Caribou Gear

A Once in a Lifetime AZ Desert Bighorn Sheep Experience

Zellhouse

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Joined
Apr 7, 2018
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146
Location
Gilbert, Az
It is hard to believe that a year has passed since My once in a lifetime Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Hunt in December 2022. In many ways it has taken awhile to process the hunt as a whole event. At first it seemed like this was more of a dream than a reality. Am I really doing this, after 30+ years of applying & waiting? Even during the hunt, itself, had this “pinch me” tone to it. I had to constantly remind myself that this was real.

This story has been jelling for the past year. I choose to stand down on my own hunting in 2023 in part due to the financial outlay of 2022, (that’s a whole separate conversation for later on in this saga). Not wanting dilute the memories I realized from the get go I was going to be a one and done sheep hunter. Many an elk hunt over 25 years, going back to my home state of Montana, kept the hunting account trim and lean. Wouldn’t have it any other way, the time I spent with Dad. He’s been gone almost 5 years now. I would gladly satisfy my sheep hunting desires here in my home state.

There were a lot of challenges in putting this hunt together, fortunately I’m retired and have the time to take this on without too much stress. There were a lot of lessons learned, mistakes if you will, or just things that could have gone better. One of my main goals in documenting this hunt is to provide food for thought. Not that I’m an expert hunter, no more like an average guy that had a dream, and was fortunate enough to see it come true.

Full disclosure, this was not a DIY hunt. Several factors played into the decision to hire a local guide. First and foremost was safety. Am at an age where hunting partners have aged out or passed on. Being out and in the desert by myself would have been a fool hardy adventure, even with an In-Reach. The terrain was just too rugged, and I didn’t feel safe. This is not the format go into pros and cons with self-guided vs. guided hunts. I have too much respect for this format to push any type of limits. Any mention of the guided portion of this hunt has been left out. Instead, I will use the terms “we” and “my partner”.


Part One: A Season of Preparation:

Planning for this tag had gotten serious about 5 years before hand. I researched units, guide services, and draw data all in an effort to be prepared for drawing this once in a life time AZ desert sheep tag. At 66 years of age, I was concerned about aging out prior to drawing. There were approximately 500 people ahead of me in the points tally. I wasn’t out of the single digit draw odds with 29 bonus points. I also knew that I wanted to take a mature ram, and felt that hiring a guide for this hunt was necessary.

Az draw results were released the first part of July, while I was on vacation in Yellowstone National Park. I was stunned, the details would have to wait until I got back to town, I was going sheep hunting. I drew the last tag of the 2nd hunt, with my second choice. I drew the last tag available to me, and it didn’t matter. The Kofa’s at last, the plan was set into motion.
I am an active person, have been all my life. Love of the outdoors, the life style it brings are main themes in my life. Keeping active therefore is a must, to maintain this life style, so exercise is also a must. During COVID I walked an average of 3-4 miles, 6 days a week. Now it was time to hit the gym, and take this to the next level. Started with a trainer, the last thing I needed to do was injure myself and loose valuable time rehabbing. Worked mainly on my cardio, doing some weights to strength my legs, and I walked 3-4 miles on days off from training. Guess I am fortunate as my health is good, & I enjoyed keeping busy during the 5 months prior to the hunt.

Prior to retiring I upgraded my hunting gear, making an investment in boots, technical clothing, trekking poles, and optics. There wasn’t a need to fill too many gaps. Wanted to take my ram with Dad’s old hunting rifle. He bought a Remington 721 in .270 caliber right out of high school. He hunted with it his whole life, and I wanted to include it in this hunt. Replaced the old weaver scope with a new Leupold VX-3HD 4.5 x 14 w/CDS. Decided to build a new load for this rifle, utilizing Barnes 140 grain TSX BT mono bullets.

Final load came out at 2907 FPS. Long range practice began about 2 weeks before the hunt.

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Long Range Practice.
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Began shooting distance from 300-500 yards out in the desert, making 2-3 trips a week leading up to the hunt.

