Posted on: August 20th, 2017 Horns Galore

Zack Walton Antelope 2015

Prior to two years ago, I had never hunted any horned species. With the lucky draw of a premium Nevada unit for pronghorn and a previously scheduled mountain goat hunt in Northern British Columbia, that all changed in a short period of time.

  After being very picky, I was able to arrow a nice antelope on my tenth day of hunting. A month later, I placed a tag on my first mountain goat. Two horned species down.

Zack Walton Mountain Goat 2015

Here is the link to that episode:

  A Tale of Two Goats

  Now fair warning: This will be long. It will be picture-heavy. But, it will be worth it. Continue reading at your own risk…

True Free-Range Bison

Bison story…

  Even as a kid, whenever someone would ask me what my dream hunt was, I would say, “fair-chase bison with my bow.” This summer, I was able to make that dream a reality. In my opinion—because of the very limited opportunity and the way they act in the wild—true fair-chase bison are one of the more difficult species to bowhunt in North America.

  When it comes to bison hunting nowadays, I probably get more offended than most because there are so many buffalo shot on random game farms, and it gives the illusion that buffalo are nothing more than cattle. Outside of having a trophy photo with a truck in the background, it is extremely hard for the average person to distinguish the difference between a true free-range bison hunt and a ranch hunt on a small pasture. The hunt I was going on would not be for “private-ranch bulls” and there would not be any “strategically-placed fences,” which is why these bulls are Boone & Crockett eligible.

 

Shawn and I after a successful Kodiak hunt

I had been looking to book a bison hunt for a couple of years. I had been accumulating bonus points in Arizona and Utah for the critters for more than a decade, but figured it could be several more decades before I actually drew a tag. Alaska tags are almost impossible to come by and a strategic nightmare for someone living in the lower 48. Also, the random draw outside of Yellowstone is not something I could ever depend on for a hunt.

  I had looked into the Pink Mountains in B.C., and after checking several references, had pretty much figured that is where I would be going in the near future. Until I got a call this past summer…

  My buddy Shawn, who I have hunted with all over North America, called me with a very excited tone. He said, “You will never guess which hunt I just booked!” Shawn is chasing pretty much every animal there is and I would never be able to guess, so I just asked him to tell me. When he said bison, I just assumed British Columbia; and when he told me Montana, I was confused.

  After a lot of research, he had booked a hunt for Boone & Crockett-eligible bison on the Crow Indian Reservation for summer of 2017. I had to know more information!

  Take it back a few months to Sheep Show. I had just booked a muskox hunt in Nunavut because I wanted to experience the arctic one time. Shawn then comes over, sees me writing a check and decides, “That sounds fun. I’ll go before you.” So he did. Now I think what goes around comes around, so after checking background info and references, I had no choice but to book a hunt ahead of his. We are close friends…

Entering Montana

Fast-forward to the end of June, and I am driving to south-central Montana with my favorite hunting buddy—Dad. We were filled with excitement and it was pretty easy to convince him to come along with me, because he also has been dreaming about hunting free-range bison for a long time. I figured if he came along to experience the hunt and enjoyed it, he might entertain doing it for himself.

Visiting the Wild Sheep Foundation in Bozeman, MT

Along the way, we decided to check out the new headquarters for the Wild Sheep Foundation in Bozeman, MT. They have a beautiful new facility and the Executive Vice President of Development, Buddy DuVull, took the time to personally show us the entire building. They have a wonderful setup and it is an organization I truly believe in and continually support. If you are ever in Western Montana, stop in to check it out.

My buddy Mark Watkins' monster archery Dall Sheep

Mr. Mark Watkins No. 4 all-time Pope & Young Dall sheep in one of the conference rooms at the Wild Sheep Foundation. Beautiful ram, Mark!

The Lodge

After two days of travel, we arrived at the “lodge” and met the native guide, Chaz, while we settled in and had dinner. We chatted about what the next several days would be like, how to approach hunting bison and what life in general was like on the reservation. In the morning, we would make the two-hour drive up onto the “mountain” where the bison lived.

Our Drive Up

In the morning, we loaded up everything for several days on the mountain and headed up. The first 30 miles was on pretty good roads, but after that, we spent a long time on 4-wheel drive roads heading up above 9000’ elevation—where the bison lived. Once on top, it was some of the most spectacular country I have seen in the lower 48. The pictures don’t even come close to showing the magnitude of the country, but I will include them. It was huge, rugged land.

Black Canyon

This is Black Canyon. It extends for miles and miles and is up to 4000’ in elevation difference in some places. It is immense, and much like the Grand Canyon or Waimea Canyon, it cannot be fully appreciated unless you are standing on the rim. I am glad that the bison didn’t go down into that dark hole.

The Cabin

We dropped all our extra gear at the “cabin” and went exploring the high ridges and massive expanses of the northern end of the Bighorn Mountains. For the first day, we covered a lot of country and spent most of our time glassing high-elevation parks for bison. We relocated six or eight times throughout the day without seeing a single buffalo.

Montana Sunset

By evening, we decided to make some hikes to look for fresh sign. We covered a couple miles before dark, but never located anything worth investigating the following day. We watched a pretty sunset and enjoyed an authentic Native dinner cooked by Chaz’s wife.

Fresh Dust Wallow

Since we weren’t seeing any buffalo in the openings, the following morning Chaz and I decided to start trying to track them down on foot. We went to an area where they had seen a group of bison the week prior and started walking. Dad came with us on this walkabout, and in no time we found fresh sign. There were tracks leading across a small opening and I actually stumbled onto a very fresh dust wallow. This was exciting because I figured we would be into bison at any time. Four hours and several miles of searching later, we saw nothing.

We looped back to the truck to get a snack and hydrate in the warm weather before looking over more of the immediate area. Dad decided to stay at the truck for this loop and within 400 yards, Chaz saw some dust stirring a few hundred yards ahead of us. Although I didn’t see them, we had found our first group of bison.

More beautiful Montana scenery

The wind was wrong, so we made a large loop through the trees to get on the other side of the dust clouds. About an hour later, we crawled through the last bunch of cover to peek into the secluded opening only to find fresh track leading away. We followed the tracks across several openings in a large semicircle back up the hill. After a while, we were within a couple hundred yards of the truck so we went to get Dad. We found Dad shaking his head when we got back and knew that the buffalo had walked right by him.

