Saturday, December 28, 2013

Just One Thing

I had originally planned on this post to be entitled, “The Grind.”  The post was to reference a recent two day adventure in the hills in search of lions and their spoor.   This particular quest resulted in a large amount of information gained, a lot of calling, miles of walking and one injured knee.  The latter left me exploring my couch and the National Geographic channel for several days, instead of rocky peaks and long valleys of Northern Colorado.   During this time I reflected on the name of the soon to be post and did not believe it conveyed what I was feeling on the matter or intended.  Hence the name was changed to better demonstrate how I feel about what I need in my search for Mountain Lions.

I need just one thing.  This thing is not a material object or hunting implement, lord knows I have a lengthy list of items.  Some of the items on the list are: A new electronic caller to replace my ancient Johnny Stewart 512 cassette caller.  The unit is so old, if my recollection serves me correctly; I obtained it by bartering with a caveman in return for plans for this new-fangled invention called the, “Wheel.” Also on this list is a new set camouflage, better binoculars, spotting scope, bullets...I could go on and on, as any Cabela’s catalogue wielding sportsman could do. These are things I think I need, besides why would a hand caller need a new electronic call?

This thing I need is not really a tangible item at all.  It is the idea that gets me up in the morning at 5 A.M.  The determination which keeps me going despite the cold, the wind, the snow, and even the occasional naysayer.  This thing is really an opportunity.  It is the fresh lion track that you find, the kind of track which is so fresh it sends shiver down your spine because there is serious possibly the cat is watching you.  It is the hope that a cougar face will suddenly appear around a bush or rock while you are sitting on your call stand doing your best to sound like a dying rabbit. This opportunity is in the stillness that follows your production of a lion whistle, just hoping for a return call from the real thing. It is in the flock of crows you see in the distance, praying they are feeding on a recent lion killed deer carcass.  It is in the telephone call from a sympathetic land owner as you wait with baited breath that they have news of lion sighting or preyed upon livestock. This is the thing I need, I know I am close and I am just waiting for the break that will put in proximity to a Mountain Lion.

What started the two day grind in the hills was almost the opportunity I need.  I received a telephone call from a local ranger who reported he had discovered a dead deer about a week prior.  The ranger said the deer appeared covered and cached, and he believed it was a lion kill.   When he told me the location of the kill I immediately recognized the area.  It is one of the valleys I have been scouting and calling in.  Further I believed that this was work of the lion from the post, “The Length of 308 Cartridge.” 
(Mule Deer herd seen while scouting)
I immediately organized my pack, put the rifle in the truck and headed for the valley.  I knew the lag time in the reporting was not good.  Pumas will rarely stay near a kill for more than a few days and I was facing a timeframe of at least a week since the deer had hit the ground.  When I arrived I set up a call stand several hundred yards above where the cached deer was reported.  I called for approximately 90 minutes and received no response.  I briefly looked for the dead deer but could not locate it.  Continuing further up the valley I made a second call stand and once more no lion was sighted.  The sun set and the light was failing, I headed out, vowing to return the following day.

The next morning I was in a call stand at first light and again called over the kill site area.  After nothing appeared, I knew it was time to find the kill and scout the area further.   What remained of the deer was in a small drainage which fed a larger one that runs through this particular valley.  Scavengers had already performed their handiwork and scattered most of the carcass.  However I was able to find where the deer had originally been cached.  Torn hide and clumps of fur confirmed the cougar kill status.  Under a nearby juniper bush I discovered a fractured piece of leg bone.  An animal had consumed a portion of the deer while hiding in the cover the low hanging branches.   Teeth marks were evident in the bone and I believe either a coyote or the lion was responsible for this.  These two predators are the only ones active at this time of year with enough jaw strength to break such a large bone. 
(Deer kill site, above and below)

(bone fragment found under tree)

Leaving the kill site I scouted the surrounding ridge lines looking for the lion’s lay-up.  Several miles of walking the rough terrain resulted in the discovery of just one old lion scrape and scat pile.  While trekking I saw a mule deer doe standing very still about 400 yards in the distance.  I found her behavior odd as she did not move for over ten minutes.  How she was acting reminded me of horses who sleep while standing up and I thought this might be the case.  I observed the doe in my binoculars and found there were three magpies repeatedly landing on her back and then flying away only to return shortly.  In 25 years in the woods I have never seen magpies and deer exhibit this behavior.  It was later I would learn that magpies will eat the ticks off a deer’s back, or collect the ticks and hide them for later consumption.  I had witnessed the real life definition of a symbiotic relationship unfold in front of me. 

