Hunting Mountain Lions: Ghosts of the West

If mountain lions are the ghosts of the West, Mike Davis is indeed a real-life ghostbuster.

Hunting Mountain Lions: Ghosts of the West

Most avid Western hunters have never seen a wild mountain lion in the woods. And most never will. 

“They are just the coolest animals,” said Mike Davis, a retired state policeman who lives literally right on the Oregon-Washington state border. “They’re like a ghost.” 

And Mike Davis is a ghostbuster. “I spend almost every day in the woods, and I’ve seen mountain lions only two times by wandering up on them — and only two others while driving the truck,” he said. 

When he is using his electronic caller, it is a completely different story. Over the past 15 years, he has become one of the most successful cougar hunters in the West, bagging two or three cats a year in the two-state area he hunts near his Walla Walla home, most within a dozen miles of his house. His tally is well over 25 lions called in and shot. 

How many total? Davis is a little uncomfortable putting a number on how many he has taken since he started hunting the big cats seriously nearly 20 years ago when he retired in 2004. “People can go crazy when you put numbers on something,” said the 68-year-old Davis. He has been buying — and usually filling — three tags each season, two in Oregon and one in Washington state (although the latter raised the limit to two tags this year). He also has done depredation work on a couple large ranches. “It took me about 10 years to figure it out, but I’m getting there,” Davis said. 

Davis will tell you there are four keys to calling mountain lions: Being in the right spot, using the right call sounds, investing the time in learning about lions and scouting and camouflage. But even with all his background and success, Davis will tell you it’s never a lock. “I’ll spend a week and not see or know if a cat came to my calls,” Davis said. Those are the quiet times, and with mountain lion hunting most of the time is quiet. But it’s those times when a big cat comes racing to the call that send adrenaline levels spiking and makes it all worthwhile.

Mountain Lions hang out in hilly terrain miles from the nearest roads, where outback treks are mandatory.
Mountain Lions hang out in hilly terrain miles from the nearest roads, where outback treks are mandatory.

Location and Setup

Location is everything. In a nutshell, you must be calling in a place where mountain lions frequent. So, what constitutes the best places to call and how do you find them? “Pick an area where there is a lot of wildlife. If there’s no game, there are no cats,” Davis said. He looks for deer and elk concentrations as much or more than he looks for cat sign. Terrain might not be conducive to seeing lion tracks but finding their kills or knowing an area holds a lot of their primary prey will put you in the right spot. 

Once you find an area you feel certain has a lion or two, you must be persistent and set up on the location correctly. Davis often hunts from dawn to dusk, setting up multiple stands, at least a mile apart, in country where he has seen game or fresh cat sign because the calls can be heard for a half-mile under the right conditions. “I’ve had them come in all times of the day,” he said. 

Once you start calling, commit to staying there at least 45 minutes to an hour or more. Cats can hear the calling from great distances, and it can take them a while to get there. Davis says they often move in cautiously and slowly from great distances before deciding to come in at a quicker pace once they get closer to the sounds. Be patient before moving to the next stand. 

Davis likes to have a vantage point well away from his vehicle (a half-mile or more) where he can see at least 200 yards or more, usually on sidehills or ridgelines with a good view. “Elevation is a big deal,” he said. “If you can see the cat come in below you, you’ve got more than a fighting chance.” 

Davis usually sets up his electronic caller 25 to 50 yards below where he sits. He does this for two reasons. First, it is just safer. Second, the animal will be focused on the sound and less likely to see any slight movement Davis makes when watching or raising his rifle. In very open terrain, he sometimes uses a decoy — fake deer, elk, or cougar — to keep the incoming predator’s attention focused away from the camouflaged hunter with a gun. 

Davis will sometimes call in an area with heavier cover, but it’s not his favorite thing to do. A cat he shot in early 2018 was taken in heavy cover at just 20 yards — but he didn’t see it until it popped up just 25 yards away coming quickly to the call. 

Despite preferring to see cats at some distance, all but two of the lions Davis has killed have been taken inside 40 yards, and usually approaching at the quick pace. “Most of the lions I’ve taken have been shot in the front of the chest as they came to the call,” Davis said. “It’s dangerous to sit close to the call.”           

Davis also likes to hunt black bears and uses his cat calls as effectively for these bruins as he does for the big cats. “You can get a big dominate bear to come to the cat calls looking for the cat’s kill,” Davis said. 

A hunting friend wanted a bear and Davis took him to a spot where he’d seen a lot of big bear sign. They set up, his buddy close to the call and Davis up above him 40 yards away. Almost immediately it started to get exciting. “After just two minutes, a cat came up out of the canyon behind him, running right to the call. It was coming in hard,” Davis said. “I put two rounds into it, and it went down just 5 yards from my friend. He never saw the cat coming.” Then laughing, he added, “Word spread like wildfire, and nobody would go out with me for months.”


Call Sounds and Calling

Davis mostly uses two types of recorded calls, mountain lion vocalizations and more normal predator calling recordings of lion prey. “Cat noises might be the best to get them to come in,” Davis said. He prefers social calls outside of the fall-winter breeding season. He uses the soft purrs, chirps and yowling, chewing noises, cougar kitten sounds, the female bark and mountain lion communication whistles. “Toms almost always do at least one whistle before they come in. If you whistle back, you better be ready because they usually come in at a run.”           

Davis says many hunters don’t recognize the whistle, which sounds like a flicker call but with a deeper tone. With experience, it is the sound that will often tip you off that a cat is nearby and coming in, even if you don’t see it.           

Breeding vocalizations are particularly effective during the late fall-winter breeding period, with both males and females responding well to these calls. However, Davis has found the breeding sounds can also act as a confidence call if a cat hangs up. He says it often “relaxes them enough so they come out.” 

