Reaching well back into prehistoric times, hunting was not the sporting, relaxing pastime the modern hunter pursues today. A failed hunt during stone-age times spelled real hunger or outright starvation. In this life-and-death struggle for survival Neolithic man turned to the dog, manipulating its instinctive hunting style into a convenient collaboration. Since those early days man selectively bred for traits useful to his desires while creating the various sporting breeds we know today. Those most familiar to hunters include the various breeds of setters, pointers and retrievers — and the hound, a variety of canine bred to relentlessly pursue big-game, such as bruins, felines and hogs through superior endurance and hard-wired olfactory gear fine-tuned to help them unravel scented code unwittingly left behind by some of hunting’s most elusive apex game. Early man needed the hound to bring game to bay, the hound required man to finish the hunt with his clever tools. Together, they made an efficient hunting team.
There seems to be a residue of this ancient instinct in every hunter, bred from those lean times so long ago, that makes following hounds in pursuit of hunting success so primal and natural. In no other hunting is the hound so utterly essential to regular, predicable success as it is in the case of mountain lion, the ghost of the Rocky Mountains seldom seen by even lifelong residents of the West without access to hounds. And in no other hunting is the ancient spirit of the literal chase so alive and well, hunters drawn by the eerie music of singing hounds, like the siren’s song that once caused ships to smash on the rocks. It’s something magical and difficult to describe to the uninitiated.
If you wish to feign an ethical superiority in regards to hunting behind hounds, sermonizing about the lack of sport, naively insisting hunters do no more than steal glory rightfully belonging to the dogs, tell it to someone else. I’ll offer no apologies. In my experience those who speak loudest, and most dogmatically on any given subject are typically those least acquainted with the particulars of the object of their scorn.
CAT SCRATCH FEVER
When it comes to cougars (bobcats also make sporty hound-hunt trophies) there’s really no other regular path to success than enlisting the trailing abilities of sharp-nosed hounds — save luck and long-shot happenstance. While the long-winded bear can lead hound and hunter on a merry chase, cats are short-winded and typically tree in short order after being jumped. While the underlying challenges of bear chases can prove purely physical, cat hunting is normally all about patience. Cats are inherently clean, normally leaving little scent behind, whereas the greasy, carrion-loving bear most often leaves a powerful stink in his wake. Consequently, a viable cat track depends on freshness for success. An effective bear hound is gritty and unrelenting. A cat hound is patient and cold-nosed.
For this reason alone the best cat hunts are normally conducted when snow remains dependable and tracks plainly visible. Outfitters with exceptional “dry-ground” hounds — especially in the drier Southwest — regularly catch cats without snow, but this requires more time and persistence. The mode of operation hinges on the presence of snow, or not, and how much. In snow country, you’ll often hunt comfortably from a heated 4WD, keeping a sharp eye on ditches for plainly-visible tracks. In other areas, the snowmobile or ATV supplies transportation. Even on such “easy” hunts, after a track is struck you’ll normally leave mechanized transport behind and proceed on foot, sometimes for miles, always — it seems — into the bottom of some hell-hole that you will pay for dearly while climbing out. In more remote country, or drier regions, count on covering a lot of ground atop a horse or mule. In the roughest terrain it’s also not uncommon to proceed afoot. Your outfitter will give you a better idea of what you’re in for, but it’s always best to arrive prepared for a hike.
Mountain lion hunting behind hounds is allowed in every Rocky Mountain state, the Left Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington allowing the uninformed populace of their large population centers to dictate how the rest of the state is run and how to manage the peoples’ wildlife. Therefore, the latter states have made cougar hunting all but extinct, California not allowing them to be hunted at all despite runway populations, Oregon and Washington disallowing hound hunting (though there’s currently talk in Washington State of reversing this law, so stay tuned). Tags in most Western states are sold over the counter, making planning easy, though there are exceptions, such as Utah, where tags must be drawn, though draw odds are good, application deadlines being the only real detour to hunt planning. Obviously, you’ll need to hire an experienced houndsmen; lists of licensed outfitters are normally provided through conservation offices. It’s then a matter of going through the standard procedure of making phone calls to gain gut feelings about potential outfits, gathering reference lists (of successful and unsuccessful hunters), making more calls, all in the name of assuring what an outfitter offers and that how he hunts meshes with your expectations and physical abilities.
No matter the mode of operation, a sturdy pair of comfortable, waterproof and insulated hiking boots is in order. When I say comfortable, I mean something you can tear across rough terrain in without spraining an ankle or losing your grip on rocky, snowy or icy ground. This is a tough combination. At times you’ll need an “arctic” pack boot to keep your feet warm, though such models prove extremely clumsy in rough terrain. At times you’ll need a mountaineering boot to assure a sure grip on rocky, slippery terrain, but these can leave your toes numb, especially while riding a snow machine or mule. The trick is to find a happy medium you can live with; a hiker with ample insulation (800- to 1,200-gram of something like Thinsulate) but also with an aggressive sole and enough support to protect joints from twisting and feet from stone bruises.