While I completed the several mile scouting trip along the ridge top I pondered about the one opportunity I need to be a successful puma hunter.  I do not know when or where it will occur,  all I need to do is get close enough to put my calls in a cougar’s ears, the rest is up to him.  Whether by chance, design, or pure determination I will continue on to discover my opportunity.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bobcat Holiday

My boss remarked to me that he was not surprised that I couldn’t simply just leave the cats alone on Christmas Eve. “Planning to destroy some bobcat’s Christmas?” I believe this was his exact statement when I told to him I intended to spend a portion of Christmas Eve, not at my warm house with my family, but rather in the cold mountains. I had already spent two of the prior three days out scouting and calling for Mountain Lions, (look for more on this soon in a future post entitled, “The Grind”). During these adventures I had located and patterned several bobcats. As an early gift to myself I was planning to take a break from Lions and try to call the little cats.

The first stand of the morning produced nothing but increasing windy conditions with the growing light of morning. While driving to my next call stand, I discovered some extremely fresh bobcat tracks traversing the road. Due to the wind and the blowing snow I knew the cat was close and could not have been here to long before. I quickly and quietly loaded up and headed out following the tracks. The bobcat roamed through a pine stand, traveled down logs and jumped on the occasional rock. At one point he crossed the path of a rabbit and followed it to its burrow in a large rock formation. The wind started gusting to the point where it was covering the cat’s tracks with snow and I eventually lost the trail entirely. I set up a call stand at the end of the tracks and called for approximately 40 minutes. The cat never appeared. I guess he decided to spend his Christmas in the woods rather than with me, riding home in the back of my truck.

The snowfall and wind had obliterated all of the prior evenings tracks. The weather conditions were so averse to tracking that as I walked backed to my truck I could actually watch my own footprints vanish from existence behind me. I decided that it was time to head home and let the kitties have their Christmas Holiday; all bets are off come the 26th though!

At this time, I am working on adding a component of video blogging to my posts. Below is my first attempt at this, please stay with me and try not to laugh too hard or for too long.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Canon SX280

I recently bought a new camera. The camera came to me through a circuitous route. While the camera was something I needed and on a list of future purchases it was not planned to occur so soon. The story begins with my wife’s birthday present. My wife is an amateur photographer and loves all things associated with the art form. Her love of photography is trumped by one other which is her persistent fascination with the color pink. Whenever I look for my wife in a crowd I am always drawn to pink colored clothing. Often a comment if she is feeling well accompanies days were she in not clad in copious amounts of pink. Thus I was on a mission for her birthday present. She was already in possession of wonderful Canon SLR EOS 50D, but found that at times it was cumbersome. I was therefore to combine her two loves and purchase a smaller point and shoot camera in the color pink.

Many hours of research ensued in the pursuit of a such a camera and I narrowed my choice to the Canon Powershot SX260 HS. This little camera sported many excellent serious features, yet still came in several less cynical colors, including pink. During my web browsing I indulged to  to find my future camera, hopefully to be used for this very blog. I decided I liked the Canon SX280 HS with its excellent low light sensor and capability to shoot 1080P videos.
Searching for the best deal possible, I found my wife’s 260 with a nice package of accessories and at a very modest price. Turning over my credit card information I purchased the it and promptly felt better no knowing I had a present for her and hopefully being the triumphant husband with the perfect gift. Sadly this was not to be, when I opened the brown box that was found on the doorstep a week later I discovered the company had sent me a beautiful red SX280. I instantly knew I could not fool the connoisseur of pinkness with this color. The next morning I informed my wife of the sad news and immediately offered to purchase another camera ,one which would for certain would be pink. I planned to return the foul red monster back to the misguided shipping company.  However, my wife being the supportive person she is, suggested I should keep the 280 and use it as it was the one I wanted, minus the color. I offered that I did not mind the color as it would perhaps be a benefit should I drop or lose it in the woods. Unfortunately I could not know how correct I was at that very moment. I do have to admit I did feel a little like Homer Simpson and his bowling ball with Marge written on it, even if receiving the camera was completely unintentional.

