Look out, Harv! You’re about to get wet!” I shouted, as I watched the golden stream of urine (backlit by the bright morning sun) descend from on high. The lion’s aim was perfect! Poor Harv didn’t have a chance to get out of the way in time. He sputtered a few choice words and immediately began tearing off his jacket. The hounds began barking furiously again — almost as if they were laughing at the stunt their quarry had just pulled off on their master.
Before I put the paragraph above into proper context for the full story, I want to give my readers an overview of hound-hunting in general, and cougar hunting, in particular. It is perhaps the most misunderstood kind of big-game hunting on the continent.
The Tree of the Golden Shower.
The cougar, much like the polar bear, has in recent years been made into an iconic symbol of our vanishing wilderness: portrayed as a noble creature fighting to survive the destruction we humans have visited upon its environment.
Unfortunately, that is a rather distorted view of the facts, which is not surprising, since it is promoted by the more radical environmentalists, as well as by most of the acolytes of the new, modern religion of political correctness.
These are often the same people.
Unlike the situation with cougars, which are impossible to do aerial surveys on for any kind of population count, polar bears live in a habitat that makes census counts from the air quite easy by comparison. In the case of the great white bears, the survey data generated since the turn of the millennium clearly shows that their numbers are sustaining healthy increases in most of their historic range. That is especially true in nearly all parts of Canada’s Northwest Territories, which ironically, is the only area of North America that has allowed any sport hunting of the bears since the early 1970’s. This fact may seem implausible to the reader, but it becomes immediately understandable when two additional facts are laid on the table: (1) the overwhelming majority of bears taken by hunters are males, and (2) large adult male bears kill several cubs and smaller adult males every single year. Exactly the same can be said of male lions in North America.
With cougars, you have a very different set of factors that have contributed to a significant increase of their numbers in recent years — throughout most of their historic range west of the Great Plains. The animal, by nature, is exceedingly shy and secretive. During the first several hundred years of the White Man’s presence in North America, cougar attacks on human beings were virtually unheard of. It used to be that a hunter could spend a lifetime of autumns out in the field and never even catch a glimpse of a lion. Nowadays, however, stumbling across one in the woods is becoming rather common throughout most of the Rocky Mountain West. More alarming is the hard fact that cougar attacks against people are no longer rare, isolated incidences. Household pets, young children, and joggers are becoming periodic targets — from western Montana to western Washington and from the mountains of Colorado to the suburbs of Los Angeles. Human deaths are now occurring in a way they never used to and the stage is set for many more in the years ahead.
A good friend of mine is the well-known wildlife photographer, Chuck Bartlett. Several years ago, Chuck was photographing Roosevelt Elk one day in the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula, when a cougar came out of nowhere to give him the fright of his life. He had his camera attached to a tall tripod and was bending over it, about to take a picture. A slight sound he heard directly behind him caused him to glance over his shoulder, just in time to see a mountain lion in midair, about to take him to the ground. He had only a fraction of a second to spin around and interpose the tripod between himself and the flying cat that had just launched itself off the top of a bank. Evidently, its unexpected collision with the stout, metal tripod caused the cougar enough discomfort that it just kept running and did not return to attack again.
Why has this sort of thing been happening with greater and greater frequency in recent years? There are, of course, several contributing factors, but the point is that cougar numbers out West are going up, not down, and the overriding cause of increasing lion attacks is that they are no longer being hunted enough by sportsmen, especially via the time-honored method of hound-hunting. Wild-dogs-chasing-wild-cats long predates human history, but Man learned many centuries ago that trained canines were the only means by which he had any realistic chance of catching up to a wily wildcat.
For the better part of twenty years now, it seems that hunting lions with dogs has been regarded by the public at large as unsporting. Sadly, this misconception has been embraced by a number of hunters, as well. These are hunters who have never hunted cougars themselves and who have bought off, unfortunately, on the uninformed propaganda put out by the anti-hunters. As a result, animal-rights groups have succeeded in pushing some state legislatures into curtailing severely the hunting of lions: either by drastically shortening the seasons or by eliminating pursuit with hounds altogether. In other states, legislatures and government agencies have been circumvented by animal-rights organizations that managed to collect enough signatures to get initiative petitions on the ballot at election time. Then the voting public has unwisely decided, in several states, to substitute its judgment for that of the game biologists and wildlife professionals.
It’s not, of course, that the voters don’t have the right to make such decisions under our federalist system of States Rights; it’s just that the general public doesn’t have access to the knowledge, scientific data and larger overview required to manage the different game species in such a way as to keep their numbers in balance with their available habitat. The other important balance that must be maintained through enlightened wildlife management, is that between the predator animals and the animals of prey. Neither balance can be achieved or maintained without the other. It is always a complex, two-headed challenge for the wildlife professionals and that is why game management “by ballot box” is nearly always a bad idea.