There’s always a certain amount of gear you’ll find it necessary to tote, even if spending more time in a truck than hiking; equipment such as cameras, GPS units and hand-held radios, and other essentials like water bottles, a couple sandwiches, dry socks and an extra jacket, for instance. All this points to a comfortable, yet streamlined, daypack. Choose something with padded shoulder and hip straps, and adjustable enough so you can cinch it down tight when jogging or riding to assure it doesn’t beat you to death while bouncing. Also, in this sort of hunting, as you can well imagine, regulating body temperature can prove challenging, shivering one hour while manning an ATV seat or sitting a saddle, riding beneath snow-dumping pine boughs; the next sweating like a politician taking a polygraph, while tearing through the woods toward hounds singing treed. Layering is the wisest approach, allowing you to dress up and down as activity dictates, avoiding hypothermia or a sweat bath, whatever the case may be. So, you’ll also need a daypack with ample compression straps to securely anchor articles of clothing while stripping down during the heat of battle.
Cold, snowy weather combined with horseback, ATV or snow machine rides point to late-season whitetail-stand wear most already own. During winter forays expect falling snow; at the least that knocked from passing trees. A wide-brimmed cowboy hat keeps snow from running down shirt collars; warm, wind- and waterproof gloves keeps fingers comfortable and functioning.
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON
The hunter can certainly tote his favorite bolt-action rifle or compound bow into cougar country without undue inconvenience, but for the sake of portability and keeping hands free for scrambling and bushwhacking, something a bit more compact makes a savvier choice. Understand that the average shot at a treed mountain lion isn’t a study in marksmanship; 50 to 60 yards is considered very long, with most shots offered at something more like 15 to 25. This isn’t about the shooting so much as it is the total experience.
For the rifleman, the classic lever-action saddle gun makes a super choice — easy on the knees when slipped into a saddle scabbard while riding, lightweight and easy to strap onto your daypack when you need hands free. Cougars aren’t the sturdiest critters alive, meaning the old .30-30′s really too much gun (though, there isn’t such as thing as too dead). Lever-guns handling cartridges such as the .357 or .44 Magnum are close to “ideal,” if such a thing exists.
If you feel confident enough in your shooting abilities, or are willing to invest in additional range time to improve marksmanship, a powerful handgun’s as easy to pack as anything around, slipped into a daypack or worn on the hip in classic fashion. If you choose to go this route, make sure you can realistically hit something with your pistol, or your cat will be finished by the outfitter, who I assure you can shoot the handgun he invariably carries. To the houndsman, the safety of his valuable hounds always comes first, and if things get out of hand after a sloppy hit, he won’t hesitate to intervene. Check regulations for the state you will be hunting, as many have strict stipulations as to what constitutes a legal cartridge, normally based on case length. For instance, a .45 Auto might prove illegal, but a .357 Magnum legal due to a longer case length (despite both producing comparable energy levels). There’s no such thing as overkill in the handgun world, but the flinch factor does mean too much of a good thing can affect accuracy. Choose a cartridge based on realistic shooting abilities and not ego.
For the bowhunter, the obvious choice is a takedown recurve or longbow that makes it easy to stash in your daypack, and assemble it once your cat is safely up a tree. Like handguns, traditional bows can require additional range time to master, so practice accordingly, assuring competence to at least 20 yards, or suffer through the added inconvenience of toting your fully-rigged compound. The traditional bowhunter can also build take-down arrows by cutting a 2117 aluminum in half, using a 3-inch length of 2013 aluminum, cemented into the rear portion of the main arrow to act as a tight take-down sleeve. I keep mine in a homemade, 4-inch PVC tube case with broadheads attached. They’ve proved accurate enough to shoot targets as small as bobcats with.
If you opt for a compound bow, employ a soft case to protect from bumps and bangs. Choosing a compound really depends on the type of hunt expected, as riding on machinery of any kind makes keeping it handy easier; as opposed to horseback riding, when keeping a compound bow on hand can prove highly annoying, or even endanger equipment health. Also, cougars in some areas (mostly desert areas with fewer trees) sometimes bay in rock, fighting hounds on solid ground, with some even seeking refuge in caves. These are dangerous times for the hound, and shooting can prove trickier. Killing a hound is highly frowned upon. Talk with your outfitter about this possibility, making a bow choice based on your realistic shooting abilities as they pertain to bow style.
If you’re looking for the easy score, hound-dogging isn’t for you. If, instead, you seek real adventure, sport as old as the hunt itself, and a pure adrenaline rush unlike any other in hunting, this mode of operation can be a revelation. Like baseball, not every trip to the plate results in a homerun. This is understood from the outset or everything to follow is rendered worthless. Don’t allow preconceived notions or the opinions of the blatantly uninformed to deter you any longer; experience the primal thrill that comes with the singing of the hounds.