January 02, 2023
1:30 A.M. December 1, 2021. The alarm on the iPhone was blaring. I rubbed my eyes and stumbled to my feet. Three hours of sleep was just enough to tease my body about the rest I was supposed to get. Opening day of mountain lion season brought a fresh layer of snow; not much, but enough to blanket the ground in a thin layer of cat-catching powder. Time to go.
Mountain lion season in Montana is very liberal. Each unit has its individual quota for the number of female and male lions that can be taken out of the population. These quotas are set by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to ensure sustainable and healthy populations of lions exist for generations to come. If the quotas are met, the hunt closes. If enough lions haven’t been killed, the season will run all the way into April, giving hunters an ample amount of time to pursue these elusive predators.
In my mind, there is really only one way to successfully hunt mountain lions: with hounds. I was lucky enough to make a good friend who had a pair of tracking machines. While you can get lucky and have the opportunity of a fleeting shot at a lion bounding out of a draw when you’re stalking a deer, using hounds allows you to properly judge an animal before the shot and so take a mature lion that falls within management quota.
I started my pursuit of lions when I met Brice Suhay a few years back. The first thing he asked me was if I had ever been on a lion race. Shortly after our conversation, we were looking for tracks throughout the night and chasing baying hounds through waist-deep snow on a fresh track.
I’ve been pursuing lions now for three seasons, and regardless of the time I’ve spent in the field, it doesn’t get easier. Early mornings hiking snowy trails and running forest service roads on snowmobiles is the name of the game. To effectively use hounds, you need to find a fresh track for the hounds to follow.
Unlike the confused, jumbled mess left by deer, elk, and wolves, lions leave an undisturbed round track in the snow. The track is clean, and each step is perfectly placed in a methodical fashion. The lead toe is distinct, and the three lobes on the back pad indicate a feline rather than a canine. A practiced lion hunter can pick out a cat track with ease while driving 40 mph down the highway.
I still look at every track I come across. I’m a novice at best, but when I see a cat track, there’s no mistaking it. I hunt in southwest Montana where lion populations are healthy and thriving. In my time hunting lions, I have found too many tracks to count. We run every track we can, but some are old, and on some days the scent conditions were bad and the dogs couldn’t pick up the trail. When a track was fresh and scent was good, though, the dogs would lead us on a grueling mission deep into the mountains.
Getting To The Tree
I don’t know how many times I have been told “using hounds is cheating” or “hunting lions with hounds is easy.” To put it simply, it’s the hardest pursuit I have ever been a part of. My legs have never been as tired as when we have been six miles up a mountain in waist-deep snow. The temperatures have been in the single digits, and I’ll be drenched in sweat, wearing just a base layer.
Yes, sometimes you have a short race, and a lion will tree quickly, but you also can get lucky and shoot an elk or deer a quarter-mile from the truck, right off the trail. It’s a roll of the dice, and you don’t know where you’ll end up when you let the hounds go.
Lions live in and navigate rough terrain with ease, floating effortlessly atop the snowpack. The dogs follow suit plowing through the deep snow, driven by an instinct to pursue. Humans are not built for navigating this terrain in deep winter. Your body fights you with every step you take, but you need to keep moving.
The dogs are at their most vulnerable when you let them loose on a track, and it is the duty of the houndsman and the hunter to get to their positions as quickly and efficiently as possible. The areas we hunt are heavily populated with wolves, and they frequently kill hounds when they are baying on a tree. Getting there fast helps mitigate those chances.
Before you embark on a lion trip of your own, make sure you spend time getting in shape and are able to hike. While you may get lucky and have a lion tree right off the road, it is more likely that a grueling walk through nasty terrain is coming your way. Stay motivated and keep moving. Just put one foot in front of the other, and you’ll get there. Eventually.
Getting My Lion
I can’t recall exactly how many days an alarm blaring well before sunup has disrupted my peaceful sleep and replaced it with me shivering on a snowmobile with hopes of finding a track. Too many to count. The past seasons have seen me in the field on any free day from December to April. But this season was going to be different because I wouldn’t have the ability to hunt through April. My little boy was due at the beginning of January, and my duties as a father were going to pull me from the field. December was my only month to hunt.
