The Accidental Grand Slam

It all started with one ram. Well, the truth is, 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 upon. This was back in the early 1980s and I was in Alberta on vacation, but long before seeing my first sheep, I knew I wanted to hunt them. After reading everything of Jack O’Connor’s that I could lay my hands on since I was about six years old, it’s all I could think about. And if there were any doubt, the sight of those first three rams confirmed it. I have it in my mind that they were all big full-curl rams, and they may have been but in hindsight, they all could have been four-year-olds too. I honestly don’t know but they fanned the embers inside me and at that moment, I knew I was moving to Alberta to become a sheep hunter; something I did the following year.

I’m not certain what it is about sheep that takes such a firm hold on some. They are arguably one of the most beautiful looking big game animals in North America and they inhabit some of the most spectacular landscapes imaginable but there is more. What that more is may not actually be tangible but rather more esoteric. Some people want to hunt sheep. For me, there was no option; I had to hunt sheep. I somehow felt I would never be complete if I didn’t. To those that have never felt the need to hunt sheep, this may all sound a bit irrational, but for those that have heard the horn, you will understand. It’s funny but until I moved to Alberta, I didn’t know a single person that had hunted any of the North American sheep species. My entire exposure to sheep hunting was Jack’s words in the pages of Outdoor Life. They left an impression.

While I didn’t have a 270 Winchester like old Jack, I did have a Pre ’64 Model 70 chambered in 264 WM and 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 but 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 going on a sheep hunt, but the wheels were in motion, and I didn’t hesitate to tell anyone that would listen.

I arrived in Alberta in the summer of 1986 and hit the sheep mountains almost immediately and in the fall of 1987, took my first bighorn, a fat ewe. We walked a long way back and never really considered how we’d pack a sheep out. I didn’t have a backpack of any description and ended up carrying the entire ewe out over my shoulders. It was close to midnight when we got back to the truck. I vowed to learn a lot more about sheep hunting. And it was a good thing I did, because it was the following year that I took my first ram, a big full curl in southern Alberta.

My first bighorn still rates as the toughest backpack hunt I’ve done. I’m sure much of it was due to inexperience and poor-quality gear but 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 crawled inside of. We also inadvertently got in between a big sow grizzly and her two cubs and nearly had to shoot her and there were several other misadventures during the 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 horn.

Since those early days, I’ve taken two more rams here in Alberta and have been along on dozens more successful hunts with friends. I’ve had a pretty long sheep hunting career, spanning 35 years so far and I’m still going; maybe not as hard I once was but I’m not ready to quit yet. Undoubtedly, some sheep hunters get into sheep hunting with the ultimate goal of one day taking all four of the North American wild sheep. Typically referred to as a grand slam, this is the pinnacle of hunting in North America for many. I can say with certainty that it never crossed my mind the day I saw those first rams in Alberta. In fact, it’s something that never really crossed my mind until February 2020, when I was standing over a magnificent desert bighorn in Sonora, Mexico. It just kind of happened.

I love hunting new areas for new species. The older I get, the greater this desire becomes. It’s not about collecting different species but rather experiencing everything hunting has to offer. So, after hunting bighorns for over a decade in Alberta, it shouldn’t have come as too big of a surprise when I began to feel the wanderlust to experience sheep hunts for other species in new areas. As with many things in my life, it just kind of happened. Friend and outfitter, Darwin Watson, had a last-minute cancellation on a Stone sheep hunt in British Columbia. 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 and 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, but 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 sheep hunting addiction.

It was about 12 years later when 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 and 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.

As with the other two sheep, I had no real intention of hunting desert bighorn but did apply in all the draws I could in the western U.S. and bought countless raffle tickets. I really wanted to experience a desert sheep hunt and see them in their natural environment but figured it was well outside my budget, so I’d just go along with a friend and be satisfied with that. That changed in 2018 when 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 also 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, booked a hunt for February 2020.

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 about in his journals in 1922. Even 100 years ago, Sheldon felt it was the best area in Mexico for big rams. He wasn’t wrong. The area had experienced higher than normal precipitation and the rams were still extremely high in the mountains for that late in season, due to feed being plentiful. After a couple of botched stalks, we spotted my ram late one afternoon. He was high on the mountain and with daylight fading, we knew we had to climb fast but in the intense heat and humidity it was a struggle.

After nearly three hours of climbing, we came to a small opening, 618 yards from the ram. Rob stated the obvious. It was as close as we were going to get without losing sight of the ram until we were virtually right on top of him. The heavy cover and topography really protected the rams on this mountain, and it wasn’t hard to see why they grew old and big there. I settled in behind the rifle and everything felt good. About 20 minutes later the ram stood up from his bed and my finger tightened up on the trigger.

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. It took me nearly 18 months to register my Grand Slam. I wasn’t certain if I just wanted it to be my personal experience, but I also felt obligated to share it with other hunters. Not because of my accomplishment but in honor of the wild sheep that live in North America and the amazing places they reside. And to think it all began with seeing three rams in Alberta, enjoying an afternoon meal alongside the highway. I am truly blessed and humbled.

 

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