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.

Friday, November 15, 2013

End of the First Season

Lion tracks found during one of my many adventures
The 2012 season lasted into March of 2013 for me.  Many days were spent afield either hiking or driving roads in freshly fallen snow looking for tracks, at times chains and shovels were required!  I discovered several recent lion tracks, but was never able to pursue them very far as they always seemed to cross onto private property.   I made countless call stands both with a partner and without, and I will tell you there truly is no experience in the woods like hand calling for Mountain Lions....alone. I am surprised the rates on my life insurance policy did not increase!

In my heart I knew that this season was truly my, "scouting" season. Without putting boots on the ground and my truck tires on 4WD roads, there was no way I would learn about the lions in my area.  At the close of the season I was exhausted.  Trying to work 40 hours a week, see my family, and hunt at least one full day, and sometimes two, a week for three months was tiring.  Colorado offered an April season in 2013, but I chose to take it off and build my enthusiasm for November, 2013.  Over the summer months I once again picked up my lion research.  I read books on the critters, talked with researchers in other states, and schemed up new hunting areas.  If any is interested I would suggest reading a book titled, " The Beast in the Garden "

Learning to Mountain Lion Hunt, and Where it All Came From

I know where the idea came from.  I know when it happened, where I was, and I can even tell you why.  It was born on a Sunday, on a flat long stretch of highway crossing the southern Utah desert.  I was returning from a road trip with my father and it was during one of the extended periods of silence where a driver’s mind wanders its own depths that I decided I needed a new adventure.  I had achieved many of my hunting goals, and I knew that the loftier ones were at the mercy of a state lottery draw for coveted moose, sheep and goat licenses. To say the least, these dreams were many years in the future. 

I had always been interested in mountain lions, as they held a special mythological place in my hunter's brain.  Short of a few fleeting glimpses of them in the woods, I did not have much experience with the big kitties.  I could not even tell you the difference between a canine track and the spoor of a puma.  I had once been stalked by a cougar several years prior while bow hunting elk, but it wasn't until I seriously started researching the animal that I realize just how close the lion had been.  Those strange whistles I heard were not some weird species of bird unknown to me. As I pondered the prospects of taking up mountain lion hunting, it quickly grew to a solid determination to make 2012 the year I started on this new journey to become a lion hunter.

Upon my return from the road trip, I learned that 2012 Colorado Mountain Lion season was due to begin in three weeks’ time.   I immediately started a flurry of activating learning all that I could about surrounding public lands and my quarry in general.  I annoyed several local game wardens with telephone calls, and at times repeated polite voice mail messages to garner a phone interview.  I believe one of them felt I was a little on the insane side.   When I asked if he had ever checked in lion killed by calling, his statement was something of the tone of, "it can be done, but it is very rare".   All of the wardens suggested finding a hunter with hounds or utilizing a guide service.  The prospect of shooting a lion treed by hounds that were not mine and that I did not train, did not appeal to me.  I have nothing against hounds men, it just did not seem my way.  I visited a national forest office; older, experienced hunters who knew the area I would be hunting; and spoke with nearly anyone who would talk to me about where lions had been spotted or were believed to be.  I furthered my research on the internet and found several forums and websites detailing some hunters experience lion calling.  I read nearly everything I could get my hands on that discussed the Mountain Lion, his habits, and known behaviors.  I quickly learned that the mountain lion is a low density predator that is tough to predict, and can have a very large home range.  The best advice I was given was, "find the mule deer, where they winter range, the lions will be." 
A sign found at the foot of one of the trailheads.

My first hunt started on a November 19, 2012, and was spent in an area I had specifically seen a lion in several years prior.  Despite several call stands and a hike along a ridge line, no lion was seen/heard or otherwise detected, apart from some very old possible prey kill sites.  I had expected this; I knew I was in for a long haul, possibly even several seasons’ worth of calling/hiking/scouting before I was able to connect with a Puma.  What I got out of this first day?  I caught the bug.  There is nothing like setting up a call stand specifically for lions and calling directly for them.  I ventured out again the next week, this time spotting my very first confirmed lion track.  I spent nearly an hour examining it and trying to track the beast across a sandy drainage, but without snow it was hopeless.  I set up a call stand and had an animal spook from a rock scree that was behind me.  To this day I do not know if it was a lion, but I like to think so, as some hounds men took a lion out of that same drainage the following day.  

December 03, 2012 was a game changing day.  With a hunting partner I spent the day hiking and scouting an area that I had received a tip on.  Several lions had been caught repeatedly on trail cameras in an area known for heavy hiking activity.  After the 2.5 mile climb into the area, we set up a stand in the area of the trail cams and started calling.  After about 15 minutes of rabbit distress, I let out a lion whistle.  Instantaneously a lion whistled back several times and then growled at me from a distance of about 100 yards.  Despite another hour of calling, the lion never revealed itself, or he did and I did not see him.  I learned many things from this call stand and applied the very technical, “would have, could have, should have" principal to it countless times in my mind.  Despite never seeing the lion I counted it as a huge success in a my lion calling career.

Who am I?

I never thought my name would ever be associated with the term, "blogger."  Nor would the idea of having a blog ever have occurred to me, and indeed it did not.  It came to me through the means of several near simultaneous suggestions by friends and family who seemed to recognized that I live a life beyond common. 

My true world exists outside the realm of these mysterious light boxes that others call computers.  These devices only represent a means of communication, work productivity, and the occasional distracting video game.  Where I truly thrive is far from any electrical outlet, schedule, or time commitment, beyond the rise and fall of the sun.  Who am I?  I am a seeker of adventure, specifically adventure found in the mountains.  '

While I enjoy hunting big game, my true passion is pursuing Mountain Lions by means of hand calling.  To say I am fascinated by these apex predators is an understatement.  It probably borders on an obsession.  While bow hunting Elk, Mule Deer, Pronghorn, and Black Bear, will certainly be topics of future blogs, for the next few months my focus will be on this season's pursuit of the Puma Concolor.