October 04, 2010
If you're looking for a cougar this year, check out these Rocky Mountain hot spots for your best chances of seeing a trophy cat in a tree. With mountain lion numbers on the rise, now is a good time to put your tag on one.
Author Patrick Meitin not only spotted this cat without hounds but he also made a successful stalk on to get within bow range. Photo by Patrick Meitin
By Patrick Meitin
I wipe the sleep from my eyes, sitting sleepily in a creaking saddle atop the sturdy black mule, the camp trailer squatted beside the sagging stock corrals still distantly visible, the sky washed blue and free of clouds. And then, abruptly and unexpectedly, the hounds are tuning up and dashing about like a bucket of rubber balls spilled across rock-strewn terrain.
Shad Leeder, son of outfitter Charlie Leeder, has vaulted from his flop-eared mule and knelt to inspect the sharp-edged track in the sandy, rain-smoothed wash, deeming the cat worthy of a chase. The hounds' urgent voices meld into one great singing cacophony, the black and brown and white and bluetick and red-tick-speckled bodies flowing over the cedar hills as smoothly as rainwater over rock. We shove the mules across restless, slide-rock hills, riding recklessly, called on by the siren's song of sweet hound music.
It's the first day.
Last time there were 12 physically exhausting, mentally frustrating, weather-cursed, frost-bitten days in the saddle, atop snow machines, afoot. That was a month ago. Now there's no sign of those waist-deep snows and sub-zero temperatures. Today is perfect in every way. The singing hounds make it more so.
Cresting the second shale ridge, the hounds are no longer retreating, their cries more urgent, an emphatic proclamation sang proud and clear across the deep desert canyons, the bass and alto and soprano cries melded into frenzied celebration. The cat is treed.
GRAND CANYON STATE COUGARS
Arizona shows only a dozen cougars in Boone & Crockett records, these not until well into the listings. A quick glance through Pope & Young archery records tells a different story. The state has plenty of cats, but is much drier than other lion habitat, providing more difficult trailing conditions. The one exception is the White Mountains of east-central Arizona. The White Mountains are classic alpine habitat with tall pines and endless foothills, where deer, elk and wild horses provide plenty of food to grow exceptional cats.
Fort Apache, or the White Mountain Apache Reservation, dominates the White Mountains. This is not only a noted Rocky Mountain elk trophy haven - if you can afford the price of admission - or one of the country's top B&C black bear producers, but has an excellent population of trophy-sized mountain lions. Tom David of Summit Outfitting is one of a select few to have hunting rights on the 1.6 million-acre hunting paradise, and has seasoned hounds to trail your trophy cat.
David hunts following heavy snows, typically by December, often running through March, traveling the extensive network of logging roads, allowing a lot of ground to be covered quickly in search of the biggest tracks. "Those White Mountain cats have no problem taking down elk. As anyone knows, there's no shortage of elk in that country. I've seen where a big tom took down a 7x7 bull. Just about any male cat we catch easily makes Pope & Young."
To secure your spot this winter contact Tom David, Summit Outfitting, (800) 999-3976.
CENTENNIAL STATE PUMPKINHEADS
Colorado has nearly 55 Boone & Crockett cats to its name, including two 15 12/16-inch cats from Mesa County that make the book's Top 10 all-time list. Fulldraw Outfitters out of Trinidad has one of the best track records in the state for big cats.
Don Hamilton, Rob Pedretti and Fred Eichler make up the houndsman team, hunting private lands in south-central Colorado. These ranches consist of sprawling Spanish land grant properties where the partners have exclusive lion hunting rights, eliminating the competition of public areas. During the past 10 years, these hardcore houndsmen have taken more than 300 lions, with a handful of these making B&C, the majority of them Pope & Young.
They use snowmobiles, 4WDs and ATVs to traverse the extensive road systems. Fulldraw's cold-nosed hounds can trail on dry ground during periods without snow of early dates starting Nov. 15, and closer to the season close of March 31. December through February dates assure snow, and oftentimes, easier hunting. Though this is not a wilderness hunt, Eichler says being in good shape makes your hunt more enjoyable.