The Canon made a brief appearance during a goose outing and captured the images for the post entitled, “My Kingdom of Goosedom.” However the real test and first true outing into the field came this past Sunday. I had planned to call lions on Saturday, but weather and a bit of Christmas shopping kept me inside of the realm of civilization. By noon on Sunday I could stand it no more, I needed a mountain fix, windy weather or not I was going cat hunting. I took some precautions to protect the Canon. The camera had arrived with a Velcro case, which I had attached to the exterior of my backpack for easy access. I still felt this was not enough and added a high tech protective sleeve for the camera to reside in while in the case. This case was of course one of my socks; I made sure to select a clean one. Feeling that my new tech was now secure and snug in the case, I headed for the hills.

The little red Canon
I knew the wind would be an adversary for the day and decided to spend some time scouting several ridge tops in an area near the potential Lion call-in that occurred earlier this month. Shortly after the arduous climb to the rocky ridge, I discovered an excellent call stand. It was a rocky outcropping sounded by low scrub bushes, rocks, and several pines. The stand overlooked a long valley that held excellent Lion habitat. The backside of the outcropping was a sheer rock wall with a drop of approximately 30 feet. I knew this wall would make a great barrier to protect me from a Lion trying to slink in behind me. As the wind was not constant I decided to run a calling session and I set up the new Canon on a small tripod overlooking my right shoulder. I pressed record on the camera, did a short interview and settled in.

Approximately 16 minutes into the call stand, a rather strong gust of wind blew along the ridge top. I heard a metallic clattering sound and I immediately had a sinking feeling. I knew what the sound was; it was the camera falling over onto the rocks. I then realized there was no obstacle preventing the camera from tumbling down the thirty foot drop. Risking movement to get a glance at where the camera was, I saw that it was gone, it had made the plunge. Broken camera or not there was no reason to end the call stand early simply to go triage the Canon. I waited with anticipation for the end of the stand, and after a hour I finally decided nothing was coming in. It was time to discover the fate of the camera. I found the bright red camera in a bush at the bottom of the wall. Thankfully the branches of the bush had softened the landing. The only damage to the Canon was a few very minor scratches. I was lucky and very happy that the little camera was still alive.

(Video of call stand and camera fall, I apologize for the wind)

As I still had some daylight left, I moved further into the hunting area to explore another ridge. Upon reaching the second ridge I encountered even stronger winds, several times I had to chase my hat when the wind dislodged it from my head. Calling in this wind was hopeless. I instead spent time scouting the area for Lion sign. Wandering through the rocks and junipers I found an elk kill site. I immediately recognized the tell tale signs of the predator responsible, humans, natural predators do not leave neat little piles of leg bones and a skinned hide. Delving further along the rocks I found what appeared to be a Lion layup. It was a small alcove in a large rock formation that had signs of animal bedding in it. I reached into the pocket of the camera case to retrieve it for a picture and found the Canon was gone! I had used it to document the elk kill site and had difficulty stuffing the sock encased camera back into the case due to the extra material. The camera certainly had fallen out since that time. I immediately backtracked and found the Canon resting in the snow beside my trail. Once again the bright red color aided in the discovery; especially this time in the low light of sunset.

Elk kill site
As the day faded I headed back towards the road and the waiting truck. Along the way I crossed paths with a doe Mule Deer and a stately bull Elk. Due to the wind I was able to walk very close to the feeding bull before he noticed my presence. Once again I was impressed with how much game was in the area and the abundant food source for a large predator.

Upon my return home I knew it was prudent to remove the excess material from the sock to allow it to stay in the camera case. I put the Canon into the sock and measured the correct amount to remove. With the camera in the sock I excised the unnecessary fabric. I immediately found that I had cut the camera strap in half. This poor camera had survived a fall, being lost, and now to add insult to injury the dismemberment of its strap. It was still alive, in excellent shape, and I have high hopes that it will endure its next outing, but I am not certain.

For those still left wondering if a new camera was purchased for my wife? But of course the very same day I aquired mine.

Friday, December 13, 2013

My Kingdom of Goosedom…

Hunting partner in blind, after shooting a goose
I own a flock of geese.   My flock numbers over 100 birds and lives with me throughout the entire year.   This is an odd statement for anyone other than a farmer to make.  The food and space resources necessary for such a large avian aggregate would be beyond what any suburban residing outdoorsman could dream of providing.  For nine months of each year my flock hibernates in the rafters of my garage.  As silent and statuesque as terra cotta warriors in a Chinese Emperors tomb, my geese await to do my bidding on some winter cornfield.  My flock is not flesh, blood, and feathers, but the plastic and paint of the Avery Outdoors Company.   I am the king of my own terra plastic warriors.  I am a goose hunter.

