Campfire

The First Lite Campfire is our spot to share with you, our customers, stories about our adventures in the field, information on our pro staff, pictures from our trophy room, the latest news and everything in between. Please check back with us as we build the First Lite community and feel free to drop us a note at [email protected] to let us know how we are doing.

  • The Tough Cuts - Neck Recipes by Ryan Callaghan

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    The neck has facia layered on top of sinew, on top of ligament and can be a daunting cut to cook. Even when de-boned properly it still looks pretty burly. If you are in an area free of CWD, cut the neck into bone in roasts. Either way, this tough cut is best cooked slow and low.

    One of my go-to meals for hunting season is either a neck BBQ sandwich or neck burrito. I will slow cook a big piece, pull the meat from the bone and mix it with either BBQ sauce or salsa then vacuum seal. When I get home from a long day chasing elk, I'll drop one of these pre-mixed bags into boiling water. While it is heating up, I'll get some tortillas or Hawaiian sweet rolls out, chop some fresh onion and have a killer home-made late night meal with very little effort.

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    Neck Bone-in or De-boned.

    INGREDIENTS

    - I deer, elk or antelope neck, on or off the bone.

    - Oil for browning

    - Wine, broth or water to cover

    For Burritos

    - 1 tbsp Cumin

    - 1 tbsp Chile pepper

    - 1 tsp. Cayenne pepper

    - 1 tbsp Garlic Salt

    - 1 bottle tomatillo salsa

    - Tortillas

    - Lettuce, rice, cabbage, or whatever else you like in your burritos

    For BBQ

    - Hawaiian Sweet Rolls or Potato Rolls

    - 1 Bottle BBQ Sauce

    For Pasta

    - 2 Cups Chopped Tomatoes

    - 1/2 Cup Fresh Basil

    - 3 Cloves Garlic

    - Olive Oil

    - Salt and Peper to Taste

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    Brown the neck evenly in a skillet, dutch oven, hot grill or the broiler. Place the neck in a dutch oven or slow cooker and cover it with wine, water or broth. Add spices if desired. If using a dutch oven,  cook the neck in the oven between 225 and 325 for 4-6 hours or however long it takes to become tender.  Leave yourself enough time to check it for desired consistency.  If using a slow cooker, use the low setting and allow the neck to simmer for the full cooking cycle.

    Once tender, pull the neck meat into pieces that look right for sandwiches, burritos or pasta and then add the sauce of your choice. If you like the meat mix to have a  more liquid consistency, add some of the braising broth to the pot. Let this sit for 10 minutes to allow the meat to soak up as much sauce as possible. Build your sandwich, burrito or serve over pasta. This recipe is super easy and way better than hitting the gas station heat lamp during the season.

    Ryan Callaghan is the Director of Conservation and PR at FLHQ. You can follow his adventures here.

  • The Tough Cuts - Shank Recipe by Ryan Callaghan

    Bachelorhood has basically shaped my diet; red meat is plentiful in this kitchen. Once the tenderloin was as good as it could get, and butterflied loin chops were the most coveted, the rest went into the grind pile. Eventually, the drive to deplete a sometimes overstocked freezer and a long-dead appreciation for burger led to a greater understanding and appreciation for the tough cuts.

    The shank is a prime example of this--picture meat buried under layers of silver skin and sinew wrapped around a short baseball bat. The tongue sitting between molars still clinging to their last bit of green cud. The shoulder that at first glance looks like mostly bone with muscle turns into some really odd looking steaks once the muscle comes off. If you must grind, then grind.  But appreciate these cuts because if you leave them in the woods or aim for both shoulders, then you're going to miss out on some really unique and delicious meals.

    Being as I think most people mean well and just don't know any better, I will help you out with some easy recipes over the coming weeks. What these recipes have in common are low cooking temps and time.

    Shank.

    INGREDIENTS

    • 1lg White onion
    • 6-8 Cloves of garlic
    • 2-3 Medium-sized carrots
    • 2 Celery ribs
    • Olive Oil, 2- tbsp to coat + 2-3tbsp in reserve
    • Flour, I have found whole wheat flour works great for dishes like this but use whatever you have on hand. About 1/4 cup will be plenty to dust the shank
    • The Fat.  Again I prefer side-pork or some sort of uncured pig. I keep a package of side-pork or pork belly in the freezer and hack off an inch or two from the end for this purpose. Using something a bit more pricey like Pancetta adds a little flavor and it's nice to add back on top of your finished dish.
    • 1 Cup red wine
    • 2 Bay leaves
    • *other common herbs for this dish include but are not limited to rosemary, thyme.

     

    You can leave this in the shape of the aforementioned baseball bat or cut through the bone into slightly prettier disks.

    Coat in olive oil, salt, pepper and a light dusting of flour. Let the meat sit as you brown the uncured bacon or pancetta. Remove the crispy bits and replace with the shank, brown on all sides and remove from pan. (This should be done on medium-high heat. If you find yourself running low on the pig fat, you can add a bit of olive oil just bump the heat down a bit, so it does not burn.)

    In the same pan throw in diced onion, garlic, celery, and carrot. Next, when your vegetables start to stick in the pan, it's time to dump in a cup of red wine and stir until the bottom of the pan looks easy to clean.

    Dump this whole mess into a crock pot or dutch oven and add the bay leaves. Place the shank on top and add water until the meat is mostly covered, then put the lid on top. Place on low heat if you are heading to work, or high if you are knocking this out over the lunch hour.

    When you get home, give the meat a flip. If there is too much water for your liking you can remove the lid and turn up the heat while you make the risotto, mashed potatoes, or polenta as a vessel for your shank meat. When you serve this, you can tell your friends you made Osso Bucco. The fancy name will improve the taste for your non-culinary friends.

  • Jess Pryles Shares her Stuffed Venison Backstrap Recipe

    JessPryles_courtesy of Murdoch Books (2)

    Our friend Jess Pryles is a professional Hardcore Carnivore, cook, and author specializing in Texas BBQ and bourbon. She shared her recipe for Pecan and Cranberry Stuffed Venison Backstrap with us to help add some spice to our weekday meal planning for all that game meat in the freezer. Give it a try and let us know on Instagram how yours turns out. Check out more of her amazing recipes at jesspryles.com/recipes

