Stepping from the SUV, I placed my feet in Texas red dirt and took a deep breath. I was finally here, Brackettville, Texas, home of the hunting camp of TV host and professional hunter Wade Middleton. This is Middleton’s personal playground, where the real Texas hunting experience begins. I slowly turned 360 degrees as I gawked in awe at the South Texas brush country. Located just an hour from Mexico, the country is flat and choked with thorns and thistles. I tried to soak up the newness of this foreign landscape while imagining what new and exciting adventure were ahead.
Upon my arrival, I was quickly greeted with firm shakes from weathered, working hands as I met the players instrumental in getting me here. Matt Rice, senior account supervisor for Smith & Wesson; Paul Pluff, director of marketing at Smith & Wesson; and Wade Middleton, our gracious host. Everyone was all smiles as we discussed the details and game plan for my first free-range Texas Aoudad hunt over the next two days. The first order of business was to square away my equipment in my living quarters and put some rounds downrange, South Texas-style, of course.
Rice led me to the hunter’s cabin, where he threw a Smith & Wesson backpack at me and thanked me for coming. The pack had all the essentials ready for my use. He then placed a hard-sided rifle case on the bed in front of me and motioned for me to open it. Like a kid on Christmas morning, I slowly opened the case to peek inside at its precious contents. Nestled within was the all-new Smith & Wesson M&P 10 Camo chambered in .308 Win. The sleek, compact design had my attention at once. Most AR-10 rifles that I’ve used in the past were either bulky or heavy or lengthy, and more often than not, all three. This rifle however, was none of those. The first thing I noticed was the length and weight of the firearm. In fact, I almost couldn’t believe it was an AR-10. Rice just grinned as I sat wide-eyed on my bunk, then reminded me that the sun was dropping and we’d better zero the rifle before nightfall.
Situated just behind the living quarters and main lodge was the shooting gallery. Although it wasn’t necessarily a range, it had just about anything you could think to shoot at. From targets to bowling pins or pop-ups to dueling trees, the gallery had lots of options to try. I quickly set the rifle up and situated the muzzle downrange at a 100-yard bull’s-eye to get an idea of the rifle’s capabilities. Without making any adjustments, I promptly sent five shots downrange — three of which all ended up in the same hole on the target with the other two just half an inch away. To say I was impressed would be a gross understatement. I spent the rest of the remaining light shooting all the other ornaments that decorated the landscape, all the while becoming more familiar and more comfortable with the firearm.
We strolled back into camp to a warm and welcoming fire glowing from the oversized brick pit. Everyone had gathered to share hunting stories while we indulged in some good ol’ fashioned Mexican cuisine prepared by the very capable hands of our Mexican-national chef, Abraham. The blissful smell of fajitas and taquitos mixed with burning mesquite wood swirled up in the air with the smoke from the fire and the laughter of men. We sat for hours just content to exist while we acquainted ourselves. I’ve always found it interesting how quickly you can become friends with total strangers, simply by sharing a campfire together. We retired to bed, filled to the brim in both body and spirit.
Arising early the next day, I threw some eggs and bacon in a tortilla and rushed out the door long before the sunrise. I headed to a large chunk of real estate south of the main lodge where Middleton had directed me, stating that it’s a great place to spend some time on the glass looking for the elusive ungulate known as the aoudad or Barbary sheep. The name Barbary is taken from the sheep’s origin, along the Barbary Coast in North Africa. Barbary sheep stand 2 to 3 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh anywhere from 90 to 300 pounds. They’re a ruggedly strong animal with a muscular physique. Similar to a bighorn sheep, they can shame even the most experienced mountaineer with their climbing agility and ability. I couldn’t wait to find a band of these worthy specimens. I spent the entire day hiking through the thorns and cacti, stopping only to glass, without seeing one single aoudad. As the shadows grew longer and the sun sank lower on day one, I began to wonder if I would ever get to see one, let alone get to put my hands around the massive horns of one of the elder rams. After some good grub, good conversation and a much-needed shower back at camp, I fell into bed.
I awoke on day two a little more slowly and more sore than the previous morning, yet with a strong resolve that today was the day. Abraham had breakfast prepared and packaged up for a picnic as I left camp with my sight set on another area of the ranch. Intel that I had gathered from others at camp the night before led me to believe that I was headed in the right direction. As I traveled along in silence, there was a noticeable difference in the air. Cooler and calmer than the previous day, I began to see game moving immediately. Whitetail deer where at every clearing along with rabbits and quail. The sound of turkeys in the distance was quickly silenced by the harmonic howls of a pack of nearby coyotes. The game was moving, and I knew if I kept my nose to the grindstone, it was only a matter of time. As the sun warmed the Texas red dirt, the wildlife headed toward the shade and disappeared into the thick brush country. I paused just long enough to wet my whistle and fill my nagging belly with Abraham’s fresh biscuits and homemade jam, then followed the game.
As midday approached, I found myself stalking quietly in the shade as I crept through the brush country with all my senses on full alert. The smell of sheep was in the air, and I began to notice more and more aoudad sign upon the dirt. My eyes wide, I made way toward an old creek bed that cut the brush country into two equal halves. The terrain became rough and rugged as I traveled the verge at a snail’s pace, trying not to spook anything or puncture myself with anything in the thick undergrowth. I traveled in this fashion for the better part of three hours while the sweat beaded on my sunburned forehead. As my disdain mounted, suddenly, there he was bedded in the center of the creek bed facing directly at me just 60 yards away — a handsome old aoudad with broad horns proudly sweeping outward, then back again, with perfect symmetry. His coat was a light sandy color, lush and full with a beard even more impressive than my own. He lie chewing his cud as I slowly took a knee, shouldering the rifle in one slick motion. The ram caught the movement and quickly found his footing, facing me still. I centered the crosshairs on his brisket and applied pressure with my fingertip. The rifle report caused the creature to spin, and within two lengthy strides he was gone into the thicket.
“No way I missed,” I thought to myself. “It’s not possible.” I replayed the shot over and over in my head as I walked toward his last known location. The ram didn’t jump or buck or even stumble. He just wheeled around and was gone. I was sick as I stood where he once stood without any sign that he was hit. Not a single drop of blood or shaft of hair anywhere. I followed his print, foot for foot, until I lost it in a labyrinth of other aoudad tracks. I found nothing that would lead me to believe he was even wounded, let alone mortally wounded. With due diligence I searched for 40 minutes for any sign and ultimately determined that somehow, the unthinkable, the impossible had happened. I had actually missed a free-range aoudad at less than a hundred yards. I began the walk of shame back toward the creek bed, and my stomach bile rose in my throat, stifling my breath. As I reached the creek bed, just ahead of me, something began to take shape. Finally, upon further investigation, I could make out the unmistakable outline of an aoudad ram, lifeless in the shadows. My ram. It was if he had just dropped where he stood without leaving a trace as to how he had gotten there. Examining his brisket, I found the point of impact exactly where I had aimed. Perfect placement, center mass. As I placed my trembling hands upon the massive beast for the first time, I didn’t care how or even why at this point. He was mine and I was changed forever.