In the joy of hunting is intimately woven the love of the great outdoors. The beauty of the woods, valleys, mountains, and skies feeds the soul of the sportsman where the quest of game whets only his appetite After all, it is not the killing that brings satisfaction -- it is the contest of skill cunning The true hunter counts his achievements in proportion to the effort involved and the fairness of the sport.
- Dr. Saxton Pope, father of modern bow hunting and author of “Hunting with the Bow and Arrow,” 1923
Early inhabitants of what we now call the American West hunted without benefit of gunpowder and some still follow in those footsteps today, opting for bow and broadhead instead of big bore.
Arizona trophy hunter Barry Sopher of Tucson not only falls in that category, he excels at it, being the first and only archery hunter in the Grand Canyon State to achieve The Big 12.
The man with a mission says it took him until age 50 before he completed his Big 12 quest, possible because of the hunting options available.
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“If you look at the record books, Arizona is one of the top states to produce bigger game with several trophies being world records,” he said. “Because of the wide variety of wildlife found at varying elevations, this state is a bow hunter’s dream.”
As a young man, Sopher stalked javelina and whitetail deer, outdoor successes that opened up the door to big-game hunting.
“In my early 20s, I put in for bighorn sheep, got lucky enough to draw, and knocked down a big mature ram on Day 14 of my hunt,” he said.
Arizona Daily Star outdoor writer Pete Cowgill told the story this way: “Sopher got on both knees, wiped the sweat off his palms, nocked an arrow in his PSE compound 70-pound Vector bow, and let four rams move closer. At 20 yards, they were close enough to smell. With the bow upright, he squinted so the ram couldn’t see the whites of his eyes. He drew slowly and hammered it home -- a clean-through hit.”
The newspaper story omitted a few details about the hunt in remote rugged mountain terrain.
“I’m just a kid in the middle of nowhere,” Sopher said. “I fell off a cliff, sprained my ankle, and smashed by bow into pieces. I thought the hunt was over. But I packed out, wrapped my ankle, got a backup bow, and ended up with an 11-year-old ram -- very rewarding.”
His initial desert sheep tag fired up interest toward accomplishing new goals.
“I started drawing elk and antelope tags and people started saying they’d never seen anybody so lucky to draw all the desirables,” he said. “True, luck is involved and I’ve been blessed, but I pay my dues with proper permit preparation because the last thing you want is a rejection for an incorrect application.”
Sopher coveted the Bowhunting in Arizona Record Book’s Kaibab Award, “a lofty, but achievable goal for accomplished and experienced hunters to pursue.”
Originally sponsored as a harvest of nine different species, the existing record book called for one entry for each of the 14 species required. “However,” notes the www.bowhuntinginarizona.com web page: “Because three of these (bison, desert bighorn sheep, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep) are high profile with low draw odds, the requirement was dropped to eleven of the species.”
So Big 10 became Big 11 which morphed into Big 12 -- a challenging, yet manageable goal for Sopher, who has now taken all 12 as well as three from the predatory category (coyote, fox, bobcat). His successful hunts include pronghorn antelope; Coues deer; mule deer; elk; Desert bighorn sheep; Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep; javelina; black bear; mountain lion; Merriam’s turkey; Gould’s turkey, and buffalo -- a feat no rifle or other bow hunter has ever completed in the state.
“The Bowhunting in Arizona Record Book was my primary motivator. I’d look and say, ‘Wow, only two or three more animals to go,’’ he said. “It came down to a Rocky Mountain bighorn lifetime hunt in a new area, virgin territory where sheep had never been hunted -- one tag, one hunter -- and I drew it.”
Since Sopher was the first-ever permitted hunter, he documented his findings on film -- discovering well over 100 sheep, 19 mature rams, 29 young rams, 55 ewes, and 20 lambs -- sharing his sightings and research with game management biologists.
“It was December and the rut was on with rams competing for ewes,” he noted on his video. “The head-butting was thrilling to hear and while I couldn’t see the rams, I knew they were below. I notched a Black Mamba 400 arrow 4 blade into my PSE X0Force Long Draw HF cam and waited for the ram I wanted to present a perfect broadside shot.
“He sensed I was there, so I went into full draw and finger-released a shot at 25 yards. He ran less than 100 yards before he expired. I knelt and said a prayer of thanks, especially when I learned he had exceeded the state archery record -- a 6-year-old with a gross score of 177 and an official panel score net 176 ½ P&Y, the ram of a lifetime. It was cool to hunt and harvest the first bighorn in a 100-square-mile area where sheep had not been hunted before.”
Although the record books list his accomplishments, he modestly prefers the spotlight move off his trophies and on to the sport of bow hunting itself.
“I’m proud, yet respectful, not out to beat somebody else,” he said. “It’s a reward in itself and personally satisfying to have the opportunity to hunt, especially the once-in-a-lifetime animals.
“I’m meticulous in my planning and put a lot of preparation into each trip -- and I hunt hard. I bring a truck, a quad, and my horses for different occasions. A good bow (he is an instinctive shooter -- no sights, no mechanical release), detailed planning, a good mindset, perseverance, and a good horse are all beneficial elements of a successful hunt.”
Each species has presented a different set of variables, from skills necessary to accomplish the deed to satisfaction levels achieved when successful.
“In my quest for the trophy hunter accomplishments, I had had opportunities to kill a bear, but never wanted to -- until I needed one -- and I wanted a record book boar,” he said. “Finally, after a lot of serious hiking in some of the most remote and rugged country you could imagine -- and with my son, Andy, at my side -- I pulled a bead and let the arrow fly.
“The bear, with a fatal heart shot, charged, did a fishhook, smacked into a pine tree, and died … all of it caught on film by my son. I packed out the bear, my boy carried out my bow -- a lifetime memory.”
Sopher notes: “When you take a large trophy of any kind, that animal deserves to be recognized in a record book. This is about honoring the monarchs of Arizona, the kings of the desert and forest who have acquired their thrones through acute senses, healthy genes, and a strong sense of survival. Recognition here is not just for the hunter, but also for the hunted and while human ego may play a part in these record book entries, it’s also supposed to honor the animal.”
As to his own future in the field, Sopher said: “Five years ago, Arizona Game & Fish released 50 Rio Grande turkeys on the strip bordering Utah, which would make it 13 big-game species to chase. The Arizona Big 13 with a bow -- unheard of, but now a new personal goal for me to set my sights on. There are only two hunt permits in the state so it’s a difficult to draw, but I’m religiously putting in for the hunt.”
If good luck in the past is a predictor to future fortune, look for the trophy hunter’s latest success story to appear soon.