As longtime hunting partner, Gene Strei and I completed that last leg of our journey to the Rio Bonito Ranch for the Winter Rendezvous, my cell phone vibrated in the pocket of my jeans causing me to jump. When it was dug out and answered, I recognized the voice of Jody, the daughter of longtime friend and UFFDA hunting partner, Delmer Bentz. In a broken voice she informed me that her dad had passed away quietly in his sleep that morning.
Author pictured with Del on their last bowhunt at Ozark Mountain Outfitters in Missouri.
Del had fought an arduous and futile battle against cancer and at last had been freed from his suffering. Knowing that Del was a devout Christian, I was unshaken and even grateful that he had finally been released from what had been a long and terrible struggle. I told Jody to be happy because at that very moment, Del was healthy, strong and very much alive in heaven; and that knowing him like I did, he was probably already looking for a place to hang a treestand. She laughed and said that I was probably right. When the call ended, Gene, who had been on all of the previous hunts with Del at the Rio Bonito Ranch said with complete conviction, “Looks like Del will be joining us for this hunt after all.”
Del loved the Rio Bonito Ranch and he loved hunting the creatures that reside there, especially the majestic Aoudad. Gene and I started to relive the last year that Del hunted with us and how, after taking a great Aoudad early in the week, he had one even bigger walk out to his feeder the last night of the hunt. He struggled long and hard as he examined the trophy ram through his scope, knowing full well that if he shot it, it would be over and above his hunt package and would cost him an extra $1200 trophy fee. As he struggled with the facts and imagined how his wife would react over dropping the extra C-notes, the ram dined away, oblivious to the moral struggle that was taking place just a hundred yards away. Del considered all of the pros and cons, then decided to do the right thing; he raised the scope to his eye, placed the crosshairs on the ram and dropped it. He so loved to hunt those Aoudads! And this big bruiser, as it turned out, was the Aoudad trophy of his lifetime. Geno and I reminisced about that hunt along with the others that we had shared with Del. Both of us believed, without a doubt, that Del would be with us on this hunt to bless our efforts. That, after all, is what good hunting partners do for each other and as of today, Brother Del was back in the hunt.
One hundred and seventy yards looked like a country mile to me.
Several days later, Jody called again and told me that the funeral would be on Saturday although she knew I was in Texas, she hoped I would pass the word along to my fellow UFFDA members so that they could attend the service. I thought about it long and hard and then approached Gene to see if he would not consider going home a day early so that we could attend. The hunt ended Friday morning, but if we left on Thursday morning we could be home in time barring any unforeseen traveling difficulties. Being the friend that Gene is, he compassionately agreed to the early departure. The last morning of the hunt, Gene wasn’t so sure. Neither of us had taken an animal. Lots of critters had been seen, but size, circumstance or other negatives had left our coolers bare of bones. We both decided to use our rifles to bolster our odds as it moves us farther from the feeders and creates less of a scent problem. Most of the creatures of the Rio are hunted 365 days a year and that makes for a very smart and wary quarry.
I knew from the mass of the Aoudad’s horns that it was a wall-hanger.
As the morning sun moved towards the horizon bringing dawn to the Rio, Gene began to see animals immediately. He sat and watched does and young bucks, none of which would make a respectable trophy. As he gazed upon the rejects, they suddenly came to attention collectively staring into the heavy brush and then quickly moved away from the feeder. Wondering what had spooked the animals Gene readied his rifle as he studied the landscape in the direction that the animals had been staring. Suddenly a very respectable Aoudad materialized out of the dense underbrush boldly moving to the feeder. Gene never had taken an Aoudad before and if this animal was a ram and not a big ewe it was history. Both rams and ewes have horns, but the ewes are ready to lamb this time of year and Gene had no intentions of killing three Aoudads with a single shot. Close study showed no fat belly, a sure sign of a pregnant female, but that was not good enough for seasoned hunter like Gene. As the animal moved around gobbling up the golden nuggets of corn, it finally gave him a clear view of its hind end. Gene studied the package of the critter and was delighted to see no teats. This was definitely a ram! He didn’t have to move the crosshairs too much to be right on the vitals and when he was there, he squeezed the trigger driving a 30.06 slug right though the goodie box of his first-ever trophy Aoudad. The stunned animal ran 75 yards and dropped in a pile.
With a little help from a friend, I bagged the largest Aoudad of my hunting tenure.
I had been dropped off about a mile from Gene in a gun tower that was 170 yards from the feeder. I ranged the distance and silently prayed that I would be able to see an animal if it came out that far away. The old eye isn’t as good as it once was and of course my left one has been blind since birth. Even before daylight, I picked out the forms of three fallow deer around the feeder, but in the low light was unable to determine if they were buck or does. The animals moved on before it got light enough for me to detect antlers. Once the light was strong enough for my binoculars to be effective I had little to do but wait. Suddenly the heavy brush burped out an Aoudad. Study with the glasses confirmed that this was a really nice ram. Its dark color and heavy mass of the horns screamed out, “Wall Hanger!” The big ram, turned and moved back towards the dense underbrush and then stopped for one last look around. I found the front leg of the Aoudad, centered my scope there and squeezed the trigger. The .270 barked as it spit out the 150 grain slug out faster than sound; the ram bucked into the air lashing out with its hind legs at the invisible foe that had stung it and then was gulped up by the dense cover. I knew the shot was true and that I had just taken the biggest aoudad of my Rio Bonito tenure.
I settled into wait for the coach to come, taking the time to thank God for one heck of a last inning Aoudad and wondering just how much of a role Del had played in the score. When we picked up Gene and I discovered that he had also bagged one of the wily rams, I really began to grin. We were headed home a day early, but we both had great Aoudad trophies to show for our efforts. There was a lot of discussion on the long two-day return trip to Minnesota about that last morning’s hunt and in the end, it may have been pure coincidence, but you will never convince either of us that our dearly, departed Delmer hadn’t pulled some heavenly strings to help us bag a couple of Aoudads for the road. Until the day I die and join Del on the other side, I will refer to that particular Rio trophy as Del’s Aoudad.
Both Gene and I knew that Del was smiling down upon us.