Bowhunting Mountain Lions
November 04, 2010
When you think a hunt is going to be easy, you have a hard time conceiving how hard it might really be.
At one time I thought that hunting mountain lions was easy. You hired a guide, found a track, and turned loose the hounds. A little later, the dogs barked treed, and you took a leisurely shot at close range.
This Idaho lion completed my North American Super Slam, making me the first to accomplish this feat.
That was the theory. Then I got a dose of bowhunting reality. As I watched the evening weathercast on TV, I pondered how badly I had been wrong. Weather maps showed a huge "High" where Idaho and Wyoming came together. I groaned. It was December 28, 1989, and there was still no snow in sight. It had been the driest spell in western recollection, with the last measurable rainfall more than a month before. Since then, high pressure had dominated the region.
I had a lion tag in my pocket and no prospect of snow. Without snow, it would be tough to find a cougar track and even tougher to follow and catch the cat. I flipped off the tube, went downstairs to fiddle with archery gear, and grunted at the notion that lion hunting is easy. Lions had not been easy for me.
When I started bowhunting as a young teen, all my heroes were hunters. At the top of the list were Fred Bear, Jack O'Connor, and Grancel Fitz. Fitz was a forefather of the Boone and Crockett Club, and his articles in magazines took my young imagination to far corners of our continent. One of Fitz's fondest dreams was to bag all North American big game species, and he ultimately accomplished that goal. To me, doing so was the pinnacle of serious hunting achievement -- an endeavor that was difficult beyond belief. Before long, I was dreaming of my own all-species adventure with a bow.
Taking all 27 (now 29) animals recognized by the Pope and Young Record Club is called the "North American Super Slam." A few skeptics regard hunting for Slams as a stunt, but I cannot agree. My own desire to bag a Super Slam was genuine, long-lived, and personal. What else could match the excitement, challenge, and fun of trekking after animals in every part of our continent? Nobody needs to take a Super Slam to enjoy hunting, but for variety of pleasure and necessary skill, nothing else can compare.
I thought about the Super Slam as I fretted about the weather. I had 26 of the 27 animals then recognized by P&Y. A mountain lion was the last one I needed -- and the Rocky Mountain West was as dry as rolled oats.
My luck with lions had been terrible from the start. Troubles began in January of 1989. I booked a cougar hunt with a reputable guide in southeastern Arizona. During four days of looking for lion tracks, we found deer tracks, javelina tracks, coyote tracks, and turkey tracks. We never found a lion track.
I tried a second bare-ground cougar hunt in Arizona in early February. I already had a lion tag for that state, so what the heck? That trip was a modest improvement over the first. My guide found three fresh tracks in three days. Each time, hot Southwestern sunshine burned out the scent before the dogs could tree the cat.
Hounds can sometimes catch lions on bare ground, but snow provides a trailing edge. It can also cause problems. I discovered this twist in late February of 1989. This time, I was with my good friend Larry Jarrett, a primo lion guide from Idaho. Larry batted close to 100 percent on seven-day cougar hunts, and his clients took some really large cats.
Snow fell all night before the first day of the hunt. Not good, Larry explained, because most tracks would be covered up. As he had predicted, we found no lion tracks.
On the second day, we found medium-sized cougar prints on a logging road. The trail was smoking fresh, but it lined out for the edge of Larry's legal guide area and crossed onto private land. We had to call it quits.
The third morning dawned with a half-inch of new snow. Shortly after daybreak, we saw ravens fly up and found a calf elk carcass in a pine-choked draw. Giant cougar tracks littered the area -- tracks half full of snow. The lion's walking tracks were 45 inches apart -- a large old tom. We followed on foot, but tracks remained half filled with snow. At dark, we still had our dogs on a leash.
The fourth day was a disaster. We tried to follow the big track, but the weather turned warm and paw prints disappeared on bare slopes.
"So lion hunting is easy," I muttered as I drove home empty-handed.
The following October, I arrowed a huge Alaska brown bear. The bruin was my next-to-last North American species, and I immediately began planning another lion hunt. I booked an early-December trip with my pal Larry Jarrett -- weather permitting, of course.
Early and mid-December came and went without the slightest hint of snow. I was irritated because my Super Slam dream was fading, and because I also wanted to see a trophy-sized cougar at close range. Lions are largely nocturnal, and during three decades of serious hunting, I had never had a clear look at a lion.
On December 31, 1989, a crack appeared in the high pressure system over Idaho. A cold storm was moving toward the interior. Jarrett called and suggested I get ready to head for Idaho. No problem. My pickup had been packed for weeks.
On New Year's Day, snow began falling in Boise. Within minutes, I started a 12-hour, all-night drive through the storm. I had already bought a 1990 Idaho lion tag, so I was set to hunt.
Larry's favorite cougar area was laced with logging roads, so we started looking for cat tracks by pickup truck on January 2. Late that day, we climbed on snowmobiles to traverse narrow trails in roadless ravines.
Because snow had fallen all night, we didn't have high hopes of finding a track right away. But we did find two large canyons loaded with mule deer and elk. To stay fat and happy, a mountain lion must kill a deer or elk almost every week. Larry figured cats were not far from this handy food source.
On January 3, he proved his instincts were right, when the large print of a mature tom appeared magically along the edge of a road just after daylight. The lion was headed for a remote canyon. Larry let loose his two favorite hounds, a Plott named Rowdy and a bluetick named Drifter. Within seconds, the dogs disappeared at full gallop with their noses buried in the track. I started to get excited'¦
I should have known better. Three hours later, we heard a hound whining in the canyon below.
like the sound of that," Larry grumbled. "It's Rowdy, and he's confused."
We finally caught both dogs and discovered the problem -- the canyon was full of cougar tracks. Walking several miles, we realized the lion had circled on his own track repeatedly. This created a maze of trails going every direction. Then we discovered a lion-killed cow elk in a draw. The cat had fed and walked away.
Larry was ecstatic. "We'll tree your cat tomorrow," he promised. "That lion is full of meat, and he isn't going far!"
January 4 dawned clear and cold with a hint of fresh snow over the old. We were in for another surprise, but this time it was pleasant. We circled the canyon with pickup and snow machine, and discovered four new cougar tracks entering the area. There were now five lions inside our circle -- all mature cats!
"I told you this place was good," Larry chuckled.
We turned loose the hounds on the largest, freshest-appearing track. Larry preferred "silent runners" instead of dogs that bawled on trail. Quiet hounds were likely to surprise a lion at close range and quickly put it up a tree. This saved time and reduced wear and tear on dogs and hunters.
Ten minutes later, the hounds opened up on a heavily timbered ridge a half-mile away. Even a greenhorn lion hunter like me knew what those choppy barks meant. The dogs had treed the cat!
After a short hike, I was looking at my first close-up mountain lion. The cougar was crouched on a limb 50 feet above the ground, his head turning from side to side. As we tied the yammering dogs, the cat climbed even higher and burrowed in a cluster of limbs. I could see his tail, ears, and one small hole in line with the lungs. Seconds later, I put a four-blade broadhead through that hole. The lion lurched and fell without so much as a twitch.
As I write this 20 years later, my pulse still leaps at the thought of that Idaho mountain lion. I have shot larger cougars since then, but my first lion was a mature male with a respectable 8 1/2-foot hide, a fitting animal to finish the first North American Super Slam ever taken by a bowhunter. Given the trouble I had with mountain lions, I was lucky to take a cougar at all!