“Mom? I want to start hunting. Will you help me get a shotgun?”
That is how it started.
I grew up in a single parent household. It was my mom, my brother and me. My mom worked hard. We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have much extra. I never remember really “wanting” for anything, though. I mean, as a kid, I WANTED stuff, but I never remember feeling like something was out of reach. I do remember thinking if I wanted something, I had to work for it (thanks, mom). No one was around to show me how to do the outdoor things I wanted to do back then. I was always throwing myself into things and learning how to do it on my own, and usually getting hurt or in trouble along the way.
After I begged and pleaded my mom to help me get a shotgun, I read every book and hunting magazine I could get my hands on. I wanted to know EVERYTHING about hunting, but I knew mostly I just wanted to be outside doing it. I grew up during a time when, in the summer, kids could hop on their bike in the morning, leave home and not come home until the street lights came on and parents didn’t worry. Oh how times have changed!
I would leave home in the summer with my fishing pole and tackle box strapped to my 10-speed bike and ride the five miles to the nearest lake. I would wade the perimeter of that lake all day trying to catch any fish I could and I didn’t even wear sunscreen. This is the same way I was going to approach hunting: wide eyed and so excited to explore and experience the world around me.
My first gun case was a black plastic contractor’s garbage bag. I would throw on the warmest clothes I could, put shotgun shells in my pockets, break down my prized shotgun, wrap it up in my “case” and start walking to try and bag my desired game, the ring necked pheasant. I remember thinking how bad I wanted to hold one of those beautifully coloured birds in my hands and how great it would be to bring it home for dinner, after I figured out how to clean it, of course.
The nearest public hunting spot was about a mile and a half walk. To this day, I can’t believe that no one ever stopped and asked me what I was doing or that a DNR officer didn’t stop me. I did that walk every chance I got until I got into high school and could drive. Then I met some friends and hunted a bit, but girls and sports were way more important and hunting took a back seat until college.
I had a lot more free time during the week in college. I had a great roommate who had hunted more and had a few more mentors than me. To be honest, Ben was probably my greatest influence when it came to hunting. We are still great friends and hunt together to this day, over 20 years after we first became roommates.
All these first time experiences and the excitement of “learning the ropes,” as they say, all came rushing back to me the first time I put a pack on my back with everything I would need for a week and took my first step into the mountains. I had started watching a TV show about these guys who go out and self-film their solo hunts. I guess in my mind I knew people went out and did solo hunts, but it never occurred to me that I could do it. I became very intrigued. I started reading every blog, every forum and every magazine article I could find. I started following the adventures of guys like Remi Warren and Tim Burnett. I became completely obsessed with becoming a backpack hunter and doing hunts with everything on my back in a pack for days. It sounded so hard and yet so exciting at the same time. I started reading about the gear these guys used and started gearing up. Then, on a whim, I read how New Mexico was offering over-the-counter tags to hunt some sort of non-native sheep. I dug a little deeper and it sounded to be just the thing I needed to test myself and my gear.
I got very lucky and met a guy online who was from the area that had posted on a forum about harvesting an Aoudad ram and the awesome country and experience of the area he’d hunted. I was hooked and I was going. I talked to Jordan over the next couple months. He had to have thought I was crazy. Some “flatlander” from Nebraska was heading to the mountains to try and hunt an Aoudad sheep. A guy who had never hunted the mountains before and had never laid eyes on an Aoudad in his life. The thing was, I was thinking that there was no way I was going to let myself, or Jordan, down by holding him back or not knowing what the hell I was doing. For the months leading up to the hunt I trained, I practiced shooting, I practiced setting up my tent, but mostly, I was just excited to be doing something new.
I was only there for three days and it was the best outdoor experience of my life. I didn’t get close enough to harvest a sheep, but I did get to observe some sheep and the outstanding mountainous terrain those creatures can move so effortlessly in. I also realized how completely unprepared, physically, I was. Coming from the Midwest, it is hard to train for the mountains, but I realized I had to do more. I was completely hooked. I was going back.
