West Texas Aoudad Ram
Photo Credit: Gaines Slade

WEST TEXAS GOLD – A wise man once told me, “when you drive through West Texas, you better get gas when you can”. Those words were ringing in my ears as I bombed west on I-10 with nothing to look at but dust devils and an ominous low fuel light. After cramming hunting and cooking gear into my Wrangler, my new acquaintance Ron and I had long since covered the usual meet and greet rhetoric… Where are you from, what do you do, where do you like to hunt, etc.  We had even gotten adventurous and ventured down the path of who you are voting for, and what church do you attend. Brazen topics which helped kill a few more hours. But now we were quietly scanning through the heat waves for any signs of petroleum. We had already been fooled once by the mirage of an abandoned station, but this new shape in the distance had promise.

As I stepped out of the A/C, the midday heat hit me like a shovel to the face. I was quickly greeted by a family of cats dutifully guarding the overflowing garbage can. While whipping the inch of dust from the gas pump display, I looked around and wondered “what in the hell am I doing out here?” The answer snapped back fast as always…. You have a hunting problem, and the temporary cure might be just down the road.” It had been over a month since I chased my last spring gobbler, so when a friend called and said he needed help chasing Aoudad rams in June, I started packing.  

A few more hours, and many splattered bugs later, something resembling a mountain started to form through the windshield. Make no mistake, these are not the Sawtooths, but when the boulder-strewn masses rose straight up from the desolate desert, it presents quite the contrast. With solid Aoudad country surrounding us, I topped off the gas in Van Horn and pointed us toward the dirt roads. This was going to be an interesting deal, Texas is 90% plus privately owned land, so gaining land access is a major obstacle across the state.  Enter the Texas Youth Hunter Program or TYHP for short. TYHP is the premier state-run organization whose mission is to partner with generous private landowners to host all ages of youth and their parents on exciting hunts across Texas.

Hiking the West Texas Desert
Photo Credit: Gaines Slade

This hunt was going to take place on the Koza 101 Ranch. There would be 5 kids and 5 family members in attendance.  Other than a few dedicated staff members, TYHP is a volunteer-driven program and this hunt was no exception. My task was to take a couple of flatland strangers into the mountains and get them an Aoudad in 2.5 days of hunting. The 8-hour drive had given me plenty of time to mull over the steep odds against ground checking a ram. What if the kid can’t shoot?  What if the parent is out of shape? Is there anyone on the ranch who knows where the Aoudad like to live? What about this heat? My mind was churning as Ron fiddled with the gate. “Watch for snakes” I shouted out the window as he walked the gate into the tall grass. I smirked as the Jeep rattled over the cattle guard… one more thing to worry about, snakes.

The A/C window unit was working overtime as I assembled my cot. Parents and kids were arriving and with them came the merry go round of introductions. The mood was an interesting blend of excitement and apprehension with most of the kids and parents never having seen that type of country before. After a hearty dinner, I found myself huddled around a printed off topo of the ranch discussing intel with some other volunteers. It was basically one big mountain range with some box type canyons scattered along the chain. Some reaching above 5,000 ft. The A/C struggled on as I dozed off to sleep. We would not be hunting at dawn, the kids first needed to qualify with their rifles.

Photo Credit: Gaines Slade

I heard Ron stirring from his bed well before dawn, I laid still for a few more minutes mulling over the conundrum… Sleep more or be the first to the coffee. With 20 plus people scattered about, I opted for the coffee. As dawn broke over the Guadalupe’s to the East, I picked my way up to a decent lookout for a quick glass. Nothing was stirring on the mountainside a half-mile off, but the quiet and sunrise were treating me right. Before long, the controlled chaos of 20 people packing gear to go shoot began in earnest.  As the range master gave the kids some shooting and safety instruction, I couldn’t help but note the rising temp. It had to be approaching 90 degrees, and my watch said it was only 10 in the morning. “It will be 100 degrees when we go out this afternoon,” I thought to myself as the kids kept banging away. Sure enough, when the shooting was done, the Jeep was reading 101 degrees.  Lord, we are going to have a hard time in this.

