By Patrick Meitin
Boone and Crockett-quality mountain lions continue to be taken each winter up and down the Rocky Mountains. Records from the prestigious club show that many of the best have been entered only recently, proving that there is no time of the “good old days” of lion hunting better than today.
Careful management practices implemented in every Western state in recent times mean that you are as likely to take a pumpkin-headed cougar today as in your granddad’s era. It’s true that some states produce more 15-inch-plus mountain lion skulls than others, but chances are there is a record-book cat roaming the mountains or desert not too far from your home.
Many states show us that a big-headed cat is apt to come from any portion of any Rocky Mountain state, but some areas stand out conspicuously above others. Genetics are a highly important element in producing record-book-qualifying cats, of course, but so is a large and stable food base. The best areas are normally also the best deer hunting areas, and in some cases, the best elk areas. In states where making a living hunting is most difficult, record-book lion entries are lowest. Wyoming might stand as the single exception to this rule.
Just for the record, the very best lions in overall B&C listings from each Rocky Mountain state are as follows: A No. 2 all-time B&C cat from Idaho scoring 16 3/16 inches; a No. 3 all-time from Wyoming scoring 16 1/16; a No. 5 16-inch cat from Utah; a 16-inch No. 6 from Colorado; a No. 17 15 12/16-incher from Montana; a No. 42 15 9/15 from New Mexico; a No. 50 15 9/16 from Nevada; and a No. 70 15 8/16 from Arizona.
It’s interesting to note that generally (Wyoming is a glaring exception) the biggest cats also came from those states with the highest number of B&C entries. With that in mind, I have arranged each state in order of the largest number of B&C entries and the county in which the highest numbers of that state’s Top 10 record-book cats have emerged in recent years.
If a Boone & Crockett record-book mountain lion were something I just couldn’t live without, I would book a hunt in Idaho, and Idaho County in particular.
According to the latest B&C records, the Gem State has the highest number of B&C-quality cats, at 130. Picking a spot within this state is easy, as five of the state’s Top 10 cats, including a monstrous 16 3/16-inch cat that holds the No. 2 all-time B&C spot, came from Idaho County. I am not a betting man, but my money is on Idaho and Idaho County for the very best cats in the United States.
Idaho County includes some of the most rugged country in the entire state. There’s Hell’s Canyon to the west, the Salmon River Mountains and portions of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to the south, and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the north and east. This is huge country with plenty of true wilderness. Access is difficult even during the best of times. During winter months, when snow piles deep, it can be next to impossible.
The most successful hunters use snowmobiles to traverse limited roads and open areas. Snowshoes and plenty of stamina are used in areas where machines cannot go.
The area provides a veritable cornucopia of food, including abundant deer, elk, bighorn sheep and small game. Its sheer remoteness, obviously great genetics, and this smorgasbord of food create the perfect setting for behemoth mountain lions.
The Big Sky State is not far behind Idaho for the highest incidence of B&C record-book mountain lion entries. Montana currently has 126 mountain lions under its name, the biggest a 15 12/16-inch cat from Lincoln County. Lincoln County also so happens to own three of the state’s Top 10 cats.
Even if Montana were to catch Idaho in overall entries this winter, I would still give Idaho a decided edge because of overall higher average scores. That said, Montana is still a world-class destination for bushel-basket-headed lions.
Lincoln County comprises the extreme northwestern corner of the state, tight to British Columbia, Canada – the best trophy-producing mountain lion area in all of North America. This is extremely rough-and-tumble country, with valleys full of deer below mountain ranges such as the Cabinets to the south, the Rocky Mountains proper to the east, the Purcell Mountains dead center.
A big cat would have little trouble finding something to eat in this area. The area is rich in white-tailed and mule deer, large herds of elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
A great majority of the cats taken in this area are tagged early in the season when roads are still passable and hunters can cover more ground, but some of the best might be found later, when snows deepen in the high country and push prey species and the cats out of high-country wilderness to lower elevations. This is when snowmobiles and snowshoes come into play, plus lots of hard work. But the rewards are often well worth the extra effort and discomfort.
Colorado remains a top-notch lion-hunting destination, with 109 total B&C entries. Colorado is the exception to the rule of finite hotspots, as the list of Top 10s comes from nearly every mountainous portion of the state. The state’s best cat, however, scoring right at 16 inches, came from Archuleta County east of Durango. Forced to become more specific in a hotspot, Mesa and Rio Blanco counties each own two of the Top 10 cats taken in the state. Of these those cats, those from Mesa County have been entered most recently.
In west-central Colorado, Mesa County includes some of the best deer hunting on the western front of the state, a land that is highly varied, from sagebrush canyon country to high mountains spilling from the Uncompahgre Plateau and Grand Mesa. Access is generally quite good, even late into the season when lions travel from less accessible high country to follow deer and elk herds to lower elevations. Drier winters have made 4-wheel-drive hunting possible, but those with snowmobiles are able to cover a great deal of ground on the area’s abundant roads later in the season, chasing cats on foot once the hounds have struck.
Choosing an area is a simple matter of finding concentrations of deer. Lions will not be too far behind.
