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September 2020
Story by Mark Calkins
State: Arizona
Species: Sheep - Desert

I couldn’t believe my eyes! I drew the hunting Holy Grail, an Arizona Desert bighorn sheep tag with only 17 points. A quick call to Garth Jenson at Huntin’ Fool was followed up with a hunt commitment to an outfitter I’ve used in the past. A3 is a well-known company dedicated to hard work and honesty. Jay Lopeman is part owner and would be my guide. His hunting ability and sheep knowledge is only matched by a 70-year-old, fun-loving sheep expert, Dean Dunaway. He would be my spotter and expert in field judgement and would help locate and keep track of the sheep we pursued.

On the first day, we made a play on a ram we nicknamed “Pretty Boy,” a tight, fully curled ram that carried mass to the tips. He had everything a quality ram should have, but he also had a companion. At 400 yards, he and his buddy saw us and slowly walked over the south ridge through a saddle. Little did I know how important this saddle would be in the future. Jay remarked that most rams at this time of year will stay on the same mountain if not pushed and we could probably find them here another day.

Later that same day on a different mountain, I was 65 yards from two feeding rams, waiting for the right shot opportunity. We affectionately called the big ram “Pig” because of his huge, fat body and massive, heavily broomed horns. I was kneeling on a razor-sharp rocky ledge with fading light, trying to decide if my arrow would clear under a low-hanging ironwood tree branch. I concluded it would not, but there was a tremendous urge to shoot and I was so close. I eased backward to clear the branch, and the smaller ram caught my movement. Frozen in place, I watched him nervously walk away with Pig in tow. Then the big ram stopped broadside at 85 yards, but a dead cactus covered his vitals. As this beautiful ram stood perfectly profiled against the dim light, I wondered whether my G5 Montec broadhead would penetrate the cactus. I knew it was not a good shot. I simply smiled and turned back to a smiling Jay, knowing how close we had come. We quietly backed out and walked down the mountain in the advancing darkness.

The second day found us looking at Pretty Boy in the same spot on the south side again. After a long all-day affair, sidehilling across knee and ankle-twisting rocks and pestering cactus, we ended the day in defeat, unable to locate the rams. The third day found Jay and me walking a mile just to get a look at the north side of Pretty Boy’s mountain. “I got him,” Jay said after a short time on the spotting scope. “He’s in a small, secluded cut feeding, but his buddy is bedded just above him.” The wind direction and companion position required the final approach from below. I was soon 60 yards below him. I could see the white butts feeding through the thick brush and cactus, but he needed to feed right or left for a clear shot. Getting closer was not an option because his companion could see me. After an hour, I felt the dreaded late morning warming thermals working against me. Soon, the gig was up and they trotted uphill and stood quartering away hard at 90 yards. Despite a rocky, off-balance stance, I released an arrow, just missing his left shoulder. He stood there unsure of any danger as I nocked another arrow. With Jay watching through the scope, they walked back over the saddle to the south side. Two close encounters in three days.

At that moment, the lightbulb came on. They had crossed that same saddle twice from different sides. I scouted the saddle for ambush places behind rocks, for various wind directions, thinking I might be back here again someday. How prophetic that thought would turn out to be. After notifying Jay and peeking over to the south side, I spent the rest of the day sitting just off the 10-foot wide saddle ridge waiting for their return. Many hours later, I had to get off the treacherous rocky and cactus-filled mountain before dark, but first, I had to look over to the south side again. There they were feeding only 200 yards down and out of sight from my spotter, Dean, and with no opportunity for a stalk. I was beginning to see a pattern.

We couldn’t find Pretty Boy on the fourth morning, and I was afraid I had bumped him too hard. After a morning rain, we found a new ram on a different mountain with many ewes and smaller rams showing rutting activities. A poorly executed stalk and an observant ewe resulted in all sheep walking away with no shot.

On day five, Jay spotted Pretty Boy on the north side and he was in his secluded bedroom cut alone. At 200 yards and undetected, I was gaining ground on the feeding ram in an area that I had previously scouted. Moving slowly, he fed over the same saddle for the third time with me close but not close enough for a shot. He simply decided to join two other smaller rams on the south side. After peeking over the ridge, I could not see them, but I knew they were there. Determined to spend the rest of the day on the mountain again, I tucked into the brush and perched myself up on a rock high above the saddle ridge in case they came back over. I was in their bedroom and knew anything could happen. Ranging every rock and cactus between 40 and 120 yards, I repeatedly drew my bow in practice and settled in for a long sit watching the saddle.

After an hour, I called Jay with an idea. He took the truck to the south side, parked, and located the rams a quarter mile away. After several hours of feeding and bedding, they slowly made their way toward the saddle. With Pretty Boy in the lead, they crossed over to my side of the ridge at only 10 yards. As they quartered to me at a steep downward angle, I leaned way over to the left as the 20-yard pin settled on his chest. At the release, a loud bang was heard and I felt a hard vibration in my hand. The big ram bolted left, and the two smaller rams ran behind me. I jumped down from my perch and attempted to get another shot at 60 yards as he walked over the rise. Then I noticed a red spot on the exit side very low and behind the ribs. I realized he was mortally but poorly hit. Reliving the shot, I realized that by leaning my body severely left and downhill at 10 yards my lower cam hit the rock I was sitting on. Confirmation was a large scratch on my new PSE Evolve lower cam, which caused this errant shot.

It was getting dark and a blood trail was found to be good initially but faded quickly in the dark. Jay arrived and we followed about 200 yards before darkness forced us to leave the mountain for the night. I was hoping my shot angle produced a good lung shot. I felt optimistic but knew it would be a long night.

The next morning, we followed the blood trail for 200 more yards when eagle eye Dean spotted my ram 500 yards away and still alive. We waited until 2 p.m., and with two additional spotters in place, I put the final stalk on Pretty Boy. We thought he changed positions and walked out of sight, but in reality, he was laying with his head down behind some rocks when I jumped him up at 30 yards. He trotted downhill without offering a shot. After a thorough search, I was devastated realizing a lifetime opportunity may be slipping away.

Jay and Dean would not give up. They started tracking where they thought the ram would go and followed it a few hundred yards to the base of another small rock mountain. At 4:30 p.m., we were running out of daylight again when Jay’s instincts led him up the rocks and immediately my ram jumped up 50 yards away. Jay followed him uphill, and I ran around the base as Pretty Boy struggled to get uphill. Jay spotted him bedded 400 yards away, and we put him to bed for another long night.

Day seven found us up on the rocky mountaintop with the spotting scope. Jay said, “There he is in the same spot. He’s dead.” The emotional release was overwhelming. The highs and lows of this adventure made the reward sweeter. The laughter, hugs, and slow walk down to this magnificent animal was all part of a dream come true. This beautiful 10-year-old ram will have a special place in my home and my heart.

Special thanks to the expert A3 team of Jay and Dean and to Arizona Game and Fish for managing good numbers of quality rams. Also, thanks to my loving wife, Linda, and supporting friends for encouraging the pursuit of my bowhunting passion. I am truly blessed and very lucky.