind.  Living in western Nebraska, that is one thing that is guaranteed…the wind. In regards to shooting, one thing outfitters always ask about, and are usually skeptical of, is the shooter’s ability.  Everyone always says how good they are, but our outfitter on this trip made hunters in camp prove it.  That story in a moment.

August arrives and with it our hunt dates.  We pack our gear, 50 pounds each, and head to Alaska. Everything about Alaska is an adventure, how you get there, where you stay, the people you meet, and of course, the weather. We overnight in Anchorage and stay near the world’s largest float plane lake, Lake Hood.

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The next morning, we headed to our charter to be flown into camp.  Of course, we arrived at 9 am, only to be held up by weather ‘till 2 pm.  That said, safety first, and the pilots know best. Finally, we charter into camp, only to once again be held up by weather before we could fly into the spike camp where we will be hunting.

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Earlier, I mentioned that this outfitter put up a new challenge for the “long” range shooters.  He was very upfront with me, asking what her “real” ability to shoot was and I was very upfront with him, assuring him that she is the “real” deal. After making sure the rifles didn’t get bumped during flight and sighting in at 100, we then turned to the 8 inch, yes 8 inch, 450 and 650 yard gongs they had placed.  Wind was gusting 15-20 mph.  She hit 2 of 3 at 450 and 2 of 3 at 650. Four of six. Only missing the first shot at each target by fractions as I misjudged the wind. Her ability to shoot was confirmed as no one else in camp hit them, and I have a standing bet, no one will out shoot her this season.  Proud Dad, but we also know this is at a target and not the real thing.

The next morning, we headed to spike camp.  It is the most impressive spike camp in which I have stayed. They have built cabins with showers, stoves and bunks.  They have brought in machines to help your hunt be more enjoyable. The real fact with sheep hunting is life generally doesn’t allow you to do it till you’re a bit older. And when you are older, everything seems heavier, balance isn’t what it once was and enhancing the hunt with creature comforts greatly increases your opportunities to come home with your trophy.  This outfitter truly excels at that.  

Now with youth (Maddy is 16) the opposite comes into play.  She is strong, she is able, but would she possess the mental strength it takes to spend 10 days sheep hunting.  The weather can be brutal, and we might not see anything for days.  The physical toll the body takes can be a real downer. Those who are not mentally and physically able, will likely struggle. Again, this outfitter is top notch and our guides, Leopold and Artus, are as good as they get.  Both were fantastic with me and even more professional with my daughter. They took their time to help us pack only the gear we “really” needed and to ensure we would be as comfortable as they could make us.

Finally, our time to begin our hunt was here.  We spent the day traveling up river to the valley now known as “Sheep Island”.  As we approached, tree filled valleys gave way to snowy peaks, ancient glaciers and mountainous terrain that seemed never-ending. From here we began to glass.  After a few minutes we had found our first sheep in the distance.  When I say distance, it was 5 miles away.  A good spotting scope is so important to have and is a given asset to take on a hunt of this nature. The day quickly came to an end and into our tents we went, knowing that we were in the right spot.

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The next morning came and we spent the day going deeper and deeper into Sheep Island.  Hunting slowly and glassing methodically we found the first ram of our hunt.  He was a stud.  We were all very excited, but also, we were quickly running out of daylight and had a 2-hour trek back to camp.  We bid the ram goodnight and would get going after him early the next day.  

The next morning, we woke to a foggy, dreary climate, had breakfast and headed off in hopes of finding the ram we put to bed the night before.  Our journey that day was filled with ups and downs.  It was a difficult hike up and down and just as we got deep into Sheep Island and found a band of rams, the fog began to come in heavily.  So, we sat, and we sat and we sat some more. Every once in a while, the sun would peak thru the clouds and we could still see our rams hadn’t moved far.  They were right above us at 800 yards, so we stayed put, as not to push them over the mountain or spook them away.  Two rams looked like full curl rams, but we wanted to make sure before we began our stalk. Finally, as morning turned into mid-day the clouds broke and we could get a very good look at the Rams.  None were legal. Heartbroken, we made a play for the other side of the mountain to pursue the area in which we had seen the large warrior the night before.

