Lessons From a Lifetime of Tracking Mountain Lions, From the Archives
The cougar is seen by few hunters, save those who follow dogs to the end of his track
This story, “The Silent Hunter,” originally ran in the July 1967 issue of Outdoor Life.
I WAS ONLY NINE or 10 years old when I acquired the best dog I’ve ever had. Tip was a Boston bull and German shepherd cross, but none of the hounds I have owned since could equal him at hunting cats. I started Tip as a pup on ground squirrels and rabbits, but he quickly showed a strong preference for house cats, and from that quarry it was only a short step to bobcats. Around Vernon, in British Columbia 100 miles north of the U.S. border, where I grew up on a farm, there were enough bobcats to meet the needs of a boy and his dog nicely. Tip and I did all right.
The winter after I turned 12, I decided to become a cougar hunter. I had read everything I could get my hands on about the sport, and most of the stories said that cougar hunters led their dogs on leash until they hit a fresh track. That was what I’d do.
I was on snowshoes, and I led Tip for four hours. In that short time I learned a great deal about cougar hunting that I had never seen in a story. Every time I started one way around a tree, Tip went the other. If I climbed over a windfall, he crawled under.
Finally I unbuckled his collar and said, “Go get ’em!”
And darned if he didn’t! He found a fresh track—he must have known about it all along—and just 30 minutes after I turned him loose he had a big tom cougar up a tree. I got there as fast as I could, and nothing that has happened to me on a hunt since could begin to match that minute for thrills.
I was a little under-gunned with my .22, but I was long on confidence. The cat wasn’t up very high. I clipped him at the butt of an ear, and he came down just as dead as any bobcat I had ever shot.
Before the day was over, Tip treed a second cougar, a smaller tom, and I killed that one, too. That was the beginning of a lifetime of cougar hunting for both Tip and me. He’s been dead many years, but I’m still at it.
At first it was done in secret—I started playing hooky from school. I’d cache my .22 the day before, leave for school in the morning with Tip trailing along, and pick up the rifle, and then away we’d go.
When my mother got wise, she sold the dog to people living 12 miles away, on the other side of the Shuswap River. It took him six months to find his way back. The new owner came after him, took him home, and turned him loose, and that time he was back at our house the next morning. When I promised to play hooky no more, the man gave him back to me.
Tip would hunt anything I put him on—bobcat, lynx, cougar, or bear. I took 65 cougars with him, but when he was getting old and wasn’t so quick on his feet, he ran one in deep snow and overtook it on the ground. The cat killed him with one swat of a paw.
I expect to go on cougar hunting as long as I can follow dogs. I’m 40 now, and that means I’ve been doing it for 28 years. I’ve put in the hardest days of my life on such hunts, walking until I was sure the next step would be my last, then walking 10 or 15 more miles back to my car long after dark. More times than I can remember, I’ve started out again at daylight the next morning, too. And I have enjoyed each and every minute of it.
I’m now a conservation officer and live with my wife and two girls, Gail, 9, and Joyce, 8, at Williams Lake, 250 miles north of Vancouver. Before I took this job, I worked for the British Columbia Fish and Game Branch for nine years as a predator hunter. I haven’t kept a complete score of my cougar kills, but they total over 100, and the big cats are still my foremost outdoors interest.
For me, no other trophy animal in British Columbia, where I have done all my hunting, can hold a candle to them. The mere sight of a big one’s track—on new snow, some are the size of small saucers—starts my heart beating double time.
Those great round pad marks tell a story that tugs at any hunter’s imagination: here, in the black of night, walked one of the most stealthy and mysterious animals in North America—a magnificent cat padding furtively and silently through the dark timber, a cat seen by few humans besides those who follow dogs to the end of his track.
I find more thrills, excitement, and anticipation in hunting the cougar than in going after moose, caribou, mountain goats, or any other game I have tried. No matter how well a man knows his dogs, he can never be sure just what sort of cougar he is after until he gets to the tree, or what will happen at the finish. Hound men are an incurable lot anyway, and once this hunting gets in their blood, they’re hooked.
