Of all the mountain lions I have pursued in my life one lion hunt in particular gave me one of the greatest of hardships in hunting pursuits, but later proved to be one of the most rewarding hunts that I'll never forget.
One of my personal great mountain lion hunts began on a snowy winter night in Nevada at around 9,000 feet elevation. I was walking through a large remote wilderness area when my best trailing hound, Shorty, “opened up” with a short raspy howl. I knew his raspy bark was an indication that he'd found a bobcat or mountain lion track, so I immediately headed toward his now not-so-silent direction with the bright moonlight guiding my way through the night. Shortly after hearing his first response, I heard him give another howl—only this one was a little longer and much more enthusiastic.
I turned on my headlamp and located Shorty with his nose on the ground and his tail standing straight up and stiff, waiting patiently for good scent as he walked a windswept mountain. I found large depressions in the snow, 18 inches apart, and one track in front of the other in single-file fashion heading up a steep draw. Even though I couldn't see a single pad or toe mark, I knew this was a mountain lion print and a good one at that. And through my investigation of the tracks, I best determined that it had snowed 4 days prior, so trailing a 5-day old track had some difficult challenges even for the best of hounds and the most experienced of lion hunters. I knew finding this cat was a long shot, but because of the haunting size of the tracks, I knew it was a large male and I knew full well that this was the reason I was out there and not at home in bed, like most sane citizens.
I coupled the pack together and figured I would walk this track out until either the track was more trail able or I miraculously jumped the mt. lion. I stayed on the old track throughout the night for another eight hours only to have the trail engulfed by a huge canyon completely covered by rock.
The mt. lion had covered about five miles of wonderful snow filled high country for the snow less remote desert sage brush lowlands. As the sun peaked over the eastern mountains, I concluded that this mt. lion chase had come to an abrupt end but not without some valuable observations learned along the way. By tracking this mt. lion track for track, the mt. lion led me to his secretive reoccurring scratch spots and travel corridors. I found one of his favorite spots where he liked to dispose of his recycled mule deer remains under a rocky ledge outcropping. As well as being a Professional Wildlife Biologist I am also a certified Scatologist and as I caressed the huge frozen mt. lion turd in my hand, I stuck my nose in my cupped hands and took a long inhaling breath. The result is most often the same for me, I smell the scent of a cat (much like that of an ordinary house cat) except muskier and then the hair on my neck begins to stand on end because I know full well that these large predators have been well documented to crap out human remains. For me the smell is one of my favorite. I knew that in hard earned time that this mt. lion will be back in this area and I made it habitual to visit the tom's territory whenever I was in the area. I went on hunting hard that year and managed to put up 11 mt. lions. I ended up harvesting two nice representations of the species, but nothing quite got my heart pumping like pursuing that big tom that I never seemed to get close to.
In Nevada, during normal years of mt. lion hunting pressure, thousands of mt. lion tag holders head for the hills and annually harvest somewhere between 100-120 mt. lions. In other words, there are lots of mt. lion hunters out there hunting, but very few mt. lion hunters actually catch mt. lions. The better and easier places to catch mt. lions in Nevada (according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife harvest records) are in Elko and White Pine Counties, but Nevada is definitely one of the hardest states in the West overall to hunt and capture mt. lions because of typical unfavorable weather conditions and limited prey availability that no doubt limits mt. lion populations.
The followings year's mt. lion hunting season started out like the previous years with ample amounts of moisture that made trailing conditions much more favorable and the scales were starting to tip in my favor. I had treed a couple of mt. lions before the snow came, but now the snow started to stick and small groups of mule deer pushed their way down out of the high country to lower elevations. I would often visit the historic areas of where I had pursued the big mt. lion the year prior, but I could tell through scratches and scat that I was always behind him by a week or so. On a cold night in late January I left the house at 9:00 pm and headed for the high country in hopes of finding a fresh bobcat or mt. lion track to turn the dogs loose on.
