Desert Bighorn in Southern California
Written By: Chef John McGannon
George and the draw
After pursuing nature’s harvests for the past four decades, June 2010 will go down as one of the most exhilarating times for me as a hunter. The ritual of applying for all of the western states starts in January and runs through June. For those of us who look to the calendar with the excitement of a seven-year-old waiting for Santa, the hope that lady luck will smile upon us “this year” is what keeps us up at night. Well, this year she did with a coveted Desert Bighorn Sheep Tag, one of only sixteen tags available for the whole state of California!
I had received an email from my good friend George from Redding, CA asking me why CA Fish and Game hadn’t posted the draw results towards the end of June. I told him that they were scheduled to be posted in a few days. Several days later, he sent me another email saying they had posted the results and as usual he hadn’t drawn any of the tags he wanted. I was about to run out of the house but figured I should check my results. As I rambled through the F&G website I punched up my applications and read down the list, G-1 Deer: Drawn, Antelope: not drawn, Elk: not drawn, Bighorn Sheep: DRAWN, Unit 505. Drawn? I immediately had to grab a seat, as this couldn’t possibly be true. I recall driving to the high school to pick up my son with the most ridiculous expression on my face and when he got in my truck he said, “What’s the matter?” I guess it was pretty obvious.
What do I do next?
Having been in the hunting/wildlife conservation industry conducting wild game cooking seminars, raising millions of dollars for wildlife habitat, and feeding most of the industry’s insiders for the past twenty years would prove to be fruitful. Useful information and contacts came from all angles. I soon realized that this, “once in a lifetime event” was going to be very different from any of my previous hunts. I am a dedicated detail freak and this hunt was all about the details, Outfitter vs. D.I.Y., am I really in Sheep Shape, long distance shooting comfort, trophy ID knowledge, sheep country gear? WOW, how exciting!
The first thing I did was get the names of those familiar with desert sheep and more importantly the San Gorgonio Unit that I would be hunting. The name Terry Anderson from San Gorgonio Outfitters kept coming up from just about everyone I spoke with. San Gorgonio has been Terry’s backyard for the past 50 years. Terry works with all the sheep organizations and is involved with habitat projects year round. He is the San Gorgonio Sheep Dude! I was able to go down to Southern California and meet with him in July for a brief tour of the area. When evaluating all my options, I could plainly see that teaming up with Terry and his crew was the only logical choice.
I would have six months to get ready for climbing up and down the terrain that desert bighorns call home. Luckily for me, conditioning is a life-style, so I knew what I had to do to get ready. I also knew that this hunt would be an extreme effort and my training required an extreme approach. One of my sons plays for a tournament soccer club and practices at the local high school which has a good-sized stadium. Twice a week, I would do long sets of sprints up and down the stadium bleachers. I’m also lucky to have a large area of open space in my back yard that goes from sea level to 1,000 feet at a pretty good angle, which became my daily hiking routine, in addition to my normal exercise program.
6 months is a long time.
I basically walked on air for the next six months, knowing what a privilege I had coming to me. As the year whittled down I checked off the months and the obligations I had to take care of before late January/early February. As the earlier sheep seasons opened, I felt connected to this very unique/rare brotherhood. In today’s technologically advanced society I was in constant contact with Terry and his adventures in the other units. I was able to see photos of successful hunters on Facebook literally minutes after the smoke had cleared. Talk about keeping your blood flowing!
The San Gorgonio Unit has the latest hunt of the year, which worked out very well for me, as I would be tied up with events in December and at the Sacramento ISE show until late January. It’s a very small world when you have one of only sixteen anything, especially a highly coveted sheep tag. This could not have been more evident than at the Sac ISE show. I couldn’t believe how many people knew I had this opportunity and came by my booth with pictures, well wishes and stories of what I was about to experience. I even got to see a picture of the beautiful ram taken with a bow by the other tag holder for Unit 505! Sleep was becoming more and more difficult as visions of desert bighorns filled my thoughts constantly!
Before I knew it, the show was finally over and I was heading down to the southern California high desert with my friends, Tony Naples and Christian Bourlette. Terry and his guides Jake Franklin, Andrew Pontious, and Pat Butler had spent the past three weeks scouting the massive unit in search of class-four rams. San Gorgonio has produced the number one ram in the state as well as many other top ranked sheep, but for unknown reasons they were having a very hard time locating the class of ram we were looking for. The early season rains we had in December should have pushed these sheep down from their lofty 12,000-foot summer homes but they remained undetected. Finally, they found two class-four rams. The first was in an area that Terry felt would present an opportunity for his archery hunter. The second was going to be my adventure. Not having a plan “b” was very uncomfortable for Terry and his crew. They’d worked very hard to locate good rams, but there are no guarantees when it comes to desert bighorn sheep. The chance of them disappearing in this vast landscape was very likely, so there was no time to lose!
After a ten-hour drive to the southern California desert we arrived at Terry’s at 8 pm. We quickly decided to call it a night when I was informed that 4 am was the established wake-up time and I was going to have to climb a 2,500 foot sheer cliff to get to the area that held these sheep. The morning came quickly and after a quick cup of coffee and a protein shake we were off to the drainage where they had seen the group of rams earlier.
