Slam in Rams
by Grancel Fitz
“Give me a week of climbing in country like this and I’ll
get myself a swell ram,” I told my wife, Betty, with what was pretty
close to brash overconfidence. We were to learn about that soon enough.
The time was last fall, when we were camped on Kusawa Lake in southern
Yukon Territory. The object of the hunt was a Dall ram and there was really
a double incentive. For, if I bagged a fine head, there’d be the
additional satisfaction of achieving something rare in big game hunting:
the taking of all four types of American mountain sheep recognized in
the official records - the bighorn, desert, Stone and Dall.
It takes a lot of time and effort to make this grand slam because the
species are widely separated. The bighorn is at his best in the Canadian
Rockies. The desert sheep is found chiefly in Mexico, on the Peninsula
of Lower California and across the Gulf in western Sonora, and he now
offers the toughest obstacle to future grand slammers as, except for museum
collections, he has been protected since 1936. The Stone sheep is at home
in far northern British Columbia, and the Dall is hunted in Alaska and
in the western Yukon.
Only four hunters had ever taken them all, as far as the records show.
The late Charles Sheldon did it at the turn of the century, closely followed
by Wilson Potter in 1910. Then there was a lapse until 1946, when my friends,
Ernst von Lengerke and Jack O’Connor, independently and within a
couple of weeks of each other, completed their grand slams. And now, with
record-class specimens of the other three types accounted for, I was in
wonderful Dall sheep country and hoping for chance to join this select
Early last spring I arranged with Pat Callison, a competent outfitter
and crack bush pilot of Carcross in the Yukon, to line up the two Indians
who had a boat on Kusawa Lake. Pat agreed to have camp all set up there
by the time we arrived in Whitehorse, and that was the situation when
we met him on September 9.
Pat’s float plane was moored at the bank of the Lewes River, and
after picking up big Jim MacArthur, our cook, we flew past the end of
Lake Laberge, headed southwest toward snow-topped peaks and reached the
camp at the north end of Kusawa in the early afternoon. Our two Indians
were waiting for us. Johnny Ned was to be my guide, and Roderick Smith
was the boatman.
error in strategy, though, was apparent right away. This camp, at the
very outlet of the lake, was not in hunting country. The weather had turned
nasty, with squalls of rain and a wind which made the lake so rough that
the Indians decided to wait for morning before moving up to a camp site
close to the ram mountains, where camp should have been pitched in the
first place. This, on a short trip, meant the loss of a precious day of
climbing, but Pat agreed at once to pick us up a day later than we had
planned, so that was all right. There was one advantage as things stood:
we were in a fine place to check the sighting of my rifle without disturbing
game. When, after the duffel was unloaded and Pat had flown away, I set
up a target and found that my scope sight was still zeroed for 200 yards,
I felt that everything was under control.
Johnny Ned and I had been sizing up each other since we first met. I
saw a tough, wiry welterweight in middle life - old enough, I noted with
satisfaction, to use his brains as much as his legs in getting us up to
our quarry, for I never did see much sense in attempting to run an animal
down, although some guides like to try. Whatever Johnny saw, he soon wanted
to reassure himself. “You hunt sheep before?” he queried.
“Yes.” “You get ‘em? Good rams?” “Yes.”
He was a little happier but not quite satisfied. “Can you walk?”
he asked me gravely. “No,” I told him. A long time ago I learned
not to enter any races against a native in his own kind of country, particularly
at high altitudes. “Why not?” he demanded. “Out of practice.
Too old, maybe. But I’ll try.” Johnny looked at me earnestly.
“We do the best we can,” he promised.
That evening I showed him snapshots of a variety of game from other
hunts, including the types of sheep that he had never seen. With a new
guide, this often helps.
In the morning the weather was still gloomy, with occasional sprinkles
of rain. Starting from the northern end, where the lake empties into the
Takhini River, we cruised due south for ten or twelve miles and then turned
straight southwest for an equal distance to the camp site near the end
of the big, triangular point that juts out from the mountain wall on the
eastern side. But we were not half an hour on our way when Johnny, who
was aft, stuck his head into the cabin. “Sheep,” he announced.
“Let me have the glasses.”
Betty handed him the binocular, and we swarmed out to see our first
white sheep, a ewe and her lamb, part way up the mountain. For the first
time I realized how startlingly conspicuous Dall sheep are against a background
of rock. Later I came to know how invisible they can be against snow.