    Pecan and Cranberry Stuffed Venison Backstrap
    SERVES 6–8
    Photograph from Hardcore Carnivore by Jess Pryles, photo © Mark Roper, courtesy of Murdoch Books. Photograph from Hardcore Carnivore by Jess Pryles, photo © Mark Roper, courtesy of Murdoch Books.
    There’s some technical skill needed to butterfly meat and prepare it for stuffing (see page 36 for a step-by-step guide), but you’ll get better each time you try. Once all your elements are prepared, this dish comes together very quickly—it’s ready in just 15 minutes.
    INGREDIENTS
    2¾ oz (¾ cup/75 g) pecans
    2¾ oz (½ cup/75 g) dried cranberries
    5 thyme sprigs
    2 French shallots, diced
    3 tablespoons dried breadcrumbs
    ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
    ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    ½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
    2¼ oz (60 g) butter, melted
    1 whole venison backstrap (about 2 lb/1 kg)
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    METHOD
    Toast the pecans in a skillet without any oil until fragrant, stirring regularly to avoid burning. Roughly chop the nuts and put in a bowl.
    Chop the cranberries and add to the bowl, then strip the thyme sprigs and add the leaves to the bowl, discarding the woody stems. Add the shallots, breadcrumbs, nutmeg, pepper and ½ teaspoon salt. Stir to combine the ingredients. Add the melted butter and stir again until everything is well mixed.
    Butterfly the backstrap so it’s flat and even. Form the pecan and cranberry stuffing mixture in a log lengthwise down the middle. Pull the backstrap back together to form a cylinder around the stuffing, and secure with butcher’s twine. Season the outside well with salt.
    Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat the olive oil in an ovenproof skillet over high heat until nearly smoking.
    Add the stuffed backstrap and sear for about 2 minutes on each side, until browned all over.  Place the skillet in the oven and cook for a further 4–6 minutes for perfect rare, or up to 10 minutes for
    something closer to medium. It’s important not to overcook the backstrap or it will become tough.
    Remove the venison from the skillet, cover loosely with foil and set aside to rest for 8–10 minutes before slicing into 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick portions.
    Master the Meat
    If you’re having trouble getting the hang of trussing, you can buy food-safe elasticized bands, which you simply slip around the stuffed loin at different intervals to hold in place.
    ---------------
    Reprinted with permission from Hardcore Carnivore by Jess Pryles, Agate Surrey, 2018.

     

  • Recipe Winner: West African Rabbit and Peanut Stew with Spicy Fried Plantains

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    Celiac Disease sucks. If you’ve never heard of it, imagine a really intense version of a gluten allergy. It’s nearly impossible to go out to eat, and ethnic restaurants are out of the question.

    As a result, we’ve developed a tradition in my house. On Sunday nights, the doors are open to friends and I try out new recipes, often some kind of ethnic cuisine. From the first time I heard about this peanut stew, a fixture in Ghana, I knew I had to try my hand at it.
    After a little research and a few test runs, I settled on this version of the dish, adapted from a recipe at seriouseats.com. I replaced the traditional chicken with  desert cottontail, tweaked the process a bit, and added charred jalapeno and chili oil. The addition of this regional take on plantains, adds a great crunch and sweetness to accompany the earthiness of the stew.

    I love this recipe because the ingredients are easy to find and it’s incredibly versatile. Traditional recipes include everything from vegetarian options to goat and tripe. With a few tweaks, you can make it with just about any game meat. I can’t wait to try it again with venison, or maybe some smoked wild turkey.

    West African Rabbit and Peanut Stew with Spicy Fried Plantains

    Servings: 4-6

    Ingredients

    Stew

    • 2 pounds cottontail rabbit, cut into serving size pieces

    • 2 medium yellow onions, halved and roots trimmed off, divided

    • 2 cups game or chicken stock, divided

    • 5 medium cloves garlic, divided

    • 1 ounce fresh ginger (about a 1-inch knob) peeled, divided

    • 2 teaspoons tomato paste

    • 4 tablespoons olive oil

    • 1 jalapeno pepper, deseeded

    • 2 bay leaves

    • 1 cup creamy peanut butter

    • 1 can (28oz) peeled plum tomatoes

    • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

    • Thai or Chinese Chili Oil

    Kelewele (Fried Plantains)

    • 4-6 plantains peeled and cut into bite-sized cubes

    • 1-2 tsp Cayenne pepper

    • ½ tsp peeled grated fresh gingerroot

    • 1 tsp salt

    • 2 tbs water

    • High smoke point oil (preferably peanut oil) to fry.

     

    Directions

    Stew

    1. Generously salt the rabbit pieces and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.

    2. In a blender, purée 2 onion halves, 1/2 cup chicken stock, 3 garlic cloves, 1/2 ounce ginger, and the tomato paste.

    3. Heat olive oil on medium-high heat in a large pot or Dutch oven. Pat dry the rabbit pieces and brown in pot. Do this in batches and set browned pieces aside.

    4. While the rabbit browns, roast jalapeno pepper either directly over a gas burner or underneath your oven’s broiler. Remove the pepper from the heat when charred and blistered all over. Set Aside.

    5. After browning the rabbit is complete, drain any remaining oil from the Dutch oven. Return the rabbit to the Dutch oven along with the puree, the remaining onion halves, remaining ½ ounce ginger, remaining 2 garlic cloves, jalapeno and bay leaves. Toss to coat.

    6. Bring Dutch oven to a simmer over medium heat, using a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom. Cover and reduce heat to low, cooking until the onion halves are soft and translucent, about 20 minutes.

    7. Remove the chunks of onion, ginger, garlic cloves, and jalapeno and transfer to the blender. Add peanut butter, canned tomatoes and their juices, and remaining 1 1/2 cups chicken stock, and purée until smooth. Pass the blended mix through a fine-mesh strainer into the Dutch oven, stirring to incorporate.

    8. Raise heat to medium and bring to a simmer, then lower heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until rabbit is tender, oils have surfaced, and mixture has thickened and reduced by about one-third, 90 minutes to 2 hours.

    9. Remove and discard bay leaves, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot with Kelewele, white rice and chili oil.

    Kelewele

    1. Grate and mix ginger root, pepper, and salt in water.

    2. Toss plantain and spice mixture together in a bowl.

    3. Using a deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat oil (it needs to be deep enough to allow plantains to float) to 350 degrees.

    4. Fry plantains in batches to avoid dropping the oil temperature, turning once, until golden brown on both sides.

    5. Drain plantains on paper towels and keep in warmed oven until all the plantains are fried.

     

    Jeff Quigley lives and hunts in Carlsbad, California.

  • Dreams, Dad and Deer

    It had been almost 20 years since I'd gone mule deer hunting with a rifle. But with several archery bulls in the last several seasons I decided to switch gears  and give it a try in October of 2015. Switching gears into looking for deer proved to be super fun. I roamed new parts of regional public lands, places that I'd never seen or necessarily even knew were public. That alone became addicting and within a handful of days in the field I'd had so much fun I declared the effort a success. The best buck I had yet taken followed not long after.

    IMG_0556 The author with his 2015 buck. Photo: Author.

    Along with fishing, many of my fondest childhood memories took place in the sagebrush deserts of SE Oregon deer hunting with my dad. Mule deer bucks were an icon of my imagination, and the quarry of my first years as a big game tag holder. Lady luck never smiled upon my father and I though, and short of one forked-horn buck from the majestic Steens Mountain our dreams of gripping 4x4 racks remained only that. In 2013 I lost my father as a result of a freak cycling accident. Our relationship had broken down over the 5 or so years leading up to that, and now when I reach for some of my best memories with him, they take me back to deer hunting in the 1980's. My dad had outrageous enthusiasm for many things. He would light up like crazy at the most modest-sized fish or game animal. Unfortunately he never harvested anything that could be considered even close to trophy class and neither had I. When I look back now at these photos, I can only imagine the excitement he would express if he could see me with a buck like that. His voice rings in my imagination, and I can hear him saying "What a buck-WOW I'm so proud of you son!"