To say I am a goose hunter is a bit of an understatement.  It should read that I am a recovering addict from the constant and unrelenting pursuit of Branta Canadensis, (Canada Goose).  My addiction has been in recession for the past 24 months, after a run of 13 continuous years.  I have all the paraphernalia of an addict: calls, decoys, camouflage, and even some of the contraptions that were sold to me that promised to bring all the geese in the world into my decoys.  Of course I believe some of these items were meant more to decoy the hunter, rather than the bird.  My recession ended this past Tuesday when I went hunting with a good friend and his family after they graciously invited me to join them.  I had missed hunting geese and knew it would be a good break from pursuing kitties in the mountains.

There is a certain structure and near religious pattern to field goose hunting.  Rising well before the sun has peeked above the horizon, you stumble to your cold truck packed full of gear and decoys.  Cup of coffee in hand and perhaps a hunting buddy in the passenger seat you head off to the field chosen to hunt for the day.  With hopes to have all the decoys set before the geese fly, you arrive at the location and meet your hunting partners.  There is talk of wind direction, blind placement, decoy patterns to set, and where and when the birds will fly.  As you rush to set up, every hunter is keenly aware of sounds, fearing not to hear the first honk of the morning until all is ready.

This past Tuesday, December 10, the field I was invited to hunt was a recently cut cornfield.  The snow was just beginning to recede from the field, but you could clearly see the tracks of thousands of geese who had landed and fed in the very same field the day before.   As we completed setting up, the first flocks of the morning appeared above the field.  Immediately getting into the blinds we did our best to call the geese down and into the landing spot of the decoy pattern.  Geese were everywhere and nearly every flock wanted to come in and take a look at our dekes (decoys).

Coxing them into the final shooting position, feet down and just above the decoys, proved to be a little more of a challenge.  Only the choicest and closest shots were taken.  At times hundreds of geese were spinning and funneling above the decoys.  It was a sight I had not seen and years, and may indeed be years before I will see again.  So many geese were flying in the area that hunters who went to retrieve downed birds could not get back into the blinds for fear of spooking an incoming flock.

After several hours of hunting and shooting we called the morning hunt and decided to pick up the plastic flock.  The count for the morning was 18 Canada Geese and 1 Snow Goose.  Photographs and hunting stories were exchanged as all the decoys were placed into their cases and then neatly crammed into the back of my truck.

Posing with the day’s kill--not all geese pictured

Driving home, my thoughts turned back to Lion hunting.  I had really enjoyed the camaraderie and returning to a previous passion for a day.  However; I knew that somewhere out among the snowy rocks and peaks was a solitary roaming majestic cat, whose meeting with me on some distant day is only a matter of time, determination, and little bit of luck.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hunting Bobcats in Colorado

Snow had been forecasted for this past Tuesday, December 3rd.  I had watched the reports with increased anticipation, as I was very hopeful for a fresh clean slate of snow to track some cats in.  Every day the chance for precipitation rose higher and it became clear that I would be hunting soon.  What I was not excited about was the falling of the mercury into the single digits and then down into the dreaded negative marks.  By last Wednesday night the temperature was -12° in my hunting area.

My plan was to hunt Thursday morning with my Mother as my hunting partner.  Despite the cold weather, we decided to continue with the hunt.  The snow had ended and left nearly a foot of powder in the area.

We arrived in the region at daybreak and immediately cut a fresh double set of bobcat tracks.   Season for the smaller cats had just started five days prior.   We decided to trail these cats and attempt to call them in for hopefully their last encounter with human beings.   I also had in my thoughts that learning about a smaller relative of a mountain lion might help me call in the actual version.  I have never set off to specifically call a bobcat and I knew I would learn a lot along the way.

We bundled up in as many layers as possible and headed off in the snow wearing snowshoes.  It turned out the snow shoes were not needed and became more cumbersome to wear than simply walking in the powder.  Of course this was discovered only after several miles of walking.

