The day I lost my mother, exactly one month after I had lost my sister to an inglorious battle against cancer, I started looking for a different but challenging hunt in the very near future. With all the COVID-19 restrictions in place the hunt had to be in a place that I could drive to.
After some internet searching, email’s exchanges, and a couple phone calls, I booked a seven-day mountain lion hunt with Great Plains Outfitters, to be carried out of what we found out to be a great lodge near Hyattville, Wyoming, in the first half of January 2021.
During the last three months of 2020 I hunted, mostly with friends, woodcock and grouse, pheasants, whitetail deer, mallards and geese, in our home state of Michigan, as well as South Dakota and the Nebraska/Wyoming border. Considering the time that I spent hunting, plus the amount of work that I could not avoiding doing, brought me to Christmas without having planned my trip, beyond the original decision to drive the fifteen hundred or so miles that separated us from my hunt.
During the holidays I either convinced or coerced my wife to come along, and started planning a good old fashioned road trip. In order to avoid the always chaotic Chicago transit we drove north from Traverse City and crossed the Mackinac Bridge under less than perfect weather before turning west on US-2. Due to the Michigan lockdown, we could not stop at one of my all-time favorite breakfast restaurants, Drifters in Escanaba. But in another hour or so we crossed into Wisconsin and stopped at the first restaurant we saw, La Cabaña.
Our next stop was a hotel in Albert Lea, Minnesota, another lockdown state, so for dinner we had a picnic at the hotel room from the contents of our cooler. Venison jerk, devilled eggs, cheeses and cold cuts, dark chocolate and of course some heavenly brown liquor. All things considered, not a bad meal.
Our stop in South Dakota was literally a breath of fresh air! No mask restrictions, restaurants open, and a wonderful sunset over Rapid City. The next day we visited Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, where we saw bison, pronghorn antelope, whitetail and mule deer. When we came to Wind Cave National Park, we saw our first prairie dogs and eventually a lonely badger on its way to have a good time on a prairie dog town, depending on perspectives of course.
On the second Friday of the year, we drove over icy roads and under a heavy cloud cover to Devil’s Tower National Park. We braved the weather and hiked around the fantastic rock formation from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and took our fair share of sliding and falling on the ice-covered trails. The fresh snow allowed us to identify a multitude of tracks, deer, rabbit and squirrel, fox, coyote and maybe wolf, and a rather fresh black bear going straight into the boulders at the base of the tower. Eventually we came across a whitetail doe and a couple of yearlings, as tame as park deer will ever be.
From Devil’s Tower we made a quick refueling stop at the hamlet of Hulett and then proceeded in a mostly northwest route to Cody, where we spent the weekend at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and what a fantastic time that was. My initial motivation and goal was to visit the new Cody Firearms Museum, but the over five-thousand-gun exhibit was overshadowed by the beauty of the Draper Natural History Museum with its display of the high plains and Rocky Mountain wildlife, the deeply emotional Plains Indian Museum, the breath taking Whitney Western Art Museum and for someone that grew up watching cowboy movies, either fighting bad guys or not so bad Indians, the Buffalo Bill Museum.
Maria was deeply impacted by the somber tones and sad history that still plagues the Plain Indians, but I must confess that when I came across Theodore Roosevelt’s saddle from when he was a cattle rancher in Medora tears came to my eyes.
Eventually on Sunday afternoon we took to the road again towards Hyattville and the beginning of our hunt. We always elected to drive with daylight, so we could not only gorge our eyes with the beautiful western landscapes, but keep a sharp hunter’s eye (or in our case four) towards pronghorn, mule deer or whitetail, plus the eventual bald or golden eagles.
As the sun was setting we arrived at the lodge, where outfitter Dirk Jenkins greeted me with a most appropriate “I presume you are Rodrigo” and Nate Lopez, our guide to be, started unloading our gear with the same energy he would repeatedly demonstrate during the week long hunt. Shortly after we met Andrew Ward from North Carolina, also there to hunt mountain lion, and a gentleman from the very first moment.