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Looking back at the truck from the area of the targets.


My confidence began to build as the process continued. This confidence in my shooting will be a key factor on the last day of the hunt. My backup rifle would be my Winchester Model 70 in .300 Win Mag, shooting 180 grain Barnes TTSX-BT at 2950 FPS. This rifle has served me well over the past 30 years and I am still comfortable shooting it.

Attended the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society’s Hunter’s Clinic in Scottsdale the first Saturday of October, 2022. Leading up to this event and the time following I was devouring everything I could find on Desert Bighorn Sheep Hunting in both Video and Print formats. Learned a lot during this timeframe. The Hunter’s Clinic seemed to pull all of it together in a way that made sense of the muddle. I decided to focus on getting a Class IV ram (8.5- to 10-year-old ram), and not get too hung up about the score. This is the oldest age class of rams & a trophy for sure. Clay Goldman of Mogollon Taxidermy in Payson, AZ had several of his mounts at the Hunters Clinic. Was very impressed with his work, and changed my mind regarding which Taxidermist to use. All in all, this event was very helpful, well worth the investment of time.

To be Continued.
 
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Part Two: Day by Day, the Hunt Unfolds.

My 16-year-old Grandson Johnathon Ulisse was set to join me for opening weekend. He was able to complete his studies ahead of schedule and would be in camp until Sunday afternoon. Afterwards we’d meet my Daughter in Quartzsite, and he would have to get back to school for finals week. I was looking forward to sharing the first part of this adventure with him. He has been hunting with me over the past 4 seasons, and is on the way to becoming a proficient hunter in his own right.


Thursday Evening December 8th: Day before the opener.


Glassed for about 2 hours before last light. Spotted 12 total sheep. 2 possible shooter rams, and 2 smaller rams.


Friday December 9th: Opening Day.


After putting several rams to bed, the night before we were headed out before first light, to one of the main drainages leading up into sheep country. First stop, a convenient glassing knob we would become all too familiar with as the hunt progressed.

View from the Glassing Knob.

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We would begin and end each day at this very spot, where we could see for several miles north to south. It was obvious that my optics fell far short of what was needed in this large open country. I got used my partner finding a group of sheep within 10 to 15 minutes, then spending the remainder of our glassing time ensuring nothing was missed before making a plan to hike into area where the largest ram was earlier spotted.

We spotted 12 sheep with 3 smaller rams, and 1 Class IV Ram that was seen during an earlier scouting trip. This ram was nicknamed “Curly” for his tight spiral. Curly was about 2 miles off. We decided to hike up one of the main drainages, then onto a ridge where we could glass areas unseen from our current vantage point. Once we left the main drainage the climbing started, this is where things started to get really interesting. I had wondered if I was going to be able to handle this, or if I had any business even being out here in these desert mountains.

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I seemed to be handling this terrain fairly well. Johnathon not so much. My attention quickly became focused on coaching him up and down this steep terrain. He soon got the hang of this and kept right on trucking thru the hunt. He is in fairly good shape, spending a lot of time in the gym. Johnathon plays varsity baseball at his high school. I felt he would be able to handle this alright. The trekking poles were a god send. He stayed with it, not complaining once, he took up the challenges as they were presented. What was at first concerned that he wasn’t going to enjoy this, was quickly diminished. He told me we should have practiced with the trekking poles prior to the hunt. He was right. We spent the majority of the morning on the ridge at the top of the picture above. Not more than a half mile or so from where we would end the hunt on the last day. After grabbing a bit to eat we were onto another area looking for another one of the class 4 rams known to be in the area. We hiked 5 miles on opening day.


Saturday December 10th: Day Two.


We hiked up a canyon east of yesterday’s hunt. What was essentially the back side of the country we hunted yesterday. The sheep had a tendency to move from east to west over the dividing ridge. We needed to see what was on the back side. We spotted a mid-class 3 ram right off the bat. After additional glassing we also spotted a smaller class 3 ram in a canyon to our SW. Decided to pass on both of these rams as they were not in the same league as my goal for this hunt. It made me nervous, but I felt that this goal of taking a mature ram would not be meet if I didn’t stay off the trigger. Luckily, I did.

