Adventure Dating in the Black Hills - Mt. Lion Hunt
21 January, 2017 - The 4 A.M. alarm went off and I rolled over to silence it. I rolled back over to Wendy, my wife and said, “Let’s just stay in bed…it’s so cold out there”. A minute of silence went by at which point Wendy threw the toasty covers off of us both, flipped on the blinding light and declared, “We’re going Cat hunting, get up, let’s go!” #sheisawesome
As a military family, we have been assigned to the Rapid City area three times. The last time we were stationed here, I spent many days hunting cats, only to receive some of the most humbling lessons in patience, disappointment and expectation management. The most memorable of these experiences included a big Tom sneaking up from behind and turning the tables on me high above the valley floor on a ridge that in an instant re-defined my station in life from Hunter to Prey. I survived the encounter with an even greater admiration for Puma concolor.
I decided late last year that I wasn’t going to hunt cats this time around. I did not want to get bit by the bug again and end up using my time hunting cats when there were family obligations to tend to and much easier coyotes to hunt. My friend Rob, a fellow-hunter at work, reminded me of the strange and inevitable possibility of seeing a mountain lion while coyote hunting: “you know, you will be hunting coyotes and end up seeing a cat and won’t be able to get it!” That was Tuesday, 17 Jan and I had a strange feeling he was right…I ordered the tag that evening.
My plan was to snowshoe into an area where another friend and I had seen a cat earlier in December while hunting elk. One time and one time only – I was going to go in on Friday night with my climbing tree-stand, climb a tree and set up a hammock and overnight high in the trees with the hope of catching a cat moving in the early morning. I told Wendy about my plan and expected her to tell me I was crazy when to my surprise she said, “I want to go, too.” Well, I didn’t have enough gear for the both of us to survive a night re-enacting the Swiss Family Robinsons, and since Wendy didn’t back down to my warnings that it would be cold and a hard hike, we agreed that we would leave early Saturday morning, if the tag got there on time.
I rented snowshoes for Wendy on Friday, in anticipation of the tag showing up in the mail, and it did! Tag in hand, we were set for an early departure on Saturday morning and as I said in the opening of this story, Wendy rousted me out of bed to depart on-time. The drive was enjoyable and we talked about how fun it was to be out together, how early it was and how cool it would be if we got a cat. In truth, a small voice in my head kept saying, “it will be a fun day of snowshoeing, extremely unlikely that we will see, let alone harvest, a cat.” I didn’t scout, I don’t use game cameras (fair chase?) and I hadn’t found a kill to watch over, it was just a simple outing with my best friend, Wendy.
We went as far as we could in the deep show as my tired Silverado with balding all-terrain tires could take us. Shooting light was upon us, so we decided to start the snow-shoe adventure. Armed with my .257 WBY Magnum and a few 100 gn Barnes TSX hand-loads, as well as an XDS .45 for close quarter self-protection, we set off toward the area where I had seen the cat in December. The wind was favorable as we were hiking westward and I had an immediate and strange sense that something was creepy about the area…too quiet. This was an area that I had been to before and had seen many, many deer and some elk. I expected that we would see the same at first light, but there was absolutely no wildlife moving or vocalizing.
We had only walked about 10 minutes from the truck when I spotted what I thought was a deer directly in front of us, 50 yards away in the bottom of a draw. Excited to show Wendy the first wildlife of our adventure, I raised the binocular while saying, “Look Wendy! There’s a deer right there…” as I focused the Vortex glass I was astonished to see the tidal wave of a tail whip behind the “deer” and then I saw the unmistakable “face” staring in our direction; if you have seen a mountain lion face in nature, you know what I mean, it is a surreal experience – it’s almost as if the cat can see into one’s very soul – so intense and almost viscerally piercing.
“It’s a cat Wendy! Do you see it?” Initially, she did not as the cat’s reaction to us was immediate – it moved up the draw and stopped behind a few trees, blocking Wendy’s view of it. That was frustrating, because the cat I saw in December went unseen by my elk-hunting buddy. My only hope and goal at that point was to have Wendy put eyes on the cat – that would be an amazing experience to see a cat together and would make a great memory.
The time that the cat was obscured by the trees seemed like an eternity. In reality, it was no more than a few seconds as it moved further up the draw with a purpose, but Wendy saw it in the white space between the trees…SUCCESS!
