A one in 10,000 shot

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Hunting bighorn in the Marble Mountains, a pre-COVID report from last fall

NEEDLES — There’s this thing about bighorn. For a successful hunt, you must get lucky twice.

Owen Brown, 78, of Agua Dulce waited 17 years for his number to come up for hunt unit 501, the Marble / Clipper Mountains area. “So much of that hunt is just getting drawn for the permit,” Brown says. “I’d been applying since 1988-89, ever since California went to the preference point system. I had 17 preference points, the maximum. There were 10,000 applicants to hunt bighorn sheep in California this year.”

Brown’s was one of just six tags that were drawn for unit 501 — that’s once lucky. 501 is a remote section of the Mojave National Reserve in San Bernardino County off Interstate 40 out of Needles. No vehicle traffic is permitted in rugged area. Hunters must walk in from the nearest road.

Hunting here takes a team, and Brown hired Dry Creek Outfitters of Three Rivers to guide him. He had the guide, Cliff St. Martin, assistant guides Terry, Kirk, and Brook, and himself all using spotting scopes and binoculars to search for sheep and rams. The group — Brown says his guides were half billy goat, fit as a fiddle — fanned out across a wide area. “It takes a huge effort,” Brown says. The distances are great. “You’re glassing miles away.”

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Bighorn are tough to see. Their chocolate-brown hides match the color of the rocks. “It’s the hardest animal to see in binoculars, and I’ve hunted a lot of my life,” Brown says.

FIVE OF THE SIX man hunt team, from left, assistant guide Terry, hunter Owen Brown, guide Cliff St. Martin, and assistant guides Kirk and Brook. PHOTOS COURTESY CLIFF ST. MARTIN, DRY CREEK OUTFITTERS

Every time the group spotted a ram, they’d make a move to check it out. “You take off and it might be a 3- to 5-mile hike to get to that ram,” Brown says. The terrain was steep and unforgiving. “It was extremely rocky. If you fell you could break bones, it was would be hurtful. It’s a hard hike with a lot of vertical to it. There were no trails, no game trails to speak of.”

On the third day, Brown’s hunting group spotted a good ram and made a move on him. “We spent 3 hours getting into his vicinity and the wind changed and we were done,” Brown says. “We had to back out or we would have backed him out of the country.” Their patience would be rewarded the next morning.

“We went back to the area and located a group of 10 rams together not far off. Truck door to truck door, we spent 7 and a half hours hiking and stalking trying to catch up to them,” Brown says.

The stalk was a mile across a flat wash, then they climbed 900 vertical feet. It was no easy day for Brown, who is 78. “Stay in shape!” he urges.

The stalk took about 4 hours. Finally, wind in their faces, Brown set up for a shot at a little over 250 yards.

Brown has no sight in his right eye, but shoots right handed. The scoop on his .30-06 Franchi Momentum rifle is offset. Brown says the offset scope is an important part of his rig. “If you get the eye relief on that scope just right and don’t hurry things, it’s as accurate as shooting right-eyed, right handed,” he says.

By then the group of rams had splintered, but they had a small grouping of three dead to rights. “There’s no way they knew we were there,” Brown says. “But they’re so protective in nature, whenever the rams moved they’d all stay together. You have to sit and wait for the one you want to move away or risk hitting more than one. I had to wait my ram out, then my guy gave me the thumbs up and I took the shot.”

Twice lucky! The animal went down after a single shot, hit hard by Brown’s Hornady GMX .30-06. It was an emotional moment for Brown. “It’s such a special animal, such a special event to be drawn for a rare tag,” he says. “There were only 26 sheep tags for the whole state.”

Brown’s bighorn ram scored 164 and 2/8 on the Boone and Crocket scale. “It’s not in the record book, but that wasn’t what I was hunting for,” Brown says. “I hunt for a representative of the species, and that’s a good one right there. It was 10 years old.”

He was effusive in his praise for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Desert Bighorn Sheep unit. “They’ve done an excellent job in putting the sheep on the mountain,” Brown says. “They’ve taken good care of them, there are quite a few.”

The hike out wasn’t bad, Brown says. He had a lot of help. The Dry Creek Outfitters guides were the best he has ever worked with. “The young men very much in hiking condition unlike yours truly, they kicked my butt,” Brown says. “They were very attentive. I would highly recommend them. They understood my physical and sight limitations, they’d turn around and say Owen we have all day to do this. Maybe that’s why it took 7-8 hours.

“Great people, great outfit. Anybody who hired them would be pleased,” Brown adds. He’s not done. Next up, if he’s fortunate enough to be drawn, is a tule elk. Can anyone say, “Third time lucky?”

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