    IMG_1777 The author's dad with a forky from Steens Mountain in Oregon. Photo: Author.

    As described in my post from last Fall, 2016 brought me incredible success and the continuation of my newfound streak. Armed with knowledge gained in last year's deer hunt and confidence that only a blood stained backpack can bring, I eagerly anticipated 2016's general rifle season. Following a ten day bout with the worst cold I can recall, I made my plans for my first deer hunt of the season. I've often stated that because of my love for adventure, tagging out on the first day of any season would suck. With that echoing in my mind I contemplated strategies as I admired a handsome buck bedded far below me. He was 490 yards away and on a random plot of private land. But I speculated if I stayed put, he would eventually get up and migrate uphill into better cover once the morning sun eventually blazed down on him. As I'd hoped, the buck did just that and wove his way through the sage up the steep terrain of crags, bitter brush and willows.

    IMG_6954 The buck makes his way through the thick sage. Photo: Author.

    Still far out of range, I watched the buck disappear into a fold of terrain. He was now off the private land and onto  public ground. An hour later he had not emerged so I opted for a stalk that would deliver me to a close range vantage into the hidden gully. As I approached the crest above the buck, I slowed to a creep with my rifle mid-shoulder. The day was calm as a candle flame without a breath of wind, and I could hear each pebble crunch under my footsteps. A short distance below me I heard a light rustling and knew that had to be the buck. I peered through the tops of brush and spotted antler tips tilting back and fourth. The slightest squeak of my rifle sling jolted the buck's attention and the rack spun to my direction. He was 70 or 80 yards away, and I'd spotted him first. Yet he had me pegged even though he directly couldn't see me. I was only inches below his field of view, and if it weren't for his antlers I'd never know he was there. The standoff began as his vigilant stare seemed to penetrate the partial sagebrush curtain that concealed me. I was mid-stride and straddling a large bush. A few minutes into the stillness contest I could swear he was going to hear the muscles in my legs and ass quivering and cramping.

    The slightest movement would certainly tip him off and he'd be able to vanish down the steep ravine with one jump. I'd intentionally delayed this stalk until direct October sunshine would have the day's warming thermals sliding uphill. I was sure glad of that as the bucks rack finally began to rotate and wobble again, indicating that he'd returned to feeding from the golden delicious colored willow in front of him. It was clear that in these conditions the buck could hear the slightest sound and even a careful slow motion step was going to draw his attention back to me. My feet may just have well been planted in cement. If I was going to have a shot at this buck I'd have to find a way to make it happen from the current scenario, and I couldn't hold my awkward stance much longer. At half a sloth's pace, I raised my rifle into shooting position, eventually bringing the glass of scope to my eye. I was able to see his head and neck, but the old growth sage blocked his body. The ground threatened to crunch at even the slightest shifting of weight from one foot to another. I kept trying to find my crosshairs a clear line of sight to the mass of the buck's body. I extended painfully high on tippy toes and leaned as far to one side as I could. Craning my neck and torso I found the shot. For a second I contemplated a checklist; nothing behind the buck to worry about hitting; yes. I had my tag in my pocket and was sure I was in the right unit; yes. This is a beautiful buck and although I wished the experience of deer hunting could take me exploring longer, I can't accept the potential of a buck like this as a haunting memory of hindsight regret. So I let the lead fly.

    At 70 or so yards and no time seem to pass between pulling the trigger and the bullets impact. The shot was  too close to hear the definitive thump of a hit. The buck simply vanished from view. As I approached the spot where he was standing I expected to find him on the ground. But he wasn't there. Close examination revealed not a drop of blood. Scanning steeply downhill in the direction he'd fled I could see tell-tale tracks hauling ass down the draw with enormous gaps between each stride. The narrative in my head had taken a sharp turn, dumbfounded I reconstructed the events and contemplated how I possibly could have missed. I recalled a time when I was 13 or 14 and a fantastic non-typical buck with extra points appeared at a similar close range like this. Crystal clear I remember setting my sights squarely on that magnificent buck. The close range shot felt perfect. One jump and he too vanished out of sight. Hours later my dad and I left with shoulders slumped and my head hung in disappointment and disbelief. Somehow I'd missed the buck completely. I felt so embarrassed and incompetent. It was a common feeling my old man and I knew, a sour pill we each had to swallow every fall during a decade or more of hunting together. But as with my archery bull the month before, I shook these thoughts out of my head and reassured myself that the shot was solid. I strapped my pack back on, chambered another round and set my gaze to the line of tracks unraveling away from me. When I reached the farthest visible track a splash of red practically leapt from the sage. "I knew it!!!!" I proclaimed to myself. A short distance later the trail revealed all the signs of a buck hit hard and whirling out of control down the mountain. I could plainly see where the buck had died mid-air, lost his legs and fell into a tumble. The tracks told the story as clearly as if I'd witnessed it in real time. I paused and took a knee on the slope knowing my dandy buck was expired somewhere right below me. For so many years I'd dreamt of savoring a moment like this, and I soaked it all in. Seconds later I spotted him, at peace and waiting there to be claimed.

    IMG_1713lr The author's mature mule deer buck. Photo: Author.

    Very similar and slightly larger than my buck last year, this harvest represented tremendous fulfillment for me. Still far short of true trophy class by technical definition, I gazed in awe at this buck which is a prize trophy to me.  Flat-out beside myself with joy and pride I reconnected with my dad, imagining the things he would be saying and the beaming smile that would be on his face had he been there with me. Sweat dripped steadily from my hat as I worked to field dress, de-bone and strap the buck to my overloaded pack. I was overcome with happiness and gratitude.

    IMG_0519-(1) A trophy. Photo: Author.

    Now at my desk a year later I cherish this memory and look forward to the opportunity to take kids of my own deer hunting one day, with the recognition that these are the greatest days of our lives. Stop and soak your moments in. I think you'll be glad you did.

    buckPack The author packs out his 2016 Idaho rifle buck. Photo: Author.

    First Lite Ambassador, Bryan Huskey, is a photographer and filmmaker in Boise, Idaho. You can check out his work here. He is also the founder of Keep 'em Wet Fishing, a non-profit organization that advocates and educates about best practice release methods for fisherman who are not keeping their catch.

  • Double your Donation!

