As I made the last few steps up the boulder-strewn mountainside, the big ram came into view.
I’d like to say I’d been waiting 32 years for this moment, but I honestly hadn’t. The thought that I’d be walking up on the ram that completed my grand slam only entered my head a few months earlier. It wasn’t something that I aspired to, and while I was familiar with the term and the requirements of completing a grand slam, it was just something that I’d never dare imagine, let alone plan. Yet, here I was, about to place my hand on a desert bighorn—my fourth species required to complete a grand slam of North American sheep.
I didn’t grow up sheep hunting. In fact, my formative years were spent in the flat prairie country of Manitoba, Canada. It all started with three rams that were peacefully grazing alongside a highway in Alberta, Canada. They were the first live wild sheep I’d ever laid eyes on. This was back in the early 1980s and I was in Alberta on a vacation, but long before seeing my first sheep, I knew I wanted to hunt them.
After reading everything written by Jack O’Connor that I could lay my hands on from the time I was about six years old, this was all I could think about. And if there was any doubt about it, the sight of those first three rams confirmed it.
I have it in my mind that they were all big, full-curl rams. They may have been, but in hindsight, they could have all been four-year-olds, too. I honestly don’t know the details–except that they fanned the embers inside me. And at that moment, I knew I was moving to Alberta to become a sheep hunter. It was something I did the following year.
While I didn’t have a 270 Winchester like old Jack, I did have a Pre ’64 Model 70 chambered in 264 Winchester Magnum. Before picking up roots and moving to Alberta, I took it to a local gunsmith to have a fiberglass stock installed. I remember telling him that I was upgrading it so I could go sheep hunting. He seemed unimpressed, so I made sure to tell him a few more times, just so he knew I was going sheep hunting. The truth is, I didn’t have a clue what was involved in a sheep hunt. But, the wheels were in motion, and I didn’t hesitate to tell anyone that would listen about my plans.
My first bighorn still rates as the toughest backpack hunt I’ve ever done. I’m sure much of it was due to my inexperience and poor-quality gear. However, Mother Nature quite literally threw everything she had at us on that hunt. We spent a night trapped at 9,000 feet in one of the most intense lightning storms I’ve ever experienced. Once the thunder and lightning subsided, she dropped nearly 18 inches of snow on us. My only shelter from the storm that night was a big garbage bag that I managed to crawl inside. We also inadvertently got between a big sow grizzly and her two cubs and nearly had to shoot her. There were several other misadventures during that week-long excursion. I walked out of that hunt with frost-bitten feet, bumps and bruises and a heavy backpack laden with delicious sheep meat and nearly 30 pounds of sheep horns.
Dozens of Hunts
Since those early days, I’ve taken two more rams here in Alberta and have been along on dozens of more successful hunts with friends. I’ve had a pretty long sheep-hunting career, spanning 37 years so far, and I’m still going.
I’ve always had a bit of wanderlust,and can just never get enough of seeing new sheep country. So, after hunting bighorns for over a decade in Alberta, it wasn’t a surprise when friend and outfitter Darwin Watson had a last-minute cancellation on a Stone sheep hunt in British Columbia. I couldn’t pass it up. The hunter had paid a hefty deposit on the hunt and Darwin was willing to pass the savings along to me. It was still more than I could afford, but the allure of such an exotic hunt was just too powerful.
The very next day I found myself B.C. bound. The 14-day hunt stretched into 18 days and was without question the most extreme horseback hunt I’ve ever done. High-mountain blizzards, treacherous horse trails and flooded rivers all worked together to sabotage the sheep hunt. Nevetheless, we managed to get it done in overtime, and took a great 11-year-old ram. The experience had been overwhelming and taking such a grand old ram was just the icing on the cake. It did nothing to quell my sheep-hunting addiction, though.
A Second Chance
About 12 years later, a similar offer came up for a Dall sheep hunt with Gana River Outfitters in the Northwest Territories. I hadn’t been planning a Dall sheep hunt, but the opportunity was too good to turn down.
So, at 50 years old, I embarked on what turned into a grueling 10-day backpack hunt that saw us cover over 100 miles on foot, ending with a brutal two-day pack out with 100-pound-plus loads. I was physically beaten up but mentally exhilarated with the 14-year-old ram on my back. Without any intention, I’d taken three of the four North American wild sheep.
At that point, I figured my quest for North American sheep was over and I did some mountain hunting in Asia, including a Marco Polo in Kyrgyzstan.