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We got about ½ mile towards the mountain only to look back and see another solo ram that we had missed.  Was this the warrior from last night?  He sure looked good and we were all super excited. Slowly, we backtracked to the solo sheep, only to get within 150 yards of the rams we had been pinned down by, all morning.  Nope, still not legal. As we closed the distance on the solo ram, the fog thickened and began to set in heavily and our hearts sank. It just felt like he was the one.  As hard as we tried, we just could not count the rings and could not see him long enough to make him legal.  For another two agonizing hours we waited in the thick fog only to walk away from him.  It was one of those decisions that had to be made, but also one of great disappointment as our glimpses of him showcased what appeared to be a magnificent animal and the terrain to get back to him was brutal. Dejected, cold and a bit teary eyed, we headed back to the tent.  

The next day, we awoke to a beautiful sunny day.  We ate breakfast and with our minds and body refueled, headed back, deep into Sheep Island.  This time we took a different mountain path and it wasn’t long till we found a large band of rams sunning themselves on the glorious mountainside.  We quickly set up our scopes and began glassing.  We quickly determined that several of the rams were at or near legal and we needed to get a closer look.  We had spotted the sheep from the opposite mountain top and began our steep descent down into the valley floor and then back up the other side.

As we slowly approached what we thought was the biggest of the rams, our luck turned once again for the worse.  For whatever reason, the band of 8 rams exploded from their beds and ran fast and furious out of sight.  We looked at each other with an expression of disbelief.  We had been so careful to stay undetected, to play the wind, and yet we now stood on a mountain side with no rams in view. Dejected and frustrated, we decided to hike up to a large rock outcropping to “hope” maybe, just maybe, the sheep had stopped as abruptly as they had left.  A quick sheep prayer was said and off we went.

This time we had GOOD luck.  The sheep had all gathered on a rock cliff 410 yards away.  That was the good news.  The bad news was there was no way in the world we were going to get any closer.  If we found a legal ram, our shot was going to be a long one.  As mentioned at the beginning of this story, shooting was something we, at home, have practiced for years.  We shoot a lot at several distances and both Father and guides were very confident in our young hunter’s ability to shoot at this range.

Maddy had taken on the mountain like a veteran mountain hunter.  The physicality of the hunt, the changing weather, the ups of getting close and downs of walking away, all take a toll.  She never broke and wanted to prove she could do it.  Not just to us, but to herself. Now, we just needed to make one of the rams legal.

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After 30 minutes of glassing, those few magic words came from our guide.  He’s Legal.  The big ram on the left was clearly legal by age. The excitement mounted and we got into shooting position. Maddy quickly had the big ram in her scope and calmed her breathing.  We ranged the sheep multiple times and adjusted for the wind.  When she was collected and comfortable, the gun barked.  The sheep was down. We all celebrated, to ourselves at first, then with each other.

What a hunt this had been!  Now we needed to recover this magnificent animal.  Two more hours of hiking around and up the mountain got us to the ram.  As we approached the animal’s final resting spot, tears filled all of our eyes.  Anyone who has experienced this knows exactly the feeling we had.  What it took to take this magnificent animal is overwhelming emotionally.  We were grateful for the opportunity to be in this vast wild area God has created. We were grateful for taking such a grand creature and I was grateful I had been by my daughter’s side the entire time.  

The sheep officially was 10 years in age, with horns 38 inches in curl length and carried 13.5-inch bases.  We were beyond thrilled with our hunt, the quality of the animals and the quality of the amenities and staff.

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Please call me at WTA, if you want to know more about this hunt and how you can book your next adventure. 1-800-346-8747

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