by Adam Heggenstaller - Tuesday, July 22, 2014
I had thought about the shot I was about to take at the big ram for nearly 12 hours—not about hunting aoudad or shooting a wild sheep in general, but this particular shot at this particular animal. Getting settled is one thing, but having so much time to analyze the situation can be counterproductive. A day of thinking affords second guesses far too much opportunity to needle away at a carefully calculated plan before the moment of truth arrives.
My guide, Jared Aguilar with Desert Safaris, first spotted the aoudad now split into quarters by my scope’s crosshair shortly after 7 o’clock in the morning. The lone ram with heavy, banana-shaped horns and lots of shag growing under his chin was hustling across the shadowed face of a mountain more than half a mile above the dirt road where we stopped to glass.
“Probably heading for that saddle up top,” Jared said without taking his eye from the spotting scope. “He’s a good one. Let’s make sure we know where he’s going, then we’ll get after him.”
The nature of hunting sheep, including free-range aoudad in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, usually means a good deal of time will pass between spotting an animal and taking a shot at it. A valley, ridge or entire mountain may separate hunter from ram at the first encounter, and hiking within shooting range can take hours. That time is filled with struggle—both physical and mental. While legs and lungs burn from battling the terrain, the mind races with possible scenarios.
What if the sheep is gone by the time we get there? If he is there, I might have to make a long shot. How much holdover do I need at 300 yards? How much at 400 yards? Would I shoot 500 yards? I hope we can get closer than that. How should I hold in this wind? Will I be able to get steady with my heart hammering like this? Man, these mountains are steep. I wonder if I’ll be able to shoot prone …
Thoughts and questions began streaming through my head the minute Jared folded the tripod and stowed the spotter in the ATV. The ram had steadily ascended the slope as it crossed the mountain at an upward angle, disappearing behind an outcropping almost a mile in the distance. The edge of the saddle the keen guide had mentioned lay a few hundred yards beyond the crag. We were faced with a long climb, and having any chance at catching up to the sheep meant part of the trip would be made on wheels.
My hunting partner, John Fink, and I held on while Jared nudged the vehicle up a ranch road that was more rocks than dirt. As the director of product management for various rifle brands in the Freedom Group family, John had a part in organizing this hunt to showcase a new model called the Sporter from Nesika Rifles. We had been friends for years and were doing a lot of catching up on this trip, but now neither of us spoke. I knew the same questions I was asking myself were also weighing on his mind. They would have been on any hunter’s mind. Questions about game and our interactions with it are what drive us afield. Finding the answers is hunting.
What if the sheep is gone by the time we get there? The road we traveled ran up the back side of a high hill that lay across a steep valley from the slope on which we had seen the aoudad. A bouncing, 30-minute drive brought us nearly to the top. We approached the summit on foot, in the last 100 yards keeping a wide clump of cedar trees between us and the saddle Jared was sure would hold the sheep. Aoudad have eyesight on par with—if not better than—antelope, and even though it was more than 500 yards across the valley to the saddle, we weren’t taking chances.
“I got him,” said Jared, answering the foremost question. We had just eased into the shade of the cedars when our guide found the ram with his 15X binocular.
“He must have been really moving, because he’s already across the saddle, on the left side,” Jared added. “On the edge of that big patch of grass. Now he’s behind some trees.”
I found the grass and the trees in my bino—but no sheep. An hour later, I still had not seen the ram. John hadn’t either, and Jared couldn’t find him again. We kept glassing. Between all the rocks, cedars and shadows, there were hundreds of places for an aoudad to hide. I picked apart the landscape one field-of-view at a time, methodically working a grid pattern, overlapping my searches then repeating the process. Another hour passed, and still there was nothing.
“That sheep probably bedded down somewhere in those cedars,” Jared offered. “We would have seen him if he came out. He’s not going anywhere. Let’s get some lunch and come back.”
I didn’t want to leave, but Jared has guided sheep hunters for decades; he sounded confident. Besides, I knew all our eyes needed a break. A hot meal and some rest back at the guest house did us good, but there was no downtime for a mind set on shooting an aoudad.
If he is there, I might have to make a long shot. On the ride back to the hilltop after lunch, I thought about my last range session with the Nesika, two days before I left home. The .300 Win. Mag. was accurate. On that afternoon it produced ¾-MOA groups consistently out to 400 yards, the farthest I could hang a target on the range.
Aoudad (also known as Barbary sheep) are exotic, having been brought from northern Africa to West Texas by ranchers in the 1950s. In this case, however, exotic is not synonymous with high-fence, as the sheep roam freely across the Trans-Pecos region and into New Mexico. They scale cliffs as easily as any North American sheep and are completely at home in the rugged rock formations of the Chinati, Davis and Glass mountains at elevations of 5,000 to 8,000 feet. Free-range aoudad hunting is sheep hunting in every sense, and with it comes the possibility of a long shot in the mountains.
I knew the rifle was up to the task. More importantly, I knew I was up to the task with the rifle. I had done my homework, practiced at long range, was comfortable with the gun. The final group I shot back home measured right at 2 inches for three rounds from 400 yards. When I checked the zero here on the ranch two days ago, three shots at 100 yards were almost touching. Any questions I might have had about accuracy were already answered. Now, we just had to find that ram again.
The three of us spread out on top of the hill and resumed our search. I recognized landmarks from the morning, but in the late-afternoon sun the shadows were much longer. The ram had chosen his bed wisely; he would be difficult to spot in the deep shade. After a couple hours on the glass, rocks and bushes were starting to turn into aoudad. The only thing moving was a young mule deer buck. If Jared was right, the sheep had to be out there somewhere. But he could have been anywhere. It had been almost eight hours since we last saw him. I was starting to think the ram had moved while we were at lunch, or maybe had gone over the top and we didn’t see him, or ...
