By Angelo Baio
Do you have that one animal that possesses your every thought? I’ve hunted quite a few species in over forty years, but there is no animal that holds my admiration more than a wild desert sheep. Desert sheep are survivors in the most inhospitable high places requiring the best you have to give, both physically and mentally, making a successful hunt all the more rewarding.
It’s ironic though that such a tough survivor is having such a difficult time. The circumstances surrounding the population struggles of desert bighorn predate my existence, and in many cases, are still the same. In spite of the conservation success, desert sheep are still on the edge, but the opportunity for hunts are rare but improving every year. In reality the population recovery is so painstakingly slow that the majority of us will never get that chance. Yet, in spite of the odds you reflexively enter your lottery ticket every year for that chance. You’re a sheep hunter; perseverance and hope is what drives us.
I decided to approach this from another angle. I piled my environmental conservation experience on a plane to Arizona and volunteered as a “citizen conservationist” in the Arizona Game and Fish Commission’s Santa Catalina Desert Bighorn capture and release program. I figured I probably would never get that chance and this would be the next best thing. I did put my hands on a live Desert Bighorn and that in-and-of-itself, was a once in a multiple lifetimes experience. Yet, that wasn’t enough.
Raymond Lee, former President and CEO of the Wild Sheep Foundation, states in his 2008 paper on Best Practices in Sustainable Hunting, Hunting as a tool for wildlife conservation-the case for sheep hunting in Mexico that I believe best sums up the current understanding not only in Mexico but the United States;
“History of Sheep Hunting In Mexico Bighorn sheep have existed in Mexico for more than 10,000 years. While pre-settlement numbers were quite large, the population did not fare well in the face of subsistence hunting and diseases contracted from domestic livestock. Bighorn sheep numbers continued to decrease to the point that the hunting of bighorn sheep in the state of Baja California Sur was closed in 1917.”
Jack O’Connor, when hunting the deserts of Arizona and Mexico wrote of his observations about how difficult the terrain was for wild sheep to survive. Ranching practices stress the landscape while poaching and domestic animal transmitted disease exacerbated survival challenges. In fact, it’s difficult to even obtain historical population numbers to get a base-line for measurement of conservation efforts. However, the Wild Sheep Foundation resident biologist Clay Brewer sees a light in this tunnel and states, “Through the cooperative efforts of landowners, conservation organizations such as the Wild Sheep Foundation and the Mexican Government, desert bighorn sheep numbers and distribution continue to expand in Mexico.”
On the Ground
Favorite haunts of legendary sheep hunter Jack O’Connor’s are the sierras of Arizona and Mexico. O’Connor and a few legendary sheep hunters of that day defined sheep hunting as the ability to survive the do-it-yourself desert sheep hunt. I believe that’s where the allure for sheep hunting originates and is exemplified by the Wild West styled hunt stories of the past and the rarity of the current day opportunity to hunt.
O’Connor and crew often slept in tents, in the back of a car; or simply on the desert floor next to a fire. One thing was clear from his works, money wasn’t what dictated the success of the hunt, skill and shear grit was the theme of the day. How I would have loved sharing bourbon and a story with those guys. Enjoying a cigar next to a campfire, under the stars of a crystal clear desert night.
Jack writes that when hunting Desert sheep he preferred the sierras around the western coastal town of Puerto Libertad, Sonora. In a colossal stroke of luck I was graced with an opportunity for a cancellation hunt with David Artee Outfitting, an outfitter that hunted those same areas as O’Connor. David’s experience comes from his father (David Sr.), an avid hunter that imparted desert hunting skills upon his son. David also has access to a 250,000-acre concession of the Aguirre Mountains and a free-range desert Bighorn tag available. My once in a lifetime hunt was afoot and I was certainly going to take advantage.
