By Justin Shaffer
It was at that point when the bank teller handed me the wire transfer receipt, that it started to sink in that I was actually going desert bighorn sheep hunting.
Rewind to 3 weeks earlier and I had stumbled across an online auction on its last day. It had stalled and was sitting at less than half of the going rate for a free-range Mexico desert sheep hunt. I had never heard of the outfitter but the auction piqued my interest so I jumped into scramble mode to find out everything I could about them and the hunt before bidding closed.
Desert sheep had always been a bucket list dream hunt for me, but one I always thought was out of reach. The odds of drawing a tag are equivalent to that of being struck by lightning twice and the cost of booking a guided hunt has always been out of my reach financially. But where there's a will, there's a way. For the better part of a decade, I had been hustling and saving putting away every penny I could doing side jobs in the hopes of getting lucky and maybe catching a discounted cancelation hunt.
Fast forward three very long, agonizing months later and I was boarding a flight from Phoenix, Arizona to Hermosillo Mexico with my friend and cameraman, Matt Forsyth. Looking like a kid on Christmas morning, you couldn’t wipe the silly grin off my face. The anticipation of filling a lifelong dream of hunting desert sheep was knocking on the door.
After clearing customs and meeting up with our outfitter Homer Canedo of Sierra Madre Outfitters, we jumped into the truck to start the 99-mile drive to camp.
After a short two-hour ride, we arrived at our home for the next week. Camp was situated along the coastline of the Gulf of California in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. From our tent we could see the famous Tiburon Island and the Baja Peninsula on the horizon. The surrounding landscape was covered in red shell rock and Giant Saguaro Cactus as far as the eye could see. With mountains all around us and an ocean view to our front, the landscape was nothing short of spectacular.
The Sonoran Desert stretches across the Southwest corner of the United States and down into Mexico, it covers an area roughly 120,000 square miles. It is home to a diverse population of thriving species including 60 mammals, over 100 reptiles and more than 350 birds.
My sheep tag was specific to a 200,000-acre portion of the Seri Indian Tribal lands. The indigenous people of the Seri have called this area of Sonora, Mexico home for more than 500 years.
After a sleepless night of anticipation, we anxiously awoke well before sunrise chomping at the bit to get started. With our gear loaded into the trucks, we headed out for the day.
Although the area has a healthy bighorn population, they are not a high-density type of species and there are a lot of places for them to hide in country this vast.
The key to this type of hunting is to cover as much terrain as possible trying to find them. We would spend time glassing an area and once the guides felt like it had been covered, we would load up in the trucks and head to the next location.
Once at a new spot, we would pour out of the trucks, set up shop and start glassing again. This would become our routine, drive and glass, drive and glass…wash rinse and repeat.
Although we had found sheep throughout the day, we couldn't find a mature ram that peaked our interest enough to go after.
It was here we found our first ram worthy of a closer look. He was with a group of smaller rams and ewes. With a game plan put in place, we took off on our first stalk of the hunt.
After a long, hot hike through the shell and cactus, we were now set up in a position that enabled us to put some glass on the ram.
After closer evaluation, it was determined that although he was mature, he wasn't the caliber of ram we were after. It was exciting to get a stalk under our belts and to see them up close. As we walked off the mountain, I was already looking forward to what tomorrow might bring.
Found us on a long hike in the dark heading to a mountain range far off the dirt roads. Set up at first light glassing from a dry riverbed, it wasn’t long and a buzz among the guides started up as they had found a group of rams on the hill.
After a closer look, it wasn’t hard to see that one of the rams was a true giant. Long, deep and super heavy, he was the type of ram you dream of taking. Problem was that he was in a super thick tough spot on the mountain. It was going to be a race to get into a shooting position before he fed over the top and out of sight.
With a route picked out, we quickly scrambled to try and get up the steep slope. Once in the thick thorny brush, we were slowed to a snail’s pace trying to pick our way through the cactus choked, rocky terrain. When we finally broke out of the tangle and into the open, we quickly learned that the thermals were now heading straight up the mountain, giving us away.
In a desperation move, we decided to push up to the top of the mountain to see if we could catch up to the ram. We spent the remainder of the day on top glassing, but to no one’s surprise, we never found him. Sheep that big don’t get that way by tolerating pressure, the old ram disappeared without a trace.
Found us staring back up at the same mountain we had spent the previous day on. We were hoping to recreate the magic of digging up the heavy old ram again. We had three glassing teams in place covering a 360-degree perimeter around the mountain.
We spent the entirety of the day covering every square inch of terrain, but we never turned him up. The big ram was gone.
It was a long, quiet walk of defeat back to the trucks as the sunset on the day. Although I was disappointed about not being able to locate the ram again, I knew tomorrow was a new day of sheep hunting.
We found ourselves in a different area looking over some new country. It wasn’t long into the morning, when one of the guides excitedly called out “puma”!
Once we all zeroed in on to where he had found the cat, we were surprised to also see a herd of sheep standing in the rocks just below him!
The mountain lion had chased the group of sheep into some cliff faces. It was crazy how close he was to them and they showed little interest or concern in him as they fed and moved throughout the steep rocks. We spent the better part of 30 minutes watching in fascination as the lion creeped around trying to find an angle to get to the sheep. Eventually the big cat realized the gig was up and made his way out of sight over the mountain.
