Desert bighorn sheep

Birthday Bighorn

birthday-bighorn-mountainIt was 8 a.m. and the heavy overcast dawn prolonged the absence of daylight. Quinn Rusing was celebrating his 10th birthday by lying on a relatively flat but very rocky hilltop, trying to acquire a particular bighorn sheep ram out of a group of three, which were about 280 yards from his position, as he curled around the ported .300 Winchester Magnum.

The group of three moved constantly, albeit slowly, as they foraged across the hillside, making his task difficult. In addition, one of the rams was nearly a mirror image of the largest of the three, which was Quinn’s quarry. Although he certainly was as nervous as a 10-year old could be, he seemed as calm as a SEAL sniper as he took direction from the various adults present, in particular friend and guide Rom Dryden of Rincon Outfitters. Added to the pressure was the fact he knew that if his shot were true, he would become the youngest hunter known to take a bighorn in Arizona.

This little adventure started six months earlier when word got out that the annual Arizona hunt draw results were showing up on credit cards. I called VISA and heard that the magic number $272.50 was charged by Arizona Game & Fish, which meant desert bighorn!

Since I put in for this coveted once-in-a-lifetime tag for over 30 years, I assumed that I’d finally hit the jackpot. I left for a family vacation in a remote area of Vermont before the results hit the Game & Fish website, so I did not know which unit I had drawn, and I could not get good Wi-Fi reception where we were staying.

Rom agreed to check for me and I gave him my SSN.   He came back with the startling news that it was not I who had drawn, which meant it had to be my wife Carolyn. I gave him her SSN and he confirmed that she was the lucky recipient of the tag. The unit was 43B, consisting largely of the Yuma Proving Grounds, an Army live-fire training facility just north of Yuma along the Colorado River.

This is where things got interesting because Arizona has a rather unique quirk in its draw system whereby a parent or a grandparent can gift a tag to a minor child or grandchild. Carolyn decided to give it to our youngest child, and only son, Quinn.

Desert bighorn sheepThe season for bighorn runs the entire month of December, but Quinn would not turn 10, the minimum legal hunting age in Arizona, until December 17. In addition, a person can only hunt at that age if he/she has successfully completed a hunter safety class, which was on our to-do list for that fall in any event.

Now, however, things started progressing at warp speed. Quinn and his hunter sister, Cali, immediately signed up for and took the online hunter safety class, which required several days, and then had a day-long range course, which they both successfully completed. Then Quinn started practicing extensively on a youth model .243 rifle.

After many trips to the range, I decided it was probably a good idea for Quinn to practice on some mammals, as it would be a little strange indeed if the first mammal he ever shot was a bighorn sheep. I did not want that added stress for him. We travelled to North Texas Outfitters where Quinn harvested four different animals at various distances, simulating field conditions, e.g., throwing a pack down on the ground saying, “Shoot the ram on the far left. It’s 250 yards away. Aim just below the top of the shoulder.”

We put many rounds through that gun in preparation for the trip, and also started hiking various canyons near our home, with Quinn wearing his new boots and carrying a pack with some gear in it to get in shape. That he was playing in two different basketball leagues with back-to-back games every weekend helped immeasurably to put him into hunting condition.

As the hunt drew near, we put more time and effort into the preparations in terms of lining up folks to help us, plus buying all manner of equipment because it was our intent to, if necessary, hunt everyday through the end of the year, including Christmas, in order to make sure Quinn got his ram.

sheep hunting campAt that time of year in our part of the country, we have to be ready for all kinds of conditions. We also had to make an advance trip out to the Yuma Proving Grounds headquarters to take the orientation required for those hunting on the Army facility. For that, we flew out in a private plane, rented a car and drove up to the grounds, spending an entire day on that endeavor.

The orientation consisted of descriptions of which areas were totally off limits at all times, which were off limits except to persons holding sheep tags and their entourage and rules regarding calling in daily to report everyone’s movements. They also imparted the helpful advice that if you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up!

As Quinn’s birthday approached, we made the final arrangements. Rom Dryden, of Rincon Outfitters, whom I’d hunted with before, volunteered to assist Quinn in his epic endeavor. Another volunteer was Tim Winslow, my niece’s fiancé, and an avid hunter who had guided in Alaska the previous summer. Rounding out the advance group was Tyler, who would help around camp and assist in the glassing. This team arrived on scene Thursday afternoon before the hunt was to commence on Monday. They found an excellent camping spot at the Red Cloud Mine site, which is a working wulfenite mine.

