Cats, Dogs and Mixed Emotions: Hunting Mountain Lions with Hounds.

You will be thrilled. You will be shaken and stirred. As the guide opens the cages, and the dogs jump out, already absorbed by the smell of their perpetual feline enemy, give chase and disappear in the wood, your body will be pumped full not just of adrenaline, but of a whole cocktail of hormones telling you to run, hide, chase, attack, all at the same time. No matter whether you come from a few generations of hunters, or are a confirmed vegan, the voices of the hounds at full cry, large footprints over fresh snow, and the awareness that a big cat is lurking somewhere near will be enough to arouse the most ancient emotions in your mind.

Cats, especially big cats, stir a bunch of mixed feelings from the wish to hug and kiss to Kipling’s “three men out of five will throw something at the cat when they see him”. This may be due to the ambiguous role the felines played in our evolution. On the one hand, anthropologists believe that our earliest hominid ancestors made a living out of mammoth and mastodon carcasses left over from sabertooth tiger kills. On the other hand, humans have themselves served as prey for lions, tigers, and leopards. cougar_silentmountain2With dogs it’s a big more straightforward: we wouldn’t be where we are without them, and dogs wouldn’t be there without us. Cooperation with canines allowed our ancestors to feel more secure, procure food with less effort, and allocate more resources to develop other civilizational advances. Barring a few African outfitters who hunt leopards in this manner, the pursuit of mountain lions with packs of hounds is the only way to arouse the most ancient emotions by putting big cats and dogs together.

You will be bored. Like other types of hunting, such as baiting or waiting on a high seat, this pursuit has its share of routine, repetitive tasks and periods of inaction. Before you can set the hounds on a trail, you’ll have to find tracks – and not just any tracks, you’ll be looking for a large solitary animal – a male for choice. You’ll usually have to cover miles and miles of backcountry roads by 4×4, ATV or snowmobile before you find one. And sometimes simply wait for your guide, after they’ve said “Just wanna do a quick check up there, I’ll be right back” and disappeared into the woods. A few hours later, you’ll be muttering the line from that old horror flick parody: “and never, ever say “I’ll be right back” – you won’t be”. Or, you’ll be thinking of nothing in particular, just watching the motionless mountain landscape disappear as the ice from your breath gathers over the cold truck window.

Mountain lion, cougar, puma or whatever name you want to call it, is the fourth largest cat species in the world, and the biggest “true cat” (that is, member of subfamily Felidae, along with domestic cats). The species was driven to near extinction in many parts of North America by the early XX century, but is making a spectacular comeback as setting hunting quotas, planting forests, fighting natural forest fires, and agricultural development resulted in exceptional number of deer and elk, cougar’s staple food. Today, ten American states (Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, North Dakota and Texas) and two Canadian provinces (British Columbia and Alberta) consider cougar numerous enough to allow hunting over hounds. cougar_trackThe where and when you want to go mountain lion hunting mostly depends on one variable: weather. Where there’s no snow, it is more difficult to see the tracks, and only the best hounds and houndsmen are consistently successful on dry ground. In areas where the hunts are conducted in snow, snow conditions play a big role in the ability to find tracks and successfully track a cat. For this reason, “on-call” hunts, when the client waits for the outfitter’s message to come and hunt are sometimes a good option.

You will be relieved. When you finally see the large pugmarks on the snow, and the few torturous moments as the guide examines the tracks to make sure the tom is worth following, you may feel that the hardest part of the hunt is over. You’ll be terribly mistaken if you do. Between the moment when the dogs are released from their cages in the back of the truck and cast on the trail, and the time when you actually see the cougar, you may find yourself standing there, holding on a tree, covered with sweat, gasping for breath and going “What am I doing here?”

Mountain lion attacks on humans increased dramatically in the recent years. Still, for its size,  ability and distribution, the mostly shy and elusive cougar kills or maims a surprisingly small number of people. If North America was home to the same amount of leopards, the death toll would probably run into four figures each year. This is most likely because the pumas met us rather late in their evolutionary history. And the first humans that faced the mountain lions were able and competent hunters, who would fight back or avenge every attack, and so confirmed the puma’s suspicion that the newcomers were not acceptable as prey. cougar_silentmountainIt’s essential that the hunting pressure is to continue, and the mountain lions keep identifying humans with danger. Otherwise, the number of children and adults killed by pumas may grow out of proportion. Do you think it’s a coincidence that in California, where mountain lion hunting was banned, the number of human-lion conflict is growing at an alarming rate?

