Becoming A Mountain Lion Hunter

Across much of North America, mountain lions are the apex predator. For many hunters, they are an ultimate trophy.

Becoming A Mountain Lion Hunter

When well-known archer Chuck Adams pursued an archery super slam — taking all 27 North American big-game animals — the mountain lion was his final trophy and the toughest challenge. Bagging his lion required multiple hunts over a two-year span.

Because of the mountain lion’s scarcity, secretive nature and general elusiveness, few hunters consider them do-it-yourself quarry. But there are elite hunters who learn to hunt lions consistently on their own.

Four years ago, my son Jake decided he wanted to take a lion. He is an experienced hunter and a hard-core outdoor enthusiast. He had no lion-hunting experience and he also did not have $6,000 to pay for a guided hunt (the going rate), so he determined he would do it by himself. He knew a spot-and-stalk hunt was nearly impossible, so his best option was to get a couple of lion dogs or at least locate someone who had some.

On an elk hunt in October 2012, Jake met a man who had a pack of lion dogs. He mentioned that he even had some extra dogs he might be willing to part with. A few weeks later, Jake was the owner of two lion hounds.

Mature, proven lion hounds can cost several thousand dollars each. The fact that this experienced lion hunter gave these two dogs to Jake for free was a good indication of what he believed they were worth.

Fortunately, Jake has had great success rehabilitating dogs, horses and mules after other people gave up on them. Jake solicited guidance from lion hunters that lived in his home area of northwest Wyoming. They were tight-lipped with any advice, and none were willing to let him tag along on a hunt.

Jake took the dogs out several times attempting to chase a lion. They found a few tracks, but the dogs could not follow them. Over the holidays, Jake and his family traveled to Utah and brought his dogs. While there, they were able to hunt with a relative experienced in lion hunting. On a morning hunt with Jake’s inexperienced dogs, they found a track and treed a female lion.

After returning home to Wyoming, Jake spent more than 70 days hunting lions. Most trips he never saw a track. Sometimes he was able to find a track and follow it for a while, but he never managed to tree another lion. Still, he refused to give up.

Jake knew his dogs needed a lot more training. As the weather began to warm in the spring of 2013, he started taking them out two or three nights each week to chase raccoons along the local rivers and creeks. It took a couple of tries before they treed their first coon. The next one came quickly. After that, it was a rare night when they didn’t bag at least one raccoon.

Of his two dogs, an older bluetick female named Dixie proved to have a great nose and became skilled at unraveling trails. The other dog, a young male redbone, sometimes showed up at the tree with the raccoon. Other times, he might run the track in the wrong direction or just disappear for hours. It became apparent that he did not have the ability or drive to make him a good hunting hound. So Jake gave him away and bought a black and tan pup named Jager that came from a proven hunting line.

Jake had an impressive friends list long before Zuckerburg invented Facebook. He started taking some of them along on his nighttime raccoon hunts. A couple of them enjoyed the adventure so much that they decided to buy their own dogs. By the fall of 2013, he felt they were ready for another crack at a mountain lion.

One of his friends, Shane Mathill, accompanied Jake on many hunts. In late December 2013, the two of them were hunting together when they found a fresh track. They turned the dogs out and ended up on a lion chase that covered many rugged miles and lasted most of the day.

At the end of the chase, they found a large lion in a tree. This was obviously a big cat and Jake decided that he would kill the feline and punch his tag. Once the lion was on the ground, the two men were surprised by its size. Granted, neither of them had a lot of experience with lions, but they knew it was much larger than any stuffed or live cat they had seen. When they tried to lift the tom, neither of them could hoist the lion high enough to get it off the ground.

They took the cat to a taxidermist who specializes in lion mounts, and he said it was the largest cat he had ever seen. Although Jake has not had the skull officially scored, preliminary measurements indicate that it would easily surpass the minimums for the Boone and Crockett Club all-time awards.

Jake and his friends successfully treed several more mountain lions in January and February 2014. Most of the cats were mature males. In an interesting irony, as the season progressed, a few of the local lion hunters who were initially unwilling to provide guidance or assistance called Jake and asked if they could accompany him.

After the 2014 winter hunting ended, Jake got inquiries from some area outfitters who wanted to know if he would be interested in guiding lion hunters for them the following season. He figured it would be a good way to offset some of his hunting expenses, so he completed the necessary steps to become a licensed Wyoming hunting guide.

During the fall of 2014 and the winter of 2015, Jake built on the knowledge and success of his preceding years. He guided several clients and all were successful, with all of them taking mature lions. He also added another puppy to his pack.

