Arizona Strip Desert Sheep Hunt
By Kati McDonald and Mike McDonald
©Copyright Western Hunter Magazine
Kati and her father Mike both have a great tale to tell. They each wrote a separate story, but we at Western Hunter thought their stories should be combined so you could hear about the hunt together,just as they experienced it.
I really didn’t expect to ever get a desert bighorn sheep tag. My dad went to the Arizona Game and Fish Department to turn in our hunting applications and on a whim he decided to put me in for a desert bighorn sheep.
In 2007, my 21 year old daughter, Kati, became the first member of our family to draw an Arizona desert bighorn sheep permit. Between the four of us, we had applied more than sixty times for a sheep tag. I had been applying for over 30 years and knew the chances of getting drawn were slim.
I wasn’t going to put Kati in for 2007 since she was in her senior year of college and I didn’t think she would have the time to devote to a sheep hunt. As I was turning in the applications, on the last day of course, I filled out an application for her figuring she would get another bonus point.
I was eating lunch with my mom when my dad called to tell me he had bad news, “You didn’t get drawn for a deer tag, Kati, but you did get drawn for a sheep tag!” I think at this point he was more excited than I was. As we started planning our hunt, my dad warned me that this was going to be the hardest hunt of my life. I knew that the area we were hunting, Unit 13A, was going to be physically challenging, (which I thought I could handle), but I had no idea that it was going to be one of the most emotionally challenging things I have ever done in my life.
Kati started hunting with me as a little girl and killed her first deer at age 10. She had killed 15 big game animals, about half of them elk. All but one of her kills was with the same gun: a 1984 vintage push feed Winchester Featherweight in .280 Remington. For most of her hunting she has shot an all copper Barnes 120gr X-bullet which complies with the condor “no lead” request.
I wasn’t worried about Kati’s physical abilities. She has been athletic all of her life and had made numerous backpacking trips into the Grand Canyon within the twelve months prior to her hunt. One of my concerns was that she seldom hunted more than a day at a time so I didn’t know if she would have the mental fortitude for a long sheep hunt. This would certainly be tested over the course of the hunt.
We only had the chance to take a couple of scouting trips before the hunt started since it was a six hour drive from Flagstaff. We only saw one sheep: not very big, and very inaccessible. It wasn’t very promising, but we didn’t let it get us down.
Scouting the unit proved to be a little bit problematic. The first glassing spots are over 250 miles from my house in Flagstaff and there were complications with other hunts: both of my sons and I had archery elk tags, and my youngest son also had an antelope tag and a youth buck mule deer tag - not that I was complaining.
My hunt was scheduled for the whole month of December, and unfortunately for me, I had finals in the 2nd week..We left late on Thursday night. Opening day was on Saturday, so we could scout all day Friday. In addition to my dad, Dean Dunaway, and my boyfriend Ian McLeod went with us. A friend of Dean’s, Pete Winn, was already up there. I had never met Pete before but he loves sheep hunting and wanted to help with my hunt. I had met Dean only briefly before, but he loves to hunt and was able to devote a lot of time to my hunt.
We woke up early on Friday, but didn’t have much luck spotting anything. By the afternoon the weather had taken a turn for the worst and we had to call it an early day because of what my dad called “sideways snow.”
We woke up in the morning to wind, rain and fog; not ideal glassing conditions. We quit scouting just before dark due to a horizontal snow storm, and went back to a wall tent that had blown over.
Fortunately, it cleared up by opening morning, and by mid-morning we had finally spotted our first sheep! We saw only a few that day, but nothing accessible. 13A is a very big area; there are deep, steep canyons and the sheep like to hang out in an area between cliffs that are very steep and hard to get to.
The Grand Canyon and Kanab Creek are what makes this hunt particularly interesting. The Grand Canyon speaks for itself, steep and deep. In some places within the unit, Kanab Creek can be several miles wide and a couple of thousand feet deep. The topography starts off at an elevation of nearly 6000 feet in the Kaibab Limestone formation. There are piñon/juniper draws that quickly become big canyons dropping 3000 feet as they approach Kanab Creek.
The limestone rolls over a ways into the canyons then soon become shear cliffs up to 400 feet in height or more, with a steep talus slope below. There is another zone of cliffs of equal size in the Coconino Sandstone layer and another talus slope below. The limestone has a unique feature where it forms hoodoos, or giant columns of rock, in its upper layers. As we would learn later, the hoodoos form cracks and crevices where sheep love to hide.