While the parents and kids munched on some cold cut sandwiches, myself and the other hunting volunteers huddled up for a quick strategy session. When the hemming and hawing concluded, I was headed to a spot known as “the lookout” with Dennis and his son Grant. All the kids shot well on the range and seemed in good shape. The sunny side to drawing Grant was he was shooting a .300 WSM. Aoudad are notorious for being able to soak up punishment, and I was glad we had enough gun for the task at hand.

West Texas Rain Storm
Photo Credit: Gaines Slade

As my Jeep creaked and lurched up the rocky 2 track road, the temperature outside was triple digits. We spent the next 5 hours picking the mountainsides apart looking for any hint of Aoudad. We had nothing to show for it but some solid farmer’s burn. The one bright spot was Grant spotting a bedded cow elk, which upon further inspection, turned into 6 elk tucked tight to a drainage wall. To say they seemed out of place in that terrain would be an understatement. But apparently, the elk population in that area is pretty stable. After some much-needed hydration and a plate of ribs, I quickly found my way to the cot. I felt the morning would bring our best chance and was debating the options as the lights went down.

Over coffee, I decided we needed to come at this differently. Instead of going up and looking down, we were going to follow the snaking low road, stopping periodically to glass up into the mountainside and drainages from different angles. Grant was fired up as my headlights caught glimpses of mule deer eyes glowing around the sporadic guzzlers. I was leaning against the tire meticulously picking apart the east-facing drainage when Dennis said he had found something. It was a group of Javelina within a few hundred yards of us, feeding in the early morning coolness. Lucky for us, Javalina were on the green light list and Grant had never seen one before. I grabbed the sticks from the front seat, and 5 short minutes later, we had 2 Javies down. Grant dropped them both where they stood. One big male and a smaller female were down.

West Texas Javelina
Photo Credit: Gaines Slade

After some father-son photos, the guys started to drag their prizes back to the Jeep. I was following Grant taking pics when he said: “Hey, I stepped on a rattler”. He was cool, calm and collected. I would have jumped over the mountain, but youthful naivety is a powerful thing. Sure enough, a deadly little 2.5 footer was in a tight coil and Grant had literally stepped directly on his head. Back at the Jeep, we continued to cover country. Stop and glass, stop and glass… but by 10:00 a.m. we had not seen anything resembling an Aoudad.  I turned us toward the lodge and stopped one last place to look back up the canyon at a very attractive looking saddle.

I no more than got the scope up and a ram appeared walking from right to left. Then another bigger one! “Get your gear” I snapped at Grant. We need to go. I knew it was a long shot, but with only a 2-day hunt I had to chase down any opportunity we were given.  As Grant and Dennis made ready I popped a range. The animals were at 1000 yards and moving like critters looking to get to bed. The problem was, as quickly as I had found the duo, they had disappeared over the skyline. We bombed up that 800-foot climb pretty quickly, given the heat, and I made my way toward the landmark rock. The rams had gone over into the next canyon, and no matter how much we looked and repositioned, I could not find them again.

Defeated, we carefully turned downhill making sure to watch where we put our feet. That afternoon was a repeat of the morning. We glassed from the bottom with no luck. While we couldn’t seem to come by an Aoudad, there was no shortage of rattlers. One of which decided that it was going to crawl up a bush and get eye level with us. Needless to say, I checked my sleeping bag twice before turning in.

The last morning. All hunters know it well; it can be full of magic or wrought with second-guessing. Do we stay low again and catch them coming from the water tanks heading up? Or do we go high to the lookout and beat them to bed? The problem with the lookout was it’s a box. If the Aoudad weren’t in either of the drainages that presented glassing opportunities, we were done. My guys were still asleep as I pulled on my gaiters; we would go to the lookout. We needed a miracle, but the reason I favored the high approach was simple.  If the Aoudad were in those drainages, then we had a solid chance at getting a shot opportunity.  