Opening morning we found fresh tracks, but due to poor scenting conditions, the dogs lost the trail. Unfortunately, we didn’t tree a lion that day. I was disheartened. Even though I love watching the dogs work, I wanted to find my tom. You see, I will probably shoot only one or two lions in my life, so I wanted to find a big, mature cat to punch my tag on—something I just couldn’t seem to do the past two years. We kept at it, but no matter how much we checked, a big tom track never appeared in our area.
Then I got sick. I am not sure what it was, but it knocked me down. I couldn’t hunt for 10 days, and naturally, the days I missed offered perfect snow conditions. Strangely, Brice never found a good tom track on those days.
As my sickness subsided, my alarm was set again and my gear was staged in the garage. My first day back in the field, we cut two tracks walking together: a tom and a female. We let the dogs go, and they took the track.
As we were hiking up the steep, cliffy hillside, my sickness decided that it wasn’t done with me yet. Coughing and hacking my way towards the baying of the hounds, I was struggling to keep up. I pushed as hard I could so that I wouldn’t slow the party down. This was a tough hike, but not one I would ever quit. I was physically beat; my lungs didn’t want to work, and my feet wouldn’t stay underneath me in the slick snow. Eventually, I made the tree.
To my dismay, the dogs had treed the female. She was an exceptional animal, long, beautiful, and she climbed through the tree branches effortlessly. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the cat we were after. We spent the rest of the day pushing through the area trying to find where the tom had gone. After more coughing and falling, I had enough. We discerned that the tom went onto private land, and we couldn’t follow him any longer.
Against my better judgment—and to my wife’s dismay—I decided to hunt the next day. Another early morning and another day I wasn’t feeling my best. Starting the snowmobile was a chore, and my body screamed with discomfort. Luckily, our first check yielded a tom track. This could be our moment, and I was hoping and praying for a short race because I was unsure if my body would allow me to pursue this lion deep into the mountains.
As daylight came, we released the dogs. The track had little to no scent in it. A disturbing start, and it meant this could be a long race. We walked the dogs along the track until they were able to pick up the scent. As we worked back to the truck to retrieve the rest of our gear, I heard the yelp of Suhay’s eight-month-old pup. She had jumped the lion. When we got back to the truck, I could hear them treed up the drainage. It wasn’t far, and I knew I was going to be able to make it.
We hiked, and my lungs were screaming every step of the way, until we reached the tree. When I saw him, I knew he was a big cat. His head was blocky, and his shoulders were big. I decided this was a cat I was going to take.
My nerves were firing off, and I was shaking. I’m sure some of it was from fatigue, but I was also nervous. I found a spot where I knew I could thread an arrow through the branches. As I drew my bow, I settled my nerves and placed my pin on his vitals. The shot broke clean but hit his shoulder bone and did not penetrate as much as I would like. I quickly nocked another arrow. This arrow penetrated deep and stuck into his offside shoulder. I nocked and shot again, just to be sure. Less than 45 seconds from my first shot, the tom lay dead on the ground.
I was quiet. I have so much respect for these magnificent creatures. After taking photos and shaking hands, I loaded him up into my pack and carried him out. My legs quivered with every step, but I was riding a high that would last for days. I lucked out. I only had a half-mile to carry the old beast, but the steep slope and slick snow made it difficult.
Upon my return to the truck and phone service, I proceeded to take part in the conservation and management of these great animals. I reported my kill to the harvest report hotline, giving the representative the date, time, location, and animal information for the kill. We weren’t finished, though. I still had to physically check him in with Montana FWP. We took the cat to the closest agency office in Bozeman where they checked my license and tag and pulled a tooth for age sampling. They put a locking tag on the lion which served as a seal of approval on a legal cat. It was official: I had tagged my lion.
To take part in the management of these amazing predators was something I did not take lightly. I still am riding a high, and I know this hunt will last in my memory for the rest of my life. I encourage you to educate yourself on this pursuit and the benefits of proper management of our predators. If you can participate in one of these hunts, go. The moment when you’re staring into the eye of such an impressive predator is intense.