No Country For Old Habits

Tired of the same old, same old? Head to the rocky cliffs of West Texas for an affordable adventure packed with round-the-clock pursuits.

HE WAS MURDERED RIGHT here on this long straight-away— in the middle of nowhere—killed with a single shot to the forehead by a cattle stun gun. Then the hit man stole the dead man’s car.”

Remington’s Linda Powell told me the story and, thankfully, that’s all it was—a story. We were driving on a desolate two-lane across cactus-covered West Texas, somewhere between the tiny town of Marfa and our eventual destination, the Love Ranch.

Linda was explaining an early scene from the fictional thriller, “No Country for Old Men.” I hadn’t seen the movie but planned to, so I was all ears.

“W. E. ‘Chip’ Love played the role of the man killed with the cattle gun,” Linda continued. “He’s the president of the Marfa bank and owns the ranch we’ll be hunting for the next few days. If you rent the movie, be sure to watch the credits; I was told Mr. Love is listed as ‘Man in Ford’ because he was driving an old Ford Granada.”

Not long after telling me about Mr. Love’s brief stink as a Hollywood star, Linda pulled our rented SUV off the pavement and beside the black metal W. E. Love Ranch sign. “This is a huge ranch— about 40,000 acres—and for the next 45 minutes on this ‘road,’ your backside will find out just how rocky and rough it is.”

Linda was smiling as she gripped the steering wheel a little tighter to keep the truck on the two-track. “This part of the ranch is fairly fl at, but as we drive closer to the bunkhouse you’ll see the terrain change. It will become really steep and rugged; that’s when you might spot an aoudad.”

Ojos Rojos

I escaped high school and college before a foreign language became a prerequisite to graduate, which was good news for me because I never had the desire to learn French, German or Spanish. But as I shook hands with my hunting guides Jay Huckaby and Robert Curry, I couldn’t help but wonder the meaning of the words “Ojos Rojos” embroidered on their collared shirts.

“Ojos rojos is Spanish for ‘red eyes’,” Jay explained before I even asked. “Robert and I specialize in calling coyotes, fox and bobcats after dark. When you see varmints with a red spotlight, their eyes shine red.”

Turning his back to me, Jay pointed to three words—“Here kitty, kitty … ”—sewn onto the back of his collar. “We also track mountain lions with dogs. Chase wild hogs and bears, too.”

One of the best parts of my job is meeting hunters from across North America, and I could tell immediately that Jay and Robert were “the real deal.” Both are family men with regular jobs and all the responsibilities that go with being good husbands and dads. And while they’d quickly tell you family comes first, hunting runs an unchallenged second.

“We got our first two dogs for blood-trailing bobcats,” Robert recalled. “We had a handful of clients who kept shooting bobcats too low, and we were spending too much of our prime nighttime calling hours looking for wounded cats. The dogs did OK—not great—on blood, so not long after that we began chasing raccoons. The dogs did really good on ’coons, so then we tried hogs.”

“But nothing beats chasing bears and lions,” Jay added with enthusiasm. “Some of our best spots are in New Mexico, but if you’re game tomorrow morning, we’ll get up a couple hours before sunrise to see if our dogs can get on lion scent in some of the roughest parts of this ranch. And if we don’t run across a lion, there’s always a chance for hogs, too.”

Joining me on the pre-dawn lion search was former police officer turned freelance writer Richard Mann, who often answers NAHC member questions in this magazine’s “Shooting Q&A” column. Richard knows more about guns than just about anyone I’ve ever met, and during the next 3 days I picked his brain about various firearms, especially the Remington R-15s we held in our hands.

I’d carried and shot an R-15 chambered in .223 Rem. for coyotes a few months prior to this hunt, so I was familiar with the basic workings of the rifle. However, for the larger critters we hoped to encounter on this ranch—with a mature aoudad ram being No. 1 on my priority list— we both had R-15s chambered in .450 Bushmaster.

“The one thing to keep in mind on this hunt is bullet trajectory,” Richard explained as we rode through darkness in the rear seat of a Kawasaki Mule side-by-side. “Our .450s are sighted dead-on at 100 yards with 260-grain Remington AccuTips, so if you have a longer shot at a hog or aoudad, you’ll have to adjust your aim. Bullet drop at 200 yards is about 5 inches.”

Lost And Found

When the sun finally climbed high in the sky and it was clear our morning lion hunt had come to a close without a chase, Jay and Robert began rounding up dogs. I was disappointed we hadn’t crossed paths with a cat but excited to switch gears and search for aoudad.

“Marfa, we have a problem.”

OK, no one actually said those words. Even so, I could see by the looks on our guides’ faces that we were one hound shy of a full pack.

Keep in mind that losing a dog on the Love Ranch isn’t like losing one at your neighborhood park—unless that park is 10 miles long and 6 miles wide and laced with deep draws and rocky cliffs. To make matters worse, our guides’ high-tech GPS tracking system wasn’t picking up a signal from the lost dog’s collar, even when we drove to the highest point in the area.

As we searched, I could see the stress building for Jay and Robert. They didn’t want to leave the immediate area and simply hope their dog somehow made its way back to camp, but they didn’t want to cut deeply into our aoudad hunting time, either.

