Petrichor: Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Hunting Part 1
Updated: Jan 21
Watch the film of the Petrichor hunt story "Monarch" here.
The white sandy soil settled underfoot with every step. The toe of my boots cutting hard into the dry desert ground as the added weight of a 90 pound pack pressed me towards the earth. Every step took purpose and thought to complete. Half way into a 5 mile hike to spike camp two, Tanner and I pushed forward quickly through the chilly black desert night. Our headlamps illuminated my dad and brother-in-law’s footprints in the soft silt of the trail. There was nothing but silence and a cold wind at our backs when we would stop to catch our breath. The horizon silhouetted the mountains around us against the stars of the moonless night and the faint glows of Phoenix, Yuma, and Old Mexico.
Months before Richard and I had sat down and laid out a draw application schedule for everyone in our family. We researched every unit and every draw odd based on our given bonus points. Our plan was to optimize our draw odds for Desert Bighorn and if by some miracle someone did get a tag we wanted to kill a quality ram. We applied and hoped for the best. No one fell in the maximum point pool and we knew the odds of a tag were less than 1 percent. Hopefully the Chase’n The King crew would be going Desert Bighorn Sheep hunting.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department started charging credit cards several weeks after the application deadline. Just as every other year social media announced this as soon as it occurred with a deluge of credit card statements declaring someone had drawn a tag. No one would know for a while longer until the official results were out what they had, but they knew what they could expect to find. Then the text message came through from my dad. A picture of two $300 charges with no caption. “What is that for?” I had to get out the regulations and flip to the page with tag prices “Bighorn Sheep.” Is this what I think it is? Two Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep tags! Who had them though? The next few weeks until the draw results came out were tense. We quickly figured out that my dad, Richard and my younger brother Chance were both going to get to pull the trigger.
The upcoming sheep hunts wouldn’t take place until December. Now was when the planning began. Chance's tag would be easier logistically, we would focus more heavily on my dad's hunt out of necessity. He had drawn a sheep tag in the well known but little hunted Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge along the US/Mexico border.
The area of the refuge we would be hunting encompassed the Sierra Pinta Mountains a deteriorated white granite range running North and South across the length of our hunt unit. The Refuge itself is entirely wilderness aside from a couple roads that run though the desert flats far from the mountains. Decades before the wildlife refuge had been a part of the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range and saw live fire use for military practice.
We traveled through the still military controlled portion of the bombing range and made our way the refuge entrance. Cole, Tanner, Richard, and I set up base camp near here and dropped off the trailer. The next day would mark the beginning of our quest. We were here a couple days before the season was set to start and we were putting together our final bits of gear to begin our backpacking trip into the wilderness. Far from cell coverage, any road, water source, or store we would be carrying everything in on our backs. We had weighed our initial packs before leaving home and had laughed at our insanity. Water was our biggest concern we walked in with approximately three gallons per person plus optics, tripods, binoculars, spotting scopes, camera gear, communications gear, batteries, chargers, food, snacks, bedding, clothes, knives, tents, fire and cooking materials, emergency supplies, side arms, and two hunting guns just in case. 100 pounds of water and what felt like way too much gear for four people to carry was going to make this interesting.
Our first time headed into the wilderness we headed towards the far off mountain range. Our destination we had agreed upon as potentially holding one specific sheep that had been photographed a year and half previously. If we were going to find and kill a great ram he would fit the bill, but who knew if what we would find after we made it close enough to glass.
Spike camp one was 4.5 miles in. We stomped across the desert floor, through the greasewood flats. Numerous times the desert would collapse under our weight and we would fall through the endless maze of gopher holes and other Sonoran desert animal tunnels. This quickly wears on you mind, you would attempt to circumnavigate the areas with visible holes, which helped some but didn’t prevent you from being dropped, sometimes knee-deep, into the powder.
As we approached the mountains the desert changed from a monotypic creosote landscape into washes and arroyos lined with predominately Ironwood trees and the odd Mexican Palo Verde, Mesquite or Saguaro. Rocks were hard to find but .50 caliber bullets were plentiful. The landscape was primarily sand and gravel, remnants of the Pintas, which walled off the Eastern horizon. Richard and I set camp, started a fire, and organized everyone’s gear as Tanner and Cole doubled back for the rest of our stuff we had half way back. We were now close enough to the mountains to at least glass through the spotting scopes.