We had to go back to Flagstaff Monday afternoon and we knew our time was limited. On Monday morning, Dean spotted a nice looking ram we nicknamed “Mr. Choco.” He was a beautiful chocolate ram with long horns. We thought he’d score about a 145”, so we decided to wait on him and use him as a backup in case time was running short and we didn’t find anything bigger.
We never did find a ram large enough to stalk that first weekend, but we did find the “Choco Backup” in Water Canyon.
We took a two week break so that I could take my finals, and then my dad, Dean, Pete and I were back up in 13A for a longer trip. We also had some more help from Greg Winn, Pete’s son. We didn’t have very good luck this time around as once again, all the sheep we saw were either inaccessible or too small. The hunt was starting to get long at this point; we had been out for about eight days this time and heard that three out of the other four tags in this unit had already been filled. It was hard to not find sheep, but even more difficult to find them and not be able to get to them! At least we were seeing sheep regularly, which helped to keep our spirits up. The weather, however, was a different matter. It was very cold, rarely getting much over freezing during the day, with lots of wind and snow. I had to wear a lot of layers and make fires frequently in order to stay warm while we were glassing.
On our first morning back after finals it was about 10° F and the wind was blowing over 25 mph - not what I think of when I think about desert bighorn sheep hunting. It was cold and blowing, or snowing, most of the season. It was always a challenge building up a sweat hiking two to three miles, and then trying to stay warm while glassing. It was a noteworthy event when the temperature got above 32° F.
We were supposed to leave on a Friday morning, after a long week of hunting. I wanted to relax after a hard couple of weeks, do some last minute Christmas shopping, and spend time with our family. I was ready to go home. Dean and Pete were out scouting late Thursday night and when they got back to camp we knew something was up.
It turned out that Pete had found three big rams that could potentially be over 160. And I say big because I think that up until this point we hadn’t found anything much over 150. I had conflicting feelings. While I was ready to go home, I knew that if I got one of these rams we wouldn’t have to come back after Christmas. I also knew that there was no way my dad was letting me go home with potential sheep in the area, so the next morning we left early and set up at the spot where Pete had last seen the rams. We didn’t see anything for a while, then we heard what we first thought were gunshots. I had been listening for this sound the whole hunt though, and I knew that what we were hearing were two rams fighting.
Although we did not find the three rams Pete and Dean had seen, we heard a couple of rams fighting across from us and up a side canyon out of sight. At first I thought I was hearing gun shots and couldn’t figure out who could possibly be there. Kati finally recognized the sound for what it was and we glassed up a 150” class ram sneaking around the end of a point trying to find the fighting rams.
We drove around the canyon to stalk a ram, but by the time we got there it was gone. As we were leaving, I glassed up two very nice looking rams running away from us around the side of the canyon. We had spooked them, which was sad because they were the biggest rams we had seen all trip. I almost didn’t want to tell my dad I spotted them because I was so tired of hunting and I didn’t want to spend another day looking for more sheep that may or may not be there. In the end, I did though and we all decided that it was time to go home and recuperate.
Later, Pete glassed up a nice ram across from us that climbed above the cliffs and bedded in the sun below a knoll out of the wind. This ram was nearly everything Kati wanted so we planned a stalk. It took us nearly three hours to drive around to the other side of the canyon and walk to where he was bedded. Of course he had left by the time we got there. We spent the next three hours looking for him.
On the way back to the truck we walked up to one last overlook and spooked two rams below us. One was a shooter. This was one of the few times we ambled up to the canyon edge rather then sneaking up. Both mentally and physically wore down by this time, we needed to go home for Christmas to recuperate.
We had new resolve after Christmas and decided to work our butts off to get me a ram. The first morning we came back out, Greg spotted a nice looking ram within shooting range, but once again by the time we got there it had disappeared. It was hiding behind the hoodoos and there was no way we could get to it. The next morning we sat on a rock on top of where we thought he was, and sure enough, he walked between a crack in the hoodoos right below me. I had the crosshairs aimed at his back, right between the shoulder blades, but the position I was in, straddling a rock atop a 30+ foot cliff, made me uneasy. I had never shot from above before and there was a small rock in my scope. I wasn’t sure if that was going to mess with my shot, so I watched him walk out in front of the hoodoos and around the corner. He wasn’t spooked so I knew I’d have another opportunity.
