CUSTER CATS

Every fall I find myself engulfed in the madness of prairie whitetail and mule deer season here in central South Dakota. Rarely will my mind stray from these majestic animals, however this past fall something was different. I was lucky enough to draw one of just a few permits to hunt mountain lions with hounds in Custer State Park. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I sure was excited. Luckily I have several friends with experience running hounds for cats that were more than willing to tag along on this expedition. The Black Hills hold a large concentration of mountain lions, so I had high hopes of putting a couple notches in my tag. As winter progressed and the days grew shorter so did my patience waiting for this hunt to begin!

We all had visions of a picture perfect lion hunt in one of the most pristine locations around, but as the days dwindled towards opening morning our hopes of a fast paced hunt were tested. The weather forecast reported fresh snow several days before opening morning. This initially sounded great, however the 70-degree temperatures forecasted for the following days did not.

All Photo Credits: Christian McHugh

 

February 4th, one day before opening morning, was a highly anticipated day. Waking up at 4:30 a.m. for work was easy, but the next 8 hours until I could punch the time clock was brutal. I could not wait for my chance to hunt the elusive elk slayer. We began by heading west out of Mobridge down to Custer ending up at camp around 10 p.m. Once things were settled we dozed for 2-3 hours, but awoke early to begin our road cruising search for fresh tracks.

The plan was to drive around with whatever remaining snow we could find, cut a track that crossed a road, and then sit on it until sunup. After hours of scouring ditches and the remaining snow patches we didn’t find a single fresh track. Once the sun finally peeked out from above the canyon walls we began trek-hiking trail after trail, mile after mile, and rocky hillside after rocky hillside in search of a fresh track. After 12 miles of up’s and down’s we had all we could take for one day. We decided in the early afternoon to rest up and develop a game plan for the next 6 days head on, since we might just need them all.

On day 2 of our adventure we decided to split up to cover more ground and increase our odds for success (our party actually knew all 4 successful applicants for this hunt and one other tag holder was hunting with us). The hot sun made it all but impossible for our dogs to follow a track out of the canyon bottoms because the sun basically dissolves the fresh scent. Even though we did not cut a fresh track, we were all very fortunate to see some of the most beautiful and rugged landscapes South Dakota has to offer. After another 10-mile day of up and downs in the 70-degree heat, we knew tagging out on this trip would be no easy feat. Despite dripping with sweat and blistering feet, we all agreed there was no other place we would have rather been.

Day 3 found me rolling out at first light with the best hounds men this great state has to offer. It still amazes me how everyone on this journey was willing to push past the pain and sweat that Custer State Park was throwing at us on what was supposed to be an “easy” winter time lion hunt. We split up again in hopes of covering new areas to increase our odds. The day started with me tripping and stumbling over all the fallen logs and downed trees from an old logging/burn area. The hike was pretty miserable and discouraging. Our group hiked along a ridgeline in order to put our dogs in a spot that would give them the best likelihood of cutting a track. After all, efficiency is key!

An hour later we heard it; the first hound let out a howl that stopped everyone in their tracks. It wasn’t long after that the rest of them began to chime in. They quickly took off towards a road, while I tempered my emotions thinking they might have found a deer trail instead. The dog runners opted to let the search ensue for a little while to see what would happen. Soon thereafter the dogs began to get quiet and returned to us back on the ridge.

Kris, one of the hound runners who has 15 years of experience chasing lions, decided to tie up all the dogs except for his best dog, the veteran, Bones. She combed the hilltop where the hounds first cut the scent relentlessly searching for the trail. We had no idea what the dogs were after because there was no snow. She finally let out a howl and picked up the track just like Kris was hoping. It wasn’t long and the dogs had a bark fest, all in one location, suggesting one thing…. they had something treed!

We ran as fast as our tired bodies would let us. After descending and ascending a steep hillside, I finally walked around a tree and there it was. At 30 yards, standing tall in a tree was the third mountain lion I have ever seen. It’s beauty, power, and ferocity took my breath away. The best part was being able to share this sight with a great group of people who worked incredibly hard to earn the opportunity for this encounter.

We wrangled up the dogs and with the camera rolling I leaned up along a tree and let the Savage .22-250 bark. The cat hunched up as the shot rang out and climbing higher up to what seemed the last possible branch that would hold its weight. Due to all my excitement I didn’t pull the bolt back far enough to eject the cartridge before I attempted to chamber another round. Consequently, it jammed. I did all I could, fingers fumbling, to undo it, but eventually I just tossed the magazine and single shot loaded the second shell into the gun. After placing my shot perfectly on the vitals I calmly pulled the trigger. Several seconds later the cat came falling down out of the tree, and our hard work was officially rewarded. In those few seconds I felt that time had almost stopped. The dogs were going crazy and each of us was shaking with excitement. We spent a good 90 minutes taking pictures and giving high fives before we began the trek out.

Cougar Paw

We took the cat to the local game warden where we checked it in and aged it at about 7-9 years old, with the cat weighing143 lbs. According to a local biologist, he captured this cat several years ago and it weighed in excess of 170, which is amazing considering the state record is currently about 177 lbs. It’s an amazing cat and I am well aware of how lucky I was to have harvested such an incredible animal, especially in less than prime weather conditions. After the season closed, I was informed this cat was the fourth largest taken during the 2015 Black Hills season.

I will not soon forget the amount of work that each of us, and especially the dogs, put into this hunt. It goes to show that there are still people who simply enjoy Mother Nature to its fullest even when they do not have a tag in their pocket. There is absolutely no way this hunt would have been a success without each and every one of them. It’s safe to say that success on this adventure was not given, but was in all aspects of the word EARNED! I hope everyone will get the chance to try this kind of a hunt at least once.

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