Texas high country hunting for free-range aoudad in the harsh Chinati mountain range is an undertaking more cut out for sure-footed, four-legged creatures than humans. But for those captivated by high elevation pursuit, this quest is not just “a deal’” but also the “real deal“ and at a price more agreeable than any indigenous North American sheep expedition. Fair warning: Be physically fit or you will get more than you’ve bargained for. This topography will test your skills to the max. Be prepared and you just might pack out a world-class ram.
Known in America’s southwest region as aoudad, Barbary sheep are native to the rocky, mountainous regions of northern Africa. Introduced to the U.S. in the 1950s, currently there is no designated season, and in Texas, all you need is an over-the-counter hunting license. Prime time for a trophy ram is the October rut, although good opportunity runs through March. If you know what you’re doing and where to go, great, otherwise find a guide who does.
I opted for the latter. This was my second excursion with Bubba Glosson of Southwest Trophy Hunts, whose clients hold several Top-10 spots in the SCI Record book. A no-nonsense guide, he knows his trade and how to enjoy the experience of the hunt – exactly the kind of person I take pleasure in hunting with and sharing camp.
On my first trip, we drove in his customized Jeep Rubicon over miles of rough geography and hiked around for two days on an immense ranch in March. On the second day, we took a spectacular ram just before dusk. But as Bubba warned, “Aoudad hunting is addictive.” I was now hooked, so he recommended if an October rut hunt opened, I should grab it. It did.
The town of Marfa is located on U.S. Route 90 in the southwestern part of the hook of Texas, where the Rio Grande separates the U.S. from old Mexico, just north of Big Bend. The distinctive landscape with its vast open spaces, surrounded by the Glass, Davis and Chinati mountain ranges, along with unexplainable paranormal lights, inspired American film director George Stevens to shoot “Giant” in the 1950s at this location. Hollywood stars James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson were filming just about the time aoudad were being introduced.
The Hotel Paisano, where the illustrious cast lodged, remains open for business in this now artsy hamlet of local shops, nice restaurants and a place for a coffee snob like me to find an excellent espresso or cappuccino. And over the past 60 years, while the Stevens film became a classic, the aoudad flourished amidst the jagged peaks.
My second outing with Bubba, as planned, would be far more physically demanding. We left his Jeep at a point where ground vehicles no longer could function. Then we hiked some five hours over rugged, unforgiving terrain towards a spike camp located in a remote secret place he calls Ram Valley. We prepared to stay four days. After hours of climbing and descending ridges, rims, canyons and peak after peak, the Rio Grande basin came into spectacular view with the mountains of Mexico on the hazy horizon.
Our plan was to hunt all the way in. So, with each climb we stopped and glassed, took water, caught our breath and relished awe-inspiring panoramic views. Other than fresh sign, we did not see an aoudad for the first three hours. We continued up and down merciless rocks, through thorny cactus and an array of desert botany and geological things you just don’t want to fall on. My heart rate would soar going up each vertical ridge and my sense of balance was severely tested upon each decent. At times I needed all fours to get through narrow crevices. Bubba encouraged me to undertake serious preparation with cardio exercise and PT beforehand and it paid off.
After a while it dawned on me that we were simply following fresh aoudad trails. I could smell them and their scent made me dig deeper into my after-burner for the required strength. Comfort came only in a mental confidence that Bubba was heading us in the right direction. With the wind in our faces, we were on their tails.
While undertaking another canyon incline, I began to give up thinking about how long it was going to take to get to camp. Then Bubba gave a silent hand signal to stop. Bringing up his binoculars, glassing, he signaled to come up to his position. I was taking a breather while staring down a group of fearless javelina that was inching closer in curiosity of a rare human. “Don’t shoot them,” he said. “You’ll create a stampede.” I thought to myself a stampede of what? He urgently signaled again. The desert peccaries lost interest and I began climbing. Settling into my binoculars I instantaneously picked up movement–a single-file of aoudad moving up a ridge–many ewes and a few respectable rams. I had a clear shot, but Bubba signaled a definitive no, and pointed to a position several hundred yards up the valley.
