Editor’s Note: Each Friday we dust off a story from our vast archives. Today’s adventure originally ran in the May/June 1995 issue of Safari Magazine.
Something large and dark jumped from the ground up to the huge boulders. The movement through the pines caught my eye as I drove by. “What was that?” I turned around and a slower approach ended my curiosity. A turkey vulture was watching my truck as I pulled over to see what kind of a dinner I had just interrupted.
The bowhunting season would open soon and this scouting trip would reveal information that would have a profound effect on my upcoming hunt.
As I approached the rocks, I could hear meat bees feasting on something. The vulture, now in a tall tree, flapped his wings as if to say, “Go away! You don’t want to look.”
One more step revealed a scene that set all my senses on full alert. I did a quick 360-degree spin to try to see what I might not have seen. Confident that the vulture and I were alone, I once again focused my attention between the rocks. The remains of a spotted fawn lay where it had been dragged and dropped, head and neck twisted and pushed away as if the killer didn’t want it to see what was going on.
The carcass showed its tiny rib cage, entrails gone. Only the night before had it lay sleeping next to a doe. In the darkness, a nocturnal killer had exploded upon that peaceful scene and a tiny fawn was shown what death in the wild was all about, its life barely begun, its few months an eternity. All around, tracks left the telltale signature of its predator.
I walked back to the truck, thinking about the many questions now being answered. No wonder cattle ranchers had moved livestock out of the area; last year, the cows were in here thick. No wonder that, of the does I had seen, so few had fawns; last year, does were everywhere and most had twins. Back in camp, I turned up the lantern and wondered: It’s open season on deer all year – doe and fawn alike. If the California Department of Fish and Game can’t manage this state’s mountain lions, how can it manage its deer?
Later, I watched the sky for shooting stars. It was a shame I had to watch alone but that’s the way my scouting trip had worked out. Besides, when you’re in the woods, you’re never really alone. I occasionally would look into the blackness of the nighttime forest and try to discern the reason a twig in the distance just snapped. It might be a bear or a cat. Whatever wild creature, its fear of man would keep me safe. Call the perception stupid, naïve – whatever – it reigned as king that night.
I turned back toward the heavens with that funny feeling that comes when you know you’re being watched.
The scouting trip produced enough deer sign to give all of us that day-before-opener optimism. As we packed our trucks, my wife gave me and my hunting buddy, Rodger Benadom, her “Cat Drill.”
“Ok, what do you do if you see – a mountain lion?”
I gave her all the wrong answers: “Run like crazy! Play dead! Say ‘Here kitty, kitty, kitty .’” Then we both laughed, big time, trying to put her mind at ease.
“We won’t see a cat up there, Dear, because they hunt at night. To see one during the day is so rare. At best, we might spot one at 200 yards, Don’t worry.”
She wasn’t convinced and you would think that after 16 years of marriage, I would begin to trust her intuition.
“Just in case, here’s what you do,” she said and reviewed the list she had heard recently on television. Rodger looked at me and we just smiled. Little ded wew know. The man I was as I left home that day would not return the same.
August 20, 1994. Opening day. I took Craig Bylin to the top of the granite dome to show him the cat kill. (Craig and Richard Plancarte had come along to help us on our deer drives.) The tiny carcass was gone. A tuft of hair remained.
The next day, Mark Taylor – who had never shot a deer with his bow – got two shots at a monster mule deer buck. Rodger took over, tracked the buck back to the granite and heard it go over the top of the dome. It was dark when he came down. We found him walking the logging road alone with his flashlight.
The next evening, we put Rodger in a ground blind to see if the King of the Hill would come back to bed. No deer. Again we picked up Rodger after dark.
Now it was Tuesday, our final day, and my turn to hunt the big buck. I would put my tree stand above the buck’s bed and spend the day. I wanted to be set up by mid-morning, while the deer watered and fed. The guys dropped me off on the dirt logging road at 9:30 a.m. and I trod the last few hundred yards as quietly as I could.
I walked back and forth a couple of times in search of the tail where Mark had taken his shots. I could look up the steep draw and see the spot, 100 yards up, where I needed to be, so I made my own trail, stepping in every quiet spot I could find, until I found the path about 25 yards from the tree I would climb. I couldn’t help but look back and think about Mark’s shots. This was where that big deer had exited.
