It does not happen often, as a matter of fact it has only occurred twice in 14 years. What is it that I am writing about? I did not draw my archery Elk tag for my favorite hunting unit in Colorado for the 2014 season. It was a difficult thing to walk into the treestand with only a deer license nestled in my pocket. I came up with a solution though; I carried a video camera and counted electronic coup on the large animals. This idea turned into a great success as nearly every time I sat in the treestand I had elk come into the waterhole. During these sessions I was able to film everything from a bull wallowing to even a calf nursing from it's mother.
While it has been several months since I returned from my elk woods, I finally took some time to patch together some of the best footage into a short video. While I certainly enjoyed, "hunting," with a camera last year, I can not wait for Elk season 2015 when hopefully there will be more lethal results. I hope you enjoy the video.
So you want to hunt Mountain Lions? To do so is an exciting adventure, but before you continue with this article ask yourself why. Why do you want to pursue what is probably one of the most difficult animals there is to hunt? If it is to simply kill one, stop reading right now, leave this page and search for a good mountain lion guide. Please don't get me wrong, I do not judge. I understand the thrill of taking the top predator of the American west. I tell you to go because it is more economical in both time and money to hire a guide. It will still be a great adventure, and a tough hunt as well. I hear tales of following hounds for up to 5 or 6 six miles over some of the roughest, coldest terrain there is. However, if you truly want the greatest most intense predator hunt there is, by all means please continue to peruse what I am sure will be a long winded article.
If you are going to call in a Lion you need to be prepared for the long haul. I am entering my third season of hunting the big cats, and during this time I have either called in or been present for the call in of two lions. Neither lion ended up in the back of the truck. One Lion was confirmed with vocalizations and the other was with tracks. I have further wander the tracks of several other lions and learned a great deal about the cats.
How to Call
The calling rig.
There are two basic methods of calling mountain lions: hand calls, and electronic callers, otherwise known as an e-caller. The first thing you need to do is check the game laws of the state you plan on hunting to determine if e-callers are legal to use. If you can use an e-caller you are fortunate, as many of the dangers associated with lion calling are now limited. Furthermore, you now can forgo learning new predator calls and sounds. I hunt in Colorado where e-callers are forbidden to hunt the elusive cat. The other scenario is if you are a purest and seek to take the animal in the most difficult, dangerous possible way. Most of my experience is with hand calling for lions. A great resource for both e-calling and hand calling is Rain Shadow's website . Rain Shadow also sells hand calls and instructional CDs. If you are truly looking to pursue lions, I highly encourage you to view this website.
So we are now going to go call a lion, what sound do you use? I prefer a raspy rabbit call, and the Primos Thrid Degree Cottontail is my go-to call. I have called in one lion with this as my base sound. The other sound I use is a fawn in distress cry. I make this sound using a Primos Coyote and Bear Buster call. There are plenty of other calls and sounds out there that will do a excellent job. These calls are just the ones I prefer. Whichever call you choose, it is important that it is easy for you to blow for extended periods of time.
The remaining sound that is important to have is a mountain lion whistle. Yes, mountain lions whistle, and if you do not believe me watch this short Youtube Video of a lion caught in the act. I use a Primos Lil' Dog call to make a mountain lion whistle with. Using this sound I can get the cat to come in faster and possibly respond vocally to it. The first time a lion whistled back to me and then growled a warning to me, it sent shivers down my spine. I spent the next 45 minutes trying to get that cat into position for a shot, the whole time I had the most intense adrenaline rush I have ever experienced in the woods.
Last year I produced a video using predator distress calls, which you can view below. Although the video is long, it goes into numerous aspects of using hand calls. If you are looking for the specific portion dealing with creating the lion whistle, you can find it around the 7:30 mark.
The Foxpro Hellfire and one of its prey.
As for using an e-caller, I have very limited experience with this for mountain lions. I have however used them profusely for coyotes and bobcats over the years. There are several sources of mountain lion electronic sounds for the e-callers that you can procure. My current e-caller is a Foxpro Hellfire, andI have been very satisfied with this caller. It comes pre-loaded with 75 sounds, two of which are mountain lion vocalizations. I have found the caller to be very loud and does an excellent job of calling the critters in.
The Call Stand
The author on a call stand. Note the tree for protection.
So you have your calls, you have practiced, hopefully found a good area for lions, and are ready for the call stand. What does a typical lion stand look like? For me I often call alone without backup. This can be a very intimidating experience. Let me paint the picture for you. I dress up in heavy camouflage, hide in a bush, then do the best I can to sound like an easy meal to 150 pounds of predatory fury embodied in a perfect killing machine. A machine that is going to do everything it can to approach unseen, unheard, and preferably from behind. As such, when I set up a call stand the first thing I look for is a large rock or obstacle that would prevent an attack from behind. Luckily in Colorado these are fairly common. If you have a partner, position them in a way to cover the caller's back. If you can use an e-caller, this can give you a significant safety advantage as you can place the caller away from you and observe it. This also makes it easier to fool the lion as the attention will not be directly on you.
Cats take longer to respond to predator calls than coyotes and foxes. Do not expect to see a lion come charging in to find the source of the sound. They are going to slink and stalk their way in, moving slowly and using their eyes to locate where the distressed prey is. Expect to see little of the cat, probably just its face peering around a tree or bush, just waiting to catch you moving. As they take their time to come in, most of my call stands last 45 to 90 minutes. This can be a long time to sit still and call if it is cold or you're in an uncomfortable position. Prepare for this and plan ahead with your clothing and gear.
My typical calling session starts with about 20 minutes of distress sounds. I call for about 20-30 seconds and then rest for about a minute. I try to vary my sound and emotion in the cries of the distress sound. It is important to note that you might get a lesser predator during this 20 minute period. I will not shoot a coyote or fox if I am in an area where I truly believe a lion is. If I am simply calling in the blind, or on a hunch I will take the lesser fur. After 20 minutes I then start using a lion whistle. I will whistle three or four times and then pause to see if I get a response call. After several rounds of the three to four whistles, I will go back to the distress call. After 5 minutes of distress I will switch back to the lion whistles, and repeat his pattern through the rest of the call stand. At times I might switch my distress sound half-way through the stand or might not, it just depends on the scenario.