Turns out, the group made a huge loop and walked within 150 yards of Dad. The buffalo spooked when they saw the truck and ran away. We went to find the tracks and continue to follow them when, from behind us, two cows and a calf popped out of the trees at 100 yards. They were by themselves and quickly busted in a cloud of dust and brown hair. We decided to move on to find other bison.

Close-range herd of bison

Midday, Chaz and I decided to walk out a large canyon that we thought the bison might be hiding in. We dropped into the bottom before working through several miles of good terrain without finding much for sign. We may not have seen many bison, but we had found out where they weren’t so far, and I was enjoying this style much more than the “drive-and-glass” technique.

  By late afternoon, we had moved several miles away to another area Chaz thought bison might be hiding from plain sight. We walked over a small rise into an opening only 100 yards wide when a pungent odor of sweet elk scent mixed with a barn full of cattle hit my nose—buffalo! We found lots of tracks and wallows in the opening and figured they couldn’t be far. We started sneaking from opening to opening, searching for any sign of bison but never saw one.

  By the time we ran into thick trees, we were following tracks through jungle-thick undergrowth. It felt like we were hunting Cape buffalo in Africa! It was exhilarating! I kept waiting for the thundering of hooves and brown blurs to stampede by us at point-blank range, but that fantasy never turned to reality, and I’m glad it didn’t. After more than a mile of tracking, Chaz and I decided that the herd was probably heading to a large opening that ended on the point of this long ridge, so we started heading that direction.

  We covered the entire length of the ridge and were within 200 yards of the next forest when I saw the head of a bison ahead. We dropped to the ground, circled back to the edge of the trees and slid in above the lone animal we saw. Quickly, that lone animal turned into 5, and then 10, and then 20 or more. Soon, we were between 25-50 yards from several bison that were bedded or feeding, waiting to see if a mature bull was in the herd.

  We watched the herd for about two hours while they mingled about and the sun sat behind us. I felt the air start to cool and told Chaz we wouldn’t have long before the thermals switched and we would be busted. There were two young bulls through the only line of trees separating us and the herd, but nothing I was interested in shooting. Not long after sundown, the shift in our scent caused a thunder to erupt along the hillside below us, and hooves and hair were fleeing in a large mob.

Huge, hornless cow

Up close, even the cows look huge!

Cozy cabin

It was exciting to be so close to such large animals for that extended period of time. I had been close to bison in Yellowstone before, but these animals were different. Even when they didn’t know we were there, the buffalo seemed like completely different animals than those I had encountered in the park. I was even more motivated to close the distance on a big bull than before. I hoped that tomorrow would be the day!

  After hiking more than 15 miles in search of bison, we returned to the rustic cabin for a quick dinner and some needed rest. I felt good about the following day.

Tons of country

Everyone was a little slow moving the next morning, but we were headed out to a good glassing point not long after sunup. For as long as the previous day was, and as much ground as we covered to find buffalo, this day would be much easier. About three miles away, I saw something dark move through my 10x42 binos. It was in a brief window between trees and I thought it might have been a bear. I pulled out my tripod and settled behind the 15x56 Swaro’s. It was bison – a whole bunch of them!

Waiting

We closed the gap with the truck until we couldn’t hide anymore, and then took off on foot. About 300 bison were scattered all over the mountainside above and below a road. We dropped out of sight and closed to within 500 yards, hoping the bison would continue in our direction. At one point, we thought a small group with several bulls would walk right down the road to us, but things wouldn’t have been any fun if they were that easy.

Half of the herd

When they stopped filing towards us, we again dropped into cover and waited for the wind to steady before moving forward. By the time we closed within 200 yards, most of the herd had fed up over the hill and out of sight. About 50-70 still remained in the rolling fingers ahead of us. When we ran out of cover, we crawled to get within 100 yards of the closest animals. The herd had been visiting a spring that had a wallow below it. Cows and calves were drinking while a few bulls splashed around in the mud. There were several bulls, including one specifically aggressive bull at the tail end of the group.

  Since we couldn’t get any closer without detection, we waited for something to happen in our favor. After a while, all the bison moved away from us, and it appeared they would all head over the mountain and we would have to start chasing again. Then, luck turned our way when a mature cow came back toward the spring and brought about 30 buffalo with her, including a few mature bulls. I had sneaked closer to the mud hole while the herd was heading up the hill, so I was nearly close enough for a shot if they came back.

  I was lying flat on the grass while a couple dozen bison filtered into the spring to drink. I was hoping to get a chance at the aggressive bull, as he seemed to be the largest in this group, but he headed down the hill and out of sight. A few minutes later, another mature bull made its way to water, and I was preparing to shoot him when I saw the larger bull make his way toward the mud while nudging cows out of his way with his horns. I would wait for him!

  As luck would have it, he turned out to be the closest bison to me; and when I rose to my knees and came to full draw in one motion, I was ready to capitalize on the good fortune. The arrow sailed toward the quartering-away bison and entered at the back of the ribs before passing completely through and disappearing in the mud. The bull lurched forward a few yards and looked around for the perpetrator. I knocked another arrow and watched it bury to the nock. Again, the bull moved only a couple of yards and looked pissed that another buffalo was poking him. Not one to be shy with putting arrows into still-breathing animals, I drew and stuck another arrow into the bull. This time he ran about 30 yards before lying down.

My bull right before my last shots

Chaz and I were both trying to hold back our excitement, and I told him I was going to slide down the slope and put another arrow in the bull to finish it. A few minutes later, I crept within range and quickly put two more arrows into the bull’s chest before he rolled to his side. I’ll be the first to admit, that is a lot of arrows, but it was all in a short period of time, the bull went only 60 yards from first shot to where he died, and I am a firm believer in using as many arrows to end things as quickly as possible. In relation to what could happen in this situation, arrows are cheap.

Big bison bull down!

When things settled, Chaz and I celebrated a 4-hour stalk that ended in an archery bison! I looked up the hill to see Dad coming down toward us. Turns out, he had walked closer toward the herd after most of them had left and was actually watching the bull through his binos when I shot it the last two times. He was wondering why the bull kicked twice in a few seconds and then fell over. Now he knew!