We walked single file uphill in the dead calm darkness. I left Grant and Dennis at their observation post and cautiously headed over to the rock outcropping facing the other drainage. First light was just breaking as I found my backrest and positioned my spotting scope. I had no more gotten comfortable when I heard rocks clacking down the east-facing slope about 600 yards across. There were 2 loose rock shoots below saddles on that side, so I dismissed it and went back to enjoying that magical time at sunrise. A few minutes later it happened again. As I strained with my binos to investigate the noise, I heard it for the third time. My heart rate increased as I no longer was enjoying the creeping sunrise. I wanted light, and I wanted it right now! Again I heard the rocks, and my adrenaline kicked in. I still couldn’t see them.  Then it happened.

Photo Credit: Gaines Slade

There’s a ewe. Then I saw another one. The group became a dozen. The anger was 800 yards from me but only a hundred yards below the saddle that would lead them out of sight and probably out of stalking range. I quickly found them in my spotting scope and started scanning for a shooter ram. Lady luck was with me. I found not one shooter but two. They seem to be side-hilling away from the saddle, feeding right where I needed them to go. I slithered out from under the spotting scope and darted over to where I left Grant and Dennis. “Get your gear and follow me” I hissed, with no time to explain details. The anger had covered another 200 yards by the time we low-walked back to my glassing spot, but it was 200 yards in the right direction. Putting the spotting scope on the bigger ram, I let Grant take a look and see our quarry with his beautiful coat and swept-back horns. At this point, I had a plan on how to cut the distance down to Grant’s shooting comfort of 300 yards.

Dennis stayed as the spotter as Grant and I hustled downhill and out of sight of our target.  My plan was to use the large vertical rock formation as a shield to close the distance. We also had to climb up the right side of it and hopefully find a place to take a somewhat level shot. As Grant and I scrambled over the huge boulders, I peered around inch by inch hoping to see the anger. My stomach sank as at first I couldn’t find them, but a few more feet around the corner and there they were! The two rams were still in the lead, but now they were covering ground. I ranged the shooter at 311 yards and began frantically looking for any remotely decent rock to position Grant on. Of course, everything was covered in cactus.   

I moved us higher up the rocks, but we were running out of room to maneuver and the window to get a shot was closing! Finally, a rock that might work. I slipped my backpack off while kicking down the cactus conveniently located where I wanted Grant to put his knees.  As Grant tried to get steady I took one more quick status check with my binos. The shooter was still in the lead and would pass behind a false summit in about 30 seconds at the pace he was going. We had to get a bullet off fast before our window closed! Our position was far from ideal. I whispered to Grant, breathe deep breaths and find the lead animal in your scope, then tell me when you have him.

West Texas Aoudad
Photo Credit: Gaines Slade

Grant leaned into his gun and said he had the front ram, who was now only 50 yards or so from walking out of sight. Breathe, breathe, wait for me to tell you… Ok Grant, if he stops on that rock you punch him right in the shoulder. Now, that’s the shot, shoot him there, take him! BANG! The ram had stopped perfectly, slightly quartering toward the sunlight, and in a blink, he dropped out of my field of vision. The ram slid a little ways because of the steep incline and began thrashing around. “Load another round and if he even gets to his knees you hit him again…” It wasn’t necessary, the young man made a fine shot and anchored his 27.5-inch ram right there on the mountainside. Before long, I saw a proud Dad rounding the corner. Dennis got to see it all through the spotting scope!

I couldn’t help but smile as I made the first cut. The excitement in Grant’s voice was very familiar to me. His tone was familiar because I have heard it from myself, from my hunting partners, from first-time hunters…. It is the tone of someone who is hooked for life.

Is the elusive Aoudad on your bucket list? If not, they should be.

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