Every marriage is subject to tests, and my wife, Michelle, and I are being tested by a herd of aoudad on a rocky cliffside, a setting sun, and a 30-mph wind. The sheep are probably 350 yards off, but they’re on a steep incline, at least 45 degrees above us, and my angle-compensating rangefinder spits out a shoot-to distance of 270 yards. The animals are flighty, and light is fading fast in the final hour of our three-day hunt.
We’d snuck up a dry creek bed toward the sheep and had been peering over the bank on occasion to keep tabs on them. But as we neared the base of the cliff, we knew we couldn’t get closer without spooking them. I’d kicked clusters of cactuses out of the way so Michelle could get into a prone shooting position without being covered in quills. But the legs of her bipod weren’t long enough, so we frantically built a makeshift gun rest, starting with her pack, then some sweatshirts, and finally her binocular case.
With the gun’s fore-end resting across that, she can see the aoudad in her scope, but struggles to get steady given the wind and the distance. Finally, a nice ram stops broadside, and I hear the click of the rifle’s safety.
“OK,” Michelle says. “I’m going to shoot.”
When Michelle was a young teenager, she put together a presentation on a trifold board, complete with bullet points, in an effort to convince her dad to let her go hunting. Back in those days in rural Kentucky, going to deer camp really was a guys-only thing. But it didn’t stay that way. Michelle shot her first buck and her first turkey a few years later.
Today, in addition to being an elementary school teacher of 17 years, she’s a licensed hunting guide in Kentucky who’s been able to travel a bit to hunt various other states, too, including for alligators and hogs in Florida, turkeys and deer in Texas, and antelope and mountain lions in Colorado. She was bitten by the alpine bug during the lion hunt, and not long after that, she presented me with her own bucket list of hunting and fishing adventures—minus the trifold board. “Just in case an opportunity pops up in your line of work,” she said.
A sheep hunt topped her list, just above a trip to the Amazon to catch peacock bass on topwater lures. But short of drawing a near-impossible permit or spending most of her annual teaching salary on an outfitter, I knew a hunt for a bighorn or Dall sheep would stay in the bucket.
Then, a few years ago, I went aoudad hunting myself, down in Southwest Texas, and discovered an experience that’s like sheep hunting, sort of, but more attainable. Aoudad, also called Barbary sheep, are native to Northern Africa, where they’re all but extinct. But they’ve been introduced elsewhere, including western Texas, where they have adapted so well that they’re considered an invasive species that threatens native bighorn sheep and mule deer. As such, they can be hunted year-round in the Lone Star state.
Technically speaking, Aoudad are classified as the only species in the genus Ammotragus, but they are caprines, like goats and sheep, and everyone I know who hunts them just calls the latter. Their primary defense is the terrain they prefer; you’re most likely to see an aoudad standing on a steep incline, where a slip in the rocks would get you killed or maimed. They’re noted for sharp eyesight and a wary nature. Randy Lewis, owner of RLE Outfitters, guides in Colorado, New Mexico, and West Texas, and he has chased aoudad and true sheep, like desert bighorns, for years. He gives the nod to aoudad for being a little warier—and definitely tougher. Aoudad are notoriously resilient and can run a long way even after being hit lethally with a good bullet.
Aoudad rams and ewes both sport horns, but a big ram is unmistakable; he’ll weigh over 300 pounds, a third bigger than a ewe, and have long, curling horns that can exceed 30 inches. Rams also have flowing fur on the underside of the neck and front legs that could be described as a mane, but is most commonly called “chaps.” If you ask me, a mature aoudad ram is one of the most impressive-looking big-game animals in North America, even if he’s technically not North American.
Michelle said an aoudad hunt would do fine to scratch that itch to hunt sheep. When I got the chance to test out this overlanding off-road rig on a February hunt in Texas, I told Michelle to take a few days from school, and we booked an aoudad hunt with Randy Lewis. My buddy Forrest Binkley, who’s a videographer from Tennessee, joined us to film the trip.
My aoudad hunt several years ago was in the Davis Mountains, near Marfa in southwest Texas, and it lasted only a few hours. This one was destined to be more difficult. We were on the northern edge of the Llano Estacado, west of Amarillo and only a few miles from the New Mexico state line. The region is noted for caprock—essentially short mountains that are flat on top but plenty steep on the sides.
It’s a windy place. Amarillo is consistently ranked as the first- or second-windiest city in the United States, and nearby Lubbock isn’t far behind. But the gales forecasted for our three days of hunting were extreme even for that place, with 30-mph winds beginning shortly after daybreak each morning and staying that way all day, punctuated by 50-mph gusts. It was a dry, sand-blasting wind that made it impossible to hear one another speaking, difficult to steady binoculars or spotting scopes for glassing, and even difficult to stand at times. In camp at night, the wind left behind lingering mal de debarquement syndrome, which is the same rocking feeling you get after having been on a boat all day in a good chop.