We left the truck before first light and hiked about 2 miles to the foot of a very steep, long ridgeline that stretched to the north. Terry, Tony, and Christian stayed behind to set up their spotting scopes to watch from afar. Jake, Pat, Andy and I would make the 2,500 foot ascent to where they suspected the rams might be. The sun’s rays of light barely scratched through the darkness allowing us to glass upslope and after a couple of minutes we made out the silhouettes of rams bedded on a nearly vertical slope at the top of this very steep ridge, about a mile away. It was clear, even from that distance, that one of those rams was the “man amongst boys”.
We ducked behind the grade and proceeded to climb up the opposing slope out of sight of the sheep. The ridgeline had several bench-like stretches that allowed us to peer over the side to see if we could still see the bedded rams. As we made it up the first four benches, the rams were still there. As the morning warmed, the thermals were rising from both sides of the ridgeline, which took our scent up and away from the bedded rams. Just the day before, the wind was blowing 25 mph. Today, it was almost dead calm; conditions could not have been better. As we got closer the rams had gotten up front their resting places and started to feed down the western side of the slope. We had one more bench to work up before getting to where we’d last seen the sheep. We removed our packs and figured out the quietest route to the cliff’s edge. We crawled the last fifteen yards to a spot we felt gave us the best vantage position to view the valley below. As we got to the edge we peered over the side in an attempt to remain undetected. We were looking down to our left, which is where we thought they might have gone, but nothing. As I stretched my neck to see over the edge I heard Jake, who was laying to my left, say in a very low voice, “THEY ARE RIGHT THERE TO THE RIGHT!”
They were literally right under us as the cliff we were laying on was a sheer 90-degree drop for about 65 yards. The four of us were kind of bunched together, which made adjusting to their newly discovered location a bit cumbersome. The first rams I saw were a group of eight class-three rams bunched together. I scanned that group but couldn’t see the big one. I heard Andy whisper that the big one was to the left of the bunch. I looked, but couldn’t see him standing alone because there was a clump of desert brush right in the way. I slid my body over to my right and I didn’t need any confirmation that this ram was what we were looking for.
I had my shooting sticks set up but they weren’t going to work because of the extreme angle down to the ram. I had to nearly hang over the edge of the cliff to get the ram in my sights. Pat, who was lying to my right quickly grabbed his backpack and laid it down for me to use as a rest, but that placed my rifle too low. He quickly turned the pack vertical and I was able to see the ram clear of any obstacles. There certainly were a lot of things going on and it seemed like forever, but in reality it was mere seconds. With all the activity I started to feel like I had to make things happen quickly, in fact a little too quickly. I placed the cross hairs on the ram’s shoulder, who was standing broadside. I heard Andy say, “seventy-four yards” and as I squeezed the trigger I felt a slight thump, with all the adjustments I forgotten to take off the safety! At that very moment you would think panic might set in, but just the opposite happened. I clicked off the safety and felt a very calming feeling as though everything was going to be all right. I told myself that I had done this hundreds of times before and I just needed to get back on track. The ram was facing down slope with his head turned back to his left looking up at us on the cliff. There was a shadow cast across his left flank from his sweeping horns. By this time, the sheep were getting a little nervous. I resettled the cross hairs on the ram’s shoulder as he started to turn his head back to the right looking for an escape route. As the shadow cleared his flank my 180 gr. Nosler® Partition® found its way through both shoulders, dropping him in his tracks. I was so focused on that ram; I never heard the blast from the rifle. He rolled down the seventy degree slope for at least a hundred yards, eventually coming to rest just before a waterfall-like gulley. The sight of this magnificent animal lying there, knowing all that went into this moment was very powerful.
As the guides rejoiced in our accomplishment I shared something with them, I told them that his name was going to be “Pops”, not because he was, “a man amongst boys” which he was, but because today, 1/27/11 would have been my Dad’s seventy ninth birthday. As the four of us recollected the events that just took place and what it represented to each of us, there was a little extra moisture up on that dry desert mountain.
We now had to climb down this steep slope to collect Pops. Luckily we all had walking sticks, which proved to be a necessity. It took nearly forty five minutes to navigate down to the sheep. Once I got to him, I couldn’t believe how beautiful he was. His magnificent chocolate colored horns swept up and out with no flaws or chunks missing. His winter coat was unblemished and had a rich fawn color. Now I know why there’s so much passion and commitment for these animals!
“Pops” is gorgeous!
We spent the next hour or so caping and breaking down every piece of edible meat we could get. We packed four backpacks full for the journey down the mountain. Pat was our lead guide, navigating the treacherous terrain, hoping we wouldn’t fall off the face of the earth. Terry, Tony and Christian hiked to the bottom of our drainage and waited with packs full of Gatorade, which we really needed at that point.
It took us six hours to pack off that slope and when we finally reached our access point, Terry and Andy headed back to where we parked the trucks. My body was telling me that I had just experienced something very special. Pat, Jake, Christian, Tony and I sat in the shade of a tree admiring this incredible monarch. My thoughts drifted back to when we were up on that cliff, looking down on this ram and I stumbled a bit with the safety, only to have things settle down in a very surreal manner. I couldn’t help but think that the comfort I felt up on that cliff was the hand of a fallen marine warrior telling me, “You can do it.” Thanks Pops!
My first desert bighorn was taken on 1/27/11,
This was Terry Anderson’s 127th sheep taken,
1/27/11 would have been my Dad’s 79th birthday,
Pops was scored by CA Fish and Game at 172…..I guess 127 would not have had the same ring