“Tomorrow we hunt mountain where your friend get big ram last
fall,” Johnny said, and after nearly a year of anticipation this
sounded like the end of the rainbow. “Do you think you might get
one as big as Ernst shot?” Betty asked. “That would be a lot
to expect in any country,” I answered, “and lightning isn’t
supposed to strike twice in the same place. But I’d certainly never
feel right unless I went up there and had a look.”
The sun came out beautifully and we saw another bunch of four sheep
before we reached the camping place around midday, which was too late
to start climbing with any hope of getting back before dark.
After the tents were pitched, Johnny took to using my binocular, and
before long he spotted more sheep on a mountain across the lake. They
were possibly five miles away, but when we set up the 20x spotting scope,
we could see that there were four more ewes. So we took the boat out for
some trolling and caught a lake trout for dinner.
Any hunter will know how I felt when, the next morning before sunrise,
Johnny and I set out for the top of the mountain where Ernst got his ram
the year before. Three or four miles of broken country, thickly covered
with spruce and jack pine and splashed with the vivid gold of autumn poplars,
lay between camp and the towering granite bluffs which fronted toward
the lake. But we angled north, cut in past the end of the precipices and
made our climb of about 3,000 feet on a much less difficult face, topping
out over the steep part an hour before noon.
“We made fast time,” Johnny said when we stopped for lunch.
“You walk very good.” Buoyed up by praise like that, along
with the sandwiches, I practically floated up the rest of the way to the
highest point on that mountain, which happened to be the top of a rounded,
grassy hill rising some 600 feet above the rest. The whole upper country,
well above timberline in that northern latitude, is a wonderful sheep
We hunted for several miles, looked into all the draws, and circled
around on the rim rock to scan the steep faces below. But we found no
rams, and excepting a red fox and an eagle, saw no living thing. The plentiful
sheep sign was all very old. Much fresher were the tracks of several wolves,
and Johnny shook his head.
“No good,” he pronounced. “Tomorrow we move camp.”
“What about the other mountains near here?” I asked, thinking
of the sheep we had seen across the lake. “Ewes,” Johnny explained,
and no more needed to be said. The sexes would not mix until the rutting
Early the next afternoon our tents were pitched near the mouth of a
little glacier-fed river which emptied into the lake about nine miles
from the upper end. The mountain behind camp was nearly a mile away but
looked almost close enough to hit with a baseball, and Betty soon spied
a band of ewes away up in the bluffs which screened the real mountaintop
from view. It was an excellent piece of spotting, and she proudly pointed
them out to Johnny.
“Good place,” he said. “Good mountains for rams, too,
up on top.” “Will we hunt there tomorrow?” I asked.
“No,” he said, and pointed out a formidable-looking mountain
which rose from the west shore near the head of the lake.
“We hunt there. No white man go up there for very long time. Maybe
never.” “How about Indians?” I asked. “Do they
hunt there?” He shrugged. “Sometimes, maybe. Not often. Too
far to go.” The next morning there was a bunch of nearly forty ewes
on the cliffs across from camp, but we turned the boat south for several
miles to the place which Johnny had chosen for the climb.
The sun had shone brightly when we started, but it soon disappeared
and for the rest of the day we hunted in a miserable mixture of snow squalls,
rain flurries and raw, bleak weather. Although we saw fresh ram tracks,
we couldn’t locate the rams. On the grassy, berry-covered slopes
below the snow line, we found very fresh droppings of a good-sized mountain
grizzly that had feasted on mossberries. But no bear. When we were skirting
the edge of a high basin, far above timberline, Johnny stopped.
“You want moose?” he asked, pointing to a bull and two cows
feeding a mile away across the basin in perfectly good sheep country.
“No,” I said, but we got out the big spotting scope and looked
him over. The moose of the western Yukon are of the giant Alaskan species,
and this was the biggest bull I have ever seen alive, with a spread that
must have been sixty-five inches.
Leaving the moose undisturbed, Johnny led me on a beautifully chosen
route designed to show us the most country with the least travel, but
we saw nothing more, even though we hunted so long that I began to be
concerned about getting back.
Accustomed to that country all his life, Johnny could go downhill like
a streak, giving no more thought to placing his feet than I do in crossing
a city street. But there was one thing he hadn’t counted on. I have
never found the same sort of going in any two mountain regions, and this
was new to me. It was raining pretty hard, too, and unless I placed each
foot carefully, I was in real danger of falling off. Though I managed
to avoid that, my slowness in the gathering dusk made it impossible for
me to avoid dropping rapidly in Johnny’s esteem.
When we reached the boat twelve hours after we left it, night had fallen,
and I felt that we had put in a pretty good day. We must have covered
eighteen miles - nearly half again as far as on the first day of climbing
- and we had done it through much tougher country.