Happy guide

Dad and I rejoiced in sharing this moment together and realized that we had done something that had been a life-long goal for us both. Also, Chaz told us that as far as he knew, this was the first bison shot by a non-Native with only a bow. I was shocked because I had seen several videos of bowhunters on the reservation over the years, and it seemed they had killed several bulls with archery equipment. It turns out that for one reason or another, each of those “bow buffalo” were shot with a rifle before they died. I don’t know if it is accurate, but I felt good knowing that we were successful with a bow.

Chaz and I sharing a moment

Chaz and I sharing a moment. I think he was excited as I was we killed that bull with a bow.

That's a horn!

What a thrill to be close to such huge, amazing animals!

Zack Walton Bison 2017

After thinking about this opportunity for most of my life, it was a tremendous feeling to sit next to this behemoth. I had read Steve Rinella’s American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon prior to this hunt and now knew some of the emotions he described during his encounters with truly wild bison. It is something I will cherish and remember fondly throughout my bowhunting days.

Buffalo at nearly 9,000-feet elevation

Although it took nearly two full days before I saw a bison, the couple of stalks I made on them were some of the most exciting moments of bowhunting in my life. There is something about an animal that is that big and typically travels in large herds. It was overwhelming at times to have so many huge animals in front of you and feel like you would not be able to even breathe without causing a stampede.

Life-long goal realized!

My favorite bowhunting partner—Dad—and I with our first free-range bison. I hope he can be in the same position someday soon.

Black bear with white target on the chest

After a couple hours of knife work, we had the bull broken into manageable pieces and with only a short walk to a road—luckily—we had several hundred pounds of some of the best meat in the world ready to head home to my freezers.

  On the way back to camp, we saw this gorgeous white-fronted black bear looking for dinner.

Rock Chuck

Also, these cool little rock chucks were everywhere.

Leaving the Crow

It took a while to get down the mountain and back to the lodge where we boned the meat and slid it all into a freezer to cool. Although only three days, my experience on the Crow Indian Reservation was action-packed and very unique. I had never hunted on a reservation before and never really spent much time around any Native Americans. I learned a lot about their lives on the reservation and what an amazing place the 2.2 million-acre reservation is. I hope to head back someday because it is a beautiful place that few outsiders will ever get to experience.

Custer State Park

While waiting for the meat to freeze, Dad and I visited the nearby Custer State Park and saw the battlefield of Little Bighorn.

Racing home

Later that night, we packed up, loaded all the frozen meat and made the 18-hour drive through the night back home. I enjoy bowhunting. A lot. But I enjoy time like that long drive with Dad after a successful hunt even more. It is the real reason why I bowhunt.

When a good buddy wins a sheep hunt at the <1 Club drawing, you have to beat him

Sheep story…

  Unlike bison, I never figured I would hunt sheep in my lifetime. While growing up, I never knew anyone that had hunted sheep. I read stories about sheep hunting, and although they seemed like amazing places, I never had the urge to visit them. About 7 years ago, I moved to the Sacramento area in Northern California. Each year, California Wild Sheep holds its annual fundraising banquet here and a buddy of mine decided we should attend. We did and had a blast at the dinner.

  That following January, we went to Sheep Show in Reno and had a great time there as well. I was pleasantly surprised at the caliber of people we met and how dedicated they all were to Wild Sheep conservation. I joined the foundation and then joined the <1 Club when it was started. I mean, who wouldn’t want to win a free sheep hunt?!?!

  Even though I was around sheep hunters a couple of times each year, I still never saw myself as a potential sheep hunter. It wasn’t until four years ago that a good buddy, Matt, returned from a Dall sheep hunt in the NWT that I began contemplating a possible sheep hunt. Things were improving in my career, I had a supportive wife, and I thought it might be nice to see what all the fuss was about. When Matt expressed an interest in another trip up north, I asked if he wanted a travel partner. That’s when things got started…

Packed and ready!

Fast-forward four years, many installment payments and countless sheep-hunting conversations, here I am: packing for my very own sheep-hunting adventure! Over the years, I have met many talented and gracious sheep hunters. Each year, Sheep Show gets less like a conservation convention and more like a family reunion. So many guys were able to help me get ready for this hunt and I am appreciative for all their help!

Making my own lunches of some "real" food

Since I enjoy at least some real food, and had a good experience the previous year on an Alaskan backpack hunt with similar food lists, I decided to bring some items to supplement the Mountain House, etc. that would be provided by the outfitter. For those interested, each bag weighed 9.5 ounces and contained about 850 calories.

The one and only Matt Burke

Let the travel portion begin!   From Sacramento to Edmonton on day 1; then Edmonton to Norman Wells, jump on a charter plane to base camp and Super Cub out to spike camp on Day 2. Sounds easy, right?

  That’s what I thought.

  Oh yeah, here I am practicing my stalking skills and snapping a covert pic of Mr. Matt in the Seattle airport.  

Canadian Rockies

We made it to Edmonton on Day 1 with a beautiful flight over the Canadian Rockies on Alaskan Airlines.

I love flying Alaskan Airlines and try to do so whenever I can. What is better than a free beer while flying??

Trick question…it’s two free beers!

Friendly faces

Once in Edmonton, we settled into our hotel where we met a buddy—and fellow bowsiter—Scott (DEMO-Bowhunter), who was also on his way to the Territories for an archery sheep hunt.

  Step one of the travel portion was done, so we decided to do some sightseeing at the local pub.

 

Yellowknife airport

The next morning, we boarded our flight to Yellowknife early and were on our way to the NWT. We landed at the airport and that’s when things started to go “off schedule.” Turns out our plane—the one we had just flown two hours on to Yellowknife—was apparently non-functional now. And since there is only one flight a day to Norman Wells, we were stranded.

Yellowknife brewery

So, we decided to go sightseeing in Yellowknife…

Luggage made it 

The following morning, our new plane was deemed highly functional and it successfully carried us all the way to Norman Wells. All of mine and Matt’s stuff made it, some of Scott’s stuff did not, but he said he had enough to make a go on his hunt. It turns out, we would have plenty of time to locate his missing bag because…

Classy places up north

We would be stuck in Norman Wells for at least a day because the weather was so crappy. Not much sightseeing to do in Norman Wells, so the Northern Canadian drinking tour continued…

Our taxi

The following day yielded poor weather again. By mid-afternoon, the weather improved and it looked hopeful we would get out that day to at least basecamp.

