mseanbrowne

The New Year’s Eve Ram


On June 12th I’m at work when my friend Dylan jokingly texts me he drew two B Zone deer tags again. The CA draw is out. I tell him I’ll check it tonight after work. When I finally do I’m dumbfounded by the mysterious Y next to ‘Desert Bighorn Sheep’. It takes me a long while to believe this could possibly be true. I started hunting late in life, one year after CA started preference points so I have one less than max. Still somehow I had drawn the one random tag for Zone 9 Cady Mountains! Having hunted for fifteen years I still feel like a newbie. I’ve been making up for lost time though taking deer, antelope, elk across the southwest, wild pigs, blacktail bucks in northern California, Pope & Young mule deer in Colorado. I owe my success to the expertise and patience of many wonderful guides and some very fortunate friendships I’ve fostered along the way.

When my disbelief on drawing the tag subsides I get in touch with Dry Creek Outfitters and secure their services for my hunt. I’ll leave on the 27th right after Christmas. Between this time and my hunt I will be laid off from my job, kill my first elk with a bow in Wyoming, and ultimately find a better job that starts right after my sheep hunt! It seems I already have so much to be grateful for.

Preparations begin immediately, what better reason to buy a new rifle!

I frequently consult with Kyler Hamman my favorite California pig guide on all things shooting, reloading, and hunting. He guided me on my first ever big game hunt back in 2002 when I took a great boar. That experience changed my life and ignited my passion for hunting. He suggests I consider a Cooper Backcountry rifle. Ordering one takes six months so I find one on GunBroker. It’s a lightweight rifle at 5 3/4pounds. I decide on .300 Winchester Magnum and top it off with a Leupold VX3i 4.5-14 CDS scope. With Warne Mountain Tech rings and scope it weighs in at exactly 7 pounds.

Kyler also offers the excellent Boar Sight Shooting School with long range set up and I take my rifles to see how they do at distance. He has 8” hanging steel plates at distances from 200 to 600. Hitting 400 yard 8” plate is my goal. All my rifles shoot well and the new Backcountry doesn’t disappoint. I had to use an older turret with a similar  trajectory while waiting for the new one and it still rang the bell at 400 yards. I decide it’s good to go. The actual Leupold CDS turret for my California mandated 165 gr Barnes TTSX load arrives only days before I have to leave.

Ever since I started hunting I enjoy collecting and reading all the classics. It’s amusing to read Jack O’Connor in ‘Sheep and Sheep Hunting’ write about his favorite pair of Biesen stocked model 70 Winchester .270 featherweights that come to ‘a perfect 8 pounds’ and would be ‘difficult to improve on’. I wonder what Jack would think about our modern rifles, lightweight hi-tech clothing, laser range finders and turret scopes. I like to think he’d be pleased with our progress and not that we’re a bunch of wusses.

I’m also training physically and trying to not overdo it and risk injury. I alternate days with sessions on a stationary bike and running the hills in my La Honda neighborhood in the Santa Cruz Mountains. As the holidays near I start to get a little paranoid when my wife Kari catches the cold that’s going around. Many colleagues are sick as well. My Christmas spirit this year featured frequent and fervent self serving supplication to the man upstairs in support of my ongoing health. He must have heard my call.

Getting closer the excitement builds. The DF&W orientation in Sacramento is well done and gives me new appreciation for all the hard work these folks have done to allow this hunt to even take place. I didn’t know about the history and their successful efforts to open the hunt in 1989 after 114 years. They do a super job and It gives me some hope that our unfortunate abalone closure won’t be permanent as I also enjoy ab diving and spearfishing.

News of Jason slaying a new state record ram ‘Goliath’ isn’t the first biblical reference I’ll find on this epic adventure. Other pics of rams in social media fuel my excitement. I was anxious to see how my own story would unfold.

Wednesday – December 27th
Finally I leave for the hunt. As I near camp driving Interstate 15 I pass a gauntlet of billboards at regular intervals featuring each of the ten commandments and finally a passage from Revelation 3:20. It feels like I’m being challenged; do I deserve all this?


I arrive at Camp at 3pm and I get the tour. I have a comfortable 2 person tent. There is a spacious canvas mess tent with a wood burning heater where we enjoy Tim’s cooking and assorted delicious homemade cookies and Christmas treats like ‘Crack Balls’ and ‘Magic Bars’. I’m starting to think this may be the one sheep hunt you gain weight.