THAT is how it all began. Here is how I continued the adventure…
Once I got back from the trip, I vowed to be even more ready when I went back. I cleaned up my gear, trained harder, studied maps until my eyes bled and tried to absorb as much information as possible. I realized along the way I wasn’t really obsessed with getting a sheep. Don’t get me wrong, being able to harvest a great Aoudad ram, solo backpack style, would be something special, but the more I thought about it, the more I was obsessed with the challenge of surviving the mountain, on my own, for seven days.
2015 went fast. I worked out all the time, checked and rechecked my gear. I constantly looked for ways to improve my gear or lighten it up. I obsessed over maps until my wife thought I was going to move to New Mexico. Then it was here and I was going. It’s not like it was a surprise, though. I had started gathering and packing my gear a month in advance. My wife still shakes her head at how I can pack for a week-long vacation with her in one night, but a hunting trip takes a month.
945 miles from my front door to the parking spot. 15 hours straight through. The drive there is never as bad as the drive back. Excitement from the upcoming adventure kept me wide awake and the changing scenery kept me going. I had decided to hunt a new area the first couple days, as Jordan couldn’t meet me until later in the week. This would be my “SOLOHNTR” portion of the trip. I was genuinely excited to be all alone. Just me and my gear trying to outwit the sheep.
New Mexico can be daunting. Everywhere I have hunted is big and expansive. Driving to a spot, one hour. Hiking to a spot, two hours. Everything is bigger and farther and steeper than it looks. I landed at my parking spot at 6 p.m. Saturday night. It was already dark and, after 15 hours of driving, I was spent. I made a quick Mountain House meal, sipped a cold beer I had brought along and slept in the back of the truck that night.
I woke before the sun was up. Threw on my clothes and hopped out of the truck. Whoa, the truck said 20 degrees. Cold for New Mexico, but I had been checking the weather for a week before the trip, so I was prepared. A hot cup of coffee and a warm breakfast and I had to drive just a little farther to get into the area I was to hunt.
I was finally there and was parked, pack on and ready to hike. I always get winded the first 100 – 200 yards. Not sure what it is, but I chalk it up to excitement. The first day was interesting, to say the least. The wind steadily picked up to 30 – 40 mph with 50 mph gusts. Most of my day was spent trying to find a spot to set up my tent that would be out of the wind. I finally found a spot, below the top of one of the ridges, with a little shelf ledge. It wasn’t perfectly flat or level, but it would do. I set up camp, dropped as much out of my pack as possible and headed to a rise to glass.
Did I mention the wind? It is really hard to glass in the wind! It’s like someone constantly pushing on you and your body is trying to push back. I finally just couldn’t take it anymore and headed back to my tent about 4:30 p.m. I got back, sat down out of the wind and had a granola bar as it started to get dark. First night alone on the mountain, talk about peace and quiet.
Other than the wind, it was completely silent. I have noticed that after trips like this, when I get back to civilization, everything is so loud. I like the quiet of the mountains better. The next morning the wind was blowing, but not as bad. Another hot cup of coffee and a warm breakfast got my fire stoked. Got the bag packed and I was off. I decided to hike all the way to the most northwest point of the unit and then work my way back, glassing along the way. The day was crisp and I would see sheep sign here and there, but it was all old. Where were they?
The dreaded wind decided it was going to blow again and, by about noon, I was in the thick of the same 40 mph gale from the day before. I finally got on the downwind side of a lone tree and glassed. Hour one, nothing. Hour two, nothing. No. Wait. What’s that? SHEEP! Actually, four sheep. All rams. I could tell they were nervous, though. This wind had them at attention. They were 300 yards away and I had a 35 – 40mph crosswind. There is no way I could make that shot. Wasn’t even going to try. I watched them as they worked around the ridge. Maybe if they walked out of sight, I could hustle over and get a shot where the wind wasn’t such a factor. Remember at the beginning when I said everything is bigger and steeper that it seems? Yeah, an hour later I reached where I first spotted them. I slowly worked around to where they had gone. No sign of them. They were gone from my life. I headed back to camp, hoping for a new day tomorrow.
I got back to my tent and out of the wind. I was a little discouraged. Was I going to be able to do this by myself? I started questioning my abilities. Then my phone buzzed. I had a signal? It was Jordan. He could meet me a day early. I texted back, “See you tomorrow night.” I figured I would glass this spot one more day until about 2 p.m. and then hit the road to meet up with Jordan. It would be nice to have some company. I was getting lonely.
