Thirteen miles from the nearest paved road in Utah's northeastern backcountry, high on an impossible bluff, a predator stalks its prey through snow-filtered moonlight. It has incredible night vision, padded feet, wicked claws, hearing that finds the feeding mule deer below like radar and canines that can sever the spine of an animal that vastly outweighs it. In one violent whirr, the 130-pound masterpiece of muscle and stealth pours onto a mule deer and seizes its neck like a Conibear trap. Moments later, the mountain lion drags its lifeless prey up a rock face while heavy snowflakes erase what few crimson clues remain of the deer's demise.
As sunlight crests the mountain's peak, the predator takes another half-pound of flesh from the softest parts and begins to cover the rest for later. Then suddenly its ears attune to the distant, detested, bawling sounds of its only enemy in this country as they resound up the ridge and grow nearer. With a distended belly, the cougar will have trouble running. This time it may have to fight.
Three miles away, a hunter struggles to keep within earshot of Suzi, his lead hound. He'd cut the track the evening before, grabbed a restless night's sleep in his pickup and put the hounds back on it two hours before dawn. By sunup he knows the 5-inch-wide print like it is his own, as does the relentless Walker with the talented snout who lives to fill it with fresh scent of feline. In this wet snow and with this wind, the hunter likes the odds, but he knows it's never even close to a sure thing. Any second the big tom could bound up sheer rock and over miles of mountain. What if he can't get there fast enough and his beloved hounds mix with the cat? Sweat sluices down his back as he picks each snow-laden foot up past the other and crunches them down, metronome-like, in the energy-sapping powder.
When bawls give to frenetic yaps, it's evident age-old enemies have spied each other. Spurred, the hunter double-times and trudges uphill alone, as determined as a man can trudge, directly toward the sounds of hell and its trappings. As the houndsman nears the ruckus in the pines, he thumbs the leather thong of his holster and peeks between the cylinder and gate of the Super Blackhawk. This time it's rimmed with five .44 caliber hollow-points, because this is not another practice run. This is opening day.
A Shed Hunter's Trophy Tips
by Mark Kayser
Hold off on shed hunting as long as possible.
Early searching could force animals to move into new areas off-limits to you, making shed antlers unavailable. Plus, pressure on wintering animals causes them undue stress when they are most vulnerable after surviving a long winter.
Game can drop antlers at any moment,
so look for sheds near food and bedding cover, and trails connecting the two. Crops like corn, soybean and winter wheat, and pastures that haven't received grazing pressure attract hungry big game.
Since big game spends considerable time
on south-facing slopes it makes sense that a higher percentage of antlers are dropped there. Southern slopes attract game looking for protection from brisk north winds. They also provide the best locations to soak up warm winter rays.
For the biggest sheds,
look for out-of-the-way micro environments offering isolation, thick cover and a nearby food source. Although the bulk of shed antlers will be near traditional locations, such as high-energy food sources or on south-facing slopes, mature animals don't always follow the crowd. Trophy animals like to detach themselves from the herd.
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