Blessings in disguise (part 1) by Dan Butler
I was sitting in my recliner, thirty pounds over-weight and watching television like a zombie. The sweltering summer was in full swing and getting motivated to do anything outdoors was virtually non-existent. The sound of my cell phone indicating a text message provided a momentary distraction from my mindless tube watching. “Who could that be” I wondered? It was an alert from my credit card company letting me know that an on-line charge was made from the Arizona Game and Fish Department for the cost of a deer permit. I was immediately filled with excitement knowing I had drawn the December Whitetail tag I had been trying to get for the last four years. Although I have lived in northwest Arizona for over twenty-six years, I had never hunted the Coues whitetail deer that inhabit the central and southeastern portions of the state.
As I sat there pondering the prospect of going on an exciting hunt and possibly fulfilling my goal of adding one of these beautiful “grey ghosts” to the home décor, my phone beeped again. Much to my surprise it was my credit card company again, letting me know the Arizona Game and Fish Department had charged my card again, only this time it was for the cost of a desert bighorn sheep tag! “This can’t be right” I thought. “They must be having issues with their computer system. There’s no way I drew a sheep tag, I’ve only got eighteen bonus points”. By this point I was shaking in disbelief, realizing I had drawn two quality tags that held the potential of an unprecedented hunting season for me. I had to walk around the block just to get my heart-rate back down to a safe level!
The next several weeks found me getting back in shape by backpacking several times a week, researching maps, and scouting every possible chance I could. I was going to put as many odds in my favor possible to make the most of these rare tags. Although I had the luxury of living within twenty miles of my sheep unit and knew the terrain pretty well, the anticipation of going on this once-in-a-lifetime hunt made it seem almost exotic and I certainly felt the pressure of having such a coveted tag. Initially, scouting trips were about finding the biggest ram in the unit. A few trips in however, something strange began to happen and the pressure waned. I found myself immersed in every aspect of my outings and started getting a sense of enjoyment that had little to do with horn size and more about this unique opportunity. It was refreshing. I was getting healthier, exploring new country, and watching in awe at the abilities of these rugged yet graceful creatures.
The whitetail unit however, was an area I hadn’t spent a lot of time in and offered a welcome challenge. I was very fortunate to have some friends who had taken some outstanding bucks in the past and were willing to give me some starting points. Both cases were just what I needed to break the ennui of primarily hunting the same few species in the same few areas for over two decades.
After several weekends of scouting and observing some quality rams, the hunt had finally arrived. My family and I loaded up the camp trailer and headed out two days before the start of the season. A good friend of mine, John, offered to help the first few days (which turned out to be instrumental to my success). After setting up camp we did some nearby scouting, locating a couple nice rams including one with superb mass within a half mile of camp. Fortunately for him he was missing over half of his right horn which kept him off of my “hit list”.
The following day we located a band of nine rams but they were in some thick brush and ended up topping the ridge before we could judge them very effectively. I retired that night feeling an anticipation that reminded me of much earlier times in my hunting “career”.
Opening day found John, my older son Tate, and I hiking up on a high mesa located in a wilderness area to look for a huge ram rumored to have been seen by Game and Fish during the October surveys. My wife, Erin and younger son, Van stayed below to glass and would report their sightings when we returned. We never found the big ram but did see several sheep and a small herd of mule deer. A couple hours before dark a really nice ram and several ewes appeared at the rim of the mesa about three quarters of a mile away. I debated going after him but he just wasn’t quite what I was looking for. We watched them feed onto the mesa until it was time to make the treacherous journey off the mountain with enough light to see the trail. Erin and Van had seen a few sheep that day also but no rams she thought I would be willing to pursue.
That evening we returned to town to drop the boys off so they could attend school the next day then headed back to camp. The following day John, Erin, and I hiked a couple miles up a wash to a spring where I had seen a nice ram with a broken rear left leg while scouting. We never saw him but did see several sheep throughout the trip.
John had to get back home the next day so that night at camp we devised a game plan for the morning. Erin and I were going to try and relocate the band of nine rams we found the day before season while John was going to load his gear and glass from the road on his way back into town. He would call me if he found anything and leave a message with the details. Erin and I hiked into our area and were set up glassing just after daybreak. We spotted a couple ewes and a young ram near the top while searching for the band of rams. I got my phone out of my pocket and turned it on to see if I had cell service. Almost immediately it rang showing a call from John so I answered. “Hey Dan” he said “I think I’ve found your ram. He’s heavily broomed and carries his mass really well.” “Really, where are you?” I replied with great excitement. He explained that he had stopped off the road near the pass separating the east and west sides of the mountain range to do some glassing. I let him know it would be an hour or more before Erin and I could get there so he agreed to keep tabs on the sheep until we arrived. As we drove up the road toward John, I remembered thinking during my many trips through the pass how the terrain looked suitable for archery hunting. “I should have thrown my bow in the truck this morning” I thought, scolding myself.
