A Game of Cat and Mouse
I’ve had my eye on this particular lion for a while as I had trail camera photo of it throughout the summer. I knew it was in the area frequently and was starting to get a pattern on it as season approached. In the couple of weeks before season started, I found tracks several times in the snow crossing the road in the same areas I had gotten trail camera photos. Judging from the photos and track size, I was guessing it was an adult female or young male. Lions quickly became the topic of conversation at work where I received a ton of invaluable information from my coworkers who have harvested several lions; one of them is even what I would call a “Lion Whisperer”.
Once season actually started, I found where the lion had been, but could never find a fresh track. On January 3rd, I found some tracks crossing the road that I knew had been made that morning. I didn’t think the tracks were very fresh, so I took my time following them through a creek bed and up the ridge into a large area full of aspens. Once I got to the top of the ridge, I saw the tracks were leading me towards town. I didn’t want to follow the tracks much further as I figured the lion went into town and I wouldn’t be able to follow it. As I standing on the ridge looking down into a large draw of aspens, I see a lion appear out of nowhere and leap through the aspens towards where I had just hiked. After the initial realization and shock that I actually saw a lion, I quickly brought my rifle up and couldn’t get a shot through the trees. I followed the cat in a game of cat and mouse as it ran towards more rugged terrain and the daylight quickly faded. I went back the next day after work and followed it, but eventually gave up as I realized it had doubled back and was no longer in the area.
Fast forward a couple of weeks later without finding fresh tracks, I finally cut some fresh tracks on January 18th. I followed the tracks and quickly realized it was traveling almost the exact same path it had when I chased it only a couple weeks ago. Knowing the route it had taken, I set up to call the lion in the bottom of the draw. I didn’t have any luck after an hour, so I abandoned the calling plan and followed the tracks. I found where it had made several scrapes along a ridge and then headed down the ridge into some thick brush. After trying to follow the tracks through the thick brush and getting tangled up multiple times, I finally found where it had exited the brush and used an old ATV trail to make its travel a little easier. It quickly proved too easy to walk, as the lion then made a turn and went up a sheer rock face without any snow and a lot of loose rocks. I did my best to imitate a mountain goat heading up that hill, but the hill got steeper and the rocks got looser. I decided to abandon my pursuit for another day so I didn’t break an ankle.
Only a couple days later on January 20th, my brother found fresh tracks going across the road and down the ridge the lion had taken the times prior. He decided to try and cut it off as he knew the direction it was headed. He circled the area, but never cut a fresh track. He was going to set up and call, but the call messed up and so he gave up on that plan. When I got off work, he asked me to pick him up and give him a ride. Once he explained the story and that he never found a track, I knew the lion had been bedded up along the ridge in the area. I quickly convinced him that we were going to follow the tracks and see if we could find the cat hiding out. As the lion took the same path as last time, I knew exactly where it was headed. As I was walking in my tracks I made only days prior, I was formulating a game plan. We finally found where it had bedded down only 100 yards from where my brother had just walked in the bottom of the draw.
I’ll never know if we pushed it from its bed or if it finally decided to move for the day, but we found where it went down the ridge onto the old ATV trail my brother had walked on only 45 minutes ago. We quickly realized the lion was using my brother’s tracks to make its journey through the snow a little easier. After following my brother’s tracks for a couple hundred yards, it branched off and went up a large hill. We continued the pursuit as the tracks were extremely fresh and we knew it was only minutes ahead of us. Once we made it to the top of the ridge, we followed the lion as it made its journey along the ridge and headed for more rugged country. By this time, it was starting to get down to the last hour of light. Once it started heading down the ridge into a deep draw system, we decided to give calling a shot. We set up the call and a decoy just down the ridge from us in a fairly open spot through the pine trees. I took position watching a large draw on the east side of the ridge and my brother watched the west side. I noticed a large bush between the decoy and where I was sitting, but figured it wouldn’t be in the way since the odds of seeing a lion were slim.
My brother owns the call and decided he should be the one to call. He started the call of with jackrabbit in distress playing continuously for a few minutes to draw the attention of any hungry predators in the area. He then broke it up by playing the sound for about a minute and then pausing for 30 seconds or so. About 15 minutes into calling and as I’m sitting at the base of a tree thinking about the hike back out in the dark, I heard as eerie sound down the ridge I later figured out was a growl. I gave my brother a look wondering if he was the one who made the sound or if he heard it too. He gave me a look that I knew meant he didn’t make the sound. I knew it must have been a lion and got ready. I saw movement down the ridge and realized it was lion on a beeline towards the decoy. The bush I looked at earlier was now in the way of a clean shot. I did my best to sneak a round through a clearing in the brush. When the cat stopped about 40 yards away, I pulled the trigger and sent a round downrange. I will always claim a branch deflected the round, but my brother thinks I was just a bad shot. The lion didn’t even look my direction when the rifle went off. It was still focused on the decoy. I quickly reloaded and stood up to get a shot without the bush in the way. This round found its target and the lion went only 50 yards from where I shot it. We then spent the next two hours getting the lion out of some rugged terrain while trying to navigate in the dark through brush and deep snow. My lion was officially recorded as a 2 year old female that weighed 96 pounds. It was definitely a hunt to remember.