F&S Classics: Lion of a Lifetime

A winter bowhunting adventure for a Pope and Young mountain lion comes down to the wire

The date was December 12, 1967. Before me, high in a twisted juniper tree, was one of the largest mountain lions any hunter will ever see. I gripped the string of my bow tightly. The aluminum arrow was ready. The cold wind caused my eyes to water, blurring my vision as I strained to see. The weather was 12 degrees below zero. All of this action was the culmination of much research, planning, and practice, plus an exhausting chase over some of the roughest country in western Colorado.

The hunt was my second for Felis concolor, better known by one of his many nicknames: mountain lion, puma, cougar, painter, panther, or catamount. Bill Wallace, of Collbran, Colorado, was my guide for this trip, as he had been a year before when we’d teamed up for a lion hunt in Utah. That had turned out to be one of the most exciting adventures of my life, climaxing with the shooting of a cougar that made the Boone and Crockett record book as well as the archery records of the Pope and Young Club.

Following that experience, I did not plan to ever hunt another cougar, mainly because I already had an excellent trophy. However, in the summer of 1967, I began reading everything I could find concerning this extremely shy animal that few hunters ever have the opportunity to see in the field. I learned that cougar seldom range above 8,000 feet, their favored domain apparently being the lower foothills. The animal, which is mostly nocturnal, may travel 25 to 30 miles in a 24-hour period. Mule deer are the favorite food, though rabbits are eaten as well. If an area is short on deer, you can be sure the lion hunting will be poor.

Once a lion has made a kill, it usually goes for a quick liver or heart feast, then sleeps it off nearby. Normally the cat will lay up and visit its kill for several days before leaving altogether. It is the custom of the cougar to scratch branches, leaves, and earth over the kill between visits. Since the lion characteristically eats only what it itself has killed, the animal cannot be baited like the black bear. This trait probably saves many cats from the poison bait stations put out by the Federal predator control agents.

According to professional hunting guides, late January or February is an excellent time to try for a large male lion. During that period, the males are stalking the countryside, visiting as many females as possible. Just after the first of the year in the high country, the temperatures are dry and cool with snow likely. These conditions are just right for tracking the elusive puma.

In March of 1965, the Colorado legislature repealed the old mountain lion bounty of $50, which was first enacted in 1924. With the price off its head, the lion gained new stature, and in July 1965, the state declared it to be a big-game animal, subject to regular seasons, limits, and licenses. (The resident fee is currently $25, with nonresident fee being $50.) About the same time both the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young Clubs declared that only lions coming from states that no longer paid the bounty fee were eligible to be entered in their biannual competitions and permanent records.

My cougar research made memories of my first lion adventure even more vivid, and I decided to arrange for one additional, and final, hunt with Bill Wallace. I set the date for mid-December, several months off, so I’d have enough time to get in the right mental as well as physical condition for a hunt I wanted to be in topnotch shape for.

The previous spring, Ken Barnes, president of the Howatt Archery Company of Yakima, Washington, had given me a prototype of a new hunting bow, which had a draw weight of 57 pounds and a length of 60 inches. I cut a big section out of the handle and put a coat of brown flocking on the entire weapon. The handle neck was so small that I began to wonder if it would hold together under all conditions. However, it now fit my hand perfectly, and I quickly developed confidence in the new bow. I found that every so often I could shoot a perfect score on a Professional Archery Association target with the bow. This particular target has a 3-inch bull’s-eye and is shot from 20 yards.

Finally the long anticipated day of the lion hunt arrived, and with it came one of the worst snowstorms of the winter. I started out by car, but was forced by road conditions to turn back, borrow a friend’s 4-wheel-drive vehicle, repack my hunting gear, and start all over. By the time I arrived in Crescent Junction, Utah, our designated meeting spot, it was 4 a.m. and the temperature registered 19 degrees below zero.

Bob Ward, assistant guide to Bill Wallace, met me inside a local cafe where we had a cup of coffee to warm up while we talked over plans for the hunt. “Bill’s been real busy,” Bob told me. “He’s been talking to every rancher he knows, and some he don’t, trying to find some lion trouble. Yesterday he heard the government hunter was called over to check on a lion causing a ruckus with sheep down near the Colorado-Utah border. Wallace went right down there to ask if we could hunt him instead.”

“Did you hear anything about its size?” I asked.

“No, just how many sheep it’s been killing.”

We downed the coffee and headed out with haste. Our destination was a place called Coal Canyon, between Grand Junction and Dove Creek along the Colorado-Utah border. Since we had to pick up some gear in Moab, Utah, we headed south through Moab and Monticello, and east into Colorado.