We met up with John and began setting up our optics to study the sheep about seven or eight hundred yards away. The ram he had found was accompanied by two ewes, a ram lamb, and two younger rams. At first I wasn’t too impressed with the ram. I liked his look but could tell he was very short due to his broomed horns and wouldn’t score nearly as high as some of the other rams I had found while scouting. Being only the third day of a month-long season, I didn’t feel any urgency to fill my tag and end this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. We figured we could drive about three hundred yards closer for a better look without spooking them so off we went. After setting up again, I must admit I was already thinking about where to finish out the day looking for more sheep. I was letting “score syndrome” prevent me from getting excited about this beautiful ram. Fortunately my wife, who happens to be a biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish in our region and has checked out dozens of rams, continued observing the sheep while I grabbed a little lunch. John, sensing I wasn’t going to pursue the ram, wished us luck and headed back to town.
After watching the sheep for several more minutes, Erin turned to me and with that look only a wife can give said “he’s a really old ram. At least ten years old. Are you sure you don’t want to shoot him?” “I would give it a try with my bow” I muttered. “Unfortunately it’s back at camp in the trailer.” She promptly offered to drive the eight miles back to camp to retrieve my bow while I stayed to keep an eye on the sheep. I agreed and decided as she drove away that I was going to commit to killing this ram. You see I am an archery hunter at heart and figured regardless of score, getting a ram with my bow would be more fulfilling to me. Besides, I really did like the looks of this old warrior.
Erin returned with my bow after an hour or so and it was time to plan the stalk. Being near a frequently-traveled road, I figured the sheep were fairly used to vehicles in the area but wasn’t sure how they would react to a person on foot. We pulled off the road directly below the sheep less than three hundreds from them and I got out with my bow and range finder in hand. Erin set up the spotting scope on a window mount and trained it on the band. I wandered around the truck and the sheep curiously watched for a few minutes then began feeding again. The three largest rams started making their way to a little ravine to my right so I headed up a finger to try and get straight across from them. They watched me for a while until I was able to get out of sight. I slowly crept around the base of a small cliff until I could see the rams. They immediately spotted me and the old ram stepped out on a big rock at a range of fifty-nine yards. I figured they wouldn’t tolerate my proximity very long and was reaching for an arrow when one of the younger rams decided I was too close and headed back up to the ewes, prompting the other two to do the same. Feeling defeated I made my way back down to the truck as the sheep were once again eying me with suspicion. Reaching the truck I told Erin how close I’d gotten and was about to nock an arrow when they spooked. I couldn’t believe how tolerant they were considering how all the sheep I’d encountered on my scouting trips were extremely alert and seemed to have about a two or three hundred yard comfort zone.
We continued watching them and, much to our surprise, after several minutes the sheep began to settle down and eventually bedded on a small bench. Studying the terrain I determined a direct route would get me within bow-range undetected as long as they remained bedded. Never having hunted sheep before, I expected them to get nervous once I was out of their sight and move over to the edge to determine what I was up to. I hesitated for a couple minutes but didn’t see any of them peeking over so I resumed the stalk. I made my way to the base of a large cliff which allowed me to creep quietly over solid rock and started gaining elevation. After several yards I could see the ewes’ horns through the grass and knew this was as high as I could go undetected. Grabbing my range finder I ranged a large boulder behind them at fifty-nine yards. “This might work” I thought. “All I need to do is get ready and wait them out” so I nocked an arrow and leaned back against the cliff, range finder at the ready. I could see the old ram’s horns on occasion as he stood up to stretch and visit the ewes.
Finally, after almost an hour I could tell the sheep were getting up to feed again and the old ram and two ewes stood up on the side of a large portion of exposed bedrock. I quickly ranged the sheep at fifty-five yards and waited for the ewes to clear. As I sat there fixed on the ram, one of the younger rams tried to take a cheap shot at the other young ram but he spun around with lightning speed and they crashed horns! Once the old boy was clear I drew my bow, settled in on the vitals, and took my shot. I could see the arrow heading up the hill to the ram but lost it as it broke the skyline. I could hear the arrow hit rock and the sheep scattered in several directions but quickly stopped to search for the source of the strange noise. The old ram had made three big leaps down the mountain closer to me and I frantically searched him for any sign of a hit. Almost immediately I saw him sway to one side then right himself only to topple over and crash down the slope. I couldn’t believe it; I had taken my once-in-a-lifetime trophy with my bow!
I turned around and raised my bow above my head, signaling to my wife that we had done it. She got out of the truck and began jumping up and down, excited as could be for me. As I stood on the side of the mountain, still reeling from what had just happened, a Game and Fish truck pulled up next to mine below. It was the wildlife manager for the area and he asked Erin if everything was OK. “Dan just got his ram” she told him! “Awesome” he said and graciously offered to help us out. I made my way down to them and the three of us grabbed our packs and headed back up the steep hillside to recover the ram, take pictures, and quarter him up. We ended up packing my ram down the hill in the dark. Erin was terrified but, we all made it safely back down to the trucks.
That night at camp we determined he was over eleven years old and gross scores 158”.
I learned a lesson on this hunt far greater than the feat I had accomplished. It’s so easy to get caught up in scores nowadays and not appreciate the experience. Although the hunt didn’t happen anything like I had envisioned, I wouldn’t change a single thing. Not finding the huge ram and having my wife open my eyes to the fact this old veteran of the mountains was a worthy trophy turned out to be blessings in disguise.
Part 2 by Dan Butler coming soon…
“Brrr, isn’t this fun honey!”