An Ibex Meets the Scorpion
The Persian Ibex (Capra aegagrus) were introduced into the Floridas Mountains of New Mexico in 1970. Sometimes called the bezoar goat, it is a distant relative of the domestic goat. Since that time, their numbers have flourished to a point where a limited number of hunting permits are awarded by lottery draw. I finally drew a tag for the muzzleloader Persian Ibex hunt.
Although the Floridas are located in the southern portion of the state, they are among the roughest mountains in the Rocky Mountain chain. They are simply large piles of disintegrating conglomerate rock, shale and cactus rising straight up from the desert’s floor. There are very few gentle slopes to gradually work your way up, most of the places a hunter needs to go are accessed by goat trails on very steep ridges. The ibex are well suited to this terrain as their hooves have a soft inner area which is surrounded by the hard material of the outer hoof. In essence, they function like suction cups, allowing the critter to go anywhere they wish, often into areas that not even Spiderman could traverse.
Due to the nature of the terrain and the difficulty in hunting these critters, my wife suggested that we should hire Kauffman Outfitters and that she’d go along and relax in camp while I hunted. Dennis Kauffman and his people have been guiding Ibex hunts since 1984. They have had more successful Ibex hunters on the Floridas than have all the other currently operating guides combined. He and his business partner Cecil Haas have developed a very comprehensive methodology to provide shot opportunities for their hunters. They have customized maps that seem to include a specific name for every peak and canyon (and it seems like maybe even every rock) on the mountain. They know where the best travel routes are for both stalking ibex and for getting back off of the mountain. They communicate via their 2-way radios and always have people available to drive to the closest possible pickup location when the day is done.
For starters, Dennis suggested that I bring leather boots with an aggressive tread pattern and leather gloves for the hunt. He also suggested that I sight my rifle in for 140-170 yards, and be prepared for cross-wind and high angle uphill/downhill shots from both kneeling and standing positions.
Additional equipment that I took along for my venture into the mountains included:
I also included arain parka, various pre-packaged high calorie high carb snacks, magnesium fire starter stick, cell phone with extra battery pack, fatigues from the base clothing sales store, wool and cottom socks, matches in a waterproof container, oversized insulated underwear, vest, and a jacket that I could put on in layers.
Although I have tested many of the above items over the years, this was my first opportunity to use them all at once on the same hunt. Of course, the most important item of all was my Savage 10ML SS inline muzzleloader equipped with a Nikon 4-12x Monarch scope and Outer’s bipod.
We spent four months in preparation for this hunt. The Zia rifle range south of Albuquerque became my second home as I put over 200 rounds through the Savage to determine the best sabot/bullet/propellant combination. I settled on three IMR White Hots behind a 300 grain Scorpion PT Gold bullet with a black Crushed Rib Sabot. The three pellet load provided consistent 3” groups at 200 yards. I know that Blackhorn 209 is excellent stuff, but in those mountains, I wanted to be able to reload quickly, without the possibility of spilling loose powder.
Finally, I was forced to go against my religion and start exercising. However, not believing how really rough the Floridas were, I dropped out of my exercise routine after three weeks. That was a decision that I would come to regret after my first day in the mountains. They were rougher than you can imagine.
Before any of you out there chuckle too much at my preparations, remember I was 71 years young on this hunt. Although in good health, if I was going to tempt fate one last time in the rugged mountains of the west (a promise that I made to my bride), I wanted to be prepared for every contingency. The temperatures in the Floridas in February normally range from 30 to 55 degrees, but this year was one of the coldest on record and the temperatures dropped into the 20's at night. Additionally, the mountain had received about five times the normal amount of snowfall this winter. Don’t you just love global warming?
We arrived at the Kauffman base camp on the Friday afternoon for a get acquainted meeting with the crew and the three other hunters. All of us enjoyed a fine steak dinner while the sunset cast a golden glow on the mountains. After dinner, Dennis and his staff, all of whom are registered professional guides with the State of New Mexico, briefed us on how we would be hunting. Mary (Dennis’ wife) and at least one more person would be acting as spotters around the base of the mountains and there would be a guide with each individual hunter. Everyone (including hunters) was equipped with radios to receive information on the movement and location of the Ibex.
After one day of hunting, it became apparent that Dennis Kauffman and his crew operate like a precision machine. There are no teenage kids guiding here, the guides have an average of 25 years experience and with the exception of Mary, they were all over fifty. I would trust any one of them with my life in those mountains and at times, I believed (because of the terrain) that my life was indeed in their hands.
