Evolution

Drawing a desert bighorn tag is nearly impossible. Why add to the impossibility by hunting with a bow?

Having given up the rifle some 38 years ago, I admittedly am a bowhunting snob. I always give my rifle-hunting buddies a hard time. My favorite jab is, "When are you going to evolve and become a hunter instead of a shooter?" That always brings return jabs at my trying to score with a stick and string. It is all in good fun, but when I drew the most coveted tag in Arizona -- perhaps the most coveted tag anywhere -- my rifle-hunting friends seriously expected me to fold and borrow one of their rifles.

August of 2006 found me staring at a very special piece of paper. I was holding a 2006 Arizona desert bighorn sheep tag for Unit 41 West. I was also holding a copy of a joint press release by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department, stating there had been a continuous decline in desert bighorn sheep populations on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's KOFA National Wildlife Refuge. The KOFA (King of Arizona Mine), which has long been the breeding ground for dozens of desert bighorn sheep transplants throughout Arizona and other western states, borders my hunt unit to the west.

But this bit of information did not matter. I had gone from wondering if I would ever live long enough to draw a desert bighorn tag to actually holding one in my hand. Nothing could bring my spirits down.

Sheep numbers up or down, I was going sheep hunting, and the Arizona sheep season encompasses the entire month of December -- now that gives you time to hunt. If I failed to connect, that would be all right. I would have more desert sheep hunting experience than most rifle-toting sheep hunters, and that hunt time alone was priceless to me.

My first task was to get time off work. I am a firefighter in Northern Arizona, and by doing some shift trades and taking some vacation time, I was able to secure the first 17 days of December and then another six after Christmas. That gave me 23 hunting days, and, if needed, I likely could add another day or two.

My good fortune continued to build. It turned out that the other tag holder in my hunt unit was Dave Ware, a Battalion Chief for the Phoenix, Arizona, Fire Department. We had attended a class together a few years before.

Dave and I got together at the annual bighorn sheep-hunting clinic put on by the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. At the clinic, Dave and I made plans to camp together, share scouting intelligence, and just enjoy our very special opportunity. Dave talked about bringing his bow, but he obviously had not evolved into an archery snob. Our plan would work out perfectly. Dave wanted a 165-inch sheep, and I would be thrilled to kill one in the 150-inch class.

Our next decision was whether to hire a guide or go it alone. Having been on sheep hunts with friends, I was confident I could find sheep and identify a mature ram, which, for my purposes, was good enough. Dave decided to hire Geofrey Moss of Little Horn Outfitters.

Along with Geof was Allan Larson, who owns Indian River Ranch Guides & Outfitters LTD, a Stone sheep, moose, and mountain goat concession in British Columbia. Simply escaping the British Columbia winter, Allan offered to go with me to help spot sheep. We had the perfect situation. Dave had a guide, and I had an expert. I was beginning to wonder if so much good fortune so early was like jerking on your bathrobe and watching the $400 cell phone/MP3/PDA combo you'd lost two days earlier fly from the pocket into the toilet. A fleeting feeling of relief followed by, well -- you know.

The first time I saw the ram was the cold, windy evening of opening day. With a rifle, he would have been dead with a 300-yard shot, but, as I remind my rifle-hunting buddies, I am a hunter, not a shooter. As darkness fell, the ram settled into a sheltered alcove with the setting sun providing warmth, and the rock face blocking the 35-mile-per-hour wind that made holding binoculars difficult. Allan and I were confident we had put the ram to bed. The plan was simple -- return early the next morning and stalk him.

The next morning the ram was gone. Normally, sheep don't move at night. When did he move? And where did he go?

We saw the ram for the second time the morning of day five. He was bedded below a rocky mesa, two miles from where we'd seen him opening day. Dave and Geof had spotted him on the mesa the evening before. The wind was quartering toward the ram. The plan was for me to stalk above the ram and to wait for him to make a move. It looked like a safe position would place me about 80 yards from the ram.

However, I came to a point on the back of that mesa that still befuddles me. The prevailing wind was out of the northwest, but at that point the wind shifted out of the northeast. If I walked 20 yards back, it switched to the northwest; 20 yards the other way, back to the northeast. I could go no farther, and felt stymied. With no reasonable option, I went straight up and over the top of the mesa. Sure enough, the ram had smelled me.

Now he stood on a large, flat boulder 120 yards away. Apparently unsure of the threat, he stood stone still for about five minutes, looking for movement. The ram then jumped off the boulder and, just as quickly, jumped back on top to search for movement. Over 20 minutes he did this three times before finally disappearing for good.

