THE POWER OF THE CURL
In my experience genuine long shots at sheep are rare. What’s important is to read the ground, make a good stalk, then find a natural rest, get steady, and place the shot. These things, not pure distance, make sheep hunting a true rifleman’s game.
So, just what is this thing about sheep hunting?
Many years ago I invited my then boss to join me in one of my secret public land hotspots for wild hogs. I’ll never forget how he looked down his nose at me and sneered, “No thanks. I’m not much of pig hunter,” as if that was the lowest life form on Earth. This fellow was a widely experienced hunter who I admired greatly…at least until that moment. You see, by his own description he was a sheep hunter, which is either the greatest snobbery, or the greatest addiction, in our hunting world. Perhaps both.
I’m not exactly sure where this cult of sheep hunting came from. It isn’t traditional. In the 1920s goats were considered superior trophies to sheep. Read William T. Hornaday’s Campfires in the Canadian Rockies; his expedition was for Rocky Mountain goat, with bighorn sheep just taken along the way. Or read Kermit Roosevelt’s East of the Sun, West of the Moon, about his expedition to the Tien Shans. The long-horned ibex were the great game; the argali sheep they took weren’t valued much more than camp meat!
Today this is totally reversed. With few exceptions, among mountain game wild sheep are prized, while the many varieties of goats are often just incidental trophies. Certainly Jack O’Connor contributed to the mystique of sheep hunting. He took his first ram, a desert sheep in Sonora, in 1936; his final ram in British Columbia in 1974. In between he did a lot of sheep hunting and became seriously addicted. More to the point, perhaps, he also did a great deal of writing about the sheep hunting he loved.
I drew my third North American sheep tag in 2008. This is three tags in 30 years of applications. This is not too bad—and proof positive that, if you apply and keep applying, sooner or later you will draw.
Somehow, in the postwar era, a fairly small group developed the concept that sheep hunting was “better.” Without question O’Connor’s great writing contributed—but O’Connor himself would have been horrified not only by the snobbery, but by the escalation of costs to go sheep hunting.
Here is the unvarnished truth: No wild sheep is as wary as the average whitetail deer! Sheep rely first and foremost upon their eyes, which are as good as any binocular. Their senses of smell and hearing are of much less importance. So if you can keep out of sight you can probably stalk sheep. In my experience, despite fairly open country, shots at sheep tend to be more “medium” than “long.”
Come to think of it, I don’t rate wild sheep as particularly smart, certainly not as compared to most deer, many of Africa’s more desirable antelope, or even goats. But a mature wild sheep with his curling horns does have as much raw beauty as any creature in the world. And in order to hunt him you must gain entry to his club. When hunting wild sheep it isn’t the ram you are worried about, but his natural guardian, the mountain. Before you can hunt the sheep you must beat the mountain, and this is part of the mystery, the mystique, and the lure.
If you draw a North American sheep tag and put in the effort you will probably be successful, and even the best guided hunts are quite reasonable. This is my 2008 Arizona desert sheep, taken in Unit 13B North in December 2008.
Hunting wild sheep is also a rifleman’s game. Long shooting may not be essential—but you must be prepared for it. More importantly, you must be prepared to read the wind, find a steady position, and make a perfect shot…because an important part of shooting a sheep is to take and make the shot in a spot where the animal can be recovered.
Sheep hunting has never been for everyone. It requires a reasonable level of physical conditioning coupled with at least equal desire. Today, regrettably, sheep hunting is expensive. It’s a matter of supply and demand. In North America Dall sheep are the most numerous and most available, so the hunts are most affordable. Stone sheep are very limited, and prices have skyrocketed. To pick up the phone and book a desert or Rocky Mountain bighorn hunt, well, that’s tough stuff. But if you draw a tag the hunt will be reasonable, and probably will be successful. I started applying for sheep tags in 1978, and in the last 30 years I have drawn three tags, two Rocky Mountain and one desert sheep. Not too bad!
Some Asian sheep hunting is surprisingly affordable. This is a very good Dagestan tur, sort of a bridge between the sheep and goat family, a great hunt in the Caucasus Mountains, for less than half the cost of the average Dall sheep hunt today.
There are also some sheep hunts in Asia that are extremely reasonable, far less costly than even a Dall sheep hunt. Over the years I have “invested” in sheep hunts on several continents. There are some sheep hunts I will never be able to do, others I will never be able to do again…and some that I still hope to do. I never intended it to be so, but I am a sheep hunter. Like most sheep hunters, I cannot hunt sheep every year, or even every other year…but I am still a sheep hunter, obsessed by the curling horn. The trick is to maintain the addiction without the snobbery!