As the current hunting offseason deepens, I often find myself going through back issues of Bowhunter magazine, rereading dog-eared stories like one a few years ago of writer Brandon Ray chasing aoudad sheep in the Palo Duro Canyon lands of West Texas.
If I’m not reading about hunting, then I’m allowing Sportsman Channel television programs like GSN’s The Boddington Experience to further fuel my dreams.
Especially when seeing shows like the one that Col. Craig Boddington filmed with well-known guide Hunter Ross of Desert Safaris.
“The beauty is stunning and the scenic (area) and the critters will make you start planning your poor man’s sheep hunt,” said Boddington.
If you’re noticing a theme here – sheep hunting – you’d be correct.
Because like countless other big game hunters across the U.S., I dream of one day roasting tenderloins in a high-altitude camp as the flickering firelight casts its glow on a set of wild sheep horns strapped to my backpack.
Be it a fully curled Rocky Mountain bighorn, a Dall, a Stone or a Desert, I don’t care – I just want to be a sheep hunter, the kind that the legendary Jack O’Connor was as he roamed the withering heights with his .270 Winchester in hand.
In fact, his well-known book, Sheep and Sheep Hunting, sits on a book shelf a few feet away as I actually write this story.
But unfortunately, being a sheep hunter is my dream, not my reality thanks to staggeringly high hunting costs and precious few tags available through state draws.
There is hope, however, for a wannabe sheep hunter like myself, hope that comes in the form of a beautiful nomadic import, an animal with sweeping horns and a shaggy coat that have found their way to American shores.
Those sheep would be the imported aoudad sheep, an economical and offseason hunting opportunity existing in certain portions of the American southwest.
Hence the poor man’s sheep hunt referenced above by Col. Boddington.
Never heard of the aoudad? That’s understandable since the aoudad – or Barbary sheep as they are more appropriately known – are native to the rocky, desert mountains of North Africa.
But since finding their way across the Atlantic a number of years ago, the sheep have made themselves at home in the similarly dry and rugged terrain found in the mountainous portions of Texas and New Mexico where they were released many years ago.
Today, huntable populations of free-ranging, wild aoudad sheep can be found roaming the Texas Panhandle’s Palo Duro Canyon, the mountains of southwestern Texas and the nearby craggy peaks of southern New Mexico.
With a beautiful sandy brown coat, shaggy chaps and golden, semi-circle horns, the aoudad offers a supreme hunting challenge and a price tag more in the range of a Midwestern whitetail bowhunt.
Call an aoudad adventure a poor man’s sheep hunt if you will, but the aches and pains that a trek into the rugged outback of Texas or New Mexico are real and the photos and memories from such a hunt are priceless.
So says Doug Rodgers, a big-game hunter from Whitesboro, Texas, a small town just north of Dallas/Fort Worth.
Hunting with guide Bubba Glosson, of Southwest Trophy Hunts (www.swhunts.com), Rodgers used the aoudad sheep hunting experience to see if he wanted to spend even bigger dollars for sheep (and mountain goats) in Alaska.
He did eventually make it to Alaska, taking a big Dall sheep ram and a record-class mountain goat billy before returning to the Lower 48.
But not before he cut his high-alpine hunting teeth in the rugged Chinati Mountain range between Presidio and Marfa, Texas.
“This is a really good introduction to sheep hunting,” said Rodgers. “Bubba knew that I had a dream to hunt sheep and this is relatively inexpensive when compared to other sheep hunts.
“I’d highly recommend it for that reason. There are no special permits and you can go every year if you want.”
After hunting hard and climbing through steep, prickly countryside at some 7,000 feet, Rodgers and his guides were finally able to spot a 31-inch aoudad with their optics.
When the crosshairs settled into place, the hunter touched off the shot with his .300 Win Mag rifle and the ram was his.
“This was pure hunting in big country,” said Rodgers said. “As with any other sheep hunting, you basically hunt with your eyes and anything that you’ll use is carried in on your back.”
