For many of us, there’s little hope of ever participating in a mountain hunt for sheep. In Western states, sheep tags are doled out by lottery systems, and the odds of ever drawing are quite slim. In some cases, you can build preference points over years, but it can take decades to draw a tag, and you’ll likely only have one season to take your ram.
If you don’t want to wait for your number to be drawn, you can pay a premium to hunt Stone’s sheep, desert bighorns or Dall sheep, but the price of those hunts can be extraordinarily high due to great demand. If you don’t have money or luck on your side, there’s a good possibility you’ll never experience a sheep hunt.
That’s a shame, because the pursuit of sheep in high country is one of the most rewarding and challenging pursuits in North America. Outdoor writer Jack O’Connor hunted all over the globe, but he is perhaps best known for his writings about the quest for America’s horned mountain game. Those unfettered days that O’Connor enjoyed—when sheep tags were cheap and widely available and any working-class hunter with gumption and a high level of fitness could climb up to the top of the world in search of a ram—are long gone. Part of the reason for this is the fact that O’Connor romanticized the high mountain sheep hunt, which increased interest and drove up prices; and part of the problem has to do with the fact that sheep are prone to large-scale die-offs as a result of diseases spread by their domesticated cousins.
Introducing Aoudad to the West
But native sheep aren’t the only horned game roaming the hills of the American West. Following World War II, U.S. soldiers who had been stationed in North Africa decided to bring that region’s Barbary sheep to North America and introduce them as a game species. Native to arid, mountainous countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Chad and Libya, the hardy Barbary sheep, more commonly known as “aoudad,” thrived in Texas and New Mexico. By the 1960s, wild aoudad populations were established in both states, and harsh country such as the Palo Duro Canyon region and the Big Bend Park in Texas were soon home to hundreds of free-ranging aoudad by the 1960s. By the 1980s, an estimated 20,000 aoudad were living outside fences in Texas.
However, the introduction of aoudad to the United States had negative effects: Desert bighorns, native to many of the same areas that aoudad suddenly occupied, were at risk of contracting diseases from their North African cousins. In addition, aoudad competed with bighorn populations for sparse resources in this dry, desert habitat. Biologists weren’t thrilled about this introduced threat to native sheep, especially in Texas, where free-ranging aoudad populations are viewed as a threat to native game.
Unlike native sheep, which are highly regulated and expensive to hunt, aoudad are widely available, and guided hunts are quite affordable. In contrast to ponying up $60,000 or more to have a chance at a desert bighorn, free-ranging aoudad hunts can be had for as little as $3,000 to $4,000 (similar to what you might pay for a pronghorn antelope and less than you will fork over for a mule deer or elk hunt).
Don’t let the aoudad’s classification as an exotic species fool you, though. These imports are extremely adaptable and well suited for steep, dry country, and they are extraordinarily tough. In wide-open country, aoudad seek out difficult terrain that offers them visibility and security from predators. Their burnt tan-colored coat allows them to blend in exceptionally well in dry desert terrain; and, at the first sign of danger, an entire herd will scramble up and over a steep ridge and out of sight.
Getting close to free-range aoudad means climbing—often, lots of climbing—in steep, rocky terrain that offers very little cover. That was something I learned quickly on my first aoudad hunt in the remote desert hills south of Van Horn, Texas.
“There they are,” my guide, Caleb said. He was pointing toward a ridge scattered with loose lava rock a half-mile away and several hundred feet above us. I couldn’t see the aoudad, but I could hear them: The sound of sliding and falling rocks echoed down from the cliff.
The white, midmorning sun stood alone in the cloudless sky, and I shielded my face against the glare. Through my Leupold binocular, it seemed the entire face of the mountain was moving, a constant wave of motion among the broken and scattered rock slides.
Then, suddenly, I saw them—first two and then four or five, tawny, heavy-shouldered bodies moving with surprising grace over the tumbled stones. Before they crested the ridge, we looked over the band of 50 or so and spotted a handful of good rams.
