Fairbanks hunter bags 46-inch sheep in Brooks Range

FAIRBANKS — Even when he walked up and got a good look at the Dall sheep ram he had just shot in the Brooks Range, Fairbanks hunter Bill Foster didn’t know what he’d done.

Of course, how can you know that you just shot one of the biggest sheep taken in Alaska in years, if not decades, when you’ve never even gone sheep hunting before, much less actually shot a sheep?

“After I shot him I lost control of all my emotions,” Foster said. “It was like, ‘Holy cow, this could be something big.’ It looked like it could be a full curl and a quarter.”

It wasn’t until Foster got the sheep part way down the mountain he shot it on and met up with his hunting partner, Tim Dingey of Fairbanks, that he began to realize how special his sheep might be.

“Bill was like, `Is this a good ram? Should I get it mounted?’” Dingey said, recalling their conversation. “I told him, ‘Bill this is a ram of a lifetime.’”

But even Dingey, an experienced sheep hunter, had no clue how big it really was.

“It was a trophy ram, you could tell,” Dingey said. “I told him, ‘I’m going to guess this is over 40 inches, maybe 42.’ I never would have guessed it at 46.”

Freak sheep

When it comes to defining a “trophy” sheep in Alaska, 40-inch horns is the benchmark most hunters and guides adhere to.

“For big sheep, 40 inches is kind of the standard,” said state wildlife biologist Jason Caikoski, who monitors sheep in the Brooks Range for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.

The measurement is taken around the horns from the base of the skull to the tip of the horn.

Only 261 of the 6,068 sheep — 4 percent — sealed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game between 2004 and 2010 were measured at 40 inches or more.

More than half of those — 146 — were 40 inchers. There were only two sheep that measured 46 inches or bigger — one 46 incher and one 47.

For sealing purposes, Caikoski measured the longest horn on Foster’s sheep at 45 6/8 inches. The horn bases measured in the low 13 inches.

Alan Jubenville, one of three official Boone and Crockett measurers in Fairbanks, unofficially measured the longest horn at 46 2/8 inches and the shorter one at 44 1/8 inches. The bases were measured at 13 3/8 and 13 4/8 inches.

“It’s the biggest ram I’ve ever measured,” Jubenville said. “It’s a beautiful ram.”

Not a big rep

As Alaska sheep hunting hot spots go, the Brooks Range does not have a reputation for particularly big rams, though some big rams have been taken over the years, said Caikoski.

“I’ve measured a number of 40-inch rams out of the Brooks Range but they don’t make the book because they usually don’t have any mass to them,” Jubenville said. “They’re usually these spindly 12 or 13 inch bases.”

Indeed, the Boone and Crockett record book is littered with entries from the Chugach Mountains, Wrangell Mountains, Talkeetena Mountains and Alaska Range to name a few hot spots, but there are only three entries from the Brooks Range, the highest of which is No. 123, a 45 1/8-inch ram that scored 173 6/8 points.

Already, there have been comments posted on the Internet to the effect that there will be a stampede of sheep hunters in the Brooks Range next year because of Foster’s big ram.

“This doesn’t mean the Brooks Range is a great place to go to find a great big sheep,” wildlife biologist Tom Seaton at Fish and Game in Fairbanks said. “This is kind of a freak.”

Internet meeting

How Foster, a 33-year-old cook at Silver Gulch Brewery who moved to Fairbanks from St. Louis two years ago, wound up sheep hunting in the Brooks Range with Dingey is a story in itself.

Foster was logged into the hunting forum on the Alaska Outdoors Supersite, a website dedicated to hunting, fishing and a multitude of other outdoor pursuits in Alaska, when he read a post from a hunter in Fairbanks — Dingey — who said his sheep hunting partner had bailed out of a hunt they had planned together and he was looking for another hunting partner. Foster replied to the post and the two hunters arranged a meeting at Dingey’s house.

“We hooked up and hit it off pretty good,” Foster said. “A few people I knew knew him and said he’s a good guy.”

The only sheep hunting experience Foster had at that point was helping “a friend of a friend” who drew a Tok Management Area permit last year.

“I went along to help him pack a sheep out, just to learn the ropes,” Foster said.

For his part, Dingey said he had put too much time and effort into planning the hunt to just call it off and he didn’t want to go by himself for safety reasons. Even though he didn’t know Foster from Adam, he was willing to take a chance on spending 10 days in the mountains with somebody he barely knew in order to salvage his hunt.

“It’s better to take a chance on somebody than do something by yourself because of the risk of injury,” said Dingey.

Besides, he said, “Most hunters in general are pretty good people.”

Before they flew in, it was agreed that Dingey would have first shot on any sheep they saw.

“I said, ‘You planned the hunt; you shoot first,’” Foster said. “I was just happy to get in the mountains and learn from somebody who knew what they were doing.”

First ram

After driving to the Brooks Range, Dingey flew in on Aug. 8, two days before the season started, and spotted a ram the next day a few miles from camp, high up the mountain.

Once Foster arrived, the two hunters climbed up the mountain that night to get in position for a shot at the ram on opening day. But the fog rolled in and the two hunters spent a miserable night huddled under a tarp, waiting for the fog to break.

“We weren’t planning on spending that much time up there,” Dingey said. “We didn’t have sleeping bags or anything. We were freezing our butts off. I had a Snickers bar and he had a granola bar, that’s all we had to eat.”

When the fog finally broke, they caught a glimpse of the ram but weren’t able to get a shot at it and they decided to go back down the mountain to regroup and get something to eat. Instead of taking a nap, Dingey took a walk down the valley and spotted the same ram again. This time, he was able to get a clean shot, killing it with a 420-yard shot around noon on opening day.