Day three brought more of the same: wind, wind and more wind. It made it hard to concentrate. The day was mostly a blur, but, to be honest, I was excited to go back and hunt with Jordan in the spot where all this began. Packing up and hiking out wasn’t too bad. I knew I would be seeing my friend and some great scenery. I met up with Jordan that night and we headed out to a camp spot. The night was spent near the camp fire catching up, telling stories, laughing and talking about the hunt the next day. I always enjoy that time. Catching up with friends over a campfire is something special. Staring at the fire, telling stories, just being there in the moment. The frenzy of modern life seems to drift away with the rising smoke.
The next morning I woke up to a frozen water bottle. It had gotten cold, 14 degrees. Hot coffee and hot breakfast never tasted so good. It was day four and as I looked up I saw a falling star. “This day is going to be good,” I thought. We started hiking up to a glassing spot where Jordan had seen sheep from a couple weeks before. As usual, in the first 100 yards I am winded. Jordan is young, 21, half my age, but full of energy and mountain smart beyond his years. Way more nimble than this flatlander from Nebraska. He kept me motivated and pumped up. “I can’t let this young punk see me sweat it,” I think to myself, and churn on.
We get to the top, 7,000 ft. For a Midwest boy, this seems like the top of the world. We break out the glass and set to finding sheep. The sun is just cresting. I love this time of morning. How the sun rises and how it illuminates different parts of the mountain at different times. Beautiful scenes I dream about until I am actually there.
Glass. Glass. Glass. Chit chat. Glass. Glass. Glass. Chit chat. Glass. Glass. Glass. Chit chat. Glass. Glass. Glass.
“Got ‘em!” Jordan says.
He breaks out his spotter to get a better look. There they are. As far away on a ridge as they could get, but in a great spot for a stalk. Looks like one mid-aged ram and one really young ram. We figure out a plan and start heading for them. I soon learn hiking downhill on loose rock and steep angles is harder than hiking up.
“Take your time.” I keep telling myself. “You can’t shoot a sheep if you are falling down the mountain.”
We finally make it to a spot where we think we will be able to crest a ridge and be within about 500 yards. We needed to get eyes on again and then figure out how to get to within at least 300 yards if I was going to make an ethical shot for me. We crest the ridge. No sheep. Where are they? They must have gone farther down into the canyon. Slowly, and quietly, we work our way around the ridge. We glass every 10 feet or so. Then, I look up. How did we miss them? I whistle to Jordan. He looks back and I nod my head in the sheep’s direction.
I can tell he is thinking, “He is seeing things. We didn’t miss them.” But then he brings up his binoculars and we both slowly hit the deck.
Luckily, the sheep stay calm. They know something is there, but they’re not sure what it is. We are far enough away and there is a canyon between us that must give them a sense of security. We sit there for about an hour and watch them feed around to make sure they are calm. Then we start to slowly make our way as close as we can. I would like to be at 300 yards, max. I am comfortable at that distance.
10 feet. Stop. Glass. All okay. 10 feet. Stop. Glass. All okay. 10 feet. Stop. Glass. All okay. 10 feet. Stop. Glass. All okay. We finally get to a spot where the cover runs out. This is the spot. A nice big yucca casts shade on a great spot I can shoot prone from. Range it, 335. I can do this. At least that is what Jordan tells me. He is very good at pumping up my ego and, at the same time, keeping me calm for the shot. All I can think about is how I have never tried to pull the trigger on an animal from this far away before. Jordan can tell I am nervous and excited.
Then he says, “Look at them. Look at them grazing and milling around. They are bedding down. Look how calm they are. You should be just as calm.”
It’s like a switch flips. Jordan is right. They are completely content. There is no hurry. No reason to rush. Let’s enjoy this moment. The view is spectacular. The sun is shining right on the sheep and you can tell they are going to bed down and stay warm. The desert mountains really are beautiful. The smell of the yucca plant is actually really nice. The clouds are lazily moving by, what a beautiful day to enjoy. Maybe not the cactus in my butt and legs, but everything else. We have time to enjoy it.
