They had seen the five bighorn rams while scouting a day earlier. All appeared to be hunter-legal, with the required three-quarters curl in their horns.
They noted the one with the best set of horns, returned to camp and slept restlessly that night, hoping the animals would still be there the next morning, when California's third limited hunt for the desert bighorns opened in the eastern Mojave Desert.
The rams were indeed there, bedded down in the side wash of a draw. Jim Barnes, a 58-year-old chiropractor from Mason, Mich., and his guide, George Martin, studied them from a mile away through a 60-power spotting scope, and plotted their approach.
Martin, from Aravaipa Outfitters in Globe, Ariz., said: "We'd better go east and around into the wash."
Stalking bighorn sheep requires patience and stealth. Hunters say the bighorns have the sharpest eyesight of any game animal, as well as acute senses of hearing and smell. Stay out of sight, move quietly, stay downwind, and you might get a clear, close shot.
Barnes and Martin reached the draw in about an hour. They planned to come in above the bighorns, but the wind was wrong. Martin explained that in the desert it blows down the draws in the cool of the early morning, then switches and blows up the draws when the temperature rises.
So they waited for 45 minutes until the wind changed, then slipped into the draw and started working their way down. From 150 yards, Martin spotted a ram with a broken horn--not one Barnes would have wanted for his trophy room. The ram got up and walked around a bit, then laid back down.
Then, all of a sudden, he bolted. Perhaps he had caught a whiff of the men in the wind swirling around the canyon. A moment later the prized ram they had seen the previous day also jumped up and followed the other up a small gully, then paused.
"Is that him?" Barnes asked Martin, leveling his telescopic sight.
"That's him," Martin said.
The distance: 115 yards. The time: 11:30 a.m., but the winter sun was low in the sky, casting sharp shadows to align in the cross hairs. Barnes' .300 magnum struck home behind the shoulders and through the lungs--a perfect shot. The animal fell, got up, and Barnes shot again. Later, he realized the second shot was unnecessary, but a responsible hunter wants a clean kill, not one that stumbles away to die.
Barnes and Martin inspected the ram, whose horns scored a good 167 points "green" (for a fresh kill) on the Boone and Crockett scale. The horns were chipped and battle-scarred. The tip of one was broken off.
Later, Barnes said: "He's 10, 11 years old. I call him 'the Monarch of Marble Mountain.' You see all those cracks and chunks out of the horns? He's been in a lot of fights."
The ram had only three teeth left.
Barnes: "He wouldn't have lasted another year."
Martin: "He would have died a slow, hard death."
Three other hunters--Leon Pimentel of Windsor, Cheryl Jones of Bakersfield and Greg Botelho of Chualar--claimed kills Sunday. Pimentel's 9-year-old ram scored 170 1/8, a state record. Four other hunters have until Dec. 17.
All were drawn from 2,545 applicants and paid $200 for their permits, except for Barnes, who paid $495 as a non-resident.
About a dozen protesters were stalking hunters and prey with airhorns, trying to shoo the sheep out of range of the rifles, while wardens from the State Department of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management stalked them.
Barnes and the others said no protesters attempted to interfere with their hunts--probably because they couldn't find them. Barnes' camp was tucked away in a small draw of the Marble Mountains within sight of Interstate 40 to Needles.
However, two protesters dogged another hunter in the Marbles for a while. The hunter's guide, Loren Lutz, a founder of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, said they saw no sheep--and blamed the protesters.
"They scared 'em all off," Lutz said.
"We sabbed 'em," said one of the protesters, who call themselves "Hunt Saboteurs."
"I feel sorry for them," said the hunter, who was on horseback. "They think they have a cause. They don't have a cause. They don't understand conservation."
The hunt is the result of a law enacted in 1986 to permit limited hunting as a way of funding conservation efforts for mountain sheep. Barnes' bighorn was a good example of the aim of the hunt: To cull a few rams on the edge of attrition and leave the younger, healthier ones to propagate. For 114 years, leaving them alone hadn't helped.
The old ram completed Barnes' "grand slam" of North American bighorns, which includes a Dall's in Canada's Northwest Territories in 1972, a Stone's in British Columbia in '76 and a Rocky Mountain in Montana in '83.
It took him 17 years, but Barnes felt fortunate. He is the first non-resident to be drawn for the hunt, which is limited to one non-resident a year.
Barnes' was the second ram taken this year. Eleven days earlier, Robert Senter of New Hampshire killed one, but the privilege cost him $40,000 in a California auction.
"I don't have that kind of money," Barnes said.
Senter said he saw some protesters, but they didn't bother him. He reported being shot at by a miner with a shotgun, but no charges have been filed.
Last year, protester Van Clothier said the companion of one hunter fired three warning shots from a handgun in his general direction, and last weekend another protester, Tom Green of Oakland, told Clothier that he had been shot at four times during a protest of the Cache Creek tule elk hunt in Northern California last month.
"You were?" Clothier said to Green, slapping his hand. "Way to go."
As they did last year, the protesters camped in the desert, although this time without their headquarters at the Royal Hawaiian Motel in Baker. Arriving last weekend, they found that Paramount Pictures had booked all the rooms.
Another surprise were the new cardboard signs--obviously meant to last only two weeks--that were posted at all access points to the hunting areas last week, marking them as State Wildlife Areas.
"It doesn't make any difference to us," said a protester who identified himself only as "J.P."
Dressed in camouflage from beret to boots, he added: "Just makes us wonder what they're up to."
The wildlife area designation made the DFG the lead agency for law enforcement over the BLM in the hunt zones. There were seven DFG wardens on hand last weekend, including a captain and two lieutenants. They'd planned to arrest protesters for any activities not allowed in wildlife areas.
A single-engine DFG plane from Long Beach was used for surveillance, and the California Highway Patrol provided a helicopter for a while. Although wardens outnumbered hunters and probably equaled protesters, there were no immediate confrontations.
Asked why a warden simply was not assigned to each hunter, Felicia Probert, chief district BLM warden for the area, said: "An escorted hunt probably wouldn't be a good precedent to set."
Barnes and Martin field-dressed their ram. Then Barnes, with the head and horns on his shoulders, and Martin with the carcass atop his backpack, picked their way back a couple of miles to camp along a draw illuminated only by a sliver of the moon.
Sunday morning, they relaxed in camp, sipping canned drinks and feeling lucky. A huge ring on the middle finger of Barnes' beefy left hand sparkled in the brilliant, unfiltered sunlight.
"Those are the eyeteeth of an elk," he said. "Needed a place to put them."
So he had them placed in a solid-gold setting, flanked by diamonds. The ring has been appraised at $5,700.
Barnes, a founding member of Michigan's Safari Club, said he has been hunting "since I was old enough to pick up a gun. Had a .22 when I was 6. Got a whitetail deer the first year I was eligible to hunt (at) 14."
He has shot a polar bear near the Arctic Circle, eland and water buffalo in Africa, a record caribou in Quebec with a bow, a grizzly bear here, a musk ox there. Several are full-mounted--not merely heads protruding from walls.
"My whole living room, there's no furniture," he said. "It's all animals."
He thinks his neighbors back in Michigan will appreciate his accomplishment more than the protesters in California.
"We won't have any problems there because most of the people realize that hunters are the ones that pay for the game," he said. "Our Safari Club introduced moose back in northern Michigan . . . furnished most of the money for it. We have turkeys in Michigan now for the same reason. The anti-hunters want the animals but they don't to pay for 'em.
"It's like raising beef or chickens or whatever. If you're raising something to eat, it's the same thing as raising animals to hunt."