Friday, March 21, 2014

Tracking a Mountain Lion

WHOOOAAA, WHOOOAAA,  STOP, STOP, STOP!  I found myself yelling this out load to the suburban as I rounded the corner in the snow road.  It is odd how we act in moments of excitement, I was treating the machine as a living breathing thing that would respond faster to vocal ques, as opposed to only manual input on the brake pedal.   Despite the yelling and verbal coaxing the ancient truck slid on the snow covered ice and ground slowly to a stop in the middle of the mountain road.   I wanted to stop as fast as I could because I was driving over the very thing I had been so earnestly trying to locate all morning and possibly for the last two years.  I talked about this phenomena in the post," 40 MPH," but when know what a lion track is you can instantly spot it, there is no question as to what wandered through snow.   I had only needed glance at the middle of the road as I rounded the corner to know a lion had walked down the middle of it.   As the snow had fallen the previous afternoon, I knew the track  was recent and my hopes soared for a fresh trail as a slammed the gear shifter into park and hopped out to investigate.

Two cats had actually wandered down this particular stretch of roadway.  One was a  bobcat and the other was the largest lion track I have ever seen.  I saw that you could actually put the entire bobcat track completely inside just the pad portion of the lion print.  Like most hunters there are trophy animals that inhabit our dreams and fill our heads full of hope to one day find them in the field.   This was my dream cat, but also one of my nightmares.  This is the cat I do not want to call in alone, a giant tom lion that is afraid of nothing and could easily see me as prey and would not be deterred by my 6 foot frame.  At the same time he is the pinnacle of lion hunting. To take one of these toms would be an achievement hard to equal in my hunting career.  Just looking at his track sent shivers down my spine, and electrified feeling of knowing that I was going to get a chance to stalk the master of stalking.   I was going hunt the ultimate apex hunter of the Colorado mountains.  Needless to say I was very happy I had brought the AR-10 with me that morning and chose to leave the 15 snug in its rifle case at home.  Should I catch up with this lion the .308 cartridge would be needed.

Lion track next to a bobcat track

That day was of course was the day I had in-inadvertently left the track measuring ruler at home, I had to go to my old standby, a .308 shell.  The track swallowed the shell with room to spare and made the cartridge look like a .223 as compared to other lion tracks I had laid it next too.  After I took several photographs I cleaned the snow off the round, made sure it was dry, and loaded it into  the stack in the magazine.  I silently prayed that it would take flight this morning and find it’s mark in lion flesh.   I checked the GPS and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was in an ample amount of national forest land and had plenty of country to try to track this beast down in.   I knew I was behind this cat more than I wanted to be.   Even if he had crossed this way at first light, I was still 4 hours behind him.  Odds were these tracks were from earlier in the morning or even before midnight.  My only hope was that the lion made a kill close by or had bedded down for the day.

Lion track with a .308 cartridge for comparison

Cave in rock face

Tracking this cat was difficult at times.  Often he would enter a rock pile and then leap from rock to rock until he exited the pile at some other location.  As the sun was shining bright, it  had already melted the fresh snow from the rocks and I was forced to circle each large section of granite to find where he left it.  Several times I lost the trail entirely on south facing slopes where the snow was sparse and I was had to start concentric circles until I found him again.  After a while he became predictable.  He seemed to always be heading due south, and would avoid deep snow at nearly all costs.   If I lost his track I would simply apply these perimeters into the terrain of the area and often find his print right where I expected to.   I noticed he kept the same gate in his stride for several miles, only broken when jumping.  Once I found his tracks shortened and where so close together they were almost covering each other.  Several yards later I discovered why.  The lion had gone into stalk mode and made a kill attempt on a group of bedded bighorn sheep.  I found the beds of the sheep and their running tracks in multiple directions.  The cat had scattered them and failed at a kill.  I seriously wished he had succeeded as a kill would have meant he was very close by and likely to return in the afternoon for his proverbial, “seconds.”  I had no such luck, the lion followed one sheep for a short distance but shortly gave up the chase.