As we arrived in Dove Creek, Bill was standing in front of the post office. He was sporting his favorite dark brown Stetson hat and green insulated coat. Bill is a young, enthusiastic guy who looks like the outdoors he lives in. His job is not an easy one, but he certainly enjoys it. Because of all his guiding experience, he’s got a lot of confidence in himself, and some of it rubs off on his hunters. A big grin appeared on Bill’s face as he walked up to the jeep. As we shook hands, he said, “I was out to check on the sheep kill. From the tracks, this cat is a real monster. He may be even bigger than the one you killed last time.”

My first lion scored 14 12/16 inches. The chance of taking a larger one would be remote, I thought to myself.

August 1971 cover of Field and Stream magazine
“Lion of a Lifetime” was first published in the August 1971 issue. Field & Stream

Tracking a Record-Book Lion

Without further delay, we loaded up Wallace’s truck with all my gear and headed north for an hour’s ride to the ranch where the lion had been reported. As we drove, I noticed that the terrain certainly looked like typical lion country. About a mile before we turned into the long ranch drive, five deer ran across the road ahead of us. This seemed like an encouraging sign. When we reached the ranch we met Jim Branch, one of the ranch hands, who was checking the antifreeze in an old truck. I asked him about the lion, and he told me he thought it must be an old one. It was his opinion that the lion had drifted into the area about a month before, possibly from Utah.

The hounds—all of the Plott strain—had been let out of their boxes, and most of them seemed anxious to get on with the hunt. Branch asked if he could come along with us. As he said, he wanted to see this “dude” try to take a cougar with a bow and arrow. He helped us load the dogs, and we all climbed into the truck.

A 30-minute 4-wheel-drive ride over a creek bottom brought us to the head of a wide, rocky canyon with very steep walls and slightly rolling country in between. Many cedars dotted the area. We wasted no time in unloading and heading for the closest canyon rim. I quickly tried a couple of practice shots on a stump and heard the shafts thump twice from 30 yards. The hounds were so excited that we had to exert all the strength we could muster just to hold them back. After nearly an hour and a half of trudging through foot-deep snow, we had our first look at the track of the cat.

“That is one of the biggest lion tracks I’ve ever seen in all my years of guiding,” Bill exclaimed.

To me the pad mark looked so large it appeared to have melted out and increased in size. However, it certainly could not have melted much in the below zero weather. Within another three quarters of a mile, we found our first lion-killed sheep, but the tracks were not fresh.

“We’ve got some catching up to do,” Bill informed me.

Bob Ward added, “I’ll bet the lion made another kill up ahead, probably last night.”

“If he stayed in this area and killed again, we’ve got a good chance of taking him,” Bill observed. We all agreed with him.

Wallace moved out ahead as the chase warmed up, announcing, “I’m going to turn oľ Ranger loose. I think he can pick up the scent now.”

Release the Hounds

As soon as the chain was released, the dog bolted forward with his nose working furiously. He disappeared over a small ridge ahead, tail wagging with excitement. All of a sudden, Ranger opened up with that sweet sound of a dog on scent. Everyone was running as the barking became higher pitched. I sprinted as fast as I could but was losing ground with every stride.

As we topped a rocky cedar-covered bench, we saw the hound going around in circles with his head in the air. He was howling like crazy. Another lion-kill was lying in a shallow depression partly covered with brush and dirt. Since the kill was fresh, we all felt that our chances had just improved considerably. I had to remind myself that the cat hadn’t even been seen yet. We only knew that he was somewhere in the huge canyon complex.

Ranger was having trouble untangling the maze of tracks around the sheep, so Bill took the dog’s collar and led him in a wide circle away from the kill. Finally, finding the lion’s exit, the dog charged back into the canyon, bellowing and growling as he went. Now Bob unchained the other dogs, which fell all over themselves trying to catch Ranger. We sprinted along behind, although we could not keep up. The most we could hope for was to keep within earshot.

Fifteen minutes later, the tempo of the hound chorus reached a peak with wild yelping and barking. Wallace yelled excitedly, “They’ve jumped him.”

I surmised that the lion had been lying on a ledge nearby, resting after gorging himself on the latest kill. By now I was plenty excited. I was trying to run faster as I heard the hounds go wild up ahead. My lungs were burning. My heart was pounding. But I kept stumbling along. We were midway up the side of the main canyon. It seemed the lion was heading downward toward a small side canyon.

I finally had to stop. Inhaling the raw, cold air was harsh on my lungs, and the rest of me felt as though I’d been running the half mile in a track meet. Just as I flopped into the snow to rest, Bill yelled, “He’s treed! Come on, let’s get the lead out.”

In a second I was up and running downhill, dodging bushes and rocks. I worried about my camera as we slipped and slid down the slope. The footing was extremely unstable, and once three of us were down at the same time. Near the bottom of the canyon, the cat had bounded along a narrow rock ledge, then jumped into a cedar tree. Although the lion was 200 yards away, shifting from limb to limb, he looked very large.

