October 28, 2010
Successful Dall sheep hunting demands maximum effort.
Like many hunting stories, this one started last year with a phone call from a stranger who is now a friend. Outfitter Lance Kronberger of Freelance Outdoor Adventures called to inform me I had drawn one of the most coveted tags Alaska has to offer -- Dall sheep, unit 14C, archery only.
Lance's call was quite a shock, as I had no hopes of actually winning this bowhunting lottery. After a brief conversation, I immediately called a few of the "Who's Who" in the bowhunting industry and listened to their praise for Lance. Soon, I called Lance back and said, "Lance, it's Cory, and I will be seeing you in October." The hunt was now booked, and it was up to me to turn up the dial on my workout meter!
After five months of training mind and body, I felt ready. The only problem would be leaving my little boy, Cashton, for what could be almost two full weeks. The thought was weighing heavily on my mind, but I also knew if he was 25 instead of 2.5, he would be stoked for me to go on the hunt of my lifetime. So, I set my sights on this hunt, made the plan and visualized success!
Into The Bush
Departure day, Sept. 30, 2008, finally arrived. After landing in Anchorage, I made my way to the hotel, and all I could think about was if I was really ready for this. I wondered whether I had trained enough, whether my business would be OK without me and most importantly, whether my son was OK. I really had to make an effort for my mind not to run away with the low percentage "what ifs" and "maybes" that were tormenting me. The practice of positive visualization came into play, and it worked.
An Alaskan Dall sheep hunt requires extreme physical fitness on the part of the hunter. After a full-day hike into base camp, hunters can expect to spend their days climbing and descending several thousand feet at a time as they attempt to glass for trophy rams.
The next morning, I repacked my backpack, got my personal bag together and made positively sure my bow was ready. At 9:30, Shane Reynolds, my guide, showed up at the hotel and we were off to meet Lance. Soon, we arrived at the small airport where Lance had just returned from a morning of flying. Lance's wife, Nikki, was there with their two kids so they could see their daddy off and give him one last kiss before he headed off again into the Alaskan bush.
Lance talked to Shane the entire drive up to the trail head in the famous Chugach Mountains. Almost all of unit 14C is located within Chugach State Park, which covers 495,000 acres (773 square miles) in Southeast Alaska. Fortunately, it was an area Lance and Shane knew well. They discussed certain land features and past hunts and described where particular bands of sheep possibly were and how we would go after them, make our approach and get a shot.
Accommodations on an Alaskan Dall sheep hunt aren't fancy. But after climbing up and down mountains all day in search of a trophy ram, extreme comfort isn't usually required to fall asleep.
I was like a kid on his first snipe hunt; not that I haven't been on long backpacks hunts or hunts in Alaska, but because I was excited to be one of the very few who had been granted permission to hunt these awesome animals with bow and arrow! Adrenaline was starting to build. We arrived at the trail head after what seemed like an eternity, and we immediately started final preparations for the nine-hour hike into the Alaskan wilderness.
It was about 10 a.m., and we were on the trail with our heavy packs. In my mind, I knew I was ready because I had trained for exactly this! Training is a must for this type of hunt.
My motto was "train harder than you will hunt," and now it was paying off.
After two hours, we stopped for a quick lunch break. I asked Shane how much farther it would be to our camp. "Oh, about 12 more miles should get us to the general area where we'll start looking for sheep," he said matter-of-factly. Believe me when I say I thought he was pulling my leg. He wasn't! Seven hours later, we stopped to set up camp, but only because it was about to get dark. We were still about two miles from where base camp would be located.
Mountains To Climb
The next morning was cold, and Shane had the stove fired up and hot coffee was soon to follow. The mountains that surrounded us were quiet, yet screamed with adventure. After a quick breakfast, we hastily packed camp and headed down the moose trail towards what I will call "Emotion Mountain." After about 15 minutes, Lance pointed out a healthy grizzly on the mountainside. You could tell these two spent many months each year hunting wild game in the Alaskan bush.
