Your Subtitle text
Never Easy
By Tom Kuglin

So what happens when your best friend and hunting partner guides for Dall sheep in Alaska? Well in my case the years of seeing photos and hearing stories of the epic sheep hunts was just too much to take. I found myself scraping together a little bit of money, and sending it off to Dan Montgomery at Alaska Trophy Adventures in order to apply for one of those special permits everyone hopes but never expects to draw.

Now the friend in question is Hank Flatow, and he and I have hunted everything from elk to pheasants since our high school days in Helena, Montana. Seven years ago, he began working for Dan as a packer, eventually moving up to

guide. Every August and September Hank hones his sheep skills while I hunt elk and deer with the bow. During our rifle season, Hank returns to Montana and we pack horses and mules into the wilderness in search of those dark horned mountain bulls we’ve come to love. We’ve been together on so many hunts it’s impossible to pick one that stands out, and all I can say about the guy is there’s no one else in the world I would rather set foot in the woods with.

The last thing I expected was a call from Dan, late one January evening, letting me know I had hit the lottery, drawing one of two non-resident Dall sheep permits for Chugach unit 13D West.

I think Hank was even more excited than I was. We talked weekly about our hunt, going over gear, discussing training, and practicing shooting. I dedicated myself to getting in peak physical condition. My girlfriend Dusty is a certified personal trainer, and with her help I devised a workout and nutrition plan to get ready. Between January and August I lost almost 25 pounds and greatly improved my strength and conditioning. I’m lucky enough to live in Missoula, Montana, which has mountains literally jumping straight out of the University of Montana campus. I utilized everything I could, filling my backpack with weights and climbing steep trails, lifting weights, and grueling cardio workouts in the gym. Being in good physical shape gave me a mental lift, and I felt confident as I arrived in Wasilla, Alaska, home of Dan and Alaska Trophy Adventures.

As often happens in Alaska, weather kept us from flying in on schedule. Fogged in passes left us sitting at Dan’s house for hours, but finally visibility broke and I jumped in the Super Cub. Now on the enjoyable scale flying for me typically falls somewhere between going to the dentist and cleaning my bathroom. I’d usually rather just get it over with, but the Alaskan landscape was a sight to behold. I had never seen mountains like these in even the wildest places of Montana. Dan executed exceptional control of his Super Cub, and as we came in for a landing on a lake deep within the Chugach, the exhilaration of actually being on the ground hit me. I said bye to Dan and watched as he climbed from the valley and tipped his wings out of sight.

At Base camp, Hank and I discussed our strategy. We would spike out before the season, and hopefully be on top of some sheep opening morning. The weather was great except for a little smoke in the air from forest fires. The temperature climbed into the high 60s with hardly a cloud in the sky. Not typical sheep weather by any means. On our way we passed a number of mountain goats running around the cliffs above the lake, and even spotted three small rams. I couldn’t believe when they in turn spotted us at a distance of almost two miles. The first ram immediately turned straight up a cliff, and headed to the top of the mountain without breaking stride. His companions followed and eyed us for a few minutes before disappearing into the next drainage. My first experience with the primary defense of these sheep was certainly educational and impressive. They live in some nasty country, but their vision just sets them apart from any animal I had previously pursued.

Our spike camp gave us one of the most overwhelming views I have ever witnessed, as glacial streams ran from high

mountain basins all the way to the seemingly endless Tazlina Glacier. Hunting the Chugach certainly had no problem living up to its reputation as one of the most rugged hunts in North America. I honestly spent hours each day just trying to take in my surroundings, as every corner we passed provided us with another picturesque view.

Opening morning found us skirting cliffs and spotting drainages for rams. First thing we did spot two small rams right above our camp, including one close to full curl. Hank identified the ram as only five or six years old, and with such a coveted tag in my pocket, we continued on in search of more mature rams. At around 10:30 we glassed a band of three rams on a mountain a couple of miles away. We studied them for quite awhile with the spotting scope sizing up each ram to determine if these were worth our pursuit.

“There’s a spanker in there,” Hank announced. “The one in the lead is an absolute toad.”

Even to my untrained sheep eyes I could see the mass this ram carried. I smiled as I watched this gorgeous animal take minutes to scale cliffs we would need hours to climb. As the rams crested the mountain and left our sight, I think we both simultaneously realized we needed to relocate and get on this heavy horned ram. Within a couple of hours we had the spike camp on our backs, and headed back to the lake.

The next morning I was tending a blister (thanks to the low-life who stole my first pair of boots two weeks before I left for Alaska) and Hank decided to walk up towards where we thought the rams might be heading. I was just dozing off as Hank came running back into camp and told me to get my things.

“You won’t believe where those rams are!” he said. “Right off the glacier in a perfect spot to get on them.”

Just as we were getting ready to leave camp and make a try for the ram the wind shifted, now blowing straight towards the sheep’s new location. There was no way we could get within a 1000 yards without spooking them, and as the rams had already proven, they would surely leave the country and camp out on the worst possible mountain they could find. The decision was made to cool our heals, and remain in camp for the evening.