While Rodgers remains smitten with the sheep hunting bug, with a son about to head off to Texas A&M University, he knows future sheep hunts may be just that, well into the future.
But if he gets to chase West Texas aoudads again, he’ll be plenty happy in the meantime.
“I think it’s as authentic an experience as you’ll ever have,” said Rodgers, a western big-game hunting enthusiast with a couple of Boone & Crockett mule deer to his credit.
“I’ve been in some of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico’s, sheep country and this is the same kind of country and experience.”
Outdoor writer and longtime hunter Bill Miller told me something similar after his own aoudad hunting experience in southwestern Texas.
“The Davis Mountains are mountains like an outsider would never expect in Texas,” said the Midwestern resident. “They are very steep and the elevation is surprising for Texas. It’s the perfect environment for those sheep.”
“The climbing, some of it is straight up and down,” said Miller. “While some of these cliffs are only 40 to 50 feet tall instead of 400 to 500 feet, I still think it would hurt quite a bit to fall off.”
Rodgers found the same thing to be true on his West Texas hunt.
“This is a physically demanding and mentally challenging hunt,” he said. “This type of hunting involves plenty of mind over matter when you find yourself climbing in spots where you are six inches from falling off a 200-foot cliff.”
Sounds like sheep country to me, or so I’ve read from O’Connor.
With superb eyesight, good smell and solid hearing to go with their inhospitable home turf, Miller found out these sheep are certainly no pushovers for hunters.
Surprisingly stout, mature rams can weigh as much as 300 pounds on the hoof and can be difficult to bring down.
In fact, Miller recommends hunters bring bigger caliber rifles ranging from a .30-06 and on up.
Rodgers agrees: “If you’re rifle hunting like I was, you’ll need a good flat-shooting and lightweight rifle. (And) you’ll also need some very good boots and top-end optics.”
For those looking for the ultimate sheep hunting challenge, bowhunting aoudads might be it, although as mentioned above, writer Brandon Ray of Amarillo, Texas, often makes it look easy in the rugged and steep draws of the Palo Duro Canyon region.
Bowhunting aoudad sheep can certainly be a tough proposition in the mountainous terrain further to the southwest says Steve Jones of Backcountry Hunts (www.backcountryhunts.com).
Based out of the Carlsbad, New Mexico, area, Jones served as Miller’s guide on his hunt. And while he thinks bowhunting is challenging, he has seen first-hand it is not impossible for a wide ranging aoudad.
“It is a tough hunt for a bowhunter,” said Jones, who like Glosson, has been guiding hunters since the mid-80s.
“We had a bowhunter (a number of years ago) who was the first truly dedicated bowhunter who came (out armed) only with his bow.
“He came and got his sheep with a bow and got a pretty nice one, too.”
While aoudads typically go through the rut during the month of October, for the most part, Jones said that hunters see aoudads as an offseason diversion.
He also said veteran sheep hunters who have chased more famous sheep species in rugged mountain ranges much farther to the north and west will find searching the Davis Mountains for a trophy aoudad is the real deal.
“I’ve personally hunted Dall sheep and I’ve found aoudads to be every bit as difficult to hunt,” said Jones. “It’s amazing how they’ve adapted to this desert country out here.
“They look like they belong out here, be it Texas or New Mexico.”
Rodgers fully agrees that aoudads belong in the southwest and that they are highly challenging, even after chasing the big white Dall sheep of Alaska’s rugged mountains.
“There is some beautiful stuff in West Texas not far from the Big Bend region,” he said. “It’s hard to believe we have that kind of mountain scenery in Texas. I enjoy being in that kind of country and doing that style of pure hunting.”
Make no mistake about it; economical or not, there is nothing substandard about chasing aoudad sheep in the southwestern U.S. during the offseason months.
“There is nothing poor about an aoudad sheep,” said Rodgers. “It’s a beautiful trophy that lives in challenging terrain where everything you touch is jagged and sticks to you.
“This is trophy that you earn by your boot leather and by plenty of muscle aches.”
Just like Jack O’Connor did way back when.