Only in their 30s, Lance and Shane are well-seasoned guides and they really know how to have a good time and make hunts fun; that is if Dall sheep hunting can really ever be described as fun! It can be the most rewarding hunting experience of your life, but fun? Ask an experienced sheep hunter that question, and I'm sure you'll get a surprising answer!
Later that afternoon, Lance and Shane spotted a band of sheep with a pretty good ram in the group. We looked him over through the spotting scope, and the general consensus was that he was good but we should continue glassing. After climbing for 45 minutes up a small "hill," as Shane called it, we leveled out and slowly moved around Emotion Mountain. We set up to glass for the rams we had seen earlier. As I sat there with the cold wind in my face, I let my mind race off again and dreamed of the smoker ram that lived here on this mountain.
Soon it was back to the task at hand, which was keeping up with my guides and spotting sheep. I thought I better get focused, because these two guides weren't here to baby-sit.
I'll tell you one thing; as long as I was safe, they weren't waiting! From the time we left the trail head until the time we got back, it was "Go Time," and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way!
t, guide Shane Reynolds, outfitter Lance Kronberger and author Cory C. Benge pose with Benge's trophy Dall sheep ram during an October 2008 hunt in Alaska's Chugach Mountains.
That evening, we climbed high on the mountain and glassed for a few hours. Lance and Shane kept whispering as they glassed the hills; "They're here. I know they're here."
After hearing that, I was confident the rams WERE there, but also knew they must have gone higher up the mountain and that going any further would not be in our best interest, as they most likely would catch our wind and be gone. And when sheep are gone, they are just that: G-O-N-E! We elected to back off and search for these rams from farther down the mountain. Soon after we descended, we found the rams and watched them get out of their beds and walk within 20 yards of the position we had just occupied! We continued watching them until they were out of sight, which was our sign to head back to camp and get ready for the next day.
A Little Too Far€¦
On morning three, we woke up to yet another awesome day. Yeah, my boots were frozen solid, and I had to pry my feet into them and wear them around camp for about 30 minutes before I could tie the laces, but it was still an awesome morning! The sun would soon be overhead; my feet would be warm and my belly full of Lance's gourmet instant coffee and oatmeal. Wait, we didn't even eat breakfast that morning. Instead, we threw some energy bars into our packs, gulped a cup of hot chocolate and headed up the mountain after the two rams we had seen the night before. Lance stayed on the valley floor, and Shane marched me up the mountain. I kept positi
ve and reminded myself I wasn't a slouch in the mountains either. I had hunted deep into the Montana wilderness many times, played rugby, raced mountain bikes and had trained hard. So, I figured I could keep up well enough. But I was fooling myself. By the time we got to our first glassing position, I was sweating like a fox in a forest fire and Shane was proving just how seasoned he actually was. He was hardly sweating!
After Shane let me catch my breath, he told me he was just going to peek around and over the edge to see where the rams were. Soon, he returned and said, "Let's go!"
Quickly, I put on my pack and followed him through some unfriendly terrain. Shane moved like a mountain goat, and I was struggling to keep up. Soon, we were right on top of two smoker rams, but still out of bow range. The wind was perfect, so we watched the rams feed and Shane got some great video footage.
After watching for an hour, the rams began to move uphill, and Shane and I followed, always climbing just a bit higher than the rams as to prevent them from catching our wind. Shane whispered -- "182 yards" -- a little too far for my Bowtech General. So we waited and waited, and climbed higher and higher, until we ran out of cover. It is at this point that many hunters elect to pull out the gun. But on this hunt, it just wasn't an option. This was a bowhunt, and I am a bowhunter. Eventually, the rams caught our wind and climbed up and away from danger.
A meal of fresh Dall sheep steaks was a welcome feast after four grueling days of climbing mountains on instant coffee, oatmeal and energy bars.
Later that day, we caught up with Lance and had lunch. We continued to glass Emotion Peak and found our two rams from earlier that morning. The only difference was they were about 2,000 feet higher, and I'm not sure even the great Alex Lowe could have climbed to where they decided to bed. We also spotted a group of five rams and watched them the rest of the day. They just kind of hung out and we bedded them down for the afternoon. Just before dark, three of the five came down the mountain to feed on some of the last remaining grasses. We left them there, feeding peacefully, but knew tomorrow would be a different day.