After several miles and 3 hours later,  I found myself approaching a large 40 foot rock wall that ran the distance of about 50 yards.  The Lion was headed straight for the wall. The shrubs and bushes were very thick  at the base of the cliff and I knew it was the perfect bed.  I scanned the trees, rocks and everything around the base and top of the cliff, but there was no lion in sight.  I followed his tracks and saw he clearly approached the wall and then walked along its base into the tight cover.  I knew there was a high likelihood this was the lion's lair for the day.  There was no use going head long into it, I could not see very far to either get a shot or defend myself.  I instead circled around the cliff and found there were no tracks leaving the wall.  I doubted the lion could jump the 40 foot vertical rock and it was a good chance the lion was still in the cover or in a cave at the base.  I continued my circuitous route until I was at the top of the cliff and I ever so quietly and slowly crept to the edge and peered over.  The Lion had made his bed at the base, but was no longer there.  I could see the matted branches and snow where he had curled up.  Walking down the cliff edge I found a hidden crevasse the lion had crept up.  The melting snow told the tale, these tracks were hours old.  The possibility that I had spooked the cat was very little, I was simply just too far behind him.

Lion bed in the rocks
I consulted my GPS and discovered that I was very close to the dreaded private land, with no national forest in sight.   I had only one option left, run a call stand.   90 minutes of sounding like a hurt rabbit, a dying deer, and a juvenile lion produced nothing.  I had to call off the chase. I had all but lost the trail on the south facing slope in the afternoon sun, and legally I could not trespass.  From the maps I could tell the private land the lion was headed into was what I like to call homestead territory.  20 acres of woodland with a  cabin on each parcel as summer/weekend  mountain get away for the city folk.  It was hopeless to seek permission.  I would have to call many landowners just to walk a few hundred yards, and that was if I could convince them to grant me access.  I wondered if they knew just how big of mountain lion was calling their get-away, home.

Before I left the area for my hike back, I stopped for a moment to film a video clip for a new series I have been thinking about.  I have been wanting to start a new set of posts about my gear and how I use it.  I decided to create my first video of my gear starting with my rifle.  Below is the finished product and I hope you enjoy it.

I was very elated as I trekked back to the truck.  It was true I had not even seen the lion, but I had walked in his tracks for several miles.  In four hours I learned more than I have from several books, articles and biologists.   This tom was the best instructor I have ever had in lion biology.  I thought about where the lion was and his size and I realized I had seen this cat’s tracks  before.  Twice last year I found a large tom track in this area at different points.  Age that tom a year and you would have this lion.  Analyzing the location of the other tracks and where he was headed, I soon discovered I knew I decent area of his route.   I also found his track near the end of my snow road route I drive.  If I had reversed my route I would have found him at first light and been right behind him. 

Snow is coming to my mountains tomorrow.  Sunday morning will find me running those snow road but this time I think you know where I will start.

Monday, March 17, 2014


Usually I try to get creative with the titles of my blog posts.  I like to link some idea or deeper meaning to the topic of the post, however in this case I believe a simple one word description does the job.

Last Wednesday found me driving the snow roads in the fresh snow from Tuesday.  The mountains were deserted, which is the way I prefer them.  This however is a two edge sword should you find yourself in the predicament I did.  For several hours I had been driving and found copious amounts of bobcat and coyote tracks. Of course, the amount of bobcat tracks would be found post season.  Just as I am convinced the critters can read and understand, “no hunting,” signage, I am also certain a calendar is hung up in each of their dens with hunting seasons marked in red X’s.   I resisted the temptation to bail out and try to call on the fresh coyote tracks.  I knew that I needed to focus entirely on locating a mountain lion track instead.  I indeed succeeded in finding a rather large lion track later that morning, but that adventure will be a blog post unto itself in the near future.  I opted to photograph all fresh tracks that I did not follow for future study instead, as such I had my canon camera sitting on the front bench seat of the suburban.

I was driving down one lightly traveled snow road, it was the kind of road that rarely sees any traffic in the winter time.  I had made the decision to not put on the tire chains.  This would prove to be a poor choice later.  Just after I rounded a corner I hit a bump and the truck rocked badly.  The camera fell off the seat and onto the floor board.  Instinctively I reached for it and in at the same time got the truck to close to the ditch.  The snow grabbed the tires and sucked the right side wheels off the roadway and into the soft shoulder and deep snow.  That is all it took, in a matter of seconds the truck was stuck and stuck badly.  I knew getting it out would be a challenge, especially without a buddy helping me.  So what does one do?  They film the process.  I will let the below video tell the rest of the tale.  I hope you enjoy my second attempt at a how to video, and the adventure of getting the suburban back on the roadway.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The "S" words

