By Nick Muckerman
Despite the weatherman’s dire prediction of 10 straight days of sunny skies, mild temperatures and zero white stuff, I woke up on Idaho’s December 1 opener to an inch of unexpected powder. It was a welcomed twist as I met up with my hunting partner, Chess Carbol.
To bypass territorial competition, we prefer hiking for lion tracks in wilderness areas inaccessible to vehicles rather than the overcrowded roads and snowmobile trails. In order to maximize our ability to cover the most ground, we park one truck on the opposite end of the mountain range and then hike to it from the other end.
At daylight, we collared our dogs and moved up the trail while the hounds pushed ahead searching for a track to run. Two miles in, Spike, my big red English/Plott cross, struck a track and shattered the morning silence with his howl. My little red female, Sparta, sounded off, letting him know that she too smelled the lion.
It was the sound I’d longed to hear for months; the sound I crave more than any other, including the gobble of a spring longbeard or a screaming bull elk. In this wild setting, the primeval hound song is not out of place, and my dogs, even with thousands of years of selective breeding, still trace their lineage back to wolves. They are as savage as anything on the mountain.
They moved out fast, roasting the track and filling the canyon with their eerie music. I took a quick measurement of the cat’s stride with my vinyl tape measure and confirmed what I knew from the size of the prints: It was a tom.
The track was straightforward and Spike and Sparta treed him quickly, two miles from where we’d turned loose. On the way to the tree, we crossed the trail of the lion and dogs, but there were two separate lion tracks in the snow covered by our hounds’ tracks.
“He found himself a lover last night,” I told Chess.
Upon approaching the action, I saw my dogs baying under a tree with two tawny forms above them. The smaller of the two, the female, bailed and headed down the mountain, but the tom stayed. He backed up on a bare tree trunk that stood at an angle out of a steep slope on the mountain. I told Chess what I’d been thinking: “He is a solid, mature tom. We don’t tree many good cats.”
“I don’t know. I killed a lion last year.”
“So what? You see anyone else out here, busting their asses since 2:00 a.m.? Feeding dogs all year? Roading them? Buying them GPS collars? Scooping their crap? Paying vet bills?”
“Up to you,” I said. “We treed 19 last season and killed one. It isn’t like we are knocking everything we catch out of a tree.”
He looked up at the magnificent cougar, who stood baring his teeth in contempt at the barking dogs below him. He looked striking on the bare tree trunk.
“Let’s do it,” he said, and began digging in his pack for his scoped .44 magnum revolver.
At the shot, the tom tensed, then deflated before free falling stone dead into the snow. Upon approaching the lion, we saw there was no ground shrinkage, no regret.
Chess kneeled near the beast and began inspecting him. He brushed his hands through the buckskin-colored fur then examined his teeth and claws in awe and respect, as it should be.
After pictures, skinning and packing the lion up, it was only 10:30 a.m.
“We have two options,” I said. “We can head back to my truck, drive to the little Mexican joint and get a super macho steak burrito, or we can head over the mountain to your truck as planned.” We laughed, both knowing that quitting at 10:30 a.m. on a day with good snow wasn’t an option, kill or no kill. That’s why we were hunting partners.
It’s a funny thing how hunting partnerships are forged. In this case, I had taken quite a few of my friends on lion hunts, but Chess was the only one who would keep coming. Hiking in the snow, often with snowshoes, for double-digit miles in single-digit temperatures to maybe run a lion is tough work. Combine that with the fact that the lion may go the opposite direction you want him to, and a long damn way at that, it isn’t a sport for everyone.
I took a friend once and we caught a lion early, but it jumped from the tree right when we arrived and put a couple moves on my hounds. Mid-race, my buddy just quit. He walked back to his truck, called his wife and informed her that he was headed home but would not be able to fulfill his marital duties to her that night due to head-to-toe pain and fatigue. He downed half a bottle of whiskey before bed and within a week, a few of his toenails turned black and fell off.
Another buddy, one of the toughest guys I know, joined in and could handle the hiking, but was extremely uncomfortable being in close proximity to the lion. The cougar was in a low cedar tree, and it is understandable that some people don’t like being near a pissed-off predator that has the tools to kill a bull moose. He didn’t come again.
Chess and I turned the dogs loose on the trail of the female that split, hoping for a quick rerun for practice. Spike and Sparta left on the track and moved quickly, but it was apparent that the cat had gone on a walkabout.
The hounds traveled away, still in earshot, then reappeared across the canyon, two red spots leap-frogging across a bare south-facing slope, sounding off when they smelled a track. Both possessing lead-dog mentalities, they pushed the track hard and fast, discontent being anywhere but in the front. In their years running as pack mates, they’d formed this strange alliance, two warring hearts with one goal.