A 'Smoker Ram'
The next morning, we headed back to our glassing location about a mile up the river.
Soon, we spotted two of the rams from the previous evening. After watching them for a while, Lance said, "Look, they are right where we want them. Let's go!" And off to the races we went! Again, Lance and Shane showed why they are professional guides and sheep hunting extraordinaires. They are mentally tough, physically strong, and most important, DRIVEN to assist their hunters to succeed! When they say, "Let's go," they mean it! By the time I had shouldered my Mystery Ranch pack, I was 100 yards back and had to double time to catch up.
Twenty minutes later, we were directly across the river and about 1,500 feet below the two shooter rams. This time, Shane stayed to direct and Lance marched me up the mountain. Remember me telling you that on a previous day, it took about 30 minutes for my feet to warm up my frozen boots enough to tie them tight? Well, that never happened, and this time I was climbing in loose boots. But it didn't matter, because we had a "smoker ram" to stalk, and I had a great guide pulling me up the mountain to do just that!
After a 25-minute climb, Shane signaled that we were even with the Rams. Gulping breaths of air, Lance and I labored to whisper to one another about our plan of attack.
Shane signaled the rams were 300 yards away and as we moved, he signaled 200 yards.
Now, we moved like two hungry coyotes in a well-guarded chicken farm. Soon, Shane signaled 100 yards! I couldn't believe what was happening and adrenaline took over. I wasn't tired, cold or nervous. My feet didn't hurt. And like my two guides, I was feeling seasoned. Lance said, "Give me a puff," and I was like, huh? "Give me a puff!" Lance repeated, and then I remembered my wind checker. I checked the wind, and it was perfect. We continued to move to what we figured was about 80 yards from the rams.
There, we dropped our packs and became one with the mountain as we morphed into extreme stealth mode.
Author Cory C. Benge during the long but happy hike home after processing his Dall sheep ram. It was 22 miles from the site of the kill back to the truck!
For more information about bowhunting for Dall sheep in Alaska, contact Freelance Outdoor Adventures at 907-864-0630 or visit www.freelanceoutdooradventures.com.
After slithering another 30 yards, Lance slowly raised his head and peaked over the ridgeline. He immediately dropped back and whispered, "They are right there!" He ranged them at 50 yards. I nocked my arrow and started visualizing my broadhead slicing through the vitals of a "smoker ram." Lance nod
ded as if to say, "Let's go. It's your time, Cory." I slowly stepped toward the sheep and moved to the edge. White! I could see the back of one of the rams and knew he was feeding toward me. I ranged him at 42 yards, came to full draw and slowly stood up. As I cleared the grass, I suddenly moved my eyes to the left and spotted a ram at 18 yards! I immediately decided on the closer, bigger ram.
At the release, everything seemed to go into slow motion. The arrow struck just behind the heart and passed through to the gravelly mountainside. The ram ran uphill toward me, and I had already nocked another arrow. As he stood there, looking back at where he had been standing, I let another fly and watched the bright Blazer vanes disappear into the vitals.
After the shot, both rams ran away from us along the slope, but my ram was leaving a crimson trail for us to follow. Just 54 yards out, he crashed, rolled over and landed softly on the only flat spot in sight. At this moment, I heard a distant "Whoa; yeah!" from about a mile away. It was Shane celebrating. He had witnessed the entire stalk from the riverbed below.
I raised my arms to the sky, followed by my eyes and lastly, my heart. I could feel the powers from above touching me. Within seconds, I was experiencing emotions I had never experienced before. The lump in my throat brought on salty tears I just couldn't fight back. I dropped to my knees and placed my hands over my face. There was no stopping the flood of emotions!
Soon, Lance came to my side and slapped me on the shoulder. I hugged him and said, "Thank you!" I was so happy and thankful I could hardly talk. Lance Kronberger and Shane Reynolds had guided me to a real "smoker ram," and I was now feeling seasoned enough to be a part of their team. Which was a good thing, since we still had a 22-mile hike back to the truck.