I hustled off the mesa and back to Allan. "You are not going to believe this," he said, and looking through binoculars, I could see the ram going right back to that same spot. That was a good thing. He was spooked, but not to the next county. We left him for the day.

The afternoon of day five, Dave killed a ram he had passed up two days earlier -- a beautiful ram that green-scored 166 inches. That night at camp, we celebrated while listening to tales of Dave's successful hunt.

This was the point that I dreaded most. Mentally, I was prepared to go it alone, but it is never as much fun as having someone with you. Luckily, Allan and Geof agreed to stay a few extra days to keep me company.

As we finished celebrating Dave's success, Dave said he would be taking his meat and cape to town first thing. "Don't leave until 10:30," I said. "That way, you can take my meat and cape, too." Was that a prophetic statement? Or just wishful thinking?

The day before, Allan and I had spotted a group of 11 sheep with one decent ram about two miles from our glassing spot. We watched them drop into a drainage on the side of a large mountain. I made a long stalk, but the 11 sheep had just vanished. While Allan was watching me stalk sheep that

were no longer there, he had lunch under a Palo Verde tree.

As Allan worked on Dave's sheep cape the night of Dave's cele-bration, he realized he had left his knife under that Palo Verde tree.

"Don't worry," I told Allan. "We'll go back in the morning, glass our way in, and look for those 11 mystery sheep. Then we'll look for your knife."

The next morning was beautiful and warm as we hiked and glassed our way into the mountains. We saw no sheep, so when we arrived at Allan's lunch spot, we combed the hillside until we found his knife. It was at this point, about 8:30 a.m., that we spotted, for the third time, the ram I had stalked initially. He lay under a saguaro cactus about 400 yards away, soaking up the morning sun. The bad news was that he was watching us. The good news was that he had laid there the whole time as we had tromped around, looking for Allan's knife.

Allan set up his spotting scope and sat down to enjoy the show as I descended the mountain to our ATVs to get my bow. I then walked down the road to a drainage that put me out of sight of the bedded ram and began my stalk.

The ram was bedded about 25 yards below some cap rock, which would block his view and the noise of my approach. Directly above the ram was a gap in the rock wall. If the wind held and the ram stayed put -- and if I could get to that gap -- I would be within 25 yards of the ram.

Well, I did reach the gap. Now, had the wind held and did the ram stay put? Nocking an arrow, I stepped through that gap in the rock. At first, I saw nothing. Then the sun almost blinded me as it glowed off the golden orb of the ram's right horn. Being so close, the horn looked huge.

The ram was still bedded under the saguaro, looking away, down the mountain. Now I had to do the stick and string thing just right. Now was the time to become a shooter.

Standing there in the open on top of that ridge, 23 yards from the ram, I had few options. I drew my bow and shuffled my right foot to make enough noise to get the ram to stand. As he rose and took one step forward, my arrow blew through his chest. The ram took off and collapsed 40 yards away.

After only six days of hunting, on my fifth stalk, three of which were on this ram -- MY ram -- I had filled my tag of a lifetime. The ram's horns green-scored 157 inches.

Allan was so excited watching the show, he thought I had missed and just stood there in awe at what had happened. Then, attempting to follow the ram, he knocked over his tripod, and by the time he regained his composure, he spotted me with my arms in the air like Rocky Balboa on top of those steps in Philadelphia -- with my ram lying dead in the same spotting-scope view.

When we got back together, all Allan could say was, "I wish I'd had a video camera. I need to start bowhunting again."

He also confided that, the night Dave had killed his ram, Geof had asked if I would consider taking a rifle. Allan responded, "That's not an option." Evolution is a wonderful thing.

Author's Notes: My ram officially scores 1564⁄8 Pope and Young. I used a Hoyt UltraTec at 70 pounds draw weight, Easton Axis arrows, and Slick Trick broadheads. Arizona has two subspecies of desert bighorn sheep, the Mexicana and Nelsoni. The natural boundary between the two is the Bill Williams River. The Mexicana subspecies, found south of the river, generally grows larger horns than the Nelsoni found north of the river. The state issues about 85 desert bighorn tags each year. The application deadline is mid-June. Various raffle opportunities are available, too. For full information, contact the Arizona Game and Fish Department at www.azgf.com. To contact outfitter Geof Moss of Little Horn Outfitters, call (602) 432-4170. The author is an avid bowhunter and firefighter from Flagstaff, Arizona.

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