Contact Fred Eichler, Fulldraw Outfitters, 32817 Lake View Road, Trinidad, CO 81082; (719) 846-2545, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their Web site at www.fulldrawoutfitters.net.
GEM STATE TABBIES
Idaho produces more B&C cats than any other state, with nearly 80, including the all-time No. 2 cat, a 16 3/16-inch monster from Idaho County. Huge cats are taken from one end of the state to the other, but the majority comes from areas where logistics are difficult and luck is required.
Dale Denny, BearPaw Outfitters, hunts near the Wyoming/Utah corner of the state where the going is easier. Denny hunts the winter months, from Nov. 10 through December, and uses 4WDs to cover abundant mountain roads before snows deepen and make travel impossible without snowmobiles. This also means you don't have to be in marathon shape to be successful.
This is rugged mountain country with elevations ranging from 5,000 feet in the valleys to 9,000 feet on mountain peaks, covered in firs, pines, aspen, sage and maple. Hard- driving hounds assure your cat goes up a tree quickly. Plentiful deer, elk and even moose assure abundant food and top-end skulls, with B&C cats taken only infrequently, but average adult toms making P&Y easily.
Contact Dale Denny, BearPaw Outfitters, 345 Highway 20 E, #A, Colville, WA 99114; (509) 684-6294, or visit his Web site at www.bearpawoutfitters.com.
BIG SKY MONSTERS
Montana has plenty of big cats and the second best showing in Boone & Crockett. Nearly 65 book cats appear under Montana's name, the best a Top 10 entry from Lincoln County scoring 15 12/16.
Jeff Herbert, assistant chief of the Wildlife Division of Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says the highest lion quotas and highest cat density are found in Region 1, the Kalispell area in northwest Montana. Not only are there a lot of cats here, but s
ome of the biggest. Part of the Rocky Mountains proper, it also supports healthy populations of mule and whitetail deer, elk and moose, providing a huge food base and heavy-bodied cats.
Some of the best cat hunting here includes the Purcell Mountains, the Cabinet Mountains and Cabinet Mountain Wilderness of the Kootenai National Forest, and adjacent Flathead National Forest nearer to Kalispell. This is greatly varied country, from large river valleys like the Yaak, Kootenai and Flathead forks, swarming with whitetail deer, to higher alpine habitat to 7,500 feet. Fir and spruce cover is thick, and snow in the winter is the rule, making snowmobiles and snowshoes par for the course.
Non-resident "hound handler" permits will now be limited in Montana, relieving hunting pressure somewhat.
New Mexico boasts nearly 30 B&C cats, with the state's top tom showing up within the first 25 entries. The best are normally found in mesa country along the Colorado border where deer numbers are high.
With few exceptions New Mexico cat areas operate under strict quotas. Meeting quotas means an immediate closure of hunting in the area. Northern trophy hotspots have some of the lowest quotas in the state, a situation that sometimes means a close to hunting soon after the season opener.
Farther south, in the Gila region, lion numbers are higher. Lion quotas are higher as well: 38 in the Gila region as opposed to only 18 in northwestern areas, for example. This creates more opportunity; the ability to make plans later into the season when tracking snow is likely.
One of the best houndsmen in southwest New Mexico is Billy Lee of Mimbres Outfitters. He owns fine-tuned hounds able to push a track over dry ground, so you won't have to count on sporadic snows for success. Lee owns sturdy mules to take hunters into the most remote areas of the Gila Wilderness were hunting pressure is lighter. He also has long-time ties to the area that keeps him in touch with local ranchers with problem cats that need to be taken out.
Contact Billy Lee, Mimbres Outfitters, Rt. 15, Box 497, Mimbres, NM 88049; (505) 536-9685.
SILVER STATE OPPORTUNITIES
Nevada shows only five B&C cats to its name. Sid Eaton, mountain lion biologist for the Elko area, contributes this to a lack of hunters more than a lack of big lions. He contends that there are huge cats in Nevada's more obscure mountain ranges that are simply not being hunted. Eaton says populations are so high today that the state now offers two tags per hunter.
