Dr. Frankenstein has nothing on me. I should have realized what a huge mistake it would turn out to be when PH Andrew Dawson and I put a .30-06 into Miss Donna’s hands and asked her to “shoot an impala for rations.” Most readers in this audience know that these things tend to escalate…and can become addictive? I should have known better, right?
That was a long time ago. Since then, Miss Donna has done a lot of hunting, including all the continents and the Big Five. So, once again, I should have known better when she insisted that she wanted “just one sheep.” It was a backpack hunt that turned tough, completely rained (and snowed, hailed and fogged) out. That might have cured any sane person, and I deluded myself into thinking it had fixed her “sheep problem.”
It did not; she got a lovely Dall ram on another backpack hunt in 2019. I knew what was coming: “Just one sheep” wasn’t going to cut it. I gave up. His creature long escaped, Dr. Frankenstein repaired to his laboratory. So, at our 2020 SCI Convention, accepting my fate, I suggested Donna run by Mexico Hunts and see our friend Sergio Jimenez and talk about sheep on Carmen Island. I couldn’t get away from the booth, so I asked son-in-law Brad Jannenga to go with her. The result was predictable: Next thing I knew, Brad and Donna had desert bighorns on the calendar.
There is a wrinkle: Brad is a lifelong Arizonan, and a serious bowhunter. He also hunts with a rifle, and took a magnificent ibex in Kyrgyzstan…but this would be his first wild sheep. With max “bonus points,” he’ll probably draw in Arizona, so he wanted to use his bow. Bowhunters do extremely well on Carmen Island, and although I wouldn’t be hunting, I was excited to go along and see this come together.
Also, I hadn’t been on Carmen Island in 18 years, and I wanted to see how the sheep had prospered. The island is owned by the Sada family, deserving of much credit for the recovery of desert sheep in Mexico. They started with extensive management on their Plomito Ranch in Sonora, and in 1995 introduced sheep onto the island. Adrian and Federico Sada are the only father-son winners of the Weatherby award; Adrian in 2001, Federico in 2006.
The 1995 release was a couple dozen ewes and a half-dozen rams, live-trapped on southern Baja. Absent predators and with little competition, it was believed they would do well on Carmen Island. After I took my Sonora ram in 2003, I met up with Adrian Sada, and we made a quick visit to the island. They were doing well. Although extremely dry, the 37,000-acre island has permanent springs. We saw some sheep, and they showed me photos of some spectacular rams, unusually large for the smaller weemsi race of Baja Sur. Limited hunting started in 2005, and sheep have been live-trapped on the island to bolster the diminishing Baja Sur population.
The Carmen Island sheep population is now between 700 and 800, with permits in the low double digits. We flew into Loreto’s small and spotless airport and whisked through customs with no problems. One little thing I’d forgotten in 18 years: Depending on swells, it takes about an hour and a half by boat from Loreto to the lodge. Although warm and sunny, it was windy when we arrived and the seas were rough: We were all soaked by the time we rounded the island and chugged into the comfortable lodge.
Unlike so much sheep hunting, there is no elevation to contend with. That said, it’s not “easy.” Steep ridges rise abruptly from water’s edge and, like all Southwestern desert mountains I’ve hunted, the footing is murderous, with sharp, rolling rocks and lots of thorns. The lodge straddles a central valley between ridges, with a small network of the island’s only roads. Almost all hunting is done on foot, with extremities of the island reached by boat. The sheep are there; you will see rams every day, but you’ll cover a lot of tough ground.
I was never serious enough about bowhunting to even contemplate a sheep hunt with archery tackle. So, I was curious. On Carmen Island, they do well with both rifle and bow…and expect success. On arrival, Donna checked her .270, and Brad shot a few arrows into a lifesize ram target. Camp manager Gaspar, also the island’s accredited wildlife biologist and chief guide, gave us a good briefing the first evening. He told Brad that, with bow, he expected to make a couple of approaches daily…with the caveat that not all stalks were gonna work, and the low vegetation made getting a clear shot difficult.
At dawn we’d separate, different teams going different directions. The first couple of days, Donna and I saw a lot of rams. Most were at distance, but we saw several good rams almost within bow range. Our guide, Abundis, born on the island, insisted they were either a bit too small…or a couple of years too young. My job was to keep my mouth shut, and I did, although with difficulty.
With bow, Brad obviously needed to get very close, but his hunt was playing out exactly as predicted: Multiple approaches and almost-opportunities. Carmen Island was living up to its reputation and, unlike many hunts (and a lot of sheep hunts), from the first morning it seemed not a matter of if, but when success would happen.
On the third morning, our team was dropped off by vehicle northwest of the lodge, climbing to the island’s crest to hunt an interior valley beyond. Abundis glassed a bedded ram that looked awesome at distance, but after a long and perfect stalk his horns shrank a bit. That day was especially warm, so we decided to hike back to the central valley and try somewhere else in the evening. Talk about perfect timing. We were almost to the valley floor when Abundis got word that Brad had just taken his ram.
That central valley is salt flats, once a thriving salt mine. Brad and his team were on the northeast side, thick brush sloping gently toward rocks, and a favorite feeding area. They’d spotted a group of rams at dawn and were just getting in on them when they started to bed. With no choice but to wait them out, they’d been pinned down in the sun for three hours within 60 yards. When they finally started to move, the ram they’d picked out offered a tough frontal presentation at 42 yards. Entering central chest, all but the fletching had exited a hip, great shot and amazing performance.
We were there within an hour, before the ram had been moved, hearing the story when brand-new, and admiring an awesome desert bighorn. Before we left, I put a tight tape on Brad’s ram and made it a fraction shy of 170. That’s a wonderful desert bighorn for any time and any place, but big for a weemsi, big for an archery ram…and a fantastic first ram. Donna was not to get her ram until the last day, a heavily-broomed old desert warrior, but in this very special place, it remained a matter of when she would get her ram, never if.–Craig Boddington