The hunter who kills one of the big cats has, on top of the suspense and action of the hunt, an impressive and beautiful trophy. I know of nothing more breathtaking than a full mount of a big tom cougar. It speaks of rugged mountains, deep woods, and shadowy trails. Even a cougar rug is something to look at twice. I have never wondered why the pioneers liked to use the pelts as couch or bed covers, and sometimes even as lap robes.
Speaking of the cougar as a trophy, one thing that surprises many hunters and causes frequent arguments is his honest weight. The cougar is smaller than his reputation indicates. Full grown and in good condition, the toms usually weigh 135 to 165 pounds. The biggest I ever put on the scales was seven feet three inches long and weighed 187 pounds. Females are usually 75 to 135 pounds.
Over the years a few real whopper toms have been reliably recorded. Teddy Roosevelt killed one near Meeker, Colorado, in 1901 that weighed 227. The skull of that one is listed as No. 1 in the 1964 edition of the Boone and Crockett Club’s book, Records of North American Big Game, and was only recently topped by a cougar taken in Wayne County, Utah, by Garth Roberts. Another tom, killed in Colorado in 1927, weighed 217 pounds field dressed. But these are rare exceptions.
The lion is totally unpredictable, and no two of my hunts have been the same. I have known a cat to kill a seasoned hound one day, then tree ahead of a green pup the next. I could train a poodle to hunt cougars if he had the nose for it, and if he’d bark he would tree most of them. But sooner or later he’d overtake one that didn’t feel like climbing, and then I’d have to get another poodle.
I’ll admit that, with good dogs, some lions are pushovers, such as those first two Tip treed for me. But most times they’re anything but peaches and cream. A big tom carrying surplus weight is usually pretty short-winded once he’s jumped and pushed hard. If he has recently eaten all the deer or elk or moose he can hold, he’s likely to tree within a quarter of a mile.
But a gaunt female with an empty belly may be good for a five or 10-mile chase through broken rimrock, rough canyons, thick timber the worst going she can find. And if dogs are put down on a cold track and the cat hears them coming and lines out with a good start, both the hounds and the hunter can expect a lot of exercise before they see that cougar in a tree.
In late winter of 1962, in the Black Creek area along the Horsefly River 50 miles east of Williams Lake, a cougar track was seen near a remote country school. Alarmed for the safety of the children, the residents wanted the cat hunted down, and I was asked to go after it.
I took two friends along—Manley Hanks, a guide, and Fred Jones, a rancher and trapper who also did some guiding. Both were from Horsefly. We had three dogs-two of mine and one of Fred’s.
There was 18 inches of snow on the ground, making it a must to use snowshoes. We picked up the tracks 1-1/2 miles from the school. They indicated a big tom but were too old to turn the dogs loose on. If we’d done that, the hounds would have gone out of hearing and the cougar out of the country.
We walked all that day without getting close enough to warn the cougar that he was being followed, and by the time we got back to Fred’s ranch after dark, we had put 25 miles behind us. Right after daylight the next morning, we picked up where we’d left off. That turned out to be as interesting a day of tracking as I have ever done.
The cougar, still unaware that we were after him, swam the Horsefly River three times. He’d jump off a shelf of ice along shore, cross the open channel in the middle, and climb out onto the ice on the far side. Each time, in order to follow him, we had to look for a place where the river was frozen all the way across.
That day our cat proved that a cougar will feed on carrion readily if he needs to. We found where he had dug out seven different moose heads, left by hunters the previous fall, from under the snow and eaten a snack from each.
That was another 25-mile day, but we were closing in. When we left the track at dark, he wasn’t far ahead, and it seemed likely he’d stay in the area for a day or two.
We drove out, the third morning, in Fred’s jeep and made a big circle around that area. No track came out. We went back, took the track, and followed it, confident that we’d jump him.
We caught up with the cougar in late afternoon after finding his first kill, a moose calf. There were fresh tracks all over the place, and the dogs went frantic. We turned them loose, and they started him less than half a mile away.
He headed downhill in an area of open timber, and I saw him 300 yards away, running straight for me. He came within 30 yards, climbed six feet off the ground in a big pine, and stood looking back in the direction of the dogs.
I had been guilty of a bad oversight that morning. Climbing into the jeep, I had forgotten my rifle in the car we’d used the day before. Now I was armed with nothing but a small hand ax.