With 87 total cats showing in current B&C records, Utah is a great bet for bragging-sized mountain lions. The Beehive State is another toss-up destination, with big heads coming from every corner of its borders. Four of the state’s Top 10 cats have come from Carbon County, while Garfield County produced the state’s No. 1 and No. 3 cats. I will go with quantity, assuming the top spots could change given time.
Carbon County is small compared to others in the state, making its high number of B&C entries that much more impressive. Surrounding the city of Price, the county includes the foothills of the Manti La Sal National Forest on the west, and the Roan Cliffs and West Tavaputs Plateau on the east. It varies from oak and cedar mountains to sage desert and canyon lands.
Lion hunting is more tightly controlled in Utah than many other Western states. Licenses are available only through a drawing.
The varied terrain allows hunters to hunt from 4-wd trucks, cruising high country during early portions of the season and lower elevations as winter snows arrive. This not only becomes a practical means of avoiding getting a vehicle stuck but also for following deer herds as snow forces them into lower country as the season progresses. Cats are where their food is, and that food means mule deer.
Rio Arriba County
There is absolutely no doubt that northwestern New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County is the place to go if in the market for an exceptional cat in this state, not only holding the top four spots for cougar state records, but also five of the Top 10 spots. The Land of Enchantment accounts for 50 of the mountain lions in the most recent list of B&C entries. It is also interesting to note that Colorado’s very best cat came not 70 air miles from here.
This is New Mexico’s best trophy mule deer territory, and also home to the famous Jicarilla Apache Reservation, where some of the nation’s biggest mulies come from each year. It varies from some of New Mexico’s most lush high alpine habitat, to roughly beautiful sage desert and canyon badlands. Much of it is crisscrossed by abundant oil and natural gas maintenance roads, so it is normally easy to cover a great deal of ground looking for trophy-sized pugmarks on which to turn hounds loose.
The Cowboy State has produced only 23 B&C cats, one of these No. 3 overall and coming from Park County, bordering Yellowstone National Park. Many of the Top 10 Wyoming mountain lions have come from Carbon County, tight to the Colorado border just north of Steamboat Springs, but a single hunter took most of those in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I actually had to reach farther back into the listings to find a pattern of recent listings that suggest Park County as the place to hunt lions in Wyoming today.
Yellowstone National Park acts as a buffer against the state’s aggressive lion control. Hunters do get a crack at game and the lions that feed on those prey animals as they spill out of the adjacent park and into state and non-park federal lands. The Shoshone National Forest and Absaroka Range to the south are also some of the roughest country in the state, offering difficult access, especially during winter months. This area of the state offers unlimited deer, elk and sheep feed for hunting lions, and recent listings suggest lion hunting should continue to get better in seasons to come.
Nevada ties with Arizona for the lowest number of B&C record-book-quality mountain lions. Twenty B&C cats have been taken here.
The Silver State is a tough place to make a living hunting, and with this in mind it is no wonder that Elko County, one of the state’s best deer-hunting areas, has produced six of Nevada’s Top 10 lions. Pope & Young cats (13.5-inch minimum) are much more common.
Elko County is a huge chunk of real estate, larger than some eastern states, occupying the entire northeast corner of the state. In addition to deer there are good numbers of elk here as well. It is made of an endless series of north-south running mountains, narrow but rough ranges such as the Pequip Mountains to the east, East Humboldt Range, Independence Mountains, Tuscarora Mountains to the west, and Jarbidge Range to the north.
Game managers have suggested that many big cats are taken in this area that are never entered in record books, and that they believe that 20 total B&C cats seems low in an area with mountain ranges that may not be hunted for years at a time. Too, Nevada, like Arizona, often means hunting on dry ground, and this could provide much of the discrepancy in the numbers. Any decent hound can catch a lion in snow. It takes a real dog to do so on bare earth.
With only 20 B&C cats under its name, the Grand Canyon State is not a top B&C-producing area. This is not to say that archers should be discouraged, as Pope & Young-quality cats are common. Four of Arizona’s Top 10 cats have come from Gila County, making this the best bet for a trophy lion.
Gila County comprises most of Arizona’s most productive game country, including a goodly portion of the game-rich White Mountain Apache Reservation and the Natanes Plateau portion of the San Carlos Apache Reservation, the Sierra Ancha Mountains on the U.S. Forest Service side, Mazatzal Mountains and the base of the Mogollon Plateau near Pine. My good friend Tom David of Summit Outfitting hunts Fort Apache, and says every mature tom he has taken over the years scores well into P&Y records.
There are few greater thrills in hunting than finding a series of pie-plate-sized lion tracks over fresh snow, turning hounds loose to hear them tune up in song as ancient as the hunt itself, trudging on as banshee voices recede into a dark canyon or over a lung-busting ridge. It can become a grueling experience when the mountains rear upward wickedly, the snow grows deeper and heavier with each labored step, and the trail seems to never end. But when the hounds scream “treed” that sudden burst of adrenaline that gets you under the tree, that first sight of the West’s most majestic and mysterious game animal perched in a tree or on a cliff point, is something you will never forget.
Lion hunting is like baseball. Not every turn at the plate results in a home run, but we keep on trying. When all the hard work, fruitless days and lost hope finally result in success is when we best understand what it is to be a hunter.
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