The Mowhawk-Bryan Mountains from the Sierra Pintas
I set up the spotter and began to methodically break down the rocky mountainside. We were still easily three miles from the top but that was good enough to see through the Zeiss on top of the Outdoorsman’s tripod. After just minutes of glassing a brown figure stood out on a rock face in the sunlight. Towards the top of the highest bowl a band of six or seven sheep milled around. Two rams I could tell were in the group and they both faced off slamming heads several times.
After finding sheep from our spike camp we were pretty optimistic of our first full day of scouting. We rose early as the sun made the clear sky a dark blue, had some breakfast and made a game plan for the day’s scouting. Step one was to get closer. Every morning would mean a mile and half minimum walk. This would put us about a half to three quarters of a mile from the base of the mountain and plenty close to go to work with our stockpile of high-end optics.
Spike Camp One
The flat desert gained more life as we approached the Sierra Pintas. Cholla cactus of various kinds comprised massive fields of cacti. Spines and pieces of them littered the ground and made sitting down to glass a perilous process without first looking. As we walked along I noticed the first of many sculptural Red Cone Elephant trees an extremely rare desert plant characteristic to this area. The Desert Bighorn Sheep of the Prieta are well known for their distinguishing red tinged horns. Unlike most other Desert bighorns that exhibit yellowish horns the refuge’s rams like to rub and smash the Elephant tree imparting their reddish color into the surface of the horns.
Our first morning of scouting quite frankly sucked. Not much was seen other than a lot of rocks and plants through HD Binoculars. We stopped and rested in the cool winter sunlight of the middle of the day and waited for the evening light and animal movement to return. At noon, Cole set up behind his glass and looked at the bright mountain. “Got a sheep.” We were all half in disbelief; he was looking at the closest part of the mountain to us at the bottom, just off the desert floor. Sure enough when I got on the spot a red horned ram was clearly visible feeding on a Palo Verde tree.
Bursera Microphylla, Red Cone Elephant Tree
We watched the ram and moved in a bit closer to get a bitter look. We debated how big he was, how old he was, and if he was a shooter tomorrow when the hunt opened. Our first clear and close mature ram of the season, we concluded he was a solid sheep. Just how big we didn’t quite know yet? We put the ram to bed that night and set off back to spike camp.
The night before the hunt was filled with anticipation. Tomorrow we got to do this for real and after the monumental hike in we were fired up to kill a big sheep. My dad had waited more than 4 decades, as resident of Arizona of hunting age, to draw his Desert Bighorn Sheep tag. We studied the film and photos of the sheep now dubbed “Cobra” and decided he was our target. Ironically, from what we could tell he was in fact the ram we had intended to find after seeing survey pictures of the Class IV rams from AZGFD. Of the infinite possibilities of places to hunt along the range, miles of desert, and a year and half since he was last seen the first ram we looked at closely was the one ram we had wanted to find over any others. I would like to claim it was our preparedness and preparation for the hunt the led us to him but I cannot account for what was undeniably divine providence.
The hunt begins. We crawled out of our mummy bags, dressed, and warmed ourselves around the hot fire. The dense Ironwood made for incredible coals and rekindling the fire in the morning was just a matter of a few seconds and tossing new wood on top. We were praying for a quick hunt so we could move on to my brother’s tag and the elk tag I had personally drawn that was also starting soon. Unbeknownst to us we would not be robbed of the sheep hunting experience by finishing it quickly.
Cobra was nowhere to be found. Dad had named him after he had bedded down the day prior. When he faced you straight on the mass of his horns looked as if he had two flared out and angry King Cobras growing from his skull. An epic name but he had dematerialized overnight.
The calendar kept crossing itself off. Each day new rams, ewes, and lambs would show up. We would split off with radios and cover different mile sections of the mountain. In total the four of us were able to cover about a seven-mile stretch of the range and turned up a number of new sheep. Not the one we wanted to kill though. Where did he go? Was Cobra going to show up again or had he moved on? Sheep are nomadic and unpredictable and we immediately wondered in he would ever be visible to us again. Our bet was simply on persistence. Eventually we are going to find him, if we don’t run out of water and die first.
The granite mountains rose abruptly form the desert floor. No foothills leading up to them just towering white rock ridges cutting up through the gravel. The weathered boulders formed caves, cliffs, and cuts big enough to conceal anything living. The rocky sides were sparsely populated with Elephant trees, Brittle Bush, Cholla, and Palo Verde.
