An American hero’s bighorn sheep hunt

Joseph C. Masseur

Joseph C. Masseur

Joseph C. Masseur, Sergeant First Class (Ret.)

Hometown: Tempe, AZ

In 1993, I joined the Arizona National Guard. I performed several missions with the National Guard including a two year mission at Davis-Monthan AFB and two years at Ft. Irwin. In March of 2007, I deployed to Afghanistan as a 13F with Arizona National Guard Unit 1/158 INF. Our deployment lasted 15 months and returned home in 2008. After being home for several months, I volunteered for a second deployment to Afghanistan, this time as an 11B with 221-CAV (Nevada) beginning in June, 2009. I had been in Afghanistan for only one month, when I was returning from patrol and the MRAP I was riding in, rolled over an IED. As a result, my left leg was amputated below the knee, my right calcaneus was shattered and I suffered a traumatic brain injury. I was medevac’d out of Afghanistan, had a brief stay in Germany, and then on to Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. I spent six weeks recovering from my injuries in the hospital. In those six weeks underwent seven surgeries to control infection and repair the damage to both legs. Upon discharge from the hospital, I spent two years in rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid. In December, 2011, I was medically retired from the Army.

My friends and I recently had the opportunity to assist one of America’s heroes on his once-in-a-lifetime desert bighorn sheep hunt in Mohave County, and what an adventure it was.

Our veteran was Joe Masseur who served our country for 17 years in the U.S. Army.

He served two tours overseas in Afghanistan and unfortunately became an amputee when an IED went off under the vehicle he was patrolling in. Joe lost his left leg from the knee down as a result of being injured in the blast. But like many combat veterans, Joe didn’t let this life changing event keep him from doing something he enjoys—hunting.

Joe went through some tough times after he was injured and got fitted with an artificial limb, which he is very proficient with. And this year, when a sportsman who had drawn one of the two desert bighorn sheep tags in Game Management Unit 16A, turned the tag back in due to working out of the country, the Arizona Elk Society became the recipient of the tag.

It was the AES that selected Masseur to go on this hunting adventure through a program they have called “Hunts for Heroes.”

This program is something the AES started that is designed to help veterans assimilate back into civilian life and return to some sense of normalcy. Their motto is “Healing by Hunting” and they do it with big game tags that are donated to them. Then the AES finds a qualified Arizona veteran and then sportsmen like you and me volunteer to take these warriors out into the field.

When I got the call from AES CEO Steve Clark, I had a lot of trepidation to say the least. First of all I had a mule deer hunt in the Kaibab that didn’t close until Dec. 2; two days after the sheep hunt would start. That meant that even if I could put together a group of volunteers, we wouldn’t have much time to do some serious preseason scouting—something that is very valuable when you’re on a once-in-a-lifetime hunt.

I’ll say right up front that this unit is not where I like to hunt sheep and that is for several reasons. Sheep are spread out through many small isolated mountain ranges in the unit. From the Mohave Mountains on the north, Aubrey Wilderness area, Little Black Mountains and the Artillery Range, along with water catchments known as Mosada, Skull Mountain and Castaneda Peak. Sheep can be found in these rugged and remote areas but it takes a lot of time and manpower to scout.

I’ve been in this unit before, having previously conducted a sheep hunt for the Arizona Hunt of A Lifetime organization. AZHOAL conducts outdoor activities including hunting and fishing trips for seriously and/or terminally ill children. On that special hunt, the team from Arizona Wildlife Outfitters was well supported by the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. Fortunately the hunter who we called “Superman,” (his name was Christopher Reeves) while under the direction of AWO head guide Larry Sallee, took a great ram on the only day he could be in the field because of his medical condition. I still say to this day there was some divine intervention involved on that hunt.

Henry Aguilar of Henry’s Artistic Wildlife in Kingman donated his services and expedited the taxidermy work on the ram. I delivered that ram to “Superman” at his home in Arkansas; just two months before he died. I still have memories about “Superman” that touch me and make me sad, remembering that brave young man.

So after I got the call from Steve Clark, who asked if I would be able to oversee the hunt for this wounded hero, I thought it over and decided to put my feelings aside and agreed to do it. Am I ever glad I did.

The first order of business was to coordinate with the Region 3 office of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. That meant obtaining the most recent survey information we could as allowed by the department rules, and then putting together a group of volunteers to help out on the hunt.

Erin Butler was my local contact with the department and the news wasn’t good. The aerial survey the Department had completed this fall was surprising and disappointing. The observers in the air had seen just 20 sheep in the unit; and only one of them was a ram. AZGFD knew there was more sheep in the unit, as they had photos of them on trail cameras at waterholes in the summer. But where were the rams now in December? It was anyone’s guess.

Next was the easy part of setting this hunt up. I made calls to sportsmen I know and even put out a request on Facebook asking for volunteers to assist. While the AES would take care of providing the camp, I would coordinate finding a camp location and getting the volunteers where they needed to be.

The camp was set up under the auspices of Tom Wagner, and working in the camp were AES volunteers Nick Swanson and Keith Heimes. These guys would work tirelessly from before daylight to well after dark to make sure the volunteers and Joe were all well fed and taken care of during the hunt.

Volunteers: The backbone of any sheep hunt

Having been on many, many sheep hunts in the past I can tell you that having men and women who know how to glass for sheep in the many miles of arid and barren desert landscape that make up sheep habitat is vitally important to the success of any sheep hunt. And this one would not be any different.