In Nevada it is legal to hunt mt. lions at night, so I take full advantage of the rare opportunity and since I'm hunting a nocturnal species, the woods are most often absent of man's presence during the silent cold nights. I really enjoy the late night action as mt. lions usually run much farther during the night than during daylight hours when trailed by a pack of hounds. I also found it easier to hear the vocals of the hounds at night and for a deaf guy like me this is a great advantage, but I do not turn valuable hounds loose without tracking collars on them.
I had snow shoed for several hours and the hounds were not tethered and occasionally they would check in with me then range out in all directions looking for game. I had walked several miles before I heard the first bawl of a hound. I sat and listened for a short while and I realized that the hound was moving the track slowly. I heard another hound join in the chase and I walked up to a small saddle and found the hounds tracking a big mt. lion track. I followed the dogs and I noticed that the trail was several days old and the imprints in the snow revealed that the mt. lion tracks were zig zagging instead of progressing in a straight line. These tell tale signs indicated to me that this is a mt. lion in hunting mode rather than the typical straight inline trail travel of a traveling mt. lion.
I decided to let the hounds loose for good and hoped they could stay with the old mt. lion track and the dogs did move the old track fairly decent, but would often get held up in the rocky lava fields. I had been out of ear shot of the hounds for about an hour, but periodically I would pull out my tracking receiver and confirm what direction the hounds were heading.
I had just climbed a small rock point when I heard a small roar from my hounds barking excitingly below me in an alder patch. I could tell through past experience that the hounds had caught something on the ground, so I cautiously slithered down the ridge with my loaded pistol in hand. The hounds were in the thick of it and occasionally I would see pieces of dog through the heavy foliage.
As I approached within the last 10 yards and with the aid of my headlamp, I finally saw what all the commotion was about. The hounds had caught a black bear of gigantic proportions and the bear repeatedly false charged the dogs and would occasionally slap at a dog with those huge paws each time the hounds entered the black bears personal space.
Usually catching such a beast in would be considered a blessing and a legal game animal, but in Nevada black bears are considered a non-game animal and to date, no black bear hunting is allowed although their local population is robust. I immediately started grabbing dogs and tying them off and finally the big bruin meandered off and was eaten by the dark forest. In most instances black bears would be hibernating during these cold winter months, but because of a readily anthropogenic food supply black bears often do not hibernate in Nevada and dozens of black bears over 600 pounds have been documented by area game biologists.
I back tracked away from the black bear fiasco and found the area where the bear track intercepted the old mt. lion track and pressed on for three additional days and I finally lost the lion track nearly 12 miles from where I started. Nevada is the driest State in the Nation and with a limited supply of ungulate species (deer, elk, bighorn sheep and antelope) I knew full well that each day I pursued this mt. lion my success was increasing, but in all actuality, I felt as if I was chasing something that couldn't be caught. Another season had ended and I did have some great catches including my best hound hunting day thus far when I treed four mt. lions and a bobcat in one long day.
I dedicated more time than ever before spending more time running game with my hounds and keeping myself in good shape. I spent the summer and fall months chasing wild pigs, but as often the case with these toothy animals, I ended up spending more time doctoring up dogs from pig inflicted injuries that actual hunting time. By the beginning of my traditional mt. lion period, nature unloaded several feet of snow on the high desert country of Nevada. In fact, during this particuliar year, Nevada had more snow accumulation than any other year in history since record keeping. In a one week period, nearly four feet of snow covered the valley floor and I knew that every ungulate species from the high mountains would be down near the valleys scavenging for any available forage readily poking out from the deep snow.
I traded my well worn Danner Elk Hunter boots for my heavy cold weather pack boots and aluminum snow shoes. I started checking tightly packed deer herds for any mt. lion sign and occasionally I would check some ravines where the big footed mt. lion use to visit, but no mt. lion sign was found. I found myself one afternoon basking in the winter sun enjoying a smashed ham sandwich when through my binoculars I observed some tracks that deserved a closer inspection. Even at nearly a mile away I could tell that a predatory animal was responsible for these indentations in the pristine snow canopy. Through my quality glasses I could see the tracks in the snow were inspecting each rock cropping and I began to feel the excitement building in me, but after several worthless bear chases I knew better than to let restless hounds near a possible unwanted bear track.