While on the stand it is incredibly important to hold still. Cats primary sense is their eyes. They still use their nose and ears, but overall they rely on their sight the most. I use a camouflage bandanna to help cover the movement of my hands when I am calling, as well as camouflage gloves.
Once you have decided the call stand is complete, scan the entire area once and then scan it again before standing. If you see nothing, slowly rise and complete another two scans, be prepared for a shot as once you stand a lion or bobcat might flee and give you a running chance at glory.
Where to Call
This is perhaps the most important part of lion calling: Where are they? Not a lot is known about the puma. They are a solitary, secretive predator who makes their living at not being seen. Many states do not even have a truly accurate estimation of how many of these critters reside in their state.
The easiest way to call a mountain lion is to simply know where one is. This can be a more difficult task than one would expect. You can go call in the blind, that is simply calling in territory that looks good, but you have no other indicators that they are there. Calling a lion in the blind is possible but it is like winning the lottery, you just get lucky that one is close to you. However, your chances of a lion responding to your calls increase exponentially when you are able to put the distress sound in their ears.
Lion scat and scratch marks.
Spend your time trying to locate where the lions are your area are, rather than mass calling. Pumas roam over a home territory in search of prey. This area can be very large geographically for male lions, and smaller for females. Lions do not usually den every night, unless they have kittens, but lay up in various locations throughout their roaming. I have found lay-ups in rocks, caves, and even heard of them using a tree for a nap.
Talk to your local game wardens, as they will often know where problem cats have been reported. They may also clue you in to where recent sightings are, or even a lion kill that the cat cached for later use. If you have large ranches in your area, stop in and speak the to land owner. I have often found cattle, horse, and even goat ranches to be more than receptive to a lion hunter. The only caveat to this is if a hounds-man has already beaten me there.
Having a good GPS is a must for a lion hunter.
Another option is to drive mountain roads in your area just after a snow storm. This can be perhaps the best way to get right behind a cat. Crossing the tracks of a lion who traversed a road recently will not only let you know they are in the area, but possibly put you very near them. Be prepared for this road journey should you choose to try it. I have driven 80 miles of 4-wheel drive snow roads, and come up empty on a single lion track. Pack a lunch, a thermos of coffee, and perhaps some good driving tunes, as you are going to be at this for a while. Make sure your truck has four wheel drive and stocked with emergency supplies, as well as chains, a shovel, and even a winch.
I also find detailed forest maps not only helpful but a downright necessity. I strongly urge you to buy a good GPS, and a map package for your state from Hunting GPS Maps. This will allow you to always know where you are and if the land is public or not. Also, it lists the landowner names, and a little internet research might even yield a telephone number for you to contact them for permission to hunt.
Get out and walk the ridges and canyons. Look for lion signs, tracks, scrapes, and old kills. If you are lucky to find a recent lion deer kill, set up on it. Decide if you want to try to wait and ambush the lion when he returns, or try to call one in.
The Rifle and Caliber
The remains of a cached deer kill. I found this too late.
Often I have been asked what caliber should be used. I wish I could tell you I had first hand experience of a bullet striking lion flesh and its end result, however; I am still waiting for that opportunity. From all I have researched, pumas are reported to be pretty thin skinned. I have heard many reports of people shooting them with a .223 Remington successfully and the lion dropping immediately. However, I have also heard of other instances of people losing lions to the .223 Remington, and even a 22-250. It seems the people who are successful in using light calibers are hounds-man, or their clients whom shoot the lion from close range while it is up a tree.
All being said, if you have a .223 Remington, I would not hesitate to take it out lion calling. Take your time and make a good shot in the lungs or heart. At times a light weight AR15 is what is in my hands on call stand. My preferred lion rifle is an AR10 chambered in 308 Winchester. I am confident that if I hit a lion with the 150 grain 30 caliber bullet it is going down. The last thing I want to do is track a wounded lion alone. I like the AR10 platform, as it gives me the option for a quick follow-up shot, as my plan is to keep shooting until the lion stops moving. I do not what to spend all of the time and effort, and then lose the animal to a light hit.
Whichever weapon you choose, it is most important to spend time in practice. Never carry a rifle into the field you are not certain of. You owe it to the animal to make the fastest and most ethical kill possible.
The AR10 out on a lion hunt.
This article is meant to be part one of a two part series on mountain lion hunting. Next time we will cover tracking the big cats, and more detail of some the gear you should consider purchasing or packing in your kit for lion hunting. On my page called "resources", you will find more information and links on lion hunting. I would encourage you to take a look at these if you are interested. Stay safe in your lion hunting outings, take a friend, plan for the unexpected and watch your backside. Closing thoughts this time are of adventure and the thrill of life and the hunting. In this area I think Arnold said it best.
"For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer. - Arnold Schwarzenegger
One iPhone charger, a cheer leading pompom, numerous socks, uncountable cardboard boxes, pink bunny slippers, and even a pair of my old boots. What do these items all have in common? They have all become the victims of the terror that can be a Catahoula puppy. I keep telling my very patient family that what comes with an intelligent, driven dog is the restlessness of boredom and ways to fill it. Basically a excellent dog in the field can make a tiresome house canine.
The household antics aside; Bohannon the Catahoula puppy is an awesome animal. He has been with me for the past two months and we have already covered much ground. We have roamed the Colorado Mountains in search of ducks, coyotes, and general adventure. A bond has been built between us and a mutual understanding seems to be in the development.
At ten weeks old, I started training Bohannon for tracking and trailing. By 12 weeks old he already had the basics down. At 16 weeks the dog is running 300 yard-long trails on human scent and has been introduced to Mountain Lion scent as well. Bohannon tracks both scents equally well, but we are focusing on humans primarily, as I have the intent to develop him as a Search and Rescue dog. Bohannon tracks any human scent I give him and has begun to master when the person makes a turn in their trail, or crosses a small obstacle such as a rocks, or a stream.
Every time we go out to train I find I learn more about tracking and scent dispersal than he does, merely by allowing the dog to teach me through his own natural abilities. I am absolutely amazed at how easy it has been to teach this Catahoula to scent trail. It just seems the breed has a built in affinity for it. I am shocked that these dogs are not used more commonly in the Search and Law Enforcement fields.
When I made Bohannon's first video I was surprised at the amount of attention it received. I have since had several people contact me to find out more about training this remarkable breed. Some have asked if the general description of the Catahoula's temperament is accurate. They are often described as hard-headed, or even aggressive dogs. It is also advised that they need a lot of exercise and attention.
