The 7 Deadly Sins of Mt. Lion Hunting with Hounds
I’m confident this information will be helpful to those of you looking into a lion hunt with hounds. There is so much misinformation out there about lion hunting with hounds – it’s by far the most misunderstood type of hunting there is in North America. A lot of this misinformation comes from our anti friends but unfortunately a lot is also coming from our own outfitters or booking agents who are simply trying to book as many hunts as possible. Most hunters have an opinion about using hounds for lions (or bears) even though none of them have ever tried it. I’ve spent the past 25 years running hounds, so here is some information from my own personal perspective.
Sin #1 – Don’t get caught up in any preconceived ideas of lion hunting, either from the Anti’s or your own
Very few lion hunts are anything like what most people think. Lion hunting shows and videos also don’t help much when it comes to an actual lion hunt. TV shows go something like this: Welcome to this week’s show folks. Today we’ll be hunting lions with Redneck houndsman, Louie Longlegs. Then the next thing you see is a lion in the tree and the hounds going wild under it. Wait a minute, back up the clock here. How the heck did we get to the tree before we ever even found a track?
It still amazes me when I hear a fellow outdoorsman say he’s not interested in hunting lions with dogs because its not sporting or it seems too easy. In every case I say to myself there’s another guy that has never tried it.
Sin #2 – Don’t choose the wrong style hunt
There are basically two types of lion hunting, dry ground or mountainous hunts which usually include snow. A true dry ground hunt is nothing like the more typical mountain hunt for lions. A dry ground hunt is done solely on horses or mules. The hounds are free cast and the houndsman and hunter ride along with the hounds over ridges and dry river beds hoping to cut a lion track.
A mountain hunt in snow for lions is entirely different. Typically, the hunter rides along with the guide in a truck, quad or snowmobile until a track is found. Finding that track is probably the most time consuming and to some, a frustrating part of the hunt. More on finding tracks later. Hunting in snow is a much faster paced. You’ll cover much more country and you’ll probably find several lions tracks each day.
Each type of hunt has its advantages and disadvantages. Dry ground lion hunting is a slow and meticulous hunt where you’ll get to know your horse on a first name basis in the coming days or weeks. You’ll probably see some incredible country, witness some outstanding dogs in action, discover that dry ground houndsmen are some of the most versed and knowledgeable outdoorsman around and have a very enjoyable week whether you shoot a lion or not. If your sole purpose is to kill a lion, any lion, then this is not the hunt for you.
In dry ground hunting, you’re basically letting the dogs find that track using their noses. When the dogs do find the track you have to make sure they are taking the track in the right direction – and get them stopped and turned around if they aren’t. If the track is a female or female with kittens, then you have to get them off the track and that can be nearly impossible. Hopefully now, you are starting to see what the advantages of snow are. When you do find a track in the snow, you can obviously tell which direction the track is going. Is it a female with kittens (illegal to turn out on in most states)? You can also tell how big the cat is or more importantly, how small he is. (A 70 lb. kitten will never have a track as large as a 150 lb. mature Tom). You will also be able to tell if the track was made that night or is an older track and not worth wasting your time with. A two or three day old track will generally mean the cat is miles from that location. An exception might be that he has a kill nearby.
OK, now that you understand the advantages of snow, here are the disadvantages. For 15 years, I ran hounds on bears in the Sierra Mountains in Ca. We never had snow. It was always hotter than blazes. However, we were just as successful then with dry ground bears as we are now running lions in the snow. However, snow isn’t always a great thing. Around the area where I live and hunt, typically, the ground is bare with snow built up on the north facing slopes. Our typical storm drops 1-3 inches. Then in the morning, the sun is out and it’s starting to warm. By 10 AM, the snow on the south facing slopes is all but gone. The majority of our snow doesn’t sink into the ground but evaporates into the atmosphere. This of course takes all the scent with it. So in this case, snow is worse than dry ground for holding scent. But if you have a hunt where the snow sticks around for a day or two, you’ll have a lot of fun catching cats.
