Brendan Burns and I just returned from an amazing sheep hunt in the Northern Yukon Territory. There is something truly special about the rugged and untouched Dall sheep areas of the far north that draw me back every year. Nothing tests my resolve and the gear we build like a trip into sheep country.
Below is a photo essay of our hunt. All photos were taken by the legendary Paul Bride.
When Brendan and I were looking at where to do our annual northern sheep hunt, we reached out to Chris McKinnon at Bonnet Plume Outfitters to see if he had any areas they had not hunted in recent years. Chris smiled and told us he had exactly what we were looking for. He had a rugged valley with extremely tough access that they had not taken a ram out of in five years. After showing us a map of the country and explaining the route we would take to access it, we booked the hunt on the spot.
Chris gave us one guarantee: big adventure, tons of miles in rarely seen country, and the possibility of some old, never before hunted rams. What more could we ask for?
There are a dozen Dall sheep areas you could argue as the best on the planet, with the Bonnet Plume area being one of them. A history rich hunting concession, Chris and Sharron McKinnon have owned and operated Bonnet Plume Outfitters since 2004. One of the most remote areas in all of the North, Bonnet Plume is known for their traditional Supercub and Jet boat backpack Dall sheep hunts, giant Alaska Yukon Moose, and big caribou. Chris is passionate about the management of the sheep in his area, taking only a small number of old rams each season. Four times in the last ten years they have had the oldest average age ram taken out of all Yukon outfitters.
We arrive in Whitehorse late in the evening, spending the night before boarding a caravan for the two- hour flight to Bonnet Plume’s main camp. Once in camp Chris shows us on a more detailed map where we are headed and introduces us to our guides, Brad and Brad. Brad Alexander is a BC native who has been guiding Stone and Dall sheep hunters for close to twenty years. Brad Caley is a Kiwi in his second season guiding at BPO. Aside from being a bit camera shy, they are both as tough as they come.
The plan is for us to Jet Boat up a river and then bushwhack up a deep valley that will take us to the main drainage that splits the mountain range. Where we go from there will depend what we see, but we intend to end up at a known sheep lick by the end of the hunt. It’s a staggering amount of country on a map. Neither Brad A. nor Brad C. have ever been in this area, so this will be a new territory and a new experience for all of us.
We grab lunch, double-check our gear, load our packs, and jump in a jet boat for a short ride to our drop-off point. As we gather up to hit the mountain, Chris tells us he had seen a big ram from the air a month earlier at the spot we are headed. He offers no description of the ram, no information on his whereabouts, and simply says, “You will know him when you seen him. Good luck.”
For the remaining 10 hours we climb deep into the valley, and are welcomed to this sheep country by intermittent pounding rain, thick brush, and more stream crossings than we can count. It’s easy to see why no one has been in this country in years.
We throw up camp right at dark in a downpour, wake up in the rain, and continue our climb for 7 more hours before breaking out into the head of the valley. It has taken us twice as long to get here than anticipated, but we are finally in sheep country.
We take a break at the top of the mountain to let the fog lift before descending into the valley we intend to hunt. Getting here has been a grind.
Immediately upon dropping into the valley, Brad A. spots a band of rams near the valley floor. One of them is a monster, and unlike any sheep I have ever seen before.
We immediately drop our camp in a small cut and make a plan to close the distance. This is not a sheep that needs judging: he is old and impossibly long. Every year on our sheep hunt, Brendan and I switch who gets to be the first shooter. We both joke how bad his timing is to be second in line this year.
We work down the drainage to 700 yards and get pinned down for several hours by a smaller ram above us. Late in the evening, the long ram and two others move across the drainage and up the other side into some nasty rocky cuts. We watch him for a couple of hours until he beds. The spot is favorable for a stalk.
With only 2 hours of light remaining, we decide to go after him. We climb straight up to the top of the mountain two cuts up the valley from the ram. Slowly picking our way across the mountain face, we pop out two hundred yards away, level with the ram. It is a perfect setup. Brad A. throws his spotter on the ram to confirm what we already know: he is old and big.
One well-placed shot sends the ram tumbling down the mountain. We scramble down a chute to put our hands on the sheep, hoping he did not get to busted up in the fall.
Thankfully, the ram rolls only a short distance before hanging up. Ten more feet and he would have ended up at the bottom.
Words cannot describe the feeling of taking a ram of this caliber, and in this setting. It is the type of ram you hunt your whole life to see. While every ram and ever hunt is special, this ram is the sheep I have been hoping to cross paths with since my first sheep hunt.
At 10 years old and forty-two inches on both sides, this ram is spectacular in every way.
With light fading fast we photograph the ram, prep him for pack out and dive off a vertical chute in the dark. It is a two-hour, pitch-black scramble back to where we dropped camp, and the perfect end to two long days.
The next morning we all enjoy a little extra rest, take care of the ram, and prepare for another grind with more weight on our backs. With a ram down so early in the hunt, we are going to have to get the meat and cape taken care of before looking for a ram for Brendan.
The nearest cub strip is a small X on the map and is at least two days away on foot. The route is through some good country and roughly in the direction we are headed. Going back the way we came is not an option, so we prepare for another grind.
