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New Friends Get Together For Hunting In An Aoudad Oasis

Classified as exotics by the state of Texas, there is no set hunting season for aoudad, making them available all year.

New Friends Get Together For Hunting In An Aoudad Oasis

Sometimes you step out into the air of a new place and everything about it rests in your senses like an old friend. You know you’re in the right place at the right time. Here, round adobe towers rise out of a cypress oasis, and stacked stone walls snake off into the greening desert. The air smells of candlewood resin and red clay. This place wasn’t built yesterday. It has old bones. We are at El Fortin del Cibolo, one of a trio of historic forts near Texas’s Big Bend, on a spring hunt for aoudad. The Barbary sheep with sweeping horns had been relocated to Texas from the Atlas Mountains of north Africa almost a hundred years ago. Now, large herds thrive here in the West Texas mountains, even as their numbers back in their homeland have diminished.

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From a frontier outpost originally built to protect a livestock empire, the fort is now home base to a tough spot-and-stalk quest for an impressive free-range trophy. The ranch offers exclusive access to 650,000 acres of private high-desert country. Even with modern conveniences, it’s not difficult to imagine yourself in an earlier time.

There are dirt roads here, plenty of them. Many were bulldozed into place by John B. Poindexter, the ranch owner, to feed an insatiable fondness for following his beloved bird dogs while hunting quail native to this part of West Texas. But the aoudad are not so fond of the roads. Able to navigate the steep basalt cliffs of the Chinati Mountains like mountain goats, they weren’t going to make things easy for us. No sitting by feeders here—and no fenced stock.

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Classified as exotics by the state of Texas, there is no set hunting season for aoudad, making them available all year. However, in the spring, the southwestern Texas weather is bearable, and bachelor herds of 30 to 40 rams form, finding safety among the rugged basalt columns and rimrock canyons.

The first morning we were up and headed out at 8 a.m., our group bouncing along those miles of ranch roads in Polaris Rangers and a well-worn Toyota Tacoma. Our young guides—Creed, Steven, and Cross—brought instant energy with them. They were funny and helpful and had a solid enthusiasm and love for hunting.

As with other sheep hunts, you want to get to the highest points to glass for the herds. When you find a band of rams worth stalking, you start out after them through the hills, both on- and off-road. From our first high vantage point, we got a clear view of what some of the difficulties our first day’s hunt would involve. Early on, we came across a full herd of 100 animals, including ewes with lambs and around 40 bachelor rams. The benchmark for a mature ram’s horns is 30, but good luck picking out your ram in a herd that size. After five or ten minutes of an intense back-and-forth discussion between hunter and guide trying to indicate which one among them to shoot, we came to the conclusion that there can be too much of a good thing, even for a hunter excited seeing an aoudad ram for the first time ever. So we watched as that herd disappeared over the hills.

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Later, we followed a likely bachelor herd up and up into a canyon, only to have them disappear, almost magically, into a fog bank that dropped down suddenly to swallow them. The fierce spines of cholla, barrel cactus, ocotillo, and yuccas kept us sure-footed and stepping carefully on the way back down. Spring weather in these mountains sees temperatures that range from 45 to 90 degrees. Across wide-open vistas, multiple thunderstorms moved across the mountain peaks and valleys. Blue-black skies framed reddened bluffs and pale green scrublands. There had been no rain for several months, but we were going to get wet. The open-cab Rangers provided no protection against the new rains that kept finding us. In that landscape, the rain doesn’t have the chance to soak into the soil; it gathers and moves into flash floods, chewing up the roads, which then chew up even the toughest tires.

I know that gradations of wetness sounds like a strange idea, but I still maintain I have never been so wet on any of my many trips, even down through the innermost layers I was wearing.

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After hours of following aoudad into precarious places, our first hunter finally placed a shot on a worthy ram. The aoudad dropped like a rock from the 280-yard, cross-canyon shot. We trekked up the hill to the site, but when we arrived, the ram was nowhere to be found. After a short tracking job, we spotted it climbing at the edge of a cliff, still up and going. Aoudad are notoriously tough, and it took a couple of follow-up shots to finally anchor it.




Unfortunately its final resting place was, well, precarious, a third of the way down that cliff on a small ledge. Creed, the hunter, and I dropped over the edge to recover, photograph, and cape the impressive trophy as the rain poured down. The other hunter wasn’t as infused with adrenaline as we were, so he waited at the top for us, or maybe he was just smarter. The rest of us didn’t even think about it, and just went over the edge. The grins I captured down there were worth the difficult climb.

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Another hunter got his shot right at sunset and didn’t have the luxury of a daylight recovery. They had hiked away from their vehicle by a mile or so. We headed out to join them through the rugged dark, making our way through the blackness one truck length at a time, moving forward then backwards, diverted again and again on the way by deep ravines, stout shrubs, or too-narrow passages between boulders. At long last, we inched our way toward the beacon of a flashlight, a point up in the hills where the guides helped reunite a hunter with his prey.

All told, by the end of the trip, five hunters had captured a unique trophy with the broad horns, a distinctive long beard, and thick chaps that are the distinct marks of a mature ram. As each found success, we all found time to explore as well. One day high in the mountains we suddenly came across a huge cemetery set atop a hill with a commanding view: the final resting place for Poindexter’s favorite bird dogs. Later, we discovered pictographs etched into the high canyon walls, covered with drawings centuries older than the local fort’s historic buildings.

Recommended


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Returning to the fort itself each evening always delivered a deep immersion into the history of this still-wild region of West Texas. The restored fort’s huge towers greeted us from a distance as we dropped down into the cypress groves. I could see its distinctive wooden drain spouts and its gunports, reminders of more precarious times. Inside its walls we were enveloped in that distinctively Texan mix of cultures, including influences of Hispanics, Native Americans, and white settlers: glowing scenic paintings, regional ceramics and sculptures, brilliant rugs, and hand-carved furniture that rested against bare adobe walls that were four feet thick in places. Sated with beef and stories, we gravitated back outside under the ocotillo-shaded pergolas, breathing the mesquite-scented air and listening to the night breezes.

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Evenings spent around the fire competed with the enduring mental image of a young, hard-working guide, bearing a massive horned ram’s head on one shoulder and the long-bearded cape and chaps slung over the other, the animal’s blood and the man’s sweat mixing as the climb only became steeper and more difficult. Through it all, there was that wide, exultant grin that always appears at the success of another challenging and rewarding hunt.

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