    PublicLandBlogPost First Lite Pro and Secondary Markets Manager, Casey Hawkes  surveys his public lands in central Idaho. Photo: Jed Conklin

    This Saturday, September 30th is National Public Lands Day: a day for hunters, anglers, hikers, bikers, backcountry skiers, EVERY outdoor recreationist to come together to celebrate our public lands. On National Public Lands Day, we will be matching ALL donations made to our Round Up For Conservation program to help preserve our public lands.  To donate, simply add a dollar amount to the Round Up for Conservation section on the shopping cart page before you click proceed to checkout. Complete your purchase and that's it, we'll match your donation dollar for dollar. You can choose to give to Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnerships, the National Wildlife Federation or Pheasants Forever or spit your contribution between these four hardworking groups. Double your donation this coming Saturday to protect our wildlife, access and hunting heritage! Check out our social media feed and post your own #PublicLandsDay video to show your support now through Saturday!

    Shop the site now!

  • The Wilderness Area You've Never Heard Of

    CalBlog1 Public land hunter Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico with First Lite's Ryan Callaghan. Photo: Mia Hermann.

    On Saturday July 29th, I found myself standing on the fringe of a road junction outside Las Vegas, New Mexico. Despite an early meeting time, the temps were rising and you could tell the day was going to be a cooker. To my back stood a severely weathered grave yard and to my front a seemingly endless mesa covered in juniper and piñon. From what I could gather, I was likely standing in one of the biggest social scenes this particular part of the country had ever seen. Our group included members of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, New Mexico Game and Fish, and the Bureau of Land Management. It also included commissioners of San Miguel County, the New Mexico Bowhunters Association, Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, and a few cowboys to wrangle horses for the main event. I watched as three shiny suburbans and a few state police cars pulled up, escorting in the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke.

    Secretary Zinke came to this corner of New Mexico to fulfill a promise to Senator Heinrich and the people of New Mexico. That promise included taking a tour of the Sabinoso Wilderness, some 16,000 acres of prime game habitat, to determine if an addition to the Wilderness would be possible. Never heard of the Sabinoso? Truthfully, neither had I until I received a phone call a week prior to this meeting. Don't feel bad; there is a good reason you are unaware. You cannot legally access the Sabinoso Wilderness, as the entire area has been landlocked by private ground. By virtue of being a Wilderness area, the Sabinoso must be managed by the Department of the Interior as a resource for the "use and enjoyment of the American people”, yet you and I are barred from entry. However, there is a silver lining: the Wilderness Land Trust, an organization that acquires and transfers private land to public ownership, currently holds 4,000 acres of land called the Rimrock Rose Ranch that could provide legal access to the Sabinoso. The Trust will donate this land to the people of the United States; all that is required is the signature of Secretary Zinke on the final agreement.

    CalBlog2 A diversity of conservation groups including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, New Mexico Bowhunters Association and the Conservation Lands Foundation have rallied behind New Mexico Senators Heinrich and Udall in their efforts to open the Sabinoso Wilderness to public access. Photo Credit: Mia Hermann.

    Why does this matter from a hunting perspective? Why the hell was I there? Turkey, elk, mule deer, black bear, and Barbary sheep can be found in the Sabinoso Wilderness. It is a place that can push you to your limits and will make the great hunting gear you own necessary. The canyons are prime nesting areas for raptors like the peregrine falcon and the intermittent stream is home to catfish, panfish and the largest concentration of amphibians in Northern New Mexico. Along these streams, you will find sandy deposits perfect for pitching a tent.

    My brief time in the Sabinoso left me with the all too familiar pangs of opportunity lost and fear of missing out. How do I get back to properly explore? How do I apply for tags? The truth is, those thoughts are fanciful. They are just day dreams unless we can get access, and access now lays in the hands of Secretary Zinke.

    Please use one or both of the links below to urge Secretary Zinke to do his job and manage the Sabinoso Wilderness for the "use and enjoyment of the American people”.

    - Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

    http://www.backcountryhunters.org/sabinosowilderness

    - New Mexico Wildlife Federation

    http://nmwildlife.org/news/tell-secretary-zinke-new-mexico-sportsmen-women-want-sabinoso-access/

     

     *    *    *

     

    Ryan Callaghan is a BHA life member and the Director of Conservation and Public Relations at FLHQ.

  • No Probllama Part One: A Pack Llama Primer

    GraniteLlama "Granite" the pack llama will make your pack out much more pleasant. Photo: Author

    Note from First Lite:  We will be featuring a Facebook Live discussion with Beau Baty from Wilderness Ridge Trail Llamas as well as First Lite's Ryan Callaghan and the author, Ross Copperman, on Thursday, July 20th at 1pm MDT.  Tune in to First Lite's Facebook page at facebook.com/firstlite to learn more or ask questions. We'll also be posting the conversation to YouTube shortly after.

    My interest in utilizing pack llamas for backcountry hunting first stemmed from the most worthless piece of stock in the history of the world, Janet Reno.  Janet Reno was my own llama, a miserable beast so named for her uncanny resemblance to the now deceased Attorney General.  A long story short, I acquired her from a stranger at a feed store for the price of one case of Keystone Light  several years ago, when I was in the side business of raising sheep.

    It should be noted that I was looking for a means to protect my real investment, several ewes and lambs that were under constant threat from coyotes.  I read about guardian llamas—solo llamas introduced into a flock of sheep that would naturally protect their wooly counterparts from predators.  As it turned out, Janet was useless. She would actually ignore the sheep all day and watched indifferently as coyotes killed three lambs in one month.  Janet is no longer employed, but her size, stealth, subsistence entirely on natural fauna and rock solid footing did cause me to be intrigued by the idea of utilizing trained llamas for backcountry forays.

    First Lite is based in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of central Idaho.  I’ve never had an out-of-towner that didn’t describe big game hunting here as tortuous, soul-crushingly difficult or just plain impossible.  I recently took a friend hunting who was a division one football player in college and he said that our hunting was way worse than anything he ever saw in his football days.  Our neighboring peaks are generally around 9k to 11k in height--not the tallest by any means--but there is basically little-to-no terrain here that isn’t downright steep, as in lose your footing and roll 100 yards downhill steep.  Couple this with the fact that we are surrounded by millions of acres of public wilderness and you can imagine pack stock in this state is a very nice thing to have.

    Personally, I don’t have time for horses or mules and I doubt I could keep one healthy and fit.  With a young daughter at home and a wife who commutes to and from the city every week, maintaining horses or mules was a non-starter.  Llamas, on the other hand, are heralded by all for their ability to essentially take care of themselves—a hoof trimming here and there but no need for shoes and some brushing are all that is needed on a regular basis.  Basically, their natural ability to stay comfortable in nearly any weather without hay nor even daily access to water made them an obvious candidate for the climate here and my specific time constraints.   Having owned one, I knew they were very well suited for a relatively low maintenance lifestyle.  What I wasn't so sure about was whether they were all worthless, uncooperative jerks like Janet or if they could potentially be useful.