Helping on this hunt are names I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of times before. Kingman residents Jay Chan, Gary Martin, Page McDonald, Jennifer Chambers, Jim Guin and his grandson Sean were out there. So was Steve Tague, who would take a tumble off a waterfall that scared us all. Vernon, Arizona resident Andy Musacchio, who we hunted sheep with in Unit 15D in 2016 came out. So did Phoenix area residents Marc Schwartzkopf and Glenn Leon.

Then there were the guys from the Lake Havasu/Topock area. John Warren, Brian Williams and Mike Hulsey were there. Area resident Brad Shelton came out too, and provided some valuable insight on sheep in that unit. And who could forget the staff AES videographer, Phoenix resident Mike Pellegati who was there for the first five days of the hunt.

Some of these folks would be there for the first five days of the hunts. Others, just a day or two. But it didn’t matter, they all volunteered time away from families and to help someone they had never met before. It is what sportsmen do.

Lots of glassing

The sheep volunteers wouldn’t be out there till the second weekend of the hunt. We met and broke up into smaller groups to look at more areas. In the first two days, all that were seen were two groups of sheep than consisted of a lamb and a ewe.

It was Saturday evening at dark when John Warren and Brian Williams found a small group of sheep that had a ram with them. The plan was to get everyone down there for a closer look and determination if this was a shooter ram. Sunday morning John quickly relocated the group of sheep on the same mountain that he and Brian had left them.

There were four sheep on that rugged mountain. Two ewes, a lamb, and a ram that we all agreed was 4 ½ years old. Though this was not by definition a “trophy hunt” it is once you pull the trigger. It is a once-in-a-lifetime hunt, and that means never being able to hunt a ram again.

There was a lot of discussion that morning about whether Masseur should take the young ram. The AZGFD along with the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, espouses that only the older rams; rams that have served their purpose for breeding and increasing the viability of the herd, be taken. But all rams are legal, so in this case it would be Joe’s decision on whether or not to take this young ram.

In the end, Joe decided to let the ram go, rolling the dice that maybe we would find an older age class ram in the next couple of weeks.

It was a calculated chance that Masseur was taking. Rams were few and far between in this unit and we were on the verge of losing not only our camp hosts, but most of our glassers as well.

I told Masseur it could end up being just him and me out there, but I promised that as long and he was available, I would be there for him.

And then there were three

It was Day Six of the hunt and there were just three of us out there when the sun came up over the mountains. Havasu resident Mike Hulsey was there and Kingman resident Steve Tague would be up around noon. But everyone else was gone. Some had jobs to go back to; some had appointments they needed to go to. We lost our AES camp support and our videographer was off on another project.

I had spoken with another sportsman who lives in the area, Brad Shelton, and he had given me some information where he had seen rams in the past. We decided to check out the area Shelton had told us about and it turned out to be a good decision.

Using GPS technology and Google Earth we were able to locate an area that seemed devoid of a lot of roads or trails that are prevalent in this area.

The two-track we found led us to an area away from local traffic. A perfect place to look for an old ram. Mike Hulsey took the spotting scope and headed to a peak. Joe and I rested to await his return. Then I heard it.

The distinctive cough of a sheep was heard. I turned to Joe and told him that I had heard a sheep. He looked up on a far-away ridge and spotted him.

It was an old ram and he was alone in a saddle of a ridge 606 yards away.

As soon as I looked at him, I told Joe this was the ram we had been looking for. It was obviously old, and its massive horns carried the mass all the way to the end.

Oddly the ram seemed to be looking at Hulsey who was perched on top of a mountain peak over 1,000 yards from where the ram stood. The ram seemed at ease and actually bedded down while I planned a stalk. I told Masseur if we could make it to a close by ridge, I thought we could cut the range in half.

Joe and I slipped into a deep dry wash and moved out of sight of the ram. We slowly moved up a steep hill and when we got to the top, there he was, asleep in the saddle and he was exactly 300 yards away, plenty close for this combat veteran to make a shot.

Joe moved into a prone position where he was literally laying in a pile of sharp rocks. It was almost mid-day and the sun was shining brightly.

“You want me to take him in his bed?” Joe asked, as he looked through the scope of his rifle.

“No, let him stand up before you shoot,” was my response.

As it turned out the, the ram stayed in his bed for over 30 minutes, while Joe lay in the hot sun with sharp rocks digging into his body. But Joe never moved. He was solid and ready.

The ram decided to stand up to relieve himself and I asked Joe if he had him. “Yes,” he said. I told him to take the shot and when he fired I heard the distinct tell-tale whop of the bullet from his 6.5 Creedmoor striking home.

“Hit him again,” I told Joe and again the second shot hit home. The ram wobbled and walked six feet, lay down and expired.

Joe had his ram and what a ram it is.

I made phone calls to get some help in packing the ram off the mountain.

Hulsey carried most the meat out, while Williams, who had come to the area, packed out the hide and head. Masseur decided he wanted to have a life sized mount done on his ram so that alone was quite a load.

The trip down the mountain was treacherous. First Tague slipped and went over a waterfall while carrying out Joe’s rifle. He sustained cuts on his head and had some terrible bruising. Then I went down, and banged up my shoulder and back.

But in the end we made it back to the truck.

The next day we checked in the ram at the Region 3 office.

Personnel there aged the ram at 6 ½ years old and scored him at 166 3/8 inches. The ram, which we named “Lonesome,” turned out to be the largest ram taken in Unit 16A this year!

I can’t help but wonder if this ram, like the one that “Superman” had taken years before, wasn’t there because of some kind of divine intervention?