Speaking of Mary, she has the eyes of an eagle. She can spot a billy goat on the mountain through her scope, even if it is hiding behind a juniper tree. The woman is absolutely amazing and is a key component of the Kauffman machine. As for Dennis, the man is part Ibex himself. He goes up and down those mountains like you or I would walk on flat ground. Add the fact that he knows those mountains like you and I know our back yard and you have the most knowledgeable man in the State of New Mexico when it comes to Ibex hunting.
Cecil, Clarke, Kelly and Dennis took out hunters, while Mary and Le Roy handled the spotting. Le Roy has more sense than me. He is now 74 and relinquished the treks into the Floridas to the younger men. At this point, I should point out that these men have all been friends for over 30 years. They don’t just come together for the hunt, they are all true friends.
Up before dawn on Saturday morning, we were served breakfast and coffee by Cecil, who does double duty as a guide and camp cook. Cecil makes great cowboy coffee to go with his bacon and eggs. After planning our strategy for the morning, we took off for the mountains. Mary soon spotted a group with several shootable animals in it. Dennis took me over two ridges, ending up overlooking a deep ravine. He prepared a superb blind under a juniper tree and cleared the underbrush, so that I could shoot in a 180 degree arc in front of me. If needed, I could move closer to the edge and shoot straight down into the ravine. Dennis went away to act as a blocker, in case the ibex were going to pass by out of my sight. I took off my pack and waited, listening to the radio chatter and following the progress of a herd of Ibex that Mary was tracking.
About three in the afternoon I watched the group of ibex come around the corner from Water Snake Peak onto the cliffs across from me. In an earlier conversation with Cecil about the capabilities of the ibex he’d said, “it’s like they are gyro-stabilized with flypaper feet, capable of walking on an inch wide ledge on a 75 degree angled rock face.” I now realized that his description was totally accurate.
There were some really nice billies in the bunch, several in the 45”-47” range, and one that was clearly bigger than that. They continued coming my way and crossed the bottom of the ravine. I’d hoped they would come up into the gentle saddle to my left. However, they chose to come even closer and pass beneath me on my side of the ravine. As I moved nearer to the edge for the downhill shot, I stumbled and fell into the assorted basketball sized rocks beneath my feet. The fall knocked the scope loose on my muzzle loader. The goats passed directly below me at about 70 yards. With a scope that was wobbling on the barrel, I was not going to take a shot. Thus, my first chance at a good goat came up empty. After a grueling hike out of the mountains, I made it back to camp just after dark and reset the scope, securely tightening all of the screws.
Early in the morning on Sunday (Valentine’s Day), we shot the rifle at 50 yards to check for accuracy and it seemed OK. That would prove to be a big mistake, I should have shot it at longer distances to make sure the elevation was absolutely correct. However, we were in a rush to get back to the mountains.
I had no close encounters with goats on day two. On Monday, the third day of the nine day season, after what up to that time was the toughest hike of my life, Dennis again put me under a juniper tree and departed for higher ground. During the ibex bow season the previous month, he had seen that ibex herds frequently came through a saddle above, then dropped down in front of my tree. Was he ever right! Within one hour, a herd of 40 goats were silhouetted on the skyline of the ridge and then proceeded down toward my blind.
A huge billy stopped broadside at 112 yards. He was clearly in the 49”-51” category. I steadied my Savage on the bipod and let loose. Because the billy had disappeared by the time the smoke cleared, I thought, just maybe, I’d killed him. No such luck. When Dennis arrived, we searched and searched, but found no goat.
We hiked back down the mountain and, once on flat ground, Dennis set up a target at 100 yards and had me shoot. We found that we had not fixed the scope after all. Two consecutive shots showed that it was shooting 18” high at 100 yards. No wonder I missed my goat! My only consolation was that Dennis no longer thought I was a bum shot. I should have heeded his advice on Sunday to shoot my rifle some more and make sure that it is on at the ranges that matter. Hindsight is better than foresight, but I’ll never make that mistake again.
I spent the fourth day resting and sighting-in the Savage. After adjusting the scope for the 18” elevation error, I shot at 50 yards, 100 yards and 150 yards, determining exactly where it would print at each distance. I was now (again) ready for my goat.
On days five and six, I spent time with various guides, including Cecil’s son Christopher, who had arrived in camp on Tuesday. We didn’t get close to any suitable ibex, but I did come out of the mountains in the dark. That was an experience that I’ll not soon forget. It is bad enough climbing around those rocks during the day, but at night it is insane. My Stone River Gear flashlights were a true Godsend!