With mounting anticipation, I locked on my stand and walked up the tree. Twenty feet later, at a height I would never regret, I stopped. Next to me, a small pine with a broken limb would be a perfect, arrow-already-nocked bow holder. The watch in my day pack read 10a.m. –bedtime for bucks. Tim and Rodger wouldn’t be back until late afternoon, so I settled in, pulled out my range finder and began to check yardage on the three trails below my perch.
The beauty of doing time in a tree is being alone with your thoughts, clearing out the cobwebs of daily life. My thoughts are usually pleasant but as I ranged trees I couldn’t help but think of Rodger’s silly dream of the night before. Like most, it really didn’t seem to make much sense: There I was, in the middle of a large pool, trying to stab at sharks below me. From his elevated vantage point, in his dream, Rodger could see where the sharks were and he was trying desperately to tell me. I tried to reach the edge and just as I did a large shadow in the water below grabbed me. Rodger screamed my name as I disappeared beneath the surface.
After he told me, I assured him that he was a sick man, and we all got a big laugh.
“Stupid dream.” I stood on the platform in my tree and had just committed a pine at 30 yards to memory. As I looked to the range finder for confirmation, a movement 30 yards down the draw caused me to freeze in disbelief.
“Oh…My…God…!” The words, slow and deliberate, came as gasps from deep within. Never again will I ever use “cat” to describe what I saw. The work “lion” is used with reason. I had always thought of a mountain lion as an oversized bobcat, something that I could scare out of its den and it would flush like a bird from a nest. This was something I would expect to see in Africa. It stood three feet tall and five to six feet in length. Now, put a three-foot length of tail on that and you have an animal of shocking proportions, probably in the 150-pound range. Huge. Slowly stalking, a solitary mountain lion was coming up the hill.
So much for the “they hunt at night” theory I had tried to sell my wife.
For a brief moment I felt as though I was watching National Geographic come to life. I quickly looked down at the deer beds to my right. The lion was looking for the buck too. With the scent of cat and man blowing up and down this draw, my hunt was over, so I might as well enjoy the show. Very few people get to see a mountain lion this close and remain undetected.
Picture a python sliding through tall grass and you will know what I saw as the lion just kept coming, as it slithered through the trees. It didn’t have that cute, button nosed face of the mountain lions seen in pictures – probably of females. The head and face were elongated and the color wasn’t tan. It was darker, more like charcoal and tan mixed together. The beauty of the beast was awesome.
Stealth. The word came to mind as the animal moved toward me without making a sound. Again, I was held spellbound by my incredible misconception of a mountain lion. Even with the massive frame, its paws looked too big. Outside the bony structure and pad was a huge amount of – for lack of a better term – fluff, and accumulation of extra skin and fur around the base of the paw. The effect was that of a man walking on snowshoes or a woman wearing huge oversized bedroom slippers. Whenever a paw touched the ground, the fluff would fall around it and muffle any sound.
If I had not been standing where I could see it first, I would never have heard a thing.
Then I remembered Barbara Schoener, the California jogger killed by a mountain lion four months earlier and the fawn on the ridge behind me. A week earlier this was the animal with fawn all over its face. What I had once thought of as a cat was no more cat than gopher snake was rattler or lizard was alligator or a guppie was a great white. This was a lion in every sense of the word.
The only difference between Mrs. Schoener and myself would be the broadhead between me and this lion. Just in case, I set my range finder on the seat, grabbed my bow and clipped on the trigger release.
The mountain lion stepped out of the trees onto the trail, then it stood broadside looking back down the hill, five yards from the tree I had just ranged. Only 25 yards between us. If had wanted to kill it, this would be the shot to take. But I was hunting deer. I would not poach an animal, especially one that is totally protected by the state of California. This mountain lion was breathtaking to watch, no breathtaking probably wasn’t a good word.
While I waited for its next move, I looked again at the paws. Then, as if in a zoom lens, my eyes focused on something else. In the dirt next to its paw was the impression of my boot. That made no sense whatsoever.
How could it stand on my tracks and not smell me? With such a keen nose, surely it must be aware of my scent. When every other wild animal smells human scent, it’s gone. Why would this creature stalk my steps, stopping every few feet to look around, unless – NAH! It’s not looking for me. They don’t stalk humans.
I looked to where I had first seen the animal come through the trees…exactly where I had walked. Now it stood where I had stood to look back just 30 minutes earlier.