South Of The Border
My outfitter chose to pick me up in the airport at Tucson, Arizona and drive into Mexico. This is mostly a cost saving option as the flight leg to Hermosillo is quite expensive. There is an internal fight for law and order there and exhibited by the masked military at its “Welcome Center” but the feeling you get crossing over is edgy but strangely comforting when escorted by your native guide.
Just past the struggling border town a four-hour drive laid ahead along the west coast of Sonora to our remote camp. As each mile passed, I was floored by the vast stretches of open desert plains punctuated with saguaro cactus and flowering brush. As the sunset reflected color off the occasional high ground, the cool moisture laden fog approaching from the Gulf of California revealed orange and yellow flowing scrublands that lit up by the soft yellow light of sunset. Undeveloped Mexico is where the real desert beauty is found and lessened the long drive.
Home Is Where You Lay Your Hat
There seems to be only one paved road that runs past the town of Puerto Libertad. The entire interior of the town was built on dirt roads. Our remote hacienda camp lies ten minutes north of town and a mile as the crow flies off the paved road on the desert flats. This entire range, over two hundred and fifty thousand acres of desert flats and the Sierra Aguirre’s, we will hunt is David’s private concession.
The Mexican shanty accommodations’ are rough but clean and comfortable. Clients are afforded the use of a bedroom; a bathroom, a galley and a palm frond covered sitting area where the brick Bar-B-Que is used for most evening meals. Water is gravity feed for the sink and a toilet. Two very pleasant local women cook and keep the place clean. They will keep you well feed with traditional Mexican food simply for the asking. It’s remote, rustic and realistic; exactly how I hoped it would be.
I found February to be the perfect time to hunt; the daytime temps were in the low to high seventies with overcast skies keeping the heat down. There were occasional sprinkles of rain, which in combination with cool temperatures made for comfortable hiking conditions.
The first morning out started with a drive on a traditional “High Rack” truck through the valleys between known sheep haunts. As we drove we stopped often to glass and about midmorning Freddy found sheep tracks crossing the dirt road. Typically sheep will cross between mountains at night and fresh sign in the road gives you a starting point to glass that particular mountain range.
As he suspected Freddy caught sight of a group of sheep about fourteen hundred yards off and feeding below the skyline. Believing a good ram was in the group, we followed the tracks up the drainage shaving off six hundred yards for a better look.
As Freddy moved ahead in eight foot high brush and before topping a hill crest, he peers over and catches a glimpse of the group about four hundred yards off and feeding. We tighten our group behind Freddy to reduce the silhouette and move another ten yards. Mid-stride, Freddy pulls up and “bam”, we’re caught flat footed by a beautiful, heavy horned ram standing broadside atop a rock outcropping and staring us down. David quickly ranges him at 398 yards while Freddy is excitedly blurting out in Spanish and motioning that I take a off hand shot standing from his monopod shooting stick. I knew there was no way I could confidently make the shot, so I insisted we move up looking for a better position.
Honestly, the three of us were shocked at the sight of the ram that just stood there motionless while we frantically shuffled forward for a better shot position. We went as far as we could and I insisted on a prone position but there was no chance with the tall ground cover. We managed to get within 338 yards but I still would not take that off-hand. The best I could do was to prop the gun in a Torote tree branch and hope for the best.
I quickly forced my way into the branches of the tree thinking my window of opportunity was closing and placed the fore end of the rifle on the thickest branch I could find. The branch was to high so I couldn’t take a knee.
The tree limbs are like rubber and the bent over position I was in made the cross hairs dance all over the animal. I needed to be prone for a shot at that distance and I wasn’t going to ruin this experience with a bad or missed shot. We scurried around for a prone shot but I was screened by brush. I knew this wasn’t going to work and even though Freddy insisted I take the shot, I passed. The ram slowly turned and hurriedly walked off.
