The two rams were feeding along a distant ridge when first spotted. They were two miles away and more, and I have no idea how our Mexican guides picked them up with questionable optics. I certainly couldn’t see them! We moved down our own ridge, gaining a bit of ground, and I finally saw them through outfitter Kirk Kelso’s big spotting scope. One was insignificant, but the other had just the hint of thick, curving horn.
We watched them move onto a bench above a distinctive face of smooth black stone, almost certainly to bed, and then we started to maneuver. An intervening ridge gave us a good view of their shelf, but the distance was still far too great. So we circled around and came into the valley underneath them, finding a little knoll the bottom that gave a good vantage point. Kirk found the big ram almost immediately, bedded behind bright green palo verde with his circling horns now seeming like a halo through the screen of pale leaves.
I set up my daypack and settled in to wait. The shot would be 335 yards, considerable uphill angle. Never, ever have I felt such pressure. I had dreamed of this opportunity for 30 years, and my hands kept shaking as I waited for the ram to rise. Eventually he did. At first he was almost completely screened by brush, and then he took a step forward and stood clear, quartering to me. The shakes went away, and I put the crosshairs where I wanted the bullet, then shifted a couple of inches into the light crosswind. The bullet landed where it was supposed to, and I had my long-dreamed of desert bighorn.
All four North American wild sheep—Dall, Stone, bighorn, and desert bighorn-pose their own challenges, but through my lifetime the desert sheep has been the most difficult. It was not always so. Before World War II it was possible to simply go into Mexico and hunt desert sheep. In those days before jet travel this was actually the most accessible of our four wild sheep, and in August 1935, accompanied by his English professor, Jack O’Connor, my uncle Art Popham did exactly that. Both would go on to take many sheep of all North American varieties, but this was the first sheep hunt for both. My uncle got his desert sheep (actually more than one), but his professor did not. O’Connor returned to Sonora in November of that year and took his own first wild ram.
Today, for most of us who dream of hunting the four varieties of wild sheep, the desert bighorn is the final step. Certainly it was for me. My first ram was a Stone sheep, taken in northern British Columbia in 1973, in a time when the Stone sheep was actually the most accessible and most available of the four varieties. That also has changed, with quotas dropping and prices escalating to the point where the Stone sheep now rivals the desert sheep in cost and availability. But I got my first Stone sheep very early. In time came opportunities to hunt Dall sheep, for at least the last 20 years and still today our most inexpensive and most available wild sheep. In more time came not one but two Rocky Mountain bighorn permits, with the desert bighorn remaining the last and seemingly inaccessible hurdle.
I started applying for desert sheep permits in 1978. A quarter of a century later, despairing that I would never draw, I did an amazingly foolish thing. I had just returned for an extended vacation in the Persian Gulf with the Marines, and in early 2003 I put pretty much an entire year of combat pay into a desert sheep hunt in Mexico. As the hunt approached I realized how silly this was and suffered a serious case of buyer’s remorse. It went away when I first saw that ram through the spotting scope, and has never returned!
Of course, I assumed that desert sheep would be my one and only, but after many years of consistent applications and with massive bonus points accumulated in multiple states I stayed in the draw and was thoroughly shocked when, in 2008, I drew a desert sheep tag in Arizona. Obviously I jumped the gun. The lesson here is clear: One must apply, and continue to apply, and never lose faith! But I still don’t regret my beautiful Sonoran ram…and I sure don’t regret my equally beautiful Arizona ram.
Technically I suppose you could say they aren’t exactly the same type of sheep. While most hunters have long considered that there are four types of North American wild sheep, there are actually multiple races and subspecies within several of the four. Between the pure-white Dall sheep and the dark Stone sheep there is a broad transition zone in the Yukon of so-called Fannin sheep. Lumped together with the Rocky Mountain bighorn is the slightly smaller California bighorn. And there are at least four recognized races of desert bighorn, varying more or less noticeably in size and typical horn configuration.
My Sonora ram was typical of the mexicana subspecies, small-bodied, tight-curled. My Arizona ram, taken north of the Grand Canyon on the Utah border, was almost as typical of the northernmost Nelson’s race of desert bighorn,Ovis canadensis nelsoni. So, for those who think I was a game hog to stay in the draw after I already had a desert sheep, that’s my story! Now in my latter 50s, I can still climb, and hopefully will be able to for some years to come. I refuse the thought that my sheep hunting days are over, so with apologies to no one, I’m staying in some of the permit draws. There remain varieties of sheep I have hunted, and certainly many mountain ranges I haven’t yet seen!
Even with the great increase in prices of Stone sheep hunts, the desert sheep remains the least available of our North American wild sheep. There are really two choices: Apply for all the permits, hoping for luck (and accumulating bonus and preference points where available which, in time, does enhance one’s luck); or choking it up and paying for the privilege to hunt a desert ram.
For the latter option there are Mexico’s privatized permits, a few options on Indian reservations north of the border, and the “governors’ tags” sold at auction at various hunters’ conventions, the Wild Sheep Foundation’s convention being the single greatest hotspot for these tags. In all three cases prices are steep, but they do vary considerably with the quality of the area and outfitter, and with the vagaries of the economy.
Interestingly, whether you draw or buy, the hardest part is actually getting the tag. Provided you do your homework, avoiding bad outfitters and marginal areas, our desert bighorn herds are managed so well that desert sheep hunting today is probably the most consistently successful among all our varieties of wild sheep. In my case, though I kind of hate to admit it, my two desert sheep hunts were among the easiest of all my sheep hunts, in North America and elsewhere.
The desert mountains of the Southwest are harsh, but incredibly beautiful, especially in winter (I would not wish to hunt Sonora in August like my uncle did in 1935!). The typical footing of crumbling rock is difficult, and because of their harsh environment desert sheep are thin on the ground and take some looking. But the elevation is usually fairly low and the sheep are definitely there.
On both of my desert sheep hunts we didn’t take the first ram we saw, but neither hunt lasted particularly long. In Sonora I had invested far more than I could reasonably afford, and in Arizona I’d invested 30 years of permit applications. But in neither case did I feel any concerns about eventual failure. We had plenty of time, the sheep were there, and we would find them. Realistically, though I will continue to draw, it’s probably unlikely that I will ever again hunt any of the races of desert sheep. I was blessed to do it once and exponentially blessed to do it twice. Just getting there was the hardest part, but both hunts were among my most enjoyable and most memorable. Get in the draws and stay there. The experience is with the wait!