By Dr. Jim Clary
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:
* The Kestrel 4500 Pocket Weather Station – to keep track of weather conditions
* The Slope Doper – to make adjustments for uphill/downhill shots
* Backpack with water bladder
* Stone River Gear ceramic knives and flashlights
* Laser Rangefinder
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.
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.
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!
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.