The BAREBOW! Chronicles: A Washington Tom
Dennis Dunn 04.15.14
Chapter 14 in Colonel Craig Boddington’s outstanding book, Fair Chase in North America, is titled, “The Great North American Cat”.
His first sentence reads as follows:
The cougar is America’s most misunderstood game animal.
It is a statement with which I wholeheartedly concur. Known variously as a catamount, puma, panther, painter, or mountain lion, the cougar—much like the polar bear—has in recent years been made into an iconic symbol of our vanishing wilderness: portrayed as a noble creature fighting to survive the destruction we humans have visited upon its environment. Unfortunately, that view is promoted by the more radical environmentalists, as well as by most of the acolytes of the new, modern religion of political correctness. These are often the same people.
With cougars, you have multiple factors that have contributed to a significant increase of their numbers in recent years, all throughout most of their historic range west of the Great Plains. The animal, by nature, is exceedingly shy and secretive. It used to be that a hunter could spend a lifetime of autumns out in the field and never even catch a glimpse of a lion. Nowadays, however, stumbling across one in the woods is becoming rather common throughout most of the Rocky Mountain West. More alarming is the hard fact that cougar attacks against people are no longer rare, isolated incidences. Household pets, young children, and joggers are becoming periodic targets—from western Montana to western Washington; from the mountains of Colorado to the suburbs of Los Angeles.
A good friend of mine is the well-known wildlife photographer Chuck Bartlett. Several years ago, Chuck was photographing Roosevelt elk one day in the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula when a cougar came out of nowhere to give him the fright of his life. He had his camera attached to a tall tripod and was bending over it about to take a picture. A slight sound he heard directly behind him caused him to glance over his shoulder—just in time to see a mountain lion in midair, about to take him to the ground. He had only a fraction of a second to spin around and interpose the tripod between himself and the flying cat that had just launched itself off the top of a bank. Evidently, its unexpected collision with the stout, metal tripod caused the cougar enough discomfort that it just kept running and did not return to attack again.
Why has this sort of thing been happening with greater and greater frequency in recent years? There are, of course, several reasons, but the overriding cause of increasing lion attacks is that they are no longer being hunted enough by sportsmen, especially via the time-honored method of hound hunting. Their fear of man has been substantially reduced.
The other vital point the public needs to understand is that uncontrolled lion populations can devastate deer herds in short order. Boddington states: “Given the chance, a cougar might eat and kill a deer per week. Certainly 40 a year is not an exaggerated figure.” Thus, as cougars depredate their biggest natural food source to historic lows (as in California), domestic livestock, pets, and human beings may end up on their revised menus.
Those facts notwithstanding, very few lion hunters are willing to take the life of a lioness. They realize that—just as is the case with bears—when you remove a female from the population, you do significant damage to it. They also know, conversely, that the killing of an adult tom is going (over time) to contribute to a very real increase in the numbers of cougars. The reason this is true for both the bears and the big cats is simply because every year the males of both species kill several cubs, and any smaller adult male they can manage to catch. In neither case do the boars or toms appreciate having competition for food sources—nor competition for breeding rights, once the mating season arrives.
When it comes to man’s hunting of lions with dogs, the chase itself is everything. Once in a great while, it will prove to be a quick, easy matter, but most of the time the chase is exhausting—more for the man, I think, than for the beast. The kill, if it takes place at all, is usually an easy shot and anticlimactic. However, this method of hunting does allow for great selectivity, and female cougars are never shot by accident. You can always tell whether the big cat in the tree above you is male or female.
Getting to the treed catamount, however, is the real challenge for the hunter. Because he is seldom in the same physical condition as the houndsman, the chase for him is often a gut-busting experience that can cause a single day’s weight loss of from five to eight pounds. Some hunters find they’re really not “up to it” once the chase gets underway in earnest. Lion country is almost always steep and rocky. Deep snow often makes the going extremely tough and slippery. Your quarry may outsmart the dogs and give them the slip, or the cat—once treed—may leave the tree before you ever reach it (if you reach it at all).
