Willie Hettinger is without a doubt one of the most successful sheep guides in the industry today. He also happens to be one of the nicest, toughest, and most knowledgeable sheep hunters you could ever spend time with in the mountains around. While Willie has successfully guided big rams all over the globe, his track record of helping his hunters take giant rams in Montana (three over 200 net points) has solidified his reputation as one of the best in the business.
Humble and constantly improving his craft, you will surely enjoy a few great tips from one of sheep hunting’s consummate professionals.
Name: Willie Hettinger
Hometown: Harlowton, MT
Animals/Species Hunted: Sheep, Moose, Deer, Elk, Bears, Mountain Goat, and Predators
Vias or Verde: Vias
Favorite piece of KUIU Apparel and/or Gear: KUIU Super Down Jacket
How did you get into guiding/videoing sheep hunters?
I started out videoing my brothers’ and friends’ hunts: whitetails, bears, antelope etc. Then in 2002 Brian Kadrmas of Dakota Taxidermy asked if I wanted to go to Russia to film him and a couple other clients hunting Kamchatka Snow Sheep and possibly a brown bear. Count me in! Not the most common first sheep hunt, but what an experience and of course I was hooked! That led to my first trip to the Wild Sheep show in Reno, where I met a guide/outfitter by the name of Bart Lancaster. The rest is history as they say. Bart has been guiding since he was 14 yrs old so I just soaked up as much knowledge as I could. Our friendship and his belief in me has led to almost all of the opportunities that have fallen in my lap. There is no step-by-step approach to getting into sheep hunting. It takes someone giving you an chance to learn and work hard and the rest is how you take advantage of that chance and how you give back to those who have given you the opportunities.
Where all have you hunted sheep?
I have been fortunate to go sheep hunting in lots of great places: Kamchatka Russia for Snow Sheep and Big Horn; Alaska, NWT and the Yukon for Dall Sheep; British Columbia for Stones Sheep; Rocky Mountain Big Horn in the Missouri Breaks of Montana, Hell’s Canyon Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico; California Big Horns in Oregon, Washington and North Dakota; and Desert Big Horns on Tiburon Island Mexico. I’ve also taken two trips to hunt Argali in Mongolia over the last couple years that were incredible!
What do you consider the the most challenging hunt you have ever been involved in?
The most challenging hunt was my own archery Dall sheep hunt in the Chugach Mountain range in Alaska. First of all, getting to within bow range of any sheep can be a tall order, then factoring in the Chugach mountains, which are the steepest, nastiest range I have been in, not to mention the worst alder and devils club in the world! The weather in Alaska is ever-changing and it was no different on my hunt. We lost four days of ten to snowy, whiteout conditions. We got to within 180 yards of a great 10 1/2 yr old ram a couple times and I just couldn’t close the deal! Although I did not kill a ram, the hunt is one of the best adventures I have experienced and would love to give it another go! Lance Kronberger outfitted the hunt and along with my guide Lyle and packers James and Bernie, we had a great time in the mountains. This hunt was before Jason created KUIU and it would have made a difference. Gear wise, I am much more well prepared now! Fortunately I got another opportunity to hunt Dalls in NWT and got a great old ram with my bow.
When you aren’t guiding what is your favorite animal to hunt for yourself?
I catch a lot of flack from my mountain hunting buddies for this, but if I had to choose one animal to hunt it would be the Whitetail Deer. I grew up in South Dakota and one of my first memories of hunting is sitting in a tree at age 10 with my grandpa, watching him whack a beautiful 5×5 buck on the Cheyenne River bottom. I have been addicted to it ever since. When I am not in the mountains looking for sheep or elk, I am on a river bottom trying to out-smart a big Whitetail with my bow. I hunt Montana, North and South Dakota and Kansas every year if time allows!
What is your favorite sheep to hunt, guide, and film?
I would have to say Stones Sheep are my favorite because of the overall adventure. There are no easy Stones Sheep. When you find a shooter ram, it is like finding a diamond! Riding horseback into unbothered wilderness and setting up spike camp in an unnamed hanging basin is a thrill like no other.
The biggest myth in the outdoor industry seems to be the “professional hunter.” Where do you live and what do you really do for a living?
My wife and I live on her family’s ranch, with our two kids, just outside of Harlowton, Montana. We have a small herd of Angus cows and we own and operate the state liquor store. I have been incredibly fortunate, in that guiding has become my full time “job.” The saying is certainly true…If you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.
