Editor’s Note: On Friday, we dig deep into the Safari Magazine archives and dust off a gem from our past. This week, we learn that hunting mountain lions requires a bit more stamina and creative problem solving than many think. This story first appeared in the Jan./Feb. 1998 issue of Safari Magazine.
Mountain lion hunting is easy. You just chase one up a tree and shoot it. What kind of sport is that?”
Those were the words of a colleague of mine. I wish he had been with me last February while I was on the top of a cliff 500 feet above a frozen river in a snowstorm.
His notion could not have been further from the truth. I, too, was ignorant at one time as to what to expect on a mountain lion hunt. Unless you have actually experienced one, it’s difficult to imagine. They say that seeing a mountain lion in the wild happens only once in a lifetime, even to someone who lives in the middle of lion country. The only realistic method of successful lion hunting is with dogs. However, as any experienced outfitter will tell you, just because you are using dogs your cat is not in the bag.
The mountain lion’s scientific name is Felis concalor, which means “the cat of all one color.” It is a remarkable animal. It can spring forward 25 feet from a standstill, leap 12 feet straight up and jump safely from a height of 60 feet. It can live in deserts or rain forests, mountains or plains. It will kill and eat animals the size of hares or elk. It once was found in every corner of the 48 contiguous United States and ranged from central British Columbia, Canada, to the tip of South America – the widest distribution of any large land animal in the Western Hemisphere. The mountain lion is at the absolute top of the food chain and exerts an influence over everything below it.
My first lion hunt was unsuccessful and was one of the toughest hunts of my life. It was in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, well known for its steep mountains and dark timber forests. After a seemingly endless pursuit through knee-high snowdrifts for several days straight, I finally just plain gave up.
I went on my second lion hunt in 1997. I planned this trip for February to coincide with the 25th annual Safari Club International convention. I wanted to hunt within a day’s driving distance of Las Vegas and was fortunate to book my hunt with Clint Mecham of Tropic, Utall. I had read an interesting story about him in a bowhunting magazine, so I called him.
Mecham hunts in Utah’s famous Paunsaugunt Plateau, known for its trophy mule deer, and is intimately familiar with the country. During the summer, he works for the state of Utah, conducting lion research in many of the same areas he hunts. He also runs a business called Scenic Rim Trail Rides near Bryce Canyon National Park. Besides the close proximity to Las Vegas, I chose this outfitter because he hunts lions “the old way” – on horseback with hounds. He wakes up early in the morning, saddles up the horses, releases the dogs and goes looking for lion tracks. Southern Utah is spectacular. One clear morning, when the sun hit one of Utah’s red rock landscapes, I felt as if I were actually stepping into a picture postcard.
I also found myself hunting with three generations of houndsmen who have been chasing lions all their lives. They were: Clint, his father Stan and Stan’s longtime friend, Mack, an 82- year-old rancher. He also is a legendary lion hunter who still loves the excitement of a good chase. It was an honor to watch these men in action.
I have been told by more than one outfitter that a mountain lion hunt is one of the most expensive types of hunts to outfit. When you think about the costs associated with this type of hunting, you must consider the price of horse and dog food for an entire year. You must also take into account the time and effort required to properly train a pack of dogs. Most of the outfitters who offer lion hunting do it just because they love the thrill of the chase. It is a passion for them and money has very little to do with it.
On the second day, we cut a track first thing in the morning. Clint felt that with two hunters on a relatively fresh track we should all chase that particular lion. Getting his first hunter squared away would allow him and his guides to concentrate on getting my lion. We were close to Mack’s ranch, so Mack was invited to join us on the chase. He was absolutely thrilled. Before we could get going, though, Mack’s horse needed a shoe. Clint said something while he was working on Mack’s horse that I will never forget. “You know, Paul, maybe someday when we get older, like Mack, someone will take the time to do something nice for us.”
After four hours of hard chase, we caught up with the lion, a female. The intensity of the dogs’ barking grew from an occasional yelp at a cold track to the distant barking at a fleeing lion, until their frenzy after treeing the cat. My companion hunter shot the lion with bow and arrow. That chase had been thrilling. It was probably Mack’s 200th lion, but he seemed just as excited as I was. My tum would come the next day.
About 10 a.m., the dogs started off slowly on a cold track that led us through rough country. Stan called our horses “mountain ponies,” and fuey sure were tough, never tiring. By noon, the dogs had the lion on the run, circling under the trees, where there was no snow, to throw off the dogs. The lion had jumped from boulder to boulder, also in an attempt to lose the dogs.
By 3 0′ clock, we realized this cat’s true intentions. It was heading straight toward the nastiest, steepest, toughest country around, a beautiful but rugged place called Sand Creek Canyon. This was Clint’s worst fear.
By 3:30, the lion had treed in a huge ponderosa pine just at the edge of the canyon. The lion was still too far away, about 200 yards, for a shot with iron sights on my guide’s lever-action .25-20 Winchester. While we were trying to get closer, the lion jumped from the tree and ran straight into the canyon we were hoping to avoid. My euphoria immediately turned to depression.
The dogs picked up the lion’s track at the base of the ponderosa and tracked it to the edge of a 500-foot cliff, where they lost the scent. The lion had disappeared. For an hour we looked in vain.
I told Clint that he had done all he could, I appreciated his hard work. But I thought it would be too risky to attempt a descent into the ravine to get a better look. Clint refused to give up. He said the only possibility was that the lion jumped over the cliff onto a ledge or overhang. Our only chance would be if they lowered me off the cliff for a better look! Needless to say, the prospect of dangling off a cliff was not appealing. I’m acrophobic and I’m actually afraid of driving over bridges.
It was getting dark and snowing, and I was beginning to feel as if I were hunting a mountain goat. But the prospects of going home empty-handed a second time got the best of me. The only ropes we had were about a half mile away with the horses, so they decided to attach six dog leashes together and tied a loop around my chest. With a tight grip on my rifle and my heart in my throat, I was lowered over the edge of the cliff.
Praying all the way, I finally made my way onto a ledge 20 feet down. What I saw there I will never, ever forget. Sharing the very same ledge with me was a mountain lion, the apex of natural beauty and the object of three years of obsessive-compulsive behavior. I quickly aimed at a spot between its eyes. At the shot, the lion lunged sideways, snarling furiously. I was afraid I’d missed my mark. I then sent a quick second shot into the lungs, and cat fell off the cliff. As I cautiously leaned over the edge, I could see the lion at the bottom of the ravine.
A great feeling of relief and happiness came over me as I sat on the side of that cliff. The storm began to intensify as the sun dropped lower. It took a good 20 minutes before I realized I had left my jacket with the horses, and I was getting cold. I was exhausted. Clint and Stan seemed as if they were ready to go get another cat. They were as happy as I was that I had shot my lion. It’s been said that the only two people who are proud of your accomplishments are your mother and your school teacher. Well, I think you can probably add your outfitter to that list.
Stan elected to hike the half mile back to the horses to retrieve a rope, which we used to lower Clint into the ravine – an adventure in itself. Needless to say, he is a better man than I when it comes to sheer guts. Because we were unable to lift the whole lion out the ravine, Clint had to skin it where it fell.
My lion turned out to be a female, very big and rather old. We finally arrived home in the middle of the night. It was a great adventure for me, one I shall never forget.
Even though my hunt had been a strenuous one, I have heard of ridiculously easy hunts for mountain lions. For those of you who ask what kind of sport is lion hunting, I say ask 82-yearold Mack. He’ll tell you! .