Late in the day we make camp on a gravel bar where the drainage to the strip dumps in. Fresh meat and plenty of wood calls for a feast on fire roasted sheep back straps. We refuel and prepare for yet another long day of hiking.
By late afternoon of day 4 we are in striking distance of the strip. Chris arrives shortly after we do in his cub.
Chris congratulates me on my ram after confirming the age rings. Like most outfitters, “old” is his favorite size ram. The long beautiful horns are just a bonus.
After looking over the ram, he informs us he has never seen this ram, and it is definitely not the sheep he saw a month earlier. This is an amazing testament to the area for a big ram like this to have slipped through unseen. It also means we walked past a different big ram in the last two days.
We continue on with the original plan on towards the lick. Chris takes the ram with him, lightening our packs temporarily.
There is a pass we need to be able to get through a days walk away. The distance we need to cover is going to leave us tight on time.
We hike late into the evening and camp in a spectacular basin within a few hours of a make-or-break pass.
We rise early and head for the pass.
We arrive at the pass midday.
It looks worse than on the map, potentially impassable. We enlist Paul to take a look at a route down. Paul is not only an amazing photographer, he is a seasoned climber with more experience than all of us combined. Paul takes off his gear and scrambles down to see if there is a route. He returns shortly with bad news: there is no safe way down in any direction. We take a breather and assess the situation.
We are halfway through the hunt and halfway to where we need to be. The next place we can pass through is a full day hike away, putting us two days from the lick. We have three days left to hunt, accounting for the hike out.
After consulting the Brads on all our options, we call an audible and change plans. We decide to turn around and head back where we came from. The big ram we did not see in the drainage where I killed mine has been on Brendan’s mind. He makes the final call to go all the way back. It is a bold move with the time we have left and the amount of ground to retrace.
Brad sets a route that will get us in glassing position within a day. From there we will need to decide which areas to check in our last few days. We head down the valley we just came up with no time to waste.
We head back, camp late where we run out of light, and hike all the next day, arriving in the afternoon at a pass that looks into where I killed my ram. We camp high in the pass and are glassing at light.
With two days to hunt we scour the valley identifying several sheep we need to get a closer look at. We can see more sheep than we have time to hunt. Hopefully luck is on our side and one is a big ram. We game plan in motion and drop back into the valley.
We hit the bottom of the valley late in the day, drop our camp on a gravel bar and head upstream. Over the next few hours we find and eliminate 3 separate bands of rams that are either not old or big enough.
Late in the day Brad C. spots a ram high in a basin as we are walking back to camp. The ram is a long way off, too far to go after with the light we have left. We just get set up in the scope and get one glimpse that it may be a good ram before rain rolls in an shuts out visibility. Brad A. has a good feeling it may be our ram. On the hike back to camp we lay out the last day’s hunt. We will make a blind run early and assume it is a shooter ram.
Up early, we climb high into the next drainage over from where we left the ram. By noon we get to a vantage point where we can see the him.
Bingo. He is a big ram, heavy and old. We don’t need to look long at this sheep: he is what we came for.
Brad plans a stalk that will put us above the ram. We close the gap to five hundred yards. Brendan and Brad sneak closer using a knife ridge above the bedded ram and get as close as possible.
The shot is exactly three hundred yards and the ram never knows what hits him. We make our way to the ram and for the first time in 8 days we are no longer on the move.
The sheep is an ancient 13 year old hammer of a ram, broomed on both sides and over full curl. No one appreciates an old ram more than Brendan. What a spectacular finish to an amazing hunt.
With both tags punched on big rams, we take our time photographing and processing the ram. It is crazy how this hunt worked out. We kill both our rams within two miles of each other after hiking for a week.
Camp is a welcome site with plenty of wood to enjoy some more sheep backs traps and tenderloins. Nothing tastes better than fresh sheep in camp.
With the weather on our side, the last day breaks clear. We linger a little longer in camp and enjoy another meal of sheep before packing up for he long grind out. We decide to go back the way we came in, which promises to be unpleasant but it is the closest route.
By noon, we make it to the valley we came in on the first day. It seems brushier, longer than it did on the way in. By late afternoon we give up side hilling and busting brush and follow the creek out.
The river is a welcome site, and a boat ride to basecamp brings us back to where we started.
We want to thank Chris and Sharron McKinnon for providing us with first class hospitality and absolute professionalism in how they operate their business. Chris is a very passionate Outfitter and works incredibly hard to insure his clients have success. He diligently manages his area to maximize his trophy and age class of the animals harvested. I cannot thank him and Sharron enough to provide us access to this amazing area and the opportunity to harvest two incredible rams in eight days.
I want to thank Brad and Brad for all of their hard work and professionalism during our very tough hunt. We walked for eight straight days in the steepest and most technically challenging conditions I have ever experienced on a Dall Sheep hunt. They both pushed hard for us to get it done.
Guides are never recognized enough for what they do. It is because of them we get to accomplish our dreams of hunting sheep in remote areas of the north and shoot giant rams like we did on this hunt. I look forward to the next time I get to hunt with Brad and Brad.