|Once In A Lifetime||May 2001|
Well, never was now, and I had to get with it. First a trip to Wide World of Maps to purchase the most likely topos, then a Saturday afternoon (it was summer, too hot for anything else anyway) to reduce and patch together the portions of real interest. On following weekends I made early excursions into 39E to explore the roads and take peeks at the hills with my binos. I never saw sheep, of course, let alone a ram.
A definite recommendation goes to attending the hunter clinic, courtesy of the ABSS (Arizona Bighorn Sheep Society). Here I gathered data about the sheep and how to hunt them in general, and detailed info about 39E in particular. Of great interest and entertainment was a summary sheet for all the years of sheep hunting in my unit, listing every hunter’s name, which guide used, if any, how many days they hunted, if and where they killed a ram, and how much the animal had scored. Unfortunately, time was running fast due to business trips and my other big game hunts, such that I only scouted two more days prior to the December opener.
Sheep hunting is truly unique, at least so I presumed, because I had received offers for help from a half dozen guys here at the Tempe plant. So, the night before December 1st, Rob Stephan and I headed to our campsite, set up his tent trailer, which he had offered to keep there as base camp for the duration of the hunt, and turned in. Howard Mullins would follow the next morning, and proceed directly to a small knoll to observe the south side of the South Maricopa Mountains.
The Hunt Is On
The ice broke mid-morning on Saturday when Howard spotted the first sheep, a single ewe. I asked if that was normal to see a single. No, it wasn’t. Great!
Then more help arrived. Dwight and Patrick (with son and dog), through the common thread of a desire to be in sheep country, to be on a sheep hunt, had found us. None of us had ever met before. Sheep hunters are a dedicated breed. All this had been arranged by phone.
We decided to split up. Rob and I hiked way into the wilderness, while the others remained on the road. We should have stayed with them, because our hiking yielded absolutely nothing.
We at least should have kept our radio "on", because they spotted several sheep, including mature rams, from the road, then couldn’t contact us to spread the exciting news. By late afternoon we met up with them on the road, but their sheep had moved out of sight, and daylight was limited. It would get worse.
Once In A Lifetime
That sad news, of course, put everything into a tailspin. Eventually I re-focused on the situation at hand, decided to go home for the night to call my brother in Germany (who had just left Arizona 3 days earlier after our awesome elk hunt), then make reservations to fly back there myself. I committed to return the next day, Sunday, to hunt a little, but primarily to break camp, and interrupt the hunt for the next two weeks.
On the way back from dropping off Howard at camp (Rob had already left for that night to attend a party, but would be back the next morning) the Game & Fish officer also met me, also to inform me about my dad.
On the way home I felt as if life was just a little unfair. Yes, my dad was almost 89, but I had seen him just a month prior, and he had been as fine as ever. He had always said that his goal was to turn 90, and nobody had any doubts that he would make that, and then some. I guess when it is time to go, it might as well be fast like it was for Opa, as we all called him.
Finally, A Ram!
It was still before sunup when we arrived at the spot. Patrick immediately found sheep in his Bausch & Lomb spotting scope. For the first time did I now see a RAM. Of course the hunter in me was screaming ‘let’s go after him!’, but nobody else showed much excitement. They all kept looking for the other sheep they had observed the day before. I on the other hand was fixed on this group of sheep, watching their every move, planning a possible route of attack, well, until they moved behind another hill, out of sight. I was bumming, I should have . . .
Minutes later Patrick came over and stated that he had just spotted a ram cross over a ridge and out of sight further to the west. We should all keep an eye there in case he crossed back. He did not, at least not that we ever detected him doing so. Still, they wanted to see this ram again, so Rob and Patrick headed down the road to get another angle at the promising mountain.