Sometimes it is the dogs that leave the tree with the cougar still in it, because they give up waiting for the hunters to catch up with them. It seems that the list of things that can go wrong on a lion hunt is almost endless. The best way to sum it up is that the use of dogs doesn’t make cougar hunting easy; it just makes it possible. As one who has been on at least a dozen such hunts in my lifetime, let me assure the reader that catching up to a record-book tom is one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever set for myself.
Seldom have my guide and I ended up beneath a tree with a lion in it. Sometimes we would lose the hounds for hours on end, as the cat led them on a merry chase over one ridge after another. One day, I remember that night actually came and went before we finally located the dogs the next morning. More than once, I recall the dogs getting confused by the circles the lion was running, and they started following his scent-trail backwards until they suddenly landed in our lap—with considerable embarrassment.
* * *
My first successful cougar hunt took place in Stevens County, in northeastern Washington, during December of 1988. Redfern Guide Services was the name of the outfitter, and I recall how much he loved his hounds and the music they made whenever we found a good, fresh track worth turning the dogs loose on. Each of his three dogs had a very distinctive voice. As long as he could hear them, he could tell you exactly what was going on between them and the lion.
Everything came together for me at last on the fifth day of the hunt, but the chases we got going on day number two and day number four left me not only struggling for air, but also gasping in amazement at how our quarry had managed to outsmart the hounds and escape. Late morning of the second day, we came across a set of fresh lion tracks that crossed the old logging road we were traveling. Nearly a foot of new snow blanketed the ground. My guide exited the truck and carefully measured the width of the front paw and the length of the stride. “Forty-five inches!” he declared, with some real excitement in his voice. We’ve got ourselves a big tom here! Let’s unleash the hounds and see if we can catch him.”
Even before liberation from their dog-boxes in the back of the truck, the hounds began yelping in excited anticipation of the chase. Once their master directed their noses to the fresh tracks, they were instantly off to the races. Within less than a minute they were out of sight as they charged up the mountainside. Their constant baying, however, allowed us to hear them and follow their progress—at least until they crossed over the top of the ridge high above us. Having to fight the fresh snow and the steep incline, we took over an hour to reach that ridge crest—it may have taken the dogs all of four minutes! Despite the subfreezing temperature, I’d never felt so overheated in my life. Nor wetter, for that matter!
Once atop the ridge, we were hoping to hear the steady barking of the hounds somewhere off in the distance. What greeted our ears, instead, was total silence. We stood still and listened for a long time. Finally, we heard two or three yelps that seemed born of frustration perhaps no more than 300 yards distant. Continuing to follow the tracks in the snow, we soon found all three pooches hung up on the edge of a long rimrock. The entire story could be read in the snow. In his flight from the hounds, the large male had not hesitated for an instant when he reached the lip of the cliff. He had just sailed off the top with one, long bound and landed in the soft snow some 30 feet below and 50 feet out. Naturally, none of the dogs had been willing to take such a leap. Since the rimrock extended in each direction nearly half-a-mile, his pursuers had not been able to find a way down. “Just as well,” I remember my guide saying. “There are no roads off that-away, anyhow.”
Two days later, we again came across another impressive set of fresh tracks, but this old tom was even cleverer than the first. When I finally joined my patient guide on the third ridgetop after three hours of trying to keep up with him, he greeted me with a big grin. “You hear that music over yon? Gus and the others have him treed down there in that forested hollow about 500 yards from here.” I nodded silently, as I fought to catch my breath—grateful that the last push was going to be all downhill! Minutes later, under the canopy of the big woods, we arrived at the old fir tree which had three excited dogs under it, bellering their hearts out, and bouncing up and down as if on pogo-sticks. There was absolutely no doubt those hounds were convinced that the lion was hiding somewhere above them in that tree! Search as we might, however, neither of us could find him. We both circled the tree several times but could not spot a head, a tail, or any patch of fur.