Bohannon seeing snow for the first time.
While I am not an expert on the Catahoula, I will comment on some of these allegations from now owning and training two of them. If you are looking for a real authority on the breed I would direct you to Don Abney with Abney Catahoulas. Don has been raising and training Catahoulas for probably longer than I have been on this planet. Not only is Don a true gentlemen, but a very strong proponent of the Catahoula, and the breeder of Bohannon.
If you plan to purchase a Catahoula, you need to be prepared. They are fantastic dogs, but they need a little guidance. I believe they are actually too intelligent for their own good. There are several areas of concern I would advise you review or be prepared to address.
Dominance - Before owning any dog, and especially a Catahoula, I would encourage you to learn about Canine social hierarchy in a pack. Your dog will see you as just a weird looking fellow canine and you will need to be the pack leader. If you are not the pack Alpha (leader), then the Catahoula will decide he is. Understand the Catahoula may try to assert dominance over you and test you. You will need to be ready to maintain your leadership role. I like to start early on with feeding time. My pup is not allowed to eat until I tell him he can. In the dog pack the leader eats first and then each subsequent dog, thus establishing the role early on. Also, be prepared to follow-up any trained command with the expected activity. For example, if your dog knows the Sit command and you give it to him and he clearly heard you and ignores you, then you must make him sit. If he learns that he can ignore your commands, you are on the road to losing the Alpha position. Always be as gentle as you can be with your dog, but be firm and make sure if he understands a command, that he follows it.
Bohannon on a hunting trip, meeting ducks for the first time.
Socialization - I believe it is important to introduce the puppy to as many people as possible when they are young. It can help later in life for them to accept new people and be friendly. One exception to that is dog parks. Not only can the parks be an excellent place to pick up a disease or parasite, but you are also at the mercy of other dogs' conduct. As for aggressiveness, I have not found the Catahoula to be mean, but protective and defensive. If they feel their person or property is being threatened, they may react in a protective manner. Socialization early on has seemed to help with Bohannon, but he still growls when people approach his yard, truck, or knock on the door. I do not mind a dog that is protective as long as he is not overtly so. Take the puppy everywhere you can, and let him experience new and interesting things. It will help him be more confident when he is an adult.
Buddies, the author and Bohannon.
Bonding - It is very important to build a close bond with your dog. Both of my Catahoulas were/are a one person dog. It is difficult for anyone other than myself to correct or get his respect. Make sure your dog bonds with you and not another family member if you want to work them. Take a week off from work when you first get the pup. Do not do any corrections, just go have fun together. Learn who your pup is, and be his whole world for a while. Bo and I went camping for 10 days when I first got him. He did not really get any corrections or have any training until he had been with me for two weeks.
Attitude - There are two tools that I have found to be invaluable with training Bohannon so far. Those are patience and persistence. Being patient when your message is not received by the dog, and persistence in what you're trying to achieve with him. Along with those tools are energy and a positive attitude. I find when my drive and energy is up, so is Bo's, and on the contrary his antics and concentration is lowered when mine is. Be creative with your training. If one way isn't working, try another approach. I try to make everything a game to make things fun. Bo was not getting the "come" command very well. He really likes to track. As such, I made him sit and stay. I then walked around a corner out of sight and hid. After hiding I called Bo, and had him find me. This made the "come" command fun and a great game for him.
A frozen Catahoula bundled up in the duck blind.
Exercise - This is an absolute must, every day or even twice a day. If Bohannon does not get to work for a day, then I need to be prepared for all manner of household destruction. Playing fetch, going for a walk, or even a little obedience training seems to take the edge off and help him settle a bit. If you are going to own a Catahoula, have a plan to train them for something. They need mental stimulation beyond just physical exertion. If you do not give him something to do, he will find something he considers fun; I am sure you will not find this activity entertaining.
In my opinion Catahoulas are one of the absolute best working breeds there is. They require your time and a firm but loving hand to raise, but in the end you will have a fabulous dog. Closing thoughts are on patience, as that is what I have been practicing.
"Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which all difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish." -John Quincy Adams
I have wanted to continue my, "how to," video series on outdoor activities for some time now. This year I have made sure to carrying my ever increasing arsenal of electronic recording devices into the field with me. During a scouting and treestand setting outing, I paused and filmed a segment on how to set a ladder stand. I hope you take a few minutes to view my newest video. For those seeking advice on this matter I would like to think this video may be of some assistance to you. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have on the matter.
"What is that?" This question was stated by the gruff leather-clad biker as he strode over from his American iron, which was parked nearby still emitting soft pops and pings as the metal of the engine cooled. I found it interesting that the little wheeled device that was strapped to the back of my ancient rust covered Suburban had garnered the attention of this road warrior. What he was looking at was indeed interesting. A rebirth of a relic from the 1930s, with a modern twist and construction. It was a Teardrop travel trailer. If you are curious about the historical origins of the Teardrop, I would encourage you to review this article from the December 1936 issues of Popular Mechanics: Teardrop Plans 1936 Popular Mechanics.
The Teardrop I was towing was made by Colorado Teardrops, which is based out of Boulder, Colorado. I had been approach by the company seeking assistance with getting the word out about their product to the hunting community. After looking through their website, I was intrigued by this very unique aluminum-clad trailer, and offered to review it from a hunter's perspective. Plans were made and several weeks later I found myself in the heart of Boulder, retrieving the test trailer for a few days of coyote hunting in the beautiful Colorado mountains.
Dean shows the Teardrop to the Colorado Hunter.
"Our goal is to be in Camping World!" This was one of the first statements Dean Wiltshire of Colorado Teardrops said to me. Dean was genuine, sincere, driven, and honest. I liked him instantly. When I arrived, I had found Dean working on the very trailer that was to accompany me. It was 8.5 feet and 900 pounds of quaintness. There were two doors to enter into the 6 foot sleeping area which sported several cubby-style shelves. The real magic was found at the end of the trailer. A sweeping rear door hinged up and away to reveal the outdoor galley of the camper. We will use a much more outdoorsman-friendly term and call the well designed galley a "work space" for now. The work space was well organized and had built-in shelves for the ice chest, cooking stove, water container, and even came stocked with fire wood. The upper portion had ample room from storage of cooking utensils and food. I later found that the shelves fit canned goods nicely and held them there during transport. If you are interested in the exact specifications on the Base Camp model I was reviewing, I would invite you to peruse the Colorado Teardrops' brochure. Colorado Teardrops sells and rents these trailers if you are seeking one of your own either temporarily or on a more permanent basis.