Snow will probably turn out to be one of the most important parts to your successful lion hunt. However, probably not for the reason you think. Everyone has heard about ‘cold’ or ‘hot’ nosed hounds. This is talking about the ability of an individual hound to smell a track. When a lion walks, he is leaving a scent trail on the ground. He leaves the exact amount of scent whether he is walking on the dirt or in the snow. The current condition of the dirt or snow and the current atmospheric conditions is what determine how strong the scent is and how long that scent stays on the ground. There are literally hundreds of different conditions that affect scent. Generally, hot dry ground, wind, and low humidity will kill scent the quickest. Soft snow, no wind, and moderate humidity will hold scent longer. However, the reason you would like fresh snow is not for the dogs as much as it is for you. Fresh snow or any snow on the ground allows the houndsman and you to FIND that track in the first place. You can run roads much faster and so you are able to cover much more ground and therefore increase your chances of finding that elusive track. Without fresh snow, the roads and dirt are frozen which makes seeing that track virtually impossible. I laugh every time I hear someone saying this guy is the best because he has ‘dry ground’ dogs. Please explain to me how a lion leaves more scent on snow then he does on dry ground. Finding a track on roads that are void of fresh snow is very slow going. The edges of the roads may have some snow but they are also going to be full of deer, elk and coyote tracks. So seeing a lion track among this mess is going to be slow going.
Sin #3 – Don’t hunt the wrong location
Generally speaking, the farther north you go, the larger the lions. Right now British Columbia and Alberta are probably the best places to find a monster lion these days. For most guys, this will be a once in a lifetime hunt so shooting an immature lion or female isn’t what they are looking for. You won’t find giant Toms in areas where all the females and young animals are being killed just to fill a hunters tag. I just had a gentleman from back east call and we talked for quite some time. I don’t usually take any out of state hunters but he was genuinely interested in finding out as much information as he could, and he was asking the right questions. He told me of one way he was checking out prospective outfitters. It was brilliant. He called the state DNR and got the records of the outfitter and checked to see if he was killing females or immature lions. He had been told by several outfitters they only killed mature toms. The records told a different story.
Truly huge Toms don’t usually grow up in areas that get hunted a lot. Too many of the western states are being over harvested and have fewer and fewer large cats. Just check the harvest statistics for any state. Areas like B.C. and Alberta have some very large cats because they don’t get a lot of pressure so the cats have time to grow up. Here in my home state of Colorado, the DOW instituted a voluntary program three years ago to reduce the number of females being taken in some units. The program seems to be working and fewer females are being killed. In some units along the Front Range, the DOW wants females taken, and other units they are trying to discourage female harvest. In every case, you have to check each unit before you go hunting to see if the quota has been met.
Parts of Montana and Idaho both have some areas that aren’t over hunted and so you have a better chance of finding more lions and larger ones there but getting a tag can be very difficult. Utah seems to be the latest state where the lions don’t have a long lifespan because there are way too many outfitters and houndsmen taking too many females and young cats. States with a dog box on the back of every truck like Utah have a very low population of cats right now. Over 80% of the lions taken in Utah are less than 2 years old. The Utah DNR doesn’t seem to be helping out the lions either, since they don’t have quotas on harvesting females.
What should you expect on your hunt? First, you should expect your houndsmen to have quality hounds. Well trained, experienced and don’t chase deer, elk or coyotes. This takes time and experience for most hounds to master. Every houndsmen will always have young hounds they are working with but the older dogs should be ‘trash’ broke and excited and eager to get going every day.
Sin #4 – Don’t choose a rookie outfitter or houndsman
Houndsmen and lion guides tend to be a little different than your average hunter or outfitter. There is a lot more to putting on a lion hunt then there is an elk or deer hunt. A good Houndsman tends to be very addicted to his sport and so most are more dedicated to the hunt itself. He’s spent a good part of his year working, exercising, and training his dogs for the upcoming lion season. There’s always pups to work with, tracking equipment to repair or buy and sleds, quads, trailers and trucks to maintain. You’ll want to ask how many years he’s been running hounds. Will you be hunting public land or private? Remember, public land will have every other houndsmen running those roads looking for tracks too. Does he allow clients to shoot females? Most houndsmen will not allow anyone to shoot a female unless it is on a property they are trying to lower the lion population or it’s a depredation hunt where a lion has killed livestock or domestic animals.
Some outfitters offer return trips for less money. These sound great to the client but many times, it encourages the outfitter to take females or juveniles so he doesn’t have to have the client back the following year. Just let your outfitter know ahead of time you will only shoot a mature Tom. Any outfitter killing all the females around is only hurting himself in the long run. Females attract Toms to their territories so they should generally be left alone.
