Hunting for the king of the mountain
By: Tom Schorr
Outfitter: Arizona Desert Outfitters, a goHUNT.com Business Member
On July 18, 2014 I joined the small percentage of lucky hunters with a desert bighorn sheep tag. Here is how it all started.
While on top of Maverick Butte glassing for elk with my friends, Steve and Bill, I decided to check my credit card account for the $300 hit by the Arizona Game and Fish. I knew the big game draw was pending and I was hopeful.
What’s the likelihood when the odds are less than 1%?
Year after year I apply for the big game lottery. It has become an annual habit and one that ends typically with hearing of someone else’s good fortune and me left shaking my head. But not this year. After more than 30 years, it was my turn to enjoy the shock, disbelief and excitement of a dream finally coming true. I got one of the most coveted big game tags in the west! I was not sure whether to shout out, jump up and down or stay calm and just be grateful for this lifetime opportunity.
Every spare moment was spent researching my hunt unit and bighorn sheep, in general. There have been some great rams taken out of this “one tag” unit over the last several years and now I would have my chance. I honestly started having trouble sleeping — and counting sheep did not help!
In years past, I had assisted on three sheep hunts, but I was not confident that I could really judge a trophy ram competently. This, combined with vacation time constraints, made me decide that I needed some experienced help. I wanted to make the best of this opportunity. I talked it over with my wife, Colleen, and she encouraged me to hire a guide.
I made phone calls, checked references and narrowed down my choices to three different outfitters. After a day or two of deliberation, I went with my gut feeling and picked Eric Hunt and his team at Arizona Desert Outfitters. He inspired great confidence in me. I felt that he would work hard to make this the most enjoyable and successful hunt possible. His references supported this commitment.
Eric started gathering information for the upcoming hunt and kept me updated regularly. He decided to expand the scouting to the entire unit rather than just concentrating on familiar haunts noted by prior successful hunters. He said that there may be a large “sleeper” ram out there that had not yet been seen. This unit has a relatively small herd which gives reason for the one tag hunt and as it turned out, locating that needle in a haystack ram proved to be difficult.
In August, I attended the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society (ADBSS) Sheep Clinic and Ram Recognition Banquet. It was an opportunity to see a great collection of 2013 ram mounts and network with other hunters and members of the Arizona Fish and Game Department (AZFGD). I have been a member for years and have worked on several projects. Members are dedicated to the continued success and expansion of wild sheep herds within the state. I am personally grateful for, and supportive of, this effective organization.
Trip number 1
Myself and guides Eric Hunt and Brooks Stiltz located two rams in the adjoining hunt unit to the north.
Trip number 2
My next trip to the northwest side of the unit with my friend, Steve, also yielded no sheep. My Guide Eric made a few more day trips to the area and turned up a limited number of animals and no mature rams. Speaking with tag holders for 2010 and 2013 gave me some encouragement.
Trip number 3
Finally on my third trip, I spotted some sheep. My buddy, Paul, and I spotted two mature rams facing off for a head butting contest half way up the mountain. They butted heads for at least a half hour or more, with each crack clearly heard from our vantage point a mile away. It was an amazing sight to see and hear. My relief at having spotted the two rams was immense.
Back in town, the 2010 tag holder met me for lunch along with his brother. They shared their successful hunt pictures, maps and a few tips about my hunt unit. He had harvested a big ram and had a great story to go along with his adventure. In the meantime, Eric had secured pictures from the 2013 tag holder’s ram as well. Both the 2010 and 2013 rams were among the six 170+ class rams taken in my unit since 1997. Four of which were taken in the last four years! Both said “Don’t be worried — it will take time to get them located” and “Don’t lose hope. You will find them.” While these positive thoughts were appreciated, I was really looking for more concrete evidence.
As time went on things were beginning to look up. Eric was spotting a few more sheep with each scouting trip. Yet, my “dream ram” had still not appeared. We had one more scouting trip planned before the hunt
Trip number 4
While we had some success finding sheep in November, it was disappointing that we had not yet turned up the ram we had hoped for. It was not for a lack of effort, guides Eric and Brooks had been working hard.
The hunt was finally here
Thanksgiving was enjoyable with family and friends but I was looking forward to my hunt. I packed up the next day and left. We had made plans to camp along the main paved road on the south side of the unit. Unfortunately, all the camp spots were filled to the brim with holiday campers. It looked like a cool winter weekend at the dunes west of Yuma with quads, sand rails, trophy trucks and jeeps. There were even a few semi trucks hauling sand cars complete with a helicopter to follow the off-road action. It was a zoo!
My camp spot came with “free” aerial fireworks and an occasional blast that sounded like dynamite going off Friday night at neighboring camps. Thankfully, by Saturday most of the camps had cleared out and we almost had the place to ourselves.
Scouting right before the hunt
It was two days before my hunt started and we had not yet spotted that “jaw dropping ram.” All the “preparation” scouting trips had been enjoyable, but anxiety was setting in. Where is that big ram we have been looking for?
The day before the hunt was spent scouting several areas. Eric quickly spotted an old broomed off ram with a few ewes to the north nearly one mile away. That was a good warm up for the 32 power Kowa Highlander Binoculars that Eric uses.
We continued searching and then Eric got excited and said, “Look at the size of that ram!” Four miles out Eric spotted a big ram with ewes and the excitement started. I got the ram spotted with my 60 power scope. He looked big to the untrained eye but I honestly could not tell how big at that distance.
We spent the balance of the day until dark trying to keep the ram and three ewes in sight. Little did I realize that Brooks and Eric were conspiring to keep me calm! They said little about how big the ram was and how excited they were to finally find a big ram one day before my hunt.
