December 20, 2023
Secretive, powerful, and ultimately stealthy, Puma concolor is one of America’s most lethal predators. Known colloquially as mountain lion or cougar, our big cats are also far more abundant than most folks believe. You never see them, right? Well, not to creep you out, but if you’ve spent any time at all hunting, fishing, or even just hiking the West’s backcountry, they’ve seen you.
If they’re so secretive, how do you hunt them? And what sort of bow or gun should you have? Being potentially dangerous game (when wounded), should one be armed with a powerful big-bore firearm?
Where can you hunt them? Midwestern and eastern states have just a few, and most of the huntable populations are in the West.
On a scientific note, cougars have the widest range of any wild, land-inhabiting mammal north of the equator. They exist from the Yukon to the southern Andes. Males commonly stand nearly three feet tall and can measure up to eight feet long from nose to tail-tip. Weight of an adult male cat is 125 to 175 pounds, although they do on rare occasion top 200 pounds. The heaviest on record tipped the scale at 232 pounds.
A bit of trivia: The mountain lion is one of only two large cat species with a category in the Boone & Crockett records book. The other is the jaguar.
I recall a biological survey I saw in Utah in the ’90s, which indicated that adult cougars each kill an average of 60 mule deer per year. That’s more than one a week. A high lion population is hard on muleys and particularly on big bucks. Contrary to popular environmentalist opinions that predators tend to kill the weak, old, and sick—mountain lions are statisticians. They much prefer to stalk solitary deer than groups, because such stalks have a much higher success rate.
Unfortunately, this means they kill an inordinate percentage of big, mature mule deer bucks, because such deer are often solitary. My brother and I had lion dogs for a decade, and many times while tracking a lion we found a big buck killed by the cat we were after. It was dishearteningly common. Far more common than finding a lion-killed doe or fawn.
Mountain lions are typically taken one of two ways. Most successfully, they are hunted with hounds. When Old Man Winter blows a few inches of snow across the Rocky Mountains and the temperature plummets, hungry cougars roam the ridgelines, spotting and stalking deer and elk more effectively than any human ever could. Put a good pack of hounds—usually a mix of redbone, bluetick, walker, and possibly a touch of bloodhound—on lion tracks in fresh snow and you’ve got an excellent chance of putting that cat up a tree.
If snow and tracks are old, or if the earth is free of snow, chances are lower. But good dogs still give you a chance. Hunting with hounds is the only method that reliably produces opportunities. Plus, the method is good for conservation by providing hunters plenty of time to determine age, gender, and whether a mature female is accompanied by kittens before shooting.
The second method by which lions are taken is incidental. This is the only method allowed in states such as Oregon, where using hounds is illegal, but mountain lion tags may be purchased over the counter and the season runs concurrent to the deer season. While it’s not a high-probability hunt, if there’s a high local population of the cats it’s worth having a cougar tag in your pocket. More than one hunter has chucked a rock into a brushy ravine and flushed out a lion instead of the buck he was anticipating.
SHOT OPPORTUNITIES AND TYPES
Tag in hand, you may encounter one of two distinctly different shot opportunities. Thankfully, you can more or less predict what you’ll get. Hound hunters will likely encounter cats up close and personal, but in awkward places and positions with just sky for a background. Deer and elk hunters with a lion tag in their pocket will likely be at a distance—if they see a cougar at all. Since the latter is the less likely opportunity—and also the least complex—let’s address it first and get it out of the way.
Lions are stealthy and move differently than deer, and their vitals are only about half the size of a big mule deer. As a result, they’re easier to miss than a deer. Combine physical size with the adrenaline factor of unexpectedly seeing a lion ghosting along the neighboring ridge or blasting from a thicket in the canyon below before pausing to look back—tail thrashing—from 150 yards away; you’re facing a downright challenging shot.
That established, unless the lion is a long way off, in most cases it’s a makeable shot. Any accurate deer or elk rifle, cartridge, and bullet will suffice nicely. Treat the shot like you would an opportunity at a coyote: Act fast and be precise. Unlike mule deer, cougars are unlikely to pause and offer a second shot. One final note. As African hunters might say, “Lions are quite thin-skinned. You don’t need a lot of bullet to kill them.” Like any cat, cougars are built for moving quickly. Bones are supple, small in diameter, and light in weight. Muscle is sinewy rather than massive and thick. Hide is thin—literally. None of these present a challenge for hunting bullets. Accuracy is more important than having a tough, controlled-expansion bullet. In fact, a soft bullet that expands dramatically on impact is ideal.
As for shot angles, I would cheerfully take any angle offered—aside from a Texas Heart Shot. Keep in mind that while you may get a broadside shot, the cat across the canyon is just as likely to be working away from you, up the far side. You may have to shoot him between his shoulder blades, driving your bullet down toward the point of his brisket.
When hunting with hounds, the shooting challenges change. When it comes to dropping a lion out of a tree, your shot can be anything from absurdly simple to extremely challenging. Most likely, the cat will be 20 or 30 feet up in a tree, looking excessively bored at all the commotion below. You’ll be able to work your way around until you’re broadside and have found a good window in the branches through which to shoot. In this case, all you have to do is remember that the cat is well above you, opposite to shooting down at a close-up whitetail from a treestand, and aim a bit low and angle the bullet or arrow up through the vitals.
As mentioned, you will likely not have a backstop. Before shooting, be sure the country beyond the lion is remote and uninhabited. Ideally, use a light, fast-expanding bullet unlikely to exit the lion. Aim small, miss small. Cougars are sprinters and have relatively small lungs. On the plus side, a good broadhead or bullet through those lungs usually results in a very fast kill.
With a firearm, another frequent—and good—shot opportunity is facing straight on. Hold your nerve—the cat will likely be within 10 yards or less and staring you down rather evilly—and shoot carefully. Drive your bullet directly into the center of the chest and back through the vitals. If the cat is well above you, aim low on the chest. This will take out heart, lungs, and spine, resulting in an immediate, dramatic death. With archery tackle, I would avoid this presentation. As with rifles, any archery setup appropriate for deer is perfect for mountain lions. Many bowhunters opt to use a fixed-blade head, because a big expandable puts a whale of a hole through both sides of the cougar’s skin, and whether you’re doing a rug on the wall or a full-body mount, that’s bad.
Hunted with hounds, mountain lions are perfect game for traditional bowhunters and blackpowder purists. Longbow or flintlock in hand, you can take your time, get close, and pick your shot opportunity.
CALM DURING THE CHAOS
Because of all the excitement—you’re attempting to kill an apex predator, after all—it’s important to keep calm and shoot well. Ignore the uproarious pack of hounds, the baleful glare of the cat, the exhaustion of charging through the mountains in hot pursuit, and place your shot in the A zone. You, the dogs, and the lion all deserve a clean kill with a minimal amount of drama.
It’s comforting to know, however, that if you do screw up and shoot badly, you’re very unlikely to lose the cougar. Even if you knock him out of the tree and he runs off, the dogs will tree him again, nearly immediately, and you’ll get to quickly finish the job. It’s another beneficial side to hunting with hounds; wounded game is nearly always recovered.
One last note. Don’t write off eating your mountain lion just because it’s a predator. Old-time mountain men prized cougar meat. It’s lean and much like pork in color, texture, and even taste. And there’s just nothing cooler than cracking open the smoker and casually asking your pal, “Do you prefer mountain lion kabob or steak?”