    Enter Beau and Kirsten Baty, a couple out of Idaho Falls that I was introduced to after speaking to about 20 different llama enthusiasts I found via the internet.  When I described my needs, several of these folks told me that I had to speak with Beau Baty at Wilderness Ridge Trail Llamas, so I gave him a call.  Turned out the Beau is not only a pack llama guru, but also a fourth generation outfitter, freakish backcountry hunter and most importantly, an all-around good guy.

    LlamaCampBryan Arriving at camp eight miles back and feeling fresh as a daisy. Thanks llamas. Photo: Author

    Beau and I talked for quite a while after I told him I was looking to buy some pack llamas.  To Beau’s credit, he strongly suggested I use a few for a season before committing to purchasing them.  As it turns out, a truly well-trained and genetically suited llama (more on this from Beau later) costs about as much as a pack mule or the like, so doing your homework and research is critical.  The $100 llamas you see on craigslist or maybe acquire in the parking lot of a feed store for a case of beer are about as genetically suited for packing as a ten year old Shitzu is for retrieving geese (We have a Shitzu—it’s a fruitless endeavor, trust me).  Anyhow, Beau was very good at giving me the pros and cons of owning and using llamas in the backcountry and I immediately appreciated his honest, no B.S. approach to giving me the skinny.  Ultimately we decided I’d rent some for a hunt or two that coming fall so that I could decide if they were for me.  I couldn’t wait—the idea of some sure footed, cooperative, mild-mannered version of Janet Reno that actually carried my gear and had a positive contribution to my life in general was very intriguing indeed. But first, a word from the man, himself.

    Q&A WITH BEAU BATY OF WILDERNESS RIDGE TRAIL LLAMAS

    First Lite: What do you think the biggest advantage of hunting with llamas over traditional pack animals is?

    WRTL:  Simplicity is the biggest advantage. Llamas need care like any other animals but they are just simple. You can saddle a llama in 20 seconds, they forage on much less than other pack stock, they have a split toe and are more surefooted than other pack stock, they are quite and stealthy, they can pack more weight in proportion to their body weight than any other pack animals, they have day in and day out endurance that most traditional pack stock does not possess. If you want to go somewhere and you know you can hike there, you can get llamas there. Deadfall, rivers, rock ledges, scree fields, etc. If you can do it, they can do it. There are always exceptions but for the most part this holds true. Llamas have been helping man as beast of burden for 6000+ years in extremely tough conditions. There is nothing new about them; civilizations have flourished due to the capabilities and use of llamas.

    FL: What's the biggest disadvantage?

    WRTL:That is a tough question. I think the biggest disadvantage to llamas is that if you want to buy them, use them, or rent some there is very limited availability.

    LlamasOrange Easy to saddle and pack, llamas are a great backcountry beast of burden. Photo: Author.

    FL:   Like most hunters, I've always hunted on foot with backpacks.  How will hunting with llamas change how I hunt, for better and worse?

     WRTL:  Llamas allow you to carry less weight on your back. On your first day of a backpacking trip if you are going into a tough place to access you have spent a lot of energy getting to your spot. With llamas you can carry less, conserve your energy and move at a faster pace. When you get to your hunting area you are ready to go vs. being whipped from your hike in. If time is a problem for you then llamas are the ticket. For example if you have to be back to work on Monday morning and its Sunday afternoon you can hunt hard and try to tag out because you know you can pack out your game + your camp in one trip back to the trail head/truck. If you don’t have llamas and are in this same situation you might think twice about hunting to the last minute in case you might not make it back to work/home in time. With that same token being able to pack out your elk/deer/moose and camp out in one trip can be a huge benefit and relief for the backpack hunter. If you hunt in areas where you can hunt deer and elk and have the chance to harvest both in one trip llamas allow you to feasible pack out your game where as otherwise you might not have been able to harvest both species. Essentially llamas help you stay in the backcountry longer both in duration and seasonally they help you hunt harder by conserving energy because you are packing less in and out and you can eat better meals with less sodium, more calories and better cleaner proteins. Additionally they allow you to go farther into the backcountry on foot to areas where you normally wouldn't consider accessing due to the limited logistics backpack hunters face.

    FL:  What kind of terrain/topography are llamas best suited for?  What kind is most difficult (i.e. down timber, snow, etc.)

    WRTL: I have hunted/trekked with llamas in the spring with deep crusty snow and high flowing rivers, summer in the high alpine basins and granite peaks of the Wind Rivers, during the fall in the Cloud Lake burn that was full of terrible deadfall, and in the Frank Church during late November and December which in my opinion is some of the toughest country we have in the lower 48. We have tested them in lots of different terrain and they have excelled in all of these areas. A strong, athletic, well-bred and conditioned llama is unmatched in the backcountry. The toughest conditions for them are icy rocks, icy ledges and icy trails. When the deadfall gets impassable for you on two feet it usually is the same scenario for them.

    FL:  How often does it go off the rails?  Many of my friends were expecting some minor disasters like unruly llamas or escapees and were shocked to hear we didn't have a single minor hickup in two whole trips. How often do problems really happen and what are they?

    WRTL: Problems can always happen and you should try to understand what they are and how to mitigate them. As a rule of thumb if your llamas are in great shape and your saddle is on tight and panniers are balanced you should have a great trip. Understanding your llamas and their capabilities takes some time and narrows the margin for train wrecks. Train wrecks that we have ran into is the llamas saddling falling off on steep slopes, young llamas not knowing their roll and going left around a tree instead of right like the rest of the llamas in front of them or a llama jumping a creek vs. walking through it. Before we started packing with classics or Ccara llamas we had a very hard time getting our llamas in shape and the process was a pain. Llamas not built or bred for packing, which is most of the llamas you see, lay down on you and struggle to get into shape.

    FL:  Do you see llama hunting entering the mainstream over the next several years? 

      WRTL: I see more people getting into knowing where there food comes from and hunting. I also see folks in their 40’s and 50’s looking for a way to continue their passion of hunting the backcountry and hauling out their game more efficiently. In that regard I see llamas becoming more widespread and more of a tool despite not commonly being used now. Using llamas to haul payloads in and out of high elevations is not a new concept. The Inca culture perfected this over 6,000 years. We have just found a need for it since the 80’s and due to social media and more people exploring the backcountry, pack llamas are finding their way back to their roots as the choice beast of burden for humans.

    sunny.llama.camp-(1) Self-reliant llamas require little care in the backcountry. Photo: Author.

    FL:  If someone wants to rent some llamas or book a trip with you, when should they contact you (how early are you booked out) and what do they need to know?

    WRTL: I advise contacting us as soon as they can. Our season continues to book earlier and earlier each year. Once in a while we have a cancellation and can fit someone in during the season but this does not happen very often. As the draws come out we fill up in a matter of days. For the summer months we are booked by the end of February. For the fall months we are usually booked by May 1st.

    FL:  You recently purchased Jackson Hole Outfitters--are you planning on incorporating the llamas into this outfit?  How does someone book a guided llama hunting trip with you?