Less than 15 miles from the international border and in an uninhabited Sonoran expanse devoid of much human activity, other than the mysterious workings of the nearby military grounds, the Cabeza Prieta was filled with uncertainty. The Southern border to our country is known for its rampant illegal immigration and the drug cartels are in a constant game of chase with the Border Patrol. Hiking up one of the ridges jutting out into the desert offered a straight-line view to Mexico. The freeway south of the border could be seen clearly through binoculars with the Pinacate Volcanic field in the background. We were not worried about illegals but we were prepared.
We walked out of camp in the morning and split up per the usual routine at this point. As the morning went on we decided to head north and check out a new area. Cole and I would head up to the pass and Tanner would be our radio relay to communicate with Richard who was in the area we had seen Cobra. We hiked up and got a view of what was on the other side of the mountains. Tanner climbed up a hill in between us. He came down and moved our way after a round of glassing and crossed a deep sandy wash. As Tanner made his way around the side he was startled by what lay on the ground in from of him. The radio came to life “guys, guys, guys!” we immediately thought he had found Cobra. “What is it?” Cole and I were both wondering. “Guys, I found a human skull…”
On the bank of the wash lay a human head, deteriorated from years of exposure to the harsh desert climate. No bottom jaw and no other remains to be found just chalky white bone weathered from close to a decade in the heat. Tanner marked the head so it could be retrieved by the proper authorities and we moved on and continued looking for the illusive Desert Bighorn we were after.
The days faded and so did our supplies. After seven days of scouting and hunting it was time to break camp, resupply, and regroup mentally. We trekked the four plus mile back to the truck significantly more easily than our hike in. It was time for an intermission in the hunt. Tanner and I would head towards Northern Arizona and go try to fill my late season bull tag. After a few days of hunting elk I was able to kill a small bull at 542 yards with my .300 Win Mag. We made quick work of the elk and our focus could now return to sheep hunting.
Elk hunt story here.
We headed back for the valley and restocked on gear headed for the refuge. Tanner and I would be hiking to spike camp two in the dark to meet up with my dad and Cole. They had gone back down earlier, hiked in, and established a new camp further in and closer to the mountains. We made it to base camp and grabbed our packs and water out of the trailer. A few miles drive down the sandy, mostly wash-like road would take us to our parking spot. We pulled up alongside Cole’s truck, shouldered our gear, and set out. We left at 9:30 PM, planning on making it the five miles to the spike camp by 11. Through the cold windy dark night we marched coming into camp right on schedule at 10:59.
Part two of the hunt we were optimistic for. We had not seen Cobra since day one, before the season had opened, we were wondering if he would ever show back up where we could kill him. Every other ram on our stretch of the mountain had been seen at least twice over our hunt so far. It was just a matter of persistence, but would that mean tomorrow or two weeks from now? The four of us back together headed out to glass. Cole and I stuck together while Tanner and my dad broke off to look from other angles. A mile or so from camp we sat down among the Ocotillos and Cholla and began to glass. After a few minutes of staring at rocks Cole broke the silence “I’ve got a ram.” Just as quickly I tried to get the spotting scope on the area he was viewing. The sheep was low on the mountain opposite of where we had seen our shooter ram 13 days previously. I searched but couldn’t pick it up before it moved out of view. Both of us waited a bit searching for the lone ram.
I picked up a group of ewes and a young ram down low a few ridges beyond but no big ram. One and a half miles out if Cole could clearly see and describe a full curl ram with 15s it had to have been our sheep. Tanner and I hiked over to the ridge south of where the ram had been spotted and headed to the top. A bird’s eye view on the entire canyon, cuts, ledges, and pockets we waited until the alpenglow cast a yellow hue on the peaks before we finally came down. Once again the desert bighorn monarch had slipped away.
Cole gathered his gear and headed out that night in the dark. It was his final day on the hunt with us and he disappeared into the blackness a half-mile or so from camp. He left us with the statement “I know you’re going to find and kill him as soon as I leave.” I had a feeling he was correct and it wouldn’t be long.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of rain drops on the tents. A scramble ensued to gather our supplies safely inside with us. It finally stopped close to 9 and we prepared to head out. A quick bit of food and a small fire brought us to life for the day. The clouds made their way out quickly and brought with them wind. The petrichor from the storm gave the desert its characteristic smell. The winds beat us up. Gusting hard enough to blow over a tripod set up low enough to glass while sitting in the dirt. The rain was not enough to keep the dust down and the visibility was poor.