Prior to the date of the hunting story we broke away from earlier, I had previously harvested two tom cougars with my bows. Neither male had been quite large enough to meet the Pope & Young minimum entry-score, so my interest in taking a third cougar was predicated solely on the assumption that sooner or later, with enough persistence and determination, I could end up under a tree with an old tom in it that would unquestionably “make book.” This is one definition of “trophy hunting” and it’s one that works for me, most of the time.
When, in the spring of 2005, I contacted Mike Ritcey of Bearcat Outfitters, based in Kamloops, B.C., it was primarily to arrange for a lynx--bobcat combo hunt. I had never taken either species of predator and I was keen to make the attempt for either one or both. If we just happened to run across the tracks of a big mountain lion, in the process, then I told Mike I was game for that, too. However, I made it clear to the outfitter that I really had no wish to take another male lion, just to be taking another male lion. It needed to have a skull on it which he felt confident would score 14 inches or better. Otherwise, I wasn’t interested and would let him go free, to kill again like any good predator. Mike said he understood what I had in mind and we scheduled the hunt for early December, 2005.
Ritcey and his partner, Harv Surina, do much of their cat hunting on the huge Douglas Lake Cattle Ranch in south-central B.C. Four or five days before I was to arrive for my hunt, they got a big dump of fresh snow up in that area. From six inches to a foot, depending on the elevation. This meant conditions were ideal for finding fresh cat tracks and setting the hounds on them in pursuit. Mike called me right after the fresh snowfall, but the problem was that I had some conflicts and couldn’t get away early for the hunt, at least not more than one day early. By the time I arrived there a bit after dark one evening, the snow was three days old and there were hardly ten square yards of ground that weren’t already heavily crisscrossed with all sorts of critter-tracks. Most numerous were the deer and coyote tracks, of course, but everything from squirrel, to rabbit, to porcupine had also been thrown into the mix.
Because the Douglas Lake Ranch owners are most desirous of predator control on their vast property, they allow Bearcat Outfitters to use as a base for their hunting operations a nifty little house on the ranch, one that comes complete with modern plumbing, hot water, a full kitchen and a dog-kennel out back. When I drove in that first night, the sky was mostly clear and the temperature was already down to 5-degrees above zero. I knew the hunt was going to be a cold one and fortunately I had come prepared for readings down to ten-below. At least, I hoped so. I knew my boots and clothing were going to be tested, for sure.
Mike and Harv greeted me at the door and their good news was that they knew where a nice tom cougar was hanging out on a fresh deer kill, not too far away. Having already treed him once with the dogs and let him go, they seemed confident we could quickly relocate him the next morning. Mike explained that he might not be the lion I was looking for, but he assured me it was one most of his clients would be happy with. Following dinner, as he was preparing to turn off the lights, Mike said, “Dennis, we’ll just have to put him up a tree in the morning, if he will tree again, and then get a closer look at him.” It sounded like a plan to me.
“Morning” came long before its time. It was still pitch black outside when they awakened me and the temperature on the back porch read -9 Fahrenheit. Hound hunters pursuing cats always eat a big breakfast because they know their next decent meal may not come until well after dark. I was just hoping the day’s events would provide me with enough physical exercise to justify eating the kind of breakfast I stowed away that first morning of my hunt. There’s nothing worse for the waistline than riding around in a truck, day after day, looking for the right set of fresh tracks, while at the same time you’re taking in three meals a day, plus extra snacks along the way just from boredom and never having the chance to get in on a hot chase with the hounds. With just the first hint of gray and apricot showing in the eastern sky, the three of us accompanied by three dogs in the back of the truck, pulled out of the snowy driveway and headed for the hills.
After the umpteenth turnoff from one old logging road onto another, Mike suddenly veered off to the right, up close to the bank and killed the motor, announcing, matter-of-factly, “We’re here!”
“Where’s ‘here’?” I asked.
Harv replied, “That dead deer, or what’s left of it, is right up the hill, about 30 yards away.”
“You mean that cougar is probably just 30 yards away from us, right now, also?” I queried, rather incredulously.
“I reckon so,” Harv responded, “unless he managed to consume all the rest of that carcass overnight.”
I was amazed! It just couldn’t be this easy! Had they chained him to a tree or something? Within a minute or two, the dogs were out of their boxes and the howling began. Mike had one hound still on a leash, but the other two were out of sight in seconds, into the trees and charging up the slope with full-throated bellering. Even before Mike and I reached the scant remains of the dead buck, I heard him utter the word, “Treed!”