I show Tim my rifles and gear. Tim offers me use of a walking stick made from a saguaro cactus rib. Some carbon trekking poles have collapsed on hunters giving them a spill so I decide to give it a try. It’s strong and extremely light. The stick was perfect for negotiating loose rock on steep hills or as a bino monopod in the field. Later on in the hunt I notice a well worn inscription ‘Joshua 1:9’ I don’t know my bible verses but in this best of all worlds we live in it’s no further than my phone. The passage includes:

“Be strong and corageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go”

A great theme for any hunt and as I read it I can’t help but hear Tim’s voice. He leads us in a brief blessing before dinner each night and in the morning before we all head out. I really appreciate Tim sharing his words of faith with us and he does so with grace and humility.

Our team are: Tim Mercier, Cliff St. Martin, Kirk ‘Sawyer’, Tom ‘Tanto’, his son Luke, and Ben ‘Grizzly’ from Arizona. As night falls they each return to from scouting and compare notes. Several rams are discussed with names like the ‘Broken horn ram’, ‘Juicy’, and the ‘Short horn ram’ None are quite the class of ram we’re looking for.

Thursday – December 28th
Our first morning we leave at 6 am with an hour drive out to a point for glassing. We spend all day glassing the opposite mountain side. It is bitter cold in the mornings. I’m pretty sure I had every layer of Kuiu gear I own on at one time. If there is one thing I should have done differently it is to buy or borrow 15 power binoculars and a tripod. My early efforts free hand glassing with my ten power Leica’s could best be described as morale support. Eventually I’m startled when what I think is a sheep actually stands up! I do get better at it and it starts to get fun.

Friday – December 29th
We leave camp in separate trucks driving for about an hour until we park and all pile into Tom’s lighter rig to make it up a steep sand dune. This necessity makes for some entertaining discussion about the relative merits of Dodge vs Ford trucks. Having arrived in my Toyota FJ Cruiser I elect to stay out of it. We leave the truck near some hills they call the three sisters.

Not far in we spot 2 legal rams bedded in parallel one above the other both facing left. They look like two sentinels guarding the entrance to their world and we give them a wide berth so as not to spook what giants might lurk behind.

We trudge through sand dunes with our wooden walking staff’s like sojourning desert pilgrims. The dunes are periodically pocked with some sort of rodent holes and every now and then your foot abruptly sinks way down giving you a stiff jolt to your back or knee. I try and follow Cliff through this mine field hoping he’ll clear my way but I seem to still hit just as many holes as he does. It’s alternatively annoying and comical as we each hit one hole after another.

On our long hikes I appreciated having the light Cooper Backcountry rifle and frequently forget it’s attached to my day pack until I try and sit down with it on. Soon Cliff informs me we are pinned down on a rocky hill between other sheep. We spend a long day on a hill covered with loose sharp jagged rocks trying not to blow a good ram out of the country. On our way out we all join up and see several rams put on a great show for us on the distant skyline. In silhouette they work a cactus barrel with their horns, butting it open, pawing at it, fighting over it. It’s a beautiful show.

Saturday – December 30th
We make the same drive in and this time we’re seeing rams again but nothing big. Cliff decides to go scout it out solo and see what’s behind the mountain and try not to spook anything. I stay glassing with Ben. This time i’m finally finding some sheep with my Geovids which makes it a little more exciting. I proudly announce to Ben as he returns from natures call that a ram has stood up. Just doing my part. Later in the day a single bee finds a drop of water on my drinking tube and pretty soon I have all kinds of bees hovering around me. Luckily the only plague I must endure. I manage to ignore them and after tucking my drinking tube in my pack they eventually move on. Again, as the evening comes more rams are seen on the skyline. Cliff returns and never saw any better rams. We appear to be done with this part of the country.

The rocks here often contain beautiful pieces of quartz crystals and agate. An earlier hunter even found an intact spear point. During down time many of us scour our rocky surroundings. My sole sorry find is a modern green sunglass lens. It reminded me of my first deep scuba dive off the coast of Monterey. As we descended into the mysterious dark deep and settled into the soft sea floor at 130 feet the mystique was broken when my dive light illumnates a crushed Coke can and Hot Wheels truck. While the desert is mostly pristine, more than one sparkling rock in the distance I’m told were metallic party balloons released and all seem to come to the desert to die. In the heights and depths of my adventures I’ve witnessed breathtaking beauty and all too frequent signs of human disregard. Hunters need to be recognized for their defense of our environment and the habitat of the game we cherish. No amount of millenia will elevate the regard for stuff we’re presently leaving behind to that of a clovis point.