The work space, aka Galley, of the camper.
My hunting destination was several hundred miles and one 10,000 foot mountain pass away. I was excited for this adventure and headed out after a brief stop to load gear and supplies. I had a companion on this trip, and shortly after we departed, inevitably an excellent conversation was struck up. It was not until several hours later I remembered I had a trailer behind me, it towed that well. The trailer was very light and tracked well behind my Suburban. I have no doubt that a small vehicle would have no difficulty towing this trailer. The weather for our trip had conspired against us and we were forced to drive through several rainstorms, after which we checked and could not find a single leak inside the sleeping portion of the trailer.
Sleeping quarters, complete with an upper vent.
As a result of the rain, I encountered the muddy roads that I both feared and partly hoped for to test the trailer out on. Trailers and mud are generally a bad concoction at best. Too much weight on the rear of the vehicle can bog it down and make it very difficult to proceed. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the light weight trailer had very little effect on the four wheel drive capability of my aging beast. Despite several close calls, we never got the truck or trailer stuck in the slippery Colorado mud. Dean had told me to return the trailer without washing it and I felt very guilty with the amount of earthen debris it had collected.
Camping out of the trailer was great. Everything worked as it was designed. The lack of a battery or on-board electricity was a small inconvenience but easily overcome. The bed was queen sized and totaled 6 feet in length. This was a boon to my 6' 2" frame and I had to lay in the bed at an angle to fit. Colorado Teardrops has already addressed these two issues with a new trailer that has a 6' 5" foot bed and has plans to incorporate a DC battery and solar panel charger into upcoming models.
Overall the camper by Colorado Teardrops is a great trailer. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a unique and light weight travel trailer. This trailer eliminates the need for a large truck to tow it and would be a welcome edition on any hunting trip. I envision this as the perfect solution to the hunter with an SUV, smaller truck, or even a car who is tired of damp and often leaking tents. Furthermore, if you like being different or traveling your own path, it is easy to do with a Teardrop. You can not stop at a gas station or travel the highways without admiring stares or questions. Oh, and our gruff biker friend was so enamored with the Teardrop that not only did I have to open all the doors and hatches to show him, but he brought his fellow biker comrades over to see the trailer as well.
During my short adventure I could not resist taking many photographs and video of the little trailer. I hope you enjoy this video review I made of the camper.
Closing thoughts this time are on ambition. Dean struck me as a motivated fellow, and as hunters we are ambitious folks. Why else would be leave the comfort of our homes to go out in the snow, rain, mud, and cold. Braving whatever weather conditions our chosen landscape throws at us to test our mettle. If you have a Teardrop with you, then at least at the end of the day you will have a warm, dry place to recharge for the next morning's adventure.
The parting quote belongs to Bill Bradley: "Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in."
This couldn't be a hunting blog without at least one hunting picture. Here is Bo and I on a call stand.
There were lots of coyotes around us and several sighted, but that story is for another time.
Abney's Bohannon, the Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog
I tend to hunt alone. It's not that I dislike people or other hunters, but instead is based on a number of factors. I find that when I am alone my senses are focused and keenly aware of the hunting landscape around me. The chirp of a bird or chatter of a squirrel are the conversations I prefer to pay more attention to. I further find an inner peace in the solitude of my own thoughts when the distractions of other humans has been removed. Additionally, there is a thrill in the reality that I am all that's there to get me home safe. I am on my own to solve all of my forest troubles and challenges.
Despite my general desire for solo hunting, it has not always been this way. On December 22, 2007, I had to say goodbye to one of my favorite hunting partners when he passed away. He was a creature of few words and seemed to understand who I was and let me be who I am. He was always ready to hunt, fearless, rugged, and at times aloof, just like me. We had spent 13 years together roaming the Colorado Mountains and marshlands in search of game and adventure. When I had to say goodbye it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. His name was Taz, and he was a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog. When he was with me I never had any doubt that if there was danger I would find him between me and it. I could tell you numerous stories about this magnificent animal, but this article is not about him, it is about his successor.
6 years after Taz's death, two of which had been spent hunting mountain lions, I found myself wanting another hunting dog. I was looking for a very specific animal. One who was tough, fearless, and had natural tracking and protective instincts. My thought was to train a dog who could accompany me on my lion hunts. I would train the dog to be able to track prey, and serve as protection should I call a lion in too close. I further needed a dog who would trail silently, as I have no desire to tree lions. I could think of no better breed than another Catahoula.
Those not familiar with the breed might have difficulty even pronouncing the name, let alone understanding what kind of dog they are. There is actually a curse in owning one, which is you can not take them anywhere without explaining what they are at least a half a dozen times. My simplest explanation is that the dog is a very old amalgamation of several breeds of canine. I will not expound in detail on this as a I do not feel I have either the knowledge or authority to do so. What I will suggest is if you wish to know more, that you visit the website of the authority on Catahoulas at http://www.abneycatahoulas.com. Here you will find a complete history on the breed, detailed information, and an awesome breeder of them. However, my working description of them is this: There is simply more wild left in this breed than any other I have met.
Bohannon in the Colorado Mountains
Taz was bred by Don Abney of Abney Catahoula's, and no matter how long I had to wait, I knew I wanted another one of his fine animals. Nearly a year after paying a deposit and being placed on the waiting list I found myself boarding a plane for a whirlwind one-day trip to New Orleans to pick up my new pup. His coat was a blue leopard, and Don had described the dog as "a firecracker". I cared more for his personality and tracking ability than his looks, but in this case I received both. The best comment I have heard that describes his appearance is, "You couldn't paint a more beautiful dog." After several days owning the dog, I settled on the the name "Bohannon." Although my wife insists I should have named him,"scamp," as his can be a little devil at times.
Bohannon learning to swim
In the four weeks Bo and I have been together, we have covered much ground. Our first adventure was 10 days spent hunting deer in the Colorado high country. Bo went everywhere with me, except the tree stand. He learned to swim, how to ride on a four wheeler, walk on a leash, and chew up a grouse. If you ever want a challenge, try living in small pick up truck camper with a 9 week old puppy for a week and half.