Following the bobcats was an adventure in itself.  You could clearly see were they scratched, marked, and hunted their way along rock piles, brush, and pine stands.  I have never seen bobcats hunt together before and had to confirm the prints and their gate several times to be sure I was not following coyotes.  I can only assume this was a mated/mating pair or perhaps a mother and large kitten.  After nearly a mile of following the tracks, they led up into a rocky peak of a hill.  Partially circling around the bottom of the hill I found the tracks did not lead back out.  I was certain the cats were in up in the rocks either in a den or hunting.  We set up a call stand at the base of the hill and called for approximately 25 minutes.  I would have liked to stay longer but the absolute cold would not permit it.   Neither of the cats appeared and in the interest of preventing hypothermia or frost bite with moved on.  We completed a circle of the hill and found the cats were still in up in the rocks, they had just decided to not come in or had and we missed it.   It is also possible that we made too much noise getting into position and the bobcats were spooked long before we made the call stand.

After losing to the bobcats we decided to head to the relative warmth of the truck.  The hike back through the snow and rocky hills was tiring and cumbersome.  It would have been much better to backtrack our way out, rather than continuing the loop to the road that the GPS showed was faster and closer.  Along the way we crossed paths with a cow moose.  It was a wonderful and unexpected sight. 

A trapper's live trap 
Back at the truck was continued our road running journey to discover Lion prints.  As we drove we discussed the bobcat hike and what we would do different next time.  The central theme was to only go a short distance on the tracks, and then attempt to call the bobcat back to us, rather than trying to get close and then call.  The drive turned up many other animal tracks and additional sighting of Moose.

By 3:00pm, no Lion tracks had yet been found.  We crossed a set of fairly fresh bobcat tracks and decided to implement our new bobcat tactic.   We again layered up and headed up the tracks.  Following the little cat we discovered he was a smart kitty.  His tracks led to a trappers live box trap.  The cat stopped short of the trap, backtracked and then headed up hill.  We followed him up and set up a stand in a very small clearing that allowed the cat plenty of cover to approach the rabbit decoy that was approximately 25 feet in front of our location.

Rock the Bobcat perched on
10 minutes into the call stand my Mother nudged me and whispered she had caught movement at the top of the clearing.  We both moved into a better shooting position and waited.  Unfortunately, nothing came in or moved again for the duration of the call stand.  We stopped again a little earlier than normal due to the extreme cold.  Before leaving the stand we walked to the top of the clearing and found the bobcat had come into the call.  Right where my mom had seen something run were prints.  The bobcat had come back in following his own set of the prints from earlier in the day.  He had jumped onto a rock and perched there watching the decoy for a space of time before leaving.  It was depressing; the rock he hid on was not in view for either my mother or I, but in view of the decoy.  What a missed opportunity on this cat.  I have always heard mixed theories on using decoys on cats.  There is a feeling that seeing the decoy will cause the cat to stop rather than bring it in, theory proved.

After losing to bobcats for the second time in one day we continued our fruitless search for a lion track until darkness forced our return to civilization.  I learned a great amount about bobcats, and tracking in fresh light powder.  Chasing the little cat for a day was a good distraction from lions.  The lessons they taught me will be applied to their bigger cousins.  I am looking forward to another day out cat hunting soon, albeit hopefully in somewhat warmer weather. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Length of a 308 Cartridge…

Lion track found on the road.  Cartridge for size comparison.
Most hunters do not readily know the exact length of the particular ammunition in their favorite hunting rifle.  I am certain there are a few hand-loading sportsmen who have the formula for their prized hunting round burned into their psyche; however, I am not one of those few that take pride in manufacturing my own bullets.  I instead sacrifice this part of the hunting experience for more scouting time by purchasing the store bought precision of Hornady Superformance ammunition.  Yesterday I did not have even a small clue to the length of my rounds, however I do now.

My partner for the day was an experienced lion caller who already had a confirmed lion call in.  We departed the still sleeping city of Fort Collins at 5:30 in morning and headed for my favorite hunting grounds in the foothills.  This hunt was the to be the culmination of many hours of research and even more countless hours of scouting and map review.  Over the course of hunting lions last year I had identified several lion tracks and sightings in my area.  I had dutifully marked all of the location of these tracks on my forest map.  The lion tracks from the previous post, “needle in a haystack” were added to map last week as well and fell into place like a puzzle piece.  The sightings and tracks told me a story.  The tracks were arranged around a long, deep drainage that held a small river.   Nearly all of the drainage is on public land but can only be accessed by foot during the winter months.  Private land marks all of the terrain near the valley ridges preventing a hunter from entering from any angle other than the mouth of the valley.  I had made a foray into this valley the previous hunting year and saw a copious amount of big game tracks and plenty of lion habit.  I also knew from research that two lions had been killed by houndsmen in this same valley last season.  Yesterday’s plan was to work our way up this valley stopping for call stands as we traveled.