The next day it rained hard. The low, heavy clouds covering the upper
bluffs behind camp made it obvious that the ram pastures would be too
fog-shrouded to hunt. But by daybreak on the following morning it had
cleared up enough for us to try it again.
Leaving Betty, ably assisted by Roddy and Jim, to her usual job of caring
for the department of fish and grouse, we tackled the mountain behind
camp, circling toward the little river valley on a long, rising spiral
that led us out of the timber and around the end of the sheer frontal
wall, reaching the top, as usual, around noon.
We were working along fairly close to a rocky rim when Johnny spotted
sheep, somewhat below us and half a mile away across a gently slanting
expanse of snow. With the naked eye they were very hard for me to see
at all, but the binocular showed them to be ewes - a group of three and
another of four - lying down fairly close together. This was closer to
sheep than we had yet managed to get, so we stood for a minute while I
studied them. Then we started on, and as soon as we moved they saw us.
To my considerable surprise they jumped up and bolted at full speed.
“These old gals are really wild,” I remarked to Johnny.
“How do they get that way?” “Wild?” he exclaimed.
“You bet all these sheep are wild. Wolf make ‘em wild, Indian
make ‘em... Look!”
Rams were just boiling out of a draw, a bit beyond where the ewes had
been lying. We counted eighteen as they dashed away along the route the
ewes had taken, and although they stopped several times to look us over,
they soon disappeared into broken country. Over there, we knew, were cliffs
which a ram might love. Just about impossible going for anybody not equipped
with ropes and other Alpine climbing gear.
Johnny practically exploded. “We walk very hard to find rams,”
he told me with considerable feeling. “Now we scare ‘em. Goddam!”
It was apparent that we could hardly come up with them again that day.
They were spooked so that they would be very watchful for several hours
at least, and we always had the problem of getting to camp before dark.
We might have decided, of course, to sleep out up there, without beds
or grub, but it seemed better in every way to let them quiet down overnight.
Pretty soon we worked down to find some scrubby sticks to boil some tea,
and when we finished our sandwiches, we headed slowly back to the tents.
“You,” Betty remarked as we sat down to dinner, “are
getting thin. But I am getting fat from eating five meals a day of Jim’s
delicious cooking. So the family avoirdupois is keeping in balance.”
That seemed fair enough, and by the time we had eaten several of her
delectable grouse everybody was pretty cheerful except Johnny. It was
now six days since we left the foot of the lake. On three days only had
we been able to hunt, and we hadn’t managed to get a shot. In two
days more, Pat was to pick us up again, down the lake where his plane
had landed us, so there was just one more hunting day left. The possibility
of failure weighed heavily, and Johnny looked glum.
“We’ll find ‘em again tomorrow,” I said. “We
know where they are now.” But Johnny only grunted.
When we did start up, in the gray light of dawn, we avoided the open
slopes after we had climbed above timberline and made our way through
a fringe of dwarfed willows bordering the little creek which raced down
a shallow ravine. It was only the middle of the morning when he stopped
“I see ‘em,” he said. He got out the binocular for
a long look before he added, “Twenty-four rams. They find six others
in the night.”
Several times, among men who spend their lives amid great sweeps of
country, I’ve witnessed amazing demonstrations of just how good
human vision can be, but Johnny’s feat of spotting those rams with
his unaided eye must take a place near the top. My own eyes, I know, are
comparatively poor, but even when I tried the binocular - a Bausch &
Lomb 7x35, with coated lenses, and certainly the best all-around hunting
glass I’ve ever used - I had trouble in picking them out, and I
couldn’t find half of the rams that Johnny had located. When we
rigged up the 20x spotting scope, I really appreciated what he had done.
Johnny studied the situation a little longer. “Nothing we can
do with those sheep,” he said at last. “Bad place. I don’t
think we get one.” This sounded very reasonable, for the rams could
see almost every inch of the country which lay between us, and nothing
is more hopeless than attempting to stalk mountain sheep uphill over ground
which offers no concealment.
usual tactics call for dropping back, circling the mountain under cover,
climbing the far side and stalking the sheep from above, but this was
entirely out of the question. The hill on which they lay, much lower than
where we had found them the day before, was well below the real mountaintop.
Beyond it lay several miles of open snow fields, and crossing these unseen
would be a hopeless job, too, for it was almost certain that sentinels
were placed where they would be sure to spot us.
“We got to keep moving,” Johnny said, and I had gained enough
respect for him to follow through the thinning willows without question.