My favorite cougar gun, incidentally, is a Browning pump-action .22. It’s light, easy to pack, and all the rifle I need. I use long-rifle hollow points, and if I want to save a skull intact for measuring, I place my shot in the lungs. Hit there, most cats hang on until they wilt and come down dead.
BUT THE SHOT I prefer, to make sure my dogs don’t get clawed, is in the front of the head, between the eyes and ears and half an inch off center. A .22 hollow point there kills so quickly that the cat often hangs up in a fork and I have to climb to get him down.
On all my cougar hunts I also carry a compass, camera, knife, hand ax, and rope, plus food and a tin to boil water in. The days are likely to be long.
I had no gun when that big tom went six feet up the pine and stopped, so I yapped like a dog. I’ve never seen a lion climb faster. He went up the tree in long jumps, sending bark flying, until he was about 30 feet off the ground. Then he stopped and looked down to see where the extra dog had come from. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he discovered what had done that close-up barking.
Our three hounds were there in a minute, and then Fred and Manley came along with their .22’s and shot the cat out. We skinned him and hiked to the nearest ranch, and the rancher drove us back to our jeep. We got home in time for a late supper.
In those three days, we had snowshoed 65 to 75 miles. Any animal that can give three men and three dogs a hunt of that kind is no small potatoes.
In almost any gathering of hunters, you can start a lively argument by bringing up the subject of how much damage the cougar does to a deer population. Many sportsmen rate him the mortal foe of whitetails and mule deer, and even of elk and moose. This attitude—coupled with the hostility that stockmen feel toward him because of his raids on sheep, cattle, and even horses—is reflected in year-round open seasons in most states and provinces where he is still found, and in the cougar bounties that have long been paid in many places.
On the other hand, most game managers and even some hunters believe that the big cats render a major service by helping to keep antlered game in balance with its food supply.
“In rough country and wilderness areas, the lion is the deer’s best friend,” wrote Jack O’Connor in Outdoor Life a number of years ago. I agree with him.
I’m sure of one thing. Cougars do not “chase deer out of the country,” as hunters often contend. I have found deer feeding as close as 75 yards to a lion that was sleeping after a kill, and they must have known he was there. While there is no denying the big cat’s fondness for venison and his skill in hunting it, it is far from being his only food. In many areas, rabbits are his bread and butter.
In seven years of cougar hunting in the Cariboo district of British Columbia, I kept a record of the stomach contents of 39 of the cats, all killed in the fall and winter. Rabbits made up the biggest share, 26 percent. Deer meat was second, at 23 percent. Then came carrion, 13 percent; and moose, domestic sheep, and porcupines, each accounting for eight percent. In two cases, the cougars had eaten other cougars.
These cats do not hesitate to turn cannibal if given the right opportunity. I have found two clear-cut instances of this. In the first, near Horsefly in December 1960, I skinned a male and a week later killed a female that had been feeding on his carcass for several days. She was in good condition, and there were plenty of deer and moose in the area, so hunger could hardly have accounted for her behavior.
In the second instance, a big cougar deliberately killed and fed on a smaller one. That happened in March 1961 along the Horsefly River. There was 14 inches of snow on the ground, and the tracks told the whole story.
Both animals were toms. The big one had trailed his victim for some distance, both had swum the river, and then the pursuer got close enough to make a typical cougar rush. They fought briefly at the edge of an opening, leaving a little blood on the snow, and separated.
The smaller tom ran about 50 yards and then walked in a big circle. The other one crept to the top of a knoll, waylaid him, and attacked again. That time they fought viciously over a 40foot circle, trampling bushes and breaking willow branches. We found the small cougar lying there, his neck broken and a third of him eaten.
Manley Hanks and I treed the big one only 150 yards away, after he had stayed near his kill for two days. He had suffered only one claw cut in the fight, on his chest. He was 87 inches long (his victim was 78) and was the older and heavier of the two. As in the other case, there were plenty of deer and moose around.
ACTUALLY, the cougar eats almost anything he may find, from grasshoppers to moose. This includes squirrels, rabbits, beavers, skunks, turkeys, fish, and sometimes even bobcats, lynx, and coyotes. Frequently he also displays a liking for mutton, beef, and colt meat if they are available.
