Lance Mitchell: 30 Mile Ram

Lance MitchellHunting

Seeing your name next a draw result that says “Successful” for Desert Bighorn is indescribable. Realizing immediately after that you’ve just left a job with 6 weeks vacation and the new job only gave you 7 days for this year is PANICKING! Especially when the unit you drew is arguably considered one of the toughest in the state. It definitely wasn’t the ideal year to draw but with sheep tags you take it when you can.

Between starting a new job and moving halfway across the state there wasn’t much time for scouting. Fortunately for me I had a huge start thanks to a mutual friend Matt that had held the same tag last year. His recent info and numerous pictures of mature rams kept me from completely freaking out all fall. Not to mention pictures of his own giant ram from last year.

From the start I determined that as always I’d hunt DIY with help from a few close friends. With the hunt taking place in the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness access would be a major consideration. In preparation for the hunt I decided to buy a couple mammoth donkeys to ride and pack on. Traveling 2200 miles from AZ to the eastern edge of OK and back to pick them up over a weekend was exhausting but knowing I had the ability to haul water into my spike camp was worth the trip.

With opening day getting closer the group of people that wanted to hunt predictably dwindled down to a couple. Nash would hunt with me on my first few days. Chase would come down and hunt a few days after that. After that I’d be on my own for a few days and then they’d return for the last couple days. Matt had also offered to hunt every weekend with me if needed to get my sheep. As usual those plans would be pretty flexible (and luckily so!) as the time got closer.

Training for work would take me Phoenix. Plans were made to travel to my nephews house to pick up my donkeys and head out sheep hunting as soon as training was complete. With the donkeys picked up I called Nash and made plans on where to meet. Just a few miles down the road all trailer lights went out. A quick call to a mechanic friend and I had the problem pinpointed as a fuse. Another quick call to Nash and a fuse was picked up and on its way. With that problem solved it was time to settle in for hours of driving. After being stopped by Border Patrol a couple times (this area is frequented by human/drug traffickers) and being buzzed by a “blacked out” helicopter right in my headlights we reached camp at 4 a.m.

With a short nap and the excitement of finally being sheep hunting we got ready to go. Right about the time we had everything ready I realized one my donkeys was showing signs of colic. With an hour spent agonizing over what to do I decided the health of Sweet took priority. Throwing everything back into the truck and donkeys into the trailer we headed back to Tucson. Not the start I was hoping for! 4 hours later we dropped the donkeys and turned around for the long drive back. A couple stops for a short nap and we were back to Nash’s truck by 3 a.m. With another short night behind us we loaded packs and finally we were sheep hunting!

In this area you’ve got several miles walk just to access the mountains from the wilderness boundary. Those miles went fast as we anticipated glassing rams. Hours and miles later I spotted our first sheep. Even though it ended up being a lone yearling ram we were excited. We realized after watching him that this is tough country to glass effectively. There are so many cuts and pockets that sheep seem to just appear and disappear at will. Many miles later we spotted a ewe and lamb right before dark. Headlamps on we hiked back to spike camp for a fire and some Mountain House. Sleep came quickly after we ate. The 2nd day started with Nash finding the same yearling ram and then in another drainage he spotted a 130″ ram. Not 15 minutes later the yearling was joined by a 140″ ram. A couple hours glassing spent in this spot and we decided there were no other sheep in either spot.

It was decided that with the warm temps we should hike south and look into a canyon complex with a drinker in it. The miles go fast in country like this and we soon found ourselves in some great looking country. With swirling wind all we could do was keep glassing and slowly moving through saddles to look at new ground. Several times we came across beds that had been used recently but never laid eyes on another sheep all day. Another walk by headlamp and we were back at camp. Nash was due to leave and Chase due to arrive tonight. The thought of missing out on the hunt was too much for Nash and he decided to stay an extra day. Chase had our GPS coordinates and with that info plus a flashlight stuck in the upper forks of a tree at camp he got to us around 10 that night. He had packed in some much needed water and we were once again stocked for a few days.

