While I’m not particularly vulnerable to superstition—at least conceptually speaking—I kicked off this hunt with more than a little reluctance. It was Friday the 13th after all. The weather prognosis wasn’t conducive to lion hunting, and a number of setbacks before I even departed had me questioning my belief system. And well, it was Friday the 13th.
It took me nearly 16 hours of travel to reach my destination of St. George, Utah. It’s the type of place you may miss while driving the Interstate at a mere 50 mph, the type of town with only one baggage claim conveyor belt at its airport. St. George is the proverbial one-horse town. Just the way I like it when I’m going hunting. It means I am getting farther and farther away from big city centers and civilization. The wilds are abutted by many places such as St. George. Their names are all but interchangeable. The piece of good news was that my handguns and gear made the three airplane connections unscathed. What wasn’t clear yet was if I would make it till the following Wednesday unscathed.
The 13th was an unseasonably warm day for mid-January, with a steady, evidence-erasing rain—just what you would expect on such a start date. We had all collectively written off the day but decided to drive the roads anyhow, with eager dogs in tow. As we began our drive into the hunting area on the mud track, the steady thump of the windshield wipers struggling to keep our field of vision clear, my guide and outfitter, Tyler Bowler, turned to me and remarked: “You’ll never catch a lion between the couch and the TV.” They were words of wisdom passed on, Tyler said, by his granddad, the second generation of lion hunter of the Bowler clan of Utah. They would soon ring true.
We split up into two groups, and drove the miles of rough secondary roads for a couple of hours until the radio squawked, abruptly snapping us out of our rain-induced reverie. Kelly Ballow, Tyler’s hunting partner and lion hunter extraordinaire, barely suppressing his excitement, summoned Tyler and yours truly to his location; it sounded arbitrary to me, but Tyler knew exactly where to go. They had found a fresh track crossing the road despite the rains washing away all signs of life. At this announcement, Tyler stood on the brakes, whipped the Toyota 4x4 around in one fluid motion and performed the best sprint car impersonation a fully loaded hunting truck could muster. It was a checkered flag-winning performance.
In record time we skidded to a halt just inches from Kelly’s truck, much to Kelly’s chagrin. Kelly had a secret weapon sitting in the passenger seat: Tom Drake. You see, Tom has been hunting lions for more than half a century and has probably logged more miles on lion tracks than the average commuter logs driving to and from work in a decade. Tom spotted the barely visible lion tracks on the road while peering out the window from the moving vehicle. The whole crew examined the water-filled, dissipating tracks to determine which way they went. Satisfied with the freshness of the track, Tyler, Kelly and Tom collared up half a dozen hounds and released them. It wasn’t long before the song of the hounds began. Then Tyler and company threw more dogs into the melee, and judging by the ensuing racket, the hounds were on a cat.
Tyler, the stereotypically tall, rangy, leather-tough Utah cowboy/lion hunter, went off to lend the hounds a hand. I suited up as we awaited a report from Tyler on the handheld. It came shortly, with Tyler imploring us to make our way posthaste to the sound of the dogs. Apparently they had a tom treed.
We trekked down a draw then hiked uphill, clawing our way up the rocky terrain. Before long we seemed to be getting close, judging by the volume of the staccato that settled over the adjacent draw. The ground was starting to level off when Tom, in the lead, blurted excitedly, “Whoa!”
At that moment I looked up to see a whole lot of yellow blur come bursting through the brush just to our front! Hot on the lion’s heels were a dozen maniacal hounds, eager to take a bite out of that cat’s tail. Evidently the lion had been treed. But it jumped to an adjacent tree and made the wise decision to escape the howling, four-legged mob. Once our shock wore off, we changed direction and hastily followed the excited baying of the canines. It appeared by now that the hounds again had the agitated cat up a tree. We had about a hundred-yard sprint to the scene of the commotion.
When I got there, I couldn’t believe what I saw. One eager dog—we’ll call her Lucky—was up in the tree with the big feline, nose-to-back-of-throat, so to speak. The dog was held firmly by the cat in its mouth. Our mountain lion—we’ll call him Scrappy—had taken exception to the dog’s insults and dragged it up the tree with him! Tyler, in an effort to save the dog’s life, hastily climbed up the cedar, grabbed “Lucky” by the tail and pulled her free from the cat’s mouth. He then eased the dog down to earth and got clear of the incensed cat. The dog’s eye was severely damaged, but she was not deterred in the slightest, doing her best to get back into the fight!