The possibility that this plush predator might be looking for me resulted in the kind of fear that squeezes the chest like a vise. Moisture glazed my eyes and I had to make a conscious effort to breathe deeply to fill my lungs. This was much like the last path that Barbara Schoener had taken. She had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why didn’t I start yelling, waving my arms trying to scare it away? If I had to, I couldn’t shoot. At 25 yards, it would take that lion about two seconds, two powerful kicks up the tree next to me and my platform would be a cat dish. I would be found hanging by my safety strap and the question asked would be, “He had a bow…why didn’t he use it?” Trying to hit a bolting anything with bow and arrow is a tough shot, let alone a predator coming straight at you. I elected to stay quiet and let the animal pass.
If it went back down the hill where it was looking, great. If it kept going straight it would walk out on to the granite dome, all good and fine. But…if it chose to take a sharp left turn, continued to follow my scent and walked in my footsteps straight to my tree…well, a confrontation with a bad outcome waited that choice.
I’m not a cussin’ man, but when that mountain lion looked up the hill toward my tree and turned sharp left …a whispered expletive did escape my lips. The lion was still half-crouched and stalking, I watched the dirt glisten in the sunlight as its paws landed in my boot prints. I was being stalked! An unexpected wave of anger came over me.
I was angry that it is illegal for bowhunters to carry firearms. I understand that the purpose of this law is to prevent someone from shooting a deer with a gun during a bowhunt, but even snake shot would have allowed me to deliver a faceful of discouragement at arm’s length.
I was angry that the mountain lion was protected by law – and I was protected by a mere broadhead! If I shot an arrow, it would be a felony, and that was wrong too.
When the lion turned, a decision had to be made. I was not going to let it get any closer. I pulled my bow to full draw, but as I brought it downward, arrows in my bow quiver hit the side of the tree stand. At the sound the lion stopped. I lifted slightly and brought the end of the bow into the seat. I put the sight on animal’s head. It was now looking up to my tree, searching for the source of that sound. Our eyes met and generated a feeling that I can’t describe. I estimated it to be only 15 yards from my tree. The great face filled my peep sight. What it did next still sends shivers up my spine.
It had been my experience that every wild animal that view man at close range will get a wild eyed look of fear and then disappear in a bolting blur. This lion’s eyes, looking into my own, slowly narrowed to a focused squint that held no fear. It had found what it had sought.
Ears laid back, its stalking crouch deepened.
The irony was incredible. The lion had the hunter up a tree!
I firmly believed the confrontation could escalate to me or it. I was not about to let things get that far. I fit my 20 yard pin between its eyes. The Hoyt Super Slam bow, set a 65 pounds would deliver the Easton arrow at 215 feet per second. The Thunderhead broadhead could pierce metal. The shot would be quick and humane. The lion would never feel pain. My shot was true!
Even with a cat’s reflexes, the lion never blinked before the impact between its eyebrows. A loud POW…followed instantly by a muffled, splitting crack like an ax in a rotten log echoed up the draw. Then to my disbelief and horror, the arrow bounced straight up into the air. Not a ricochet or glancing blow, but a straight on bullseye came back as though I had hit a rock! Absorbing the energy from the arrow, the mountain lion’s big head and neck swung in a full circle swoop as if it ha been sucker punched. The force completely flipped the huge animal. Four paws were already running before it hit the ground. Whichever way it was pointed when it landed was the direction it departed. It exploded downhill faster than any buck I had ever seen. Its entrance had been silent, but not its exit. I stared at the ground in denial. My arrow, full of tawny fur, lay in the thrashed earth. I checked the time to see how long it would be before the others came back. It was not quite 11 a.m. Five or six hours left. If you think I was coming out of that tree before I saw the red Toyota on the logging road, you’re nuts! Ground level with an angry mountain lion was not the place to be!
I have never been happier to see a little red Toyota truck! My longest day was coming to an end, but there were still two more chilling revelations to discover.
What I had figured to be 15 yards was actually about a dozen steps. When I made my way back to the truck the rest of the crew could tell I was visibly shaken.
We made our way back up the draw to get pictures and measure tracks and retrieve my stand and equipment. For anyone who thinks the lion just happened upon my tracks consider this: Rodger and Jace followed my entrance trail all the way back to the logging road. For 100 yards, lion tracks were found in my boot prints. The tracks ended 10 yards from my tree. That lion was stalking, looking for ME!
I will never again look at the woods as I did before. What I experienced was rare but because that’s how the mountain lion likes its meat, I’ll travel a little wiser.