What is the best advice you could give someone headed on a sheep hunt?
The best advice I can give is make sure you have done your homework on the outfitter or the area you are hunting. Also, depending on where you are hunting sheep, have the best gear you can afford, a comfortable pair of boots, and get in shape!
You have been on some really big rams. What is the key to judging big sheep?
I wish I had a magic formula–I have been wrong more than I have been right! I think experience is the biggest factor….looking at lots of sheep, putting your hands on lots of sheep and scoring lots of sheep with your own hands. Also knowing the potential of the sheep in the area you are hunting is very important: average bases, lengths, and thirds. Picture reference is also very important. I try to get as many scouting photos as I can.
What advice would you give a young guy wanting to get into the business? What do you know now you wish you would have known 20 years ago?
Get experience. Go on as many sheep hunts as you can, doing whatever it takes to be a part of the team. No one is an expert at anything the first time they try it. Listen to the people who have the experience and work hard to learn from them. Always stay humble and positive. What do I know now that I wish I would have known 20 years ago? I wish I would have started to put in for sheep draws 20 years ago!
What sheep hunt has been the most satisfying for you? Is there one that sticks with you that didn’t work out?
There was a Ram we named Chip that lived down on the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico that took 3 years and 4 hunters to finally get him in our packs! When Greg Strait finally put him down from 500 yards in knee-deep snow, it was especially gratifying. He was one of the only rams I’ve come across that seemed self aware. If you looked at him too long in the spotting scope, it was like he could feel it and he would calmly get out of his bed and go three miles up the canyon. We had a guy miss him at 100 yards….twice! He busted us on the stalk twice and when he would bust you, he reacted like a whitetail deer. For three years I would take the long drive from Montana to New Mexico, hoping ole Chip was still alive and when you finally found him and identified the triangle-shaped chip out of his left horn, it was like running into an old friend.
The most disappointing ram was a Montana ram that we had watched for three years, always calling him our #2 ram. After killing our #1 ram, which was a great ram, (11 1/2 years old 198 and # 3 P&Y) a good friend of mine (I won’t mention any names) went after another ram we called Goldie. His good friend put an arrow in his shoulder blade at 20 yards. The ram lived and was eventually taken by another hunter and scored 203 6/8. OUCH!! Shows how much I know about judging sheep!
What optics are you using? Do you prefer an angled or a straight spotting scope?
I use the Swarovski 95mm HD with the angled eye piece. I could never go back to a straight eye piece again! My binos are also Swarovski 10x42s with rangefinder and 15×56 SLC.
How do you stay in sheep shape?
The older I get the harder it is! It seems to go away a lot faster than it comes back! I try to do something 5 days a week, mostly cardio and if I can be outside, that is where I go. I also use the local gym when I have to. I don’t run much anymore, it is too hard on my joints. I do lots of stairs with a pack on or my kid on my back.
What is your philosophy on gear?
It has changed quit a bit over the years– it started out as whatever I could scrounge up or afford. For instance, the first year I went up to Bart Lancaster’s place in BC, I wore a pair of Danner light hikers! Needless to say it took a lot of glue and duct tape to get me through that hunt. After doing lots of on the job training, now it is important for me to be light, dry and comfortable, no matter the weather situation I am in. That includes everything from clothing, pack, tents, sleeping pad, and cooking equipment.
What is the best piece of gear most guys don’t have? What is in your pack that someone would be surprised to see? Is there anything you are using no one should be without?
My favorite piece this last summer, fall and winter has been the KUIU Super Down Jacket. It is so light weight, but so warm. I don’t leave home without it. It rained and was cold for three weeks in BC in August, so when I would get to the top of the mountain, that piece was like having a heater in my pack. I am a profuse sweater, so it is essential for me to have layers that not only dry quickly but are light to start with because I always have to pack extra dry layers. I have the whole KUIU system from skin to shell and the best way I can explain it is that I have never gone into the mountains lighter and been more comfortable. The one thing in my pack that I never go without is lighters.
What is more important on a hunt: mental or physical toughness?
I think mental toughness is much bigger. I have seen some guys who had no business being on top of a mountain taking a photo with their Grand Slam ram. But they were, and it was not because of there physical ability. Conversely, I have had guys quit that were in good enough shape but just not mentally tough.
What is the key to taking a good field photo?
The biggest factor is getting the animal set up correctly and in accordance with the best light source. Learning from someone who takes good field photos is the first step. Second take a thousand pictures, and you will get one or two that are awesome.