Sin #5 – Don’t show up out of shape
This falls under one of those preconceived ideas that lion hunts are easy. Just turn the dogs out and walk to the tree. Well, if you show up with this idea, I guarantee, you’re not going to be having much fun the next few days. I’ve taken hundreds of guys on lion hunts. The majority of them say the same thing at the end of their hunt. "This was the toughest hunt I’ve ever been on".
Remember, when you turn those dogs loose, they are going to go find that cat. Cats generally stay off the beaten path. They like quiet areas, steep rocky canyons, and habitat that has very little human activity. When the dogs jump the cat, most climb relatively quickly but some take off and head to the nastiest country they can find and that’s where you’re going to end up also.
A couple of years ago, I had a buddy come down from Alaska that is a guide and bush pilot up there. I’ve hunted with him for years and new he was strong and in very good shape. He also lives at sea level. We start our hunts around my place at 8300 feet and usually go up from there. We turned out on a Tom at 8 AM and he was headed to the high country. The dogs treed him two times and both times, he jumped the tree and headed farther up! We finally ended up at 11,500 feet near tree line. I know my buddy must have been dying because I know I was whooped. We got back long after dark.
Sin #6 – Don’t bring too much gear
The first thing to remember is you’ll probably be hiking in deep snow and up steep mountains in high elevations. You’ll want to pack as light as possible. You’ll want to keep everything out of your hands while hiking. You’ll need your hands free for climbing up through rocks and ledges and also for ducking down under low branches and brush. So this means everything has to go into your pack. Do not make the mistake of thinking you’ll carry your gun or bow in your hands. You’ll also have to consider the possibility that you may have to spend the night out – it’s rare but it can happen. So the basic survival stuff is needed like fire starter, water, energy bars or similar food. Here is a list I’ve come up with for my hunters:
- Current Mt. Lion tag / Pen
- Warm, waterproof boots
- Layered clothing (pants/shirts)
- Jacket / Gloves / Warm hat
- Gators for deep snow
- Water / Lunch
- Energy foods, snacks
- Large day pack with comfortable shoulder straps and hip belt
- Flashlight / new batteries
- First Aid Kit / matches
- Game bags / rope
- Camera, still and/or video
- 2 Knives (sharp)
You must come up with a way to pack your weapon inside your pack. Personally, I don’t like rifles for a lion hunt. My first choice for gun hunters would be a 16" Thompson Contender in any medium caliber of your choice. This is the perfect gun for almost any situation you’ll encounter on your hunt. Most lions tree close to the ground but I have seen lions go clear to the top of a tree and you could end up with a 60-80 yard shot. If you’re a bow hunter, a takedown bow is the ticket. You do NOT want to haul that heavy compound around all day long – they get caught in every tree you crawl under plus, you’ll want both hands free for climbing. If you can fit your bow in your pack you’ll be much better off.
There shouldn’t be much else you’ll need to take with you on a typical lion hunt so try and keep your gear to a minimum. Your pack should not weigh more than 25 lbs.
Sin #7 – Don’t get too excited
I understand that most guys have never seen a lion before and especially at 5 yards. Yes, this is when things get exciting and your adrenaline will be at an all-time high. There are a couple of things your houndsman will ask of you when you get to the tree. Take your time and wait for the go ahead to shoot. The cat is "treed" and now is the time for a quick drink of water and maybe some pictures or video. Most houndsman value their hounds more than their trucks. This is when hounds can get hurt. I always tie up my dogs before the hunter shoots. The dogs are going to be running all around the base of that tree and eventually that cat is going to come out, hopefully dead. You don’t want a hound killed because the cat fell on top of him. But the most important reason you want those dogs tied up is that a lot of times, even with a perfect hit, that cat comes out of that tree very alive. Most only go 50-75 yards and if the dogs were loose, there would be a fight on the ground, you could end up with a serious injury or dead dog.
Enjoy your hunt – it will probably be one of the most exciting hunts you’ll ever have.
Tight Lines & Straight Shots,
About the AuthorDean Hendrickson lives in the mountains of Colorado and has hunted mountain lions with hounds for over 25 years. Every September Dean travels to Alaska and guides hunters for trophy moose, caribou, grizzly, brown and black bears. Dean knows hunting, especially mountain lion hunting.
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