Anxious hunters

After watching another group get out in a plane, we received word we would at least give it a go. Curt Wells, from Bowhunter TV, and his cameraman would be joining us in camp, as Curt had a mountain caribou tag waiting for him there. The clouds were much higher, and although we wouldn’t be able to fly over the mountains, we could take the river system and maybe make it through. Off we went!

Matt

Matt was ready to get out to camp!

View from the Twin Otter

The flight out wasn’t too bad, and after about an hour we landed on the lake at base camp. After several days of waiting around, we were all ready to be there!

Some "good" rams from years past

However, that is as far as we would be getting for the day. The clouds had all the mountain passes surrounded and there would be no Super Cub flying in this weather. So, we enjoyed a good dinner and admired some rams taken over the years from the area.

Base Camp

The next morning dawned cold with fresh snow powdering the mountain tops around camp. We spotted a few ewes and lambs from camp while waiting for breakfast, and when the weather started to break, we made sure all our gear was in order and waited as patiently as possible for the word that we would be flying out.

Horses 

While we waited, the horse packers readied the pack string for the hunters that would be headed out on horseback. With all the technology changes over recent years, it is pretty cool that so far north, traditional horseback hunts for sheep are still offered.

Harold filling up the Super Cub

I, however, had opted for the backpack-style sheep hunt, so my ride had to be fueled up with Avgas.

Major river valley

Only three days behind schedule, I was on my way to sheep country in the Super Cub. My 10-day hunt was quickly turned into a 7-day hunt, but I figured that was still plenty of time to get close to a sheep (all bowhunters are optimistic, right?). I did, at that point, realistically rule out any chance of hunting caribou, though, because I knew how much time that would take away from our sheep hunt.

  The 25-minute cub flight went by quickly, and we did spot a few sheep from the plane, but not where we were hunting – and no legal rams.

Nothing but our legs from here on

After touch down, my guide, Scott, and I strapped on the packs and headed off to our first proposed spike camp. We were going to hike up a river drainage that, according to the pilot who had been flying there for 21 years, “Nobody had been up.”

  It was a 5-and-a-half-hour hike into our spike camp spot. That wasn’t too bad. We climbed through some forest, up a mountain and down into the next drainage, then several miles up a creek bed to reach our spot. It would be a nice spike with water right next to the tent.

Fancy Ram

That night, we spotted some rams, including one that was well over full curl. Because he had a dainty look to him—and because I was from California and apparently had a dainty look myself—Scott decided to call the ram “Fancy.” It severed as a dual-purpose that aptly described the ram’s appearance and also put me in my place as the “delicate bowhunter” on Day 1. I really liked Scott!

Home sweet home

Home for the next several days would be this KUIU Mountain Star, 2-man tent – adequately sized for one average-sized male, but we would make it work for the two of us and our gear.

Glassing rams high above

The following morning, we picked up Fancy and his two buddies high above us at the head of the creek drainage. They had moved closer to us overnight and into an area that we felt might be accessible for bowhunting.

Our first band of rams

Fancy was well over full curl. With him were a ram that was broomed on both sides and a young ram that was maybe ¾ curl. They bedded on a point with some trees behind that would offer great coverage for a stalk. However, before we even got started on our climb, the rams moved closer to the cliffs.

Sitting, waiting, wishing

When we climbed up to the same level of the sheep, we could no longer find them where they had bedded. As we crept along, Scott found a horn tip poking out past some rocks 150 yards away in the cliffs. There was no chance for us to get close enough for a shot, so we settled in to wait them out.

3/4 curl ram

After 4 hours, the small ram moved farther up in the rocks, which forced us to slide back to where we could no longer see the spot the two larger rams were bedded. A few minutes later, a massive thunderstorm hit us and we had to slide back to our packs and put on rain gear. We were only there for a few minutes when I looked past Scott and saw the “Fancy” ram skirting along a trail below us. I had my bow next to me, but the ram never offered an opportunity to get to full draw; and soon he was past us and, after catching our wind, he was gone.

  It was a bummer to have a legal ram give us the slip at such a close range, but it was only our first day of hunting. At least that was what I kept telling myself…

  One thing was for sure:  Even though I often looked at the terrain and thought there was zero chance of getting in bow range of a nice ram, we had that happen on our first hunt day. That gave me confidence that we could do it again. It would just take time, effort and patience.

Mountain Caribou

The rest of that day we spent trying to relocate Fancy and his buddies. We found his buddies, but the full-curl sheep was gone. We did have a good-looking young mountain caribou walk by us that paused long enough for me to take his picture. He is going to be a great bull in a couple of years.

Porcupine

We also walked up on this porcupine at 5 feet while he chewed on a caribou dead-head. Lots of wildlife for our first day of hunting, and it was so nice to finally be in the Mackenzie Mountains!

Glassing point

The following day we went up the other creek drainage to a saddle that allowed us to glass a ton of country, including the famous “Timbered Ridge,” that many a bowhunter has found themselves on while chasing rams in this concession.

  After an entire day of hiking and glassing, we had only found immature rams. Since there was a lot of hidden country on the opposite side of the timbered ridge, we decided that we would move camp on top of the ridge the following morning so that we could thoroughly inspect it.

Ram is in the saddle ahead

The next morning, we packed up camp and headed toward the saddle that would lead us to the timbered ridge. When we could see the saddle, a white dot appeared near the crest. It was Fancy! Somehow, he had moved several miles and right into our path. He was by himself and it looked like we might get another crack at him.

Fancy

We started sneaking up the creek bottom, while keeping the ram just in sight. He bedded a few times in the grass, but never found a comfortable spot. Once he crested the top, we made a move to stay on the same level and keep the wind correct.

  After a couple of hours of waiting, another ram that was ¾ curl started walking up from the bottom. We had no idea from where this small ram came, or how he had hid from us. The problem was, he joined up with Fancy and somehow convinced him to walk straight to the back of an inaccessible bowl that was filled with nothing but boulders for a mile in each direction.

