We saw him again on the last afternoon. He was big-bodied and heavy in the shoulders, with a tawny coat like an old lion. What stood out, though, were his long, flowing mane and chaps, rippling in the breeze and seeming to drag the ground. He was standing on a cliff straight across a deep abyss, staring right at us across hundreds of yards of dizzying space. There were a lot of aoudad below him and the wind was dead wrong. I don’t think he we could have gotten to him, even if we could figure out a safe way off the sheer rimrock we were glassing from. His horns were heavy and long, probably exceeding the magical 30-inch mark. Even so, we didn’t really want him because we’d taken a better ram the day before. But if anybody ever wanted a life-size aoudad mount, this was the raw material!
Some of our wild sheep and goats are colorful, others are drab. Some have spectacular horns. Others, like the Himalayan tahr and our Rocky Mountain goat, got cheated in the horn department but make up for it with a spectacular coat. The Barbary sheep or aoudad, almost uniquely, has both: Heavy, sweeping horns; and that spectacular flowing mane with luxurious chaps on the front legs. Although smaller in his harsh native range, in the American West he has blossomed, and is one of the largest-bodied of the entire sheep/goat group.
Although we often think of him as a wild sheep he is neither true sheep nor goat; rather, his own genus and species, Ammotragus lervia. Technically, he is probably a bridge between the two, but maybe closer to the goat family, with callused knees, goat like hair, and flesh that is “goatier” than mountain mutton. Whatever he is, I think he’s one of the most beautiful and impressive of the world’s mountain animals. This is lucky for me, because he’s a lot more available and affordable than many of our high-profile mountain animals.
At least to a point: There are no current opportunities to hunt native-range aoudad. I was fortunate to hunt them in Chad, and I’ve seen them above the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. They exist in huntable numbers in Morocco and southern Egypt, and surely in other places across the vastness of North Africa, but no hunting is available. That’s regrettable, but they’re hardy animals that have been successfully introduced elsewhere. There are few places on Earth as harsh as their native rocky hill masses of the Sahara. Introduced almost anywhere else they must think they’ve found Paradise!
I’ve hunted them in South Africa and Spain, and there’s a small herd in California’s Central Coast. New Mexico has quite a few, and I’ve heard there’s a free-range population in Oregon. But where they’ve done best is in Texas. The first introductions were in the Hill Country in the late 1940s, and then into the rugged Chinati Mountains of West Texas a few years later. Today they are widely dispersed, both on fenced ground and free range. In West Texas, they have spread into all the mountain ranges and the broken ground in between…and into northern Mexico as well. It’s big country, and neither total range nor population is precisely known.
One estimate suggests 25,000 aoudad in Texas! That’s a lot of sheep, but as a guess it could be high or low! For sure there are plenty, and in the rocky hills and steep canyons of West Texas’ mountains they offer a genuine sheep hunt…even though there are lots of them. In mid-March I hunted aoudad with Hunter Ross of Desert Safaris, my fourth hunt with him but the second for aoudad. We hunted steep mesa, butte, and canyon country northeast of the Chinatis, and I believe we saw at least 500 aoudad in four days.
That makes it sound easy, but many sightings were at great distance across stuff that could not be crossed, and some afternoon sightings were too far to reach before dark. We saw that amazing ram with the long mane and chaps on the first evening and we put him to bed…but when we got into his herd the next day, he wasn’t there. As gorgeous as he was, he was hardly the only big ram. On several aoudad hunts I’ve hovered around that magical 30-inch mark, a hair above or a hair below. This time, amazingly, we saw a couple dozen rams in that class! Hunter and his guides take quite a few big aoudad every year, and even he was perplexed. In March, the rams should have been solitary, harder to find but easier to stalk. This March was especially green after the first good rains in several years, with wildflowers everywhere. The mature rams were still with the herds, showing rutting behavior that should have been months past.
With conditions like that the odds are with you…and you take chances. We passed aoudad that, in a free-range situation, only a fool would pass. Of course, there are luxuries with animals you’ve hunted before. You don’t really have to have one, and it doesn’t really have to be bigger than any you’ve shot. So you take chances and keep hiking, climbing, and looking, maybe into just one more deep canyon…
It was a medium-size herd, maybe 60 or 70, and they were feeding below the crest of a major rimrock, not far down and not far away. I set up over the pack while Hunter glassed. We were debating two nice rams, both plenty long but neither noticeably massive…and thus probably not very old. We weren’t short on time, but we were past the halfway point, so I don’t really know what might have happened next. Then, out of the shadow of a rock, a magnificent ram stepped into view, huge-bodied with long, heavy horns clearly better than any I’ve taken. He was what we’d been looking for, a no-brainer, and I had the crosshairs on him long before Hunter gave the go-ahead. Yes! He was facing us and I was shooting down…long seconds passed before he turned away from the rocks and gave me the quartering angle, and then the rifle went off.
All aoudad are tough, and 350-pound rams toughest of all. He took the bullet with no notice and ran toward us, Hunter urging me to shoot again. Only later did I understand he was worried about a long fall down the near-vertical face! But there was no shot, only head and horns, so I hesitated. Just as the unfired second shot opened up he sagged and tumbled downhill. The problem was instantly clear, but he rolled just once and hung up on a scraggly bush. Carefully and slowly we made our way down, and the split-second judgment had been correct. He is my best aoudad, with extra to spare. This is a problem, because I may not find better. But I will have to keep looking because mountain hunters must hunt mountains. Our American aoudad not only offers a great mountain hunt in wild, challenging, and ruggedly beautiful country…it’s an affordable and accessible mountain hunt!– Craig Boddington