Next morning, we started to get acquainted with the mountain lion hunting routine: wake up at four AM, get ready and grab the gear, have the breakfast and pack the lunch prepared by Jen, and get in the truck before five, with the hounds already eager for the chase.
The goal was to reach tracking snow, that was completely missing at the 4,500 feet elevation of the lodge, but once we gained a thousand feet or so there was plenty of snow, but little or no fresh powder that would show a track like words in a book. Most of the snow was hardened and crusted by the sun almost always present over the western deep blue sky. And then we are forced to remember that more than anything we hunt according to the weather, and there is really nothing anything that anyone can do about it.
Morning after morning we would climb the Big Rocky National Forest trails as high as 7,500 feet. Nate’s eyes were constantly searching the snow for round tracks with four well defined toes without sign of claws or nails. From a distance mountain lion and moose tracks can be deceivingly similar, especially on a hard crust.
Not having seen fresh tracks up the mountain we would come down and drive by the lodge and through a sleepy Hyattville and scout a couple different canyons before reaching Ten Sleep. Tacking Highway 16 we would continue to look for tracks, and be thankful for the almost absent vehicles, with stops at the Wigwam Rearing Station and the Ten Sleep Fish Hatchery where we always found tracks of a pair of mountain lions in the process of getting engaged. Eventually we would head south to what became my favorite place, the South Fork of the Otter Creek range, with its snow covered plateau ranging from 5,500 to 6,000 feet in elevation, scared by ravines that could conceal a whole army, let alone a solitary mountain lion, leading to deep canyons where the pine and cedars disguised the broken terrain underneath them. Deer and pronghorn abounded, providing a potential banquet for the enterprising predator.
Houndsmen are a different breed. They live for their hounds and for the chase. What is important is the intricate detective work of finding a somewhat fresh trail, releasing the dogs and following every moment of the chase, and once in a while tree their prey, be it mountain lion, bear or whatever they set their mind upon. They love their hounds and those hounds, fit endurance runners, also live for the chase, maybe even more than their masters.
The chase can be dull or exciting, and there is always a dangerous undertone to it, coming from their prey, the wild terrain or the ever changing weather conditions. But despite the danger, or because of it, hounds and houndsmen are always entranced by the chase. And just like the bird hunter’s heart and hopes ride on the nose of a pointing dog, the houndsmen rejoice on the baying of their hounds.
At first it may be disheartening for the inexperienced hunter to hear the houndsmen talk about a track. This track is two days old, or four days old, or from a small lion or a female. What they know that we had not learned yet is that a lion may only move a half mile on a day, and what nobody knows is whether that same animal just killed a deer soon after making those tracks and may be gorging itself on the kill for several days. Or that a young female may come into heat and attract a male from another canyon that is out of reach of trucks and even of snow machines.
On Wednesday, Nate and Braden released six hounds on a four-day old track. Braden with his long slender legs, and the energy and drive of the young and dumb (as opposed to us, old and frail) followed the dogs, while Nate, Maria and I enjoyed the relative comfort of the truck cabin and verbally abused each other to different degrees of inappropriateness.
When Nate defined that a lion was treed he braved the deep snow with his truck to get us as close as possible to the tree. All hounds have GPS collars and if they are not moving, they have treed something, and the collars can sense if the hounds are barking, and they are properly trained to only bark at bay.
In order to hunt a mountain lion, which may be the quintessential American animal, present from Patagonia to Canada, I chose what I believe is the quintessential American rifle, a lever action in 30-30 WCF. Instead of a Winchester 94 I used a 1980’s vintage Marlin 336, and the reason was that the Marlin is much easier to scope than the Winchester. And at my age, a scope is the only responsible way to shoot a rifle. Fifty plus eyes don’t see small iron sights well under challenging light conditions.
But before I loaded my rifle I checked if my hiking boots were properly laced and if my snow gathers were secure. You can hunt mountain lions without a rifle, but not without boots and gaiters.