  The rams were into an area that made them untouchable. Also, after closer inspection, it turns out the “Fancy” ram was only 7 years old. Although he was a tight, twisting ram with good length, we decided to move on to another area in hopes of finding an older ram.

Along the timbered ridge

Since we had screwed around with these rams for several hours, we would now be pressed to make it up to the adjacent ridge, set up camp and look around before dusk. We made the descent down a sketchy sheep trail, then filled our water bladders and added the necessary weight to our packs and climbed the steep ridgeline right to the top. We made camp on a knife-edge that barely accommodated the tent, and then worked the entire ridge to the east in search of rams.

End of the day

We turned up nothing but small rams along the way and returned to the tent pretty tired, but with a good game plan to explore the rest of the ridge in the morning.

Regrouping

A candid moment while in sheep country.

No words needed

You don’t need a filter when you visit places like this!

More glassing

The following morning we struck out in the opposite direction. We saw a ewe and lamb just out of camp. Then, another mile up the ridge, we ran into a large group of ewes and lambs. We never saw any mature rams along the timbered ridge.

Wolves eating sheep

Part of our problem was we saw lots of this. Apparently, the local wolves were better sheep hunters than we were.

Steep country

No shortage of steep country!

Keeping in touch

At the end of the ridge, we had a decision to make:  Do we work all the way back to the original air strip and try to get dropped off at another location? Or did we try hiking somewhere else in hopes of finding some legal rams?

  It was close to 10 miles back to the first landing strip, and we weren’t sure if we could even get picked up that day to move. We didn’t want to lose any more time than necessary, so Scott recommended we go to a place called “Tom’s Dirty Hole.” It was named after Tom Foss, who had killed a ram there years ago. Only problem, it was many, many miles away (you can see it in the photo. They are the very last mountains!). He asked if I was up for it, and with only 3-and-a-half days to hunt, I told him, “Hell yes!”

  Tom’s Dirty Hole sounded like a great place to me to find an old ram!

Moving Day

We had to backtrack a couple miles to get camp, and then we started the long trek to the “Hole.” It was about this point in the hunt where my guide started to refer to it as a nice “tour.”

Still more glassing for rams

Along the way, we stopped frequently to glass up each drainage for rams. Scott wasn’t sure the last time someone had hiked through this area, if ever, so it was exciting to hunt along the way—much better than backtracking to get flown somewhere else.

Moose shed

We saw lots of animal sign through the valley, including fresh moose and caribou sheds. We also spotted a bunch of caribou, including one exceptional bull. But we were too far to entertain shooting a caribou in this area. It was sheep or nothing here!

Two young rams and Droopy

Somewhere along the way, Scott found a sheep bedded a couple miles up a creek drainage. It turned out to be a small ram. We sat there for a while and soon picked up a total of five rams, including one older ram with low-sweeping horns. He looked very droopy and very nice from my point of view.

  We set camp along the creek and started up the mountain to get a closer look. Once up there, we spent four hours trying to get close to the rams, but never were able to get within 500 yards due to wind and terrain. We left the sheep once light started to fade and headed back to the tent to wait until the following morning. On the way back, we saw a beautiful blonde grizzly about 300 yards from our tent. Too bad non-residents can’t get tags in the NWT…

Young ram

The next morning, we moved up the creek bottom to the head of it. We located the rams and easily got within 200 yards, but then had to wait. We ended up waiting on them for 10 hours before they fed over a rise and we could make our move.

Droopy

By the time we climbed up to the same level as the rams, they were nowhere to be found. We kept climbing, peeking into every crevice and glassing up the mountain ahead of us. When we crested the pass, we still had not seen any sign of the sheep. It wasn’t until we hit the top of the mountain and I glassed up to the head of the next drainage that I found them. They were close to two miles away! WTH?!?!?

  We had a solid wind and were surprisingly quiet the entire stalk. I don’t think we spooked them, but I honestly don’t know. Regardless, they were in a different area now and up in the nastiest looking rocks. No place for a bowhunter.

Camp under a full moon

We made it back to camp just about the time that dusk settled in. There was a full moon and it was a gorgeous night. It was nice to have a fire and dry out all my gear from the random thunderstorms we had pelt us throughout the day.

Camp in Tom's Dirty Hole

The following morning, we shouldered our packs again and relocated camp the rest of the way to Tom’s Dirty Hole. It was still 6 miles before we got there and we spent the entire time walking over nothing but big, creek-bottom boulders as we continued down the canyon.

  It was nice to finally make camp on a flat spot and start working our way into the “Hole.”

Tom's Dirty Hole

Instantly, I could see how it got its name. It was nasty terrain; very steep sidewalls with shale and rock, complete with cliffs and inaccessible areas from top to bottom. I could see why this area typically held mature rams.

  About a mile up the canyon, we were hit with one of the most impressive thunderstorms I have ever seen. We tucked underneath some alders to escape most of the rain, but the thunder was cracking so loud within the canyon walls, I thought it was going to cause giant chunks of rock to come crashing to the creek bottom. After a while, the storm passed and we continued up.

Would this double-rainbow be a good luck sign?

We got hit one more time with rain and really got soaked. At the end of the shower, a double rainbow popped out right in front of us. I could see the beginning and end of both rainbows, and I thought it had to be a good sign.

Back of the Hole

We made it to the back of the canyon and spotted only two small rams and one ewe. We had hoped this spot was going to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for us. Since we had only one day left to hunt, we were hoping for some good luck.

  We skirted the ridgetop back towards camp so that we could glass the opposite side of Tom’s hole across the main river bottom. At 10 pm, Scott found a sheep about 4 miles away. Through the scope, he could tell it was a good ram, but we couldn’t tell the age. However, we had a plan for the last day!

Found a ram just below the rocks up top

We debated making a run up the mountain after him overnight to be in position first thing in the morning. Another downpour around midnight made our decision to stay in the tent for a few hours of good sleep an easy one.

  We awoke early with an eagerness to make our last day count. We made our way up the adjacent creek bottom and luckily picked up the ram early in the morning.

Last-day ram

We watched the ram until he fed over a rise well above us and toward a clump of trees. Figuring he wouldn’t go too far until he bedded, we started our climb up some of the nastiest country we had yet encountered.

