Craig Swartwood and Friends with big horn desert sheep contributed

Craig Swartwood with the desert bighorn sheep he harvested. Also pictured are (from left): Chris Taylor, Rex Cox, Nolan Keeney, J.R. Keeney and Jake Swartwood.

Craig Swartwood pulled the trigger.

But it wasn’t a one-man operation that led to Payson’s former mayor harvesting a desert bighorn sheep in Unit 37A near Tucson on Dec. 19.

Sharing the once-in-a-lifetime experience with a group of six others, including members of his family and friends, made it what he called the best hunting experience of his life.

“This is far and away No. 1, mostly because of that,” he said of being with his wife, Linda, son, Jake, nephew, Rex Cox, and three others.

Jake Swartwood is the Mogollon Sporting Association president and former Payson High varsity football coach.

Also, there were friends Chris Taylor and J.R. Keeney and his son, Nolan Keeney.

Taylor served as Jake’s defensive coordinator before taking over as Benson High’s athletic director and boys basketball head coach. He joined them on scouting trips and the hunt.

Linda Swartwood, “came down and scouted and came down on the hunt and supervised all us bandits,” Craig said.

“The neatest thing about the hunt for me was having all those people there,” he said. “There were two father-son combinations.”

At 12, Nolan Keeney was the youngest in the party. But he proved a valuable resource.

“Nolan got to where he could judge how big they were better than the rest of us,” Swartwood said.

Dream hunt

The 65-year-old Swartwood had dreamed of getting the chance to hunt a desert bighorn sheep since he was a teenager.

“I’d been putting in (for it) for 32 years,” he said. “Somewhere I missed a year and lost a lot of bonus points. I started putting in for it in my teens, I’m 65 now, so somewhere in my 30s I missed a year and went back to zero for points.”

He learned he’d been drawn for the coveted hunt in July.

Plenty of scouting trips

He was well prepared for the experience, making numerous trips to the area in the weeks leading up to the hunt.

“Between my nephew Rex and Jake, we went about six times between us,” he said. “People are very open about giving advice and they said start in November because it’s so darn hot down there.

“We saw 134 sheep between all the scouting trips we put in.”

He took his time deciding on which animal to shoot.

“We had many choices,” Swartwood said. “We chose not to shoot many, many rams. We tried to harvest a very mature old ram. We did our best to do that.”

They camped out for several days before he pulled the trigger.

“There was a lot of great camaraderie,” he said. “We saw him every day. We had seen one the day before a couple of the guys thought I should have harvested, but I didn’t want to because I wanted to wait and see what we saw. Two more moved in the next day and were larger and older. I was glad we went back there and looked again. It was a blessing for sure.”


He appreciates all the help he received to make the successful hunt possible, from the advice Chasin’ A Dream Outfitters owner Jeremy Ulmer gave him on which unit to put in for to the assistance those joining him on the hunt provided.

“I’m getting to a point where I’m not in great shape and my knees are just shot,” he said. “I asked Jeremy what’s an old decrepit guy like me to put in for and I can’t thank him enough.

“Most of the units are really demanding with mountains that are straight up and down. This has a big hill but also had a lot of flat areas you could look for sheep.

“And I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the help of all those guys (with me). Because I couldn’t climb the hills, I have a handicapped hunting tag.

“All my friends that were there, they went up and dressed it and do what you have to do in the field, then carried it 585 yards down the hill.”

Special gun

He used a special gun on the hunt.

“I shot it with a gun that Jake and I had custom-built this year,” he said. “It’s a .300 Winchester Mag. That was a fun, neat project for the two of us.

“A local guy, Donnie Wilbanks, works with the guy who built the gun. He’s another guy who helps in a lot of ways.”

He needed just one shot to take the ram.

“It was a very clean kill,” he said.

No wasted meat

They salvaged all the meat and are having the head mounted.

“It’s a nice representative of the species and it’s really a lifetime achievement for me,” he said. “I’ve hunted my whole life and I’ve shot almost everything I’ve wanted to — both species of deer, elk, javelina, antelope.

“There’s so many in Payson better hunters than I am. If we won’t consume it for food, we won’t hunt.”

A learning experience

He said the entire experience taught him a lot.

“I think I learned more about conservation,” he said of the experience. “I got to see how outdoorsmen really make a huge difference in how many animals are left.”

He said the Mogollon Sporting Association, Arizona Desert Sheep Society and Arizona Game and Fish Department all play a key role in assuring the sustainability of the species.

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