It still made me wonder if a mistake was being made. Later that day I spotted two smaller rams and 3 ewes.

We were back at the glassing knob in an effort to put our target ram to bed. Spotted a mature ram from 3 miles away just before dark. A plan was made to return in the morning. Also spotted 3 low to mid class rams, and 6 ewes during the evening glassing session. Hiked a total of 3.8 miles today.


Sunday December 11th: Day 3.

Today would be Johnathon’s last day in camp. Plan was to hunt the morning until lunch, and then take him into town top meet up with his Mom. I would then head back to the glassing point, spending the last couple of hours of daylight looking for one of our target rams.

Started the day from our glassing knob, spotting one of our target rams right off the bat. He was NE of us about 3.5 miles away with the same group of smaller rams and ewes spotted the night before. Made a quick plan, heading off to relocate them after covering the distance. By late morning we had not been able to find the mature ram, or the smaller 3 rams seen with him. We did find that group of 6 ewes. The boys were just gone. Before lunch we re-spotted one of the smaller rams from day 1, in the same general area as before.

Following lunch I took Johnathon into town, making the trip back to camp, and the glassing knob to settle in for the evening glassing. We seemed to begin to fall into a pattern of seeing rams, consistently and this evening was no exception. 5 rams were spotted this evening including the biggest Class IV we’ve seen to date. We ended day 3 of the hunt on a hopeful note. Walked 7.9 miles.

Scenery from the Kofa’s.
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The Glassing Knob Pic 2.
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Monday December 12th: Day 4 of 6.

The pressure is beginning to mount. I try to push it to off to the back of my mind. We are seeing good sheep numbers. You have to keep on believing it will be just a matter of time, and a little luck. “Just keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re into sheep”. “It’s just a matter of time”, is what I’m telling myself.

Day 4 started out at the glassing knob, just like the others. Like yesterday we spotted the large Class IV ram right off the bat. He was in the same general area as the day before. We walked up the draw, & hooked into a side canyon. The sheep were up in the back on the leeward side, out of the wind. We hiked to within 60 yards of one of the smaller rams. He got up from his bed and climbed up on some rocks. He was just standing there looking at us. I can remember how majestic he looked silhouetted against the blue sky; almost archery close. We instantly knew that we were going to be in close to the other sheep. Another small Class 3 ram stood up from his bed, joining the first, who had moved off to about 100 yards. Neither ram was spooked. But where is the big ram? My partner moved up the draw another 10 yards to get a better vantage point, and bumped a ewe. A collared ewe. She had seen him move and wasn’t having anything to do with humans, again. She began to immediately take off. The large ram followed. Moving directly away from us. I was already in a prone position with the rifle on the bipod before the ewe got up. I immediately racked a round into the chamber, & had him in the scope at about 80 yards. Safety was off, and my finger is now on the trigger. Crosshairs were on his scrotum.

That’s all I had. I needed him to turn. To quarter towards me and I’d have my trophy of a lifetime. My partner whistled at him to try to get him to stop or turn. The ram was having nothing to do with it, he went up over the saddle following the collared ewe. My finger was off the trigger before my partner called me off the shot.

“What the hell just happened?” I Couldn’t believe it. I was less than 100 yards from the biggest ram we’d seen on this trip, and I couldn’t get an ethical shot. I just couldn’t take that shot and the chance of ruining the meat. He deserved better than that, & frankly so did I. We’d had seen enough of this ram over the past two days to know he was in the mid 160’s. He was the one I wanted and I just watched him go over the ridge, hauling ass. No time to waste, we climbed up into the saddle and attempted to relocate him or his ewe. They were nowhere to be found. On the hike back to the SXS we did find the 1 of the smaller rams, bedded on the same ridge we had followed in. They were no longer together, and there was no sign of Mr. Big.

