How do you tell a story about a hunt that, when completed, all you can do is look at each other and think, How did we just do that? For people who say, “Man, I sure had a tough hunt,” I will forever question if it could ever live up to the hunt Dad and I had for desert bighorn.
It was early July when Dad came into my furniture store for his daily visit, and for the heck of it we checked to see if we drew any deer or sheep tags. Excitement was in the air as I drew an Arizona archery deer tag for the Kaibab. We checked Dad’s next. After seeing the big bold print “SUCCESSFUL,” Dad let out a squeal like a little boy getting his first Red Rider BB gun. “What, you got a late deer tag?” I asked. Nope, better yet—he’d drawn a desert bighorn sheep tag! I couldn’t believe it; the old fart had been putting in for only 3 years and had very few bonus points.
I remember telling Dad that he picked the perfect year to retire from his job of 28 years because he had all the time in the world to scout. After our last bass tournament of the year, Dad decided it was time to hunker down and start living on the cliffs of the unit he’d be hunting, Arizona’s 12b Unit.
Dad had spoken with one of the most well-known sheep hunters of this unit, Pete Winn. At 75 years of age, Pete had covered every square inch of this unit and was ecstatic to help Dad. Another major helper to volunteer was James Vine. James had helped during a couple of other sheep hunts in this unit and knew how to kill a ram.
After just one trip to the cliffs to spot sheep, Dad was hooked. Pete and Dad spent almost a week on the cliffs prior to opening day. But with less than 2 weeks to go, shooter rams were hard to come by, and Dad was frustrated.
A TALE OF TWO PLANS
Dad had two game plans once the hunt started. Plan A was to go after a ram that was living on his own, way up a canyon in a fairly easy spot to hunt. Plan B was to go after a ram similar in size but 10 times harder to spot and get to.
Dad and Pete drove into a position to try and spot the “Plan A Ram” they’d seen the day before. Sure enough, he was there—and less than 100 yards from where they last saw him. The plan for the day before the opener was to find that ram again, follow him all day, put him to bed and wake up the next morning with an easy shot—and then head home. Of course this was not the case. That ram completely disappeared.
The next day was opening day, and Dad needed to make a decision: go back and hope the lost ram showed up, or switch to Plan B and head out after the Plan B Ram. With fresh legs and a lot of optimism, Dad chose to go and glass up the second ram.
Opening morning came early—4:30 a.m. to be exact. The first thing Pete said to me was, “Today is a good day to kill a sheep.” I agreed and we headed out to join up with Mom, Dad and James. Dad was antsy to get up that mountain and see if that big ram was hanging out near one of the bluffs we couldn’t see behind.
TAKING THE HIGH ROAD
The first mile wasn’t bad, but as we got closer to the hills, the terrain got rough. Climbing through many rock slides, washes and sand dunes, we finally made it to the top by about noon. Dad noticed two big rock bluffs that he recognized while spotting from below.
We decided to keep going toward the last known location of the herd of sheep. Just as we topped the next dune, we started scanning. The second James pulled his binocular up he had seven sheep in view. When the time was right, we all moved to the nearest cedar tree. James quickly set up his spotting scope and I ranged the sheep. They were at 700 yards when James spotted one ram—then another and another—until finally our shooter stepped out.
Game plan time! The second the last sheep dipped out of sight, we planned to sprint across the ravine and close the gap. The top of the next ravine was 300 yards away, then up a sand dune covered in cacti. Our hopes were that the sheep would cross one more ravine, leaving Dad with a 300-yard shot.
The crawl up that sand dune seemed to take forever, and after every step up we slid back a half-step. James peeked over the dune and was right back down, telling Dad to get ready to take the shot. James ranged the biggest ram at 250 yards. From the prone position, Dad pulled the trigger.
I instantly popped up to see the results as the ram started downhill. Worried that if the ram tumbled a little more he would have a big fall to the bottom of the ravine, Dad put him down for good with a second shot. Seeing the ram in person for the first time was a very cool feeling after only seeing it from 2 miles out through the spotting scope.
Knowing that it would be dark soon, we decided the best thing to do was to go down to the highway instead of backtracking. In hindsight this might not have been the best decision, but there was no easy option to get off the mountain.
About halfway down, with the ram strapped to his back, James hopped off a small ledge, and when the weight of the pack hit him in the back, it flung him forward. He went end-overend for about 40 feet. I believe he was knocked out for about 2 seconds—which felt like hours—as he didn’t move or make a noise … then I heard a groan and his hand moved.
I remember asking James if he could move his toes and hands. He said, “I’m fine. How is the ram?” That’s James. The condition of the ram didn’t really matter at that point, but both James and the ram were in decent shape. James is an ex-Marine and would never admit to any pain.
At this point, Mom and Pete had the truck parked with the lights on, so we had a beacon to aim for. I looked at James and saw how busted up he was, so we traded packs. My legs quickly went numb from the weight, and I knew this was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done. Then, to top it off, it started spitting rain and snow along with the harsh wind.
The little lights out by the highway below slowly got closer as we zigzagged our way to the truck. I could actually feel my fifth or sixth wind coming on as we got closer and saw a flashlight coming out to greet us.
There have been very few feelings as relieving as taking that pack off and setting it in back of the truck. We had another quick little celebration with Mom and Pete and then all agreed to get out of there. I slammed some caffeine and put the hammer down as we headed home. Once home, we unloaded our gear and all stood around the ram.
Through all the bumps, bruises, cuts, cactus, pounds of sand in every crevice, wind-burned lips, dehydration and just plain physical overload, this was by far the best hunt I’ve ever been on, and I didn’t even get to pull the trigger. I think this is why the Arizona Game and Fish Department allows hunters to draw this tag only once in a lifetime.