One of the deadliest predators in North America is also the most elusive. Our largest cat, mountain lions often take down healthy big game animals like elk and moose that can outweigh them by five times their own body weight. Their most common prey is deer, and research has proven that mature cats in some areas kill an average of one deer every seven to ten days. Despite their healthy populations in all western states, they are rarely seen. This is mostly due to their solitary lifestyle, their tendency to hunt at night, and their elusive nature.
Mountain lions are rarely taken without the help of a trained pack of hounds. Out of all the mountain lions registered in the Pope and Young record book, fewer than five percent were taken without hounds.
So if you are going to go lion hunting, you will need an outfitter or a good friend with trained dogs to assist you. For those considering a lion hunt, I have included some tips on how to improve your odds of being successful.
A successful lion hunt always begins with serious preparation—physical, mental, and gear-wise.
Physical Demands. Physically, a lion hunt can be (and usually is) one of the most difficult hunts you will ever go on. The reason is that most lions are taken at high altitude during the winter, usually in snow. If you are a flatlander, the altitude combined with the rugged country can leave you exhausted and suffering from mountain sickness. I don’t say this to discourage anyone from going, but offer it as a warning to those who have not considered what it takes to be able to take one of these beautiful cats. I have had clients quit during lion hunts that they had paid good money for because they weren’t prepared physically. But all cat hunts aren’t survival marches. Just a week before I wrote this article, my wife shot her second cat after a short half-mile trek in which we only worked up a sweat while packing the cat out. This, however, is an exception to the rule. Being over-prepared for a cat hunt beats being miserable or going home empty-handed because you weren’t in shape.
I advise clients to train by climbing stairs with a pack containing 25-45 pounds of weight. Strengthening legs and cardiac reserve will help you out on your hunt and increase your odds of being able to make it to the tree where your cat will hopefully be waiting.
Another thing you can do to help your body out is to arrive in the area you plan to hunt a few days early. This will help you adjust to the altitude and make for a better experience. Make sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water before, during, and after your hunt. If you’re hunting in Arizona or New Mexico altitude shouldn’t be an issue, but for most other western states it is something you’ll have to confront.
What to Bring. Most outfitters will suggest a “to bring” list for you. If not, check with yours to ensure you have everything he expects you to have. I always advise a daypack loaded with the following: a lighter, fire starter, three power bars, a candy bar, two water bottles, a flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries, lightweight rain gear, extra long underwear (both top and bottom), a pair of extra socks, toilet paper, a GPS and compass, camera with extra batteries, a knife, warm gloves, a full face balaclava, an extra bowstring, and 50 feet of parachute cord. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, bring extras.
Never assume your guide will have emergency gear like extra food, water, and a GPS. The good ones should, but why risk it? I always go with the adage: “It is better to have it and not need it, then to need it and not have it.” A cell phone or a spot emergency beacon is a good idea as well. Lion hunts often take place in remote areas, so it is always best to be prepared. I also advise that either you or your guide carry a small first aid kit.
I carry these extra items because I guarantee that if you talk to experienced lion hunters, most of them will have stories of spending the night out on the mountain or walking all night on more than one occasion. A few extra supplies can make the difference between being miserable and being comfortable. In the worst conditions, this gear might just save your life.
Traditional Equipment. I advise a takedown recurve or longbow for easy travel and a tube for arrows. I have had clients fall and break arrows or lose arrows in the snow or brush. I have also left a few of my own on the mountain and now prefer to leave my bow and arrows in my pack until I am close to a treed cat. This leaves my hands free for climbing when I need them and is safer when trying to traverse in rough country.
For practice, I advise shooting both straight up and at a steep upward angle. Practice bending at the hip to help you achieve full draw. Bow poundage can be light, as shots are usually close. Ten to 20 yards is the average shot distance. Cats are not difficult to kill, and nine to 12 inches of penetration will give you a pass-through on the chest. Razor-sharp broadheads, as always, are a must.
What to Expect. Lion hunts are like any other hunt in that if you go with an outfitter, you are paying for a hunt and not an animal. Weather can be your best friend or your worst enemy on a lion hunt. The outfitter has no control over the weather. Every lion guide is hoping for fresh snow deep enough to hold tracks but not so deep that you can’t get around. It doesn’t always happen that way. Be patient, and understand that one of the toughest things about lion hunting is finding the perfect track to run. If your guide tells you a cat track is too old to run, don’t argue. Odds are he can read sign and will know which track is the best to turn dogs out on.
Interacting with Dogs. All houndsmen are proud of their dogs. If you have done your research, your guide will have some good dogs that he has trained himself, purchased, or traded for.
Don’t try to pet your guide’s dogs without his permission, and never feed a guide’s dogs.
Lastly, if you’re lucky enough to get a cat in a tree don’t get overly excited. Let the guide tell you how he wants things to go down. Most tie up or hold back their dogs before you shoot. Don’t shoot until you are told to. Most importantly, don’t shoot again or move from your spot until the guide says to.
Two common mistakes clients often make are to shoot too soon or attempt to run up to a downed cat. The first could jeopardize your guide’s dogs. The second could jeopardize you if the cat is still alive.
Almost all houndsmen will let their dogs chew your cat. This is their reward for a job well done. This rarely harms the trophy and is usually over in a few minutes. If you jump in to stop the dogs, you might get a tooth in your hand. Let your guide pull the dogs off, and only help if he asks you to.
Be honest about your condition. If you are out of shape, have a range you aren’t comfortable shooting over, or have any concerns, share the issue with your guide before you go out. Some lion hunts may involve horses, four-wheelers, snow machines, hard hiking, or all four. If you have never been on a snow machine, four-wheeler, or horse, make sure you mention it before you arrive for your hunt.
Trophies. Make up your mind what you will be happy with before you go. In most areas, both male and female lions (without kittens) are legal game. I have had clients pass up opportunities at running a mature female lion because they only wanted a big tom. Then on the last day they were hoping for an opportunity at any mature cat. Decide what you will be happy with and share that with your guide. I always advise my clients never to pass on the first day an animal that they would be happy with on the last day.
Lion Meat. Most people don’t realize that lion meat is delicious. It is a white meat similar to pork without any gamey taste.
Summary: If you are planning your first lion hunt, research the guide or outfitter carefully. After that, make the most out of your hunt. All lion hunts, whether in Arizona or Montana, take place in amazing country. Enjoy the experience. Mountain lions are incredible animals, and once you’ve seen your first one up close, it is a memory you will never forget. Good luck!