Next morning we were up and gone long before daylight. We had a goal in mind based on info from our friend Matt’s hunt last year. As it grew light Chase spotted the first sheep of the day. A ewe and lamb were a welcome start to the day. Chase offered to climb high on his fresh legs and Nash and I would stay lower. Shortly after we split up Nash spotted a 130″ ram and 5 ewes a mile away. Over the next hour a few individual sheep were glassed up throughout this drainage. The decision was made by radio to push further in and for Chase to go over into another drainage. Nash commented that he needed to leave by noon in order to hike to camp and then out to the truck for the long drive home. I told him to leave whenever he needed and if he didn’t want to walk another mile out just to glass for half an hour it was fine with me. Intent on not missing a minute Nash went up canyon with me. Settling in to our chosen glassing spot Nash commented that he had 15 minutes before it was time to head out. Being close to lunch time I asked him to boil water on his jetboil so I could make a Mountain House before he left. I no sooner closed by bag of chili mac and looked up to see a ram’s head skylined across the canyon. Dropping my lunch and grabbing binoculars was all Nash needed to know he’d made the right choice in staying. Nash got on the radio and called Chase to have him hold tight since we had a shooter across canyon from us. It only took me a few seconds to decide this ram was everything I was looking for. My goal for the hunt was a mature ram with good mass and broomed tips and he had all of it. A quick check with the rangefinder surprised me. The ram was only 353 yards away and I was in a position with a solid rest. Nash had the video cam on and running and was desperately trying to keep me calm. With a dead solid rest I had the Vortex scope at 24x and the crosshairs were slowly settling down. I don’t like a frontal shot at this distance but with one step he’d be out of sight in a maze of rock shelves. We talked about it and decided that if he acted like he was leaving I’d take the shot since I was comfortable and such a good rest. 12 minutes after Nash had started rolling the camera the ram had enough and took a step to leave. At the shot he threw his head up and jumped forward into a rock cut. Nash watched the top end of the cut while I covered the bottom. While we talked about what had happened Nash spotted the ram at the top of the cut facing us again. I quickly set up on him and as soon as the crosshairs settled I squeezed one off. Nash excitedly said he tumbled back into the cut. The shot felt good and Nash was confident that he was down. All this time Chase is on the ridge top anxiously waiting for news. A quick radio call later and he came over to our side and we directed him above the cut to look for the ram. Nash and I were both shocked to hear Chase say “he’s bedded under a tree looking at me” followed quickly by “he’s running down the cut!” As he came down the mountain I got back on him and we verified it was the same sheep by the growing amount of blood on his front end. One more shot from the Proof Research 6.5 Creedmore and Chase called to say he went down and rolled out of sight. The last thing I saw in my scope was the sheep dropping hard then seeing his white belly. At this point everyone felt good about it and after a few more minutes Chase once again made his way over above the ram. This time the news was great. “He’s down for good!” was exactly what I wanted to hear.

After calming down enough to be able to safely climb down off our rock pile Nash and I made our way across the canyon and up to the ram. All I can say is it everything I’d ever hoped it would be. Walking up on animal tough enough to call this place home for 9-10 years is something that I can’t explain. I’m thankful for that opportunity and to share it with 2 close friends. His will to live was all that kept him on his feet after a couple solid hits. While it wasn’t the one shot kill we all hope for it was much better than the slow death that a place this unforgiving has in store for an old sheep.

Chase set about the enjoyable task of taking hundreds of pictures to remember this moment by. Soon enough we had all the pictures done and Nash had him skinned out for a life size mount in no time. Sometime during the picture taking Nash pulled his GPS that had been on track the whole hunt. We were just over 30 miles on foot in the 3 days leading up to the shot. The pictures and the mount will be reminders long after the memory starts to fade the details. With the meat boned out and packs loaded we set out to make it back to the trucks so Nash could get home for work. By the end of the pack out I was was down to putting one foot in front of the other. The sight of the trucks in the moonlight was a welcome sight. While Chase and I prepared to celebrate Nash began the long drive home. His trip was made better by making phone calls to both my wife and Matt sharing the news of our success.

One more trip in to pick up spike camp and Chase and myself were ready to head home. The desert had one surprise for me though. A flat tire was small price to pay for what we were given and in no time we were on the road. Calls to my wife and other family made the time fly by. Talking to Matt I couldn’t thank him enough for all the valuable information and motivation. Even though he wasn’t there he was a huge part of our success.

I drove the 200 miles to my parents house so my dad could hold my ram. Earlier this year he had a major stroke and he was anxiously waiting to get his hands on those red horns! This was the first major hunt of my life that he wasn’t able to be a part of. Every day he’s an inspiration to never give up. His speech and mobility have both been greatly affected but he doesn’t let it stop him. Earlier this fall with his walker and great effort he was able to shoot a mule deer buck. In my mind I could hear him telling me to breath and squeeze when I shot my ram. No matter if he’s able to physically stand next to me or not he’ll always be there on my hunts.

Thanks to my wife Tara for surviving months living in a travel trailer with 4 kids and managing everything that goes with that while I chased sheep. Thanks to Josh for going along to OK for the donkeys. Kim and Margot at Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge for being amazingly easy to work with. Matt,Chase,and Nash for more than can be listed.

Now as luck would have it we are planning the next once in a lifetime hunt….Tara has 1 of the 2 any buffalo tags for the Kaibab in August….