Texas is known for many things – Longhorns, cowboys, oil, brisket, presidents and the Alamo often come to mind, but free-range, low fence, spot-and-stalk hunting often don’t. Texas has long been a bit unique in its hunting heritage and style. With 99% of the state privately owned, and landowner rights running deep in its history, wildlife management and hunting tradition in TX have taken on a culture of their own. Public land hunting options are extremely limited. Even though many properties are huge and an animal may never see a fence in its lifetime, high-fence operations are common, often with exotic species from far reaches of the globe. Both native and non-native game numbers can be supported with extensive feeding operations, and as such that game is highly valued, and hunted.
The further West in TX you go however, the terrain and culture change a bit. Hill country changes to canyon and desert country. Big mountains border Mexico in Big Bend, and more native or free-range game dominates. Desert Big Horns, Javelina, mountain lion, whitetail and mule deer roam the country, and a few free range, wild exotics that were introduced in the 1900’s are also present, like aoudad sheep from the Barbary Coast of Northern Africa, and mouflon sheep from the Middle East. Both were introduced and thrived in habitat similar to their native lands, thrived with limited predators, and are huntable year-round as non-native species. Aoudad are well known for large, arcing horns, great eyesight, a fondness for steep and difficult terrain, stamina, and the challenge they present for the hunter. Mouflon sheep are also tough, mountain sheep from the Caucasus Mountains, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Irag and Iran. Most in Texas descend from the Armenian locality. They don’t achieve full curl horns like mature North American mountain sheep species do, but mature rams peak around ¾ curl.
Thus, on a recent March trip from the Orion Coolers factory in Tennessee down through Louisiana and across to Southwest Texas that was plagued by wild winter weather that spread all the way to New England, an invite to put some boot leather down on a sunny day on a low-fence, free range ranch near Del Rio was an opportunity not to be missed.
A late night drive with Ashley and Tripper led to a meeting with Jess Leudtke, manager of Cow Creek Ranch. Jess’s father, Terry, used to fish with Orion Team Member Charlie Ingram in Bassmaster tournaments. After an initial meet and greet, our caravan left pavement and lead to dirt and gravel, and a nice dinner at a remote, rustic homestead built in 1909.
Cow Creek Ranch is an approximately five thousand acre, low-fence, free-range ranch known for various Texas species – particularly whitetails and resident aoudad herds that find the steep cliffs and arid landscape quite welcoming. The plan was for Jess and I to spend a day exploring the property to check it out, take some game photos, and perhaps stalk some sheep, while Ashley and Tripper worked from the guest 5th wheel camper at the homestead.
The unusually cold night lead to a frosty Texas morning. Knowing it would warm up later, we loaded a frost-covered, beverage filled Orion 45 into the Polaris. I took some time to finger-etch the Cow Creek Ranch logo into the thick frost on the standing pad, and we hit the trail.
After some initial scouting from the Polaris, we set out on foot to glass a high vantage point atop a cliff band overlooking one of the valleys. The cold night kept a lot of game bedded, and while we could spot a number of deer in the distance, none of the sheep we were looking for were moving yet in the morning sun.
We shifted North along the ridge, quietly winding our way through cactus, cedars and loose rock to get a different vantage point. That’s when we spotted a dot in the distance – a dot that was a ram, frozen still, standing under a tree on a far ridge, warming himself broadside to the morning sun. It was two ridgelines away, over a mile. The decision was made quickly to stalk closer for a better look.
We backed away from the cliff and snuck through the thick brush, dropping down from the ridge, through a rocky basin, and up onto the next ridgeline. Before dropping down into the basin, we were able to take another look and confirm it hadn’t moved. That view was enough to confirm it was a mouflon sheep, but we couldn’t judge size, age or sex yet from the angles we had.
After popping up on the secondary ridge, we were in range of the sheep, but still having a hard time judging the age and sex from hundreds of yards away. He stood frozen, facing directly South, right toward our position. As we stood behind a cedar, both glassing and trying to judge, it finally turned its head East towards the sun – revealing a large set of horns, glistening in the early morning sun. We both dropped the binoculars and turned towards each other saying, ‘big ram’.
Jess was excited about having a mature mouflon ram for the lodge, and we made the call to take him if we could. We moved in the cedar shadows to get into position, and set up in a shadow with the shooting sticks for me, using his 7mm Remington Mag 700, from around 250 yards away, shooting across the small canyon between the ridgelines.
Set up, now we sat. And we sat. And we sat, waiting for the ram to turn and present a better shot. We took photos while we sat. We joked while we sat. We debated if the ram was too cold to move while we sat.
Finally, the head again turned East, and he made a step in that direction. Quickly aiming for a 3” expected drop at that range, I aimed a little high on the front shoulder, and as soon as he came full broadside and began to walk, squeezed the trigger. Impact was obvious, and the ram sprinted down the ridgeline, collapsing and tumbling off a ledge within 40 yards.
Ram down, and now the logistics of recovery began. The Polaris was only a mile or so behind us, but a canyon and thick country divided us from the ram. We made the call to hike back to the Polaris, and drive it down, around the cliffs, and up onto the ram’s ridgeline to a better position for the hard work of getting him off the mountain.
‘Hard work’ was an understatement when once atop the far ridge and scouting a descent path, I heard an ‘oh no’ from Jess as the Polaris came to rest. It was being put to hard work, but too much work for its front end, and we had a steering failure. Stranded. No tools to repair. Sun is up now and it’s getting hot. We’re miles from the ranch, atop a ridge, with a ram somewhere below us. Everything from here on out was meant to be on foot. NOW it’s an adventure.
Pounding some waters from the Orion to cool us off and lighten it up, we headed down the ridge, taking it with us until we knew our options. Some ravens were already closing in on the ram, so when they flew and gave his position away, we recovered him quickly. He was an old ram, with battle scars on his face and horns from fighting in his prime, and even missing his front teeth. A great mouflon ram to take.
Jess knew a another trail came into the bottom of the canyon that we shot over, so we made the call to get the ram down to that point, and leave him in some cool shade while we hiked miles back to camp. We carried valuable cargo like the Orion down too.
Successfully cached, we started the hike back to camp, telling stories about past hunts, trips with our fathers, history of the property, and enjoying the scenery. We passed cliffs and caves, incredible shapes of water-worked stone in creek beds, game sign, found old horse shoes, and generally enjoyed a proper Texas cross-country hike. As we crossed a dry creek bed, we picked up a half dozen shed whitetail antlers to add to the piles back at camp while we explained to Ashley the events of the day. I recognized the ‘boys will be boys’ look on her face.
By early afternoon, we were once again back at camp, with now truck-recovered game hung and being processed into the Orion for the trip to the freezer.
As I reflect back on the hunt, I often reflect back more on the breakdown and hike than the hunt itself. The hunt was textbook spot and stalk – hike into likely game country, spot your quarry, execute a successful stalk and shot. The breakdown and recovery were far from textbook, but are the things and lessons that make it special enough to hang in your memory banks, which is really what I find I’m really hunting after all.
About the Author, Damon Bungard:
With a kayak, fly rod, camera, bow, or gun in hand, exploring the rivers and mountains of the world keeps Damon on the move and in search of his next adventure. Growing up as a military dependent, travel and exploration is in his DNA. Damon has traveled from Chile to the ends of North America in search of the next rapid to run, river to explore, fish to catch, game to hunt, and memory to make.
As Product Manager for Jackson Kayak and Brand Manager for Orion Coolers, his passion for the outdoors translates directly into the products we offer. Damon, his wife Ashley, and mini-dachshund, Tripper, make their home base camp near our factory in Spencer, TN.