The last of the ewes and lambs were vanishing over the top when Caleb grabbed his pack, spotting scope and walking sticks. He motioned for Browning Ammunition’s Ben Frank and me to follow him.
We cut to our left, out across the plains of thorny ocotillo and prickly pear, mesquite and yucca. It was February, but the desert was already heating up, and temperatures were approaching 80 degrees. We reached the base of the mountain where we had seen the aoudad and began climbing up and over the loose rocks and around stands of cactus.
We cut to the left of the place where the sheep had crested the ridge and made our way through the stinging expanse of thorns and brush up onto the broken, red lava rocks, which rolled under our feet. Halfway up, we stopped and then paused again a couple of hundred yards higher to fill our burning lungs and rest our aching legs. The country steepened as we moved up toward the rimrock. At the top, we were left to climb, hand over fist, to the mesa for a view of the surrounding country.
“Then, suddenly, I saw them—first two and then four or five, tawny, heavy-shouldered bodies moving with surprising grace over the tumbled stones.”
When we reached the plateau, we saw that the aoudad, now more than a half-mile away, had split into two bands. The larger band was high above us in the shade of yet another ridge, picking their way along the steep rock wall. Another group had stayed lower, crossed a drainage and were positioned around a spire of red rock that formed the endpoint of a narrow ridge.
We glassed both groups and saw that there were good rams in each. The higher group continued to move single file under the shaded ledge. One by one, the animals crested the ledge, climbing the almost vertical rock in one or two bounds. We decided to try for the other, smaller band, which was settled on and around the crown of rock a half-mile ahead of us.
We had a significant problem, though: The vast, rocky mesa offered very little cover. Getting in position would mean finding a way to cut the distance by at least half, and that would mean a quarter-mile of crawling through cactus and rocks in rattlesnake country without being spotted … which was out of the question.
Caleb looked around the flat-topped mesa and decided our only hope was to keep going around the rimrock and try to stay just below ridgeline as we made our way along a narrow canyon that would lead us closer to the aoudad. That meant a lot more walking, but it was our only chance. We gave the aoudad one last look, saw they hadn’t moved, took a long drink of water and headed out under the glare of the midday sun.
Following the rim of the canyon, we measured our steps along the sheer rock face. The rimrock offered terrible footing but enough cover so Caleb, Ben and I, moving single file, could swing around the edge of the mesa until it curved back toward the aoudad herd.
After swinging a wide arc around the crest of the plateau, Caleb crept ahead through the ocotillo and prickly pear. He rose, stole a look over the horizon and then turned, indicating that the aoudad were still at their position on the rock but were moving up and over the top. If they managed to cross the ridge, it would mean several more hours of vertical climbing to regain our position for a shot; and that would only be effective if the aoudad didn’t continue moving once they reached the other side. My best option was to take a shot from my current position, which meant using the scant desert cover to escape being sighted by the aoudad.
We moved low over the sharp lava rocks, keeping out of sight and finally coming to rest under the spiny arms of a dry ocotillo.
“Getting close to free-range aoudad means climbing—often, lots of climbing—in steep, rocky terrain that offers very little cover.”
Out of Sight
“There’s a ram up top, feeding. Get ready,” Caleb advised.
Ben handed me the shooting sticks and gave me a reading on the rangefinder: 277 yards. Not a far shot, but one made tougher by the uneven terrain and lack of a stable rest.
I used the sticks and steadied myself the best I could. Ben referenced the MOA chart for my gun. I was shooting Browning’s sleek, new Hell’s Canyon SPEED rifle in .30-06 and using the Leupold VX-3i with CDS reticle. I dialed in the ¾ MOA elevation change with three clicks of the knob.
The ram was standing broadside, feeding on the bare top of a prickly pear.
“There’s one behind him,” Caleb said.
I hadn’t seen the other sheep at all, but the head of a small ewe appeared behind the ram’s flank.
Long seconds passed. The ram was old and heavy shouldered, with beautiful, back-sweeping horns that made a wide arc and a long, heavy mane. He was certainly a shooter, but until the ewe cleared, I wouldn’t have the opportunity.