A rainstorm brought some needed moisture into the area Monday afternoon just before dark. From our glassing knob my partner spotted another potential shooter ram from 4 miles away. He was with another smaller ram, and from that distance couldn’t tell if he was the ram from this morning or the 3rd class IV ram we’d seen so far on this hunt. The only thing missing so far from my formula for success was the little bit of luck. I mean a wonderful 4 days full of hunting & seeing sheep. “Be patient” I keep telling myself. “You’ve made no mistakes here, it’s just a matter of time. It will all work out.” We walked 6.7 miles today. 4 rams & one collared ewe were seen today, making our total number of sheep spotted thru day 4: 7 Class IV Rams; 22 each Class II/III rams; and 38 ewes, one with a damn collar.


Tuesday December 13th: Day 5 of 6.


I am encouraged by the number of rams we have been seeing, and am trying to ignore that clock ticking in my head. Today we have been discussing extra days, as available. We can stay Thursday if needed. Beyond that it will be the last 4 days of the season before we can get together again. After Christmas has an up-side, Johnathon will be able to rejoin the hunt.

At first light we are back at the glassing knob. Not 10 minutes has gone by, and there he is. We have located the big shooter ram from yesterday. He had moved south quite a way in distance, and we would have to swing around in the SXS to make a play. He is with 3 smaller rams, and 6 ewes. We hiked back to the SxS, and drove into another drainage to begin the stalk. This time it doesn’t work out so well. It took us well over two hours to get into shooting range. Terrian was the steepest yet. The big ram went over the top and into the next drainage as I was setting up the rifle.


Ready for the Shot.

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Can you see the sheep? (2 white rumps).

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Tuesday December 13th: Day 5 of 6 Continued.

This afternoon was uneventful. We made our way to the glassing knob for our last evening with the optics. He did it again… We weren’t glassing 10 minutes, my partner has found a shooter ram, and there he is again. The big ram we’ve been chasing since Monday. He was about 500 yards north of where we lost sight of him late this morning. He is still with the 3 rams from this morning; but there is another shooter ram that has joined the group. As darkness fell, we committed to returning to the this spot one more time, tomorrow morning in an effort to relocate Mr. Big. Walked 6.9 miles today, gaining more elevation than any other day so far.

Am getting a little tired & my legs are starting to complain a bit for the first time… As we head into our final day, I am conflicted. I have so much enjoyed this adventure, but the reality of not filling the tag or settling for a smaller ram is bitter. Am keeping my spirits up, and purposefully not dwelling on the worst outcome. I know what that is, and I know what the best outcome is. The boundaries are set. Nothing has changed there. Lord only knows what tomorrow will bring. Walked 6.9 miles today. Saw 2 Class IV rams, 6 smaller rams, and 6 ewes today.
 
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Wednesday December 14th: Day 6 of 6.

Unlike the previous 3 mornings no shooter rams were seen from the glassing knob at first light. Not the best start to the last day. Let’s see what the day brings, and if we’ll need to extend this adventure into overtime.

We hiked up a drainage south of the glassing knob to spend the rest of the morning glassing. Spotted 4 younger rams that still had their lamb tips, and 4 ewes. Continued the hike south to another vantage point very close to where we climbed opening morning. Climbed up to a third vantage point and began the task of trying to spot a last-minute shooter ram. I settled in and attempted to glass, quickly realized that I was pretty well spent by this point. The 30.3 miles logged the previous 5 days were taking their toll on my legs. My previous concerns regarding my ability to navigate this terrain had been allayed. It was so beautiful in its own rugged way. The rock formations, the various colors. Had to remind myself constantly that the preserve had strict rules about collecting anything. Am hoping the pics I had been taking would suffice to capture some of this beauty.