Richard and I helped the only way we could, by glassing hills and draws for the lost dog. “Jay, I think I found your dog. Scratch that—it’s the fl ank of a deer.”

Upon further inspection, Jay confirmed it was a mature Carmen Mountain whitetail. The buck had a big frame, but he was too far away to distinguish points, so Jay and Robert temporarily called off the dog search and suggested we stalk a bit closer to the buck just for fun (deer season was closed).

Like the dog, the deer gave us the slip. Feeling a bit beaten, we decided to head down the steep, rock-covered hillside to the UTV. Suddenly, Robert tried to stop in mid-slide.

“Big ram!” he said, pointing to a far hillside.

From my vantage point I couldn’t see the ram, but when Robert motioned “follow me,” I was on his heels.

“The ram is slowly feeding in our direction,” Robert said after we’d slipped into a ravine and out of sight. “He’s at least 400 yards away, and we should be able to stay hidden from him if we stay low in this bottom. Walk right behind me and try not to roll any rocks. Step on top of the bigger slabs whenever you can. The wind is right. Let’s go.”

I still hadn’t seen the ram—in fact, I’d never seen an aoudad in my life— and here I was just minutes away from possibly having one in my scope.

In an attempt to stay calm, I tried to keep my mind occupied during the stalk. I even mouthed Richard’s advice about .450 Bushmaster ballistics: Bullet drop of 5 inches at 200 yards.

“There he is!” Robert tried to keep his excitement to a whisper. “And he’s got a buddy.”

With the naked eye I could see the two rams, but it wasn’t until I raised my binocular that my heart raced. “Now that is a cool animal.” Perhaps it wasn’t the most eloquent statement from someone who makes a living as a writer/ editor; no matter, it was the truth.

“Of the two, the bigger one is lower on the hillside,” Robert coached. “They’ve got great eyes, so we’ll have to be careful sneaking closer. If they spook, you’ll have to try to find an opening through the brush for a shot. They almost always run uphill, so be ready.”

As Robert checked the distance with his rangefinder, I admired the biggest ram’s long hair and horns.

“It’s 186 yards,” Robert whispered. “But we’ve got to sneak out from under all these juniper branches for a clear shot. Move slow.”

A few minutes later I was sitting with my R-15 resting on shooting sticks, trying to guess whether my bullet would clip several Juniper branches 20-30 yards from my barrel. Robert said I needed to stand to gain the required clearance for the shot, but I didn’t want to do that because then I’d have no rifle rest.

“I’d like to crawl ahead just a bit.” I saw a small gap in the trees, and if I could get lined up with it, my bullet would pass through the gap like a football splitting the uprights.

Robert warned: “OK, but move super slow. They’re looking this way and could bolt any second.”

Thankfully, the rams—now I could see five total—stood and stared as I crawled on hands and knees. Perhaps they thought I was a wild hog nosing around in the deep shade.

“The biggest one is on the far left; 156 yards.” I nodded at Robert’s words as I carefully positioned my shooting sticks.

Doing my best to keep the crosshairs settled high on the ram’s chest, I held my breath for a split second and then tugged the trigger. The rifle’s recoil caused me to lose sight of the ram momentarily, but Robert’s “You got him!” yell ended my worry.

Robert had told me earlier that because aoudad are tough animals, it’s best to “keep shootin’ till they stop movin’.” Not wanting to take anything for granted, I stayed glued to my scope. The ram did get up 30 seconds later, and I was able to anchor him for good with a quick follow-up shot. I don’t think my breathing returned to normal until I grasped the ram’s horns for photos.

Hunting With The Mann During the next couple days, the Ojos Rojos tag-team led Richard and me on one wild adventure after another. Varmints after dark. Varmints during the day. And another deep-ravine search for lions.

I’ll never forget Richard’s close-range encounter with a midday bedded aoudad. His first shot was only 12 yards! (No, we didn’t sneak that close on purpose.) The ram bolted from its shady hidey-hole after bullet No. 1 hit home, but Richard and his R-15 were too fast for the ram and a second shot sealed the deal.

And then there was the “wild hog roundup.” Jay and Robert’s dogs had done a masterful job baying up the hogs under two large junipers after a heated chase, but by the time our hunting group arrived on the scene, the biggest boar had escaped. Robert had been with the dogs and then left them to find us “flat-landers” who were trying to keep up. He said the boar’s cutters were some of the longest he’d ever seen. We did harvest three of the hogs; the biggest—a sow—weighed nearly 300 pounds on the camp scale.

In terms of value, or in hunters’ terms—bang for your buck—I can’t think of a better winter wonderland than West Texas. It’s physically demanding, but not impossible. It’s rich with game, but it’s not a game farm.

Perhaps Richard said it best: “You know what? For the money, this is the best spot-and-stalk hunt in North America.”

P.S. I almost forgot: The lost dog was found 2 days after it went missing. The closest neighboring rancher found the dog more than 25 miles from where we’d lost it. The dog’s foot pads were extremely sore, but Jay and Robert said it would make a complete recovery and be back chasing ’coons, cats and other critters in no time.

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