Freddy thought it would be worth trying to catch him on the backside of the hill, so off we went but after an hour of hiking we never seen him again. As we walked back to the truck the gravity of what just happened only a couple of hours into the first hunt hit me like a ton of bricks. I spun every detail over again in my mind and found it hard to accept I had my dream ram within my sights but couldn’t close the deal. In retrospect, I believe I did the right thing. I wasn’t confident of the outcome and I didn’t want to allow my desire to get this done and cloud my judgment, I have to believe I made the right choice. I named that ram “Nicky” for getting away in the nick of time.
The following morning we headed to the backside of the mountain from the previous day. No sooner do we put glass to mountain and about 800 yards we found a group of two young rams. Having no additional luck, we returned to camp to get out of the sun and let the rams bed.
Returning that afternoon where we left off, Freddy spots what he believes is Nicky’s group and possibly a mature ram at about 1500 yards off and at the crest of the mountain. Without delay we scramble up the mountain, side-hilling on a thirty degree angle of marble sized granite making footing and forward motion almost impossible. Pausing to glass, we notice a nice mature ram at 490 yards. Again there is no viable shooting position so we move forward to 350 yards, and they are feeding without noticing us. I elect to move closer so we make our way to a side hill about 250 yards from the group and stop on some boulders to use as a gun rest and cover.
I was so overheated from the ascent that when I got on the scope the steam from my forehead fogged it up. Trying to clean the scope I can see with my naked eye sheep moving back and forth among some bushes at the mountain’s crest. I settled back on the scope and found the ram behind bushes to their left. Trying to settle down I confirmed we were in sync and focusing on the right animal. I prepared David for a shot declaring that when the ram clears the brush there is a twenty-foot wide-open window; I flipped the safety and waited to fire when he stops. I could feel it down in my bones; this was my fifty-year moment.
The ram clears the brush and quick-walks the twenty feet to the top and out of site. I sit up in disgust, I couldn’t believe what just happened. We just stood there with our mouths open in disbelief. Freddy doesn’t skip a beat, and we were after him in hopes we’d catch him on the backside.
We covered quite a bit of that mountaintop, climbing for at least another hour. When we summit, Freddy peers over the top and not twenty yards in front of us is the group of ewes and lambs. I could literally hear them chewing and the slight murmur of soft bleats from the lambs and they were feeding right toward us. We all thought that just over the rise would be the ram so I moved backward to put my silhouette below the rock and shuffled on my hands and knees to my right to look over. As I do that I’m fifteen feet and face-to-face with a Ewe staring right at me. She caught my movement and leads the group in a trot over the crest.
I quickly stand up thinking I can catch sight of the ram running down hill but, he’s nowhere in sight.
Day three started with a one-mile hike into a box canyon looking to catch feeding rams working their way uphill. As we reached the end we surprise a group of sheep we believed our ram hangs with, but there was no sight of him. Siri, scouting the back side of the canyon finds two rams banging heads so we head for the summit hoping to peer over and catch them in the act.
It was a tough climb, taking more than an hour and as we summit Siri radios that they are moving off. Freddy catches sight of the two rams walking the ridge hundreds of yards off. Thinking we could gain ground faster on the ridge top we take off hoping to cut the distance. Two hours later, we lose them. Giving into the heat and the exhaustion, we head back to the truck on the opposite side of the mountain. The day ends with another missed opportunity that’s starting to weigh heavily on the crew.
Three’s The Charm
On day four, skies were overcast and the forecast threatened heavy rains the following day, so there was an urgency to close the deal today. Right off we found a few ewes and lambs but no rams. I could see the concern on Freddy’s and David’s faces as we returned to camp for the afternoon.
At camp Freddy and David worked on a new plan, and by the hand motions, I interpreted that Freddy believed the rams moved to hidden areas on the back side of the ranch. In the afternoon we would drive to more remote locations, hike in, and glass.
At this point is was difficult to stay positive, but I consciously forced myself not to lose sight of the beautiful surroundings and the experience. As we drove to the jump off spot, you couldn’t miss seeing the desert was alive with color; there was yellow, orange and purple flowering brush drinking in the moisture. I didn’t dare distract anyone to stop and take a photo, and in hindsight, I regret it.