He recommends several ranges in the eastern portion of the state, the Independence Mountains north of Elko, the Ruby Mountains south, and connecting Spruce Mountains. These units become especially productive when deer migrate into lower sage country with winter snows. The Rubies are surrounded by private land, but area ranchers normally welcome lion hunters.
Eaton says many ranges are simply not being hunted with harvest quotas left wide open at season's end, and the potential for big cats high. He points to the Ely area and the Shell Creek and Cherry Creek ranges for such situations. Another great area includes the Diamond Mountains near Eureka. He says guides haven't been working the area recently, and harvest has been low, but lions there average more than 4 years old, with some toms weighing as much as 180 pounds.
BEE HIVE BEHEMOTHS
Utah has more than 35 record-book mountain lion entries, including No. 4, a 16-inch cat from Garfield County. To have numbers of lions you need healthy herds of deer, and Utah has done a great job of managing its herds.
One of the best sleeper areas for huge mule deer bucks is the Cedar City area surrounded by portions of the Dixie National Forest. The area also holds some of the best lion hunting in the state.
Charlie Leeder lives and hunts right in the middle of this area, and has one of the best packs of hounds I have ever hunted behind. These are hounds that need no snow to operate, cold-nosed dogs that work dry ground as easily as snow. Leeder is so confident in his area and hounds that if you fail to tag your cat during a 10-day hunt you are welcomed back for another try on his tab. Few hunters go home without a tabby.
Leeder hunts aboard well-behaved mules, from 4WD trucks where possible, or from snowmobiles during winter months, traversing high pine forest during early season dates, or lower cedar and sage foothills later.
Hunters must draw a tag in the lottery system, but odds are very good. See number above to contact Utah Division of Wildlife Resources for information on application deadlines. Contact Charlie Leeder at P.O. Box 551, New Harmony, UT 84757; (435) 586-9124.
COWBOY STATE CATS
Wyoming has one super cat, a tom wearing a 16 1/16-inch skull, but no other entries showing until well into the listings. That won't stop you from killing a big cat here. It merely means big cats aren't as prevalent in Wyoming as smaller specimens.
Bigger cats are normally found away from ranching centers (where depredation kills are common) and toms are able to grow to their full potential. With this in mind, the Pinedale area and Sublette County in west-central Wyoming becomes an obvious choice. This area offers a great variety of habitat, from some of the state's highest, most rugged country, to sagebrush badlands where deer, and consequently, lions, will be found later in the season.
The best high country in the area includes the Wind River and Salt River ranges, big country with few roads, for hunters willing to hike or penetrate huge chunks of rough terrain horseback. Few roads can be found in these areas as well, but bigger cats will appear the farther from civilization you travel, the extra effort rewarded with a better chance at a record-book skull.
Later in the season, when snows push game to lower elevations, the breaks along the Green River become a prime attraction. Much of these lands are private, but lion-hunting permission is easily gained.
Wyoming cats are generally hunted from September through August or March, depending on area, and permits can be had over the counter.
BACK TO THE HUNT
The suspense is not in the kill; it comes from the hunt, the pursuit, the long days in the saddle, searching for a virtual ghost, a reclusive, secretive animal seldom seen by anyone except a hunter following hounds. The kill is only a reward for enduring the long miles, the many days of uncertainty, the false starts that make you hope and bring your emotions crashing down and, most of all, the weather.
The take-down recurve bow and arrows go together in a minute, and I can hardly miss at the range the stunted cedar provides as I step beneath to find a sh
ooting hole, find my anchor. It is anything but anticlimactic, which seems to accompany so many successful cat tales. The death of the great cat is a culmination of many years, many days, too many hours to inventory, of sweat and blood and tears in quantity.
To take a mountain lion is to touch pure wildness, a wildness that is all too difficult to capture in the times we live in. When I bend to touch my own cat, I can't help but say a small prayer of thanks to whoever might be listening. It's the very least I can offer.
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