You will be tired. You’ve read of the stories where the hounds tree the mountain lion just a few steps from the road. But yours most likely will be different. The trail might not be very fresh with the big cat far ahead, and as soon as the big old wary tom hears the hounds in full cry, it will take off, trying to shake off the pursuit. And what ground will it make you go through! The bigger and older the cougar, the steeper slopes, the bigger boulders, the deeper snow, and the denser wood it will pick to make its escape. You’d never do the same course in the same time if there was an Olympic medal or a million dollars waiting for you at the other end.  But the voices of the hounds baying at a cat they treed will push you harder than a hydraulic press.

There are many people who would want to see hunting cougars with hounds banned. And it’s not only about the lions, but about the dogs too. The events don’t always follow their usual course – occasionally a cougar, when there’s no suitable tree, or for any other reason, decides to settle the dispute in a melee. The cat is bigger, stronger and better armed than any single hound, and will turn out a winner out of any one-on-one. The worst scenario is when the hunter makes a bad shot and the wounded puma lands right between the overexcited hounds, with no option than to make the pack’s victory Pyrrhic. cougar_houndsandcat_newmexicoprofessionalWhere wolves are abundant, they sometimes intercept and kill hounds, who are usually too preoccupied with the smell of the cat to resist successfully. Quite a lot of people believe it is irresponsible and cruel to subject dogs to this unavoidable risk of injury and death. But the dogs are passionate and love the chase, and would choose the perils and pleasures of the mountains over the safety and comfort of the kennel any time.

You will be ecstatic. When the long and weary chase comes to its closing stage, and you advance to the tree under which the dogs are barking in excitement, sometimes jumping on the low branches, you will be trembling with both fatigue and emotions. And the silhouette of the cat on the treetop will be forever imprinted in your memory. Your weapon will be shaking in your weary hands as you look into the mountain lion’s eyes. As it bares its teeth at you, all talk about “poor defenseless animals” will feel unnatural and redundant. In fact, no such thought will run through your head. All you’’ll be concerned about is how to put a nice full stop to the long and weary chase and give the magnificent animal a quick and clean death.  

Hunting mountain lions is a perfect example of the statement “there’s much more to hunt than the kill”. Killing a treed cougar is, indeed, not too difficult. What other large feline can be reliably harvested with a handgun? Using a bow is also possible, if discouraged by most outfitters, who seem to prefer a light, compact carbine in a modest cartridge like the old tried-and true .30-30. It is getting the animal in your sights that is a problem. You can’t bait a cougar, as it feeds only on the animals it killed itself. It’s too secretive and nocturnal to be an appropriate object for stalk-and-spot techniques, and most states prohibit night hunting anyway. Calling is possible but success is very rare and even if a cat is enticed to come in you will have a hard time determining the size. cougar_hounds_canyonrimSo, a pack of hounds remain the best option for hunting mountain lions. It doesn’t take a lot of dogs. Most mountain lion guides are convinced that a big pack of hounds is a waste of time and animals. Three well-trained dogs are enough to tree any cat. Four or five are sometimes released just to make sure; a bigger number is totally unnecessary. However, not everyone has the time, energy and access to the mountains to train a good pack of hounds. Thus, for most of us, a mountain lion hunt is impossible without an outfitter.

You’ll be longing to come back. Many a hunter started their first mountain lion hunt thinking in line with the so-called “common knowledge” – that it was an easy walk through the mountains and the dogs do all the work. Many a hunter returned from the hunt and said it was absolutely the hardest and most demanding ordeal they ever went through. And as usual with hunters, the harder you have to work for your trophy, the more it stirs your emotions and the more you will want to endure it just one more time.

All articles on mountain lion hunting end with a list of questions you have to ask the outfitter or guide before signing in. These questions include: are you going to be the only hunter with the guide and pack of hounds? what’s the camp’s success rate? what is and isn’t included in the price? can you stay for a few extra days if the weather works against you? is it tom-only or any-cat hunt (this shows whether the guides are confident in their ability to judge the sex and age of the animal from the tracks), and so on. Now, if you look on mountain lion hunts featured on the BookYourHunt platform, you’ll discover that most of the questions have already been answered in the hunt description. And for the rest, it’s easy to find the answers using our chat system. Feel the thrill of the chase and discover mountain lion hunting with BookYourHunt!

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