Ben Knapp is an old school mate of mine who shared a passion of the great outdoors with me. Ben and I played soccer together in high school and in our free time we would hunt together. Recently Ben and I caught up with each other sharing stories from our past hunting seasons. Ben told me an epic story of his first successful Dall sheep hunt, a story that must be shared with the world.
My First Ram
Early in my high school career I caught the bug. The sheep hunting bug that is. I was consumed by the challenge of tagging such a majestic animal that resides in what many would refer to as “impassible terrain”! My first few hunts were with my dad and brother. We would carry harvest tickets for everything, opportunity hunting if you will. I always got the idea that my hunting companions had moose hunting on the mind, tree stands, 4 wheelers, lots of camp talk, vacationing…..Meanwhile I was looking up high, right around the 6,000 ft level just below the early season snowfall, right where Mr. Full Curl would be hiding out.
These first few “sheep” hunts provided many stories and good times spent with my dad and brother. Occasionally we would get up close to some ewes and lambs, but no rams to be found. As I got older I was able to travel farther and farther from home without my parents getting too worked up. I made countless trips into the Talkeetna Mountains on my 4 wheeler and even a drive-in hunt to the Wrangell Mountains. Most of these trips where solo hunts for a combination of reasons. Part of me wanted to prove myself to the old man that I could hack it! It was also hard to find someone that wanted to strap on a 40 pound pack and follow me for 10 miles over some of the nastiest terrain they had ever seen. I carried an ice axe, rappelling gear on occasion, damn-it I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way of a ram!
Early this summer my buddy Nick Zerbinos and I started talking about our fall hunting plans and sheep came up. At first it was over a few beers, we came up with the genius idea that, hey you have an airplane, I have an airplane, we should go sheep hunting! Nick had just started a new job flying 737’s for Northern Air Cargo and he had limited days off so we planned around his schedule. We picked a weekend that allowed us 4 days in the field and hopefully a spotting flight before.
Our departure date came before I knew it and as fate would have it, I had to work the first day of our planned hunt. Nick decided to take his plane out solo, get camp setup and start glassing until I got there the following evening. The whole day at work all I could think about was Nick sitting on a ridge line glassing rams and having gotten there the night before, he could drop hammer if he saw a legal one. Working on an airport has its perks, I taxi’d my plane over beside my truck on my lunch hour and got it preflighted and ready to go. I punched out at 5:00 and Im pretty sure the prop was turning at 5:01! No need to change clothes, I had business to take care of!
When I approached the riverbed we had marked on the gps earlier I spotted a few rams on the hillside, might as well take a look…. I was quickly distracted by an object about 100 yds from them, look a little closer and it was NICK! Oh man I thought he had one! I landed and waited for him to return to camp. Turns out he had been watching this group all day and wanted to see how close he could get, maybe there was a full curl in the bunch. No such luck. That night we discussed a game plan for the next morning, direction of travel, amount of food and gear to take, etc.
We woke up just before light, made a quick cup of coffee, and did a ceremonial coin toss. (winner of the toss getting the first shot) Quickly grabbed a cliff bar, and started pack’n. About 3 hours into the pack we were on a nice ridge top that gave us a good view of the next valley so we stopped and broke out my spotting scope. At the head of the valley we spotted a large group of ewe’s and one ram that looked decent, but was too far away even for a 60 power glass to tell much. We decided to continue up the valley towards the group, checking every creek bed, ravine and gulley that could hold a ram.
After another 5 hours of hiking we were finally at a good viewing point to take a look at this ram we had spotted earlier. He waaaaasssssss, is he legal? I could see full curl, but wait, maybe its the angle of the slope. We each counted 8 rings on one side and 7 on the other. Too close to call. After 2-3 hours of watching him we had an opportunity to sneak in close. Now we both agree, he’s legal. My range finder said 352 yds. Right now Im thanking myself for bringing my 300mag Tikka. This thing has almost no bullet drop and is an absolute tack driver. 350 yds, no problem! Im all setup, good rest, controlled breathing, thumb on the safety. Wait…Nick says softly, “I think we can get closer”…..Damn-it, he IS across the valley from us, its a little breezy, but its a full curl and its RIGHT THERE! Ok, we’ll work slowing across the river and come up the other side. NOW Im glad I have all this fancy new SITKA gear to try out 😉 We hiked up the other mountain side slowly, this is the same side the rams on. I had picked a rock that the sheep was near as a reference prior to the stalk, theres the rock. Where is the sheep? I can see up the mountain and left and right, I know he hasn’t gotten away, or has he? Im crossing my fingers that he’s not going to blast away in a sprint and temp me on making a running shot. The next 50 yds of the stalk were all out Navy Seal style! I lifted my head over the next rise and it took a second for my eyes to focus, it was SO CLOSE. NOW I want my bow, oh well, nows not the time to be picky. The ram sat just inside of 80 yds, head down grazing. I took the safely off, gave Nick a quick head nod, BAAAAMMM! I just tagged my first RAM!!! Now the adrenaline kicks in! Hands shaking, uncontrollable grin, congratulatory fist pounds, what a rush!
12 hours after leaving camp, on the first day of my hunt, I was standing beside my first full curl ram! I couldn’t be happier! Nick and I both took a minute, gazing out into the distance, attempting to take in the shear awesomeness of the country we had just hiked through. It really cannot be put into words or captured in a picture, you have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate it. Ok, we have a sheep to field dress. We made a quick spike camp at the head of the valley to get a couple hours rest before the long haul back to the planes. Meat was divided into each of our packs equally and then I had the honors of carrying the cape and horns. Ive heard the saying, “happiness is a heavy pack”. It really is. Every instant that I was feeling tired, feet hurt, thirsty, whatever, all I had to do was glance back toward my pack and see the horns curling out from inside and I was on the move again. Instant motivation.
What took us about 8 hrs with light packs, took 14 with loads of sheep! We made it back to the planes and were able to take off that night and beat the weather that was coming in from the south. When we got back to the hanger we took our packs inside to see what they weighed, more bragging rights than anything but it had to be done. Nick’s was 95 pounds and mine with the cape and horns came in at just under 125 pounds! What a trip! The ram was full curl on one side and just shy on the other, 8 years old and measured 35″ on both sides with 13 7/8″ bases. I can’t thank Nick enough for joining me on this adventure and we have already begun planning next years. Later this season I had the opportunity to pick out some nice rams for next year and come August 10th, we’ll be there! No coin toss needed, next year Nick has the first shot!