Each day we had hiked 5-10 miles glassing for bighorns. Tanner and I made our way to the south slowly. As we approached the two-mile mark south of where the ram had last been seen we sat down once again. I set up the Swaros and made the statement “ I sure wish he would just go bed down right where he was, that would make this really easy…” I panned the binoculars back to the cut we had lost him in 14 days earlier. “ Holy crap, there are three rams bedded right there!” I was overcome with excitement and got Tanner looking at the spot. Through the spotting scope three mature desert rams were clearly visible bedded on the leeward side of a rock face not 30 yards from where we had videoed Cobra.
Cobra and his compadres
I got a hold of Richard on the radio and took off to get closer while Tanner watched them. I cut down about a mile quickly and got my glass set up and eyes on them. Tanner leap frogged up to me and shortly after my dad met us after we sent him our coordinates. Three beautiful sheep, unaware of us bedded in a perfect spot, one of them was very clearly the ram we were after. Cobra lay next to his compadres dwarfing them with his massive horns.
Tanner stayed back to film through the spotter while dad and I dropped our packs, grabbed the rifle, and took off up the backside of the adjacent ridge. We climbed up the gravel and boulder side making our way to the top of the spine. As we crested the ridge top we could see we had to navigate further up the rocks to get a clear shot. Dropping over the top and around a small ridgeline north of us we prepared for the shot. The gun wouldn’t cycle a round and I pulled the bolt out. The bolt face was caked with silt. A quick cleaning and the round cycled again. Popping out from the rocks I could see two of the rams up feeing in their protected pocket. I ranged Cobra at 330 yards. The updrafts of wind ripped across the mountain face tormenting us with force. With sustained winds 40-50 miles per hour this wasn’t going to be easy. High winds causing a deafening howl the sheep had no idea of our presence. Richard set up precariously on the side of a large rock and squeezed off the shot. The impact could not been seen and the ram hopped as it was startled. A couple seconds later and they were all back to feeding.
The rock face he had been resting on to shoot had crumbled away sending him falling into me. The binoculars had split my lip as I could start to taste blood. My dads knuckles dripping from the rough rocks stripping off his skin. We quickly reset and I called his shot. The second round cracked out of the .257 Weatherby and slammed into the rocks. Confused but unfazed the rams stood still. Chambering another round I relayed how far left he needed to hold. The wind was pushing the bullet close to four feet right while the elevation was perfect. A correction in his aim point he sent another one down range. The Barnes bullet tore through the rams quartered-to-us shoulder dropping him in place. His head fell to his front hooves anchoring him where he stood on the side of the cliffs. Relief flooded over us. Like and uncontrollable torrent of emotion we had done it. The ram we had set out to kill was dead.
Cobra laying on the mountainside at top of photograph
We radioed back to Tanner who ecstatically told us he had been able to get everything on film despite the hellacious winds. Richard and I descended the ridge top and met Tanner at the mouth of the cut. High on adrenaline we began our climb up to the fallen monarch. Each of us was in awe that our persistence and prayer had paid of in such a grand way. My dad had completed a lifelong goal and in spectacular fashion despite the odds. We spent a good amount of time taking pictures, skinning, quartering, and packing the ram off the mountain. When we hit the desert floor there was an intense relief that we would not have to go back up that crumbling mountain again, at least not this year anyhow. Back to camp with heavy packs we walked. The night was the first of our time there without uncertainty. We were done, aside from our hike out tomorrow.
Cobra was now in our camp. His massive heavy horns glowing from the flickering campfire we flipped open the sat phone and called our families to share the news. The final pack out was a cool clear morning with the heaviest packs of the trip. We dumped all the water except what we needed to make it to the truck. The Ram and all of our gear were spread between the three of us and we trudged across the desert. We rolled up to the house that evening with our bodies sore and tired. We were done, with one sheep hunt at least. Now it was time to figure out how to do this again in a matter of days in a completely different area…
Part 2 of Desert Bighorn Sheep Hunting will be live on May 23rd. Keep an eye out this summer for our upcoming films!