Since then Bo has entered a training regimen with me to learn how to track and retrieve. He has surpassed all of my expectations and is an absolute natural tracker. I am more convinced he is training me rather than the other way around. In seven short lessons he has progressed to running L tracks that are more than a hundred yards long, with hidden track layers. Bo finds them every time with ease, and it is time to progress to using Lion scent. Even though this is my second Catahoula, I am still astounded at what amazing working and hunting dogs they are. I recently recorded some of our training sessions and made a short video about it. I hope you enjoy it.
As I continue to say goodbye to one dog, I welcome a new one into my hunting world. This time my closing thoughts are about friendship, as this is what our hunting dogs are. They grace our lives for such a short fraction of our life span; however, this is the price we pay for the devotion and companionship they give. I will leave the parting quote to Albert Camus; "Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend." -Albert Camus.
Over the course of the last 15 years, I have spent countless hours 30 feet above the ground clinging to a tree, perched on a small metal platform. To some this might sound like a torture device designed to elicit a confession to a certain devious deed. To bow hunters, we know this contraption as a tree stand, and there is no other place we would rather be. While sitting in my stand this year, I thought about the complexity of shooting from a stand. I reflected upon the knowledge I have garnered from both my successes and many failures when it comes to shooting from tree stands. I have read many outdoor articles that focus on stand placement, and hunting, but how often do we discuss the actual mechanics of shooting from a confined, elevated platform?
It therefore seemed a great time to present some of what I have learned. This article is written with bow hunters in mind; however, many principles and ideas will translate towards rifle and crossbows as well. Some of these suggestions can also be used to shoot from a ground blind.
I feel there are actually three stages in making a successful shot on an animal from a tree stand. The first stage begins when it's decided where to set your stand and includes how you actually set it. The second is practice, both before and during season, and the third is the mental aspect and physics of the actual shot.
Selecting and Setting the Tree Stand
Elk at 9 yards. This is an example of setting a stand close.
Often countless hours are spent locating a tree to place a stand in. This is obviously important as hunters want to be in a position where their prey will wander into the ambush. However, the success of our shot begins the moment we select and place the stand in the tree.
If you have the choice of several trees to use, you want to select the one that gives you the closest shot to where your prey will be. We all know that the closer the target is the easier the shot is. Keep in mind that the closer you are, the more you should focus on scent, movement, sound, and camouflage. The price you pay for the close shot is the care you take in making yourself invisible. Care should also be taken to note the primary wind direction. One of the great commandments of archery hunters is to hunt downwind, and just because you are in a tree does not forgive a violation of the rule. Furthermore, always check for any major obstacles that may block a potential shot. Make the decision on whether or not you can remove an obstacle, such as a tree limbs or brush, or if you wish to leave them in place for camouflage.
An example of setting the stand angled for a right hand shooter.
Once you have selected your tree and started your set, it is very important to place the tree stand at the correct angle for the most commonly expected shot. This can often be overlooked and hunters will frequently set the tree stand so that they're directly facing the shooting situation. For right handed archers, the tree stand should be set as to present the most common shot to the left hand side. It is very natural to draw your bow facing the left and puts the archer in a shooting stance of being closed to the target. Left handed shooters should position the most common shot to the right side of them. Conversely you want the most unexpected shooting opportunity to be to the side that is most unnatural to draw your bow to. Recognizing that even if the archer is standing for the shot, there are sides of a tree stand you may not be able to draw from and successfully shoot to. Bottom line, make the expected shot the easiest and most natural to perform.
Elk at a tree stand. This is a good example of not clearing
enough obstacles for a shot.
Once the stand is set, strap in and sit down. Take your time to observe your surroundings and shooting lanes/opportunities. Now is a great time to remove limbs, and clear shooting lanes. I like to take along a pole saw with me that allows me to trim high branches easily. If you have the ability, it is a great thing to take your bow and a shooting bag along with you on your tree stand setting adventure. After you have cleared your lanes, set the bag out where you anticipate the shots will be and shoot from the stand. This will give you a chance to check clearances of your bow limbs and you draw arm against the tree. Remove anything that will interfere with your shot.
We all know the importance of practice, and I would suggest that this is one of the most important factors of bow hunting. Daily or even weekly practice at the bow range for several months before season is perhaps the greatest thing we can do to prepare for a tree stand shot. I always shudder when I hear archers tell me they hit the range for the first time, two weeks before season. This remark is usually followed up with something like, "Yep, I took the bow out of the case, shot some arrows and the pins are still right on. I am good to go." This statement is only partially correct: the bow is ready to go, but are you? Your archery muscles and mind have just spent the last 11 months on vacation. They need lots of work and repetition to get back into shape before hunting. Shooting at an animal with a bow from a tree stand can be one of the most difficult shots you may make. Honor the animal, and be the best prepared you can be for it.
Also, make sure in your practice routine to add in seated and odd angled shots. Shoot from all position you can to become comfortable with awkward shooting situations. Make sure to maintain proper shooting form and do not sacrifice accuracy. If you can find an elevated platform to shoot from, use it! Shooting steep downward angles greatly changes the trajectory of your arrow. It is best to know the difference in arrow flight before your moment of truth arrives. I personally use my second floor deck and shoot down into the grass of my backyard. It works great, except for the odd look or two from the neighbors.
Let me ask you a question: How many practice arrows are in your hunting quiver? Often I get confused replies from archers when I ask them this. They wonder why I would carry practice arrows to my tree stand. It is a simple answer: to practice with. We shoot all summer long, and there is no reason why we should stop once opening day dawns. Furthermore, there is no better preparation for a shot than having already made that exact shot that very same day. The first thing I do after strapping into my tree stand is shoot several practice arrows into the ground where I anticipate the animal could be. This not only builds my confidence, but it also confirms there are no problems with drawing the bow in my stand, or any equipment interfering with the shot. Recently I made a practice shot from a stand with my longbow. The arrow flew highly erratic and I found that one of the strands on the bow string had separated during transport. I retrieved my spare string from the quiver and continued hunting. If I had not made that practice shot, I could have missed an opportunity on an animal.