Brooks and Eric mentioned they had video of the ram from the high point they climbed at the end of the day. They were concerned I would see it and get no sleep at all that night. Paul had the good fortune of harvesting all three species of bighorns in Nevada and has spent more time than me looking at sheep on hunts and surveys. As soon as the ram came into focus, Paul said, “Wow, that’s a shooter!” Paul’s reaction confirmed it to me.
Surprisingly, I did get about four hours of good sleep that night. I was running scenarios and “what if’s,” and checking my alarm clock every two to three hours before it was time to go. I had not had that level of excitement since I was a kid looking forward to opening day of deer season. Remember those days?
We were on our way after oatmeal and a sweet roll. I was full of anticipation and anxious as hell despite Eric’s calming nature. We wasted no time with Eric at the wheel of the Rhino, sparing rubber where he could and sometimes up on two wheels over the steep rocky slabs.
Our first stop yielded no sheep on the mountain side which was lighting up gray, red, orange, yellow and brown accented with green Brittle bush and Palo Verde. It was a clear, still and relatively warm for the first day of December.
Where are they? We were scanning the ridge tops and slopes over and over again. Finally a ewe popped up on the ridge top a half mile or more away. No ram. Is this part of the same group? We watched her feed until she was up, over and out site. We had to cut the distance.
Several large drainages leading off the main mountain were before us. We had to get right in there with them the see them. There would be no more long distance spotting potential. We moved up the wash bottom around the points of two ridges.
The tension was building for both Eric and I as we pushed ahead. We did not want to spook them and put an abrupt end to the morning hunt. There were no sheep in sight. We scrambled up the ridge at a steep angle.
As could be expected, the going was rocky, steep and loose. The combination of the climb and the anticipation was wearing on me. I was praying that the ram was across that canyon within range when we finally reached the top. Eric moved up to top and over the rock face to see if he could find the sheep, turning to me with a smile and a thumbs up. The ram was there! He signaled 500+ yards and I shake my head no because that is not a shot I feel comfortable with if we can get closer.
Eric dropped down and we quickly skirted the base of the bluff, up the ridge another 100 to 200 yards. The sheep were feeding and moving slightly toward the head of the canyon in the same direction as us. We reached a gap in the rocks and Eric again popped up slowly. The ram was there, but this time the yardage was about 400. I nodded yes since I had made this shot on a number of occasions before and had confidence in my rifle and practice.
I moved up quickly onto a perfect flat rock perch and prepared for a prone shot, on the perfect rest...rock solid! I waited until he turned more broadside and focused. “Don’t shoot him in the horns,” I said to myself.
Wow is he wide! I was not as calm as I thought I was. I rushed it, jerked it, and sent the first shot over his shoulder. Eric says to keep shooting, but I cannot believe that I missed. I curse, annoyed as I try to re-acquire my target. I love the 300 ultra mag round but if you do not make the first shot count, getting back on target can be tough.
I spot the two ewes I knew were above him. I brought the point of aim down until I found him nervously moving around trying to figure out which way to run. Boom, over his shoulder again. The ram starts to move off turning and making it hard to get a broadside look. Boom, the third shot connects. Thank God! Then I fire a follow up shot for good measure. “He’s down!”
For a few moments I thought I was going to blow this opportunity. I grabbed Eric and gave him a manly bear hug and welled up with emotion. It was finally over. All the months of planning, dreaming, the anxious hours and tense moments lead up to this finale. It was unreal how it felt.
Check out a short video clip of the hunt below:
At 9:30 AM on December 1, 2014, I texted my wife “The ram is dead.” My guide, Eric, confidently predicted he would find me the trophy ram of a lifetime. Eric and Brooks worked hard to give me this opportunity and I will never forget it!
We stood there cross canyon from that magnificent ram, me checking with my binoculars to make sure he did not miraculously come back to life. A few minutes were spent savoring the harsh beauty of the surroundings, reliving the event and expressing gratitude for this opportunity, experience and blessing.
He came to rest one foot from the edge of a 60’ drop off. The ram was exceptionally wide and carried his mass well from base to tips. I could not be happier and the pictures showed it.
Eric estimated the ram’s age at nine years. He has a high wide spread, 15+ inch bases and mass carrying well through the 37” right and the 35” left side. Both sides curl well below his jawline and up. He is battle chipped and scarred with great character.
An added bonus was that the AFGD later scored him at 175” gross and 173 ⅝” net. This was the icing on the cake!! Just 28 hours earlier we did not know that this ram even existed. Maybe it was better that way, less lost sleep on my part!
We used the balance of the day taking pictures, skinning and packing out the ram. Back at sheep camp, we had a campfire, a few cocktails, flaming cajones (none for Eric), storytelling and a cigar with my buddies Paul, Eric and Brooks. It was a perfect end to a short but exceptionally fortunate hunt. I reflected back on Eric’s suggestion to do lots of pre-season scouting trips. This allowed me to get to know the area and take it all in. If not for that, I am sure I would have felt it was over to way too soon.
I owe a big debt of gratitude to many that were involved with this adventure in one way or the other from the start. There are too many people I want to thank, but I want to especially thank my guides Eric Hunt and Brooks Stiltz of Arizona Desert Outfitters. These guys worked hard and made my dream of harvesting a great trophy desert bighorn ram come true. Eric lived up to his good reputation of working hard to insure I had a great hunt. Eric and Brooks encouraged me to get out to scout and take in the whole experience. They joined me on several of these trips. This was reassuring to a hunter with limited experience with bighorn sheep.
From the initial shock and surprise of finding out I got drawn through the next five months of planning, scouting and anticipation, this experience has been like no other for me. The successful ending of the hunt was the icing on the cake! The memories and the new friendships made will keep this experience alive in me for years to come.
Good luck to you on the next draw!!