February 24, 2023
During the early part of the 19th century, the Southwest was home to a robust population of desert bighorn sheep. By the end of that century, serious habitat loss, overhunting, and disease had crippled it.
Enter the aoudad. Brought to the United States in the early 1900s and placed in zoos, this North African import proved hardy. Captive numbers grew quickly, and zoos reportedly used these sheep to feed carnivorous animals in captivity. Between 1957 and 1958, Texas wildlife officials released roughly 40 aoudad into the state’s Palo Duro Canyon. It became apparent to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department that the aoudad was bigger, stronger, more disease-resistant, and required less water than the bighorn. Also, the aoudad reproduced rapidly. A ewe will typically throw twins, but triplets are not uncommon. The Texas aoudad population started to boom.
With desert bighorn numbers below 1,600 animals—according to a 2018 population census—and aoudad on the rise many Texas ranchers have issued a shoot-on-sight order for the labeled “invasive” species. And it was this reason that drove me south in the late winter of 2021 to chase a dream.
A Texas Aoudad Education
"They are the red-headed stepchild of the sheep world,” said Louisiana hunter Dr. Charlie Black. “What an incredible animal, but most ranchers despise their existence. This is domestic sheep and goat country, and aoudads compete for prime food sources and will even try and breed domestic ewes. Not to mention they are hard on fences and will, if they are in the area, visit a deer feeder. This doesn’t make those that lease land for prime whitetail hunting happy.”
Dr. Black was the man. A Doctor of Emergency Medicine, he had traveled the world for both work and play. He’d darted rhinos on the Dark Continent, taken the Grand Slam of North American Wild Sheep, and harvested throngs of world-class whitetail. Black was at the lodge looking for a mature axis. He was an invitee—like me—and was enjoying his time in God’s country. While he hunted with members of the lease for axis, my friends and I hit the steep, shale-littered hills in search of aoudad.
My connection to the hunt was a lessee named Jeremiah Johnson. He and I had played youth sports together and had stayed in touch over the years. Jeremiah’s cousin, who had been to the ranch twice before, was my best friend, and he’d strongly lobbied for my position on the hunt. I’d never laid eyes on an aoudad, but we had roughly 8,000 acres of free-range dirt to roam, and I was in good company. My buddy Jason Weaver is one of the best woodsmen I know. He has a knack for finding and getting close to game. Plus, he’d killed a pair of aoudads off the ranch—a respectable ram and ewe—on a past hunt. The plan was simple. Jeremiah and his brother J.D. would work the west half of the ranch and Jason and I would go east. I was chomping at the bit. The sun was crawling over the eastern plateaus, and I was ready to go.
“No hurry,” said Jason. “We are going to be spending a lot of time behind the glass. These things have a reddish coat that blends in well to these desert walls. When the sun is hitting the faces of the slopes, the sheep are a lot easier to see.” I was on edge. My hands were sweaty, and my heart thundered. Every few hundred yards, Jason would stop the side-by-side and we would glass. I spotted domestic sheep, a few rocks I swore had legs, and a handful of deer. No aoudad. Every so often the radio would scramble, and my heart would race. The plan was for Jeremiah and J.D. to radio us if they found a herd—or “anger,” as they’re called. Each report, though, contained zero sightings.
We stayed out all day. We hiked to vantage points and took long strolls across boulder-covered plateaus. Our spotters and binos got used and abused, but no rams—or any aoudad for that matter—were spied by either party.
An exhausted Jason and I decided to retreat to the valley floor to examine a vast mesquite flat we’d scouted earlier in the day. The flat was rich with hog sign, and we sweetened the pot by adding a few bags of feed to the landscape. Plus, the locale would provide a 360-degree view of the surrounding hills. We hadn’t been sitting for three minutes when Jason whispered, “Well, I found your ram.”
I figured he was joking, but I should’ve known better. We’d hunted countless days together, and when it comes to a sighting, Jason never jokes. He was big and beautiful: long reddish/orange hair spiraling down from his throat to the upper part of his legs. His amazing horns curved out and backward before turning inward again. He looked heavy.
That's A Poke
There were two problems. One, the ram was over a mile away, and we had just over an hour of light left. Two, he had the upper ground. Aoudad have large eyes in comparison to their body size, and their vision is exceptional—something to keep in mind when hunting these rock dwellers. We would have to use cedars and rocks to disguise our approach. We got aggressive—too aggressive we figured. We’d closed on the ram quickly, relying on the cover, shadows, and a little bit of luck. A stop-to-glass moment revealed luck wasn’t on our side. The ram had gone up and over the caprock and out of sight. We scoured the hill for 15 minutes with our binos. Nothing.
Then the man upstairs smiled at us. The ram eased back over the top of the ridge, and he was closer. The sun was setting, and we were pinned down. The shot was going to be longer than I’d hoped, but I knew the Kimber .280 Ackley Improved topped with a dial-to-the-yard Leupold VX-5HD would put my Federal Terminal Ascent ammo on the mark if I just breathed and squeezed. Jason helped with the prep work. I had not one but two Primos Trigger Sticks under my rifle. The platform felt great. The wind was nil. When Jason called out the range of 523 yards, the Kimber barked.
“Miss” was the report from Jason.
The ram darted to his left, then stopped, and I cut another one loose. It was obvious the 165-grain bullet had found its mark this time. The ram rocked, stumbled, and then bounded into the brush. He didn’t come out.
Sure But Not Sure
Jason was confident the ram was down. I was a train wreck. Not only had I just made my longest shot ever, but also I’d put a bullet into an animal I had dreamt of chasing since I was a kid. Oddly enough, time seemed to slow. It was like the Western sky refused to swallow the sun. There was still enough light when we reached the opposite side of the canyon and found the ram lying dead. We took a few moments to capture some photos, hug, and retell the tale before breaking out our headlamps. We packed meat, hide, and horns late into the night. But as is always the case, this part of the hunt is a true labor of love and something I truly live for.
You Can Too
An outfitted aoudad hunt will run between $4,000 and $6,000. That’s out of my price range. However, because many Texas ranchers and those leasing these ranches want aoudad shot on sight, your Texas sheep dream could become reality if you’re willing to do a little research.
I got lucky. I agree. With that noted, a little time on Craigslist, Facebook, and Instagram may put you in the chips. A quick Craigslist search turned up more than a few Texas leases selling reduced-priced aoudad hunts. Also, those willing to strike up a conversation on social media and arrange a hunt swap could easily find their way onto aoudad-rich ground.
Texas isn’t known as a great public-land destination, but a glance at tpwd. texas.gov website could change your opinion. The state has over one million acres of open-to-anyone dirt, and taking a public-land aoudad is very possible.