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Author: Craig Boddington
Hunting wild sheep isn't better than other pursuits - but it is a special thrill!
Jack O'Connor didn't start the lore, legend, and often myth about sheep hunting, but he sure did popularize it-and lived to regret it. He also did not coin the phrase "Grand Slam" (that honor goes to Grancel Fitz), but O'Connor popularized this business about taking one each of the four North American sheep. He lived to regret that as well. I share his regrets, and for the same reasons.
First off, it galls me when one group thinks they are somehow better than another group, especially within our tight little sport. Many sheep hunters become so enamored of the high country and the rams that live there that they have little interest in other types of hunting. This I can fully understand, but some serious sheep hunters become, well, elitists, believing that other types of game-and those who pursue them-are somehow less noble.
Second, while I fully concede that we must all hunt for our own reasons, it bothers me a lot when I see hunters in search of glory rather than the pure joy of the hunt. Sheep fever is understandable, because the mountains are magnificent and so are the great rams that live among them. Grand Slam fever, sort of a hunter's one-upmanship, is different. As O'Connor would have put it, this "gives me the vapors."
Finally, what I regret most about the status and stature of sheep hunting is that it has made tags very difficult to draw and guided sheep hunts extremely expensive. This is purely a matter of supply and demand; there are few sheep permits and lots of people who want them-so either drawing a permit is like winning the lottery; or booking a guided hunt is expensive. Just how expensive depends somewhat on which sheep.
Dall sheep hunts are still quite reasonable, because their range is huge and their numbers are high. Stone sheep hunts and bighorn hunts in non-draw areas (B.C. and Alberta) average about twice the cost of a Dall sheep hunt. Desert bighorn sheep hunts can be readily booked in Sonora-but hold onto your wallet. Asian sheep hunts vary considerably, but are on a par with North American sheep depending on range and availability of permits.
I have no problem with an outfitter trying to make a decent living, but here's the anomaly: Wild goats also live in sheep mountains, and in fact tend to occupy rougher and often higher country, so are just as difficult to hunt. But in Alaska and western Canada Rocky Mountain goats can be hunted-with the same outfitters-for a small fraction of the cost of a sheep hunt. Similarly, in Asia the beautiful, long-horned ibex generally share their range with sheep, and ibex can be hunted for a pittance-in the same camp with the same outfitter. This is pure marketing based on the cult of sheep hunting. I hate it. But I can't change it, so every now and then I buy into it. Because sheep hunting is indeed special.
I do not agree that sheep hunting is somehow a higher form of the sport, nor (hardly!) do I have any interest in hunting sheep to the exclusion of all else. But I do have an unhealthy dose of sheep fever. I've been trying to shake it for years, but instead it keeps getting more virulent. There are reasons for this. Wild sheep are hunted among some of the world's most spectacular scenery. The same can be said for other types of game, it's true. But as a group-or individually-the wild sheep of the world are some of the most elegant, and often most spectacular, among all the world's wildlife. Also the tastiest! Given today's prices nobody hunts sheep for meat. But it's a memorable bonus, because no wild meat in the world is the equal of wild sheep. Although magnificent trophies, the various wild goats are barely edible!
My sheep hunting career started very early. Clear back in 1973 Dad and I went on a moose, caribou, and goat hunt in northern B.C.; as I recall the total hunt cost was $1200. This was before Stone sheep went on quota up there. I came into camp with a $25 sheep tag in my pocket, and for an additional $500 the outfitter let me take a very nice Stone ram. Today the cost for Stone sheep alone is about 10 times that total hunt cost! But despite that running start I must admit my sheep hunting didn't progress very far, at least not until the last few years. Oh, I did some Dall sheep hunting along the way; after all, they're the most affordable of our wild sheep. And I started applying for all the Rocky Mountain and desert sheep tags when I was in my 20's-but nothing happened for a long, long time.
Partly it was my fault. Certainly I could have done a lot of sheep hunting for the money I spent in Africa. But sheep hunting is a single-minded pursuit that requires patience as well as effort. A better scribe than I am wrote that one's 40's is the right age for sheep hunting. You're not in as big a hurry as when you're younger-but you can still get up the mountains. It wasn't by design, but my 40's have seen the bulk of my sheep hunting. During this period of my life persistence finally paid off with a Montana bighorn tag in '94 and a Wyoming sheep tag in '98. In the early 90's I tried to get a better Stone sheep and failed-but in 1999, in the Yukon, I took the kind of Dall sheep I'd always wanted.
Too, I had both the desire and ability to see some of the world's other sheep ranges. In '96 I hunted the rolling Mediterranean hills of Turkmenistan for Trans-Caspian Urial sheep, and in '99 I climbed to the top of Tajikistan's Pamirs to hunt the Marco Polo sheep. In 2001 I hunted Barbary sheep on the southern edges of the Sahara, and then climbed the peaks above the Tibetan Plateau for Chinese blue sheep.
Among the things I have learned is that, while wild sheep vary considerably in size, color, and shape of horn, sheep hunting varies but little. It's always a sport that requires considerable effort to get up into the high basins that sheep love. Once there, it requires considerable patience, for sheep hunting is purely a game of lots and lots of glassing culminating in a careful, well-planned stalk.
Serious sheep hunters don't want to hear this next part, but I am totally convinced that wild sheep aren't nearly as wary as most varieties of deer. They see well, it's true. But they spend at least some of their time-often all of their time-in relatively open country where they can be glassed from afar. So with good optics you can see them, and see them clearly, without spooking them. They pay some attention to scent, but nothing like deer. A foreign sound like metal scraping on rock will alarm them, but rolling rocks are unlikely to; their ears are very much a tertiary line of defense.
If the terrain allows-and you read it properly-you can stalk sheep quite readily. There is always the potential for a long shot, but usually it isn't necessary. Altogether, including a few non-native mouflon and aoudad here in the U.S., I think I have taken about 25 wild sheep of nine varieties. Only one, my Yukon Dall ram, was a genuine long shot at something over 400 yards. Of the rest, a lot more have been closer to 100 yards than to 300 yards.
The terrain ultimately dictates the difficulty in making a stalk-and also how close you can get. But some sheep are spookier than others. In North America our sheep herds are well-managed and well-protected, and generally quite "stalkable." In my experience the Asian sheep are much spookier, perhaps because there are more wolves and almost certainly because there is still some amount of poaching. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that much of the Asian high country is much more open than our typical North American sheep country. Still, even these sheep can be stalked. I took my Marco Polo ram at 350 yards, not an outlandish distance-and I crawled much closer to other rams I did not shoot.
So, in terms of pure hunting challenge, I rate any wild sheep far down on the scale from any mature whitetail. But the wild ram is truly a spectacular creature that lives in even more spectacular country. It's worth it just to share his wind-swept ridges-and much of the challenge lies not in the animal itself, but in the effort expended to get to where he lives.
If you never get sheep fever don't think less of yourself for it-and don't take any guff from the sheep hunting elite. But be careful, because the slightest exposure could lead to a full-blown illness that time will not cure. I'm just about to enter my fifth decade, so I will do no more sheep hunting in my 40's. I have noticed lately that the mountains are starting to get steeper and higher. I hope this doesn't accelerate too rapidly, because I want desperately to climb to many more ridges and see the wild rams in the high basins beyond.
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