Cruising the snow roads on the last day of bobcat season
I am ignoring all the signs and symptoms even though I know they are there. I see it get worse every day, I just refuse to admit what is inevitably occurring.  Much as a college student might choose to deny the existence of the piling up dishes or a full laundry hamper, I am choosing to deny the ever changing conditions.   My wife loves to remind me of the situation and she is constantly using the dreaded “S” words more and more of late.  Open windows in the living room during the day, motorcycle engines resounding through the neighborhood, and I hope in a very far off time the annoying drone of lawn mower engines.  I cannot hide from it any longer, there is a truth I must face, the “S” words are fast approaching, Spring and the hideous Summer are headed my way.

Sitting on one of the last call stands of the season
The little cats are done.  February 28th marked the close of the Colorado Bobcat season.  Last year I crossed their tracks on several occasions but choose to spend more time after the cougars than them.  This year I hunted both felines equally and learned volumes about cat behavior and the little secretive cousins of the wild cat world.  I walked many miles in the tracks of the Bobcats, I learned where they den, how they mark their territory, and how and what they hunt.  While this season did not see a bobcat loaded into the back of the truck, the lessons I learned were worth so much more than a harvested cat. Despite bad conditions,  I had to try one last time before the end of the season.  I was able to get away from work on the very last day.  I knew the weather report were for conditions that were less than perfect.  Strong winds and periods of light snow would make tracking hard if not impossible.  Calling would be a challenge, unless the cat was close, but you simply cannot shoot a bobcat from your couch.  I went to the mountains and found exactly what the forecasters had predicted.  Wind swept snow had completely covered the evening tracks and at times created a near white out conditions.  I made several call stands in areas where I had patterned a few bobcats, but nothing appeared.  I had to admit defeat for the 2013 season.

Bobcat tracks found near the end of the season
That afternoon found me in my basement regrouping for the last two months of lion and coyote hunting.  Sometimes I find it hard to keep motivated as the season comes to a close.  Fall is so full of promise and excitement of the hunts and things to come.  Winter is exhilarating and a season of adventure and doing  for me.  I know when it snows it is time to head for the hills and chase some predators. Spring and Summer make me tremble with the knowledge that all there is to tide me over is perhaps some fishing and scouting of hunting areas.  This year is different.  As lion season is wrapping up I must start preparations for a new adventure, one that has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember.  At the end of July I am Alaska bound for a Caribou hunt in the very northern range of the state.  Next month will see the beginning of major preparations for the hunt.  As I look forward to this adventure, it is hard not to see a little glimmer of hope in the dreaded “S” words this year. 