  It took about two hours of steady climbing before we got above his last known location. We dropped our packs and started side-hilling along the junction between sheer rock walls and patching grass with shale. After a couple hundred yards, we spotted a white spot 200 yards below us. It was him!

  We circled back, and with a stiff wind coming up the mountain, we moved in from above. After crawling to within 65 yards of his bedded location through small pines, I decided this was as good a spot to wait as we were going to find. He was looking downhill and had three small pines protecting him from every angle. A shot in his bed was out of the question.

  I didn’t love our location because the only place I could shoot him was if he rose from his bed and went left over the little rise toward me. I figured we would have to wait until he got up to feed again and then make a move toward him. For the latter, we were in a great location.

  On this day—our last day—luck was on our side because, after 30 minutes, the sheep stood to stretch and, for some reason, he started moving left.

Good sign

When he cleared the small group of pines, he backed up to one of the trunks and used it as a scratching post. I was at full draw and waited for him to stop scratching. When he did, he was slightly quartering away. I settled the pin for 57 yards and hovered it along the back of his ribcage. After a few seconds of holding at the steep downward angle, the bow recoiled and I watched the arrow enter mid-body and exit the ram’s ribs on the off side.

  At the shot, both the ram and my guide, Scott, erupted. The ram over the little rise and Scott towards me saying, “You hit him! You hit him!” I knew the hit was solid, but not in the chest, so I quickly covered the distance to where he was bedded and immediately saw him only 25 yards away in the scrub brush. I drew and sent an arrow through his chest that shattered the off shoulder.

  The ram hobbled another 25 yards or so before stopping again. Since I obviously have no problems flinging arrows, I ranged the ram at 51 and sent another arrow through his lungs. All three shots took place in less than a minute and we heard him crash into a rock chute just out of sight. I knew it was over at that point.

 Never thought I would be here!

After a couple man-hugs between me and Scott, I realized that we had just killed a mature Dall sheep with a bow! I was positive throughout the whole trip because, as a bowhunter, you have to be. But I was still in awe that we had actually achieved it!

  I never thought I would be here…

Full Curl and then some

He was way over full curl on his long side!

Some age rings

Pretty solid mass for a NWT sheep!

Still in shock

It took me a little while to get over the shock of sitting next to my own archery Dall sheep.

Zack Walton Dall Sheep 2017

He is a beautiful 9-and-a-half-year-old ram, broomed heavy on one side and lamb-tipped on the other. It may have taken until the last day of the hunt, but it was worth it!

Long and broomed--a little of everything

His long side is 38” and has 13” bases on both sides.

Scott caping

Since it was our last day, Scott took the time on the mountain to cape the ram.

Starting the pack out. It wasn't steep at all!

At this point, I was excited and feeling good. I thought I might just float down the mountain!

Half-way through the pack out...

I stopped floating pretty quickly as the weight of the pack settled me back down to earth. Still pretty excited though!

Packed out

Six miles later, we arrived at the Ram River. It was supposed to be our pickup point for the Super Cub to take us back to base camp.

Ride home--not!

After clearing rocks and debris, we felt confident that there was enough space for our pilot to land and shuttle us and the gear back to camp. Even though it had been raining for several hours, the visibility was pretty good and we were hopeful the Super Cub would arrive. An hour later, we heard the plane approaching. He made several passes before touching down in front of us.

  Since the pilot wasn’t sure of our newly-constructed runway, he told us he would take all of the sheep out first and then gauge how easily he could take off before adding the extra weight that each of us and our gear would total. When he throttled up and headed down the gravel bar, I knew there was no way he would be coming back to this spot, because even though he easily cleared the trees, it didn’t look like he was happy as he flew off. An hour later, we checked in with base camp and were told he would not be coming back to that spot.

  Our fancy runway turned out to be insufficient, and with the worsening weather, we knew another night in the spacious KUIU tent was unavoidable. The outfitter told us of a possible strip 3 miles downriver that the pilot would try to land on in the morning. So, in the pouring rain, we started trekking down the river to the new landing zone.

One more day at the beach

We made it down river to the area and could not find any spot for a plane to land – a helicopter maybe, but not a plane. Scott called into basecamp again and told the outfitter there wasn’t anywhere a plane could land here. I then watched him receive further instructions from the outfitter and saw a blank stare fall across his face. A minute later he hung up and relayed the “plan” to me.

  In the morning, they would fly out a guy to the opposite side of the fast-flowing river, where there was a recently-used air strip, then make another trip out with a raft, inflate it and come across to pick up me and Scott. We would then raft back across the river to the side with the plane.

  OK…

  It was after midnight. We were both soaking wet, beat and starving. And to make things worse, we gave all the sheep meat to the pilot without thinking we might not make it back to base camp tonight. So we made camp, crawled into the tent and ate our last Mountain House while the rain continued to fall.

  Tomorrow we would finish this “tour.”

One chance for a guide to relax

The next morning we awoke to a beautiful day. We were excited to get out today, but not to put on all our drenched clothes and boots before hiking 3 miles back upriver to our “rafting” trip.  We made it halfway when we heard the plane come flying down the river valley. It dropped below the tree line more than a mile away and out of sight on the other side of the river. A few minutes later, we saw it take off and then fly over our heads on his way back to base camp. The “plan” had been initiated.

  We made it up to our point across from the strip and relaxed in the sunshine to dry off while our planes and boats organized. Scott took the brief window to relax—his first time in 9 days.

We need to be over there...

As you can see here, we are on the wrong side of a very deep and fast-moving river.

Time for a boat ride

At this point, it really seemed like more of a rescue mission than a routine pickup after a successful sheep hunt. I don’t know, maybe this is routine for the Northwest Territories!

Whitewater rafting

Weeeeeeeeee!!!!!!! My first whitewater rafting trip. I really got the full experience on this tour—hiking, camping, rock-climbing, sightseeing, whitewater rafting and a little bit of sheep hunting.

Our pilot, Bill, tells us how to steer the raft and where to park it. It was hilarious!

Finally in the Super Cub and headed back. This is the mountain on which we chased Droopy and his buddies.

This was the other side of Tom’s Dirty Hole, where we shot the ram. No…it wasn’t steep. At all!

This was one tired—but very happy—bowhunter.

Back at base camp, I was lucky enough to add my name to the cabin wall.

