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Orocopia Sheep Hunt

by Robert Charkowitz
California Wild Sheep - Summer 2014

article robert charkowitz

It was late one night in June when I got a call from my father. He said, "I just got home and there's a letter from the DFW for you. Looks like you're going to be in a bit of trouble." I hadn't hunted in the last year, so I had no idea what I could have possibly done to incur their wrath. He then said, "You're going to have to get in shape and start practicing your shooting, because you've just been drawn for desert bighorn in the Orocopias ... the hunt of a lifetime!" I recalled my dad explaining to me his strategy for entering me in sheep zones when I was at home on break from school, so I was familiar with the name of the zone, but at that time, little did I know what a big deal this actually was.

When I returned home for the summer, we began preparing for the hunt. We started by calling hunters who had hunted the zone in years past and anyone else who might have information to try to learn as much as we could short of visiting the zone for ourselves. Two things we learned were that the zone had very rugged terrain and that hiring a guide would
be extremely beneficial. Since I was graduating from UC Davis after the fall quarter, we initially planned on doing the hunt on our own, due to my ability to hunt for the whole season. But after talking to Tim Mercer and Cliff St. Martin of Dry Creek Outfitters, we knew that they would be an invaluable asset to have guiding me on the hunt. They were friendly, helpful, and supportive of us doing the hunt on our own. They seemed more interested in my success on the hunt than having me as a client, and it was that which made us choose to hire their services.

When I got back to Davis for school at the end of summer I worked out at the gym frequently, but with the lack of hills in Davis, I was limited to flat land hikes with a heavy pack. To supplement my workout with hikes, for which I was told there was no substitute, I fit extra trips into my schedule to hike the steep hills around Lake Berryessa. Along with getting in shape to traverse the steep and rocky terrain of the Orocopias, I had to get used to shooting my Remington 700 in .270 Winchester. My dad cooked up some loads using Barnes 130 grain bullets on top of Dupont IMR 4350 for my hunt, and I had to get used to shooting up to 300 yards. I had never practiced at ranges greater than 100 yards. On the first trip to the range we took nine hours trying out over a dozen different cartridge loads, trying to find the one that my gun shot most accurately at 300 yards. Once the load was selected, subsequent trips were spent shooting from different rest positions until I was getting good groups at 300 yards.

Three weeks before my hunt, during my Thanksgiving break, my dad and I headed down south to scout a bit and become familiar with the roads in the Orocopia Mountains. We wanted to make sure we got experience walking the terrain and had a better idea of what to expect. While the climbs were steeper than expected and we saw no sheep on our brief expedition, it confirmed our choice to hire a guide for the hunt.

A couple days before my hunt started my dad got a call from Cliff to let us know that the auction tag hunter had harvested the ram thought to be the biggest in the zone, which Cliff and Tim called "Corkscrew," and that they wouldn't be in the zone when my hunt started. This news was a relief. I no longer had to try to finish my finals, move out of my room in Davis, and get packed and down to the zone all in a day. Now I could relax, take my time (do all that stuff in two days instead of one), and hunt on my own terms without having to compete with another hunter in the zone at the same time.

On Sunday, December 15, we pulled into sheep camp as the sun was setting and finally got to meet the whole outfit. We were a bit surprised by the total number of guides in camp. Besides Tim and Cliff, there was Cliff's son Matt, Brooks, Shawn, and Ben. They had been on the mountain looking for sheep before we arrived.

That night over dinner we reviewed some pictures the guides had taken that day. There were a lot of ewes, but only a couple of nice rams. Tim pointed to the biggest of the rams they had footage of and estimated he would score around 175. My dad was a bit skeptical of how Tim could tell the score of a sheep by looking at a slightly blurry photo taken from over 1,000 yards away. My dad wanted me to take a few days to check out the zone and avoid being too hasty, taking the first nice ram that presented itself. There are no guaran­tees in hunting, but knowing the biggest ram in the zone had just been harvested, and to see a ram just a handful of inches smaller, seemed to me just about as good as it could get.

That next morning we split up into teams and drove out of camp before sun-up. As the sun start­ed peeking over the mountain tops, we left the trucks and set off into the desert, toward where the rams were last seen the day before. We climbed into the lower foothills and set up our first glassing position. After about an hour of seeing nothing, we decided to reposition. We dropped down into a wash and headed toward the mountain, thinking this would be the easiest route. After being on the move for just a few minutes I heard Cliff say, "Get down." He had spotted some motion on the sky­line about a mile ahead of us. After we took out the spotting scopes and confirmed it was a bunch of ewes, the ewes decided they had gone far enough and bedded down on the skyline. From there we had to rethink our path of approach, as we followed the wash around a comer and came to a part where we would not be covered by the high banks of the dried up wash. Our group back­tracked to a small ravine off the main wash where we could climb out and remain out of the sight of the ewes.
As we set up to glass the ridge where the ewes were bedded, two nice rams walked up over the rim of Orocopia Canyon 400 yards to our left as we were glassing the ewes on the skyline due west. Matt and I put the stalk on the rams that
we believed to be the same ones they had seen the day before. We closed the distance to 220 yards without being seen by using the rolling foothills as cover to approach the canyon.

