It was not huge, but the aoudad ram, standing a whisker over 500 yards away up a shockingly steep slope, was the best I'd seen in four long, hard days of hunting.
Treacherous rock slides and scant cover denied the opportunity to stalk closer, and the Southwest Texas dusk was upon us. Time to get real or go home.
I settled the bipod on my Browning X-Bolt Speed rifle into the rubble atop a rock outcropping, found the ram in the crosshairs, and turned my focus to the sighing of the evening. Tiny bugs, caught by the last rays of light, glowed as they drifted up the slope on the slight breath of wind that cooled the side of my face. Not much, but even a breath is a lot at 500 yards.
With the custom turret on my Leupold scope dialed for 490 yards — shy of the true distance to compensate for the steeply angled shot — I pushed the crosshairs to the right of the vitals, clear off the ram's shoulder to compensate for wind drift, heaved a deep breath to still my thumping heart and oxygenate the fatigue from my muscles, and squeezed the trigger.
Known as Ammotragus lervia among scientific circles, Barbary sheep, a.k.a. aoudad, originated in the harsh, unforgiving mountains of northern Africa in such exotic locales as Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Mauritania, Morocco, and Chad.
Naturally hardy, they thrive in hot, arid, desolate desert regions. Not just any desert, though; they prefer steep, rocky country rife with cliffs, which favor their preferred escape tactic of climbing obscenely steep terrain faster and farther than anything that threatens.
We'd caught the ram in my crosshairs in a moment of unusual vulnerability — to a point. He'd fed across a giant open slope away from crags and cliffs, and no matter which way he went, it was a long way to cover. He was still well over a quarter-mile distant, and his acute vision would surely pick out any predator — man or beast — attempting to close the distance. I was confident in the quality of my rifle, scope, and ammunition, but aoudad are known for being hard to kill cleanly.
A large male will stand a shade over three feet at the shoulder and weigh upward of 300 pounds. Males and females both grow sheep-like horns, but many hunters consider Barbary sheep to be more like a mountain goat than any true mountain sheep species.
A reputation for extreme toughness and an unwillingness to give up the fight to anything but a perfectly placed bullet — much like mountain goats — support this opinion, as does the aoudad's physique, which is goat-like in a goliath sort of way.
Although hunters enjoy pursuing aoudad and consider them a cost-effective way to undertake what is effectively a sheep hunt without the extreme cost of a true North American sheep hunt, Texas state wildlife managers detest the aoudad.
Because aoudad carry — but are impervious to — diseases born by domestic sheep, they tend to infect desert sheep with sicknesses that can wipe out an entire population of the health-sensitive animals, and because aoudad are naturally more aggressive than desert bighorns, they will drive them away from shared water sources.
In Texas, the aoudad is classified as an exotic and may be legally killed any time of the year as long as a license for exotics is in pocket. A decent outfitted hunt starts at about $4,000 and ranges up. New Mexico issues by lottery a few aoudad tags for the regions that hold Barbary sheep.
Any mature aoudad ram earned the hard way — that is, by assaulting the forbidding country he lives in — is a trophy, and a ram with horns measuring 30 inches or more over the curve is outstanding. Most rams killed range from about 25 inches to 30 on the high end, although occasionally a huge old monarch measuring 34 inches or more is brought in.
The ram before us was no 30-incher, but he was mature and his mane and chaps — the long, sweeping hair that grows around a big aoudad's neck and forelegs — were magnificent. As a matter of muscle-fatiguing fact, he was the only mature ram we'd found, and the almost vertical mountains around us decreed that he was a fine trophy indeed.
I keep myself in reasonably decent mountain-climbing shape, but I'd learned long ago that if you reject a gift the desert proffers, all too often you eventually end up achieving what the military delights in terming "muscular failure."
Aside from maintaining physical fitness, to successfully hunt aoudad techniques unfamiliar to most whitetail hunters and even Western elk and mule deer hunters must be employed, and clothing and gear of a more technical nature than most are invaluable.
Days begin frosty and cold then leap to temperatures sometimes hovering in the high 90s by early afternoon. Even short hikes take you over steep, treacherous, cactus-covered terrain.
Shots — when they are offered — are often well beyond the comfort zone of most hunters.
My friend and hunting partner for this foray into the desert was Browning's Rafe Nielson. He had set us up with a full complement of the company's new Speed line of gear, including an X-Bolt rifle in .30-06 with a fluted barrel, Burnt Bronze Cerakote metal finish, and A-TACS AU Camo stock.
The .30-06 cartridge doesn't quite have the legs to make it a premium option for the long distances at which aoudad are often shot, but at the time of our hunt it was the only chambering in which the new X-Bolt Speed rifle was available. Fortunately, the X-Bolt Speed rifle was very accurate.
Aside from a bad lot of prototype ammunition, the Speed rifle shot pretty much every factory load I tried prior to my hunt into an inch or slightly less at 100 yards.
The aoudad is constructed like a dump truck, so I settled on Browning Ammunition's new 185-grain BXC load.
In addition to the Browning gear, I paired a Leupold BX-3 Mojave 12X binocular with a lightweight tripod. When long hours of glassing are the norm, and the ability to pick a dust-colored animal from the dust-colored landscape is critical to success, such a system minimizes eye fatigue and maximizes effectiveness.
Call me high maintenance, but I've arrived at the point where I prefer not to hunt open country at all without my tripod and a powerful bino. I'm not getting any younger, and I can cover a lot more country with my field glasses than I can with my legs.
Like hunting for North American sheep, aoudad can demand optical-nerve-burning days of glassing; gut-tearing hours of almost technical climbing; and, when a ram is finally found, precise, long shooting. We had done the first two. And now — with night closing fast, my X-Bolt Speed cracked and a heavy bullet whuck-k-k-ed through the ram — we'd done the third.
Never one to miss an opportunity, I bolted another cartridge in fast and hit the ram again and then again as it staggered down the slope stiff-legged, true to the species' reputation for unbelievable toughness.
Finally, it dropped onto a narrow ledge behind heavy brush, and the desert monarch moved no more.
Not too dehydrated to sweat, I toiled up the mountain, braced myself on the absurdly steep ground, and stood beside the ledge on which the aoudad lay, drinking in the vastness of the desert evening and the strong, masculine reek of the ram.