I snow shoed for nearly an hour, before I got to the location of the tracks and I was excited to determine that the tracks were that of a large male mt. lion and a good one at that. The tracks appeared several days old, but I released the hounds and I figured if the hounds will chase it, then I will follow it. The tracking was slow going the first day as I covered miles and miles of country and at the end of the day the only hide I saw was the remains of a 26 inch mule deer buck that had fallen victim to the mt. lion's fury. I returned the following day fully energized and with persistence I finally found where the big mt. lion tracks had lined out to.
I released the hounds on what I finally figured was a decent chance at a mt. lion that wasn't too many days ahead of me. I have always believed to turn my dogs loose on on just about any run able mt. lion track because even if they don't catch it, I am keeping them in much better hunting condition than the other hunters who don't turn loose. The hounds were really lighting up the forest with big bawls and plowing their way through the deep snow drifts.
I sat up on a rocky pinnacle overlooking miles of country with the binoculars and about a half mile away I saw a dead deer in the middle of a sage brush flat. I strained through my optics and I could swear that another animal was lying next to the deer carcass. The hounds had been out of earshot for about five minutes, so I figured I would head down the ridge and have a closer inspection. In another 20 minutes of sloshing through the now melting snow I was within 50 yards of the deer carcass and to my surprise a mt. lion was standing over the dead deer looking at me and twitching his tail. This was one of the rarest wildlife sightings I had ever seen and the mt. lion didn't seem too bothered with my presence.
As I sat there looking at the mt. lion he turned his head and looked up the mountain and I could tell by his bobbing head and twitching of his tail that something better than me was now stealing his attention. I scanned the south side of ridge absent of snow and I could see my half mountain cur dog, my leopard cur and walker dog heading right for the lion but they weren't making a sound. In another minute they all “opened up” and started making all kinds of noise and moving straight towards the lion at a very rapid pace. As the hounds got within the last 100 yards of the mt. lion, I looked over at the mt. lion and he calmly crouched down on the other side of the dead deer. The suspense was killing me on what was going to happen next and as Shorty approached within four feet of the lion, the big male lunged at Shorty and bit him in the back of the neck and the lion's bottom canines bite through his tracking collar. The two rolled down the hill and then my curs joined in and the lion gave up fight and headed out.
If I had known that this mt. lion was going to attack my dogs rather than flee I would have harassed the lion before the dogs ever reached the lion but then again, it is probable that it all could have happened anyway further down the trail.
The hounds were on the lion's heels and occasionally the big tom would turn around and swipe at a dog. This lion was trotting within a few feet of large trees eluding the dogs but was dead set against climbing any of the trees. It was a comical sight at times to see my cur dogs clamped down on the lion's tail and the lion dragging the dogs. The comical event was always short lived when the lion would turn around and swipe a dog.
The lion finally weakened by tough fighting hounds retreated into a rock cave. My hounds were barking wildly as only there back legs were sticking out of the cave as I approached the final catch site. As I walked up to the cave entrance with my cocked 45 auto in hand, I could see the lion's eyes and I pushed the aside the aggressive hounds and fired into the mt. lion with close four foot precision shooting. The hounds went in the cave and gave the old tom a final death chew and when they finished their ritual, I pulled the old tom out of the cave. The old tom had a lot of character in his face with several large scares on his nose, missing pieces of ear and large canine bite marks on his front legs.
I later aged the large male at eight years and his skull measured 15 4/16 Boone and Crockett which easily makes this record book lion one of the largest ever killed in Nevada. My hounds made a quick recovery and the hounds shared 38 stitches from fighting this big tom. For those who pursue mt. lions I wish them the best, for those who actually catch the big ones, they have my respect.