On the first half a mile we gained around two hundred feet in elevation, and on the last quarter mile we lost three or four hundred, walking sideways like a crab, and grabbing on branches, tree trunks or rocks to get to the edge of the deep canyon where the pack of hounds bayed at a young female lion crouched on the branches of a rather tall cedar. Nate and Braden were disappointed that we had treed a young female, but seeing our first wild cougar, panther or catamount, whichever way you decided to call a Puma concolor was a prize in itself.
It also was the perfect example of how selective hunting with hounds can be. First, it is all but impossible to hunt mountain lion without hounds. They are shy, secretive animals that not only enjoy but thrive in solitude, and unless there is really fresh snow I don’t know of a person that can effectively track one of them. Different than leopard, mountain lion won’t eat carrion or come to bait. They only eat what they kill, while it is fresh. So they kill about a deer per week, and spend two or three days on the repast and then sleep it away. They may or may not come to a game call, or you may just happen upon one when hunting another animal, but in either case the hunter will have little time to assess age and sex before taking a shot. That is not the case when the hounds have treed a cat.
The image of that lite yet powerful animal against the blue sky will forever be with me. After a lot of pictures, we started back to the truck, and during the next half hour Wyoming gave us a little demonstration of how the humor of the great plains can change, from the already mentioned beautiful blue sky to a snow blizzard with sixty miles per hour wind and slit petering our faces. This is a tough country, and one must be always prepared to deal with the unexpected, or risk not making it.
Back at the lodge, Dirk thanked me for not shooting the young female, saying that it holds the future of the species in all the liters she may have in the future. Two days later, also in the Otter Creed range, we treed another female, larger than the first, again under blue skies, but in single digit temperatures. Will I continue to have the strength to be a selective hunter?
During the next two days everybody hunted with renewed energy, even Jen, Dirk’s wife and the lodge cook, would take a truck loaded with hounds and drive the most difficult mountain trails trying to cross fresh tracks. But the lack of fresh tracking snow put a damper on the efforts. We released the hounds on different tracks, but lions travel some of the most difficult country one can imagine, and even the most willing hound can only climb so much. Nate started waking up even earlier, so we would have a couple hours of scouting before our normal five AM departure.
Sunday would be our last day. There were new hunters scheduled to arrive on Monday, so extending the trip was out of question. As we had seen the freshest tracks around the fish hatchery we decided to start our day there, but as soon as Nate found tracks from the previous night it was obvious that the mountain lion had crossed Highway 16, possibly heading to Bureau of Land Management land. Nate wanted to release the hounds there and take the risk with the traffic, but I told him that although I really wanted a lion, I could not accept to endanger his dogs in that manner. So, we once again drove to the Otter Creek range.
It was another beautiful sunny day and the temperature quickly climbed to the mid-twenties. Once we waded Otter Creek we let the dogs out for their morning stretch, like we had been doing every day, and continue on the dirty roads that were becoming more and more familiar to us. We saw the same old tracks, complained that the pronghorn had moved away, ate our lunch in the truck, continue to pester each other and watched the clock move ahead, with every second conspiring against the odds of us ever getting a cat.
Around one PM we crossed Otter Creek for the last time, but instead of turning north towards Ten Sleep and the lodge, Nate took the opposite direction and not a quarter mile down the road we crossed the tracks of female with a kitten. We let the hounds out and they were soon gone, but hit a large bare spot were the sun had melted all the snow, and returned after losing the scent in less than half an hour. And the clock kept ticking.
During the week I was always amazed at the number of deer that we saw; whitetail in the draws, mule deer up high, antelope were they could see far away, and the whole time Nate would tease me for only looking out for deer and not having my eyes down on the road looking for tracks. Well, some miles than the road we see this beautiful whitetail buck, with a heavy tall rack, not very wide, a good eight-pointer, maybe a ten. He crossed the road right to left, and went into a ravine, and in another quarter mile or so recrossed the road once again and dove inside a bushy draw doing what big whitetails do best, bend our minds with false hopes before they vanish forever.