When we reached the first gap we stopped before venturing out into the
open and Johnny looked me over critically. My clothes, which were about
the color of dead grass, passed his inspection, but he took off the blue
jumper that covered his own gray plaid shirt and stuffed it into his packsack.
“We got no chance,” he said. “Pretty soon they see
us. But we try.” Slowly, very slowly, he led me straight up the
middle of the creek, where our moving figures could be seen only against
the confusing background of moving water. When we reached the next willows,
fifty yards ahead, the rams were still undisturbed.
“Johnny,” I said in honest admiration, “you’re
a mighty good hunter.” He glanced at me in surprise. “This
is my trade,” he said simply. With just a touch of pride, he added,
“I get my hunters what they want.”
We hadn’t quite come to the next open place when a few of the
rams got up. But it was soon clear that they had not seen us, as they
moved out of sight over the right-hand brow of the hill. A few more soon
“We stay here. Pretty soon they all go,” Johnny said. I
can only think that he knew all along that they were likely to move at
about that time of the day.
There had been almost no wind at all, but while we sat waiting, a gentle
breeze began to blow straight up the creek bed, and, although the sheep
were still a good three quarters of a mile away, Johnny was alarmed at
once. “We won’t get one,” he exclaimed in a tone of
utter defeat. “Before long they smell us.”
As it is pretty well agreed that a ram depends far more on his eyes
than on his nose, it was my turn to be surprised. I had never hunted with
a sheep guide who paid much attention to the wind at any such distance.
“Can they smell us that far?” I asked incredulously. “All
game smell far. Moose, bear, anything.” “I hunted rams in
the desert mountains,” I told him. “Long, long hunt. And I
got one at the last minute. Same way with Stone sheep. It’s getting
to be a habit. I think we’re going to get a shot.”
He didn’t reply, but a few minutes later, after a long look with
the glass satisfied him that the last ram had moved out of sight, he stepped
out into the open.
“We got to hurry,” he said. Leaving the creek, we cut straight
to the left across the slope, and I could see the left side of the hill
where the rams had been bedded. On that face it seemed a sheer cliff of
granite, but Johnny headed straight for it, and soon I knew that it wasn’t
either very high or very tough.
“Got to go up here, or they smell us sure,” Johnny advised,
and up it we went. When we had climbed out of the rocks and into the snow
of the domelike top, he looked me over again. I was, of course, panting
“You sit here. Take a rest and get your breath. I find out where
they are.” So I watched him start away on hands and knees and soon
began crawling on his belly. In a few minutes he returned.
“They feed around down in the draw,” he reported. “I
don’t see ‘em, but no tracks coming out. Maybe you get to
shoot. Maybe two hundred yards. But I’m afraid. One little ram is
farther up the draw where he can see us when we sneak up. He’ll
run: scare ‘em all.”
“Will he move away?” I asked. Johnny shook his head. “Nothing
we can do about him. Got to try anyhow. We’ll leave the packsacks
here.” “I might want mine for a rifle rest if the shot is
very long,” I told him. “It will stick up from your back,”
he objected. “Sheep see it.”
Slipping it off, I first adjusted the rifle sling on my left arm, then
pushed the packsack ahead of me as we crawled forward. A minute or two
later we could see the young ram about 950 yards away. The head, I noted,
was too small to consider.
“You go ahead now,” Johnny whispered. I waited for the ram
to start feeding, but he seemed to be occupied with the scenery. At last
he turned away, and I moved on, keeping a careful eye on him and freezing
when he looked toward us. But we hadn’t advanced more than twenty
yards when the little devil jerked his head and tore off full tilt toward
“Wait,” Johnny cautioned. “We see where the rest of
‘em go.” Shoving my packsack in the direction the ram had
taken, I pushed forward the safety on my .30-06.
“There they are!” Johnny warned me. I had seen them, too.
They had raced up the long ravine under the brow of the hill, so that
they first appeared a full quarter of a mile away, running in a compact
bunch as hard as they could go, straight away toward the head of the draw.
It couldn’t have been much worse.
“They’re too damned far!” I said. “I know they’re
too far,” he said. Now that his worst forebodings had come true,
the son of a gun sounded cheery.
An instant later the rams caught sight of us, and immediately it was
clear that they didn’t know why they had been running, for they
turned sharply to the left, ran a few yards out onto the open slope and
stopped to look.
“That front ram has a good head,” was Johnny’s comment
as he studied it through the binocular.