They trailed out of sight, their barks and howls still audible and rhythmic in cadence, but soon they turned chaotic and we knew they had jumped the lion. Then we heard the beautiful long bawls they only use when cats are treed.
The lion made her stand in a tree that was long dead with gnarly, twisted branches. I tied Spike and Sparta up on a single tree tie with a coupler to a nearby branch.
We snapped a few pictures, but I could tell the cat was getting nervous. When the lion turned to jump, she looked down at Spike and Sparta coupled together and dove off the branch directly at them.
That’s when things got Western.
For a split second, the lion hung in the air, legs apart, claws out with a nasty snarl on her face. She slammed into my dogs so hard that the branch they were tied to snapped and the mob of bodies started rolling down the hill.
I ran after them, tripping, falling, regaining my feet, tripping again, and then rolling toward them, screaming like a madman the entire time. It wasn’t a fair fight with my dogs hooked together with a coupler that kept their heads less than a foot apart, and I didn’t want them getting killed.
I rolled into the action, vaguely aware of getting scuffed up from the rocky slope. I got up and gave the lion a kick that would’ve knocked a man’s teeth down his throat. She didn’t budge, but instead turned her attention to me, snarled and delivered a lightning-fast swat to my boot sole, knocking me down. As I fell back, I grabbed at the orange tree tie attached to my hounds and yanked it hard.
My dogs stumbled from the whiplash, but pulled back toward the cat, still baying hard and not wanting the fight to end. I tried again, but with better footing, and pulled them as hard as I could. Amped up on adrenaline and with purchase under my boots, I pulled too hard. They stumbled past me, tangled with the leash and each other. I fell to my butt, defenseless and vulnerable, for just a moment with my only protection behind me tangled up in their leash.
The lion looked at me calmly and took two steps forward. I shielded my face with my hands and pulled my legs in tight against my torso, bracing for what I knew would be an eviscerating blow.
It never came. Instead, she peered at me through soulless eyes and then nonchalantly walked 10 yards to the base of a cedar tree, her lithe muscles showing through her tawny fur. Then she stood, defiant and proud, unwilling to yield and climb.
As we walked away, I kept an eye on the lion. She never moved from under the cedar, as if there was an unspoken truce that if she stayed there and we stayed away, she’d play nice. Spike and Sparta wanted a rematch, and they weren’t happy about me dragging them out of there.
“We shot the wrong cat,” I told Chess. “We should have let the tom walk and given that crazy bitch a ride off the mountain in your backpack.”
Truthfully, there is no game animal I have more respect for than mountain lions. They hunt alone, with no pack to support them, and when the days get short and the weather turns cold, they don’t hunker down in a den for a five-month nap. They are masters of stealth and secrecy and dealing death.
I still wasn’t fond of that particular lion, however.
It took us another eight miles of hiking to get to the main ridge where we were rewarded with a view of snow-covered mountains as far as we could see. Often adventure ends in being cold, wet and tired, but the reward here, among others, was being in a place so big we felt as small as dust. It would be another three miles down through the valley where we left the truck so many hours before.
As we took in the view, however, something caught my eye just in front of us. I walked over. It was a lion track, and it was left by a true giant. I measured the stride. He was 45 or 46 inches with massive pads—the kind of cat you hoped to cross paths with once in a decade, or maybe even a lifetime of hunting.
I didn’t say anything. I just held the tape measure and looked up at Chess. We had maybe an hour of daylight left.
“You really want to see that lion don’t you?” Chess said, but it was a statement, not a question.
A lion track is an adventure unlived, and a story yet untold. One of the best and worst parts about lion hunting is that when a track is found, the cat could be 10 miles away, or 200 yards away, and there is only one way to know for sure. We didn’t have to decide; Spike did for us.
Exhausted, with his head hanging low and the wag in his tail long gone miles ago, he put his nose over the behemoth track. It was like someone put a shot of adrenaline straight into his heart. His body tensed, his tail went back and forth and from deep within he let out a hoarse and ragged howl to let us know he’d found a track, and to let the lion know that he was coming for him.
It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I fell to the ground on my knees, then sat down, soaking my butt in snow, registering the cold but not caring. Chess sat down too.
Sparta joined and they trailed down the ridgetop, pushing the track into the sunset. Sore-footed, their muscles and lungs shot, my hounds were running on nothing but heart, reminding us that regardless of whether or not we wanted to quit and go home, the hunt is never over for them.