    WRTL: We will start operating in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park staring the summer of 2017. This new permit is allowing us to continue our dream and help people explore the wild areas of the Rocky Mountains. To book a trip they can go to the website or call/email us directly. We also operate in The Wind Rivers in Wyoming, the Wyoming Range and Gros Ventre Range. This area of Wyoming is one of a kind and is an amazing place to explore in the fall and summer months.

    FL: Other than hunting, what other uses do pack llamas have for outdoorsmen/women? 

    WRTL:

    Shed hunting:

    I have gone on big shed horn hunting expeditions with them. For example we will take a week to ten days off work and head to Arizona/Nevada/Utah and use the llamas to hunt for sheds. The llamas carry our gear as we usually have a mobile camp and are always on the move. We load up the llamas in the morning with our camp and water then walk around all day looking for sheds. When we have about the llamas loaded with sheds we head back to the trailer and off load the antlers and then go back out.

    Petrified wood:

    Back in the day when we had more time on our hands we would use them to pack out petrified wood we would go and hunt for.

    Trail Clearing:

    Each spring we clear trails in our outfitting areas as part of our permit and we also donate our time to help clear trail in the wilderness areas we like to visit. The llamas can carry your saws, axes, tools and camp. The llamas love getting out in the spring and eating the short grass coming through thawing ground.

    Shuttle equipment:

    Llamas have been used on many long races to shuttle water and equipment to certain stops along the path.

    Fishing:

    We have explored many lakes in the backcountry each summer that are remote and usually see little traffic. Areas like this really make for a fun family adventure when you are able to camp in luxury with friends or family not used to the back country.

    Camping:

    My wife and I love to explore new trails, peaks, streams and high country lakes. Taking the llamas helps us stay longer and make loops vs in and out of the same trail-head.

    STAY TUNED FOR PART 2.

    Ross Copperman is the VP of Sales at FLHQ. He will be hunting deer and elk with pack llamas this Fall.

  • Idaho Lifetime Series: Goat

    Sunset in Goat Country. Photo Ryan Callaghan Sunset in Goat Country. Photo Ryan Callaghan

    Every once in a while, on a backcountry ski, hike or hunt I had seen them amongst the rocks high above. Way up there, always looking down on m as I struggled higher to experience their world, if only for a matter of hours. No other game animal in the Americas rivals their climbing ability and toughness. Moreover, exotic as these creatures are, they inhabit my home mountain ranges. Indeed, with a powerful telescope and a great sum of patience one might spot one from the office window. And so for me mountain goats came to represent all that is wild, high and hardy in central Idaho. I became fascinated with their lofty lifestyle. I read all I could about them and glassed the cliffs with anticipation on trips through the mountains. And as I am more than anything else a hunter, this esteem evolved into a desire to spend a season watching, studying and experiencing these amazing creatures. Ultimately, killing and consuming this symbol of the rugged peaks seemed like my ultimate sacrament. Despite the fact that my odds of drawing a tag were poor, pursuing a Rocky Mountain Goat became my first hunting priority. So when I opened the Idaho Fish and Game envelope in May, puzzlement quickly turned to astonishment. Inside was a glossy tag; good for the only mountain goat I would ever take in the state. Damned if I hadn’t actually drawn my dream hunt right in my own proverbial backyard. My once in a lifetime opportunity had arrived without delay. Yet it was also a commitment. The pressure to fill a lifetime tag and to do so in the right manner with the right animal was immediate and undeniable. Ungrateful as this sentiment may sound, when you only get one you sure as hell don’t want to mess it up. Logistics and decisions quickly filled my head and the fretting began almost immediately. I imagine a bride feels similarly about her wedding day

    Never expecting to actually draw a goat tag, I had burned most of my vacation time on a DIY hunt in New Zealand. Labor day weekend was the opener and this well timed holiday would likely afford me my longest single chunk of goat hunting. We headed for an area I had scouted extensively over the summer. I had seen loads of goats in these frainages over the course of the summer. The only troubling thing was that few if any of the goats I had seen had appeared to be mature billies.

    GoatsthroughSpotter A nanny, kid and juvenile through the spotter on a summer scouting trip. Photo: Author

    Oreamnos americanus is notoriously difficult to sex, particularly at a distance. Indeed, this is the reason it is not strictly illegal to kill a nanny in most states and provinces. Because of their particular habitat requirements, mountain goats naturally occurs in isolated, small populations. This characteristic means that even modest harvest of reproductive nannies call have negative effects on a goat herd. Despite this dynamic, managers are simply not confident that hunters will be able to reliably sex the animal in the field despite good intentions. Both billys and nannys have thick white coats and thin black horns. The differences between the two are subtle: Billys have a slightly thicker, more evenly curved horn. They also sport in-between-the-legs equipment that give you a pretty decent idea but are impossible to discern at great distance. Most definitively, nannie squat to urinate while males stay standing, leaning forward like a horse. As a result they sometime have stains on the lower part of their rear legs. Finally, Billies also tend to spend more time alone in the summer. Though far from conclusive, this characteristic is often all you have to go on when glassing large-bladdered goats from far across a drainage.

    Tent Sunset on a summer scouting trip. Photo: Author

    However, I brushed the apparent scarcity of mature billies aside and we set out with high hopes, bows in hand. Over the long weekend, my buddy, Josh and I saw several nanny herds, stalked in on a small group of immature goats and chased elk in our spare time. The Rocky Mountain weather was impressively bipolar, going from sun, to rain to inches of snow over the course of our four days in hills. It was a memorable trip, but one distinctly lacking in mature billies. And with my biggest single chunk of time in the woods behind me, I predictably began to worry. Though the season ran until November 11th much of the high country could be snowed in before then; the goats made all but invisible in the snow. Additionally, I had three new hunters to guide through October’s deer season. All told only a handful of weekends remained to notch a tag. Was I overacting to my first unsuccessful outing? Without doubt, but a goat tag will do that to you. I fully realize this sentiment is pathetic. This was quite literally the hunt of a lifetime and yet here I was, fretting away. Try as I might to focus on the experience I couldn’t fully shake off the weight of the tag.

    NannyPeak Creeping around the crags. Photo: Josh Kuntz

    In Meditations on Hunting, Jose Ortega y Gasset famously wrote, “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” Each year fall, I hunt elk, deer and antelope and the vast majority of these hunts end without blood. Don’t get me wrong, I am not out there bird watching. The goal is to harvest and animal. But if I don’t notch a tag I rarely feel I have wasted my time. Hearing a bull bugle from forty yards, watching two moose spar or catching the fleeting glimpse of a sow and her cubs are all part of the success of a hunt. Indeed, on my best days, I see hunting as a lens with which experience the natural world in a way more intimate than any other I know; one which also occasionally yields a full freezer, sometime puts horns on the wall and always provides stories for the campfire. Viewed this way hunting notably lacks a mandate of success. As the cliché goes, that’s why they call it hunting not killing. But my obsession for mountain goats and the very real possibility that this was the only such tag I would ever hold change this notion. This pursuit was more of a kill mission. As a result, it often felt more a task than an opportunity. I wasn’t just out hunting in the way I chase elk, antelope and deer each fall. This hunt was different. I was out to fill the tag of a lifetime. And so I decided it was time to get aggressive. The bow went into its hard case and the .308 came out of the closet. The following weekend I planned to pack into a wilderness area I had scouted earlier in the summer. I had seen several lone goats there in July and resolved that we would go up there and kill one. Inauspiciously, we did not make the trailhead until about 6:30 in the evening and ended up setting camp at dark barely two miles back. But the morning dawned clear and beautiful and we set about finding goats. My partner, Cal, and I decided to split up; he would head up to the top of the wall of the drainage to gain a view to its the rocky head, a place we had been told held critters. Meanwhile, I would retrace my steps and hike for the high pass where I had seen the three lone goats during the summer.

