The brilliant Colorado sunshine sparkled off the light dusting of fresh snow. We slowly cruised the forest roads keeping our eyes posted on the adjacent roadsides and ditches searching, scanning, hoping to cut sign. As we rounded a sharp curve in the frozen dirt road there he stood, perched on the dark blue-green spruce, standing in sharp contrast to the cobalt blue of the early morning sun. This prophet came in the form or an ordinary crow. Nothing remarkable by himself, but in his mouth he held a long strand of something bright crimson. It appeared to be flesh and the crow was attempting to devour it.
We pulled the truck over and jumped out to do a walking search of the area to see if we could find sign. We were looking for “clean tracks.” These clean tracks are cat tracks, also known as mountain lion, catamount, puma or cougar. The cat family leaves “clean tracks” where each hind leg steps precisely into the front track and they carefully lift their feet so there is very little debris or disturbance around each track. Once you’ve seen the clean track of a cougar, it’s easily recognizable from the many other coyote, deer and elk tracks that litter the landscape. Searching for these clean tracks became the ultimate key to unlocking the entry into a successful cat hunt.
We spread out searching for a lion kill that our crow had foretold us was in the area. We did a thorough search of the area and found nothing. We then hopped back into the trucks and slowly continued down the forest road scanning the shoulder and ditches for clean tracks in the snow. About a half of a mile down the road, an offshoot spur turned left so we took it and after a few hundred yard, there it was. Above us, in plain sight on the gently sloping hillside, was the bloody scene of a recent murder.
The victim was an unsuspecting young mule deer doe. She had been stalked and ambushed in a hidden ditch, most likely killed by a broken neck, then dragged a hundred yards upslope where the remainder of her shredded corpse lay strewn about the hillside. A tidy gut pile lay neatly tucked away under a nearby cedar tree and tracks of the perpetrator trampled the crime scene in all directions. The assassination had likely taken place within recent hours as evidence by a small pool of blood still liquid, lying in the remaining chest cavity of the deceased. The tracks made it obvious that this had been done by a pair of assassins. A highly-trained, deadly pair of cougars was no match for an unsuspecting doe.
I was hunting alongside my host for the week, Jed Pendergast. I’d met Jed in the predawn darkness by headlamp earlier in the week as we rendezvoused at a cross roads somewhere outside Ft. Collins. I took an instant liking to Jed and found him to be a consummate outdoorsman. He was knowledgeable, articulate, honest and extremely hardworking. He guides for elk and sheep each fall in the high country up in the Comanche Peak Wilderness and runs a highly successful bee keeping/honey business the rest of the year. Any time I had the chance, I chose to ride along with Jed to soak up his vast knowledge of cats, dogs, hunting and life.
I had come to this hunt via my friend Stu Osthoff, who is the owner/editor/publisher of his own successful publication, Boundary Waters Magazine, for whom I’ve written for on several occasions. Stu also guides for the same outfitter each fall and had come at Jed’s invitation. I was the lucky third wheel and was thrilled and honored to be invited along. Stu also guides fishermen on extended wilderness trips in the Boundary Waters/Quetico Wilderness areas and into the far north of Canada. He spends well over 100 nights each year in a tent. Between Stu and Jed, you’ll find no finer experienced woodsmen.
The three of us fanned out, circling in all directions to dissect the sign and attempt to find the escape route of the killers. In a short time, we had found their route and Jed made an executive decision. Today was my turn at bat, so Jed handed me a radio and told me to line out the tracks for a bit to see where they were headed before committing the dogs. I shouldered my pack, stocked with food, water and survival gear, grabbed my longbow and headed up the mountain.
This mountain appeared to be a few miles long, with two peaks or knobs with a narrow saddle between them. The entire mountain was a rugged rampart of rocks, scraggly trees, blowdowns and boulders. A complete nasty tangle of terrain that called out “No Man Allowed: Cats Only!” I ignored the warning and pressed on following the snaking trail upward through the tangle. This would prove to be a true feline sanctuary and refuge.
The tracks led me up and into the saddle between the two peaks and I kept up constant radio banter with Stu and Jed. The tracks then dove down the opposite side and I slid on my butt. My heels scrambled on my way down to the bottom flats. I was following the large male tracks as he meandered around the southern skirt of the mountain. It became confusing many times as there were several other sets of fresh cat tracks that intersected with my boy. I began to wonder if this entire rocky fortress wasn’t some kind of cougar condo or mountain lion singles bar!
The big male cat circled the mountain then headed back up the rocky crags to the top again. I found myself literally using rock climbing moves of stemming, shimmying and jamming to work my way up ledges and faces to the top. It got more than a little dicey especially with my longbow in tow. I then worked my way back to the saddle and crossed my previous tracks.
Now, the big puma headed north to skirt the northern and western flank of the other mountain peak. I followed his tracks as he circled up and around and soon came to an overlooking precipice where the predator had most likely stood looking out over me as I tracked his trail beneath. Chills ran up my spine as I pondered who was stalking who. His tracks dove back down into the saddle and once again I met my own tracks, realizing I had just completed a long and tiring figure 8. My solo trek had lasted several hours and I was whooped and sweaty. I radioed Jed and he agreed to bring up the dogs, so I built a small fire to warm up, dry out, chow down, and rest as I waited on the dogs.