Birthday-bighorn-QuinnThe very next morning Rom was on his cell phone, telling me the camp location and advising that they had already seen a few ewes. While Rom was on the phone, Tim sighted a very solid ram and the call was broken off so that they could assess. Throughout the next couple of days, I received reports and pictures of rams that they were seeing on a regular basis. By the end of the hunt, Rom had located 30 or 40 rams, including probably half a dozen shooters.

On Saturday, I bought food to last the entire group for approximately one week, and on Sunday, the rest of the team departed for the campsite, which, in addition to Quinn and me, included my dear friend and avid hunter Boyd Drachman, who had also served as pilot for the orientation trip. We arrived at camp and literally within two or three minutes a ram appeared silhouetted against the skyline on the mountain ridge nearest us. How could we not help but think that this was a great omen?

We went out that last afternoon and evening before the hunt, and ultimately bedded down two separate groups of three rams, each with a shooter. After comparing pictures and noodling it, we concluded that one particular group had the superior ram and that became “Plan A.” Fortunately, there was just a sliver of a moon that night, giving us some hopes that the rams would not move much before we could reach them at dawn.

Early the next morning, the camp was jittery with excitement and anticipation and at first light we put Plan A into operation. The rams had bedded down approximately one mile as the crow flies from camp, and we were able to get a pickup truck to the base of the next valley over.

Tim, who had seen the sheep last, went to the top of the ridge to peer over across the canyon to see if he could locate them. When he got to the top, we all waited in anticipation for what seemed like an hour, but was probably more like ten minutes, before he waved that he had located them and we should come up.

The setup on the ridge couldn’t have been more perfect as it was an uneven broken up mass of rocks about 20 yards long with a flat area at the far end. That allowed us to observe the rams without being sky-lighted as we picked out the shooter. The sheep were grazing down the opposing hillside and toward us. When we initially acquired them, they were approximately 300 yards away and had closed probably 30 yards when Quinn was setting up for the shot.

Previously we decided that if the shot was within 200 yards, Quinn would shoot his .243, and at a greater distance we would use Rom’s .300 Winchester Mag. equipped with an incredibly efficient muzzle brake. We picked the .300. It was mounted on a bipod and Quinn positioned behind it on the flat area while we started talking him through the shot.

The big problem, and one that worried me greatly, was that the sheep were constantly moving, creating two problems: 1) they were moving; and 2) they were changing positions while moving. It was one of those, “He’s the one on the far left. No, now he’s the one in middle,” situations.

Quinn’s marksmanship and patience were the critical unknown variables. I was amazed at how calm he was. I would have been visibly much more nervous if I was shooting a bighorn sheep for the first time. After much acquiring and reacquiring the targets in the scope, the rams were finally in a good position and Rom whispered to him, “Quinn, do you see two animals in the scope, one above and one below?”

“Yes,” Quinn responded.

“Shoot the upper one. Now,” Rom said.

In a matter of seconds, the .300 Win. Mag. went off and we all saw what was clearly a good hit, knocking the ram off its feet, rolling it over and downhill a few yards. It stopped with his feet in the air. It was around 8:15 a.m.

After high-fiving and hugging and the typical celebration, one of the team announced, “It’s up!” That shocked all of us because none had ever seen an animal on its back with its feet in the air ever reacquire its feet. But this big-bodied, tough old sheep had done just that. It was obviously hard-hit and shaky, but got to its feet, grazed, did a bowel movement, sat back down and then got up again.

We observed it for five or ten minutes, waiting for its head to tip over. When that did not occur, we told Quinn to get back down, locate it in the scope, and put another round in it, which he did, hitting within inches of his first shot and killing the ram instantly. By wild coincidence, because of the way the animal had been grazing, it was close enough to a road for us to get a Rhino within about 40 yards. Four of the adults each grabbed a leg and carried it right down. It’s just wonderful when a plan comes together!

Birthday-Bighorn-Quinn-et-al-112515Within an hour of daylight on his 10th birthday, Quinn became the youngest hunter known to take a desert bighorn sheep in Arizona. It unofficially measured 1611/2 when we checked it at Arizona Game & Fish and is a beautiful specimen with all kinds of character; and there couldn’t have been a happier 10-year-old.

Quinn told his mother later that his 10th birthday was the greatest day of his life, and the second greatest day of his life was when he heard that she was going to give him the bighorn sheep tag that she had drawn. He was, indeed, at least that day, a very lucky little man. (Quinn has not always been so lucky, as he was diagnosed at age 3 as a Type 1 diabetic and has been insulin dependent ever since, but he’s never let that slow him down.)–Mick Rusing

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