There are seven or eight sheep in the group, mostly younger rams, one really young ram and one that sticks out from the rest. He isn’t super long, but he has mass. He is older, he is always in the center of the group and everyone follows his lead. He is the one I want. He is the one we will try for. They all bed down and Jordan keeps an eye on them, while I lay there and enjoy the moment. It’s a beautiful day, 35 degrees, sunny and no wind (where we are). The canyon is completely protected from it and it is really a gorgeous area. A great moment.
“They’re getting up.” Jordan whispers.
I immediately roll over, shoulder the gun and settle in. He is facing away from me. I can’t believe I finally have one in my sights. A nice, solid ram. I am surprised at how calm I am. My breathing is steady. The cross hairs don’t even move when I breathe. I can make this shot. I can do this.
“He’s turning. Okay. Whenever you are ready, buddy,” Jordan says.
I take a deep breath and let it out. Cross hairs are rock solid. I don’t even remember pulling the trigger, but I do remember hearing Jordan say, “Smoked him! Rack another shell.”
I can’t find him. Where is he? I need to put another round in him. These sheep are tough. I don’t want him running off a cliff. I need to anchor him. There are sheep running everywhere, but where is the big one?
“He’s down. You got him buddy!” I roll over.
I look at Jordan and I am sure I had an, “Are you serious?” look on my face.
He says it again, “You got him! And he is nice. You got him!”
I am not exactly sure what I did at this point because I was so beside myself with excitement. I know for sure I laid there for a few minutes with my eyes closed reliving the stalk, the shot, the sights and smells. It was amazing. Anyone who hunts knows that every once in a while, everything just seems to come together perfectly. It just all works out.
Jordan and I did the normal high-fiving, smiling, thank yous and hugs. That’s right, hugs. If you are afraid to hug another man who just spotted sheep, hiked multiple miles with you down a mountain, calmed you down and plans to help you pack out without one complaint, then I feel sorry for you. It’s true friendship and something every man with great hunting partners knows about. The feeling I had hiking down to my sheep was like nothing I had ever felt before. For two years I had planned, prepared and trained for this moment. Now here I was walking up to the animal I had been putting on a pedestal for so long. I’ll be honest. I was sad. I was sad that this “adventure” had come to an end and I had taken the life of this animal I had spent 2 years pining after and admiring. It’s not easy taking the life of an animal. People who don’t hunt don’t understand that we are not killers, we are hunters. What we do, we do not take lightly. This moment I was definitely not taking lightly.
Putting my hands on this great Barbary sheep was amazing. It was such an amazing, tough, agile and resilient animal. As soon as you are close, you can see how they survive. Thick skin and coarse hair to deter cactus thorns and sharp rocks. Perfect color to camouflage them in these desert mountains, like they were supposed to be here. Thick and agile hooves made for this rocky and steep terrain. They are amazing animals and this one was all mine.
As they say though, now the work begins. I had never quartered and deboned a sheep. Now I am doing it on the side of a mountain. When I am done, I will have to pack it out on my back, straight up 1,500 vertical feet for about three miles. I CAN’T WAIT! Not sure how Jordan feels about it, but I know he won’t complain and “enjoys” it as much as me. Jordan digs right in helping me cape and quarter the Aoudad. He doesn’t even hesitate. He knows how to do this and respects the process, any good hunter would. As we work, we enjoy the morning. What an absolutely beautiful day to be on the mountain. When we are done, we take some time to drink some water and eat something to fuel up for the hike. We talk about the whole morning that led up to this moment, this moment of celebration.
The hike was brutal. The wind that had beaten me up before was back. It pushed on us all the way back up the mountain. I felt bad. I had to take a lot of breaks. Jordan would have made it back a lot faster if it wasn’t for me. He laughs at me. I know he is in good spirits. How could he not be? We just had the most perfect day of sheep hunting anyone could ask for.
Back at the truck, finally. Cold beer and donuts have never tasted better.
What a great four days it was and, man, do I owe Jordan.
Needless to say, I’m hooked on mountain hunting. The sheer challenge of surviving the mountains is what gets in your blood. The competition that is created by trying to outwit an animal is the bonus.
I can’t wait to go back. I will go back.