Some further tips on practice arrows: Some people worry about animals smelling the arrows on the ground when they approach. I agree this is a rational fear. To overcome this I spray scent of the animal I am hunting on the feathers of my tree stand practice arrows. The result of this is two fold: not only does it disguise the human scent, but it can stop the animal when they smell it and possibly give you an excellent shot. Don't believe me on this one? Check out the video below that shows a cow elk smelling my practice arrow at 26 yards. I sprayed elk urine on the feathers before the shot.
Mental and Physical Aspects of the Shot
Lets face it. Even the most experienced hunters get a rush watching an animal walking into their ambush. The adrenaline dump and anticipation can almost be debilitating for some. Novice bow hunters often report believing or even being physically unable to draw their bow when the shot arrives. This is even after shooting hundreds or perhaps thousands of arrows in practice sessions. All of that preparation is gone in an instant and some how the shot is either passed up, or is rushed and botched. Hunters do not even remember letting the arrow go and can not believe they missed a buck at a mere 10 or 20 yards. It just seems inconceivable. You sometimes will hear this called "buck fever", or "target panic"
The solution is to break your adrenaline-influenced thought cycle and focus on the mechanics of your shot. If my thoughts were spoken out loud as an animal approaches my stand they would sound something like: "stay calm, breath, pick your spot!" Once the shot arrives, I pause and think, "draw to anchor, aim, aim, aim, release."
Now I am a traditional archer. As such, if you shoot a compound or rifle, you may have some different shot fundamentals. The important thing is to slow down, stay calm, and work through what you have practiced. The shot itself should be a conscious decision, as opposed to a reaction to the stress or fear of missing or hitting the animal. Take your time, aim on the exact spot you wish to hit, and release only when you are confident in the shot.
Should you stand for the shot or remain sitting? This thought can be debated in the hunting community. My answer is both! I prefer to shoot from whatever position is accurate, yet requires minimal movement and noise to prepare for. Often this is from the seated position, but at times I have been standing when the animal appears and choose to shoot from there. Many seasons ago a cow elk walked into 15 yards and gave me a perfect broadside shot. The elk heard my clothing rustle when I stood for the shot and bolted, leaving me feeling ill prepared. Since then I purposefully set tree stands to allow for seated shooting. I prefer to shoot from the seat of my tree stands and often practice in the off season shooting while sitting on a bench. If you decide to shoot while seated, it is imperative to practice and check to make sure there is enough clearance between the elbow of your draw arm and the tree.
Knowing the distance of your shot is paramount to hitting the animal. It is very important not to guess the distance. A matter of a few yards could mean a miss, or worse, a lingering wounding of your prey. Range finders have dropped drastically in price and are worth every penny you spend on them. It is still great to exercise and train in the skill of distance estimation, but when shooting from a set location there is no reason you need to. I commonly find or even create landmarks around my stands that will allow me to know any distance as a glance. When I talk about hunting a stand you might hear me use words like, '"the 26 yard rock," or 'the 30 yard tree." I sometimes make a game of it to pass the time. I will range find many objects around me, and then quiz myself while rechecking the distance. If this is not your style, I know one hunter who used chalk and spray paint on trees to mark them. Different colors meant different distances, green for 20, red for 30, and yellow for 40, etc. Why these colors? Because they matched the colors of the sight pins on his bow for the corresponding distance.
Lastly, you need to take into account the angle of shot placement on the animal. Your arrow will be entering high on one side and exiting low on the other. Heart shots can be tricky if you aim directly for it, as you can actually pass below the heart itself. I highly recommend aiming for a double lung hit, since it is a bigger target and puts the animal on the ground just as quickly.
The author with a decent Bull, taken from a tree stand
Hunting from tree stands can be a very rewarding adventure, and I hope you enjoyed this article. If I had to sum it up in one sentence it would be this: Practice, take care when setting the stand, pick your spot on the animal, and stay calm.
Closing thoughts this time are my own. It is a saying I have coined around camp and sums up my thoughts on becoming a successful hunter. "Hunting favors the persistent and prepared."
Where has the Colorado Hunter been for the past two weeks? Clearly not blogging as there has not been a post since August 19th. It should not surprise you that I was out hunting. Creating more memories, photographs and videos, which I hope to share in the near future. In the meantime, I bring you perhaps my shortest post to date, my attempt at a little backwoods poetry.
I am different than most.
My idea of a perfect afternoon is one spent in silence,
Observing the golden glow of the warm fall sun fade into dusk.
My hopes and dreams stream through my mind,
My senses are alive and fined tuned to the forest, waiting,
Waiting to report that one tell tale sound,
The crack of a stick, the whisper of grass, or a hoof striking stone.
With each passing moment, my anticipation grows,
Will tonight be the night?
As I wait in ambush for my prey,
I find a deeper connection to my predatory instincts.
The day had dawned on our final full hunting day in camp. I use the term "dawned" figuratively as opposed to literally, as the sun had never set. It was down to the wire on the two remaining caribou tags in our hunting group. One residing in my pocket, and the other was nested in my father's pack. The other permits were already attached to carcasses of other caribou hanging in the meat shed. These specific animals would have to be processed before the day's end.
We discussed the work that lay before us and knew that if we were to fill the two remaining permits it would have to be in the morning as to allow enough time to butcher the animals before our ride back to Fairbanks landed on the runway the following afternoon. With this in mind we set off on the tundra shortly after breakfast in search of legal caribou.
The destination was an area on the Kavik River where I had skulked around the previous day. Not only had I seen many caribou in this area, but the tundra had somehow managed to swallow up my binoculars. The added side mission to going to this area was to find my prized Pentax optics.
Upon our arrival I somehow managed to locate the field glasses laying in a small crevice along the bank. Success was achieved on one goal, now it was just time to find some four-legged critters. The problem was there was not a single animal in sight. The caribou that had glided in small herds across the tundra the day before were now ghosts haunting some other habitat. Slightly dejected and nervous that $650 worth of tags might go home empty, we made the journey back to camp.
Noon was the deadline to stop hunting and start the butchering process. Around 11:30 am one of the other hunters in camp called out that they spotted a group of bulls crossing the river nearly a mile from camp. A swift glance confirmed this and we quickly set off to set up an ambush as they came out of the river bottom.
When the bulls crested the bank we were still further away than I would have liked, but in rifle range. It was now or never. My father laid down in the prone shooting position to my right and I threw the AR10 over my pack and sighted in on the caribou. We estimated the distance at nearly 400 yards. After some quick collaboration on who was going to shoot which bull we prepared to fire.