We entered the valley and set up a call stand nearly immediately.  I was to call and he was to cover any approaches behind me and essentially be the eyes of the team to scout the surrounding rock piles and terrain.  An hour of calling produced my usual raven and magpie companions, but no other animals.  At times I worry that I am not calling correctly, my mind often stops at the fact that I routinely call in scavenger birds.  I surmise that is proof enough that I sound like an animal in its last throws of life.   After the stand my partner informed me he had seen two separate mule deer herds wandering the opposite hillside.  This was heartwarming, for where they are, surely lions are not far away.
We headed further into the valley and set up a second stand in the area beyond the sound travel limits from the first stand.  It was my turn to be the cover and the eyes for the team.  Approximately 45 minutes into the stand I caught movement on a rock pile about 500 yards further up the valley.  Instantly my pulse quickened as I reached for my priceless Pentax binoculars.  When I brought the rock pile into view I found a stately Rocky Mountain Big Horn Ram staring down the valley towards us.  This ram was massive with 3/4 curl horns.  Over the next 10 minutes the ram worked his way down the valley, pausing on the opposite hillside crossing our location around 300 yards away.  The trip was worth this moment alone.  To be so close to this wild majestic animal was truly a unique experience.

After the ram moved along we ended the call stand and started up the valley once more.  During our walk, we constantly scanned our surroundings and the old road we were following.  My hope was to find a lion track in the interstate highway of deer and elk tracks the road had become.  Our progress was halted when it came time to cross the river.  The bridge that had once provided safe passage across the river was no more.  Certainly the bridge was another one of the many victims of the torrential downpour that drowned the Colorado Mountains this previous September.   We eventually were able to secure a crossing but this came in at the same time as the beginning of steady strong winds.  Hand calling animals in strong wind is akin to attempting a conversation at a rock concert while standing next to a giant speaker.  Simply put, it is a waste of time.   After a snack and a discussion we decided to return to the truck and head into the high country in search of tracks in possible remaining snowfall.  We began to walk back down the old road in the valley floor, and that is when we discovered it.

My 308 rifle cartridges are exactly 2 and ¾ inches in length, and that is the width of the lion track we found in the middle of the road.   Somehow we had missed them on the approach to the downed bridge.  It was very apparent the tracks were fresh, and they faced down the road and directly toward our previous call stand.  We were able to follow the lion for about 50 feet before his tracks were lost in the grass on the side of the road.  Another thirty minutes of fruitless searching turned up no further sign of his presence.  We decided on one of two likely scenarios:  The first is that we had called the lion in on the second call stand and missed his approach on the road, perhaps while enthralled by the Ram.  Or the second scenario is that the lion had walked down the road earlier that morning and was now somewhere else in the valley.  Either way, we were lost to the lion’s current location.  We set up a third call stand, hoping the cat was still in the area.  An hour produced nothing more than two chilled hunters with tired lungs.  It was hopeless.  The lion either could not hear us because of the howling wind, or was simply gone. 

I know that this may seem disappointing to some, but this is a huge success for me.  Scouting, research, and interviews led me into this valley.  I suspected there was at least one lion working the wildlife rich location, and I was correct.  This day added to my feelings that I can really do this.  With enough time patience, work, and a fair amount of determination I can figure out where and what the lions are doing.  This was a great day and another milestone, several lessons were learned and good memories created with a new friend.
Snow is coming to my mountains on Wednesday, any guesses on where I will be Thursday morning?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Needle in a Haystack …

Lion tracks found crossing the road.
Any lion hunter, whether houndsmen or caller, craves snowfall.  Mountain Lions are such secretive and ranging animals that the best way to locate them is by following a track left in freshly fallen snow.  This leads to a caller’s life revolving around weather forecasts and hopes for snow.  I have several weather apps on my cell phone and consult each daily during the season. At times the forecasts conflict and I tend to be partial to one predicting precipitation.   Another problem I encounter is that my primary lion hunting area is 40 miles away and several thousand feet higher in elevation. The weather patterns can be vastly different despite the relative closeness geographically.   Determining how much snow fell and when can be a tricky art from this distance.  A kind fellow who lives in one of the areas where I hunt has a live web cam that allows me to have at least an electronic eye on what is occurring.  I have passed his home on several occasions, each time vowing to stop one day to say hello and thank you. 