The scope sight on my rifle is only 2 3/4 power, and the distance was
so great that I couldn’t tell anything about the horns. Silhouetted
as they were against the grass-tufted snow, white sheep seemed to melt
right into it. But from force of habit I placed the top of my scope picket
across the leading ram’s head at the level of his eyes, using the
picket as a range-finder. As that is a very useful stunt, it may be worthwhile
To use it, you must learn a few key measurements of the game you are
hunting, and I knew that a big ram measures about 7 1/2 inches across
his eyes. The top of my scope picket covers exactly 3 inches at 100 yards.
So with a ram looking straight at me - which they are very likely to
be doing - the picket would precisely cover that 7 1/2-inch width at 250
yards. At 400 yards the picket covers a foot. At 500, it subtends 15 inches
- or just twice the key measurement. You can do this, of course, a lot
faster than you can explain it.
Snuggled tightly into the rifle sling, with my forehand rested comfortably
on my packsack, I saw that the ram’s face at eye level - I couldn’t
make out his eyes - was almost exactly half the width of the picket. A
faint trifle more, perhaps, but only a trifle, so I judged the range at
between 450 and 500 yards. I saw something else, too. The very slight
lateral waver of the picket was shifting as far to the left as to the
right, and no farther, and this meant that I was lined up in a perfect
position for prone shooting.
With the scope of the .30-06 rifle at zero for 200 yards, the 180-grain
Silvertips I was using would fall 21 inches at 400 yards, and 48 inches
at 500. The ram was standing on very nearly the same level with me. There
was no wind. I knew that I couldn’t judge the horns, and therefore
I shouldn’t shoot. Still, I reflected, Johnny had pronounced it
a good head.
far is he, Johnny?” I asked. “About five hundred yards.”
I just couldn’t stand it any longer. Controlling my breath, I dropped
the picket until the ram’s foreleg was just over the center. Then
I raised it, straight up until the picket top was as far over the ram’s
head as his head was above his belly, and gently squeezed the trigger.
The ram dropped as if he had been struck by lightning.
“You got him!” Johnny exclaimed.
With the shot, the other rams jumped and ran straight across our front,
stringing out as they went. Now I could see a couple of grand heads. But
I lay there silently, waiting, as I realized later, for Johnny to say
“Let me see that gun,” he said finally. Handing it over,
I watched him examine it with respectful care.
“Best gun for long shot I ever saw,” he commented. And that
was that. There were deep ravines between us and where the ram lay, so
we couldn’t measure the distance, but it seemed to take ten minutes
to get there.
“Big ram,” Johnny remarked as we inspected it. “Good
head. Fine head, for short trip.”
He was right. It was big, with really fine conformation and perfect
tips. And I wasn’t exactly downcast when we found that the bullet
had blown off the top of the heart. But he wasn’t the ram of my
dreams. He missed breaking into the record list by a quarter of an inch!
The next morning, on our way down the lake to meet the plane, Johnny
said, “You come back next year. Hunt a month. We get great big ram
head. This trip too short.”
“No, Johnny,” I answered. “We had a fine hunt, but
I won’t be back. All through with sheep.”
“Well, I’ve hunted every kind, now, and on some trips I
could have killed a lot. But I only wanted one of each, and I’ve
never shot at a sheep that I didn’t kill -which is more than I can
say about a deer, for instance. Even if our ram hasn’t the biggest
head around here, I’d better quit now before I miss one.”
“Your ram is perfectly beautiful,” Betty broke in. “I
think he is the prettiest sheep you have.” Turning to Johnny with
what looked like a malicious twinkle in her eye, she asked, “How
is he as a hunter? Did he do all right?”
Johnny considered the question with his customary gravity.
“Good for climb,” he said - and I knew he was speaking only
relatively, “good for shoot. No good for walk downhill.”
From the boat we counted forty sheep that morning, and after he had
pointed out a few of the now-familiar specks of white in the upper fastnesses
of the cliffs, Johnny handed me the binocular.
“I think you hunt sheep again sometime,” he said. “We
get a great big one then.”
now I don’t believe that he is right. With no real need to climb
high peaks any more, I’ve decided to admire them from below. But
it may take some time for that decision to sink in, as we learned when
Betty and I were in the observation car, coming home from Vancouver.
We were absorbed in the wonders of that marvelous mountain country that
lies between Field, British Columbia, and Banff, along what must he one
of the most spectacular stretches of railroad in the world, when the sight
of one special peak brought simultaneous comments from us both.
“What a picture!” she exclaimed. “It makes me think
of a cathedral.”
“That upper right-hand ridge is the only way,” I mused.
“Otherwise you break your confounded neck.” She turned on
me accusingly. “I thought you weren’t going to climb mountains
My only comeback was a sheepish grin.
Copyright 1948, Fawcett Publications, Inc.