In turn, the big cat himself is said to be good table fare. I can’t offer much firsthand testimony for I have tried it only once, but I certainly enjoyed it that time.
I had put in a hard day, from daylight until almost dark, following a cougar in 18 inches of snow. The dogs finally treed the cat, and I shot and skinned him. But by that time it was full dark, and I was too tired to hike back to my jeep, 25 miles away by road, so I camped under a tree for the night.
I had carried no lunch and had eaten nothing since breakfast. I was taking the cougar’s head and pelt home, and I finally cut out the tongue and broiled it over my fire. It was the best piece of meat I ever ate, but there wasn’t enough of it.
ONE OF the great mysteries about the cougar is his skittishness toward humans. Shy and secretive in the extreme, he is one of the least frequently seen animals, and even when treed or brought to bay by dogs he displays little of the slashing fury of other big cats. And it’s close to impossible to provoke him into fighting back at a man. He’s capable of doing terrible damage but just refuses to deal it out.
We don’t often do this in British Columbia, but in many places guides climb into a tree with a lion, work a loop of rope over his head, pull him off his perch, lower him to the ground, tie him up, and take him home alive. It’s no wonder that he has acquired a reputation for being a coward.
Yet the belief that man has nothing to fear from him, regardless of circumstances, is a mistake. A female cougar protecting her young is likely to be dangerous, and every now and then extreme hunger goads one of the big cats into making a bold and determined attack on a human. This is especially likely to happen if a cat has been injured or stuck full of porcupine quills and no longer can hunt its natural prey.
I have investigated three such unprovoked attacks in British Columbia in the last 25 years.
In October 1942, Jack Carson, now a retired trapper living on Horsefly Lake, was taking in winter supplies for his trapline between that lake and Quesnel. His main cabin was four miles north of Horsefly Lake, and he was making two trips there a day.
Moose were rutting, and he carried his rifle, a 6.5 mm. Mannlicher, on all his trips. But when several days went by without his seeing a moose, he concluded that the rifle was excess baggage. To make his loads lighter, he’d leave it at the cabin. At the last minute, however, he changed his mind and took it along. It’s a good thing he did.
He had covered about half of the four-mile hike to the lake when he heard a loud racket in thick brush and young cedar just ahead, and realized that some large animal was coming straight for him.
There were no big trees handy for protection, so he stepped behind a small lodgepole pine and waited. His first thought was that he was being rushed by a surly bull moose. Then he caught a glimpse of something tawny and decided that it was an off-color deer.
The next thing he knew, a big cougar tore out of the brush only three or four steps away and jumped at his face. The small pine was between them. The cat slammed into it and dropped to the ground at Carson’s feet, and he threw his rifle up for a shot.
But the day was rainy, and while cleaning and drying the gun back at the cabin, Carson had neglected to bolt a shell into the chamber. Now the hammer clicked sickeningly.
He thinks that the cougar didn’t have quite enough guts to finish her attack from the foot of the tree. Instead she bounded up onto a windfall 15 feet away and crouched, readying herself for another spring.
“Her big, long tail was really lashing,” Jack recalls.
But before she could pounce again, he jacked a shell into the chamber and drove a soft point into her head. She fell off the windfall and never moved a muscle.
“It takes quite a while to tell the story,” Carson told me long afterward, “but I’d bet it wasn’t more than four or five seconds from the time I first heard brush crack until she was dead.”
The cougar was a big female more than seven feet long and in prime condition. Cougars breed the year around, as domestic cats do, and the young are born at all seasons. This incident happened in October, and when Jack skinned this cat he found her udders full of milk. Her kits were probably nearby, and it’s my theory that she attacked in order to protect them.
That would also account for her noisy rush through the thicket, which was highly unusual cougar behavior and was probably intended to frighten the man away. Whether she would have completed the attack if she hadn’t been shot remains an unanswered question. But Jack Carson has no doubts that she would have, and the other two cases bear him out.
The next one happened at Victoria Lake, near the north end of Vancouver Island, in March 1953. Two men—Buck Richmond, manager of a lumber mill at Port Alice, and the late Gerald Walters, a woodsman and guide then working for Richmond as a millwright—were fishing on the lake. They went ashore for lunch and built a fire.