The “perfect” snowfall in my opinion is one that falls early evening and covers tracks from the previous day.  The snow then ceases around midnight and any tracks found at first light are at most, seven hours old. Working the nightshift brings an interesting perspective on Mountain Lion hunting.  You get to be awake during the prime snowfall window and can actually see what is happening.  When the snow started flying on Thursday and ended around 11:00 pm, I quickly decided that yesterday would be my own personal “snow day”.

Once you know what to look for, you can spot a track while driving 40 MPH, it just takes forever to find them; they are the needle in a haystack of tracks.  I found myself stating this to my father just a week prior while driving on other snowy roads.   I almost missed the needle at 9:30AM on the Friday; oddly enough I was driving about 40 MPH at the time. No other animal walks like a lion in the Colorado mountains, big oval prints in a nearly straight line with a long gait.  When I saw this familiar pattern I immediately stopped and bailed out of the truck with high hopes.  The Lion had crossed the main paved road while walking down a small creek that fed into a larger drainage.  My hopes were crushed when I consulted my map.  The land was private, a small sliver of property running for approximately 3 three miles directly beside the course of the road, but only 1/3 of a mile wide.  Forest Service land was just beyond that 1/3 mile but I had no way to access it without crossing private land.  This is a common problem where I hunt.  There are copious amounts of public land, but it is interspersed with private sections, and it can make both navigating and hunting a tedious chore.  From the general direction of the lion track, I was fairly certain the lion was on the public land beyond the private.  I immediately found the gate to the land owner’s drive.  The gate was open but there were a total of three rather large signs proclaiming, “No Trespassing, No Hunting, No Firearms”.  On the bottom of another sign was a message that ready, “Do not even think about asking to hunt, Chris.  Go away, this means you!,”  Ok, so perhaps the last statement was not really there but it might as well have been.  

Bobcat kill, Dusky Grouse
I spent the next two hours trying to locate some elusive 4WD roads, which my map represented as access points to the adjacent public lands.  I found that these roads were either closed long ago, or non-existent.   Giving up on access, I tried one last ditch effort and went to the small mountain convenience store located several miles away.   This is the type of store where everyone knows everyone, and serves as both a shopping establishment and a hub of information.  After introductions, I learned the private land the lion walked across was actually a Girl Scout camp.  My dreams for this lion were dead; there was no way the Girl Scouts of America would allow a lion hunter on their land.  I found the clerk of the store to be very receptive of my lion hunter status, and allowed me to leave my contact information should a lion be sighted in the area.  She promised to call me if she personally saw one.  Her statement was that “she would most likely faint at the sight of one, but would call soon after for certain”.

I headed out back onto the roads to check for another lion, hoping for one to cross either public or more receptive private property.  During my travels I crossed all manner of tracks, including several bobcat tracks.  One bobcat was very large and I had to spend some time deciphering his tracks to confirm he was not a small lion.  He intrigued me and I followed him for a length.  I found a kill he had made on a grouse, and his bed and scratching post.  The similarity of how these wild cats behave as compared to their domestic cousins is startling.   I also met a band of students from a local community college who were learning about radio tracking collared animals.  There professor was a very nice fellow who provided me with the location of a lion track they had discovered a week prior.  We exchanged contact information for future discussion about Cougars and he said he would call if he found more tracks.

Self pic, taken on the call stand 
I ended the day hiking onto some public land approximately three miles west of where I had found the lion tracks earlier in the day.  I moved as close to the private land as possible, and to where I thought the lion was headed, and set up a call stand.  Ninety minutes of calling produced nothing beyond the routine flock of scavenger birds.  With day fading fast I trekked back to where my truck was waiting. The woods were silent and still, beyond the crunch of my feet in the powdery snow.  I thought about what I had learned, the people I had met, and the plans for my next outing.  While the conditions were perfect for lion hunting, and I was close to following a lion, in a way I was happy that I still had a lion tag in my pocket.  The season is still young and I do not want this adventure to be over too quickly.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

You called in a what?

