Hunting

668 Lions

Jay C. Bruce is quite possibly the greatest mountain lion hunter of the 20th century, and has possibly killed more mountain lions than anyone else in history.

As Jay C. Bruce casually walked the dirt road leading to his Wawona, Calif., homestead his mind was focused on his money woes. His marriage in 1910 to Katherine Fournier had produced four children: Jay Jr., Wilson, Elizabeth and Katherine. Keeping food on the table in this rural mountain area was difficult. He'd built a water-powered sawmill in 1914, but lost it when he injured his left hand. Blood poisoning had set in, leaving him with a permanently crippled left hand.

Every job he worked was labor intensive and futureless. The thing he seemed to be good at was guiding hunters and fishermen, but that work was seasonal. Then he saw that the California Fish and Game Commission had placed a bounty on mountain lions. He felt that if he could track and kill mountain lions for $20 a head, he could make a good living all year-round.

The bounty actually began in 1907. Over the next half-century more than 12,500 mountain lions were killed for the bounty. The bounty was removed in 1963, but mountain lions were considered a non-game animal and were killed at will until 1969 when the lion was declared a game animal.

Then, in 1972, recreational lion hunting was ended and only lions that killed or threatened livestock or pets could be killed after someone obtained a "depredation permit." Then, in 1990, an emotionally charged voter initiative passed that made the mountain lion a "specially protected mammal." As in the past, since 1972, cougars could be killed only if they threatened livestock, pets or people. This non-management strategy has been controversial, because now, instead of managing the cougar population with quotas so biologists can control cougar-human conflicts by acting before problems happen, as most Western states do, California residents can only get a cougar permit after a particular mountain lion has killed or endangered livestock or a person.

But Bruce was living in a very different time. Predator management wasn't yet controlled by wildlife biologists, who use hunting for the good of cougars, wildlife populations and people, nor was it banned by a well-meaning, but naïve public. Predators, in the early 20th century, were treated simply as a public nuisance.

***

Bruce responded to the state's call for professional hunters. He had a hound named Eli he used for hunting deer, and he thought he might train the dog into a good lion tracker. On Dec. 3, 1915 he grabbed his Model 1873 .44-40 Winchester rifle, and along with Eli, started on his first lion hunt. He hunted the snowy ground on the south fork of the Merced River, west of Yosemite Park. After Bruce found lion tracks he put Eli on the lion scent, and Eli tracked and treed a mother and a kitten. These first two lion kills brought him $40. He also learned two things from this first hunt: Eli was a good tracker and he had trouble working the lever on his Winchester with just one good hand.

Not long thereafter, as he walked along mulling his financial situation, he came to a dead stop when he spotted lion tracks. A lion had crossed the snowy road near his home and the sight of them got his heart pumping. He hurried home to get his rifle. He left a note to his wife, Azealia, who was away with their kids and the dog, telling her what he found and instructing her to put Eli on the lion tracks when she came home.

Bruce went back up the road and started following the lion tracks in the light snow. Within a quarter-mile a second set of lion tracks joined the first. The tracks were about 3 inches wide, indicating he was tracking two young lions. The trail led downhill through scattered pines and brush. It came to a steep drop-off. He saw where the lions had slid down the drop-off to a semi-level area. He followed. As soon as his feet hit the ground at the bottom he saw movement to his left. There, just 10 feet to his left, were two lions under a boulder's overhang. Both lions were on their feet, staring at him.

Bruce worked the lever of his Winchester, took careful aim at the closest lion and squeezed the trigger. Click. He quickly worked the lever again, and again heard, Click. It dawned on him that his wife had unloaded the rifle in the house, because of their small children. The two lions became nervous due to the noise and Bruce's movements.

Just then he heard Eli sliding down the drop off. He reached out and grabbed the dog's collar just before the hound charged the lions. Bruce then felt a small cloth bag tied to Eli's collar; it was filled with .44-40 cartridges. He was elated. Eli's arrival scared both lions up a nearby tree. Bruce loaded his rifle and made another $40 thanks to his wife's thoughtful help.

***

By 1918 Bruce and Eli had tracked and killed 31 lions and five lynx during three winters. Friends had encouraged him to apply for a job with the California Fish and Game Department. Bruce wrote the state telling of his successes and offering his services as a lion hunter. On Dec. 23, 1918, Yosemite Chief Park Ranger Townsley called Bruce suggesting he come to the Wawona Hotel and tell some of his lion stories. Townsley added that some influential people would be present.

After Christmas Eve dinner he entertained the group of people in the hotel lounge. Present were National Parks director Steve Mather, and California Fish and Game commissioners Edward L. Bosqui and Carl Westerfield. After this meeting Bruce was appointed as the state's first official lion hunter on Jan. 1, 1919. Bruce's salary would be $25 a week and he could keep all the bounties as well.

