“A lion’s work hours are only when he’s hungry; once he’s satisfied, the predator and prey live peacefully together.”
This lion hunt started with a coyote hunt in 2008. I had setup in a brush pile and I started calling to see if I could get a dog to come in. I had been calling for about 3o minutes and was starting to think that the stand was a bust. I was about to give up when I noticed something moving in a little bush about 10 yards in front of me. At first I thought it was a bird but after I looked at it a little more I was able to figure out that it was the black spot on the tip on the tail of a Mountain Lion. To this day I have NO IDEA how he got so close without me spotting him. How did that animal get so close without me seeing him? The more I thought about it the more it freaked me out. If that cat wanted me there is no doubt that he could have been on me in one jump. I was amazed and impressed by this animals stealthiness. When I got home that night I knew that I needed to learn more about lions and I knew that I needed to match wits with one.
Setting the Ground Work!
So I started searching the web and calling around to see what the big cats were all about. After talking to a ton of people it became obvious that lions are either killed by people that just happen to see one while hunting something else or they are hunted with dogs. At first I wasn’t real sure about hunt hunting behind dogs it is just something that I was familiar with or had done. Everyone I had talked to said that while the shot itself would be easy, staying with the dogs was the tough part. Unlike deer hunting where you can hunt at your pace, I would need to hunt at the dogs pace because if the lion trees and decides to fight, he can easily kill several dogs. Okay, so lets be honest, I will forever be fighting genetics. I am not a runner and I never will be. My body style is more like that of a Hobbit than a Track Athlete. So if I was going to try and keep up the the dogs and the dog handlers I was going to need to put in a lot of miles at the gym and in the mountains. My plan was to drop some weight and work myself up to running/walking 5 miles + in an hour, 3-5 times a week. For many of you that might not be anything special but for me it was a realistic goal. Also, I needed to be smart during the actual chase. One of the tough parts of chasing cats is some chases last a quarter of a mile and some last 10 miles, I needed to get to the cat at my pace and not burn myself out too soon. For me the bottom line was that I couldn’t put the dogs in jeopardy.
So now I had a plan, all I needed now was to see if I could find someone with dogs that would be willing to work with me. Luckily, in Silver City the hunting community is pretty close. I made a few calls and I was able to connect and make a deal with Wayne Billing and Brandon Jones of WB Guide Service. Wayne is one of those guys that just loves to hunt lions with dogs. Even though he is young he is very knowledgeable and most importantly he is a solid outdoorsman. Brandon is just one of those guys that loves to hunt and is one heck of a dog handler. Typically, the guys hunt over dry ground and are very successful but if we had snow we were doing to take advantage of it. So it looks like I had a pack of dogs to follow and I had someone to show me the ropes to make sure I did things the right way.
Hunting as a Team!!!
Working as a team, the plan was to cover as much country as possible. Brandon, Wayne and I would all be in different areas looking for tracks in the snow. Once a track was “cut” we would try to contact each other, come up with a plan, release the dogs,chase the dogs that are chasing the cat, find the cat that is in the tree, figure out if it is a shooter, shoot the cat, drag it to the truck, skin it and then eat it. Pretty easy, right?
I must admit I have never prayed for snow so hard in my life. In mid-December we got a decent little snow storm and Wayne called to see if I could go out. I said, “Sure”. So I was asked to cover a little section close to town. Well, I went out looking for tracks and I quickly realized I had NO CLUE what I was doing. So I just drove around looking for tracks. Well, I didn’t see anything but I learned that just because it is snowing you don’t necessarily have good tracking conditions. The problem was that the snow came early in the morning and it was still falling. It was covering the tracks before I could figure out what they were….
Below is a picture of the first day out….
It was a pretty day but I might as well be sight seeing.
Around 10 am Wayne texted me and said that the conditions weren’t quite right and that we were probably wasting our time. So my first day of lion hunting was over. I guess I had never really paid real close attention to tracks in the snow. For me tracks were either deer tracks or something else. I just never took the time to figure it all out. When I got home I needed to do some research on what I was really looking for. I remembered that I was once told that the CO Dept of Game and Fish had a pretty good PDF on identifying lion tracks and determining sexes, so I downloaded the file and tried to soak everything in. You can CLICK HERE to go to that PDF. If you have time it is a pretty interesting read.
After reading up on Lion identification I felt like I was ready to roll, the only problem was that the snow had melted. I would need to wait until the conditions got better… or in this case worse.
A few more weeks went by and we had another snow storm. Wayne decided that we should just go together on this hunt. That was fine by me so we met at local grocery story and I jumped in his rig. Off we went to see if we could cut some tracks. That morning we covered about 50 miles and we didn’t see anything. It looked like the snow storm that had hit town had completely missed the section of the Gila that we were hunting. This lion hunting was turning out to be real hit and miss. As a side note, Chuck Adams needed several trips to fill his lion tag to complete his Grand Slam. In order, for lion hunting to work all the stars need to be aligned, there is no room for error.
Day 4 was pretty event-less… More windshield time, more trackless roads.
After the 4th day of trying to get on one of these guys it was starting to look pretty dim. Thank god we had the deer archery season to break-up the time. Well, deer season came and went.
Then about a week after deer season send we got POUNDED by a great snow storm. Off to the mountains we went, we went in different directions and would keep in contact via phone or texts. The morning looked promising, we had nice fresh deep snow BUT we had to content with the winds. It was almost impossible to figure out the age of any track. The wind was filling everything in. After about 4 hours of playing in the snow I texted Wayne to see if he was having any better luck. He wasn’t, he was also having a hard time fighting the wind. We called it a day. On my way back to town I stopped at the Fort Bayard National Cemetery to visit my dads grave and brush the snow off of his headstone.
My dad never really liked the cold but I bet he would have loved the view, I also know that he would be cheering for me on this hunt and the way things were going I needed all the help that I could find.
The next day was Sunday, so I wasn’t able to go out because I wanted to go to church and because I wanted to watch the football games.
It all comes together!
Monday would be our next opportunity to get out. Wayne called and we decided to split up again, this time Brandon was also going to be looking for tracks. My morning was pretty slow as far as tacks go but I was deer mule deer all over the place. About 7 am Wayne texted me saying that I needed to meet him at some corrals because Brandon had cut a track of a Tom. I think my Diesel also got the text because I just pointed that think north and it got me off the mountain and on my way to the corrals in no time flat. The race to the track was on. Wayne and I got to the corrals about the same time. We quickly loaded my gear into his Polaris Ranger and we went to find Brandon and the dogs. If you have ever hunted the Gila you know that it is big country and there are places that no whiteman has ever walked. It was going to be tough to find Brandon and his dogs(loaded in his dog box), luckily we new the frequency of the dog collars.
Wayne quickly dialed in the numbers and at least we would have a general location of were to start looking for Brandon.
The cool thing about this picture is that we eventuallly treed the lion about 3/4 of the way up that mountain that Wayne is point towards with his antenna.
So we started working our way towards where we thought Brandon and his dogs were. It took us probably about an hour before we were able to get to the general area. The only problem is that we found two sets of tracks. On one set you could clearly see that Brandon got out and looked that them and on the second set it looked like Brandon just drove right past them. It also looked like two different lions. The only thing we could do it try to locate Brandon and the dogs with the tracking device. So Wayne and I crawled up a little hill to see if we could get a better signals from a highpoint. The antenna still pointed to the peak. So we needed to cut the distance somehow. The plan was to head back to the Ranger load up and see if Brandon had found a fresher track. So down the little ridge we went, as we got closer to the rig we heard another Ranger coming down the road. Fortunately, it was Brandon and his dogs. Brandon had gone up the road to see if the he could cut a fresher track but he didn’t have any luck. That only meant that the lion had was pretty much located in a 5 square mile area.
After talking to Brandon it looked like the freshest track was the one going straight up the mountain. So we got the dogs out of the boxes and put them on the track. Once they got a hold of the scent they were off… I mean OFF OFF… These dogs were bred for situations just like this. Right behind the dogs were Brandon and Wayne… and then a little further back I was tracking Brandon and Wayne in the snow that were tracking the dogs. Of course being the geek I am I made a waypoint on my GPS just for grins. If we got on this cat it would be interesting to see how far we hiked and how fast we hiked.
This was the part of the hunt that I was most concerned about, I just didn’t know what I was getting into. At this point the only thing you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can and hope that the dogs get to the cat quickly and that you can get there before any damage happens. About 3/4 of a mile from the truck and after about 500 vertical feet I caught my first glimpse of the younger dogs running on a ridge. They seemed to be going back and forth on trying to workout the scent. This was a good sign because that meant that the scent was heavy in the air and that the cat was close. I have been trying to figure out how to express the sound of the dogs on the chase but you just really need to experience it to understand it. These dogs were bred for one thing and that is to chase lions, nothing less and nothing more.
So I finally made it to the tree were the dogs were barking. I will be honest in saying that even that cat was in the tree it was still hard to see. Those animals just have an amazing ability to hide. Below is a picture of the cat in the tree. I really wish I spent more time getting better pictures but there was just so much going on.
Below is a picture of some of the dogs. As you can see there was quite a bit of snow…
This is a picture of Rocky. This dog acutally climbed the tree and was face to face with the cat. We were really lucky that we were able to get Rocky out of the tree before it got too ugly.
How about a picture of the Cat…
And another one!!!
As I was getting ready for the shot the cat bailed from the tree. The crazy part is that when cats bail from a tree they usually take off like a rocket. This guy turned faced the dogs and was ready to rumble. Fortunately, Rocky called his bluff and the cat took off down the mountain. SOOOOO…. We were off again, me chasing Brandon and Wayne who were chasing the dogs, who were chasing the cat. This time it was straight down the mountain. The cat treed again and bailed again before we could get to him. Again he was heading downhill and towards the road.
Fortunately, he treed a third time. Below is a picture of him all balled up in and old oak. As you can see hunting lions isn’t about the shot. He was only 15 yards from us, it is about the dogs, the chase, the challenge of getting to the cat and just the adventure.
This is me with the cat.
Here is a picture of Wayne and Brandon with the Tom.
All I can say is that hunting lions is like hunting no other in North America, in order to be consistently successful you need to have good dogs. Wayne has some great dogs and he really knows the country. If you are looking for a Mountain Lion hunt get a hold of Wayne and visit his website