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The Eagle Has Landed

June 2023
Story by Amador Islas
State: Arizona
Species: Sheep - Rocky Mtn

 I have a superstition when applying for hunts in my home state of Arizona. I always submit my application on the last day, and I don’t check my credit card for a week after the draw. Throughout my nearly 50 years of hunting, this practice has served me well with many coveted tags drawn. This year was no different. I checked my account, and the shock hit me hard when I saw I had drawn my once-in-a-lifetime Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep tag. My friends and family had already been through the highs and lows of checking their draw results, so I knew I had to have some fun with my thrilling knowledge. I called my son, Jacob, and told him we needed to sight in my rifle soon for my hunt. He called me crazy, thinking I had only drawn an archery antelope tag for the season. I chuckled and gave the news, “No, son, we’re going sheep hunting!” The reaction throughout my family was disbelief, excitement, and a general sentiment of, “It’s finally happening!” I was looking forward to the thrill of the hunt and of stepping foot into the gnarly landscape that Arizona Rocky sheep inhabit with my sons and my closest friends.

As this was an area I hadn’t hunted before, I elected to hire a guide for the first time in my life. A phone call to my son’s friend, Jay, (who has become like another son to me) was all it took to know who I wanted for this hunt. One conversation with Chad Rhoton from A3 Outfitters left no doubt he and his team would cater to the experience I wanted, and in Chad’s words, give me “an opportunity of something really special.”

Summer passed, and every day put us one day closer to the culmination of a 28-year wait. Chad put me in touch with his guide, Payden, and pictures and texts began filling my phone of rams being scouted and my excitement for this opportunity continued to grow.

As November arrived, it was time to focus on my son, Brandon’s, Desert sheep hunt. We threw ourselves into planning and packing, picking out mules to get our supplies high up into the backcountry of the southern Arizona desert. A few days into our preparations, we found out that Brandon and his family had been exposed to Covid only a week before on an elk hunt. By the next day, I could tell I wasn’t feeling 100%, but I didn’t want to believe it. Two days before Brandon’s hunt, he turned his tag back in and both of us tested positive 10 days before the start of my hunt. We were disappointed, but we now had a new goal – get better as soon as possible and get out into the field to chase my Rocky Mountain sheep. I assured our guide, Payden, that we would get to the sheep one way or another, it may just take this old man a little extra time.

Opening day was finally here. Payden, my sons, Brandon and Jacob, their friend, Jay, my nephew, Joseph, and I split up into three different areas within my sheep unit. We found ourselves in awe of the terrain with the desert floor stretching out beneath us and pine-topped ridges laden with the rocky outcroppings and sheer cliffs these sheep call home. We soaked up the camaraderie and picked out a few nice 170" rams. Payden and I spotted an old busted up warrior that would have been better had he not battled himself into destruction defending his band of ewes. We spent that first afternoon glassing in different areas and analyzing more sheep, including a flared ram a couple miles away.

The second morning, my team surrounded the ridge where we spotted the flared ram. A short hike into the area revealed one of the neatest rams I’d seen. He had the “cool” factor – his horns flared at the tips with a chip on his passenger side. “Chipper” became his name, and while he was a contender because of his distinctiveness, when Payden and I got a closer look at 100 yards, we knew we would not harvest this young up-and-comer.

The afternoon of day two revealed only the same caliber of rams in this area. Truthfully, nobody wanted the hunt to end this soon, and after waiting 28 years to draw this tag, I had my heart set on a true trophy and 31 days of hunting. We were all living in the moment, amazed at the sight of these sheep easily traversing terrain that would prove certain death to most other wildlife. That night at camp, we discussed our options. Payden, thanks to his many hours spent in the field, had a gut feeling we needed to move camp to an area where a particular ram had been filmed two years ago.

Trusting Payden’s intuition, we packed up and moved camp on day three. We quickly split up, my sons and I going to one vantage point and Jay, Payden, and Joseph hoofing it across a ridge to a benched outlook on the opposite side of the canyon. We knew the weather wasn’t on our side, but the thrill of the hunt kept us in place. As we watched a storm barrel toward us across the mountains, Jacob spotted a ram two miles from our vantage point. With the spotting scope on him, we knew he was a step above the size of rams we had previously seen. The storm moved steadily on, and we barely made it back to the vehicles before the whole area was engulfed in sleet and pounding rain. It continued throughout the day, washing away our hopes for a full December of hunting. Mother Nature had her own plans, and our weather apps showed only five to seven days of clear skies for the rest of the month. We made the tough decision to pause, and everyone headed home.

We kept an eye on the weather, and on Wednesday, we received a text from my son, Jacob, “I see a two to three-day break in the weather on Saturday. Who’s ready to roll?” We changed our schedules yet again, sent a flurry of texts deciding where to meet, and by Friday night, Jacob, Payden, Jay, and I were back at camp deep in the unit and ready to hit it hard.

Saturday morning dawned with Payden and Jacob hiking further into the canyon, hoping to dig up the ram from two years ago or the ram Jacob had spotted earlier in the week. Jay and I set up on the backside of that ridge. Jay and I had been glassing for about 45 minutes when we got a call from Jacob that a shooter ram had been spotted and we needed to get to him now.

Payden set up a shooting spot for me, with Jacob up above and Chad on the other side of the canyon. Four hours of hiking later, Jay and I arrived at Payden’s spot. Trying to get my breathing under control, I got my first look at the biggest ram I’d ever seen. A 520-yard, -8 degree angle broadside shot presented itself when I finally felt like I had a good rest. I squeezed the trigger, and the sound of the rifle surprising me proved that the shot would hit true. The quick “Boom! Whomp!” every hunter loves to hear and shouts of “He’s down!” confirmed the ram had dropped. There were high fives all around as my team and I rallied around the moment that had just fulfilled a lifelong dream.

As we met up at the ram from our different locations, we were absolutely blown away by the sheer magnitude of him. We humbled ourselves and thanked our Creator for the harvest and reflected on the hunt and the fun we’d had. As with every ending to one of my successful hunts, I said, “The eagle has landed!” Regardless of what he scored, we knew we had completed what we set out to do, harvesting the king of the mountain, surpassing even my wildest dreams for this hunt.

We quickly realized that even though the ram was in the best possible harvest location in this unforgiving country, we were looking at a grueling trek back to the trucks up the steep canyon. Reaching camp at 1 a.m., too thrilled to sleep, we spent a few hours around the campfire reminiscing, watching embers dance from the fire, and reliving our memories of the hunt that still play out daily in my mind.

After the 60-day drying period, my ram would gross 192 6/8" and net 191 4/8". I want to thank Payden for all his hard work. He scouted and hunted his guts out, never losing sight of what this all meant to us. Chad, Brandon, Jacob, Jay, and Joseph, this one will always be a hunt to remember, and I hope the memories of this hunt are told for many years to come. Until the next eagle lands!