Fifteen hundred vertical feet separated me from the faint sound of distant hounds. Below, the slope dipped into a rocky abyss. Every second that slipped by could cost the hounds their lives. Intent on filming my friend’s mountain lion hunt, I lifted the tripod/camera combo over my shoulder and dropped off into the unknown.
Motivated by tracks as big as a saucer, I began to follow the sound all lion hunters dream of… baying hounds! I knew I couldn’t traverse the ridge fast enough. My quads screamed for relief, but received none. The fight was heating up, as bays grew louder and louder. I was navigating the steep slope like a surgeon when suddenly I slipped. I hit the ground with a force seldom felt. I slid another 30 yards before coming to rest against an old bull pine. My camera’s viewfinder and microphone holder snapped off from the impact. My primary television camera now lay in pieces around me and I hadn’t even made it to treed lion yet.
Montana is known for its “Big Sky” and vast landscapes, but it’s also known for the mountain lion. Lion tags can be purchased over the counter; however, some units require a special license that’s drawn through a lottery-style system.
I decided to apply for a special unit lion tag instead of putting in for the general license. I knew that the unit I put in for harbored some huge lions. Several months passed by, then a small white envelope showed up in my mailbox from Montana’s Fish Wildlife and Parks. I lit up while opening the letter. Excited, and still in disbelief, I called up my close friend Ben Wohlers who runs Painted Rock Outfitters. Ben is an outstanding guide, incredible taxidermist. He eats, sleeps and breathes lion hunting. After two rings, his familiar voice answered the phone. “ Hey Ben I’ve got some great news!” “Really? That’s funny. I was just about to call you. I drew a special mountain lion tag for 261.” Ben replied. “No way,” I said, “I drew a 270 tag.” Both of us just erupted like two teenage boys. “It’s lion time!” Ben said. I agreed and dates were set for a December showdown.
My girlfriend Jana Waller and I headed 40 minutes south to meet Ben to begin our hunt. The object is to travel as many logging roads as possible under the cover of darkness and search for fresh tracks from your vehicle. Once a track is found, you “sit” on the track until legal shooting light.
A male mountain lion’s home range can vary from 25 to 500 square miles, while females usually occupy smaller areas from eight to more than 400 square miles. They inhabit every corner of the West, and are actually growing in population.
California has an estimated 5,000 mountain lions, which consume eight to 10 pounds of fresh meat a day. Predators hunt 365 days a year and. In California’s case, their lions consume 50,000 pounds of meat annually. Unfortunately, California outlawed mountain lion hunts on June 5, 1990. No one better understands a mountain lion’s relationship among ungulates than my good friend Craig Jourdannis. Craig is the lead biologist in a three-year elk study being conducted in my home state of Montana. What they are beginning to learn during this cutting edge study is that mountain lions are the number-one killer of newborn elk calves, followed by black bears and finally wolves. Knowing Ben and I were helping do our part to manage this predator, I couldn’t wait to find a fresh track.
After driving logging roads in deep snow, we found a track late in the day nearly a half a mile outside of my hunting area. Luckily, our two areas abutted each other and Ben was the first man up. With only a few hours before dark, Ben turned loose his “go-to” hound, Annie. Within seconds, the chase was on. Jana and I listened intently as the other two hounds made tracks towards Ben’s lead hound.
A short hike uphill ended at the base of a massive bull pine. Peering into the twisted limbs, I made out a fawn-colored male stretched out nearly 20 feet off the deck. This was Jana’s first lion hunt, and a far cry from her stomping grounds in Southern Wisconsin. I could tell by the look on her face this wouldn’t be her last lion hunt.
With my video camera in tow, I began to record the big cat high in the tree. Ben turned to Jana and asked, “What is today’s date?” “December 20. Why?” she answered back. “Well, I bought my tag four days ago,” Ben said, “…and there is a five-day waiting period. I have to wait until tomorrow to shoot this lion.” Jana and I were speechless.
“What?” I said back. “What do you mean you have to wait to shoot this lion?” With so many irons in the fire, Ben showed he was human after all. “There’s nothing against running a lion to train your hounds,” Ben said with his fingers pressed to the side of his face. We both agreed and packed up our gear as night was fast approaching. In the distance, the moon silhouetted the big male’s outline, creating an angelic yet devilish look. Tomorrow we’d revisit the area to see if the old male was still in the neighborhood.
Not having your tag punched with an opportunity like that was hard on Ben, or so we thought!
“He won’t go far,” Ben said, and he was right. The next morning we found his tracks and let loose at daylight. The dogs didn’t waste any time and soon had the same lion treed. Ben became concerned with the distance they had covered and their proximity to a known wolf pack that lived in the area. A terrible combination.