Within an hour I could hear the boisterous sound of the oncoming hounds which was music to my ears. I was soon relieved to see Jed’s smiling face with three of the dogs tugging at the leash. I put out my fire, updated Jed on the situation and we were soon in hot pursuit of the big tom. The dogs were going nuts barking and howling knowing that a good chase was soon at hand. Within five minutes of trailing, Jed released the dogs and they took off like thoroughbreds at the derby. Then, all hell broke loose.
On the upper reaches of this mountain, cat tracks went in every direction — so did the dogs. Each dog took off on his own adventure to see who could be first to bring back his own prize. Jed sensed immediately that chaos was ensuing and we soon lost audio contact with all three dogs as they all spread out over the mountain to do their own hunt.
For the next couple of hours we followed as best we could along the rim of the upper ramparts. We listened, called out and did our best to stay vertical over slippery, rocky, steep terrain. I could see the frustration, anxiety and stress building in Jed as his face and verbiage revealed the inner tension of the situation — three dogs in three different directions and late in the afternoon with limited time until sunset on extreme terrain. For a man like Jed, who is deeply connected to his hound, the thought of losing a dog is like losing a son.
Occasionally Jed would pull out his telemetry tracker to try and get a read on the location. We frequently stayed in touch with Stu down below to see if he could help orient us to the presence of the dogs, but we had limited success. Jed’s grimace tightened as his frustration grew.
With 45 minutes left of daylight, we finally heard the sweet music of the dogs barking and baying over the south rim. It appeared they had united forces and had a cat treed. We scrambled quickly over nasty, rocky, snow-covered trees and boulders as my adrenaline, anticipation and excitement grew. Would I finally get a chance to draw my longbow back on a big tom?
The ruckus grew louder and louder. I could sense Jed was feeling more relaxed having located his pack and knowing we would at least retrieve his dogs intact. Upon cresting the ridge and scrambling down to a ledge near a tall pinon pine, our excitement soon dissipated like air leaking from a balloon. The tree was empty. It appeared the cat had jumped from the tree to a high ledge and escaped, leaving the dogs trapped by the vertical cliffs.
To say I was disappointed is an understatement. In my utter exhaustion from a day of playing blood hound, my dream of a cat with my long bow faded with the setting sun. As we slowly worked our way down through the boulder-filled mountain side, I smiled with a deep sense of satisfaction knowing I had just participated in a adventure-filled hunt. I had given my all, with great partners of man and dog, and my worthy adversary had won. The cat had outwitted us on his own terrain. I left the mountain spent, yet completely fulfilled. Such is the true hunt where nothing is guaranteed.
Stu’s opportunity had come earlier in the week. Our first three days were a thrilling adventure of learning, fantastic scenery and endless miles of cruising forest roads. Up at 3 a.m., out the door by 4 a.m., cruising roads by head lights and lamps until sunrise, then all-day until light faded.
We found several sets of track, and cut the dogs loose three times pursing cats for a few miles each time only to have the dogs lose the tracks due to warming sun and lost scent trails. Whoever thinks pursing cats with hounds is a slam dunk hasn’t spent anytime following a pack of hounds up steep, snow-covered mountain terrain.
Day four found Stu and I cruising some previously covered ground in his truck and about midday a big set of cookie cutter male tracks could be seen descending a steep hill that crossed our road. We radioed Jed who soon joined us with the dogs. Jed eyed things over then released Molly, his favorite lead dog, to let her check things out. Molly quickly lined out and showed great enthusiasm for the trail. We collared up the other dogs and let them go and they hit the trail running and hollering the whole way. We shouldered our packs and followed in measured pursuit.
The dogs were soon out of earshot so we spread out and pieced together the trail of dogs and the big tom. The tom led us up and over rocky ridges, up and through several valleys and after 3½ miles we could finally hear their baying cries above us. Jed whispered through gasps of heavy breathing, “Sounds like they have him treed!” Those words spurred us onward and within minutes we arrived at the base of a tall ponderosa pine. And there, 25 feet up, on a large limb sat a calm and cool, gorgeous male mountain lion. I felt honored and thrilled to be in such close proximity to this apex mountain predator and I stood with wonder and awe at his massive strength and dominate posture.
Jed tied each hound to a nearby tree, offered words of caution and safety to us and readied his back up pistol. He then gave Stu the go ahead. Stu braced his .243 on a tree for accuracy, and then the silence was broken by the blast of the rifle. The shot proved instantly fatal as the lion crumbled and summersaulted to the forest floor into the soft landing of foot-deep, powdered snow.
What happened next surprised me and freaked out Stu as Jed released all the dogs who attacked the dead lion, in what appeared to be biting of the cougar. Stu had figured the hounds were destroying the beautiful hide and Jed smiled reassuring him this is just standard procedure — allowing the dogs a finishing reward for a great hunt. They were simply mouthing the fur and no harm would be done.
We each took our turns stroking the smooth hide of the cat and admiring the incredible beauty of the animal. After a long round of photos, skinning the large cat and quartering up the carcass, we were soon chilled with the setting of the sun. We shouldered our packs filled with hide, skull, and meat and worked our way back down the mountain in the fading light.
Though spent and tired, we walked with lightness in our step for the warmth of comradery, a strong connection with the hounds, fantastic mountain scenery and the thrill and adventure of the chase. These clean tracks in the grandeur of Colorado’s snow-covered mountains, had led the dogs to a magnificent cat and I’m the better man for having experienced this incredible hunt.