Bruce worked the lever of his Winchester, took careful aim at the closest lion and squeezed the trigger. Click. He quickly worked the lever again, and again heard, Click. It dawned on him that his wife had unloaded the rifle in the house, because of their small children. The two lions became nervous due to the noise and Bruce's movements.

Just then he heard Eli sliding down the drop off. He reached out and grabbed the dog's collar just before the hound charged the lions. Bruce then felt a small cloth bag tied to Eli's collar; it was filled with .44-40 cartridges. He was elated. Eli's arrival scared both lions up a nearby tree. Bruce loaded his rifle and made another $40 thanks to his wife's thoughtful help.

***

By 1918 Bruce and Eli had tracked and killed 31 lions and five lynx during three winters. Friends had encouraged him to apply for a job with the California Fish and Game Department. Bruce wrote the state telling of his successes and offering his services as a lion hunter. On Dec. 23, 1918, Yosemite Chief Park Ranger Townsley called Bruce suggesting he come to the Wawona Hotel and tell some of his lion stories. Townsley added that some influential people would be present.

After Christmas Eve dinner he entertained the group of people in the hotel lounge. Present were National Parks director Steve Mather, and California Fish and Game commissioners Edward L. Bosqui and Carl Westerfield. After this meeting Bruce was appointed as the state's first official lion hunter on Jan. 1, 1919. Bruce's salary would be $25 a week and he could keep all the bounties as well.

Bruce went to the California Fish and Game Department's office in San Francisco to obtain his appointment as the state's lion hunter. While there, he checked the locations of all the lion kills where the state had paid bounties. Bruce pinned the location of every kill on a map to find the lions' living areas. He found their habitat then comprised the Sierra Nevada Range, parts of the Cascade Range extending into California and the Coast Range between 3,000 and 5,000 feet. With this knowledge, a good pistol, Eli and two more hounds (Ranger and Brute) Bruce started hunting one of California's most elusive predators.

***

In 1920 Bruce moved his family to San Leandro, an unincorporated area of Alameda County, adjacent to Hayward, Calif. My grandfather Beryl K. Smith lived in Hayward, and was a teacher and coach at Hayward High School. He hunted raccoons and bobcats during his summer breaks with his two black-and-tan hounds, Jim and Pete.

It didn't take Grandpa long to meet Bruce and to line up a lion hunt with him. Bruce had two questions for anyone who wanted to hunt with him: Do you have the physical stamina to follow lion dogs on foot, over hill and dale all day? And, can you shoot straight? Grandpa met Bruce's criteria and proved it to him.

On June 21, 1921, Grandpa went on his first lion hunt with Bruce. Grandpa's hunting gun was a double-barreled, break-open Model 1908 Marble's Game Getter. The top barrel was chambered in .22 Long Rifle and the bottom was chambered for a round-ball cartridge based on the .44-40 cartridge case. Grandpa took along his two dogs and his Game Getter, and he borrowed a Colt single-action .45 with a long 7½-inch barrel.

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5 Responses to 668 Lions

Cory Aukes wrote:
August 23, 2014

Do any of you who we're related to the lion hunter know what happened to his 44-40 rifle? I heard he gave it to a friend when he was on his death bed? I ask because I possibly now have the rifle.

Taylor Bruce wrote:
December 06, 2012

Sean, I am very proud of my families history. J.C. Bruce was my great, great uncle, he had more courage in his trigger finger than you have in your entire family line. He not only hunted the cougars that plagued Yosemite, but saved hundreds of lives in doing so.

Jaye Bruce wrote:
March 04, 2012

Jay Bruce was my grandfather. To set the record straight, his mothers name was Azelia, hisi wife's name was Katherine. Some of the stories I read about grandpa are not quite so. Thanks for listening.

Zack wrote:
January 28, 2011

This man is a hero. Without hunting there would be overpopulation and that would cause more fatalities in humans and other species would be caused to become endangered due to a mass of predatory animals. It's people like you that cause legal hunters that follow the rules to jump through hopes just to be able to hunt in this country. If the day ever comes that my government comes to take my guns from either gun bans or bans hunting then i will hapily die with them trying to take my guns. if that ever should happen i hope you are the first that your precious mountain lions eat when they become over populated and have no other food source. this is a pro-gun pro-hunting site. Keep yoour comments to your own tree-hugging animal loving sites. I don't try to tell you what to do with your life or your hobbies why should you try to change the laws against mine?

Sean wrote:
September 24, 2010

to be proud of such a self serving exploit is disgusting, I along with lions will be happy when you pass away