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March 2020
Story by Ethan Summers
State: New Mexico
Species: Exotic - Aoudad

Driving up the canyon, I passed several hunting camps. The terrain was moderate, the road was well travelled, and the feeling was relaxed. I could easily pick an opening and pull over to set up my camp. I could spend the next five days glassing canyon walls in hopes of spotting sandy brown dots making their way down from the mountaintops. I could, but I was looking for something different out of this hunt.

My calling was at the top of the mountains. I was working my way up the Brokeoff Mountains of southern New Mexico. In my backpack was a public land Barbary sheep tag for units 29 and 30. The Barbary sheep, or aoudad, is an introduced species in North America. They were first released in southern New Mexico in the 1950s and have thrived there ever since. The climate and terrain are similar to their original homeland in the arid mountains of northern Africa. They are classified in the genus Ammotragus, which some folks include with Capra (goat) and others Ovis (sheep). For this story, I will refer to them as sheep.

I was determined to hunt the sheep in their habitat. Much time was spent scouting the mountains on my computer. I made plans to utilize a two-track road that jutted off the county road and went up a narrow ravine. Google and OnX only let you zoom in so far. I had no idea the road was going to be five miles of solid rock and mental tension. The two hours I spent covering those five miles saw me anticipating a flat tire at any moment and wishing I had an extra spare tire. With a grateful disbelief, I made it to the top of the ravine at sundown.

The hunting season had already been open four days. I arose early the next morning and started my hike up to a glassing point I had marked on OnX GPS, 1.2 miles from camp. With nothing but shale rock under foot and everywhere else from what I could make out in the low light, I climbed up through Cholla cactus patches and a few stretches of mountain mahogany. When I reached my GPS marker on the peak, I could not believe the view off the backside of the mountain range. The elevation was only 5,300 feet, but it fell off to 4,300 feet right below me. I thought, "What a place to watch the sunrise.”

I lowered my pack to sit up against it. I removed my toboggan to release the heat trapped against my scalp. I pulled my phone from my pocket to check the time. The sound of a twig snapping came from the direction I had just travelled. I dismissed it, but promptly, another noise came from that same direction. Twisting my neck in reaction, I saw two sets of V-shaped horns cresting the mountaintop. The sheep were at 50 yards and walking toward me. It was easy to tell at this close distance that these were two big, mature rams. Almost without thought, I looked down at my phone in hand and started videoing.

The two rams ambled my way and stopped at 20 yards to look me over. I passed their inspection as the front ram casually scratched his rib cage with the tip of his horn and continued toward me. Sitting frozen against my pack and trying to control my breathing, I ran through the scenarios of how to get a shot off. In my mind, the rams were going to bolt as soon as I reached for my rifle. They had no reason to be the aggressors and charge me. They would either 1) run back the direction from which they came and I would have a running away shot or 2) jump off the steep cliffside beside us and be gone from sight forever.

The leader stepped inside 10 yards. He posed against the morning skyline as a magnificent conqueror of the mountain. Drooped eyelids gave him a weary expression. It was now or never for me to make my move. I set my phone down, pulled my rifle from the pack scabbard behind me, removed the scope cover, chambered a bullet, and raised the rifle to my right shoulder. The 10x scope was filled with sandy brown hide. The ram did not budge while I made ready. I found his brisket, or sternum, for a lethal front-on shot and squeezed the trigger. The two rams leapt off the cliffside to a narrow ledge and hoofed away. The leader ram was no longer leading and quickly lost motivation. He paused to look over his rugged domain one last time and then tipped over. 

I was in shock. I couldn't believe I had harvested a trophy ram before the sun came up on my first morning of hunting. I also couldn't believe the intimate encounter and closeness I had shared with such a remarkable animal. Emotions are hard to anticipate as an outdoorsman and even harder to explain. I think of my family and friends and how thankful I am for the life that I have.

I approached the ram on the narrow ledge where he had expired. He was on a steep slope near a drop-off. I lifted his head for examination, but his body inched down, rocks underneath shifting with gravity. I tried to take a picture, which is tough enough solo hunting, but he continued to inch downward. I sensed the urgency in the situation. The drop-off below us was at least a couple hundred feet. I most likely would not be able to retrieve the ram if he slid off the edge. There was nothing to fasten a rope to on the ledge comprised of rocks and cacti. I decided my best option was to find a foothold for me below the ram in order to lean up against him. With my weight pressed against the ram and my knife in hand, I got to work. The hide was carved back, and the two backstraps were removed. I searched for and found the junction between the spine and the skull to detach the head. The rest of the meat removal was performed without delay.

The pack out was heavy and required three trips. I enjoyed every step, but I could not wait to see camp each time. Aching bones and burning muscles lowered an overflowing pack onto a welcoming tailgate. What a feeling! The journey neared an end with a careful drive down the mountain. Once on the highway, I reviewed the unlikely events that had just unfurled. I pondered what it meant to have a successful hunt. I balanced the yearning for more experiences with the contentment and thankfulness from the hunt just completed.