Walters, 43 at the time, walked into the timber for wood. He was bending over to pick up dry branches when he saw a cougar crouched behind a log, ready to spring. It spit and launched itself.
The man met the attack with a smashing blow of his fist on the cat’s nose, hard enough to knock it to the ground and break his own finger. The cougar, a female, grabbed one of his knees in her teeth and clawed that leg from hip to ankle. Walters got her by the throat and screamed for help.
At first Richmond thought his partner was yelling for fun, but when he caught the words, “A cougar’s got me,” he grabbed a hand ax and ran to help.
When he got there, man and cougar were rolling and twisting on the ground. Walters was trying desperately to strangle the cat, and she was biting and clawing at his hands. For a few seconds, Richmond couldn’t use his hatchet. Then he saw an opening and drove the blade into the middle of the cougar’s back, all the way through her spine. Even that didn’t break up the fight, but Walters managed to twist her head to one side, and three hard blows with the back of the ax ended the affair.
The lion was five feet seven inches long, very thin, on the verge of starvation, and crazed by hunger.
The most recent attack came in March 1965. Jim Baker, a 43-year-old rancher living near Loon Lake, a few miles east of Clinton, was building fence with the help of 15-year-old John Simpkins, who had quit school to work for Baker because he thought he’d like ranch life.
The boy was about 60 feet downhill from Baker when the rancher saw the head of a cougar emerge from behind a big juniper clump between them, only a few steps from young Simpkins.
“There’s a cougar behind you!” he yelled. But the cat jumped before the boy could turn his head, clearing 16 feet in a single leap. It landed on his back and knocked him flat.
Tracks showed that the cougar had stalked its prey exactly as it would have stalked a deer. It had come around the hill in an open area with few trees, taking advantage of every bit of cover and creeping within striking distance behind the juniper clump.
The startled youth threw up his hand to protect his face and throat. The cougar bit through the hand and then went for the head above the eyes, tearing at skin and scalp. Baker, knowing that one bite in the throat would be the end, shouted to Simpkins to keep his chin down and at the same time started for them.
He jumped astride the cat and did his best to drag it off, but it wouldn’t let go its hold. Baker then jerked out a pocket knife and jabbed the blade deep into its throat. He missed his mark, the jugular vein, but the wound was too much for the cougar. It left Simpkins and crouched behind a brushpile.
The rancher grabbed up a hammer and started for the cat, and when he was only four feet away, it whirled and scratched its way up a tree.
The boy was bleeding badly, and Baker rushed him to the hospital at Ashcroft. It took 30 to 40 stitches to close the wounds on his face, head, and arm, but he came out of the hospital after 10 days in pretty good shape.
It was after dark when Jim Baker got home from his trip to the hospital that night. The next morning he went back to the scene with a neighbor, but the cat was gone.
Twenty four hours later Frank Richter, a conservation officer from Kamloops, and I started to hunt it down. We picked up the track more than a mile from the place where the cougar had leaped on young Simpkins. The animal had lain under a tree there, but the ground was half bare and patched with crusted snow, and the dogs couldn’t follow the track.
LATE THAT AFTERNOON, however, we got an unexpected break. Richter saw a gaunt, smallish cougar cross the road about half a mile from the scene of the attack. We put four dogs down, and they treed only 100 yards from the road.
It was a female about three years old, and she was just skin and bones. More than six feet long, she should have weighed 100 to 125 pounds. Instead she weighed 70, and examination showed that she was starving.
It’s my belief that cougar litters born in times of rabbit abundance learn to hunt rabbits but not deer. If a rabbit die-off occurs, these young cats get pretty hungry before they find out how to go on a venison diet. They are the ones that come into dooryards and kill dogs and goats. I’ve known them to actually starve to death in a deer area. I’m sure this female was one of that kind, driven by extreme hunger to attack young Simpkins.
Such happenings are rare, and hunger accounts for most of them. Normally man has little to fear from this big, stealthy cat. But that doesn’t make him any less interesting in my book. He doesn’t need to be a potential man-killer to qualify as a great game animal.
I don’t expect that I’ll ever hunt any of the other big cats such as tigers, leopards, African lions, or jaguars. But as long as there are cougars in my home mountains to furnish excitement for me and my dogs, you won’t hear me complain.
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