My mind began to wander… I was reminded of the previous 5 days. How this was unlike anything I had previously experienced, and how thankful I am for the opportunity to be here in this time and place. My partner had moved around the bend in the hillside to glass another area. He was back, moving rapidly towards me. He hadn’t quit looking. He was glassing the area south of us, and had found a shooter ram. It was not the big ram from the past two days. It was “Curly” who had not been seen since opening morning. Curly was with a smaller Class III ram & two ewes. One of which was laying down sleeping. They were approximately 1.5 miles away. After a quick check of the GPS, we made a plan to close the distance unseen to the sheep. It took 2 hours to hike into position. The sheep were 300 yards away, up and feeding. They were unaware of our presence. I quickly got into a prone shooting position; bipod set for the correct height. I was slightly angled downhill in a bit of an awkward position; I ignored it for the moment. That would come back to bite me.

My Leupold CDS scope was set for the distance, and placed on 14 power. Concentrating on the sheep in front of us. I verified the shooter ram’s position in the group, he was on his feet, quartering away from me, slightly downhill, and feeding on jojoba leaves. The sheep were still unaware of our presence. I took my time, placing the crosshairs low on his chest tight behind the front shoulder. I slowly squeezed the trigger. The shot was just to the right, just passing in front of his front shoulder. He bolted away from the jojoba, starting to backtrack. Taking a deep breath, I told myself to concentrate and take another shot. I moved slightly into a little more comfortable shooting position. Curly hadn’t moved 20 yards from where he was at when I previously shot. He had swapped ends and was looking to my left. Head up, at full alert.

Not the time to panic. I remained surprisingly calm, jacking another round into Dad’s .270. Once again found that sweet spot behind his front should. I knew from all the shooting I did during the hunt preparation that this gun was dead on, and I had proven the ability to use it accordingly. I once again squeezed the trigger, perfect shot. I cycled the bolt, watching “Curly” thru the scope. He moved downhill, as quickly as possible in the steep terrain, unable to place any weight on his off shoulder. He moved about 50 yards before collapsing. I did it, my once in a lifetime Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep was on the ground, in dramatic fashion.

Meet “Curly”.


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Pat & I.

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Location of the Sheep: Yellow Highlight.

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We gathered our stuff, and begin the hike over to the ram. The 300-yard shot to the sheep ended up taking over an hour to climb down and back up 500 vertical feet. We found a chute that took us to him. We spent a little over 3 hours with him, taking pictures and video for the guides You Tube channel. We processed him and packed meat back to the SxS. Arriving at last light.


A Desert Sunset:

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By the time we arrived at the SxS my legs were spent. It was a good thing that it wasn’t any further. I had packed out the rifle, and the 2 hind quarters, a smaller bag of meat, plus a kill & first aid kits. I guessed the pack’s weight at about 50 lbs. It was a good thing that most of the trip was downhill, with the exception of the last .5 mile to the road. It was a pretty decent continuous uphill climb. Walked 7.8 miles today, total for the trip 38.1 miles. We saw 5 Class III rams, and 7 ewes today, and a total of 94 sheep sighted for the entire trip. Breaking this down further there were 10 Class IV rams spotted during the hunt. That is 9% of the total sheep seen. We saw 33 Class III rams, or 36% of the total sheep sightings. There was a total of 51 ewes seen during the hunt, including one damn collared ewe. The ewes totaled 55% of all the sheep seen.

Part Three: Lessons Learned: To be Continued.
 
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Awesome!!! Always wanted to get back there again. Used to bow hunt desert mulies there when I was stationed at MCAS Yuma. Think I spent more time chasing n watching sheep than actually hunting deer. Those animals sure are impressive.
Congratulations!!!
 
So awesome congratulations and a great ram! Did he end up scoring what you thought he would. Thanks for sharing this with us. I dream of hunting the kofas but know it’s highly unlikely I ever will be able to! If your guide post a video of your hunt on YouTube please share it with us.
 
Congratulations on taking a dandy desert ram.
That's something 99% of all hunters will never get to experience.
In my mind there's no need to apologize or explain why you chose to go guided. I'd love to know more about "your partner".
Thanks for sharing your perfect sheep hunt.
 
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