We kept on driving and I kept on the lookout for better deer, and Nate kept chastising me for not looking down for tracks, but a few minutes from the last sight of that big buck an apparition shocked me. A large tan body over the white snow. Not thirty yards from the passenger side of the truck a mountain lion stared straight into my soul!
Immediately I told Nate to stop the truck as the mountain lion was right there. He thought that was joking while the big cat sneaked under some lonely pines. Now the binoculars that had only seen deer and hounds on some bare canyon sides were scanning a large powerful predator immersed in the shadows.
I asked Maria for my rifle, but the lion started to make its “exit, stage right”, climbing over the ridge to get lost in one of the endless canyons that surrounded us. Although it was past way past 2 PM, the unofficial deadline to release hounds, the cat was too close and the trail too fresh and the hunt too far gone, so Nate promptly released Lilly, Lady and Zeek.
And the hounds treed that lion in a quarter mile, and then things started going really strange. While we were getting ready to move to the baying two of the collar signals disappeared. As I loaded my Marlin, Nate told Maria that although she had been with us for all the hunt, this time she would have to stay in the truck. What was going on?
I am not going to tire you with the details of how tired I became climbing several hundred feet with snow at times sometimes almost as deep as my gaiters, or asking myself what a Michigander that lives in a nice home at exactly 620 feet of elevation is doing crossing a ridge at almost six thousand?
When we got there, the mountain lion was on a cedar branch, hanging over a canyon with at least three hundred feet of emptiness under it, and only Lilly was any place to be seen, bravely keeping the cat at bay.
Nate asked me to keep an eye on the lion while he went looking for the other hounds. He came back empty handed and with a broken heart, but while he was gone I heard one of the hounds struggling into the bushes somewhere down the canyon steep walls.
Enough was enough! Nate just said that as the lion had killed his hounds I had to kill that lion, but that if I just killed it on the branch it also would fall down the canyon and he didn’t think that he would be able to retrieve it. I had to shoot the cat on the back of the lungs, so after jumping forward we would be able to tree it again, with brave Miss Lilly doing the hard work all by herself.
And so I did, and like a whirlwind the cat was gone with Lilly literally at its tail. And it treed again, one hundred seventy-five yards as the crow flies, and one hundred and fifty feet down another canyon. Do you know how long an overweight middle aged sedentary hunter takes to make that distance in Wyoming?
Eventually we got to the tree with Lilly looking around, but no sign of the lion. We looked and looked at the cedars, and over my right shoulder, not ten feet away, the cat was hidden among the endless branches. Nate told me that there was a small four-inch square gap right on the lion’s chest, and told me that a confident rifleman could make the shot. I already had another 30-30 in the chamber and the Leupold scope at the 1X setting, and shot when the center dot was on that square.
Initially there was no immediate reaction, but suddenly everything became blurry. As I worked the lever to reload the rifle the lion jumped over me, not attacking, but trying to make an escape. Being the bird hunter that I am, I just swung the Marlin like a shotgun, and shot it like a woodcock that departs the wrong way. In the process I slip over a rock, lost my balance and landed on my back, while the lion landed maybe three feet from my head.
Memory and emotion can fool us at times like that. Maybe the cat and I locked eyes, maybe not. But it continued to try to escape to the right, going around a little spruce, while I regained my footing, chambered another round and went the other way. When the lion saw me around the tree it reversed direction and shot it one last time. I had one cartridge left, but it didn’t matter, the mountain lion was dead twenty yards away.
There was no rejoicing over the taking of what ended being a very large lioness. The loss of Lady and Zeek weighted too heavy on us, but especially on Nate (Zeek was found alive on the next day, but we didn’t know that at the time), the lioness had been too valiant and noble.
We dragged the lioness body out of the canyon and then Nate packed it down to the truck, while a most beautiful sunset marked the end of what may have been my greatest hunt ever.
We met the whole crew, Dirk and Jen and Braden and Andrew, at the Sleepy Coyote in Ten Sleep, but the evening had somber tones as there is no celebration for a pyrrhic victory.