by Adam Heggenstaller - Thursday, June 19, 2014
There they are. The narrow valley a thousand feet below me that was devoid of life just 10 seconds ago is now full of sheep. Judging by the thick, arcing horns one of them is carrying, this has to be the group we’ve been looking for all afternoon.
“Sheep!” I utter to my three hunting companions. “Over here, right below us. One’s a monster!” Although I’ve been hunting aoudad in the Davis Mountains of West Texas for just four days, I know a trophy ram when I see one. My jaw drops even lower as the ram begins to climb the opposite side of the valley. Through the 10X Cabela’s Euro binocular, the bases of his horns look as big around as my legs.
Desert Safaris guide Jared Aguilar pivots on the rock where he’s sitting and focuses his bino on the group.
“Really good ram in there,” he confirms. “Lots of sheep. If they stop to feed and we can make it down this hill without them seeing us, we might have a chance.”
I glance at John Fink, who is already shouldering his pack. It’s his turn. As director of product management for rifles at Freedom Group, he invited me and John Taranto from Outdoor Life on this hunt, and he’s played the role of gracious host all week. He watched me kill a good ram two days ago and celebrated Taranto’s success on another. Now, on the last afternoon of the last day, I hope we get to do the same with him on the rifle.
Until the group of aoudad suddenly appeared in the valley, that hope had been slipping away with the sun as it sank toward the Rio Grande. Jared spotted the sheep four hours ago, shortly after noon. Strung out in a single-file line, they were ascending the very hill on which we are now sitting.
“Couple of nice ones,” he said then, gauging them through his bino. “We need to get over there fast.”
“Over there” was almost 2 miles away.
“How can you tell they’re nice rams from all the way over here?” I asked, amazed at the matter-of-fact way he delivered his assessment.
“I can see shadows from their horns on their backs,” he said, “and the shadows look big.”
I should have known better. He judged the ram I killed earlier in the week at 31 inches—from a distance of more than 300 yards. When we put the tape to it back at camp, the longest horn went 31 1/4 around the curve. Obviously, Jared knew what to look for.
After the sheep disappeared over the rocky top of the hill, we closed most of the distance with an ATV. An hour later we eased through the same cut in the rocks the aoudad had used to climb the final couple hundred yards to the crest. We spent the next few hours looking for the sheep, but they were gone. A smaller group of aoudad was hanging out on an escarpment on the opposite side of the hill, but Jared was sure they were not the ones he spotted earlier. I kept my mouth shut and didn’t doubt him.
It looked like the big rams gave us the slip, but we set up on top of the hill to glass the big country surrounding us anyway. We never thought the sheep had circled the hill while we climbed, but now, with the big ram in the same valley where we started our approach, it is evident the aoudad have returned.
We retrace our steps through the cut, only this time we’re heading downhill. Outcroppings the size of suburban mansions provide cover. The footing is anything but solid. Ragged rocks shift beneath my feet, trapping my toes and ankles between them every few yards. Jared and John are in the lead, gingerly picking their way down the slope while keeping eyes on the sheep.
The aoudad are calm. Some are grazing on the opposite hill, others are drinking at a water hole in the bottom of the valley. We stop in a cluster of cedars, maybe 600 yards from the sheep, and Taranto and I decide to stay behind. This is it, John’s last chance. Two guys stalking a group a sharp-eyed aoudad are at least 50 percent more likely to get within range than four guys.
I get comfortable and raise the bino. Jared is right: There are two nice rams in the group. One of them, though, is clearly the biggest. He’s feeding up the slope, his huge horns almost glowing in the late-afternoon sun.
An hour passes before I see Jared and John again. They’ve used the cut in the rocks to its fullest, only now popping out in a relatively open area on the valley floor. The sheep are near the top of the hill; some have already disappeared over the skyline. Luckily, the two big rams are still within sight, just below the crest, milling around in a stand of short cedars and nipping at the tips of branches.
From my position, the hunters look exposed. I’m wondering how the sheep don’t bust them and hope there is some wrinkle in the terrain I can’t see that affords them cover. I watch with growing disappointment as a ewe and her lamb start moving down the hill directly toward Jared and John crouching in the dirt. They’re pinned down. John doesn’t have a clear shot; the rams are screened by the cedars. The situation gets worse as the lamb, curious, breaks out on a dead run heading right for the hunters. It passes them almost at arm’s length.
The ewe stays back, alert, and the rams sense something isn’t right. They prance along the hill, moving left to right. A few short bounds, and they’ll be gone over the top. I shift my bino to John. His rifle is on the shooting sticks!
The big ram pauses on a flat-topped outcropping. He’s probably 200 yards or so above John. I see the sheep shutter, hunch, and then the report from John’s 7mm Magnum Nesika reaches my ears. Three steps, and the ram is down. The sun is almost there, too.
Taranto and I cheer, and we all but run across the valley. We gather around John’s ram, and Jared judges it at 34 inches, one of the largest he’s guided a hunter to in many years of practicing his profession. As Jared capes the sheep, we watch the sun disappear beyond Mexico. The hunt is over, but the memories of watching a last-minute stalk end in success will continue to burn brightly.
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