Monday, March 3, 2014


To begin with I have not been around the blog for three weeks now.  This post is a long time coming and was delayed by a random phenomenon called, life.  Unfortunately no matter how much I want to be wandering the mountains in search of predators or prey, sometimes I have to take a break and catch up on the business of living in the modern times.   These past three weeks I was able to hunt twice, but did not have any time for the blog itself.  I filled the time with several long weeks at work and a complete brake system rebuild of my beloved mountain truck, the suburban.  After replacing all the brake pads, hydraulic components and master cylinder, I still managed to repair a leaking front pinion seal and change the oil.  Possessing mechanic skills is not only a luxury but a necessary economic skill for a hunter who owns ancient vehicles. 
Now that I have established my reasons for my absence let us proceed to the topic if this post.  This story begins with sunglasses.  For the record I have a sunglasses problem.  I can never seem to own a pair of sunglasses longer than a month or two before they are lost, broken, or meet some other unfortunate premature demise.  I am certain that when I am selecting my new solar eye wear from the rack that the other sunglasses start chanting, “dead man walking,” to the poor set of glasses that I pull off the shelf. Needless to say I lost my current set of sunglasses. I noticed they had absconded while I was walking out the door at 5 AM to run snow roads looking for predator tracks.  I knew it was going to be a bright day, especially with the glare off the fresh snow.  Going with sunglasses would not be an option.  As such 515 AM found me trudging into the local Walgreen’s in full camouflage in search of my next poly carbonate victim. 
Coyote bounding through deep snow
Once I selected a sturdy yet fashionable set I went to the cash register and met the clerk.  Now I am sure I am quite the sight early in the morning to the bleary eyed attendant.  Naturally she asked the question that most people do when encountering me on my way to the mountains.  “What are you hunting?” It is an obvious question.  Despite the recent popularity of camouflage in modern fashion, I still stick out like sore thumb.  I simply replied that I was going to go hunt Mountain Lions.   She gave me a surprised look, as many do, and uttered one syllable.  It is a simple syllable, one the plagues many a parent of any younger child and even some older ones. Why?  It was an honest question and although I wish I could say I had some profound reply that completely explained the ethos and drive of my hunting, I cannot.  I instead responded poorly with, “why not?”  One would think that after 25 years of hunting, and 2 years specifically targeting Lions I would be able to do marginally better than this.  The clerk was gracious and let me off the hook with my lame reply. 
That morning I made several call stands and even tracked a coyote over several miles of rough snow.  I discovered where he had found a mouse, and later his bed.  Unfortunately this was after I jumped him and sent him running into the next county.  As I hunted I thought about the clerks question, why do I hunt and especially why do I hunt Mountain Lions? It was a valid question one that both I and the animals I hunt deserve an honest answer to.
This blog’s creation was a combined effort of both my wife and I.  The most difficult part of starting the blog was coming up with a name.  The common theme of many of the renditions of the name was, “an uncommon life.”  This idea was central to how I live and I felt conveyed many of my feelings about hunting.  However due to other blogs with this title and the vagueness it represented as to blog’s theme, it was not chosen.  Title or not, it is one of the very reasons I hunt.  I am not satisfied with a sedentary or common life.  The routine of work, TV, and general suburbia cannot hold my attention for long.  Hunting and the outdoors adds a much needed relief to everyday life in the modern times.  It is my proverbial spice of life.   While hunters are on the decrease in modern times, there are still many of us out there.  Hunting Mountain Lions separates me even further from the throng makes my style even more…uncommon.
I am also convinced there is a certain part of the DNA of hunters that is a link to the proverbial cave man.  My uncle often calls me a, “Throwback.”  While this is meant as a term of endearment from him, I cannot wonder if there is some basic truth in it.  When I am in the woods with an unfilled tag in my pocket and a rifle or bow in my hands; I am home.  There is no other place on earth where I feel I am truly meant to be.  The smell of the trees and earthy scent of the forest floor is intoxicating.  The crunch of the winter snow beneath my feet, and wind through the pines is the greatest music on earth.  The kiss of the cold wind and warmth of the sun is wonderful.
Friend and fellow hunter on a call stand with me
As for why I hunt Mountain Lions?  It comes down to mastery and respect.  I have been hunting for a long time now, much of that time has been with a bow, and this year I took my first elk with a long bow and wooden arrow.  I am not trying to bolster my own ego, but it is becoming a fact that I am beginning to master hunting the herbivores.  There are still many challenges and animals in the category, caribou, moose, mountain goat, and big horn sheep.  These animals are waiting for a coveted tag, or expensive expedition, and I am happy to say I have plans for each one of them, even if they are long term.  As for predators Bears and Coyotes are already off the list.   The skull collection of these critters is steadily growing and adorning the top of my computer desk.  Mountain Lions are the pinnacle of predator hunting in North America.  A master of stealth and secrecy, even the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission does not know how many of these elusive cats call Colorado Home.  To hunt the Lions without the aid of dogs brings a level of difficulty rarely matched in the hunting world.   The level of skill and learning needed to be successful in this venture is beyond compare, absent pure luck.  Mountain Lions are very challenging to me and represent I level of mastery I have not attained.
I know that there are many other reasons I take to the wild as often as possible, however I feel these are some of the main ones.  If the curious Walgreens clerk should one day find this post, please accept my apology for such a lackluster reply.  I hope you understand this reasoning as what should have been my answer that morning.  And in case you are wondering, I already broke that pair sunglasses.  
As the season is coming to a close soon I am still hunting and trying my best to stay focused.  I will leave you with this quote from one of my all-time favorite movies.  It is often a motivation for me to go hunting when sometimes I feel otherwise. 
Remember, if you don’t go when you want to go, when you do go you will find out your gone. “  -Burt Munroe from the “The World’s Fastest Indian”