    Panorama Glassing for goats on the archery hunt. Photo: Josh Kuntz

    Not long into my climb into the high basin under the pass, I spotted my first white blob. It was alone, way the hell up there, casually pawing about the cliffs that ringed the basin. But as soon as I had the spotter focused on the goat, it squatted unmistakably. That wasn’t the end of the world. At about 11,000 feet and far from anything to which the word “reasonable” could be applied. And so I shouldered my pack and continued my climb. Two thousand feet and a couple layers lighter, I reached the top of the pass. Five minutes after that, I saw goats. They we’re below me, a bit down into the basin on the far side. A nanny and kids picked their way through a wide talus field five hundred yards away. A couple hundred yards downhill from them a lone goat stood stock still, not appearing to do much of anything. As the pair moved off across the boulders and ultimately up and out of the drainage, the other goat stayed in place and my interest grew. The horns appeared large and swept back evenly and its rear legs appeared to have a yellow tinge. It didn’t seem concerned with the disappearance of the others and eventually it dropped out of site in a fold in the talus field. Well, here I was. Though I still wanted a closer examination, things were looking good. I quickly emptied my pack of my overnight gear, rocked my rain slicker over the gear pile and moved down toward where I had last seen the goat.  About three hundred yards above its last position, I dropped my pack and pulled off my scope covers. I inched forward and the gully was revealed foot by foot. But something was wrong. The goat was not where it was supposed to be. I crept farther forward. Now I could see the bottom of the dip. No goat. I looked far, up the cliffs and shoots above the boulder field and down below where the whitebarks and fir began. No goat. I began to move more quickly and impatiently. How in the hell had this big white animal given me the slip in an open, treeless boulder field? I stood up tall and began to walk. And then, as it always is, my quarry was right there, looking directly at me.

    Blueskymountains Up on Top. Photo: Ryan Callaghan

    The goat was bedded beneath a bus-sized boulder about 120 yards to my left. It had hidden him from me until I had dropped this far down and then I had walked right out in front of it, far and clear from cover of any sort. I froze and looked on, waiting to see what would come of this intruder. Now what would I do? Though it was close it lay away from me and did not present a clear shot. Should I wait it out and hope the goat lost interest. Then I could try and get the rifle off my shoulder, put the crosshairs on the goat and wait for it to shift or stand up. Or I could just keep walking and try and get the gentle rise in front of me between us. I estimated that I had already walked ten or twenty yards in its view before I spotted the goat. Maybe I could get away with another thirty. If I could get to cover I might also have more time to confirm the goat was a billy. I went for it, striding casually forward and trying for the world to seem like nothing unusual had happened. This tactic will occasionally work with game animals. It very much did not work on this particular critter. The goat sprung to its feet and took off up the boulder field. I dropped to my knees and balancing on my extended bipod I floated the reticle on the fleeing animal. It was not stopping, quickly putting distance between itself and the strange bipedal threat across the open boulder field. As a rule, I do not shoot at unwounded, running animals. Moreover, I had not even had the change to examine the critter up close and was still far from 100% confident it was even a billy. And so I watched the goat scamper off towards the cliffs. With it went my hope for the day and perhaps the hunt.

    Spotter Looking over the high country. Photo: Josh Kuntz

    But when it hit the cliffs the goat slowed and looked over its shoulder. It appeared to grow confident in the 500 odd yards it had put between us. It picked slowly along the base of the cliffs, seemingly without much concern. Emboldened by its body language, I slunk back to my pack and found a position under an isolated stand of fir to hunker down and watch. Ultimately, the goat pawed about, turned a circle, and lay down. I kept the spotter trained on the white critter hoping it would get up, relieve itself and settle the question without doubt. Though I felt reasonably confident billy, my mind kept running the clip of myself approaching the downed goat only to find utters. Nanny harvest is perhaps the single most detrimental factor in goat population dynamics and I would rather eat my tag then be that guy. On top of this possibility, a lot of open boulder field lay between it and my effective range. And the wind blew up from the drainage below straight up to the goats. With the cliffs at his back this was about the worst possible orientation for approaching him.  As I watched a smaller, immature goat clambered down from the rock chutes above and joined the suspected billy at the base of the cliffs. The minutes turned to hours. I munched a pro bar and mulled the possibilities.

    Setting The crags from Cal's perspective. The goat was bedded at the base of the cliffs. Photo: Ryan Callaghan

    Suddenly, Cal came across on the radio. He had clambered all the way up the ridge that separated the valley we had started from my drainage. He waved down to me, a mile distant and 1500 feet up; a ludicrously small figure perched precariously atop a massive wall of rock. With instruction he was just able to make out the goat. “Yup, looks like a billy to me. Go get him.” Its funny how even casual encouragement can break up indecision. I got serious about the stalk. Though subtle, there was a slight dip between my position and the goat. If I worked my way all down to tree line I might be able to pick up the beginning of the dip and make my way to within a couple hundred yards of the billy. Sure, the wind was completely wrong but this goat had already spooked and there simply was not a path to him perpendicular to the breeze. Go time. Though I tried to keep cover between myself and the goat, I moved decisively. As I made it to the highest trees the rising boulder field hid him from view. Now, it was all faith and memory. I turned towards cliffs and began climbing the seam in the boulders. The going was loud and slow. It seemed impossible not to step on loose rock every tenth step. Each footfall was a decision and several times I was forced to double back and find a new path, my trajectory blocked by loose slate that simply could not be crossed silently. I winced with each rocky creak and was sure the goat was long gone up in the crags. And all the while the wind puffed consistently on my back. I didn’t have a great feeling about this stalk. The gully widened about one hundred yards above before the rise. Above that the goat or more likely its empty bed would come into view. I dropped my pack, removed my scope cover and extended my bipod. This last distance I moved as slowly as I could. Step after step, I saw further down the cliffs. And then he was there, right where he should have been. He was already looking my way as if he had been waiting for me all along. But he remained bedded. I flipped up my rangefinder: 176 yards. Slowly, I positioned the bipod feet in the rocks, expecting him to bolt with each of my movements. But he did not. Then came that brief moment of disconnect that seems always to arise at this point in a hunt; it was actually going to happen. I settled the reticle on his shoulders but it bounced. I closed my eyes. Took some deep breaths. Then the dot was tucked just behind his shoulder and the .308 cracked.