Watching that lion is one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in the outdoors, but it wasn’t lost on any of us that the group had two mature rams in it. Although we were nearly a mile away, it was easy to see they needed a closer look. Once again we quickly came up with a plan of attack and picked a route up that would hopefully put us in a position to make a call.
The stalk didn’t take long as we hustled with excitement to get to a vantage point to see just how big they really were.
By the time we got up to the ridge and put glass on them, the sheep had bedded. Searching through the brush we quickly found them and determined that one was the type of ram we wanted to try and take.
It was now a waiting game as we could only see the big rams head, he was tucked into the shade of a large rock outcropping surrounded by giant Saguaros. With nowhere for us to go, we were stuck on the ridgeline baking in the Sonoran sun.
It was a long hot three hours that slowly ticked by, when suddenly I felt the wind hit the sweat on the back of my neck. Before I could say a word, the sheep were up and moving fast for the top of the mountain.
Now in scramble mode, we found ourselves hustling up the hill to get to a new shooting position hoping to catch them before they made it over the top. Locked in behind the rifle, the sheep stopped to take one last look back at what had blown them out of their mid-day siesta.
With a quick exhale and a steady squeeze of the trigger, the round was on its way. I lost him in the recoil of the rifle and as I was racking another round into the chamber, Matty said “he’s going down”!
As quick as it had just happened, it was suddenly all over, with some hugs and high fives we headed up the ridgeline to find my ram.
We quickly found him on the bench where Matty saw him go down, I was flooded with a rush of emotions as we walked up on him. As bad as I had wanted to kill a desert sheep, I was now kind of bummed as the reality quickly set in that my hunt was over. After spending some time soaking in the moment, we spent the next couple hours taking pics and replaying the stalk.
With one last look around at our amazing view, we loaded up the ram and started down the mountain.
Watch the culmination of Justin’s lifelong dream of hunting desert bighorn sheep.
Back at camp, worn out and sunburned, we celebrated a successful hunt with the guides and staff. Matty and I broke out our celebratory Red bulls we had been saving all week for the moment.
The trip couldn’t have gone any better and the crew of Sierra Madre Outfitters went above and beyond to make this hunt a reality for me.
Now officially a ¾ slammer, it’s on to chasing the next bucket list dream of figuring out how to make a Stone sheep hunt a reality.
For this big game hunt I was lucky enough to be taking our New Valo Pattern out on its maiden voyage. It was absolutely perfect for the terrain, and I couldn't think of a better way to break it in then on a desert sheep hunt.
The trip to Sonora was in early March and temperatures ranged from lows in the 60s to highs of 90+ during the day. The early morning winds coming off the ocean made it feel much cooler than it was, but once the sun was up and out, it didn’t take long to burn off that chill.
Below is the gear list I took on the trip.
Axis Hybrid Jacket (perfect to cut the wind and take the morning chill off while glassing)
Peloton 118 LS ¼ Zip -T (perfect combination of features for this environment)
Kutana Stretch Woven Pant (the abrasion resistance of these pants worked great)
Strongwool Hybrid Crew Socks (the abrasion resistance of these pants worked great)
Strong Fleece 220 Gloves (perfect to cut the morning chill while glassing)
Attack Gloves (the leather palm was great in the thorny and rocky terrain)
KUIU Pro Cap
UltraMerino 145 Neck Gaiter
Pro 3600 Full Kit
Platypus 3 L Water Bladder
Havelon W/10 60A Blades
Petzl Reactik Headlamp with extra set of lithium batteries
1-quart water bottle
1 Extreema Bag (small)
2 Quarter Game Bags (medium)
KUIU PRO Bino Harness W/ Rangefinder Holder & Lanyard
Swarovski 10x42 El Range Binoculars with Outdoorsman Binocular Stud
Swarovski ATS 30-70x95mm Spotting Scope
Outdoorsman Binocular Adapter
Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 Carbon Tripod and 701 HDV Pan Head
Leica 1000R Rangefinder
Garmin Inreach Mini
iPhone w/ phone scope
Kestrel 4000 windmeter
Sunblock (lots of it)
Small pack of wet wipes
Bug head net
25 feet 550 cord
2 pairs Rubber gloves (skinning)
Sewing Needle and thread
Whether you’re going for Desert, Dall, Rocky, or Stone, hunting sheep will bring a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions, often all in the same day. You need lightweight gear that will protect you from the inconsistent weather you will face. Base your clothing and gear choices on the hunt’s expected weather, temperature, terrain, activity level and the duration of time in the field.
In 1971 Jack O’Connor said, “If I’ve learned one thing in 40 years of seeking the majestic wild ram, it’s that hunting him is not a privilege to be taken lightly.” No truer words have ever been spoken and I’ve never taken for granted the opportunity of living in Alaska and being able to hunt sheep every year. Read on to get Dall Sheep hunting insight from KUIU’s Guide and Outfitter Director, Justin Shaffer.
KUIU's Jason Hairston and Brendan Burns travel to the Northwest Territories to hunt Dall Sheep with Nahanni Butte Outfitters. See the last hunt in a region becoming a national park, and watch as two fantastic rams are taken in unprecedented detail.