Saturday night at dinner we’re graced with a visitor. A kangaroo rat brazenly enters the mess tent to check out the bounty inside. Calling him a rat seems uncharitable as he’s an adorable egg shaped fur ball with cartoon eyes, clown feet, and a leonine tufted tail. I dub him ‘Captain Kangaroo’ Surely our luck must now change. He seems pretty comfortable in our tent and Luke courageously allows the good Captain to walk on his open palm to retrieve some nuts. He would get his fill and speed out to store them somewhere and then be back again. Of course there’s a fine line between bravery and having to explain to someone at the ER window why you need rabies shots.



New Year’s Eve

We decide to head to another spot were another group of rams had been seen before. We drive to a plateau with a lonely old rod iron fenced grave. The crude wooden head board displays T-Bone Albright – railroad man 1933. Another rock pile grave with cross beside him is perhaps his wife.

We are seeing rams right off. There is a group of ten only a mile away on Cave Mountain. Ben, Cliff and I all sit and look through our binoculars and spotting scopes. There are two good ones in the bunch. They are close enough I can see them pretty well with my Leica’s and better yet with a spotting scope Cliff lent me. I start to get pretty interested in one. He’s a little bit broomed on the right side but seems heavy and wide. There is another pretty good looking one. After much discussion Cliff advises that he might go mid 160’s depending on his bases. Cliff also reminds me that he’ll be the only California Desert Ram I take in my life. I still think he looks great so we decide to take a closer look.

We drive down off from the plateau and get to the base of Cave Mountain. We hike in very slowly stopping often looking for sheep as not to get busted and blow out the rams. Ben leaves us for another vantage point and Cliff and I proceed to a ridge where we think we’ll see the rams. At this point they have moved off leaving a lone ewe on the other side. We backtrack to come up another way and get the wind on our side. We have a long trek up a gradual rocky ridge and finally we are at a point we think we’ll see them. Cliff slowly advances to see and sure enough they are there. I follow him slowly until we find a nice flat rock for me to use as a rest. We put my pack on it and slide my gun up. Additional pads are produced to try and get me comfortable in the jagged rocks. Cliff ranges them at 350 exactly on a rocky hill top in the distance. After looking at the rams Ben suggests the other ram is much better and cleaner and after getting a look up close I quickly agree.

I’m on him bedded at 350 yards trying to steady my gun when they all just bolt upright and start cavorting down the hill right to us like someone just rang a dinner bell. I had feared when we peaked over the ridge they would all alert and I would have an urgent distant shot. Now they are closing the distance to us fast. Cliff says 260 and I’m out of the scope adjusting my turret. Now I’m trying to get on the right ram again. Cliff tells me he’s rubbing a bush with his horns. I finally locate him. So glad to have Cliff by my side, calm and cool giving me all the necessary info. Soon they are all just walking and feeding together, I wait as a small ram stands behind. I’m on him and as soon as he’s clear I’m squeezing and boom he’s hit. My shot was good and took him in the right shoulder. He stands a little longer than I like so I put in another slightly higher and he’s down.

I can’t believe it. I’ve shot my Desert Bighorn. So happy to have taken a beautiful mature ram with an exciting stalk and clean shots. He’s down in a sandy wash. I get up to him and there is no disappointment, he looks perfect, holding his heavy horns. I can’t believe my good fortune to have drawn this tag and been able to spend the past five days with such a fun group of hunters. The rest of the crew eventually join up and Tim says some touching words of thanks. I echo his sentiments and thank the Lord and our team. So grateful to everyone that helped me make this happen. Night falls as we head back to camp and New Years eve fireworks are bursting colors in the distant horizon. This hunt truly exceeded some very high expectations. I can only hope I’ll draw Desert Sheep once more in another state and share this experience again with Tim, Cliff, and the great Dry Creek team.

 

STALK IS VIDEO 4 / WARNING KILL SHOT AT 2:55

Video Playlist from My Hunt