Last-Chance Cougars

The snow's the thing when stalking late-season trophy cats

Outdoor Life Online Editor

When the heaviest snows of the year come to New Mexico's mountain regions in March, it's generally nothing more than a nuisance-unless you're in the market for a prime cougar. Snow provides ideal tracking conditions for cougar hounds, easier identification of sign from trophy-sized animals and instant spoor identification, letting hunters cover more country quickly in their search for a big cat track.

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish's cougar management plan involves quotas for 16 zones encompassing 52 hunt units. Many zones, because of their easier access via snowmobile and four-wheel-drive vehicles, usually reach their quotas by January. However, Zone C (including the Pecos and Latir Wilderness areas) and Zone J (comprising most of the Gila region, including the Gila Wilderness) often close on March 31, the final day of the season, with quotas unfilled. (For zone-closure information, call 877-950-5466, or visit www.wildlife.state.nm.us.) These areas also happen to include the highest cat and quota numbers, and at the same time some of the most remote and difficult country; hunts on horseback are the norm. The Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation (505-759-3255) doesn't institute quotas and also offers super lion hunting.

Instead of falling into the doldrums when the weatherman announces snow, I call my houndsman buddies, Mick Chapel of New Mexico Professional Big Game Hunters (505-773-4599) and Billy Lee of Mimbres Guide Service (505-536-9685), and hope one of them is without a client. Houndsmen are always looking for an excuse to run their dogs. And what better way to spend a snowy March day than listening to sweet hound music and perhaps seeing a true mountain ghost?