“Got him,” Jared said. “Oh yeah, that’s him. Above where we saw him this morning. He’s moving down that side to the saddle.”
We had ground to cover. The sheep was grazing, but it was hard to tell how long he would hang around. As we descended into the valley, my mind kicked into overdrive, the questions coming rapid-fire.
How much holdover do I need at 300 yards? Pre-hunt prep included studying the ballistics of the Barnes Vor-Tx load that filled my rifle’s magazine. First I chronographed the load in the Nesika, because the number printed on the ammo box isn’t always a true indication of the velocity in a given rifle. This time, though, it was. The 165-grain TtSX bullet exited the muzzle at 3125 fps. With a 250-yard zero, the bullet was only 3 inches low at 300 yards. I’d need 14 inches of holdover at 400 yards. Aoudad are deep-chested, so I could hold just over the ram’s back at 400 yards for a solid hit. I remembered verifying these drops at the range; I had solid data condensed into a tiny “cheat sheet” taped to the rifle’s stock.
That data included a 31-inch drop at 500 yards, but I had decided the range was beyond my personal limit. To make a vital hit at 500 yards, I would need to hold about 20 inches above the sheep. Trying to gauge 20 inches from a distance of 500 yards wasn’t something I was willing to try on this ram. We would have to get closer.
Once across the brush-choked valley, we began climbing a steep slope covered with ankle-twisting clumps of grass. Jared had noticed where the slope leveled out toward the top, and he hoped I could get a shot from this flatter area. A 300-yard hike from the valley floor put us about halfway to the top. Taking a short breather by a cedar tree, I noticed its branches swaying in the wind, and another question immediately came to mind.
How should I hold in this wind? While we were looking for the ram in the morning, I got a feel for how the vegetation behaved under various wind speeds. I had a pocket-size wind meter in my pack, and when a gust would blow across the top of the hill, I’d take a reading. Then I would compare the speed on the meter with the amount of movement the wind imparted to nearby cedar limbs.
The speeds on the meter seemed low at first, but then I realized the whippy limbs of the cedars didn’t take as much wind to move as those from the trees I used as indicators back home. I found that if I took 5 mph off my wind estimate based on the cedars, the result was pretty close to the actual speed.
Standing by the cedar, ready to make the last half of the climb to the sheep, I pegged the wind at about 10 mph, even though it looked more like 15. A glance at the chart on my rifle told me I’d need about 6 inches of hold-off at 300 yards and 11 inches at 400 yards. But that was only if the wind held steady and blew straight across in front of me when it came time to take the shot. I reminded myself to halve those values if the wind quartered.
Jared was in the lead as we pushed toward the rim of the valley, maybe 75 yards in front of John and me. I saw him drop to a crouch and throw his bino to his eyes. He had spotted the ram. We needed to get up to the guide now. I quickened my steps, and my heartbeat picked up the pace with them. I wasn’t out of breath when I knelt behind Jared, but I wasn’t breathing easy, either.
Will I be able to get steady with my heart hammering like this? The ram was a little more than 400 yards away, the thick curves of his horns clearly visible at 10X—that is, when I could keep the binocular from jumping along with the beat in my chest. The long hair running down the front of the ram’s legs—his chaps—fluttered in the wind. I wanted badly to make this shot, and to do that, I needed to get calm.
“We’re in good shape,” Jared whispered. “He doesn’t know we’re here.”
I put the glass down and took a couple deep breaths. We had spent all day working for this sheep. There was no reason to rush things now. I began to think about my shooting position. Considering the distance to the ram, I would need some kind of rest.
I wonder if I’ll be able to shoot prone. Undoubtedly, prone is my favorite position for long shots simply because it’s the steadiest. But it wasn’t going to work here. The rocks were too uneven for me to lie on, the grass too high to clear.
Jared handed me a set of shooting sticks. Sitting behind them with the rifle supported by the tripod was the next-best thing to prone. I had practiced from sticks many times. As I found the ram in the scope, I was glad for that practice. A little bounce and a bit of wobble remained, but the crosshair stayed on the ram’s chest.
The sheep had closed the distance while I was getting ready. There was just one complication: He was now positioned directly between me and the setting sun. The glare in my scope was so bad I could barely make out the ram’s silhouette.
“He’s at 328,” said Jared, reading his rangefinder. “Remember to hold a little for the wind.
Take the shot when you’re ready.”
“The sun’s blinding me,” I replied. “I can’t see to shoot.”
This was something I had not considered. I could hold for range and wind, but I couldn’t hold for sun. Jared hovered his hat over my scope, trying to block the rays.
“Does that help?” he asked.
“No, it’s shining right into my scope!”
I couldn’t take a shot at an animal I couldn’t clearly see. It was going to be another 20 or 30 minutes before the sun dipped below the horizon. Who knew where the sheep would go in that time. We couldn’t move to get a better angle; he was too close. What now?
The ram provided the answer by stepping into a patch of shade thrown by a group of cedars. I still had glare in my scope, but at least I could see the sheep. The green illuminated dot in the center of the Trijicon AccuPoint’s reticle stood out in sharp contrast against the aoudad’s dusky hide.
“Three-O-two,” said Jared.
It had been almost 12 hours since we first saw the ram. Twelve hours of steady questions had run through my mind. Now I addressed them clearly. The Nesika cracked, its muzzle rising from the sticks and causing me to lose the ram in the recoil. I chambered another round and searched with the scope, but the sheep was gone. There was one more question, and this one I asked out loud.
“He went right down!” John said. “He dropped right beside those cedars.”
That was the answer I had been seeking all day.
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