The evening of the first day back from our Christmas R&R, Greg had a nice ram walk 150 yards below him. The next day we found him on the same slope and we played a game of cat and mouse with him below us between some of the hoodoos. We would slip up to the edge of a cliff and look over and try to find him.
We were on top of one of the hoodoos and Kati saw him walk through a slot less then 15 yards away. I’m not sure if a rock outcropping or nerves prevented her from getting a shot.
We went around the corner and saw him standing broadside less than 100 yards below us. He was in perfect position and as I set up on the ground and took the gun off half-safety, my dad had me move forward so that I wouldn’t see the ground in my scope. After scooting forward, I got too excited and nervous, forgot to take the gun off full safety, and pulled the trigger. As soon as I realized my mistake I took the safety off and the gun fired! I was having some gun problems before we left for home and turns out it didn’t get fixed completely. Needless to say, I was very upset. There were some tears that day from both my dad and me, but we picked ourselves up and continued the hunt.
Finally, there was her ram, silhouetted on a large rock at the base of a cliff less then 100 yards away. The ram was completely in view, standing in the shadows with bright sunlight behind it. As she was getting ready to shoot, I stopped her since I was afraid she might shoot the rock face just in front of her barrel. I was being a little paranoid because Chad, my youngest son shot a rock about 2” in front of his gun barrel that he couldn’t see through his scope in a similar situation. I had her scoot up and get into a better position.
I stopped her as she was taking her Winchester three position safety off and she only got it to the half way position. When she pulled the trigger she recognized the problem and took the safety all the way off. As she took the safety off the gun fired in the air and the ram ran away. There were lots of tears shed after this; I even think Kati’s eyes were welling up but I couldn’t see them for sure.
We found Mr. Choco again on the 29th of December. He was a little too far away for me to shoot and since it was getting dark, we decided to wait until the morning to go after him. The next morning, we set up down the canyon and what we thought was down wind of where he would be. Out luck ran out there because he ended up walking up the point that we were on, winded us, and ran. We never saw him again. There were definitely more tears shed on my end.
The next morning we were on the rim above the ram by daylight. Spotters from the other side said the ram worked its way up a ridge to the top of the canyon to get into the sun about 50 yards downwind of us. He winded us and made it to the bottom of the canyon in a couple of seconds. Kati never saw the ram.
By this time I had given up hope of ever getting my ram. I decided that December 30th would be my last day hunting and was kind of ok with not getting a ram. I told myself that there will be other hunts and although I may not get drawn ever again, this was a once in a lifetime experience full of memories. I think the worst thought about not getting a sheep wasn’t the fact that I wouldn’t take one home; it was the fact that all these people had put so much time and effort into this hunt and we had nothing to show for it.
While watching the two groups of sheep, two additional 130” class rams walked into a crack between two hoodoos then appeared on top above the cliffs. They sought out the sun and bedded on a knoll. I asked Kati if she wanted to go after them but she said that she didn’t hunt this hard to kill a little ram. After spending 21 days in the unit, with three very emotional stalks on rams, and on maybe her last day of hunting she was passing on rams that she might have shot on opening morning. I realized that she understood the value of her permit. Killing a sheep wasn’t the most important aspect of the hunt; the experiences and companionship are what makes it special. I also realized that I shouldn’t have had any concerns about her mental fortitude.
Pete left that afternoon after lunch and after we all went to say goodbye to him, we left for one last afternoon at the canyon where I misfired. I wasn’t expecting much, so when my older brother Kyle, told us he spotted a nice looking ram in a good spot, I tried not to get my hopes up. I learned my lesson in previous stalks and didn’t want to get my heart broken again.
We went back to camp after lunch to regroup and say goodbye to Pete; he had commitments for New Year’s that he had to keep. So, we decided to spend what might be our last evening near the canyon where Kati had the misfire. Kati’s brothers, Kyle & Chad, finally got to come up for the last of the hunt, and immediately after Kyle set his binoculars up he spotted a ram. It was the biggest ram we had seen the whole hunt, and he was in a position that we could stalk him. Kyle is still chiding us about how easy it is to spot sheep.