Even the desert critters hunkered down because of it. We’d start hunting just after daylight each morning, slowly cruising roads and trails through the countryside and glassing areas where Lewis had found aoudad in the past, but the going was slow. Typically, herds of sheep move around throughout the day, feeding along the fringes of low valleys in the early morning and late evening, and then lazing about on the cliffsides during the day. That’s where they’re easiest to spot. Their flat brown coat is an uncanny color match to the desert landscape, but movement gives them away—that is, if they’re moving. Virtually every sheep we saw in three days was on the lee side of a cliff, either bedded or standing still as a gargoyle and invisible without high-powered optics.
A Big Problem
We saw a small band of young rams an hour into the first morning, but nothing else by 1 that afternoon. We’d taken Lewis’s UTV down a remote trail on the farthest edge of the property, some 10 miles from our pickups. We stepped out to glass, and as I unwrapped a sandwich from my pack, Lewis glanced at a rear tire on his machine. It was not only flat, but the sidewall was ripped, making a patch impossible. We had plenty of spare truck tires, both for Lewis’s pickup and the overland rig Michelle and I were driving, but no spare UTV tires.
“That’s the start of a problem right there,” Lewis said. He walked to a nearby peak and phoned a ranch hand for help, who said he could be there in an hour. With nothing to do but glass the country in front of us, Lewis and I set up spotting scopes and spread out by a hundred yards, while Michelle stood halfway between us, glassing through her binocular.
Michelle’s voice is soft, and my hearing isn’t great, but something in the breeze caught my attention, like the soft call of a bird. I looked up from the spotter and toward Michelle, who was calling out and waving to get either my attention or Lewis’s over the sound of the wind. She had spotted two young rams standing on the rim of a canyon almost 1,500 yards away. Lewis smiled and said, “I guess that flat tire happened for a reason.”
He told us to sneak in for a closer look while he waited for the ranch hand, because there would likely be a bigger ram around. “If you get on something, there’s another road up there, and that’s where I’ll be coming from to pick you up,” he said. “But it’s going to be several hours.”
Michelle, Forrest, and I used a wind-swept drainage and a house-size rock to conceal ourselves as we snuck toward the sheep. The terrain here has endless folds and nooks that could hide a hundred aoudad right in front of you. It’s a wonder anyone ever spots anything. As we neared the canyon, I saw a flash of brown up ahead, and a giant ram, bumped from just such a nook, casually hopped into the canyon and trotted up the far side, stopping once to look at us from 500 yards away before disappearing over the next hillside. No question he was a trophy.
The wind felt like a hair dryer in the face, but it did at least conceal our noise as we crossed the canyon ourselves and snuck up to the spine of the ridge on the opposite side. We spotted the ram immediately, bedded broadside just 183 yards away. Michelle settled into a prone position, with her gun steady on her bipod. I watched through my binocular as Forrest filmed. Despite the day’s difficulties, I thought Lewis would return to find us celebrating over a giant ram.
Michelle was steady and calm, and she waited for a slight break in the wind to squeeze the trigger. At the shot, a cloud of dirt kicked up behind the ram, but he flipped backward, righted himself immediately, scrambled back to the canyon, and leapt over the edge without hesitation.
“You hit him!” I said, and Forrest agreed—but Michelle wasn’t so sure.
“He didn’t run like he was hit,” she said.
The scuffs from the sheep’s hooves, where he’d scrambled out of his bed and into the canyon, were easy to find, but there was no blood. Lewis joined us a few hours later, as promised, and we reviewed the footage over and again on the tiny screen of Forrest’s camera. There was no denying the ram flipped onto his back at the shot—but also no denying that there was no blood and certainly no dead or wounded sheep anywhere that we could find. We combed both sides of the canyon and down into it as well, until an hour before nightfall.
Lewis wanted to review the shot footage on a larger screen at camp. Like most outfitters, he has a wounding policy where if an animal is hit beyond a graze, the hunt is over. Michelle and I have the same policy at our deer camps in Kentucky, and so she didn’t do much but watch out the window in silence during the ride back to camp.
Enlarged on a computer monitor and slowed frame by frame, Forrest’s footage showed clearly what happened. Michelle’s bullet hit an unseen, pinky-size mesquite limb 10 feet in front of the bedded aoudad; it then glanced up into a second, smaller limb, all of which sent it off course and just creasing the hair on top of the ram’s back. Lewis watched the video over and again, finally looked at Michelle and said, “I’m going to call that a superficial wound at worst, and more like a clean miss. But that’s a hell of a ram, and we’re going to see if we can find him again.”
