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November 05, 2013
Hunting West Texas for Free-Range Aoudad - 2
by John Taranto
The state of Texas is home to dozens of non-native game species that have been imported from distant lands and introduced to the ranches there since the 1930s. Known collectively as “exotics,” these non-indigenous animals include scimitar-horned oryx, nilgai antelope, and axis and fallow deer to name a few.
Whether it’s deserved or not, the idea of hunting exotics on a ranch in Texas has gained something of a stigma over the years. Mention you’re going there to hunt, say, blackbuck antelope, and people will inevitably imagine you sitting in a comfortable box blind over a feeder within the confines of a high fence waiting for an animal that doesn’t belong there to show up for a meal.
Earlier this fall, I hunted these cunning, wary sheep in the spectacular Davis Mountains with Desert Safari Outfitters.
My hunting party’s home for the week was the beautiful 104,000-acre Leoncita ranch north of the town of Alpine. That’s where Remington’s John Fink and Shooting Illustrated editor-in-chief Adam Heggenstaller started out hunting with guide Jared Aguilar. Meanwhile, Andrew Chilkiewicz, the marketing manager at Trijicon, and I travelled 2 hours to the west to hunt the 32,000-acre Gearhart Ranch outside of Fort Davis with Tate McMullan.
Tate and his wife and their infant daughter live on his in-laws' ranch just down the road from the Gearhart, so he knows the land well, but he’s quick to dismiss any guiding credentials. “I’m no guide,” he says. “I’m just a cowboy who likes to hunt.” And one who eschews the virtues of camouflage or even earth-toned clothing. Pastel-colored western shirts, well-worn denim, and a white Stetson comprise Tate’s standard hunting outfit.
Despite the long drive from Leoncita to Gearhart, as the crow flies the two ranches are only about 30 miles apart. But over those 30 miles you gain nearly 2,000 feet of elevation. At the Gearhart Ranch we were hunting at more than 6,000 feet. It was also typically 20 degrees cooler at the Gearhart, and the terrain there is distinctly high-desert with lots of cactus (see photo composite above).
The Leoncita was far more lush and characterized by red, sheer-wall canyons (as you can see in the composite above).
As is the case with any ranch hunting in the West, if you’re not using a vehicle of some sort to cover ground, you’re only going to see a small fraction of the available terrain—and the animals it holds. Tate’s preferred mode of transportation is this dune buggy. Built around a Volkswagen Beetle chassis by a guy in nearby Fort Stockton, and outfitted with an elevated bench seat and twin gun rests, this is the ultimate Texas ranch rover. The plan of attack was to drive, park, glass, and repeat as necessary until we found a good ram to put a stalk on.
Like with all sheep hunting, your success rate with aoudad is directly proportional to the quality of your optics. Their tawny to dark-brown hide blends well with the terrain they inhabit, and while you will find some large groups of them, rams will go solo when the rut kicks in—and trying to spot a single sheep bedded in high, shadowy peaks can be overwhelming.
In terms of horn length, the accepted trophy number for aoudad is 30 inches. Since these animals aren’t hunted for their meat (when I ask Tate how it tastes, he visibly shudders and says he won’t even feed it to his dog), there’s no sense in settling for an immature ram.
My rig for this hunt was the brand-spanking-new Nesika Sporter rifle in .300 Win. Mag., topped with Trijicon’s excellent and proven Accupoint scope in a 3–9x40 configuration. Nesika is recognized by top target shooters for making some of the finest rifle actions on the planet, and this is their first full-rifle offering (look for a comprehensive review of the gun in an upcoming issue of Outdoor Life).
Trying to discern a black reticle against the dark hide of a mature aoudad ram standing in the shadows of fading light is no fun whatsoever, so the tritium-illuminated dot at the crosshair of the Accupoint provided a reassuring aiming reference.
We were eating lunch on day one of the hunt when ranch manager Chris Kirby drove up to say hello. He told us about several different bands of aoudad he’d seen while working around the ranch, including one not far from where we were that had at least two mature rams in it. After finishing our sandwiches, we motored the buggy a short distance to where we’d be able to glass the ridge where Kirby had last seen the group. Sure enough, the sheep were there on the northern end of it, 1,000 yards distant but with nothing between us and them to hide our approach. On top of that, the wind was blowing from us to them.
When I got to where Tate was standing, he explained that the group was a couple hundred yards away and below us, and that there were at least two good rams in the group. I sidled up to a chest-high shelf of rock on which I placed my pack and then rested my rifle across the pack. Through the scope I could see many ewes and lambs, as well as the two rams. One was on a point looking away from us and quartered slightly to the left at 176 yards. The other was facing us almost dead-on. Tate confirmed that the one on the point was the larger ram, so I centered the faintly illuminated dot behind his shoulder and pulled the trigger. The 165-grain Barnes Vor-Tx Tipped TSX BT hit above the shoulder a bit and tore through and exited the front of his chest. He leapt from the precipice and crashed into the ground 15 feet below, stone dead.
As it turned out, the ram I shot was the first animal ever to be killed with a Nesika Sporter rifle. After snapping a few photos and caping the ram and packing him onto the buggy, we started the long journey back to Leoncita.
Tate enjoyed some local refreshment as he finished caping my ram back at camp.
And when he was done, Jared put the tape to it. The right side measured 31¼ inches, while the left side went 31¾. Judging from the growth rings on its horns, Jared estimated the ram to be an incredible 11 years old.