Dad with his bull
Getting a clean shot on a caribou can be difficult. As the herd moves they are constantly mingling and passing each other. There is a real possibility a hunter can hit several animals with one bullet if not careful. When my chosen bull was finally free of the others, I settled into the rifle, released my breath and applied pressure to the trigger. The recoil surprised me and I could feel the bolt of the rifle eject the spent 308 cartridge, slide forward, skim another off the top of the magazine and then slam it home into the chamber, ready, if needed. I was surprised to find that it was going to be pressed into service as the bull was still standing.
The roar of my father's 300 Weatherby caught my attention as he fired shortly after me, toppling the lead bull. He quickly informed me he felt the animals were further than 400. I adjusted the elevation and found the same bull still standing were he was. A second empty shell casing was ejected out of my rifle and found its partner laying somewhere in the trail through the tundra. There was an audible slap as the round took the bull in the back rib cage.
The last bou.
My goal is always to make a clean, quick kill on any animal I hunt. I have remorse that this bull did not fall as fast as I would prefer. After I observed the bull lay down I crept up to him and ended the hunt as quickly as I could. He was a large, tough old bull, and I will honor his memory with every meal he provides.
It was over. All the caribou tags were filled. Processing and packing for home was all there was left to do. I had a tinge of regret that I did not take one of my bulls with my bow. I had come to the tundra with high hopes of this achievement. While this dream was not to come true this trip, it is only put on hold until the next Alaskan adventure.
That afternoon and evening saw five caribou processed into little white packages. It was a marathon of cutting and wrapping that didn't stop until nearly midnight. At the end all of us were worn out and ready for sleep.
Saying goodbye to Sue and Kavik
Our time at Kavik River Camp had come to an end. It was bittersweet as we said goodbye to Sue and boarded the bird to take us back to Fairbanks and civilization. I was dog tired after 7 days of crawling, walking, stalking, hauling, and processing animals on the tundra. I had not spoken to my girls for 8 days and longed to hear their voices and about their lives while I was away.
My trepidations were on leaving such a ruggedly, beautiful, and wild place. Nearly every day I saw a wolf or their tracks. The bears were as massive as the tales, and while the mosquitoes were beyond description, I had learned to work through them. The Alaska tundra had spoken to my hunters' soul and like a siren, called to me to stay. I had seen the elephant. and it was as wonderful and exquisite as I had dreamed. Yet somehow I felt a pull from 4000 miles away. My Colorado Mountains were calling me. Speaking to me in tones of aspens, streams, snow covered rocky peaks, and large, dangerous feline tracks yet to be found that will one day lead me to my mountain lion.
The racks of the Caribou we took during our trip. With Sue Aikens and Rob Apgood.
Our last view of Kavik as the plane rolled down the runway.
Author's Note: This adventure would not have been remotely possible, nor a great success, without the assistance and support of several key people. I would like to send out a personal thank you to those involved. First my Mother and Father who have shared their hunting lives with me and this adventure. Sue Aikens of Kavik River Camp, you are the "real deal," and one of the very few genuine people I have met. Additionally thank you for the tasty meals, hospitality, and stories. Rob Apgood, fellow adventurer and new friend. Jennipher, although we have never met, I appreciate all you have done for me and my family.
The Poison Dart and her custom arrows on the Alaskan Tundra
There is an undertone to this blog and my writing that I have not outright addressed before. It is the fact that most of my hunting and outdoor adventures occur alone. I have never been opposed to hunting without a partner, but truth be told I enjoy the solo adventures often more. There is a sense of accomplishment and understanding of nature when you are alone in the field. You have to rely entirely on your own wits, skills, and instincts for your hunting and safety. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy other hunters' company and help, but there are times when one needs to simply be solitary to hear their inner voice and reflections.
I had spent the first four days of my trip to Alaska hunting with both my father and mother. All of us had successfully taken caribou with rifles. Mom had even shot two caribou in the same herd, after we had completed a mile long stalk on the group of bulls. For the last 300 yards we crawled through the tundra to finally arrived within rifle range. I was also with Dad when he shot a very nice bull with his rifle after I had failed to get within longbow range of the beast before being spotted.
Dad with his first Bou
Mom with her first caribou, and the biggest bull taken on our trip
Mom with her second caribou, shot only moments after her first
The time had come to give traditional archery caribou hunting the best attempt I could before my time on the Alaskan Tundra ended. To do this I knew I needed to be alone to minimize scent, sound, and movement. There are two basic ways to get within 30 yards of caribou: the stalk, and the ambush. Caribou graze at 3-7 MPH and are in constant motion as a herd. To ambush them, the hunter needs to stay well hidden in the front of the herd and wait for them to pass by, hopefully within bow range. It can be very helpful to sit where one group has already passed, as the next herd will take this same path based on the scent of the previous caribou. The stalk is best done on a herd that is bedded with some object of cover nearby to approach from. With both of these tactics in the forefront of my mind I set off from camp alone, walking along the Kavik River. My plan was to use the concealment of the river bank for ambushes or to launch possible stalks from.
After several miles of walking, I found that I was positioned in front of a herd moving towards the river bank. I made sure I was directly in place of where they appeared to want to cross the river. With high hopes and rising heart rate I waited for the caribou to arrive in bow range. All of my dreams were dashed when 300 yards out the bou started running, paralleling the river rather than crossing it. At first I could not figure it out, everything was perfect; the wind was in my face, I was well hidden, and I had not moved. Then I saw the wolf. It was the same big blond wolf I had seen several days earlier. The wolf was chasing the bou, as he too was hoping to drag down one of the tasty ungulates for a meal. His attempt was only half-hearted and did not end up in either of us scoring a caribou. I still could not have anything but admiration for this predator. It was the last wolf I would see on the trip and the view was worth the lost opportunity.
