A Scripted Dream Becomes Reality
by Craig Ellwanger, AAE founder
It was coming together almost as if it were scripted. A golden brown figure stands stoic in the early morning sunlight, high atop a massive, white boulder protruding from the hillside, some 250 yards away from my position across the canyon. Moments later I would have my chance at realizing one of the longest-standing hunting dreams of my life…a shot at a magnificent aoudad ram. What I was witnessing in that instant was, in hindsight, an almost “to a T” scenario that had been scripted in my mind for many years.
It began on a ranch in the Hill Country some 12 years ago, as I guided for the first time on a game ranch near Brady, Texas. Trying to do my best to lead “my” hunter (the CEO of a fiber optics company in Virginia) to a trophy whitetail, we spent long hours on stand & trekked many miles to attempt to rattle a big buck into range. On the 3rd evening of the hunt, as we sat overlooking a food plot, we both spotted an animal I had never before seen on the hoof. After a few puzzling moments, I verified to my hunter that what he was looking at was one of the few wild aoudad rams this ranch had.
He came in all alone and was walking straight at us, large banana-shaped horns & flowing “chaps” glimmering in the fading sunlight. I’ll admit, at the time, I had no idea how to field judge a trophy ram from the next guy, but from hearing the stories at camp of how elusive & rare they were (and from holding a euro mount from a previously taken ram), I knew this was a rare opportunity on this ranch. My hunter did not exactly share my excitement and almost had to relinquish his rifle to me, upon deciding to finally take a shot. What we soon found on the ground was a mature, 27″ aoudad (the largest ever taken on that ranch up to that time)! From the moment I put my hands on him I knew that this was an animal that I wanted to one day take.
Around that same time, a long-lost friendship with my childhood friend was rekindled. David Mayer and I were great friends growing up, but when his family moved to some place called “Sonora” (I thought for years that Sonora was in New Mexico…), we lost contact. Once in college, I met some mutual friends of his that helped us get reconnected. Ever since, I have had the good fortune and privilege to be a hunting guest a few times a year on their family ranch just outside of the Southwest Texas town of Sonora.
The T Half Circle is a large, low fence, intensely-managed ranch that grows some tremendous whitetail deer year in and year out. As a added “bonus”, the ranch also plays home to some free ranging herds of exotic like axis, fallow and aoudad that have made their way over from neighboring ranches. Theses exotics are not large in numbers on the ranch and not seen frequently, but still afford you the hope to see something “out of the ordinary” every once in awhile. Having said that, and hearing countless stories of sightings and harvest, I had never seen a single exotic while hunting there.
The past 2 years, sightings of aoudad had seemingly increased from others at the ranch. Every time I would visit and we would drive below some of the rocky hills and cliffs, I would think or say, “man, that just looks like the perfect place to see an aoudad!” Earlier this season, a friend that helps guide on the ranch told me that he had spotted 4 big rams in the very same area. That news left little doubt in my mind what my new mission would be on my next trip down…
Fast forward to December 27, 2011 at approximately 8:00 am:
I had climbed to the top of the area known as “Chimney Hill” at first light and was walking, with the (perhaps naive at the time) idea of glassing from a high vantage point in hopes of atleast seeing sign of an aoudad. An hour had passed and I had already scanned 3 or 4 different chocked canyons, seeing nothing but a lone whitetail doe on top of the hill that I had zig-zagged across a few times. As I cut across another “finger” of the hill to investigate down into yet another canyon, I spotted a nice whitetail buck on the heels of a doe some 200 yards ahead of me. As they darted in and out of the cedar brush, I moved forward a few steps to try and gain a better look. Glancing only briefly to my left across the canyon, I saw a picturesque image that I will never forget.
On a large outcropping of rocks, basking in the warm sunlight, stood an aoudad ram…staring seemingly right at me. Turning my attention and mindset away from the whitetails in an instant, my focus locked like a laserbeam on a new target. Shocked at what I just saw, I think I did a double take as my mind raced into “get-a-shot” mode. I remember thinking, as I stepped forward slowly and my heart skipped a few beats, “can this really be happening?!”
I moved quickly, but strategically, around a large cedar to find something to rest my rifle on. The closest option was a semi-steady limb of the same bush I had to circumvent to get into shooting position. Chambering a .30-06 shell, I settled my crosshairs on the target, trying hurriedly to get a better look. I had no idea what kind of time I had (I assumed very little), and absolutely did not want to waste this amazing opportunity. In my frantic scramble to get a shot off, I did manage to take a brief moment to remind my nerves to calm down and my lungs to breathe. All of the thinking and daydreaming of this exact scenario, playing out in my mind countless times, had finally come down to this moment.
Having recently misplaced my rangefinder, I did not know the yardage of the shot I was looking at, but felt pretty confident in the accuracy of my rifle…as long as I could hold it steady (no easy task in “THE moment”). As my crosshairs swayed slightly in an almost ‘figure 8′ shape, I again took a deep breath and told myself “it’s now or never, you may not get this chance again”. I sent a small prayer upward as my shooting finger started to apply pressure to the trigger.
As I squeezed off the round, the supersonic sound of a sailing bullet was all I heard, signaling in my mind a clean miss. To counter that, looking up from the stock, I noticed the ram lurch as if possibly hit well. Confused and adrenaline piping, I got back on the scope only to see what I thought was my ram, looking around nervously, some 15 yards to the right of his original position. I have always heard how tough aoudads can be to take down, soaking up a lot of lead, so I fired a second shot (with more rush and less confidence than the first).
Then silence. Nothing moved.
I sat trying to catch my breath as the replay of the last 10 seconds of my life starting scrolling over and over in my head. “Did I miss? Did I just blow my chance?! What do I do now?”
Seeing that to even get the spot where the ram was standing would entail dropping down the rocky hill below me and then scaling up the hill on the other side, I decided to venture that direction. It took almost 20 minutes to reach the base of the rocky perch where the ram originally stood, basking in the sun. Staring at a 6 ft tall boulder directly infront of me, I wondered how I was ever going to get on top of it to even start the search for the sign of a hit. Almost simultaneously, I looked left along the rim rock base and saw another memorable sight…a dead aoudad ram laying face down in a small cactus! The ram hadn’t managed to go 15 yards before doing an apparent “swan dive” from the rock ledge above.
I was elated (to say the least) and could not believe what I was seeing. The dream was now a reality.
Knowing that the task of getting him out was a tricky one, I hiked back to my truck and headed back to camp to enlist some help. As my cousin and I drove up to the rest of our hunting group, now cleaning deer from the morning’s hunt, I was quizzed as to what I had shot (or was atleast shooting at). I had to repeat “I shot an aoudad” a few times before anyone would believe me. I had to navigate through several “no, really, what did you shoot?(s)”
It took a hand from everyone (and a 4×4 mule) to get my ram off the mountainside (an eventful story in of itself). I’d like to thank all of them for their help. A special thanks goes out to my friends, the Mayer family, for allowing me to hunt alongside them on their beautiful, “target-rich” ranch throughout the years. My aoudad ram isn’t one of the 30+” monsters that you see advertised on exotic hunting sites or in the pages of magazines, but the important part to me…he’s MINE! And just another in a long line of memorable moments that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience at the T Half Circle Ranch!