It was a jaw dropping vision of grazing aoudad, too many to count, including numerous massive rams amongst the herd, all too far for a shot. Using a 60-power spotting scope for a closer look, my guide laughed like a wily kid, saying let’s wait until they get out of here. He wasn’t kidding about Ram Valley.
We waited until dusk as the herd began to migrate up the ridge before we could move into camp. A rigorous 45-minute climb up a near vertical, rocky and cactus infested rim in the dark brought us to a well-hidden cave more fitting for a mountain lion’s lair than our home for the next four days. After settling in, we dined on freeze-dried, reconstituted beef stroganoff and abundant water. For dessert, we puffed on cigars, nipped on Irish whisky and strategized the next morning’s hunt.
My morning wake-up call was Bubba whispering, “Don’t make any noise. A herd is bedded right above us. Get dressed, get your rifle and fast.” But it did not take long for the herd to move over to the next ridge. Breakfast would have to wait as we pursued. Upon reaching the summit a brisk wind shifted directly toward the herd. Busted, we were diminished to watching a potential world-record ram go beyond our reach. Continuing in pursuit all day, we saw many rams, but none in the class we were after. Being the optimist, Bubba said, “We will get it done.”
Exhausted, we headed to camp at sunset as a full desert moon rose into a crystalline sky. From our vantage point at the campsite, we watched herds of aoudad ascending to bed above us all around the valley. That evening I took in the awesomeness of this unspoiled country so rarely seen by mankind before we repeated the previous night’s ritual. Ram or no ram, the expedition was already a success.
Again, my morning wake up call was akin to the previous, “Get up and don’t make any noise. Get your rifle and fast.” For quickness, Bubba omitted, “Get dressed,” as the large herd was bedded right below us. I got out of the tent as the herd began making its way across a ridge some 150 yards in front of us.
Bubba pointed to the third ram from the front. “He’s a good one. Not as good as yesterday. But a big ram.” Wiping the sleep from my eyes and still in my fleece sleeping get-up, I rested my Cooper Model 54 Excalibur in .308 Winchester on a big rock at the camp sight. As the herd put the move on, Bubba called the yardage now at 285 up the ridge.
“You on him,” Bubba asked urgently, “’cause they are over that ridge in 10 seconds.” They were angled above us, so I settled the crosshairs a bit low and just behind the ram’s shoulder, breathed and squeezed the trigger. The ram staggered.
“You hit him low, shoot again.” Quickly chambering another round, the big ram collapsed before I could squeeze off another shot. The first bullet’s trajectory was precise. As though in the middle of a dream, I felt the tight grip of Bubba’s hand on my shoulder. “What a shot,” he said. “I want that rifle.”
Without a first cup of coffee in my veins, running on pure adrenaline, descending from camp and climbing another harsh ridge to the huge ram seemed easy. And he was bigger than we thought. Bubba, who proclaims, “it’s disrespectful” to put a tape measure to a recently fallen animal–and I agree–rejoicingly said, “That’s a 32-inch ram my man. Every bit of a 32-inch ram.” He was referring to the length of a horn on only one side. In the end, the ram would score 145 5/8 inches and handily rank SCI Gold.
What was planned to be a four-day hunt took only one-and-a-half. After skinning the ram, we packed up and began the long hike out from what felt like another place in time–a voyage into a wilderness nirvana seldom seen. Aoudad scurried all around as we made our way out of Ram Valley. And with each gaze back, paradise eventually vanished on the horizon.
Unseasonably hot temperatures set in and made the trek out more than seven grueling hours. Bubba’s encouragement kept me going. In the end, he admitted the heat wore him down, too. And finally, the welcome sight of his Jeep made my legs, now giving way to exhaustion and cramping, seem bearable for another mile of very welcome flat ground.–Alan I. Kirschenbaum