June 16, 2021
Back in college, we learned lions primarily attack prey species that are weak, old, or diseased. Although this is true, make no mistake: Lions will, and often do, attack well-nourished bucks, does, fawns, or any large mammal if given the opportunity. Although lions can reach 200 pounds in weight, it is rare. The average tom weighs 140 pounds, can jump 20-plus feet from a standstill, and can spring over 60 feet from a tree without hurting himself. Their athleticism should never be underestimated.
Lions are the type of predator that kills simply to kill. It’s in their DNA. Surplus killings of 20 sheep have been documented. Oftentimes, sheep kills are not found, because a lion will consume it entirely and not cache the meat. As a result, lion predation of livestock can be underestimated, but it is always a serious economic factor.
A lion’s favorite prey is deer. They clamp their jaws around a deer’s throat, head, or neck in order to suffocate them or snap their neck. Once their jaw is set and their claws dug in, escape is unlikely.
After three unsuccessful lion hunts with different outfitters, these apex predators were becoming my nemesis animal. To break my bad luck, I reached out to various state wildlife agencies with a simple question: Who’s your best lion outfitter?
My buddy from the Nevada Division of Wildlife e-mailed me back two words: Dave Gowan. I immediately reached out to Dave and booked my fourth lion hunt with him.
Fast-forward to mid-December, and I found myself meeting Dave in person for the first time in Elko, Nevada. Dave also guides for other big game, but he’s a lion hunter at heart. After 30 years as a houndsman, Dave’s dogs are his life, and it wasn’t long before I met his favorite pooch — Clyde.
As Clyde and I shook paws, I immediately noticed he was missing his right eye. When I asked about the injury, I sensed Dave’s grief was still raw. Clyde was injured by a big tom a year earlier when he got too close to the cat’s claws. Clyde is now retired to stud.
Unlike my previous lion hunts, Day One was very eventful. Within 30 minutes, Dave spotted a fresh lion track in the snow. At first, I thought he was kidding. But then he smiled and said, “We need to let the dogs out. Looks like we have a hot lion track.”
Within short order, I heard the sweet music of his dogs opening up on a track that continued up the mountainside as far as I could see. We jumped on Dave’s tracked ATV and moved up the mountain to a better vantage point to listen to the dogs. Dave advised me the chase could be over in minutes, or it could take the rest of the day. With all the insane baying going on up the mountain, a smile crossed my face as I reflected on my beagles, some 40 years ago, chasing cottontail rabbits.
Although the two pursuits were very different, Dave and I connected and understood the commitment to the sport, and more importantly, to the dogs we trained. I thought about how my Pap would be flipping out if he only knew where the hunting passion he passed down to me had taken me at that moment. About an hour into the chase, I commented on the tenacity of the hounds. The respect in Dave’s eyes for his dogs was similar to that of a parent whose child was following instructions perfectly.
I’d argue no scribe could ever pen the excitement of listening to Dave’s dogs in chase of a big lion. This chase was already incredible, and I was absorbing the dogs’ enthusiasm. Although we could no longer see the dogs, the barking hysteria started to subside as they ran over the mountaintop ahead of us.
Judging by the tracks in the snow, Dave explained he knew it was a tom because the width of the lion’s front pad was more than five inches across. Additionally, the spacing between the tracks, or stride, was more than 40 inches apart. I couldn’t believe we were already in hot pursuit of a big, tom lion.
Dave told me some lion hunts can run for miles, and late into the night, while some cats will bay within a few hundred yards. When you catch up to the dogs, the lion could be standing its ground in some rocks, or pinned in a cave, while others could be 40 feet up in a tree or only 10 feet high in a small cedar tree. Shots can range from three to 30 yards. At this point, Dave said the rest of the chase would be on foot.
As we started up the mountain, I knew something was wrong with me. Although the elevation was only around 7,000 feet, my thighs suddenly started to cramp up badly. This wasn’t just a charley horse that subsides; it continued the whole way up the mountain. Although Dave was very professional, I knew I was holding him back as we followed the lion and dog tracks in the foot-deep snow.
Without a doubt, these hunts can be very physical. I’ve been on various rugged mountain hunts, so this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d brought some potassium-chloride pills for cramps, but I soon realized I’d left them in the truck at the base of the mountain. Worse yet, I knew it could take days for my muscles to loosen up.
After a two-mile hike up the mountain, I finally arrived at the epicenter of all the barking dogs. Right in front of me perched was a very good tom in a small cedar. But with so many small branches in the way, getting a shot was going to be troublesome. As I moved around the base of the tree, looking for a potential shot, the lion jumped out of the tree and took off.
With the pack of dogs right behind the tom, he ran another 400 yards and treed again. Still struggling, I finally made it to the second tree. The lion was only 20 feet off the ground in a thick cedar, making a shot difficult. Once again, as I moved in to find an opening, the lion bailed out of the tree and took off.