He also uses more traditional deer and elk distress sounds and will throw in other sounds on occasion. He varies his calls by season and situations. If he is hunting near a recent kill, he uses lion feeding sounds. During the winter, he likes to use breeding sounds. In the spring or summer, he might start with elk or deer sounds and then switch to a female chirp. During the summer and early fall, he uses their whistles or chirps more, often in conjunction with deer, elk or turkey sounds. He says the cub calls work during the summer and fall, too. 

“I spent my first year researching cougars, bought recordings and watched and listened to videos on the Internet,” Davis said. “The cats make over 20 different sounds that you hear and there is a lot of variety.” Today, he frequently recognizes cats calling back to his recordings before seeing them. “I’d say only 40 percent talk to me when I’m calling. The other 60 percent just come in,” Davis said. “I hunt them kind of like turkeys, calling for over an hour. If I catch a glimpse of a cat or if I see fresh tracks or a kill, I stay two hours.”


Lion Knowledge and Scouting

Davis says perhaps the most successful ingredient for becoming competent at calling mountain lions has been learning about the cats, their vocalizations and spending time in the field — a lot of time. Davis points out that female lions have much smaller home ranges — about 10 square miles — than male lions, which will roam over 50 square miles or more. He scouts in very traditional ways, driving dirt roads and walking trails looking for tracks, but Davis also spends a lot of time looking for fresh kills, watching for magpies and crows that are drawn to kills to feed when the cat moves off. 

“They are so good at killing. If there is lots of game, they don’t need to eat anything but the best parts,” Davis said. “I was out calling, and I found where a big tom had killed a deer and ate the liver out. The next day he killed another deer, and only ate the liver.” 

Davis had taken cats out of the same areas over and over because there are always young males and females looking for a home range, especially one where there is lots of game. It doesn’t take long for one of these wandering cats to find and take over the range of the dead cat. 

In an interesting study done in southern California, where there is an isolated population surrounded by urban areas, most of the young produced each year eventually got killed by other cats or hit on freeways by cars as they tried to disperse. One young male managed to survive in a home range that was over 40 miles long but from a quarter- to a half-mile wide. To reduce his conflict with other males that would have killed him, or at least driven him off, he carved out a home range from the edge of a major freeway up to the ridgeline adjacent to the freeway.

AR-platform rifles chambered for stout cartridges such as .308 Win. and 6.5 Creedmoor are good medicine for tom cats that might tip the scales at 160 pounds or even more.
AR-platform rifles chambered for stout cartridges such as .308 Win. and 6.5 Creedmoor are good medicine for tom cats that might tip the scales at 160 pounds or even more.

Camouflage and Scent

For Davis, complete camouflage is perhaps one of the most critical elements of being successful once a hunter has found an area with the big cats and has learned the vocalizations and calls to use. “They have amazing eyesight,” Davis said, talking about the many times when has found fresh sign (such as tracks in his boot tracks) after calling but not seeing a cat. In those cases, he’s certain they caught sight of a movement he made and figured out the game. 

He also works diligently to keep noise to a minimum, although the cats are accustomed to hearing sounds in the wild. A branch snapping, the rustling of brush, or leaves crunching are all sounds they frequently hear and might alert them, but not entirely spook them. However, alien or loud sounds spook them just as much as seeing you standing on a ridgeline in a white tee-shirt. So, he eliminates the possibility of metallic clicks and scraping, slings squeaking or boots creaking. 

But he doesn’t worry much about wind. While cats can smell as well as most predators, it doesn’t set off alarm bells like it does with coyotes and bears. “I have had mountain lions come in from directly downwind,” Davis said. So, his goal is to make sure he blends into the background as much as possible so his shape and outline blend into the terrain. He always wears a facemask and gloves so there are no flashes of light off his skin, even when he slowly moves his head or hands. The idea is to blend into the landscape as much as possible.


Preferred Guns

The one motion Davis will tolerate is raising his gun when it’s time to shoot. Even if the cat sees that movement, it is usually too late because they it almost always pause — even if it’s just momentarily — before it runs. And that is too long. 

He shot his first mountain lion with a bolt-action .243 Winchester, but he has since shifted to an AR-platform rifle, so he has access to quick follow-up shots. He shot ARs in .308 Win. and 6.5 Creedmoor for a couple seasons, but has settled (at least for now) on a custom-built AR chambered for the 6.8 Rem. SPC round and shooting 110-grain Hornady bullets. Davis says all the rounds have worked fine on cats, but he did have a sour experience with a .308 Win. when the bullet seemed to make a hard 90-degree turn when it hit a rib and slid along the ribcage. 

“Most of the cats I’ve shot have been dumped with one shot, but that one ran off,” Davis said. While following up the cat and moving ahead slowly after finding blood, he saw the cat “pinned to the ground with its ears back” just a few feet away and quickly finished it off before things could get ugly.           

“I’ve had four cats that were double-shot, and the rest were one-shot kills,” Davis said. And most of them were shot “right under the chin” in the front of the chest as they came to the call and went right down. But he says he keeps shooting if they don’t go right down. 

Davis has mentored two young hunters in these basic tactics, and both have since taken their first lions by calling — one of them shot a big tom on his first trip solo after learning the ropes from Davis. This is proof to Mike Davis the system can work for more than just him and he’s more than happy to share.           

Davis loves hunting — bear hunting, deer and elk hunting, coyote hunting — but he admits he’s kind of partial to hunting the big cats. When he’s not calling lions, he calls black bears or coyotes. But for Mike Davis, the mountain lion is the elusive Ghost of the West he prefers to hunt — a true ghostbuster.


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