The rest of the band had disappeared over the rise and left the ram and ewe behind, and those two were within 10 yards of the ridgetop. When the ewe finally cleared out, the ram turned, as well, offering me no shot as he moved dead away and straight toward the top.
My chance finally came when the ram stopped and turned broadside, silhouetted against the top of the hill. I centered the crosshairs of the Leupold just behind his heavy shoulder. When the trigger broke, I could see the ram rise and turn, hit hard, running headlong back down the steep slope in our direction.
“Hit him again!” Caleb said.
With the scope topped out at 14x magnification, I didn’t have a broad sight picture; I missed, well behind as the aoudad rushed downhill toward the canyon just ahead of us. I cycled the X-Bolt, but by that time, the ram was out of sight.
In the heat and haze of midday, we headed forward, fully prepared to see the ram rise up and run again, even after being hard hit. (Aoudad are notoriously tough, and that reputation is well deserved: A really big aoudad ram weighs at least 300 pounds, but its heavy musculature enables it to absorb punishment on a scale out of proportion to its mass.)
As we crested the rim of the narrow canyon, I was ready, but the 155-grain Browning BXR bullet had done its work, pushing through the ram at a slight angle, striking the lungs and coming to rest under the skin on the off side.
No Such Thing as “Easy”
My ram measured slightly more than 24 inches—not huge, but hunting aoudad isn’t about inches of horn and position in a record book. It’s about the challenge of hunting horned game high in the mountains; about pushing your physical limits and overcoming the urge to quit when the ram you’ve been looking for could be over the next hill.
There’s an ecological reason to hunt aoudad: They are a threat to native bighorns, and the two species do not co-exist in shared habitat. But, personally, I know that while I will likely never hunt a bighorn or Dall sheep, I’ll have the opportunity to chase aoudad. They are among the most challenging of North America’s game animals to hunt.
If you decide to hunt them, be prepared—there are big aoudads and small aoudads, but there is no such thing as an “easy” aoudad in wide-open mountain country.
Aoudad hunting is tough on hunters and their equipment, so before your hunt, be prepared for the challenge.
Footwear: Selecting proper equipment starts with having the right footwear. I hunted in Under Armour’s Ridge Reaper boots. They were light and supportive—perfect for steep terrain.
Clothing: Layers of breathable clothing are a must. More-modern, athletic-fit clothing such as our Browning Hell’s Canyon SPEED gear was ideal. In addition, the A-TACS AU camo pattern is very versatile and blends in well in desert environments.
Most aoudad country is rife with thorns, so gaiters are a lifesaver, and it’s worth packing gloves, because you’ll almost certainly be crawling up and down rocky slopes and stalking through cactus and ocotillo.
Pack items: A desert environs demands lots of water, so bring a stout pack with lip balm, sunscreen and plenty of fluids. A good hat is important, and polarized sunglasses will protect your eyes and make it easier to spot rams on distant ridges.
Rangefinder: A rangefinder is a must in open country, too. Your binocular needs to be highly quality and light enough to carry and hold all day (unless you are using a tripod).
Cartridges and ammo: Suitable aoudad cartridges probably start at .270 and go up, but every aoudad guide I’ve spoken with recommends heavy bullets and powerful, flat-shooting cartridges. The .30-06 worked just fine, but the various .300 magnums offer a flatter trajectory and more punch.
You need a bullet that will do the job. The BXR from Browning, although primarily designed as a deer bullet, worked quite well on my ram and the five other aoudad taken in camp that week.
Firearm: Balancing power and recoil with gun weight is critical in steep country. The Hell’s Canyon SPEED rifle weighs just 6 pounds, 9 ounces, so it’s easy to carry in aoudad country and accurate enough to reach out to 300 or more yards.
Sight: The Leupold CDS turret on the new VX-3i line made long-range shooting much simpler, and hunters in camp used the system to take rams out to 500 yards.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2016 print issue of Gun World Magazine.