“You’re kidding me!” I shouted, as Mike turned to tackle the fast-steepening hillside and unleashed the younger dog to join up with the din of the others. Of the many cougar hunts I’d been on (most unsuccessful), never had one gotten off to such a fast start. I don’t believe I’d ever even been part of a chase that took place on the first day. This was incredible!
Carrying a small knapsack on my back and with bow in hand, I was soon struggling with my footing on the snowy surface of what had become a very steep pitch to the mountainside. The sun had just come over the horizon behind me and, as I paused to catch my breath, I took a good look at the commotion I could hear, and partially see, some 80-or-so yards above me. Mike was just joining Harv. With its front paws four feet off the ground, one hound was leaning against the trunk of a very large Ponderosa Pine. His head was pointed straight up and he was barking, “Treed!” with all his heart and soul. The other two hounds were running circles around the tree, barking like banshees, all the while keeping their eyes glued on the big, tawny, feline form perched calmly on a stout limb, some 40 feet above the base of the tree. The lion sat there motionless, staring downward and seemingly unconcerned about the chaos going on beneath him.
Breathing hard, as I drew near the big pine, I heard Mike say, “Dennis, you can tell by the testicles it’s a tom, but is he big enough for you? That’s the question you’ve got to decide.”
“Will the length and width of his skull, when added together, exceed 13 and 1/2”, I answered, with a question of my own. “Your judgment on that’s likely to be better than mine, Mike. That’s what I’m paying you to do: to make that kind of call.”
Mike didn’t respond, other than by resuming his study of the temporary prisoner. I continued working my way uphill until I had reached eye-level with the cougar. Then, glad for the chance to cool down, I removed my rucksack and an outer piece of clothing. Even though the road lay only 200 yards down the mountainside, my brow was sopping wet. The lion had no doubt scampered up that hill and up the tree in 15 seconds; it had probably taken me six or seven minutes.
I was eager to get some good video footage of the beautiful animal while he was still in the tree, so I hastened to extract my camcorder from its bag and got ready to do some filming. The big pine was directly between me and the sun and as the orange ball became brighter and brighter, a breeze came up which started blowing some of the powdered snow, deposited from the recent storm, off the pine boughs. The powdery crystals, directly backlit by the strong sunlight, seemed magical as they flew through the air from limb to limb. As I zoomed in on the face of the lion with my telephoto lens, the sorcery of the dancing ice crystals all around him became even more mesmerizing under magnification.
Author’s Boone & Crockett lion — taken in B. C. February 27, 2016.
Shortly after I began filming, my guides tied up all three hounds a good ten yards or more away from the trunk of the Ponderosa. I must have spent a minimum of ten minutes studying the face and sleek musculature of this magnificent catamount through the eyepiece of my camcorder. Whenever he shifted his body positions up there in the limbs of the tree, his permanently-well-toned muscles just rippled beneath his glossy fur coat. So finely sculpted and detailed did his muscle structure appear that, at times, it seemed as if he wasn’t even wearing a coat. Occasionally, he would yawn, as if getting bored with the whole video session. Once in a while, he would look down at the dogs (which were mostly quiet now) and bare his four canines in a soft, guttural display of razor-sharp weaponry. If the big lion was feeling any sense of fear or panic, he surely didn’t show it.
At long last, Mike broke the silence with his final judgment on the cat. “I think he’s probably just marginal,” he opined. “As far as his meeting that Pope & Young minimum of 13 and a half goes... after the 60-day drying requirement; I dunno, I think perhaps we’d better let him go.”
“That’s fine with me, Mike,” I responded. “Let’s go look for a fresh lynx track.”
So, with an eye to getting the lion to leave the tree (and thereby giving the hounds a last little training session), Harv grabbed a stout stick, walked up to the trunk of the Ponderosa and started banging on it hard. The blows sent vibrations up the tree, which its temporary resident obviously did not like at all. He suddenly jumped eight feet higher up in the tree and then — before Harv had time to see it coming — let loose that golden shower, scoring a direct hit on the luckless houndsman below. Backlit by the sun, it was truly a beautiful thing! Mike and I began laughing ourselves silly, while Harv immediately went rummaging in his daypack for a fresh shirt. It had made spectacular footage on my camcorder.
Almost at once, after the second series of blows started thudding against the tree- trunk, the irritated cougar commenced a real exercise workout by jumping around from one limb to the next. Though his dander may have been up, it quickly became clear that he was coming down! The next thing I knew he was only 25 feet off the snowy ground and then he went totally airborne!
