They can be found in large numbers in all the western states and in more eastern and Midwest states than many realize or that game departments will admit. This cat is rarely seen without the use of a trained pack of hounds.
Its reclusive nature and primarily nocturnal habits, combined with its sharp senses, make this cat the true “ghost of the woods.” I am admittedly bias, but feel a mountain lion is not only the most beautiful but also the top predator in North America.
A mature lion on average kills a big game animal every seven to 10 days with deer being the most common prey. Just imagine being stealthy enough to sneak up close enough to a deer to be able to jump on its back. Then imagine being strong enough to drop it with a bite to the spine and/or then moving around to choke it by collapsing and squeezing the windpipe. Then up the ante by imagining doing that to a full-grown bull elk.
I have found enough lion-killed deer and elk that I am awed by a lion’s ability to kill an animal two to five times its own weight. As tough as lions are, it only seems right that hunting for them is also a tough undertaking.
As an outfitter and guide for the last 23 years in Colorado, I have guided clients on a myriad of big game, including bighorn sheep, elk, black bear, antelope, mule deer, whitetail, turkey and mountain lion. Out of any hunt I guide for, lion is the most physically and mentally challenging. It is also the only species I have guided where I’ve had clients literally quit while hunting.
Most just weren’t prepared for the miles of walking, high altitude, snow, cold weather or all four. I don’t share that to discourage anyone from lion hunting, but to help prepare anyone who may be thinking of a lion hunt.
Not all lion hunts are grueling marches through the snow. I have lion hunted dry ground in Arizona off horses and have also had clients walk less than 300 yards to a treed cat in Colorado. But most are very physically and mentally exhausting if you have not prepared for it, or at least know what to expect.
The two largest factors in success besides fitness are having the right gear and choosing the right outfitter. I say outfitter because most people do not have a trained pack of hounds ready to go lion hunting. Most lions are harvested with the use of trained lion dogs.
To give you an example of how rare it is to harvest a lion without hounds, I queried the Pope and Young Club. Out of 2,030 lions that made the record book in the last 20 years, 95 percent of them were taken with outfitters that used dogs.
So if you are planning a lion hunt, I have listed a few things that should help your trip be a more enjoyable and successful one.
First off, it is important to know the animal you’re after. Mountain lions have an average life span of nine to 12 years in the wild. A female can have as many as six kittens in a litter but usually only two survive to adulthood.
Kittens are born with spots that fade within eight to 12 months. The female raises the kittens and teaches them to hunt. The male’s only role is conception. Occasionally, the young lions will stay with their mother for as long as 18 months before leaving and finding their own territory.
Mountain lions are usually solitary animals, although occasionally littermates will sometimes hunt together into adulthood. Cats have their own distinct territories that vary in size based on the availability of prey species.
During the winter, cats will often migrate to follow game into different areas. When forced together due to prey animals being concentrated in one winter range area, cats practice what biologists refer to as mutual avoidance, coming together only to breed or fight over territory disputes.
Unlike a lot of other predators, mountain lions only like fresh meat they have killed themselves. Only in rare circumstances will a lion eat carrion or feed off another animal’s kill.
Adult males can be over eight feet in length from their nose to the tip of their tail. On average, adult males weigh between 130 to 160 pounds. Adult females can be seven feet long and on average weigh between 70 and 110 pounds.
Since only a handful of lions have ever been harvested without dogs, odds are your cat will be treed by a trained pack of hounds. Shots are usually close and it’s rare to shoot over 25 yards. That is why most lions are harvested with a bow or a handgun.
Cats are not difficult to kill for a bowhunter and nine to 12 inches of penetration will completely go through the chest cavity. Razor-sharp broadheads are a must. I suggest a minimum of 40 pounds of bow weight for lions.
For a gun, I suggest a pistol as it is easy to carry. Be sure and check regulations in the state you are hunting because different states have different caliber restrictions. I like a .357, .41 or .44 handgun with hollow points. A lightweight lever gun is also great cat medicine. In a lever-action rifle, I like .357, .44 or even the old reliable 30-30.
It is always best to be prepared physically for any hunt. If you are planning a lion hunt, that goes double. Most lion country is rough and long hard hikes are the norm. If you’re a flatlander or a mountain dweller in poor shape, be sure to get in shape before heading afield. Climbing stadium steps with a pack is a great way to prepare. Slow and steady is usually the ticket when lion hunting. Being in shape will make your hunt much more enjoyable.
Don’t assume your guide will have emergency gear. Since lion hunting is often in remote country, take a daypack with fire starter, extra food, water, extra clothes and a compass or GPS at a minimum. It is always better to have it and not need it then need it and not have it.
Booking the Hunt
Choosing the right outfitter is one of the most important things you can do to increase your odds of success. Some important questions to ask are: How physical is the hunt? What has your success percentage been over the last three years? Have you ever had any game violations? How much will I spend besides your fee? What is and what isn’t included in my hunt? Can I stay extra days if I don’t get a cat and what is the charge for that?
After getting answers to these questions, it is important you are honest with your outfitter. If you’re 50 pounds overweight and in poor shape or have any physical or medical issues, you need to bring it up. Lastly, remember you are purchasing a hunt, not an animal. Sometimes hunts are successful and sometimes they are not even if you have the best outfitter around.
Where To Go
Lions are classified as a game animal in 13 states: Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, North Dakota and Texas. Out of these states, Oregon and Washington don’t allow the use of hounds for lion hunting and South Dakota only allows residents to hunt lions. Therefore I would only consider the other 10 states.
On a lion hunt, good weather conditions are extremely important. Good conditions usually mean a fresh blanket of snow in the Rocky Mountain states. Fresh snow make tracks easier for the dogs to follow the scent.
Outfitters in states that get little or no snow have hounds that trail in dry ground. However, if the weather turns hot and dry with little or no humidity, even the best dogs can’t trail a cat.
So when you are on a lion hunt, remember there is no guarantee. It is usually the persistent hunter and guide who get to see the most impressive cat in North America.