I awoke the third day of the season with that special feeling that today was the day. After an early morning breakfast of

oatmeal and coffee
, we left camp under clear skies and perfect wind. About half way up the glacier to where Hank had spotted the rams, we spotted a lone ram feeding high on the cliffs ahead of us. I thought this was tremendous as the heavy horned ram ran with several other rams. Hank, however, was not pleased.

“There’s no way to approach that sheep in that spot. We’d have to cross a mile of open ground.”

After a few minutes of contemplation, Hank decided we could play “cat and mouse” with the ram, only moving when he faced away from us. We had several strips of rock on the glacier that would give us cover if we played it right. Every time the ram fed away from us we inched a little closer. After five hours and at a distance of around 1200 yards we got a glimpse of more rams feeding right below him. A quick look with the spotting scope confirmed the heavy horned ram fed right along two other smaller rams, and the fourth ram we originally spotted still fed higher on the mountain.

We now had four sets of eyes to outwit instead of just one, but looking at that ram I knew we had to try. His horns were massive at the bases and carried their mass out almost like a bighorn, but still flipped out at the end in characteristic Dall sheep fashion. He was truly everything I could ever hope for in a ram.

In the elk mountains of Montana, Hank and I think of each other as close to equals. In the sheep mountains of Alaska, Hank has seven years of experience to my three days. Our hunting history made this guiding experience unique for the both of us. I knew I needed to check my ego and let him guide me. When Hank said move we moved. At one point all the rams faced away from us feeding for about 5 minutes before bedding again. We took the opportunity and managed to move in to 750 yards. It took another two hours of waiting for the rams to get out of their beds and begin feeding again. Then we got the break we needed. All the rams fed behind a small ridge and we sprinted towards them. We dove on to the rocks just as the heavy horned ram fed back over the rise and into plain view. We had come perilously close to blowing the whole deal, and got very lucky we didn’t get pinpointed.

Now at a distance of 380 yards, we discussed the possibility of a shot. I have immense confidence in my Tikka 7MM, but it was far from a gimmie shot, especially when shooting steep uphill at a once in a life time Dall ram. We decided that this was simply not an acceptable shot at this point in the hunt, and would wait it out. For two more hours we sat on the glacier as the ice sapped our heat.

At around hour eight of a stalk that began at 7:30 that morning, one of the smaller rams got up to feed right across a face in front of us. A few minutes later, the heavy horned ram stood from his bed and followed him. Hank and I belly crawled into a depression that got us 50 yards closer. We dropped a backpack and I started to ready myself for a shot.

“He’s 275 yards,” Hank whispered. “Bottom ram.”

I remember thinking at the time it was funny Hank needed to tell me which ram to shoot, but I guess better to be safe. I was truly rattled as I prepared for the shot. I settled myself down enough, and centered my 300 yard cross hair low behind his shoulder. As I eased tension on the trigger, the ram disappeared in the recoil.

“Hit him again!”

I instinctively chambered another round as the adrenaline shot through my body. Just as I got back on him, the ram stumbled and began somersaulting down the mountain. Hank and I screamed and hugged and I threw my hat in the air.

“Is there anything better than that?” I asked my exuberant guide and friend. “We made it happen, Hank. What a stalk.”

Hank went back to retrieve the rest of our gear and I had a few minutes to sit on a rock and take it all in. I’ve been less than 20 yards from screaming bull elk, watched and old Shiras bull fall to my 375 H&H, rode up on grizzly bears in the Montana wilderness, photographed mountain lions held only a few feet away by baying hounds, snowshoed into the high country with 20 feet of snow on the ground trapping pine marten, and taken a wolf in Montana’s inaugural season, but no wilderness adventure has ever compared to seeing my ram go down with my best friend by my side. I knew at that moment I was lucky in a way so few people will ever realize.

We walked up to the ram and could not have been happier. His mass carried out well in typical Chugach fashion. Just holding his head up for pictures turned out to be a challenge. After about an hour of pictures and conversation, Hank caped while I boned out my ram, and we packed him down off the mountain. That night was a tremendous sense of

accomplishment and relief as we sat by the lake watching the waves lap at the beach. We had done everything right, and pulled off as close to a flawless hunt as I have ever been a part of. We backed off when we needed to, became aggressive when the time was right, and never got caught in the wide open by four sets of sheep eyes. The result of our efforts culminated in the biggest ram Hank has ever guided to, officially scoring 162 6/8 B&C.

I’m sure the pride still shone hard in our smiling faces when Dan returned in the morning to fly me out. As he gunned the floatplane into the air, I felt some sadness as I watched the Chugach peaks disappear behind me. It’s a place I will never forget and will forever hope to return. Although I may never hunt another Dall sheep in my life, I have it on record with Hank that if draws a tag I’ll do what ever it takes to be by his side when he gets the chance to take another big ram.

There are lots of people to thank. Hank Flatow, Loren and Dan Montgomery at Alaska Trophy Adventures on the hunting end. More importantly my parents and my girlfriend Dusty for supporting me. It takes an incredible amount of dedication to be ready for a Dall sheep hunt, and realizing my dream could not have happened without all of you.