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Once In A Lifetime
May 2001
Gerhard Schroeder

2000 was indeed a heck of a hunting year. Back in late July when the drawing results were in I could not believe the friendly lady’s voice at Game & Fish as she rattled down my luck: 1st choice turkey; 1st choice deer, 1st choice bull elk, and not only 1st choice bighorn sheep, but also permit number 1. There was even more luck. The areas for turkey, deer and elk were old familiar territory, so I could concentrate on the ram, that I really knew nothing about, because one never gets drawn for one of those anyway.

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
This sounds like some wild chase, game being driven, shots being fired, yelling, yelping, action! Oh no, none of that during a sheep hunt. I’m a ‘get after them’ kind of hunter, mostly anyway. Sitting for hours at one location, only to glass some distant, no, make that extremely distant hills and mountain sides was unusual, at least being at it for hours. But Rob and Howard were doing just that, had done so during Howard’s hunt in ’99, although in a different unit. Bring your favorite chair! By late morning Rob and I were on the move, after studying the east-facing slopes and seeing exactly one cow. We drove for only a few miles, around to the west side where Howard had been that morning, and over radio eventually met up with him. We killed the afternoon by actually hiking into some country and glassing different slopes. But by dark, none of us had seen a sheep. I asked if that was normal, to which Howard replied that they had seen sheep everyday of his hunt. Great! We retreated to Rob’s trailer for elk steaks and sleeping bags.

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
Out of nowhere, unplanned, unannounced, David showed up. His family was with him. As I walked up to his ‘Burb I was trying to outguess as to why he had made the trip out here to meet me. Well, I was way off. He came to give me a once in a lifetime message, telling me that my father had passed away.

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!
I made all the arrangements that Saturday night, and was back in camp Sunday morning, about 30 minutes before viewing light. As it turned out, Dwight had to go back home, but Patrick had driven back to Maricopa where his cell phone finally worked, then called home to notify them that he and his boy would stay the night. The Game & Fish officer had also stayed for several hours that night. They had enjoyed the rest of the elk steaks. Then Rob returned, and with him more help, Jon Enwiler. The plan now was to drive right back to the spot where they had seen all those sheep the afternoon before.

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.

The Equipment
For those of you interested, here’s a little summary about the equipment we used, before I get on with the story. Binoculars were 10x40’s from Zeiss, Swarovski (and my Optolyth which isn’t bad, but noticeably a class below the others), a 15x80 from Docter and a 12x50 from Leica. They were all mounted on tripods, as was a Swarovski 20-60x80 spotting scope.

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
Along for the stalk were Patrick in the lead, carrying his spotting scope with tripod, Rob who carried everything, it seemed, and Jon, armed with his video camera.

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.

Let me just say that with four of us in a cramped little space to avoid being detected, yet everyone wanting to see what would happen next, things got screwed up a little. At least one sheep caught onto us. I eventually got into firing position, prone, resting my elbows on a spongy backpack (it had a seating pack in it, folded over). Needless to say, all of the sheep got nervous. So did I.

"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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