We spent until lunchtime the following morning driving, walking, and glassing every wash and cut near the canyon without seeing a single sheep, much less the big ram. We decided to hunt a different area of the ranch that afternoon, where Lewis finally spotted a band of sheep through his spotting scope, more than a mile away. But the action was short-lived. We drove along a circuitous route to get a little closer, climbed to a vantage that we thought was 500 yards away, and glassed for the next two hours. We never saw the sheep again.
Somehow, the forecast was for it to be windier on the final day, save for a two-hour break right after daylight. We got to the ranch early with high hopes. Mule deer were up and moving a bit, and we saw a couple coyotes, the first ones of the week. But no sheep, and the gusts returned in force by 10 a.m. “This sucks,” Lewis said. “I’ve only had one other sheep hunter in my entire career get skunked.”
“I had my chance,” Michelle said.
There was an hour of daylight left when we turned into one final draw, where Lewis said we were going to glass the cliff faces before calling the hunt. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’d pulled my binoculars to my face that day to look at nothing, but that time, I instantly spotted two sheep bedded side-by-side on an almost sheer cliff face, 800 yards away. As we looked the area over, Lewis spotted another small band, and then another. All told, 25 aoudad were scattered across the hillside, more than we’d seen all week combined.
“I don’t see any big rams at all,” Lewis said. “But we’re out of time. I think it would be easy enough to get within range of them.” He pulled his truck forward just a bit for a better look, and as if on cue, his front driver’s-side tire exploded on a stob.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
We stepped out to inspect the damage—another blown sidewall—but Lewis had a jack and a spare this time. He looked at me and said, “You guys slip up there and kill a sheep, and I’ll try not to make too much noise fixing this tire.”
From 270 yards, with the gun’s fore-end resting across her pack and two sweatshirts and a binocular case, Michelle shoots, and her bullet blows up a rock well underneath and to the left of the ram, sending him scrambling over the caprock and out of sight.
“You missed him,” I say, watching another group of sheep turn back to the left and down the cliffside.
“I’m done with this,” Michelle says. She ejects the empty case out of her rifle, drops the magazine out, sticks it in her pocket, and closes the bolt. She then steps back into the creek bed. “I’m going to the truck. I’ve had all the chances I deserve.” But Forrest is still watching the sheep, some of which are coming back over the caprock and down the slope, toward us. The same howling wind and distance that made the shot so difficult could also be giving us an opportunity because the sheep don’t seem to know we’re around.
“They don’t have a clue we’re here,” Forrest says. “I think we could get closer.” I watch as three sheep drop behind a cedar growing on the hillside, and then I look at Michelle. She shakes her head no, but then fishes another cartridge from her pocket, tops off the rifle magazine, and reloads the gun.
We sprint ahead, knowing full well the sheep are as likely to see us and bolt as they are to stay put. But we do our best to stay behind cedar trees, and doing that, we gain 150 yards. I set up my shooting sticks in front of a dirt mound, and Michelle takes a seat. It’s the perfect spot, but the sheep move behind another tree, and we have to adjust. She settles the sticks again, for a standing shot this time, just as the first of the three sheep, a ewe, pops back into sight.
“Are you steady?” I ask.
“Quiet!” she says.
“One hundred forty-seven yards,” I whisper—and then I do my best to shut up. A young ram steps out next, feeds away for a moment, and then leaps up onto a rock outcropping, where he stands broadside. “Right there,” I say, hopefully so quietly that Michelle can’t hear me.
The ram buckles hard at the shot but doesn’t fall. Instead, he leaps from the outcropping and out of sight. We stand and sprint again, with only minutes of shooting light left. I reach the outcropping first, look just below it, and smile. Michelle is right behind me. “You have blood? I don’t see how I could’ve screwed that one up too. I was on him solid.”
Finally, she takes a moment to look down and see the ram dead at the bottom of the hill, 10 yards away, hit perfectly through the heart. She begins punching at the sky like prizefighter in training. She hugs me, hugs Forrest and, for the first time in her life, gets a close look at an aoudad.
It’s slap dark as we walk out, our packs stuffed with meat and horns, and Michelle’s humming to herself—Unskinny Bop, by Poison—which she admits has been stuck in her head all week, but she hasn’t been in the mood to sing it aloud till now. Randy is waiting at the truck with a shiny new tire installed and three cold beers fished from his cooler.
We stand and sip and laugh and hug and shake hands, and for the first time all week, the wind lays down, as if to be sure no one misses a single word of the story of Michelle’s bucket-list sheep.