At the beginning of an arroyo, we set off for a long hike to the north section of the ranch. This area had little disturbance and we gambled the big rams were hidden here. The hike in was about two miles through peaks reaching 3,000 feet. For forty-five minutes we glassed and moved, two scouts, myself, David, and Freddy. In spite of the firepower behind the glass I can see the end of the arroyo ahead and the end of the day with no rams in sight.
With light slowly waning, I slowed down the last few yards because I just didn’t want the day to end on a bad note. David and I put our glass down and gave a disappointed side-glance, and at that same moment Freddy whirls around with a fist pump and blurts out “Machos”. He’s literally jumping up and waving his arm to move up quickly. In a fraction of a second, the mood switches to excitement and laser focus in on an area Freddy is pointing to a thousand yards away. David and I throw up the binoculars and miraculously four heavy, dark skinned rams materialize mid-way up the mountain and almost a mile off.
We hustled to climb the way up, but it took every bit of a forty minutes as the rams fed and moved to our left. At thirty degrees the incline was steep and drained every ounce of energy, some for the mountain and the rest from the excitement. Freddy and David are frantically speaking Spanish, forgetting I have no idea what they are saying, and in my struggle up the mountain, I lost sight of the rams that moved higher and left by hundreds of yards. David stops and ranges them at 450 yards and tells me to take a position for a shot.
It took at least three minutes for me to find them again, Freddy and David are blurting instruction in Spanish, and I had no idea what they were saying. I took a seated position against a torote tree for a rest. I find the ram behind some brush at 450 yards, and as he moves and exposes his body broadside, I breathe and squeeze off a shot.
I overcompensated for the angle and the shot goes high, burying itself in the soft dirt while the ram hardly knows what happened. At recoil, I lose sight of the ram that lazily moved again while I settle down and try for a better rest. This time I use the monopod as an additional support to the tree branch and I’m rock solid. I put eye to scope but I can’t find the rams. I’m frantically searching the same area but they moved left more than a hundred yards and Spanish is not my second language.
David states the range at 438 but again, we misunderstood each other’s directions, and I was having a problem finding the rams. Freddy is forcefully uttering to shoot and I panicked, I put down the rifle and grab the binoculars from David to find them again. The excitement instantly changes to quiet when I say, “I found ’em.” I dive down to the same position, recalculate the angle, take three deep breaths, and squeezed off the shot.
Recoil pushes me back from the scope and I lose sight of the ram but I can hear the “whomp” of a solid hit. Freddy sees the hit and yells out in congratulations but David is unsure because the ram isn’t moving. David orders, “Take another shot”. As I prep, David starts yelling “He’s down, he’s down” as the ram tumbles down hill, head first thirty yards and lodges himself on a steep boulder field.
It took thirty minutes to climb to recover the ram, and when I reached him, I was amazed at his deep rich chocolate colored hide and horn. He was an absolute beautiful animal and I almost couldn’t hold back how grateful I was for it to end this way. David was as broken up as I was while Freddy just sat there resting from the exhaustion. He had put so much self-inflicted pressure on himself to succeed for my sake and I just didn’t know how to thank him other than to simply give him a bear hug. His smile was ear to ear and I was happy to see it.
I left my legacy stone next to the ram in a memorial for the experience. Under the glow of our headlamps I carried out my ram the four miles back to the truck to be certain I did my part to bring this hunt full circle.
David and his crew provided me with the most rewarding free-range, true-to-form Mexican Desert Sheep hunt and it was just as I imagined it to be. I couldn’t help feeling both ecstatic and sad that my fifty-year quest was over. Thanks David !
About the author; Angelo Baio calls the piedmont region of North Carolina home and has sought high adventure hunts for more than forty years across the globe. Inspired by Jack O’Connor, chasing rams on the worlds sierras, especially those of old Mexico has been at the top of author’s life list since childhood.