September always makes me think of mountain sheep hunting, because this is the time of the year when the high country is at its finest - insects are remnants of what they were six weeks ago, autumn snows have not arrived in any amount, and the arctic willow is a splendor of colors - orange, yellow, gold, red and green.

It all makes me feel “sheepy,” as I tell Laurie. Ten sheep hunts I’ve undertaken since 1976 in as distant places as Arizona and the upper Yukon, Alaska, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Wyoming and Nevada. (If I were a dozen years younger and still had a good back and legs under me, I’d go again in a minute. Such that it is…)

Most sheep hunting is a tough affair, but what is the most difficult? Jack O’Connor wrote that hunting desert sheep on foot in Sonora was the most difficult sheep hunting he ever did, and that guy hunted sheep everywhere! The late Danny Nasca, who guided me to my first desert bighorn in Arizona in 1976, once told me that hunting Dall sheep in Alaska was the most arduous sheep hunting he ever had done. He said he broke a knee on one trip!

An old friend from New York state who has hunted sheep all over the world, told me that backpack Dall sheep hunting in Northwest Territories was a “death march.” He has done it twice.

During the last decade I have read many accounts of hunters pursuing Stone sheep in northern British Columbia, laboring for two weeks without firing a shot. I am sure they’d say Stone sheep hunting is the most difficult.

One time about 15 years ago a hunter staggered into the wildlife agency office where I worked. He was there to register a Rocky Mountain bighorn ram that he had taken in one of Montana’s “unlimited” areas in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The fellow looked gaunt and exhausted. He told me he had climbed a total of some 16,000 vertical feet during the hunt and was lucky to get a ram.

I think the toughest sheep hunt I ever made was in northwest Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest in 1996 for Rocky Mountain bighorns. I had hunted the same unit, but south of the Absaroka Divide in the Washakie Wilderness in 1976, where I got my very first ram. However, I was 27 years old. On the second trip I was 47, but still in good shape.

Now, I don’t know how many times I have read accounts of sheep hunts in Wyoming where an outfitter and hunter ride in 10 or 20 miles through marvelous country, and someone spots a band of rams while the camp crew is setting up base camp tents. How I wish I would have had such an experience! My two Wyoming bighorn hunts, particularly the second one, involved climbing trails and glassing, climbing more trails and glassing, following a partner who could walk half again as fast as me. And we struggled to find rams.

Remember that all this hunting is between 8,000 and 12,000 feet elevation. You gasp for oxygen, gasp some more, get light-headed and exhausted because oxygen is thin at high altitudes. After four days of scouting and five days of hunting, I finally shot a young ram at 11,800 feet in the Carter Mountains. We got the meat, cape and horns backpacked back to the pickup three hours after dark. Yeah, that was definitely my toughest sheep hunt.

I had a couple other difficult trips - both of those in Alaska for Dall sheep where I passed on several rams while looking for an enormous old ram that eluded us. Most of this hunting is at 5,000 to 6,000 feet so oxygen depletion isn’t much of a problem. But in Alaska there are no good trails like in Wyoming. In Alaska you wade creeks, follow moose trails through willows, try to dodge alders that grow everywhere.

One time we found a miner’s trail that took us into the high country. Once above timberline and beyond the alder jungles, it is a wonderful country of grey slide rock, glaciers and sphagnum - a spongy moss that covers most everything that isn’t rock.

I suppose much of the “toughness” of sheep hunting depends on one’s physical condition and age. Because any sheep hunt is easier when your 35 instead of 65. Few will argue with that!

Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been                             an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974

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