My reaction was unplanned, but effective: I adjusted the Weatherby on my shoulder, handed the pistol to Wendy, dumped my snowshoes and beat feet up the trail to the mouth of the draw to see what would happen next. It was not a quiet endeavor and I was only hoping to catch a final glimpse of the catamount as another visual keepsake of the experience. I stood out in the mouth of the wide draw searching for any movement up the steep hill near the two chimney pipe rock formations at the top. The thought crossed my mind “There is NO WAY that cat is still here!” – just at that moment, I saw her quartering away on the southwest side of the furthest chimney rock. What would turn out to be a 125 yard shot was delayed as I found myself with nothing to brace on out in the snow field full of only intermittent small and low-lying bushes…no tree branch or rock to brace on and a 35-degree standing, uphill shot – this is a shot I do not practice, but I will now! At this point the cat’s aspect to me was really cooling off; she was no longer quartering away, but was heading directly away from me. I instinctively rolled the zoom on my Leupold scope to the lowest magnification, shouldered my rifle and whispered, “Texas Heartshot it is…”
The report of the magnum overwhelmed the draw and the fire that lit up the space between me and the cat was spectacular. I immediately spied over my scope to see if my aim was true. I was absolutely amazed to see that my aim was true as the cat’s back-end was hit and immediately paralyzed. The geometry of the shot is one that is controversial, at best, and in considering Jeff Cooper’s words in ‘The Art of the Rifle’, the full astern shot is “impolite, tends to wreck the carcass and doesn’t bring the game down” - I do agree with him that it is impolite and does wreck the carcass. On the third point and in this case, the cat wheeled around due to the crushing effects of the TSX into her pelvis and both femoral arteries. The cat rolled over a small bush and now was sliding down the ice crusted hill back toward me, her back-end paralyzed, but her front half was very much animated! She was clawing for traction and hissing something fierce, but gravity and her hind legs betrayed her will to escape. It took me a nano-second to realize that a second shot was required, as she was getting ever closer, so I quickly acquired her in my scope again with crosshairs centered on her chest, her front arms wildly flailing! At 70 yards, and just before my second shot, she stumbled and went down – clean miss.
I racked my final round as she veered away from me, presenting a perfect broadside shot that was much more polite…“I have your lungs now” I whispered. The third and final shot rang out coincident with her collapsing in the snow as my crosshairs disappeared from her front left shoulder to the white space of the snow-covered terrain behind her…another clean miss. However, the fatal damage from the first shot had sealed the cat’s fate without my knowing it as the cat collapsed at 40 yards from me and in the same clearing that Wendy saw it only a minute before. My thoughts were just as chaotic as the motions of that cat sliding down the mountain, I kept thinking through the warped space time of temporal distortion that THIS is not happening! In truth, the time from first shot to last was less than 7 seconds.
In shock of the singularly surreal scene that I became part of, I slowly crouched down subconsciously, out of habit, to retrieve the snow-quenched brass of the rounds that I shot that had seared their way their way through the deep snow. I did so as a habit in documenting the memorable hunts that I have been on as I have the shells LASER engraved with the details of the harvest. I did so without taking my eyes off of the cat and only turned away after she laid her head down in the snow without any further movement.
I started an emotional walk back toward Wendy, concerned for her safety and glad that the event did not include any closer interaction with the cat than what had already happened. I knew that she would be able to defend herself with the pistol, should the need arise. With every step I realized that I wasn’t dreaming, when I got close to her, the adrenaline finally hit me and it was a bigger rush than any other hunting experience. I muttered to her through a trembling voice and pointed with shaking fingers that there was a cat on the ground up in the draw. She said, “I know, I saw it fall into the snow…you were shooting so fast and there was a lot of fire coming out of your gun; that was like a movie!”
It was like a movie and one that I’ll remember my whole life. I turned to Wendy and said, “Do you want to keep snowshoeing?” She said we had better get the cat taken care of and I’m glad she was there to make rational decisions. By 8 AM we were calling in our harvest through state radio and meeting the wonderful and dedicated biological team of experts and volunteers at the Outdoor Campus. We spent the day showing the cat to friends, family, boy scouts and our taxidermist, Jeff Edwards. We spent the whole afternoon carefully skinning the cat and harvesting the meat, most of which was usable, despite the Texas Heart Shot. The cat-high lasted several weeks and we were able to prepare some amazing meals and share the meat with interested friends and family. What a great experience it was and I owe it all to my encouraging friend, Rob, and my best friend and good luck charm, Wendy!
Nate and Wendy's female lion was # 6 in the 2017 season and officially weighted in at 81 pounds.