“It was impressive,” Foster said of Dingey’s long shot.

Dingey couldn’t have been happier. The ram had 37 1/2-inch horns with 12-plus inch bases. It was aged at 13-years-old, which is old for sheep.

“It was full curl on both sides,” Dingey said. “It’s a beautiful ram.”

After Dingey shot his sheep, the hunters butchered and caped it, packed it back to camp and stashed in a river in plastic bags to cool off.

Then they hiked up another drainage for about eight miles to set up a spike camp to hunt out of for Foster’s sheep. It was 8 p.m. by the time they set up camp but Foster was still pumped up so he decided to hike to the top of a nearby saddle, taking a spotting scope and rifle with him.

“As soon as I got there I saw these sheep about two miles off,” he said.

Second ram

Most of the sheep Foster spied were ewes or small rams but one ram looked like it might be legal.

By this time, it was getting late, around 9 p.m. Foster went back down to camp and asked Dingey to come take a look. They hiked to the top of the saddle and set up the spotting scope. At first, Dingey couldn’t get a good look at the ram’s horns. The ram was bedded down, looking straight at him.

“Then finally that sheep turned his head sideways and he said, ‘You better get going,’” Foster said.

Foster grabbed his rifle and a pack with everything else he needed and set off. It was about a two-mile hike and the sheep was about 5,000 feet up a mountain. Once he started to get close, Foster dropped everything except his gun, a range finder and some extra bullets for the final 1,500-foot climb. It was a steep climb, up loose gray shale.

“The whole time I had all this stuff going through my head. This was really going to happen,” Foster said. “It was pretty intense.”

As Foster crested the crawling on his stomach, he spotted the ram’s horns. He backed down, pulled out his range finder and ranged a big rock behind the sheep that estimated the distance at 270 yards. The sheep was still bedded down.

Foster dropped the range finder, crawled back over the lip and put the crosshairs of his rifle scope on the sheep.

“He had no idea I was there,” Foster said. “He was the most majestic thing I’ve ever seen.”

Then he pulled the trigger on his .270 Weatherby magnum.

Watching it unfold

Dingey watched the drama unfold through a spotting scope about a mile away.

“I was up in a saddle, just keeping my eye on the ram,” he said. “I knew it was legal. I knew it was few inches past full curl. Through a spotting scope I was going to guess it was a 38- or 39-inch ram.”

Watching the ram through the spotting scope for an hour was a pleasure, Dingey said.

“I have a lot of respect for sheep,” he said. “It was a magnificent sight having him zoomed in on a scope like that. I was enjoying that.”

When Foster shot the sheep, Dingey’s joy turned to anxiety.

“I immediately seen he hit it,” Dingey said. “The ram started to crawl on its knees. He was on the spine of a mountain. If it had rolled down one side you would’ve been risking your life to retrieve it in real loose shale.

“I was nervous it was going to roll down the wrong hill,” he said.

But the ram didn’t roll down the hill. It stayed put.

Something special

It wasn’t until Foster flew out two days later, after he and Dingey packed the sheep eight miles back to the airstrip, that Foster began to realize the enormity of what he’d done.

He wrapped a rope around the sheep’s horns, cut it and asked some of the other pilots and hunting guides who were in the camp to measure it.

“They said, ‘If you did this right this sheep is 46 inches,’” Foster said. “Those guys were up and out the door asking, ‘Where is it?’ They were pretty excited. That’s when I realized what I had on my hands.”

It wasn’t long, thanks to the Internet, before rumors of a possible record ram taken in the Brooks Range began to circulate.

Record ram?

Where — or if — the sheep will rank in the Boone and Crockett Club’s Records of North American Big Game remains to be seen. A sheep must score at least 170 points make the B&C record book. That score is based on a series of measurements taken by an official Boone and Crockett Club scorer, including the length of the horns, circumference of the bases and a three other measurements.

There is a mandatory 60-day drying period, also, before a trophy can be measured for the record book, said B&C’s big game records keeper, Jack Reneau.

Jubenville told Foster the sheep would probably score 175 to 180 points, depending on who scores it and how much, if any, it shrinks.

The No. 1 sheep in the B&C record book is 189 6/8 inches, taken in the Wrangell Mountains in 1961 by Harry L. Swank, Jr. of Anchorage.

A score of 180 would put Foster’s sheep in the top 25 sheep ever entered in Boone and Crockett.

Getting a record-book Dall sheep ram in this day and age is next to impossible, Jubenville said.

The record books back him up. Most of the biggest sheep in the record book were taken in the 1950s and 60s. The most recent sheep to make the top 25 in the record book was taken in 1989 in the Alaska Range.

Of the 310 sheep listed in the most recent B&C record book, only eight have been taken since 2000 and none of those ranked in the top 100.

“It’s very difficult these days to get a Dall sheep that scores 170 points,” Jubenville said.

No looking back

While other hunters in Dingey’s spot might have been left thinking about what might have been, that’s not the case for the 37-year-old Dingey. He’s happy with his sheep and he’s happy for Foster. To have been part of a hunt that results in a record-book sheep is a privilege.

“I pretty much had all the gear for this hunt. I did all the research. I coordinated all the flights,” Dingey said. “He fell into it and it ended up working out for him.

“He was a good hunting partner,” he added. “He was humble. He’s thanked me several times for doing what I did. I’m happy for him. It would be selfish of me not to be. He worked hard for me and I definitely wanted to be in the game to win it for him.”

As luck would have it, the weather deteriorated after Foster flew out and Dingey ended up spending six days camped alone, waiting for a plane to pick him up. He ran out of food and resorted to eating sheep meat.

“It was pretty intense,” Dingey, an Iraq war veteran, said.

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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