After three years of experience with a few dozen lions chased and treed, Jake willingly shared some of the lessons he learned that could help other lion hunters find success on their own. Here are some of his tips:

One Dog Is Enough

Most aspiring lion hunters seem to think that to be successful, they need a big pack of dogs. The reality is that a single good dog is very capable of treeing lions on its own. And any dog that is skilled at treeing raccoons has the ability to be a good lion dog. Both of Jake’s dogs have treed lions by themselves. Even when a pack of dogs is running a cat, often an experienced dog is doing most of the trailing.

On one occasion in the winter of 2015, Jake joined up with a friend who had two dogs. It was midday before they found an old track and decided to try to let the dogs work it out. They followed the dogs until dusk without jumping the lion, so they decided to head home.

When they collected the hounds, Jake’s dog Jager was missing. They were cold, tired and beat, so they headed back to town to warm up and get something to eat. Jake’s friend went home and another friend agreed to head back up the mountain with Jake to find the missing dog.

It is probably worth mentioning that most of the lion areas in northwest Wyoming have many wolves — leaving a dog alone at night in the mountains is not a good idea.

The end of the story is that the men found Jager on the mountain underneath a large pine tree. In the tree was a lion, and Jager wasn’t going to leave as long as the cat remained.

Lion Dogs Are Tough

Dixie wasn’t on that hunt because a few days earlier a male lion caught and mauled her, punched some holes in her skull with its canine teeth and ripped one of her eyes partway from its socket. She eventually ran the cat up a tree and climbed halfway up the tree after it. Jake did not even realize she was injured until they pulled the dogs off and started for home.

It was the second time in two years that a big cat grabbed Dixie by the head. In the earlier incident, a wounded cat tore up several dogs and left four puncture wounds in Dixie’s skull. In both cases, she was only out of commission for a couple of weeks.

Lion Hunters Are Tough

When Jake’s dogs treed that Utah lion, the cat had her head behind the tree trunk so it wasn’t possible to get a good picture. Jake’s wife’s uncle, an old cowboy who has treed hundreds of cats in his life, climbed the tree and yanked on the lion’s tail so it would turn around. The cat spun and swiped its paw, barely missing his head. Mission accomplished.

Another time a big tom refused to tree and was fighting the dogs on the ground. It had already clawed a couple of dogs when it grabbed Jake’s dog Dixie and tried to bite her neck. A friend hunting with Jake pushed his way past the hounds, stuck the barrel of a pistol against the cat’s chest and pulled the trigger. The lion released the dog and quickly died.

Big Male Cats Like The Same Areas

Jake quickly learned that big male lions use the same areas repeatedly. He is able to find tracks for his dogs to run much more quickly now than he could during the first couple of years, because he has learned the areas where lions frequent.

He also discovered when they kill a big male cat in a specific area, another one will soon take its place.

Mature Lions Cover Lots Of Ground

Jake said he and his friends usually run every lion track they find — they don’t try to decide whether or not the track is from a small or large lion. Even so, a majority of the cats they chase end up being mature.

Jake attributes their success on older lions to the fact that most of the areas he hunts in northwest Wyoming are adjacent to vast areas of wilderness. That means the lions spend much of their time in places that are inaccessible to hunters, which allows them to reach maturity.

Lion Hunters Should Cover Ground

Jake said his first winter he simply wasn’t covering enough territory. He would drive across the same 20 or 30 miles looking for tracks. Now he will travel a couple hundred miles in a day, and if he is hunting with a friend, they will often go in separate directions and meet up for the chase after a track is found.

Weather Is Crucial

One element lion hunters can’t control is very important. The right weather conditions make it much easier to successfully find and tree lions. The perfect situation is to have a snowfall that stops about midnight after a few inches of accumulation. Cats will be moving after the storm, and any tracks found will be fresh.

Second best is to have plenty of snow, even if it is old. Then the challenge becomes sorting out tracks and finding one fresh enough to run. A common misconception is that lions will run long distances with dogs in hot pursuit. In reality, Jake said they usually tree quickly once the dogs get close. When dogs are released on a track that is a few hours old, the lion might already be several miles away. So it takes the dogs a long time to catch up to the wandering lion.

Warm weather and bare ground are the toughest hunting combination, because the scent dissipates quickly and it is hard to locate tracks.

Jake still prepares year-round to have his hounds and gear ready for the lion season. He hopes that other hunters can learn from his success and realize that a do-it-yourself lion trophy is possible for hunters willing to put forth the effort.


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