The Mackenzie Mountains from the air. It is some amazing country! A place that I don’t think was made for humans to live in, but it sure was nice to visit them.

The mighty Mackenzie River. It is the largest and longest river in Canada, and the only river in North America that is bigger is the Mississippi.

Celebration

Back at the hotel in Norman Wells. This was a well-earned celebration drink!

The full moon in Norman Wells marked the end of a long trip—but a great trip!

Walking back from getting the sheep plugged.

Who wants to do a backpack sheep hunt? Most of my body hurt after this trip, but my feet—as always—took the brunt of the punishment.

Me and Paul--a fellow sheep hunter

In Seattle on the way home, I ran into my buddy Paul, who was on his way to Alaska on his first sheep hunt. He was also successful!

Kicked out of the <1 Club

This was the hardest bowhunt of my life—both mentally and physically. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, because I wanted a traditional backpack hunt for Dall sheep and I sure as hell got it! We covered more than 75 miles over the 9 days and were lucky to arrow a beautiful 9-year-old ram on the last day. It was one of the most amazing, brutal, breathtaking, exhilarating, exhausting experiences of my bowhunting life and I wouldn’t change anything about it!

  I try to refrain from using the two words always and never, so I won’t say I will never have another adventure like this in my life, but chances are low. I proved a lot of things to myself on this trip and was lucky to have experienced something so special. I realize so few of us will see the country I saw, walk in the places I walked and know what it is like to see such awesome creatures in the close proximity that is required for bowhunting like I witnessed. To have the trip perfectly culminate in the taking of a ram with my bow was only something that can be described as unbelievable. Not to say that I didn’t believe it could be done—many others have done the same thing before – more like it was unbelievable that it was actually me having the experiences.

  If I don’t ever make it back up into the sheep mountains, I can rest easy knowing that I got everything I hoped for—and a lot more—on my one “tour” into them.

If luck continues, I may add another horned species this coming spring when I head to Nunavut for the prehistoric muskox. I guess this deer hunter has been a little sidetracked lately…
Filed under: Archery, Hunting | Comments Off on Horns Galore

Posted on: December 6th, 2016 Chasing Chuck

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Bucks on the Boat

I would like to preface this with a thank you to all the guys I have shared a hunting camp with over the years. This latest trip to Kodiak was one of the best week-long experiences I have ever had while bowhunting. And although this is not really a recap of that hunt alone, it was the culmination of a life-long quest with stick and string. 

Lots of boys grow up idolizing professional athletes, movie stars or singers. When family members ask them, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The boy says, "professional baseball player" or "country music star" or maybe the oddball response of "rodeo clown." 

But my childhood idols used words to craft tales of adventures in far-off places. These idols often were not famous, couldn't hit a baseball 500 feet and probably wouldn't last very long with a bull chasing them. The talents they did have were ones I tried to hone: ability to sneak close to animals, proficiency with archery equipment and artful storytelling through the written word. In my opinion, no one was better than Chuck Adams. 

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First "Big Game" Bowhunt

I started reading hunting magazines shortly after learning my ABCs. And nobody was more prevalent a writer than Chuck. I learned to love his writing style and gawked at every photo of him with a monster animal in his hands and a giant grin on his face. I continued to shoot with fingers and wear a beanie while bowhunting until I was 20. I went into journalism because I figured on a career in outdoor writing. I might have been a little overboard in my approach to try and follow in his footsteps...

By the time I graduated from college, I realized that there would only be one Chuck Adams and I eased up trying to follow his every step and find my own path.  But one of his accomplishments stuck with me since I was a kid and I couldn't shake it until I was able to do the same thing--five archery deer slams. At the time, he was the only bowhunter to record five archery deer slams. 

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Finger bow and beanie. Old school...

I grew up a deer hunter and although I was very fortunate to be in a bowhunting family, with parents that took me on hunting trips for vacations every year, I never expected to chase exotic animals. So when I read stories about sheep hunting in the pristine wilderness of northern Canada or safaris on the golden plains of Africa, I loved to pretend I was along side the storyteller, but I knew deep down that wasn't who I would be. I was a deer hunter and even though Chuck hunted everything, he always admitted to his love for deer--especially blacktails from his youth. 

Since I also grew up in California, it was easy for me to relate to his passion. By the time I was 15, I was lucky enough to have hunted and arrowed blacktail, mule deer and even a Coues' deer. It was at that point I thought that an archery deer slam was a possibility. Over the next decade, I was able to shoot a few whitetails, but an unsuccessful trip to Kodiak for Sitka blacktails left me one species short of the North American archery deer slam. 

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First day of deer hunting at age 11. Beginner's luck!

It wasn't until my second trip to Kodiak that I was able to arrow a nice buck and finish the first deer slam. It only took me 16 years of bowhunting deer! At 27, I hoped that the next ones would come more quickly or I would have to find the fountain of youth. Luck was on my side, and four years later, two well-placed arrows on another trip to Kodiak made slams No. 2 and 3 a reality. 

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First Sitka Blacktail and first archery deer slam

When I returned from that trip, I decided to make a serious effort at No. 4 and 5. I would need another Coues' and two more Sitkas. I decided to try something different for Coues' and found an early season hunt. It was great to see a different side to the smallest deer in North America. I was able to arrow a fuzzy-antlered buck this past August and saw for the first time that the color green actually exists in the desert. That was another trip made special because I made new friends, including a couple from Bowsite. 

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Velvet Coues' and No. 5 for that species

Although I had not planned on going back to Kodiak this year, a few friends really wanted to go and had to convince me pretty hard to make the trip this past month. I think the conversation went, "Zack, do you want to plan a trip for this year to Kodi..."

"Yes! I'll set it up," came out of my mouth without thought. I think my subconscious knew the deer population was up and it IS my favorite hunt, so mid-November found me landing on Kodiak island with 5 good buddies. 

before-pic

Quite the cast of clowns

The first night I was able to make a good shot at last light--after an errant warning arrow (it's only fair that I gave him a chance)--on a mature buck dogging a doe. The good news was deer slam No. 4 was over fast. The bad news was going to be what the next three hours would hold--skinning/quartering a deer in the dark and packing down the mountain through a never-ending alder thicket. The things you hope for on a Kodiak hunt! Luckily my hunting partner Matt (yes, that Matt) was very eager to help...