The rams were unaware of our presence, as I lay down and crawled up to the top of the crest of the hill for my shot. As I put my muzzle over the top readying for a shot, they spotted the motion and froze, Matt told me, "Take the lower one," and I took the shot. A cloud of dust erupted near the end of my barrel and I knew I had missed, I quickly took a follow up shot as the rams ran over the top of the canyon rim, but was not feeling confident. Matt, who was watching with his scope, confirmed that I had missed, but he thought that if the rams followed the rim of the canyon, we could head them off by cutting the angle across the foothills. We ran the hundred yards to get in position on a hill with a view of the back side of the canyon wall, and in the direction the rams were headed.

There we waited. I knew the rams couldn't have beat us, as they had to cover a lot more distance than we did to get to this part of the canyon, and where they could get to higher country. After an eternity ... about three minutes ... we saw them walking on a ledge of the far canyon wall headed deeper into the big canyon. During that time my only thoughts were: focus, breathe slow, squeeze the trigger. (I also had the fleeting thought that I wouldn't get another chance at this ram.) The rams stopped right before a bend in the canyon wall and took a look out over their magnificent sprawling canyon about 275 yards away from us. As I was setting up for my shot, Matt was telling me to make sure the smaller ram was not behind my target. As the smaller of the two stepped forward and provided a clear shot of my ram, I took the shot just as Matt started to say, "Take him!" I could see a shock wave ripple across the ram's body and I knew I had hit him. Matt con­firmed the hit, just behind the shoulder but a bit low.

The two rams bolted around the comer of the rocky canyon wall and were lost from sight yet again. We hustled to the rim of the canyon and out onto a knife's edge, all of three feet across to get a better vantage point. We could see the smaller ram running up the mountain, out of the canyon, but could not see the one I shot. Then we saw him lower down, right above a fold in the canyon walking slowly. Laying on the rocky knife's edge, with yellow jackets buzzing around me, attracted by our sweat (an uncommon source of moisture in this otherwise arid desert), I took the final shots to bring down my ram and stop him heading deeper into the unknown that is Orocopia Canyon. With the second hit, he stopped for a second. He then continued forward slower than before, but still determined to shake his pursuit. The third hit caused him to lock up his legs trying to dig in and find purchase on the almost vertical wall of the canyon. He started to slide, losing traction. He tumbled into a 75-foot free fall deeper into the canyon, hitting hard. He tumbled another 30 feet before coming to a stop behind a boulder in a narrow finger canyon a third of the way up from the canyon floor. As the ram went down, Matt jumped on my back, tears in his eyes, congratulating me on harvesting a truly remarkable animal.

It was just after noon, and the sun was beating down. Cliff had caught up with us, but we had to collect our packs, which were left behind when we started our stalk. I went back for them alone, and it was then that it hit me how tired I was. As I walked back over the ground I had just crossed, adrenaline worn off. The goal achieved, I thought about the incredible amount of energy that must be expended to take the life of such an incredible animal.

I met back up with Matt and Cliff, packs in tow, after only getting turned around a couple of times while searching for where we had set down our packs. I had not paid attention to the terrain as I walked through it, my thoughts focused on the ram. We half walked, half slid down the side of the canyon and then started our climb up the other side to where the ram lay.

True to Tim's word the ram's green score was 177 1/s, there are some things you can only learn from many years of experience. While I couldn't be happier with my hunt, I doubt I will come to fully appreciate all that it meant until I am older and wiser, looking back on the days of my youth, when I had the privilege of hunting desert bighorn sheep in the Orocopia Mountains of southern California.

I can't thank my dad enough for researching the zone, helping me prepare, and planning the details of my hunt. I am also very thankful for all of the experience and of the work put into scouting by the crew at Dry Creek Outfitters. Thanks Cliff, Tim, Matt, Brooks, Shawn, and Ben, for such a memorable once in a lifetime experience!

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Dry Creek Outfitters is a professional hunting guide and outfitting service. We specialize in Trophy Desert Bighorn Sheep hunts in Arizona, California, and Utah. We also offer hunts for Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, Elk, Pronghorn Antelope and Javelina. We are fully licensed, bonded, insured, and permitted.

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