Friday morning, Dennis and Clarke agreed that this was the day that I would shoot a goat. I went out with Clarke, as Dennis had climbed high for a look from a different view point. Around noon, Dennis called Clarke on the radio and told him to bring me over to the base of what they call the Crab. Mary had spotted a small herd in the valley. However, no one told me that this climb would be more difficult than any of the others. At this point, I have to express my sincerest appreciation to Clarke. I would never have been able to make that climb without him. It just kept getting steeper and at one point, I was on my hands and knees, pulling myself up and over the rocks. Clarke was in front (the alternative was for him to be behind me, prodding me with a pointed stick).
At more than one spot, he used my walking stick to pull me up to the next rock. We finally arrived at a rocky saddle below the Claw, and Clarke told me to relax, the goats wouldn’t likely come our way for a couple of hours. Looking around, I spotted what I thought were deer droppings. Clarke remarked, “Those are ibex droppings, deer have more sense than to come up here.” Oh, wonderful, I thought.
We were so high and at such a precarious location that I asked Clarke to take the pictures for me. Looking down the sixty degree grade on each side of our perch gave me a queasy feeling and that admission is from a guy that used to jump out of airplanes in the military.
About an hour before sunset, Dennis called on the radio and told us that the goats were moving toward the Crab. As they got closer, he told Clarke that I was to shoot the lead billy, as the next two had broken horns. Clarke pointed to a notch on the side of the Crab Claw dome and told me to find a position from which I could shot to there, as the goats would likely come right through that notch.
I crouched down in a very uncomfortable position and waited. After what seemed like an eternity, a pair of horns appeared to rise out of the rocks. Clarke gave me the go ahead. I shot and the goat went down. I was shooting uphill at a walking goat that was 75-100 yards away. I had broken his back. When he tried to get up, he fell off the ledge and tumbled down into a steep, rock-strewn branch drainage. He came to rest in an upright position in the rocks well below us. He was looking across the main canyon and was facing away from us.
While I reloaded, Clarke put his range finder on the goat and told me that he was 187 yards below at about a 60 degree angle. He asked me if I could make the shot (considering the distance and my obvious dislike of heights). I informed him that I hadn’t come this far to quit now. I leaned over the rock and fired. The 300 grain Scorpion PT bullet nailed him right behind the head, cleanly severing the vertebrae. When the Scorpion hit, the goat looked like he’d been struck with a sledge hammer.
After picking our way down to the goat through rocks that I never thought possible, we arrived at my goat. He was done. As we skinned him, we saw that my first shot had blown a four inch section out of his backbone and came out the other side, leaving a five inch exit hole. It was large enough for me to put my hand through. That is a bullet with real knockdown power. That goat wasn’t going to get away.
Although he wasn’t the world-class goat that I had hoped for, he was a very nice goat with perfectly matched 38” horns. While we were caping and deboning the Ibex, Clarke remarked that if I hadn’t literally knocked him off the ledge, we’d still be trying to get him off the mountain. As such, he was glad that I shot a bit high. Dennis came over from across the canyon to help with the deboning and Kelly came up with a frame pack. I have to mention that Kelly dresses like an African PH, wearing shorts and hiking boots into the mountains. Kelly, like Dennis, goes up and down the mountains like a goat and has legs that must be made of boot leather, as the thorns and prickly pear stickers don’t seem to bother him. Kelly packed out the meat from my Ibex to give me a break and Dennis packed out the cape and horns in his daypack. I could never have done it without them, because Clarke and I were spent.
We arrived back in camp well after dark, around 9:00 PM, tired but feeling great. I had made it up and down the Floridas mountains for six days and the mountains didn’t win. One old goat had taken another old goat!
My harvest was the last among the four successful hunters who’d met each other at the steak dinner a week before. I don’t mind being the last, it had given me a longer and very exciting adventure and I’d learned a lot about myself.
One final note: If you decide to try for the Persian Ibex of New Mexico, do not go into the Floridas Mountains without a guide. When you hire a guide, there is none better than Dennis Kauffman and his crew. In answer to everyone’s last question: Will I return to the Floridas for the big one that got away? I have my wife’s blessing and encouragement to go again and I will if Dennis will guide me. Be sure to checkout the picture gallery on Kauffman’s web site, they are fantastic.
Copyright 2010 by Dr. Jim Clary. All rights reserved.