“The deer population has slowly declined while the number of mountain lions has increased in recent years. I really need to thin out some of these cats. You interested?” I couldn’t get my response out quickly enough. “Absolutely.” I replied. Heck, I’d been carrying a mountain lion tag for the past eight years and couldn’t wait to use it. Dale Yonkin from Central Montana Outfitters continued with, “I’m seeing more and more cat sign each year and it’s gotten to a point I rarely go more than a couple of days without finding a fresh track.”
The phone rang early on a cold, windy December morning and I knew immediately my chance had come. Dale calmly explained how the track was made late last night and since the wind howled all night, he was sure the trail would be “blown out” on some of the open south facing slopes. And then, as if to remove any doubt he’d just created, he followed with, “but it’s headed into a north facing drainage and there should be plenty of scent in there for the dog to strike.”
I arrived on the remote, ice-entombed mountain to find Dale working slowly up a southwest-facing slope, trying to help Brat, the hound, work out the trail. Two local trappers who located the track earlier in the morning handed me the GPS tracking unit for the dog and explained how Dale and Brat were having a tough time getting a good scent trail to follow. By the time I got my gear on and bow in hand, Dale and Brat were three quarters of a mile out and heading away steadily. Forty breath-taking minutes later, I walked up to Dale, standing on a rocky outcrop straddling cat tracks that
headed directly into a steep north-facing draw.
After a quick “How ya doin’?” Dale and I continued following the track, with Brat on point, working to get a strong scent. The track looped back to the base of the rocky outcrop where we’d just been standing, went into a small cave, and then exited. Once the hound hit the outgoing trail he was off like a shot. Apparently the cat had been in the tiny lair all morning and our voices spooked it out. Four hundred yards later, Brat’s choppy bark changed over to a lonesome howl, indicating he’d treed.
Closing in, I glimpsed a tawny flash up in a bushy ponderosa pine. Dale instructed me to move slowly and stay behind him. We didn’t want to give the lion any reason to “jump tree.” At close range the seemingly emotionless cat was one of the most magnificent animals I’d ever seen. And since there didn’t seem to be any great sense of urgency on the part of the cat or my clever guide, I asked if it was OK to take a few pictures. As the shutter closed on my fourth picture, the big cat slowly turned to its left, and with a motion that can only be compared to pouring water out of a glass, streamed down to the ground. When the pawed thud struck a mere eight yards from me, both hound and cat vanished in a flash. I stood there completely dumbfounded. There I was with my first chance ever at filling a mountain lion tag, and I was left holding a camera, with my bow on the ground at my feet. Dale must have read the look on my face as he consoled with, “Don’t worry. Brat will put it back up a tree in no time.”
Both dog and lion headed straight into a dense stand of pine. Just as Dale predicted, Brat started baying after a short time and for the moment relief filled me. Two and a half hours later, it became apparent there was no lion in the area. What seemed like calculated deception was only natural instinct for this solitary predator. Indeed the cat had treed, but only momentarily. Once on the ground it proceeded to back trail straight at Dale and me, passing within twenty yards, unseen in the thick timber, leaving Brat with fresh scent up a tree as it made an escape. “There’s no such thing as an easy cat,” said Dale empathetically.
The lion’s arduous trail took us back down the side of a steep razor ridge, up and over it, and descended into a west-facing finger drainage that eventually flowed into a big north-facing valley filled with nearly a foot of snow. Exhaustion, hopelessness, and the day’s shortening hours began to overtake us. Dale finally released the last bit of excitement from my body when he suggested we head for the truck before it got too late. As a last ditch effort, we drove an unimproved two-track back to the head of the drainage on the chance we could get a signal from the tracking collar before it got dark. To my amazement, the signal indicated the dog was less than a quarter mile above us. Adrenaline rekindled my spirits as we bailed out of the truck and started the vertical ascent.
The cougar was twenty feet up, peering around from the backside of a large pine when I finally noticed him glaring down at me. I nocked an arrow as Dale cut the second dog loose, and eased uphill to get a better shot angle. Dale called both dogs back; I drew, settled on my spot, and let a lethal arrow fly. The lion catapulted out of the tree, tumbled 30 yards and was done.
Mountain lion hunting is part of a true wildlife sustainment plan. The chase itself is filled with more action-packed highs and physically demanding lows than any other adventure I’ve taken. I can promise you, come next year, I can’t wait to see if Brat can once again chase me up a “big ol’ cat.”– Kirk Clark