November 18, 2013 - Day one of my second season in my Mountain Lion hunting saga.  The plans for the morning had revolved around the possibility of snowfall.  Snowfall represents the best tracking conditions to possibly find a Mountain Lion.  However, snow had been removed from the forecast and a long morning of scouting, with possible calling in the afternoon, was planned.
End of the line, time to turn around and head back down
Shortly after 8:00 am my father and I headed for the high country in what has been referred to as “the battle wagon,” to some, and “Elvira” to others.  Elvira is a 1991 Chevrolet ¾ ton V2500 Suburban.  She is a tough old rig in perfect working order. The body; however, leaves less to be desired: peeling paint, dents from other adventures, and a spot or two of rust is readily apparent.  I am convinced that you could contract tetanus just from looking at her.   I should not be so negative; she has never failed to bring me home and did not let me down today. 

As we neared the high country I found that the forecasters had been correct, they had just chosen the wrong elevation.  There was plenty of snow to be found in the high mountain areas where I hunt for Lions.   My plan for the morning was to spend time scouting a few prospective call stand locations.  However, this was quickly changed to driving every forest road possible in an attempt to find the tracks of a Lion.  Four hours later we had located nearly every track there was to be seen in the Colorado Mountains...except Lion.  We found tracks for fox, coyote, elk, deer, moose, rabbit, squirrel, and even the occasional bobcat.  I found one set of bobcat tracks directly adjacent to a set of grouse tracks.  It made me wonder if the grouse was now still among the living.  
Eventually we ran out of passable roads as the snow deepened.   I could have put Elvira in her favorite mud chains; however, I had to perform a time cost analysis: spend 20 minutes putting on the chains, and another 10 min to remove them, only to plow through a few more miles in higher country where my hunting theory doesn’t seem to apply.  My theory is that as the snow accumulates in the high mountains, the deer move lower, and the predators follow.  I decided this was the end of our road running for the day and turned toward my closest call stands at lower elevations.
I went to a new stand that I researched on google earth and forest maps. While this is beneficial, I always seem to underestimate the terrain.  I look at a location and get excited, thinking, “it’s not that far”, or “that hill is not that steep.”  Of course when I actually arrive in person I find the Grand Canyon, but always trek through anyway.  Last year I found a Lion track headed into a large valley.  The valley floor was on private land, but I could access one side of the valley on one ridge that was part of the National Forest.  Everything looked prime for lion country.  Deer were known to be it the area, and there was plenty of cover and rocks for the lions to perch in.  I had previously spoken to a trapper who suggested this location as a place he had seen cats in before.   This ridge top was where I chose for my first lion stand of the day.  We set up on a rock outcropping with a clear view into the valley.  Despite the research, an hour worth of calling yielded a few Magpies and nothing more.  This location still held potential to me.  It is a simple fact that if there are no lions to hear my calls in this area today, it doesn’t mean they will not be there tomorrow.

Headed toward the valley call stand.     
At the conclusion of the call stand, we quickly packed up and drove to the day’s last setup.  This area is at the top of a large valley on a ridgeline that is full of rock formations. On the other side of the ridgeline lies a second valley, which is often inhabited by deer. Several years prior I had stumbled upon a lion on this very ridgeline.  The encounter was brief and I believe we left each other equally startled.
I set up and settled in for a 70 minute calling session, all that was left of legal hunting hours.  After calling for approximately 10 minutes I caught movement below me.  I slowly moved to prepare for a possible shot and waited to see what I had called in.  There was a tree about 60 yards away and I saw something step around the side of the trunk.  I was expecting the tawny fur of a lion, or a slinking bobcat.  Instantly my brain registered the size, shape, and color were entirely inconsistent with my quarry; however, I was very familiar with this specific species. This particular animal was in fact an adult Mule Deer Doe.  This seemed very odd to me at first.  My predator hunting mindset had not caught up with the simple reality of what I was doing.  I was using a fawn in distress call, and it was working very well, just not for the intended audience.  Two fawns, a mature buck, and another doe quickly joined the first doe.  I spent the next 60 minutes trying to call the deer as close as a possible.   In the end I was able to get them as close as 40 yards.  I was entertained, and at the same time hopeful that I might witness a lion kill on my very real decoys I had just acquired.  At the end daylight faded and I was forced to reveal to the deer what I really was, there was an odd satisfaction to have fooled them for so long.
As we headed for home, I thought about the day.  It was a rare opportunity for my father and I to hunt together.  I cherish any time we can spend together away from the electronic strings of our jobs.  The lions won week one, but the game is long and I am patient.  The chase is what I enjoy the most.