About an hour later, music from Jon: "I got sheep!" Sure enough, there were three ewes and a decent looking ram, most likely the same we had seen first that morning. Now I really wanted to go after them! "He looks pretty good to me (he was over a thousand yards away, all I knew is that he was mature, the class we wanted to target). Shouldn’t we try for him? I mean that there’s no guarantee we could even get close enough for a shot!" My question was directed at Howard, who after all had seen plenty of sheep, and who had already killed his.
What I’m trying to explain is the nature of this morning. First of all, I wasn’t fully into it all, my thoughts orbiting around Opa’s death, the upcoming trip, the consequences. Then also, what type of "hunt" is this where we were sitting in comfortable chairs, blanket wrapped around my legs to fend off the cool December morning breeze, talking loudly because the freeway was just a few yards behind us, and constantly spying at the foothills of the Maricopa Mountains?
This was the most effective way to detect sheep, of course, and proof was right there, just look through the Docter 15x80’s. On the other hand I wanted to storm those mountains, get at the sheep, hunt! But I owed it to everyone to obtain concurrence. This was a team effort all the way. And so I waited painful minutes that stretched out until almost noon before we FINALLY did go, with gun ‘n all, after sheep, which, by the way, in the mean time again had wandered out of sight, this time around the mountain towards the east.
These fine pieces of glass, held steady on top the tripods, made it possible to ‘hunt’ from over a mile away. I had brought two rifles. My combo lightweight did duty when we hiked, but I switched to an old heavy custom 1903 Springfield in .308 Winchester (26" barrel) when we went after the sheep we had seen. Even though my handload (165gr boattail) wasn’t super accurate, it was consistent. This bolt gun was better than the combo for me with regard to long or follow-up shots. I therefore didn’t mind carrying its 10+ pounds, hoping it would only be for a limited distance.
Once In a Lifetime
While walking across the flat desert towards the foothills Patrick narrated that over the years he had ‘guided’ 6 people onto sheep, but had never seen one killed because all six had missed, one of them a total of 18 times! No wonder he was nagging me about being ready, about having ammo, about how far I felt comfortable to shoot. I told him to find the sheep, then I would be fine.
Soon we reached the promising hill, and slowly and quietly ascended towards the place where we had last seen the four sheep. Now the excitement really notched up within me. Every step now aimed at a large rock to minimize crunching noise.
Slowly we scanned each new yard of visible hillside. We decided to head primarily uphill to gain better surveillance positions, even though sheep would be more ready to flee if we would be detected above them. Surprisingly, we must have moved only an extra 100 paces when Patrick peeked over a small ridge and detected one of the ewes.
"Range me, how far are they?" We had not yet seen the ram. "245." "Are you sure, they look more like 400!" Another push on the Bushnell 600 button. "246, they’re small so they always look further than they really are!" I started aiming through the Leupold, set at 12X. There were two ewes, and yes, the curved horns of my ram. "He’s behind the tree, ready to come out!" Then I stopped everyone’s heart, letting go of the gun to put in my earplugs. That somewhat calmed my sheep fever, but fueled theirs.
Back behind the rifle I watched the ram’s every move. By the way, Jon was filming all this! There, one step, the chest is clear, deep breath, crosshairs dancing . . .
NO, no shot, a ewe is behind him, she might get hit if the bullet . . . OH NO, the ram is running uphill, I track him, increase the pressure on the trigger and . . . "You’ve got time. He will stop several times before he clears the hill!" -- words of wisdom from Patrick.
I hold fire, but my fever has peaked. The ram indeed pauses, except the ewe is now directly behind him. They move, then stop, now with the ewe covering his chest. On the next stop he’s clear, the crosshairs dance like crazy, but within his chest. When they are in his upper section I let fly.
All hell breaks loose! Simultaneously, I hear Patrick yelling "What a shot!," and see my ram down. The other guys also get loud, excited about the bagged ram, and the ewes haul ass down the mountain. I never even cycled the bolt. I had taken my once in a lifetime desert bighorn sheep. While still laying prone, and these guys congratulating me, I was thinking about Opa.
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