    Horn The horn of a mature, six and a half year old billy. Photo: Author

    “I think he’s dead.” “Yep. You got him.” Callaghan crackled over the radio. The goat had rolled a hundred yards and lay still in the talus. Even so, I put another round in the chamber and for fifteen seconds or so I watched the goat nervously through the scope of the .308. The white mass, now stained red, lay motionless in the rocks. Only then did it truly dawn on me that it was over; the weight lifted, the job done. Slowly, I stood up and after another long glance at the goat, I turned back to grab my pack and notch my tag.

    PackOut The victorious and long pack out. Photo: Ryan Callaghan

    Ford Van Fossan is the consumer sales and content manager at FLHQ. He will never again hunt a goat in Idaho which means its time to start putting in for other states and volunteering with the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance to get his fix. You can read about the kit he used on these hunts on this months staff picks.

  • That Other Sheep

    _01_AMxFirst Lite Blog_hike in The hike in. Photo: Author

    My spit barely had enough energy to leave my mouth. With labored breath, I put one foot in front of the other, steadily gaining ground along the game trail etched into the side of the hill.  It was a chilly late February morning as we started the hike into the backcountry of Southwest New Mexico. I was wearing every bit of clothing I had with me, but once the warmth of the sunrise hit the hillside, I was ready to shed a few layers.  I dropped my pack and crammed my down jacket into the top. We took stock of our surroundings, an amalgamation of bitterbrush, prickly bear and ashe juniper painted the landscape in grey, yellow-green and brown.  No wonder aoudad are so hard to spot out here.

    _04_AMxFirst Lite Blog_rams Rams spotted. Photo: Author

    Barbary sheep, or aoudad as they’re more commonly known, were introduced to the southern high deserts of New Mexico in the 1950s. Native to the northern coast of Africa, these sheep thrive in desolate mountainous terrain where few other animals of their size can. Hiking along the steep, chossy cliffsides gives you an immediate appreciation for how agile and efficient these ungulates are at navigating landscapes us two-legged folk have no business trekking.  Even the most sure-footed humans look like fools trying to get around in these sheep’s backyard.

    _03_AMxFirst Lite Blog_the stalk Glassing up the quarry. Photo: Author

    I look up from the rhythm of my boots as Nate crouches two steps ahead of me. “They’re right in front of us!” he whispers with a look of pure elation. We had spent the better part of an hour staring through our binoculars where eight sheep were grazing. My heart soared as we settled into the cover of scrubby brush, making sure to stay out of sight while still trying to keep an eye on the seemingly unaware group merely 175 yards away.  I couldn’t believe it.

    _02_AMxFirst Lite Blog_glassing Aoudad blend remarkably well into their adopted home. Photo: Author

    We sat and waited as the sheep began to bed in the warming sun. “We might be here for a while,” Nate said. “Who knows how long they’ll be bedded down. It’s better to play it safe and wait for them to make a move than for us to try and get into position and potentially spook them off.”

    We knew we’d most likely never see them again if we did.  Last season, Nate had his first barbary sheep stalk on public lands not too far from where we were that day. That hunt ended in a missed shot under similar circumstances and the weight of that failure weighed on his mind as we watched our group from afar.

    An hour passed and the sheep unexpectedly began working their way up the steep cliffside in front of us. We had to make a move. Nate crept up to close some distance. Each step carefully calculated to make as little commotion as possible, a task easier said than done across crumbling rock littered with dead brush. I hung back, waiting for Nate to get into position and give me the all clear. Once I caught up, I tucked into the hillside just behind him as his cheek lay rested against his gun stock, eye trained on the little brown blob, just over 100 yards away.

    The concussion hit me with a thud. As I pulled my 10x42’s up to my eyes, the group of sheep were laser focused down the hill. Statuesque as if not sure where the shot had come from.

    “Did I miss?! I don’t see anything down!” Nate said.

    A second shot rang out and echoed across the sunny canyon walls and sent the herd into a frenzied brown blur up the hillside, vanishing out of view as if they were never even there.

    As we stood and scanned the hillside, the sinking of uncertainty washed over us. “I’m usually a bit more steady, but I don’t take shots I’m not sure I’ll make,” Nate said. “Did you see anything fall?”

    I was hesitant to answer. Neither of us would like the answer.

    “I didn’t…”

    We waited, replaying the sequence in our head, searching for a clue we’d hope would reassure us. The hillside was still. The wind blew gently through the brush bringing relief from the subtle heat of the midday sun. I walked through the steep, chalky bedding area, desperately hunting for the faintest sign of success, but none came.

    The tag was never mine to fill, but the joy of success or pit of defeat would be shared just the same. Reality took hold and I headed back to our shooting position.

    “He’s here!” I heard Nate’s voice echo. Just like that, a gigantic morale shift clicked into gear.

    “You found him?!” I yelled from a few hundred feet above.

    “Yessir! Come on down!”

    _05_AMxFirst Lite Blog_admiration Connection. Photo: Author

    Nate connected on the first shot. The sheep collapsed and careened down the hillside, coming to rest at the edge of a fifty foot drop. It took a little looking in all the wrong places, but the redemption story had come full circle. An even greater sense of admiration for these hooved beasts set in as we combed over the details of its tan coat and rugged features, tailor-made for arid high desert survival.

    _06_AMxFirst Lite Blog_trimming the fat Getting to work. Photo: Author

    We butchered the sheep, carefully collecting as much meat as we could. Backstraps, hams, and what Nate affectionately called the “filet mignons,” two small strips of meat just above the pelvic bone and below the spine. The heart was still in tact and we saved it to round out the menu for the pending fireside dinner. We sat beside the babbling water of the Rio Bonito, the crackle of burning oak rang out and Nate trimmed the fresh meat into bite size pieces, skewered on willow branches. A packet of ramen noodle seasoning served as an improvised dry rub--don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it.

    _07_AMxFirst Lite Blog_pack out Packing out. Photo: Author
    _08_AMxFirst Lite Blog_seasoning Skewered aoudad. Photo: Author
    _09_AMxFirst Lite Blog_fireside Roasted over an open fire. Photo: Author

    That night, I sat beside the glowing fire and watched the sunset put on a show so awe inspiring a photo would do it no justice. The feast was mouthwatering-- tender and full of flavor. This was the experience I was searching for. This was the tag I was looking to fill; a moment of great thankfulness and the sensation of being truly alive. A sensation best experienced in the outdoors.

    _10_AMxFirst Lite Blog_early riser Dawn in the desert. Photo: Author

    Andrew Miller is an outdoor Photographer based out of Denver, Colorado who hunted aoudad in New Mexico in February of 2017. You can check out all his work here.

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