Forty feet from the base of the tree, on the downhill side, the lion landed, at full take-off speed, and it was off-to-the-races again with the excited hounds in red-hot pursuit. What’s more fun for a dog, anyway, than chasing somebody else’s kitty cat? Right? In this instance, however, the lion treed again 150 yards down the slope and the fun was over. Harv and Mike put leashes on all three hounds and a few minutes later we were all back at the truck, leaving Mr. Deerslayer high and dry to think about where he was going to find his next meal.
The time was perhaps 7:45 AM. Most people down in the valley were just getting up, whereas we’d all just had a week’s worth of excitement in the time it took them to rub the sleep from their eyes!
Dunn’s outfitter estimated the cougar’s weight at around 200 lbs.
The contract I’d signed with Bearcat Outfitters had called for a hunt of up to ten day’s duration. Since my primary hope had been for a Canada lynx, with bobcat as a highly desirable second choice, I was very optimistic that nine more days of driving all the secret roads known to the outfitters would sooner or later take us right past a fresh set of cat tracks smaller than those of a cougar. With each day that passed, however, the job got tougher and tougher. We desperately needed some new snow to cover up all the old tracks, which by now were so numerous that it was getting more and more difficult to tell what you were looking at, as our truck rolled past. Ten solid hours per day of visually scouring the “moving,” roadside snowbanks was enough to give anyone a migraine! In just one day, let alone nine! What made the challenge even more arduous (and ever-more-arduous) was the steadily-increasing number of “kerplops” each day that occurred as a result of the wind blowing chunks of old snow off the branches of the ubiquitous evergreens growing along the sides of nearly every roadway.
It is true that on the third or fourth day of the hunt we finally got a chase going with a bobcat, but he outsmarted the hounds completely, which happens fairly often in cat hunting. One dog got altogether “lost” for several hours and another (their best strike-dog) ended up barking, “Treed,” for at least an hour underneath a tall, thick spruce tree, totally convinced the cat was up in that tree! We could never find it, however, if indeed it had ever really been there at all.
On the sixth day of hunting, we finally found a lynx track my guides felt was worth turning the hounds loose on, but the tracks were evidently a bit too old and that effort came to naught within an hour. As evening approached on Day #7, I told Mike and Harv that I felt continuing the hunt was likely to prove futile unless we got a fresh snowfall. I suggested that I was in a mood to turn my Subaru homeward and give it another try in another year. I sensed immediately that the two men, who I knew were totally committed to doing their utmost for the whole ten days, were greatly relieved to hear my decision.
As things happened, incidentally, eleven months later I did have the good fortune to harvest a big, male Canada Lynx with outfitter Paul Lowrie out of Anahim Lake, B.C. The bobcat, however, is still on my wish-list. As for the trophy cougar, I’m happy to report that last November 27th, 2016, near 100 Mile House, B. C., I finally did manage to find and kill a true monster of a Boone & Crockett lion (with my Osage orange longbow, no less).
Too heavy for 76-year-old Dunn to lift, houndsman Dustin Stone poses for the iconic photo.
As so often is the case in hunting, especially, I must say, in trophy-hunting with a bow and arrow, December of 2005 saw me returning home empty-handed. My head, heart and soul were certainly not empty, however. They were greatly replenished from re-immersion in the world of natural things. And I had certainly had my chance at a dandy male lion! Yet, since he had not possessed the trophy quality I was seeking, I decided to give him his parole and then his freedom. In many ways, it had been a very successful hunt and I had learned much about lions, about hounds, and about myself. Particularly about myself. Hunting has a way of doing that for a person.
As I had walked those final few yards back to the truck, after giving the parolee his total freedom, I felt just a little taller. The fact that, in the contest between two predators, I had opted not to take a life I could easily have taken, but a life I had every legal, ethical and moral right to take, within the larger, primordial scheme of things. That fact, that decision, had moved me a few steps closer to being the true trophy hunter I was learning I really wanted to be. In truth, such a dedicated trophy-hunter does not kill very often, but when he does, it is an intensely meaningful act and one which usually benefits the entire wildlife population.The BAREBOW! Sagas – Adventure and Misadventure in the Wilds of North America Dennis Dunn doesn’t just tell hunting stories; he shares his dreams, his victories, his disappointments, his wisdom and he teaches from his knowledge and experience. The BAREBOW! Sagas will not only acquaint you with the sweet taste of success and the bitter agony of defeat; they will convince you that well-regulated hunting sustains the use of wildlife and gives the animals increased value to justify their conservation and preservation. In this series, Dennis takes you along on his quest for the North American Big Game 29 Super Slam. A bow, a string, an arrow – no trigger, no peep-sights, no pins – just fingers, guts and instinct. That’s hunting BAREBOW! To learn more about Dunn’s award-winning book (from which the above story was taken), or to order a copy of BAREBOW!, you may visit the author’s website at: www.barebows.com.