Tyler is cool. He doesn’t get rattled by any of this. He takes his time, ties off all the dogs, and prepares his team and the hunter for the inevitable “what comes next.” Unlike a black bear, which will make every effort to bolt when treed and humans are detected, a cat will typically stay put; “typically” is the operative word here as evidenced by our tom’s change in residence.
By taking his time, Tyler calms down the cat a bit, and more importantly—I’m thankful to say—calms down the hunter as well. When everyone’s heartrate was at a resting pace, Tyler signaled it was time to do the deed. I took a seat facing the agitated feline some distance from the base of the cedar, where I had a clear shooting lane. I rested the frame of my Ruger .454 on my shooting sticks for a solid rest, and settled the crosshairs in the middle of the cat’s chest. At that moment, the cat made unsettling eye contact, showing me his quite capable and very large canines while simultaneously emitting a rumbling growl. I felt the tom’s contempt at my very core. Tyler gave the greenlight, I thumbed back the hammer, and began the slow and deliberate squeeze on the trigger. The trigger broke clean, the Ruger bucked and roared as 250 grains of Barnes XPB sped toward the target. Ears ringing, smoke hanging lazily in the air, and I saw my shot was true when arterial blood began to spurt from the chest wound. It was over but I paid the insurance, this time offhand, sending one more XPB into the chest cavity. The big tom slumped over in the fork of that old cedar tree where he had made his last stand. It was over.
With the odds stacked against us, we did really well. We got lucky. But what Tyler Bowler and company did with that luck is what separates the amateurs from the pros. My trip ended early as I tagged out my very first day, Friday the 13th. I’ve reevaluated my position on superstition and decided that perhaps 13 is a lucky number. At least in this case it proved to be. Now, if I can only convince my wife that we need a full body mounted cougar in our living room …
Every hunt, particularly in a region or destination you are not familiar with, presents a number of lessons learned. This hunt was no exception.
• Get in shape. If your hunt entails following a pack of dogs in western Utah, where the altitude ensures thin air, you need to be prepared to slog it out. I had the misfortune of developing a double hernia three months before kickoff. Two months before D-Day I had gone under the knife. A mere 10 days later my doctor lifted all my physical restrictions, allowing me to ease back into an exercise routine. By the time I was ready to make the trek to Utah, I was back to running 4 miles a day. Being in shape not only improves your chances for success, it also makes for a much more enjoyable hunt. Get off the couch, you’ll thank me for it. However, knowing how Murphy works, I am convinced that had I not broken my back to get into shape, we would not have tagged out on the first day. That’s just the way these things seem to work.
• Choose a reputable outfitter. Success rates are important, but the overall experience of the hunter is even more important. I went to NRA Outdoors for an outfitter recommendation, and I am pleased I did, as Tyler Bowler Hunting turned out to be a first-rate outfit.
• Choose your gun. You don’t need as much firepower as what I brought to the party, but it’s nice to know your gun/bullet combination is a fight stopper. That said, I would not have chosen differently knowing what I know now. That Federal 250-grain load is devastating in no uncertain terms. It’s perfect cat medicine.
• Choose gear carefully. Travel lightly. Chances are you won’t tag out the morning of day one, and you will most likely need to log some serious miles (many close to vertical) to complete one of these hunts. Carry a good daypack with some warm clothing in case it gets late and cold—and it will likely get late and cold.
• Practice, practice … and practice some more. Even though your shot will be close—often real close—you never know how you’re going to react in the heat of the moment, when the dogs are howling, you’re fighting to catch your breath and the scene is chaotic. You never know how steady you will be, particularly when that big ol’ tomcat looks through you with those glaring yellow eyes. Get your shooting to the point that it becomes second nature.
• Prepare the ground at home for the trophy of a lifetime. The mountain lion is a head of game that absolutely must become a full-body mount. So save your pennies ahead of time, but more importantly, prepare your wife for the addition of one very large piece of taxidermy in already limited space at home. Believe me, you need a full-body mountain lion. At least that’s what I’m telling my wife.