I continued to apply for a desert bighorn permit in all the states that offered hunts and bought countless raffle tickets, even though I knew the odds were against me. Then in 2018, a good friend of mine, Jeff Eno, hunted with Rob Brown of Timber King Outfitting down in Sonora. He not only took one of the most beautiful rams I’d ever seen but gave an account of the exact type of hunt I craved but didn’t believe existed in Mexico. I’m not certain what made me pick up the telephone and call Rob, but I did—and at some point during the conversation, I booked a hunt for February 2020.
A Mexican Hunt
As they say, the rest is history. We hunted on Seri land right next to the Sea of Cortez, on a mountain Sheldon had written extensively about in his 1922 journals. Watching the huge, old ram fall down the boulder chute was surreal. I never imagined I’d be hunting rams in Mexico, let alone walking up on my grand slam ram. It was almost more than I could process.
I’ve been blessed to have been able to hunt sheep in a simpler and more affordable time and to live in a jurisdiction with over-the-counter tags.
For the budding sheep hunter these days, it must be daunting. In my younger years, if you worked some extra hours and did without a few luxuries, you could afford to go on an outfitted hunt. Now, outfitted sheep hunt prices are becoming out of reach for most average hunters. To complete a fully outfitted grand slam today (Rocky Mountain bighorn, Dall, Stone and desert bighorn), you are looking at $250,000 to $300,000 in costs—and that’s assuming you’re successful the first time on all the hunts.
Success rates run around 50% for the Stone and Rocky Mountain bighorn hunts, so the likelihood of doing one twice is pretty high. Dall sheep used to be the working-man’s sheep, but even they are edging their way up to $50,000 hunts. Sheep fever has grasped North American hunters, and most outfitters are now booking into 2025.
The Average Action?
So, what about the average working hunter? How can they get in on the action? One option is to follow in my footsteps and move to a jurisdiction with over-the-counter tags for residents. In Canada, Alberta offers residents tags for bighorns for a little over $50. British Columbia has bighorn, Stone and Dall sheep, although Dall sheep are on draw and the bulk of bighorn areas recently went on limited-entry draw as well. The odds of drawing are fairly long. Stone sheep may still be hunted on an over-the-counter tag, but residents are speculating that it will likely move to limited-entry draw soon as well. Northwest Territories residents may hunt Dall sheep, but accessing sheep country typically requires the use of a fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter. The Yukon Territory has both Dall and Stone sheep available and a resident sheep tag is just $10.
For American residents, the most realistic option is Dall sheep in Alaska. Residents may hunt sheep here yearly on over-the-counter tags and there are a number of draw units with fairly good odds.
Montana has what are referred to as five unlimited units. You are guaranteed to draw a tag here, but there is a limited quota on sheep and the success rates are incredibly low. This hunt is open to both resident and non-resident hunters. These are some very remote units having extremely challenging access and sheep populations that are very low. Units typically have a quota of two rams each, and once that is filled, the unit is closed. Many years, the quota is not reached, and hunter success runs around one to two percent. If you really want to experience a sheep hunt, however, this may be your only realistic option.
All of the western states have limited-entry draws available for residents and non-residents. There is a combination of Rocky Mountain bighorn, California bighorn and desert bighorn tags available. Each state has its own rules on how tags are allocated. Some are based on a priority system; others are totally random and some are a combination of both systems. If you aren’t in the draws, you will never draw a tag. So, you need to appreciate that the odds are incredibly long and your chances of drawing are almost zero. I’ve been applying in most of these systems for over 25 years and have never drawn a tag. Services like Huntin’ Fool are worthwhile for those doing their own sheep draws, since they will guide you to the best areas to apply.
Other options are to get in on raffles. Most state and provincial Wild Sheep organizations raffle off sheep hunts annually. These include Wild Sheep, Grand Slam Ovis Club and Safari Club International. Wild Sheep and Grand Slam Ovis Club both have opportunities for those that have never taken a ram to win a sheep hunt at their conventions, as well. While relying on luck of the draw may seem a poor strategy, for many hunters, it’s their only realistic opportunity.
I did some conversions recently and it’s shocking just how expensive sheep hunting has become. If we look at a Stone sheep hunt in the mid-1990s for $15,000 and convert that price to 2023 dollars, the hunt should be around $27,000. Currently, Stone sheep hunts are selling for $75,000 to $100,000, or three to four times the rate of inflation.
For the average hunter, the reality is getting priced out of range. A free-range Aoudad hunt in Texas is a much more affordable option, but prices are rising rapidly on them as well. A mountain goat hunt is every bit as exciting and grueling as a sheep hunt (if not more) for those who just want a mountain hunting experience. If sheep are the only thing that will quench your thirst, however, then it’s time to get in on all the draws and raffles. If that’s something that not currently in your budget but may be so a few years out, I suggest getting your place locked in with an outfitter, because availability is decreasing and prices keep increasing.