The desert bighorn ram I had been chasing was 225 yards below us at about a 45-degree angle and walking away toward another drop off. The wind was blowing and gusting sporadically up the canyon. There were seven sheep in the group, two younger rams, four ewes, and the granddad I was looking at. Four of the sheep had already gone over the edge and all I could see were two of the ewes and my ram, which was in the rear. It was clear that the sheep had not seen us. I settled my aim on the ram with only the famous Texas heart shot available. I waited hoping the ram would turn slightly but was ready for the heart shot if he took a few more steps. This was to be the culmination of over 45 years of hoping and planning for this moment. In front of me was this free ranging beauty, which I personally consider the epitome of the North American sheep, probably the most prestigious and certainly the rarest. Most big game hunters including the late Jack O’Connor would agree that no animal is valued as highly or more sought-after than the Desert Bighorn.
I have permanently lived in Nevada since 1967 and have been putting in for a desert sheep tag every one of the 45 years, except one. In those early years Nevada had a rule that if you put in unsuccessfully for 10 years then you were automatically given a tag. During that time I was coaching basketball at UNLV and clearly remember that following a recruiting trip, that it was time to submit my application for year number nine. The problem was, I was one day late and the automatic tag was gone forever.
In 2010, my luck suddenly changed, as not only did I miraculously draw my desert sheep permit but my son, JJ, who was recently discharged from the Marine Corps, and I both drew a California Big Horn tag in Northern Nevada and for the same area. The odds that both of us would draw the same area in the same year were off the charts, almost like winning the lottery.
Then l hit the jackpot again in 2012 when Jim called to tell me I had again drawn my Desert Bighorn tag in area 205 South, near Hawthorne Nevada. I have always been in good shape but really got after it in preparation for this hunt. Even with the long workouts, at 73, I admit I had some apprehension but I can honestly say I have never looked forward to any hunt as much as this one.
Jim Puryear, my guide, is not only an avid hunter but is one of the best sheep guides in Nevada. Jim and I made the plan for this hunt well in advance. We agreed that we would hunt for the opening two days, take a break for Thanksgiving if unsuccessful, and then come back in December after most of the other hunters in the area had left. Jim had three of his sub-guides join us for the hunt; Tyson Gripp, an extraordinaire guide who was with me while hunting the California sheep in 2010, Jim’s son Trevor who did the heavy lifting, and Bob Heddy, who had successfully guided many previous sheep hunters in Nevada. All were out scouting the mountains days before the hunt, having had the advantage of hunting the area in prior years. The hunter who wants a sheep must first find out where the sheep are. This can be extremely difficult considering the migratory habits of the species. There may be better sheep men in the world but you couldn’t prove it by me. They spotted sheep that mortal men shouldn’t be able to see.
Opening morning found us in an area called Table Top Mountain where the guides had seen two shootable sheep, both in the 150+ class. As we set up in our glassing area to try to find the sheep on opening day we saw another hunter who had slipped into the area and was in a position ahead of us. Disappointed, yes, but we backed off and figured we would try another part of the territory. The other area was steeper and higher but you go where the sheep live.
Jim, Trevor and Scott had earlier seen sheep on Muller Mountain, northwest of where we were, so a decision was made to try to find these sheep. They were high in the mountains feeding, but our daylight was fading quickly. The next morning found us back in the area trying to find the sheep which eagle eye Tyson was able to do. They were higher up and feeding as they climbed. Soon they were out of sight but our plan was in motion. Those lucky hunters who have pursued these magnificent animals know that sheep live in the wildest, roughest, most worthless and inhospitable places on this earth and difficult climbing to hunt them is the norm.
The peak of Muller Mountain rises to 8310 feet and our plans called for us to go to the peak area and attempt to work our way down on the sheep which were at about the 7500 foot level. If you ever had the opportunity to hunt the mountains in Nevada then you know just how arid and rugged they are. It almost seems impossible that any animal could survive in this terrain, but the bighorn is probably the toughest rough country animal in existence. I’m still trying to figure out how the sheep digest those rocks as it seems rocks are the only thing that grows on the mountain. If it weren’t for the water guzzlers put into these areas by The Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn, The Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, and the Nevada Department of Wildlife, there wouldn’t be sheep in most places in Nevada. But with the efforts of these dedicated groups the desert sheep in Nevada are expanding their range in good huntable numbers.
We finally climbed to a long ridge that was about half a mile long at about the 7500 foot level. The ledge of the ridge under us dropped almost straight down and we were unable to locate the sheep that were directly under us. They were apparently tucked up against the mountain sunning themselves. We slowly worked the whole length of the ridge, carefully avoiding sky lining ourselves while hoping that different angles might provide us a clear shot. After working our way down to the far end of the ridge and still not seeing the sheep we headed back up with our only hope to wait the sheep out. As we got back to the top, Tyson looked over the edge of the ridge and saw that the sheep had moved and were now feeding and moving. It is amazing how much ground they cover while feeding. Old rams are very intelligent, very wary and have great telescopic eyesight. If a hunter is to be successful then he has to gain a tactical advantage, which we fortunately had been able to do. Looking down from above reinforced my thinking that there is little doubt that these beautiful rams with their great horns are one of the most thrilling sights in all of nature.
Finally my ram turned slightly and gave me a quartering opportunity. My shot with my old Ruger 7MM, with 160 grain Nosler Partition bullets, felt good and we could hear the sound of the hit on the shoulder. The sheep went down in a small hollow behind a bush, but wasn’t dead. He would continually lift his head and then put it down again. At one point he tried to stand but quickly fell. There was no way from where we were to put another round in him so Tyson and I worked our way down the mountain hoping to get a better angle for a final shot. Finally in position and after about 5 minutes, but which seemed an eternity, the sheep did stand up and was facing directly toward me. I quickly shot him in the chest, but he still managed to run about 10 yards before piling up on the edge of a steep drop off. These sheep are tough and really hard to kill. Trevor literally ran down the mountain with Tyson and me in close pursuit and he was able to grab a leg before the sheep went over the edge. The three of us pulled him back up to a somewhat level area.
Having taken three of the four North American sheep (I took a stone in the 1980’s with Dave Weins and the California in 2010) I certainly realize that each one is to be prized. I stood over this magnificent animal in awe of his regal beauty. It’s hard to explain the emotion I felt while standing on that mountain. I remember telling my guides that after this great experience with this animal, this would be my last mountain hunt. I had achieved my dream! My sheep once turned in and tagged at the Department of Wildlife scored over 161, and measured 34” and 35” around the curve, which made it the largest ram ever taken out of that area. His horns flared out wide and carried their mass well. At 9 years old, his horns were only slightly broomed but his scarred forehead shows he experienced many arguments on the mountain. He will definitely be honored with a most prominent spot on my trophy room wall!—Bill Scoble