“Jim, I need you to drop off here and go straight for the dogs. Jana and I will drive the ten miles around this canyon and hike up from the bottom. I need you to get to the tree before the wolves do,” Ben’s voice cracked with a hint of urgency. I grabbed my video camera and shouldered my tripod/camera combo and began a descent into one of the deepest canyons I’ve ever seen.
Half way down, all hell broke loose when I lost my footing, destroying my main video camera. I collected my thoughts and camera parts and continued on course to the baying hounds several hundred feet below. Soon, the tree was in sight and the dogs were intact. I breathed a sigh of relief at the absence of wolf sign. Annie, Ben’s lead hound, was hard at work pacing back and forth with the other two dogs. Above, the same male lion we’d treed yesterday sat on a limb horizontally overlooking the steep canyon’s slope. Ben and Jana where still an hour from reaching my location. Time was now on my side. With the barrage of hound yelps and chaos, I reached into my bag of tricks and pulled out my trusty still camera that luckily shot incredible HD video. I snapped a hundred pictures of the big cat when I heard two faint voices coming up the steep canyon.
Jana emerged first, followed by Ben. As they approached the tree, the old male began to get uncomfortable. Ben quietly reached into his pack and grabbed his trusty .22 Hornet. I began to record the hunt. The big male was fixated on the hounds below when Ben fired a single shot. The lion slumped in the tree and never came out. Ben never had a lion die in the tree. After some clever poking and prodding, Ben freed the cat from the obstruction. “You don’t see that everyday,” Ben said as the cat fell from tree and slid 100 feet downhill.
One cat down, one to go. Ben’s lion was a mature male and tipped the scale in the mid-140s. Jana was on Cloud Nine.
We didn’t have to wait long, as another fresh snow hit the surrounding Bitterroot Mountains. Ben was ready to hit the hills again. We wanted to go 2 for 2. The first road inside my unit yielded a massive set of tracks. Winter was tightening its grip on Montana and with it elk were on the move. A cagy five-point bull dashed across a small opening, followed by several cows as we watched from the comfort of Ben’s Jeep.
“Not the numbers we are used to seeing up here,” Ben announced, still frustrated by the effects from the introduction of the grey wolf into the Greater Yellowstone. The effects of that first wolf release have spanned several states and continue to grow with every year that passes. Although all three of us held wolf tags in our pockets, they are a happen chance species.
Ben decided to give this lion a run and soon released all three hounds. The hounds traveled several miles before stopping in a steep canyon. All that lay between the treed cat and us was 1,200 vertical feet of snow-covered terrain. The sun was nonexistent during the first 20 minutes of the climb. Soon that changed, and the mountainside lit up with the warmth we craved. Every so often, the hound’s faint cries made it to my inner ear. The air was thin, due to the elevation gain. Every step was one closer to the trophy I’ve dreamed of. Jana, Ben and I trudged on — motivated by a fight that was now taking place outside our presence.
An hour later, we were fifty yards from the base of a huge fir tree. Blood-soaked snow littered with dog tracks painted the area beneath our feet. A massive fight had taken place here, and from the looks of things Annie had taken the brunt of it. Seems the big male latched onto her while cornered on a cliff face, biting completely through her lower jaw. Annie, unfazed by the attack, continued to bay at the base of the tree. Without saying a thing, Ben motioned with his left hand and pointed to the large shape in the tree above my head. The first thing I remember thinking was the shear size of that cat. A massive head with black markings around its eyes peered back with malicious intent. Paws as big as a catcher’s mitt clung to the old fir tree as I moved my camera into position. I knew right then this was an exceptional male, and one I had dreamed of for 17 years.
Jana looked up into the shadows of the old fir as I drew my Glock 10mm. I held 6 o’clock on the large tom’s body and fired. The shot rang out and the old male leapt from his perch, disappearing behind a curtain of snow. In the same motion, Ben released the Calvary. The excited hounds’ symphony signaled success as they tore down the hill to claim their prize. I looked upon the giant lion with envious eyes. He hunted with only claws, teeth and determination. The hair on my arms stood up as I thanked him for his life. In the words of Dr. Lester McCann, Ph.D., “There have been no significant increases in wildlife populations without some kind of predator control.” So true, yet so misunderstood by the general public. During the general lion season, Ben was able to go 9 for 9 lions, a feat that very few outfitters can claim. Ben, Jana and I were happy to do our part in managing this beautiful yet highly deadly predator among the high mountain peaks of Montana’s backcountry.—Jim Kinsey