Apparently the lion had only been resting, for he suddenly jumped to the ground and dashed away with the hounds right at his heels. Hearing a commotion ahead, we were just in time to see the lion leap up on a rock. As the hounds tried to reach him, he spat and waved a claw-extended paw in defiance. As we watched, a young Plott hound hurled himself onto the lion’s perch. Within a second, the dog was knocked to the ground, having had a sample of lion teeth and claws. He had been bitten and slashed across the face. Bill treated him quickly and chained him to a tree for our return.

Jim had gone ahead and now yelled back to us, “The lion is heading for the other side of the canyon.”

To do this, the animal would have to cross a flat area about a hundred yards wide. The dogs were now moving in on him. He was beginning to tire. We skidded to the bottom of the side hill and hightailed it across the flat. Branch was pointing when the rest of us caught up to him.

“He’s in that juniper near the edge of the cliff.”

“He’s climbing right to the top,” Bob exclaimed. “We better move in slow and chain the dogs off first—if we can.”

Neither Bill nor Bob wanted me to shoot the lion while the dogs were loose under the tree. A wounded lion could kill the whole pack, setting Bill back as much as $500 per hound.

The lion had been watching Branch until I came up on the other side of the tree. Then he swapped ends, looking directly at me, hissing, and swatting the air. Bob whispered to me, “They don’t get any larger than this one.”

Mountain Lion Mayhem

The cougar looked as hefty as a full-grown man. We later guessed his weight to be between 180 and 190 pounds. His head was very large, with flashing teeth and a scarred face. I sensed that he was getting ready to jump out if he could only find space below the tree. Without warning, Ranger broke loose from Bob. By leaping desperately, he landed in the lower limbs of the tree. When this happened, the lion went back to the top, which gave Bill a chance to snap a couple of photographs. The other dogs were now trying to get loose and join Ranger. Branch and Ward chained them to nearby trees, while Bill managed to capture Ranger and chain him also. Since the cougar had been forced to bay three times, the dogs were tired but still very excited. The cougar suddenly moved to a lower limb.

“Shoot,” Bill yelled, “he’s coming out!”

Quickly I drew the bow, and I aimed the arrow. With my release, the arrow was on its way in a black-and-yellow flash. It hit the animal, then sliced through and bounced high into the air. However, it had first clipped a small twig and then ricocheted, striking the cat too far back to be a good shot.

Bill yelled immediately, “Watch out! He’s coming down. Get out of there, fast.”

I didn’t need to be told. All I could see were teeth and tawny-colored lion coming straight for me. In our confusion, Bill and I collided, almost knocking each other down. It was every man for himself as the big cat landed on the ground in front of us, very much alive. At close range, he looked three times bigger than he had in the tree. Since the dogs were chained off, I was the nearest to the cat. As I tried to get another arrow nocked, I was all thumbs. My heart was pumping madly as I managed to draw the second arrow, fire…and miss. I flipped another shaft onto the string and released at no more than 10 yards. The arrow caught the cat through the lungs. He took about three quick bounds and slumped into the snow.

Recovering a little, I walked up to examine the cougar. It was truly an awesome animal, one I thought might make the top five of the Pope and Young trophy list.

One of the Biggest Mountain Lions Ever

Wallace began to cape the cat while I took photographs from every angle. Looking at the enormous head, I discovered the cat was very old. Its teeth were broken and worn; its ears were full of holes from fighting, and there were several big scars on his face. I tried to get some idea of how large the skull actually was by fashioning calipers out of a piece of rusty wire I found on the ground, but the device did not work too well. As soon as I took the wires off the skull, they would spring back together, giving me a smaller reading. Even so, we could see the skull was over 15 inches. For an accurate total score, one must measure the top part of the skull only, adding the width and length together. 

Sixty days later, after the skull had been boiled and dried, I had it officially measured by a Boone and Crockett measurer and was amazed when the final score totaled 15 7/16 inches. At the time, the minimum score recognized as a trophy cougar by the Pope and Young archery records was 12 inches. Recently it has been increased to 13.

The skull was sent to Glenn St. Charles of the Pope and Young Club. His reply was a surprise of the most pleasant type. The score exceeded the world record taken 10 years before by Dr. James Smith in Arizona. That lion had scored 15 4/16 inches, and Dr. Smith’s record had never been challenged in the last decade. At the 1969 Pope and Young Club awards banquet in Denver, I was awarded a plaque for my new world record.

The Boone and Crockett record book published in 1964 shows no larger mountain lions having ever been taken in Colorado, with the exception of the famous giant world record cat shot by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. According to that same record book, my lion is the ninth largest ever taken by any means, and topping off my list of honors, this past May I was informed that my trophy had been awarded a medal for placing first in the 1968-1971 Boone and Crockett competition.

But it’s more than medals and plaques that makes a hunt unforgettable. Every time I look at the 8-foot 6-inch cougar rug that dominates my den, I can almost hear the dogs again, feel the cold, and relive the excitement of the moment when my arrow found its mark from a 10-foot shot at that once-in-a-lifetime lion.