My thighs and calves were aching in pain, but the baying of the dogs and Dave’s encouragement kept me going. I live at 150 feet above sea level, so sucking air is just a part of mountain hunting for me. Typical lion-hunting elevations range from 4,500 to 11,000 feet, and usually in rugged terrain, so if you are not willing to experience pain and discomfort, lion hunting is probably not for you.
By the time we arrived at the third tree, the stars were just starting to peep through the night sky. And yes, you can hunt lions all night if you desire. As I finally made it to the third tree, the tom didn’t waste any time and took off again. Although my mind said go, my legs were shot, so Dave decided to call off the chase.
The next day, the snow-covered mountain range was bathed in sunlight, so I asked Dave to stop his truck so I could preserve this picturesque Nevada scene with some photos.
Then I shared with Dave some recent research from the University of Alberta. Their data showed that lions killed 1.49 times more ungulates (deer, elk, juvenile moose) in summer than in winter. Obviously, there are more young animals during the summer months, but lions also like fresh meat that isn’t rotten or spoiled. Although there was a lot of variability within the study, the kill rate was 0.8 ungulates per week. One lion went 75 days without killing an ungulate, surviving on small birds, mammals, and carrion. Female lions with kittens killed the most, while adult toms killed less. Why? The study determined the toms killed larger game.
Home ranges within the study varied greatly among the 42 GPS-collared lions. Toms can roam from 50 to about 400 square miles, with female home ranges being about half that. The study also showed a lion’s favorite food is deer. An adult lion needs about eight to 10 pounds of meat per day. If you have 5,000 lions in your state, this equates to 50,000 pounds of meat per day to maintain this population. Do lions have an impact on our deer populations? You bet!
With the temperature starting to rise, Dave explained how scent can become problematic, because humidity, sunlight which melts the snow, rain, and of course, how fresh the snow is, all can affect the track. Too much snow covers the track, while too little makes finding a track difficult at best. But with Dave’s years of experience in these mountains, he guaranteed me we’d get another opportunity at a tom.
Two days later, Dave found another decent tom track. As Dave let his hounds out of the box, it was as if all his dogs were smiling when they hit the scent. This time, we split up on two mountain ridges, as the dogs seemed to have the lion holed-up in between us. As Dave reached the dogs, he saw they had the tom cornered on the ground in between some rocks. Since situations like this can get very dangerous for the dogs, Dave cautiously approached. This caused the tom to run straight toward me.
At this point, things were happening fast. The dogs were right on the tail of the lion and barking hysterically. Then, as soon as the lion and I made eye contact, it ran straight up a tree no more than 30 yards away.
Within seconds, Dave was by my side. Then, for safety reasons, he tied up his dogs and asked, “Ever shot a lion at 20 yards?” I smiled and simply couldn’t believe this was all coming together. Up in the tree, the tom started growling and hissing.
At this point in the hunt, I was still fighting through the pain, but I felt no pain as I raised my bow, placed a perfect shot, and watched the tom fall to the ground. My long-awaited lion quest had come to an end.
There are certain things in life that are hard. Hunting lions is one of them. It’s both physically and mentally challenging. Throughout the process, I gained respect for lions because, like them, I’m also a hunter. You can’t read about lion hunting and get a true sense of what it’s all about. It takes participation. You need to hear the dogs. See your labored breath. And experience a treed lion just feet away. And don’t forget the meat — it’s delicious!
If you’re one of those folks opposed to lion hunting, consider the words of T.R. Mader: “The predator is to wildlife what weeds are to the farmer. You cannot have abundant wildlife with abundant predation any more than you can have a fruitful garden or crops with abundant weeds.”
Only a true houndsman, and the hunter who experiences a lion hunt, will understand these words.
Author’s Notes: An over-the-counter, nonresident hunting license costs $240, plus $100 for a lion tag. You can purchase two tags per year. Dave Gowan owns Canyons West Guide Service in Nevada and also enjoys exceptional success guiding elk, mule deer, antelope, black bear, and bighorn sheep hunters. His website is CanyonsWest.com, or e-mail him at Dave@CanyonsWest.com. I sent the first, bottom premolar from my lion to Wildlife Analytical Laboratories (WAL) to determine its age using the cementum annuli method. They determined my lion was 3½ years old. In addition to cats, WAL can determine the age of any game animal you harvest. Contact them at DeerAge.com, or call (512) 756-1989.
On this hunt, I used a Hoyt Carbon Defiant bow, Gold Tip Hunter XT arrows, 100-grain Rage Hypodermic broadheads, T.R.U. Ball Max Pro 4-finger release, Spot-Hogg sight, Trophy Taker arrow rest, TightSpot quiver, and clothing from Cabela’s.