The combination of a very elevated heart rate and being upside-down was really making blood rush to my head. Above me, my friends held my ankles while I hung vertically down a rock tunnel and peered through small slashes of sunlight filtering through the rocks. Five feet down the tunnel, I could make out the tawny and white face of a huge tom mountain lion hissing and snarling back at me, baring his teeth. I couldn’t believe the situation I found myself in and was really wishing the dogs had just caught him in a tree.
I have always been intrigued by mountain lions. Their reclusive and solitary lifestyle fascinated me since I was a kid. I admired their hunting and killing abilities and saw them as one of the West’s most unique trophies. After finally moving out West I decided to try hound hunting and pursuing them with my own dogs.
I hunted hard through most of my first lion season with my two newly acquired hounds, Okie and Gator, and tried to learn as much as I could. Despite countless miles driven and hiked, I didn’t catch a cat that season, but I had a ball trying. I met Ian and Mike and their wives, Mandy and Trish, through the sport and was able to run bears with them through Idaho’s spring, summer, and fall seasons. I learned a lot tagging along. My wife and I both took bears over our dogs, and we were even able to take along our daughter, Hope.
When Idaho’s lion season finally came around, I hunted hard with both Ian and Mike at different points, but either the tracks weren’t there, were too old, or there wasn’t enough snow. My luck changed eventually when I found myself standing over a night-old tom track with Mike and Trish.
We turned out four dogs and they struck the lion tracks immediately. They took off up the hill dipping their noses in tracks and throwing their heads back barking. My dog Okie was hanging with them, but I couldn’t help but feel like the parent of a high school baseball team benchwarmer being called up to play a game with the Yankees. Mike has been breeding and running hounds for years and has some seriously good dogs.
Mike had cut this lion passing through an area where he had caught big toms in the past. The huge feet and 45 to 47-inch stride gave him away as a real monster. We turned loose on his tracks twice, but the lion was too far ahead. On the last day of the year, he crossed through fresh snow right through a travel corridor seven days after we first started pursuing him.
“I think I know where he’s headed,” Mike said as Trish and I jumped into the truck after turning out the dogs. “There’s a big rock field up the canyon where they sometimes like to go.” On the way, we stopped at the head of the canyon and listened to the faint sound of the dogs still on the trail. They were moving the track very fast and were headed right where Mike had predicted. We took off again and were able to park just above where our hounds were heading.
Soon we were looking down from the rim of the canyon listening to a cacophony of hounds making their way up toward us. Eventually, we could see two of Mike’s hounds, Spike and Remington, and Okie crest over the rise. They got to the base of the rimrocks we were standing on and made their way into a nasty boulder field. Progress slowed as the dogs, much less agile than the lion, leaped, clawed, and crawled their way through the snow-covered boulders trying to stay on the track. Their drive and tenacity were unbelievable.
I climbed down into the boulder field and helped the dogs through some of the trickier places. Suddenly, the crisp mountain air was cut by a new sound, distinct from the sharp barks of the trailing hounds. I looked up and saw Spike standing on a snow-covered boulder, letting the world know that he had found the cat with his long, deep bawls. He had figured it out by circling the end of the rock field. The cougar had come into the rocks but hadn’t come out.
We quickly tied the dogs back for their safety and began searching through the boulder pile. I found a hole that seemed to drop about four or five feet and then tunnel to the left and right. I looked down and didn’t hear or see anything so I got on my stomach and stuck my head down the hole to listen. Nothing. As I was just about to pull myself up something caught my eye on a ledge under my body. I tucked my chin on my chest and came face to face with the cougar not two feet from my nose! I moved as fast as any person has ever moved. When I was safely back from the cave entrance, somehow my pants were miraculously still dry.
“I found him!” I yelled. He looked big, but I figured they all looked big two feet away. He leaned over to look and confirmed that he was the beast we were after.
After we took some pictures, the lion moved deeper into the hole. Now it was time to get the lion to move either out of the cave or back where we had first found him for an easier shot. Mike and I took turns being lowered down and trying to poke the lion with a long stick to get him to move. When I tried this, he hissed and swiped the stick with his paw, ripping it out of my hands. It reminded me of something out of Jurassic Park. He still wouldn’t move.
With no other options, I put in some earplugs, loaded my handgun, muttered something about surviving cancer to be killed by a mountain lion, and started down the cave. I felt like some sort of Vietnam tunnel rat as I slowly sank headfirst down the hole. Even with earplugs, I could hear the cat growling a protest of my invasion. I waited a minute for my eyes to adjust.
Blades of light filtered through the tunnel from small holes between the boulders and illuminated the cat’s head and two front legs crossed in front of his body. He was about five feet away and sort of down a tunnel, around a corner in the rocks. I told the guys to lower me another six inches so I could get a better angle. That would put a missed shot safely down the tunnel. Any minute he was going to decide to move and either come at me or move further the other way. I waited for the cat to put his head up, held my Glock .40 out around the corner in the tunnel, did my best to line it up with his chest, and squeezed the trigger.
The muzzle flashed and I felt myself being frantically pulled out of the cave. When it was clear that my jugular was still intact, Ian said something about me screaming like a little girl and wanted to know if I thought I’d gotten him. I thought so but I had never practiced shooting vertically, upside-down, and around a corner in almost no light. We waited a few minutes and I went back down into the hole to check out the situation. When I looked around the corner, the cat was gone. Then I heard the screaming.
I wiggled back out of the hole into a world of pandemonium. The dogs were howling and everyone was yelling. The lion had come tearing out from another opening just a few feet away, made a ten-foot leap onto a boulder over the heads of Mandy and Trish and then took off into the canyon. I heard Mike say something about Ian screaming like a little girl while I went and unleashed Spike and Okie. The race was on. They took off on the track, and in a couple hundred yards, we could hear them treed. The lion jumped out of the trees twice before the dogs finally put him up for good. I reached the tree out of breath and surveyed a scene that will forever be embedded in my mind.
Each dog was barking treed in his own unique way. Spike stood back from the tree making long, drawn out bawls that came from deep within. My little bluetick pup, Gator, balanced on her back legs bouncing under the tree hammering away with sharp, high-pitched barks a second or two apart. Okie sat next to her chopping hard but lower in pitch and more pleading in tone. The lion stood high above them, defiantly peering down through menacing eyes full of malice. It was quite a scene. Soon enough the whole party had made it down to the tree.
I looked up in awe of the great beast. For years he had survived and thrived until this unruly bunch of floppy-eared mutts brought him to bay. God had designed him as a pure killing machine, and that is exactly the aura he radiated. His lithe, muscular body looked capable of anything, but his soulless eyes captured my attention the most. They were the eyes of a killer, a killer I respected greatly. For years he was the master of his domain, the ruler of the mountains. In my mind’s eye, I could picture him stalking, pouncing, and pulling down countless deer and elk. To live as long as he had and get as big as he was he surely had many great hunts. And a great hunt is everything.
In hound hunting, the shot is nothing compared to the chase. This was no exception. At the shot, he bailed from the tree, took off down the frozen river, and expired. There was no ground shrinkage. He was enormous.
It was a special day for a few reasons. We caught and killed a B&C lion (15 1/8) on a hunt with good friends I will never forget. My dogs gained some experience and made me proud. I’ve since caught many lions, but this first lion will remain a memory after many others fade away.