Finally, after 15 minutes of frustration and head-scratching, my guide made a much wider circle around the base of the tree and discovered the answer to our puzzlement. Roughly 40 feet from the base of the fir began a set of departing cougar tracks. Our careful study of all the tracks in the vicinity of the tree led to only one conclusion. The incoming lion had left the ground at high speed and used the trunk as a springboard to carom off it at 90 degrees and continue his flight. The escape maneuver had obviously worked perfectly, because the hounds had only followed the cat’s tracks as far as the tree, and assumed—once they got there—that he was “treed” somewhere above them. By then, the hour was late afternoon, and my houndsman decided not to put the dogs on the “new” set of tracks, since we knew our quarry probably had a big head-start.
In light of all the difficulties and disappointments experienced during the first four days of the hunt, I really was not expecting everything to come together perfectly for me on day five. A third set of fresh tom tracks was located early in the morning, and in less than 30 minutes my guide informed me that his hounds were barking “treed.” Within an hour after their initial release, I found myself standing beneath a small, leafless tree and looking up in awe at the biggest “putty-tat” I had ever seen outside of a zoo. No more than 15 feet off the ground, the beautiful tom was gazing down at me with total serenity and a look of seeming indifference on his bewhiskered face. It was almost as if he wished to pose for the several photographs I proceeded to take. The hounds continued to bark, but the cougar—evidently feeling completely safe—barely condescended to look in their direction. “Proud Disdain” would have been a perfect title for his portrait.
Eventually, it was time to put an arrow on the string. Once all three dogs were tied up (in order to protect them if the cat were to come out of the tree with any fight left in him) I drew back and sent an arrow into the wild yonder, but it first passed through the lion’s abdomen. That is not where I had aimed my shaft, but a small branch deflected it just before it reached its target. Instantly, the lion was out of the tree and headed for the next county. He would not go far. Within seconds, the dogs were back in pursuit, and a scant 75 yards away the stricken cat zipped up a huge ponderosa pine. Once we got ourselves over there to join the excited canines, I forced myself to relax and catch my breath a bit before nocking a second arrow.
The big fellow was now at least 50 feet off the ground, out on a thick limb, staring down at us, and offering a much smaller target than before. My next shot required bending over severely backwards and shooting the arrow almost straight up. My aim was a few inches off, and the arrow stuck in the limb directly under the lion’s rib cage. He immediately let out a snarl, displaying the lethal fangs for which he is so universally feared by all prey animals. My third and final shot was on the money. Transpiercing the chest cavity from below, it soared skyward—ultimately to land only 30 yards from the base of the ponderosa. Maybe five seconds elapsed before the cougar lost his perch, and I suspect he was already dead before he reached the end of his 50-foot fall into the snow.
Handshakes and backslaps were quick to follow, but then the work began. The guide estimated his weight at around 130 pounds. Most of the route, fortunately, was downhill, and the snow made the job much easier than it would have been, otherwise.
As for my dream of putting a cougar “in the book,” this one came up a trifle short. A few months earlier, the Pope & Young Records Committee had raised the entry minimum for the species from 13 inches to 13-and-a-half (skull-length plus skull-width). The lion was later scored at 13 and 4/16ths. Even though he wasn’t everything I had hoped for, I was very happy with my Washington tom. I was especially happy, however, at having had (finally) the overall experience of a successful chase. It had proven really exciting and was unlike any other experience I’d ever had before in the world of hunting.
I also felt good about the fact that I’d done my small part to protect or increase the deer population in eastern Washington. Since people almost never get to see cougars, unless they’re attacked by one, why not do what you can to make it possible for everybody to see more deer? In case the reader may be wondering, cougar meat is some of the best-tasting wild meat there is!
Editor’s note: This article is the twenty-first of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the twentieth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson