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Mountain Lion Hunting With Hounds
Of all the big game species hunted in the United States, the mountain lion is probably the least understood. These elusive carnivores are rarely seen because they travel mainly at night and are very sneaky. Even when they travel in broad daylight, few people ever see them. Since no one sees them, it is hard to know how many of the big cats roam North America. Even biologists who study the big cats aren’t sure how many cats there really are. Some experts in Colorado claim there are a few thousand cats running in the backcountry of Colorado, but they are so difficult to locate that determining how many there are is simply an educated guessing game.
One mountain hunter recently learned how elusive mountain lions can be when he headed west to chase them. His friend and him found a fresh tom mountain lion track that headed up the center of a driveway to someone’s secluded backcountry home. After talking to the homeowner and showing him the track, he was amazed. Although he knew mountain lions lived in the area, he had lived in the house for ten years and had never seen a cat strolling through the woods.
For many outdoorsmen who don’t know any better, mountain lion hunting appears to be an easy sport. Most people think you only need a couple good hunting dogs and a gun. After spending a week chasing the crafty wilderness cats, this mountain lion hunter can testify that chasing mountain lions is one of the toughest hunting sports out there.
Being a good lion hunter requires having good lion hounds. Most non-resident hunters hunt lions with a hunting outfitter because most of us don’t have a pack of well-trained lion dogs. Most serious mountain lion hunters use red bone, blue tick, or black and tan hounds. Leopard curs are also becoming quite popular. These breeds have incredible noses. Once they smell a fresh lion track they can follow it for dozens of miles if needed until they find a cat. They are also very high strung. One dog has more energy than ten people, and ten mountain lions for that matter! However, hound dogs don’t train themselves. Most lion hunters have at least two or three dogs and most houndsmen spend most of the offseason training dogs. They first train them to be good trackers. They do this by trapping live raccoons, dumping a healthy dose of cat urine on them, and letting them go. After they have been running for awhile, the hunter lets his dogs out and the fun begins. As soon as the dogs smell the track and catch the scent of the raccoon, the chase is on. Sometimes the dogs have raccoons running up trees in an hour; other times it takes longer to locate the unlucky raccoon. The goal is to get dogs to trust their nose and follow the track until they find the reward - the raccoon. This style of training gets the dogs ready to chase mountain lions. Houndsmen may go through this training exercise dozens of times during the summer and fall before the winter mountain lion season opens.
While they are training their dogs to tree raccoons they are also teaching them not to track other game like elk, deer, or other critter they may encounter while running a mountain lion in the winter.
Any houndsman will tell you that they pray for snow like a school kid does at Christmas. Fresh snow is the key ingredient to mountain lion hunting. When a fresh snow blankets the mountainside in the middle of the night before a hunt, hunters are given a major advantage. If a mountain lion passes through an area the night before the hunt starts, the hunter will know the track isn’t very old because the snow is fresh. A fresh track in fresh snow is easier for the dogs to track than a track on dry land or old crusty snow. Ideal hunting conditions are a new 3-8 inches of snow on the ground when a hunt begins first thing in the morning. When a fresh track is located, the hunter will know the track is probably less than 12 hours old, so the cat can’t be too far away.
When locating lions, it is not uncommon for hunters to travel several hundred miles over the course of a weekend. Most hunters take a 4x4 pick-up and drive up and down logging roads and two tracks looking for a fresh track that has crossed the road. Other forms of transportation include hunting ATV’s and snowmobiles. Snowmobiles are extremely popular because they can travel over the top of snow and hunters can cover lots of ground in a very short period of time looking for tracks. Once a fresh lion track is located in the snow, the dogs are turned loose.
A chase can last a few minutes or several hours. Telemetry collars are often put on each dog so hunters have a general idea of where the dogs are as they chase the cat across backcountry wilderness. Hounds have loud unique barks and when they are on a fresh track, they bark regularly. As they chase the mountain lion and bark, the houndsman will usually hear their dogs and will be able to keep track of them with the collars. The goal of the dogs and the hunter is to run the cat until it climbs a tree or bays against rocks. Since mountain lions are the king of the wilderness, they rarely run from anything. They will however, run from dogs. After running from dogs for a long period of time, a lion will run up a tree. At this point, dogs will bark at the treed cat until the hunter arrives - which could be a few minutes or a few hours, depending on the terrain. After a cat is treed, the hounds typically bark non-stop. Between telemetry collars letting hunters know the dogs are no longer moving and the non-stop barking, hunters usually know the dogs have a cat in the tree.
Most mountain lion hunters who harvest a cat use a small caliber rifle or pistol. Mountain lions are also the perfect for bowhunters to hunt because most shorts are at a relatively close range.
Harvesting the mountain lion isn’t very difficult; the tough part is treeing the big cat and getting to the tree. Mountain lions live in extremely rugged country and it is not uncommon to encounter snow drifts that are waist deep, cliffs to climb that are almost straight up, and the oxygen level at high elevations that many hunters aren’t used to which makes breathing difficult. To complicate matters, once a mountain lion realizes he is being chased, he often takes the hounds straight up to the top of the mountain. On a recent hunt, a friend and I eagerly chased a mountain lion with a handful of dogs for over six hours. Over the course of the chase, the cat weaved and bobbed his way up the side of a mountain through deep snow drifts and over large boulders. At the end of the day, the cat had outsmarted the dogs and my buddy got more exercise than someone could ever get in a gym!
The tough thing about mountain lion hunting is the fact that hunters are extremely dependent on fresh snow. Without fresh snow, finding tracks is virtually impossible. In any other form of hunting, if you’re not having a good day of hunting, you work harder, walk farther, or call more. With mountain lion hunting, you are at the mercy of “Old Man Winter.”
The fact that mountain lions aren’t living on every ridge makes mountain lion hunting very challenging. Experts estimate that there are only a few thousand of them in many states and millions of acres for them to call home. Finding them, even with the help of a cold-nosed hound eagerly waiting to tree one in the truck, can be difficult. The easiest way to find them is to put more miles under the tires, which is why many houndsmen have a 4x4 truck, an ATV, and a snow machine. Regardless of how deep the snow is or the condition of the terrain, they still have a way to cover several miles in search of a track.
Some people believe that harvesting mountain lions is cruel, but the truth is mountain lions are an extremely efficient killing machine. An adult male mountain lion can weigh 200 pounds or more. To maintain his weight, he must kill a deer almost once a week. If mountain lion numbers aren’t controlled, they can quickly decimate a deer or elk population. Female cats can be harvested in most western states. However, if she has kittens with her, it is unlawful to harvest a female cat. Many hunters won’t harvest females at all because of this.
Another reason to harvest mountain lions is because in areas that mountain lions live where hunting isn’t legal; mountain lions often lose their fear of man and on occasion, kill people. The big cats of the West are predators and often see people as easy meals.
On one mountain lion hunters recent hunt he came home empty-handed, but gained a healthy amount of respect for mountain lions and the houndsmen who chase them. He has had the opportunity to hunt a wide array of big game animals and he has decided that chasing mountain lions was very fun. Hiking and seeing the western wilderness in the middle of winter was breathtaking. Seeing a fresh lion track was exciting. Listening to hounds bark for hours on end as they chased the most elusive critter in North America up the side of a mountain was music to my ears. If you are a diehard houndsman who spends every spare moment you have chasing lions. If you haven’t chased mountain lions but are looking to go on a hunt that is physically challenging and extremely exciting, book a mountain lion hunt today. Seeing the eyes of a mountain lion staring down on you and listening to the dogs howl will be an experience you won’t soon forget.