Mountain lion, puma, cougar, panther, or catamount is second in size only to the jaguar among cats in the Americas. I was born into a family of Penn State alumni and as a child I knew the cat only as the Nittany Lion. Developing as a hunter and eventually becoming a Penn State Nittany Lion myself; I was clearly destined to develop a fascination with this powerful predator and no doubt eventually plan a mountain lion hunt.
The mountain lion despite his strength, size, and habitat to feast on large animals such as deer and elk, did not evolve as the apex predator. Submissive to the bear and wolf, the cat remains evasive. He is an ambush predator and rarely seen by chance. Cunning, the cougar travels great distances in search of his prey or mate. Territorial but with a wide home range, the cougar seems almost mythical at times.
Perhaps the most elusive of all North American big game animals, the cougar creates quite a challenge for the hunter. Unique compared to other big game hunts, there is a required symbiotic relationship between dogs and hunter - one cannot be successful without the other. I’ve done many hunts solo but this is one animal that necessitates a good hounds-man to accompany you. Without the hounds the hunter will likely never encounter the cat. Without the hounds-man the dogs will likely not find the lion. Your hounds-man becomes your guide and boss. He is responsible for the dogs and therefore determines were to go to find a track, how to follow the dogs, and when to quit. Even if you paid the man, he remains in charge.
Two styles of lion hunting exist. Snow hunting consists of driving roads until a fresh cat print is found. The dogs are then allowed out to track. The guide follows his dogs and helps along the way until the cat is treed. The most true and able hunters will follow the dogs in pursuit. The second and much more challenging style is dry ground tracking. Mules are used to travel great distances in search of a fresh lion track.
I imagine one of the first hunting techniques must have been tracking; think of the African bushman. Such a rudimentary and fundamental approach only seems appropriate to be done by primitive methods. Hunting on snow machines or riding in a truck wasn’t for me. Riding mules mixed with hiking by foot like frontiersman of our past seemed most fitting.
My great western hunt began in Grand Junction. I was picked up and taken to a bunk house adjacent to the home of Wayne Pennell, my outfitter. The bunk house had all the modern conveniences electricity, propane heat, hot shower, refrigerator, even a satellite TV, and wireless internet. The following morning I prepared my breakfast, packed my lunch, and headed out to meet my guide. He was preparing the mules and dogs for our days travels.
Similar to how I’ve tracked deer in Northern Maine, several days are spent simply discarding unused areas and discovering the pockets where the mountain lion are currently active. I spent four days riding a mule alongside my guide and hounds-man before finding a fresh track. An estimated 200 miles were covered over my five day hunt. A sore backside, painful knees, and muscle cramps in places a person never knew they had muscles can be expected. Tough clothing such as a tin cloth dust coat or leather chaps were helpful when riding among the many cedar and sage brush thickets. Days of searching revealed scratches and prints made from a mountain lion but most of those lacked freshness. Freshness is a relative term. A print a few hours old is considered fresh when tracking deer. Hunt mountain lions with proper cold scenting dogs....a two day old track is fresh enough.
A fresh lion print needs to be found early in the morning to allow time to trail the animal. If discovered late in the day often there is not enough time to catch up to him. If a print is found late in the afternoon the dogs will be tired. If hunting in warm temperatures the dogs will potentially over heat before reaching the cat. If a good print isn’t found by a certain time the day is over and we returned to the truck. The country is rugged and in most instances there is only one way up and only one way down. It will take most of the day to finish a loop of travel. If no fresh print was found riding the loop we headed home early; there will not be enough time in the day to finish a second loop.
Throughout the search the hunter needs to decipher dog prints from that of his quarry. With the experience of a good guide one can learn quickly. Cat prints will not show toe nail marks while a dog print often will. The shape of a cat and dog print will differ. The first and fourth toe pads of a mountain lion tend to point more forward rather than a dogs whose first and fourth toe pads may point more laterally. The pad of the cat will have three lobes pointing backwards. A dogs will only have two. An experienced tracker such as my guide Wayne Pennell can quickly tell them apart.
On my hunt it wasn’t until late afternoon during the fourth day that we found a lion track fresh enough to provide scent for the dogs. It was two days old but the hounds began sounding off and working to find the next piece of scent. The dogs could follow enough to get a direction on the cats travel...it was heading west. Plans were made for the next morning to start our daily search several canyons to the west.
As we had done the four prior days, mules were brushed then saddled. I fed them oats while Wayne the hounds-man and guide, gathered up dogs. Dogs and mules were subsequently loaded into the trailer. Roughly 25 minutes later we arrived at the base of the mountain. Collars were placed on the dogs and mules were unloaded. Within a few hours of riding we crossed a two day old mountain lion print. It was Wayne who first saw the track. He could tell it was older by the fact the print appeared to have been pulled up from the frost that night. He called his dog Uno to scent the print. Uno barked, but the frost and dry sandy soil made it difficult to trail.
The lion was still heading west. Given the lack of a fresher track we set out on this one. It was Wayne with his experience and knowledge of how the mountain lion travels which kept us on point. Demonstrating the intrinsic symbiotic relationship between hunter and dog, it was the guide who kept on the old track. Understanding travel patterns through cougars he’s hunted in past seasons and years, Wayne was able to pick up the cat print again several canyons over. We came to a small creek bottom and Wayne allowed his dogs time to hunt. Within seconds the dogs sounded off in harmony to the fresh scent of a mountain lion. By Wayne’s skill we had caught up to within a day of the big cat.
A fresh track made much easier trailing. Many miles and hours passed through the most rugged canyon country one can imagine. Stiff hiking boots with good ankle support are need to traverse such treacherous terrain. Walking rather than riding the mules allowed better examination of the prints. The mules at this point trailed behind us. Leather gloves to hold the reins were helpful not only for leading the mules, but also to move cedar branches out of our way as we bushwhacked along the lion track. After hours of tracking, the lion prints headed toward steep cliffs near the top of the mountain. The hounds-man yelled “give em hell boys” as the dogs sounded off in rapid secession. A combination of information including the dogs frequent barks, the fact the prints were heading into steep cliffs, along with the gps information all indicated the cat had been treed. Likely treed on an outcropping along a cliff face.
Mountain lion hunting is not about the kill. When a lion is treed shots are most likely close and simply. One needs only a light weight gun with iron sights. Hunting the cougar is about the process. The fun is in the tracking. Mountain lion hunting is a throwback to the old days, to the days of those explorers and westerners who settled this country. Read the journal from Theodore Roosevelt and you’ll quickly see hunting with hounds was a way of life. Now, tracking and hunting with hounds is a lost art. Those select few who retain this skill are to be respected. There is no other big game animal in North America who is consistently hunted by this technique. Every hunter should experience this classic style exemplified by hunting the mountain lion.
Hunting the American lion is about the process. The challenge is in the track. The pride is in participation and putting the time necessary to find him on dry ground. I will not tell you if I killed that mountain lion or not, that is not the purpose of this article. The purpose of this article is to briefly describe the process; which is the reason for hunting this animal. If you have ever wanted to test yourself physically and mentally against one of the greatest predators in the America’s then consider hunting the cougar. Wayne Pennell at Cathedral Bluff Outfitters can help along the way.