After we walked back to car, took a drive to where it would be easier for us to get to him (which was very lucky, I might add because all the roads seemed to go in exactly the direction we wanted them to), and took another walk to the top of the cliff where we thought he was, it was getting late in the afternoon, but the ram still had not moved much. For a while we did what my dad called “the hoodoo dance.” We looked over a cliff edge, saw he was not there, and moved to another spot to look down again.
When we knew we were getting close, Dean and I left my dad and Ian behind and moved further down the cliff. I think this was one of the best decisions of the trip as my dad would have made me much more nervous. At one point, and I will never forget this, Dean looked at me and said, “Kati, it doesn’t matter what is down there on the other side of that cliff. You just need to take a deep breath and shoot.”
We finally came to a ledge where we looked over and there he was, just standing there. I motioned to Dean that he was there, took a deep breath, and leaned over the edge to get a clear shot. I think if my mom saw how far out over that cliff I was leaning she would have had a heart attack. The first shot was all I needed, but I took two more just to be on the safe side. Since I was so nervous before the shot, I didn’t have time to process the size of the ram I was shooting and it wasn’t until after the second shot that I got a good look at the back of his horns. I heard my dad and Ian above asking, “Did you get it?” and my only response was, “He’s HUGE!” before I burst into tears of joy.
The ram was less then 30 yards away and looking up. She only had to lean out a little more and make the shot. She shot him three times, even though the first shot was enough. Across the canyon you could see the hoodoos and cracks where we played the cat and mouse game two days earlier when her rifle misfired. Just like two days before, there were copious amounts of tears, but this time they were tears of joy.
That night we drove into town to see Pete. Before Christmas he told me that the best present he could receive would be for me to take the biggest ram in my unit, so he was overjoyed when I told him that we thought I had!
I can not imagine this hunt without the help of the guys that made it possible; it amazes me how a hunt like this can take total strangers and imprint them in my memory forever. I want to thank to Pete Winn, the “sheep guru” who I had never met before, but spent more days than anyone out there glassing, and Greg Winn for his upbeat attitude about the hunt. Thanks to my brother for spotting my ram; he will never let me live this down. Dean was a life saver this trip; we wouldn’t have seen half of the sheep without him and he held out with us until the end, telling me when something wasn’t big enough to shoot. Most of all I’d like to thank my dad for all his support. He was the one who kept me going when I wanted to quit and he was there every step of the way. This hunt has brought us closer together and I wish that every father and daughter could experience all the time and effort that we had together.
My sheep ended up with a net scope of 162 4/8”, bigger than I thought I would ever get, and beautiful. Like I said before, I never knew how emotionally challenging a hunt could be. I think I experienced all ranges of emotion from sadness, to fear, to overwhelming joy, sometimes all in very short periods of time. I now know that my misfire and the times the sheep “disappeared” before we could shoot them happened so that I could get the nice ram that I ended up getting. I told myself after this hunt that I was done sitting on the edges of cliffs and looking over them for a very long time.
Before this hunt I was thinking that I had tried for over 30 years to draw the hunt of a lifetime. I was wrong; I’d only waited 21 years for Kati to draw. Even if Kati had not killed a ram it would have been one of my most memorable hunts. 2007 was a very gratifying year for our family: Kati got her sheep. Kyle killed his first longbow elk. My youngest son, Chad, killed two nice bucks: his first mule deer buck and his first antelope.
When my dad called me to tell me that the “bad” news for 2008 was that he didn’t get a deer tag, I knew that he had drawn his long-awaited sheep tag. I’m excited to help him this time on his once in a lifetime hunt and hope that he gets a sheep that’s bigger than mine.
Western Hunter Magazine and appears courtesy of Western Hunter Magazine. Western Hunter Magazine is your best resource for hunting information for all western species. Whether you are interested in elk, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep or moose we will bring the adventure to your mailbox! Our subtitle is Gear - Tactics - Information - Adventure and we take each of these seriously. We only feature the finest hunting gear available from the finest makers in the world. If you are looking for information or looking to buy, we will steer you in the right direction. In each issue you will learn tips and tactics from the most experienced hunters in the west. With articles on field judging trophies, glassing techniques and calling strategies, we guarantee you will learn something new in every issue, and will continue to become more knowledgable and skilled Western Hunter.
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