Three hours and 11 falls later, we were back at the shore and ready for pickup and a celebratory cocktail. Man, I had forgotten how much fun it was to stumble around in the alders with a heavy pack in the darkest of dark. I was quickly reminded. Luckily, Matt did not try to smother me in my sleep that night and I vowed to help him and that he would have the next shot. At least that's what I said...

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No. 4 and a fun pack out at night!

The next day, we climbed to the top of the mountain and never found a good stalking opportunity. While creating over a little rise, I looked to my right and saw a fox at 30 yards. I told Matt, "Don't move, there is a fox right there. Do you mind if I shoot it?" Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, my body had knocked an arrow and come to full draw. Matt graciously decided to let me shoot, as though I really gave him a choice. Keep this in mind for anyone considering on bringing me on a hunt. 

When the fox started to move, Matt called to it and it started coming towards us. What a good hunting buddy! It went behind a small knoll and we walked closer. When it popped out at 10 yards, I knew it was in my effective range and it was over quickly. Two days and I had a nice buck and a fox. Matt hadn't even drawn his bow. At least I didn't make him pack another buck all through the night again, right? Seriously, don't everyone invite me to be a hunting partner at once. 

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First Kodiak Fox

I was serious about helping Matt the next few days and we were able to rattle a couple nice bucks into bow range. Matt made good shots at alarming distances (15 and 10 yards) and I did return the favor of packing out his bucks. See, I'm not as bad as I seem. 

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Matt's Second Buck

On the last day, I hunted alone while meat care, duck hunting and fishing was handled by a couple guys with no tags left.  Just before a snow storm, I found a bedded buck 400 yards away. I marked the green patch he was bedded under and began my stalk. I had to backtrack and sneak around a large pond before getting the wind right and crawling up a cut below the ridge line. When I peaked over, I excepted to see the buck's antler tips at 25 yards. The snow storm had covered my stalk and I knew he was still going to be there. Arrow nocked, I scanned the brush in front of me. 

That's when I saw his eyes burrowing into me from directly to my right. Turns out there were two green patches and I picked the wrong one. He could only see my head, but he had me. It was wide open between us, the only thing I could do was sit and wait. A minute later, he stood to check his does and I figured it was going to happen. The shot felt more comfortable than any other time I have released an arrow at an animal. Sometimes, it just works. Five seconds later, he was on the ground. Of course, like the good hunting buddy I am, I called Matt on the radio to help me pack. I really know how to make friends...

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Five archery Deer Slams

It wasn't until we were heading back to the beach that it started to sink in. I had made a goal based off another person's achievements and two decades later, I was there. At the time I conceived this goal, it was widely reported that Chuck Adams was the only bowhunter to have 5 archery deer slams. I don't know if that is still true today, there may be others or he may have 10 deer slams at this point. But for a kid that had an idol he knew he could ever be like, this was the one moment in my life where I could say, "I did what Chuck did."

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I know I'm not a kid anymore--although I spend much of my time acting like one--but it was fun for me to look back at a journey that took me from childhood to the present. I have spawned new unrealistic goals since this first one as a child of chasing Chuck and they will probably never come to be. However, when I was younger, I never seriously thought I'd be able to get to 5 archery deer slams. I guess you can dream up crazy things at any age, that is not a something reserved for children. 

packed-to-the-beach

Although I have started chasing other species across this continent, I will always be a deer hunter at heart. Nothing makes me feel more like a bowhunter than when I have a deer tag in my pocket and a bow in hand. 

boat-group

Great Week!

harlequin

First Harlequin

fish

Big Cod

Filed under: Archery, Deer, Hunting | Comments Off on Chasing Chuck

Posted on: November 24th, 2016 Kodiak 2016

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Zack Walton Sitka Blacktail 2016

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Zack Walton Sitka Blacktail 2016

Another trip to Kodiak is in the books and this one was exceptional! My hunting partners on this trip were Matt Burke, Steve Walters, Dennis Kerby, Chris Stone and Joe Frater. For all but Matt and I, it was their first trip to Alaska. We lucked out on weather for the week and made the most of it. We shot 13 deer during the week, 11 were with a bow--7 of those are at or above Pope & Young. Everyone tagged at least two bucks had an amazing time. I was able to shoot two mature bucks and a fox, which is my first on Kodiak. The two bucks completed my fourth and fifth archery deer slams of North America--a goal I have had since I was a child. Congrats to Joe Frater on finishing his NA archery deer slam on this trip! It's a great accomplishment. There are too many stories to tell right now, so I will merely share a bunch of photos to help express the trip. I'd like to thank everyone who made the trip so enjoyable and I can't wait until next time! zack-walton-kodiak-fox-2016-500x

Zack Walton Kodiak Fox 2016

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Matt Burke Sitka Blacktail 2016

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Steve Walters Sitka Blacktail 2016

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Steve Walters Sitka Blacktail 2016

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Dennis Kerby Sitka Blacktail 2016

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Dennis Kerby Sitka Blacktail 2016

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Chris Stone Sitka Blacktail 2016

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Joe Frater Sitka Blacktail 2016

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Packing down the mountain

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Back to the beach

before-pic

The crew

sightseeing

Sightseeing and sighting our bows

planes

Passing planes

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Snow pack on interior of Kodiak

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Mountain Goats from plane

boat-bucks

Bucks on the boat

boat-group

Success!!!

fish

Big Cod!

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Posted on: November 6th, 2016 Brown Bear Adventure

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Shawn Wood Brown Bear 2016

This was an adventure 10 years in the making. My buddy Shawn Wood and I hunted brown bears in the wilderness of Alaska for 10 days during the end of September and beginning of October. There is not enough time to explain the trip in detail, but Shawn made a great shot at 290 yards on this old bear. It was an adventure I will never forget with great friends. Thanks to Shawn, Don Martin and Jay Stanford for another trip of a lifetime! ????????????????????????????????????

The Crew

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Shawn and I

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Big feet for a big bear

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Posted on: November 6th, 2016 Second Buck for Jon

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Jon Howell Mule Deer 2016

Congrats to Jon Howell on his second buck in California this season. Jon caught up with this deer after weeks of looking for other bucks that just would show. Congrats again on another fine season in the Golden State Jon.
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