Using my binoculars I found the entire tundra was stacked with small herds of Caribou feeding in my direction, but still several miles away. I set up to ambush one group that had the largest bull I had seen as its leader. I was further excited when this herd bedded down 600 yards away from me. They had chosen to lay down 50 yards from a group of willows that gave me a chance to approach them downwind and unseen. For the next hour I crawled and crab walked the 600 yards to the willow bushes. When I arrived I found that a small stream separated me from the herd. I had to wade very quietly through the cold water, flooding my boots for the rest of the day. I was still not close enough for a shot and decided to use a small rise to belly crawl half the distance to the big bull. When I was 25 yards away I could go no further. It was time for the shot. I knocked an arrow while laying on my back. My plan was to wait for the bull to rise from his bed, then I would slowly sit up while drawing the bow and take my shot. After 15 minutes of waiting it became tedious to just lay there, but I decided to wait rather than push a bad shot. The wind abruptly shifted and I knew it was over. The wind carried my scent to the bedded herd and they rose and quickly ran away, out of bow range. It was difficult to come so close and then at the last minute lose it all.
40 yards out from the large bedded bull, I crawled another 15 yards closer
With determination I set up for a final ambush attempt on the next herd feeding towards the river. From watching where previous groups had passed I knew where they would cross one particular set of willow bushes. I secreted myself in the clump of green, in a way that offered several great shooting options in different directions. I watched with anticipation as the group of all bull caribou approached my hide. The lead bull crossed the willow line 30 yards from where I was and then walked out to 40 yards and stood broadside. This was it. I knew they were not going to give me a better shot. 30 yards is the furthest I felt comfortable shooting at an animal with my longbow, although in practice I have shot 40 yards decently before. My hunting ethics took over, and I decided there was just too great a chance at wounding the bull and not making a clean kill. I had to let the bull walk. It was a hard choice, as I knew he would soon be directly downwind and the hunt would be over. True to prediction, 20 seconds later the bull signaled the alert with a raised tail and a snort, and ran back to the approaching herd. While they never saw me, the entire group gave a wide girth to my group of willows.
A herd of Caribou crossing the river after skirting my hiding place
As I started the 3.5 mile trek back to camp I thought about the day and what I had learned about bow hunting caribou. I had spent 5 days carrying the wooden bow and arrows around the tundra in pursuit of the bou. Each day and stalk had put me consecutively closer in both knowledge and physicality to that realization of this dream. I had one hunting day left in Alaska, and a decision to make: continue to hunt with a bow and possibly take home an empty $325 tag, or break out the AR10 and fill that tag with another caribou. I knew in my heart if I had another 3-4 days of hunting I could make it happen with a bow, but with how unpredictable the bou had been in their passing I could not risk it all on one day. The following morning would find the 308 on my back and ready for action, after sitting on the sidelines for the entire trip.
A tired tundra rat, after 12 hours and approximately 9 miles of walking and crawling after caribou
I had come to Alaska with dreams of taking a caribou with my longbow. Those dreams have at least diminished for now. I spent some time thinking about how much the caribou had taught me about themselves. If I had used a rifle for both tags right away, I would have been finished on the first day of the hunt. Setting out to take a Caribou the hardest way possible was the best thing I could have done. The five days and specifically the day spent alone, crawling, walking, stalking, and hiding had made Alaska my caribou classroom.
My closing thoughts this time are of a quote on reflection and learning: "Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself, and know that everything has a purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from." -Elisabeth Kubler Ross
The item that strikes you most about the Kavik River area is its desolation of civilization. When you fly over the lower 48 states, you are hard pressed to be find areas completely devoid of human habitation. Low flight on approach to Kavik River Camp reveals...nothing. No roads, no villages, the only evidence humans were ever here are old trails left by seismic measuring devices. This place truly is one of the few lonely outposts on the last frontier.
On day one of our hunt we were greeted by thick clouds, light rain, and low fog. It was difficult to see anything from The Perch, but we ended up trudging through the wet tundra in search of Caribou. We found several herds moving through across the tundra fields. Some planning put me within 150 yards as a herd moved through, but it was outside of bow range.
The second day found us following the Kavik River in search of caribou. I spotted a single cow crossing the river and moving towards us. I tried to position myself for a possible bow shot but she was running, and it was not feasible to get in front off her. Shortly after she passed me I figured out why she was running: there was a black wolf working down the river bank. It was the first wolf I had seen in the wild and it was a majestic sight. I tried to grab my camera for a few pictures of the critter but he disappeared into the willows just a hair before I could get any images of him.
Wolf track found along the Kavik River
Further exploration of the river banks revealed three beautiful Caribou bulls bedded a short distance from the trail. We snuck into position for a shot, but found the bulls had started feeding and were now further out in the tundra. They were estimated to be 300 yards away with no hope for a stalk with the bow. We were left with only a rifle shot and I took it, downing the best bull of the three. I could have easily filled my second tag on the spot as none all of the remaining bulls ran at the sound of gun fire. I choose to reserve that tag for a bow kill, but should the end of the week arrive with an empty license, that could be revised.
Me with my first caribou
Walking up to the bull we got our first introduction to caribou anatomy. Their fur and features are softer than the animals we are accustomed to. They have a quaint look about them that is reminiscent of Santa's reindeer. It looked like I had just shot Donner or Blitzen. My evil side contemplated telling my young 7 year old daughter how Saint Nick was now minus one sleigh puller.
I decided to quarter the caribou on the spot, sending my hunting partner back to camp for help. Knowing that bears were a problem in this area, I kept my eyes on the horizon looking for one that might be coming in for an easy meal; the fast food version of McDonald's on the tundra for them. While one prepares for such a possibility, you never really expect it to occur. Sue Aikens arrived during the quartering processed and yelled for me to look towards the north as she was still approaching the kill sight. When I did I found there was a grizzly bear running towards me, and the pile of coveted meat. I am sure he hear the rifle shot and while a danger sound to some animals, it is the dinner bell to some of the predators. Fortunately the bear decided he was outgunned and moved off as Sue and other hunting helpers arrived at the kill sight. It was a new experience, butchering an animal in a rush, while under armed guard.
Grizzly Bear tracks found along the Kavik River
The next day I returned to the kill sight area and found all the bones and offal gone; completely consumed or cached within 24 hours. While I was there a blond wolf came in and inspected the area. He was much larger than I expected and I was able to observe him for several minutes. Sadly I was too far away for any decent photographs. Later I would get within 100 yards of him, but he started running long before I had any chance of capturing him with my camera.
Last thoughts are from the movie, "Dances with Wolves." Being on the Tundra 197 miles north of the arctic circle reminded me of a line from the film: "I've always wanted to see the frontier...before its gone."