F&S Classics: The Lion Dogs

No hunt is more primal and grueling than chasing cougars in the Southwestern desert. A true story of adventure, and heartbreak

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Field & Stream, we’re going to share some of our favorite stories from the history of the magazine. Every day for the rest of the year, we’ll republish a new F&S Classic on the website. Today’s entry, “The Lion Dogs” by Bill Heavey, was published in July 2003. You can find the complete F&S Classics series here.

The dogs are free-casting along a wash at the bottom of a nameless canyon in the Atascosa Mountains a few miles north of the Mexican border, silently nosing for lion scent, when all eight blow up. The almost mournful hysteria of the pack echoes off the canyon walls, bypasses the rational brain, and reaches into something deeper, some preverbal place where the laws of men no longer obtain. All at once there is a coppery taste in my mouth, blood hammering into my ears, and I’m alive in a way I wasn’t just a moment ago. Barely an hour into the first day of the hunt, it looks as if we may get ludicrously lucky on the most elusive predator in North America.

My guide, Jonathon Kibler, dismounts his mule to look for a print So does Wally Kostelnik, another guide who is helping Kibler on this trip and has brought some of his dogs along, too. Unlike most other North American game, mountain lions leave what is known as “heavy scent, evaporating so slowly that the dogs can’t tell which way the track heads. In the quickly vanishing art of bare-ground hunting—all Kibler does and just about all he cares about—you must hunt for a print or other sign lest you track the animal backward.

A few minutes later, Kibler draws a circle in the gravel with his boot heel and motions me over. With my nose inches from the ground, I finally make out what he has seen from his mount: the four toes and two ridges left by the clefts in the heel lobe, which taken together. spell lion. Lion tracks are hard to see. One reason is that dirt is scarce in this part of Arizona, and any terrain not covered by rock is covered by thorns. Another is that a cougar puts its feet straight down instead of rolling them, so no debris is thrown behind the track. And since a cougar only extends its claws when killing or fighting, it leaves no scratch marks. This track is just a few hours old. The dogs are headed the right way. From the frenzied note in their bawling, Kibler thinks the lion is very close. “We just may catch this one,” he says. Photographer Dusan Smetana jumps down to get a shot of the print in the morning light, then trots his mule fast to catch up with the three of us.

Perfect Predators

Truth is, I’m not sure I want to shoot a mountain lion. Maybe it’s professional courtesy. We’re both hunters, after all, and the lion outranks me in every aspect of the game except abstract reasoning. It has the widest distribution of any native mammal in the Western Hemisphere, from northern British Columbia to the Straits of Magellan. An adult tom averages 140 pounds and can bring down a 1,000-pound elk, antlers and all. When it kills, it fastens its jaws to the back of the prey’s neck, snapping it by twisting the head with a blow from its paw. A lion can pounce 20 feet or more from a standstill. Lions have been observed dropping 65 feet from a tree to the ground without injuring themselves. This is partly because a mountain Lion’s entire dismantled skeleton would fit inside a hiking boot box. The creature is all muscle and sinew.

My motivations are further complicated by the fact that I’ve always thought you had a responsibility to eat what you kill. Although you can eat lion (it’s pink and tastes a little like pork, which, of course, is exactly the way cannibals describe human flesh). I’m not after meat. Like most hunters, I’ve heard about lions most of my life and have seen exactly zero of them in the wild. To me, they are the embodiment of stealth, secrecy, and skill. And now that we’ve struck a trail, I’m obsessed with encountering one face-to-face.

Of course, this is only the first day. I harbor no ambivalence about the chase. I can’t wait to hunt the animal, to see where it lives and how it moves when trying to elude the dogs. I’ll trust my gut on whether to shoot. That moment will come if and when we’ve bayed the lion and Kibler asks if I want his Ruger 44 Magnum, the one with the 1-inch barrel he keeps in a special leather holster a friend made for him that bears a line of scripture incised on the inside of the flap. I’ve been nailing orange-juice jugs with the pistol back at camp. Kibler has it sighted in at 100 yards with 240-grain solid points. Most shots on bayed lions are at distances of less than 15 yards.

The dogs boil up the wash, then veer off to follow the scent trail Straight up the steep side of the canyon into red rock bluffs and then along the canyon ridge. The trail leads into even higher bluffs, follows the spine of the ridge farther, and then drops back into the canyon. Going up was scary: going down you distract yourself by composing potential epitaphs because you can see exactly where you’ll end up if your mule slips. (At the moment, I’m thinking I TOLD YOU IT WAS A LITTLE TOO STEEP might be appropriate. Kibler uses mules because they’re stronger and more sure-footed than horses. “When a horse loses its footing, it starts scrambling, just like humans do. A mule will just drop down onto its brisket, put its feet back under itself, and get up.” Equally important, mules won’t spook at the scent of lions or blood.) I’m leaning so far back in the saddle that my head nearly rests on the hindquarters of the mule I’ve christened Tylenol in honor of the medication I will be doubling up on should I make it back to camp in one piece. The cougar crosses its track once, then again, and now, three hours later, we are almost back where we picked up the scent.

Suddenly the dogs go quiet. “I’ll be damned.” Kibler pushes his new gray Stetson, the exact color of his moustache, back on his head, looks up into the bluffs, and lets out a long breath. “Tell you exactly what happened,” he elaborates at last. “That cat watched us walk 100 yards below him two hours ago, waited until we’d passed, and took off.” When a lion is hunting or alarmed, he explains, it reflexively shuts down its scent, which is why the dogs can no longer pick up a trail. Biologists haven’t proved this yet, but it has long been axiomatic among experienced lion men. In any case, this lion has too much of a head start and is no longer leaving enough scent to follow. That’s about as close to catching one as you can get and not do it,” he says.

The Lost Art

It’s not enough to be good when you’re chasing lions over bare ground. You also need to be lucky. That’s why Kibler’s hunts last 10 days. So many things affect the dogs’ ability to scent-humidity, temperature, sunlight, how long it’s been since it rained, even the wind-that it may not be worthwhile to loose the dogs some days. But if you get on lions (and Kibler usually does get on five or six in that time), eventually you will probably guess right and catch one. If you last that long “I’ve had hunters go out, spend 10 hours like we did today, and ask to be taken straight to the airport that same night,” he says with a grin. “A lot of guys don’t like to do this because it’s so hard.”

As for me, I’m already hooked on the bawling of the dogs, the beauty and scale of the country, the clop of mule hooves against stone, and the possibility that this may be the day you catch an animal most hunters go their whole lives without seeing. Maybe most of all, I’m hooked on the aesthetics of this kind of hunting. Some things are supposed to be hard. The difficulty is precisely what makes them matter so much.

Fifty years ago, there were hundreds of guys in the Southwest like Jon Kibler, who carried between their ears centuries of accumulated knowledge. Now there are a few dozen. In a generation or so, the only bare-ground lion hunters left will likely be made of wax and paint in museum dioramas. Not so long ago most ranchers kept a pack of dogs to deal with the mountain lions that preyed on their livestock. The dogs were bred and taught to hunt close to their owners, to ignore all game other than what they were trained to hunt, and, once on the scent, to follow it until they dropped from exhaustion or their master called them off. The body of knowledge that grew up around training lion dogs and hunting big cats wasn’t written down because nobody thought it needed to be. You couldn’t learn it from a book anyway. You had to go out and do it.

Wave bye-bye to those days and those men, because you won’t be seeing them again. Today’s “rancher” is an absentee landlord who leases the land to someone who has no proprietary interest in keeping it up New roads make it easy to get into what was once remote lion country. Today’s cowboy saddles up a four-wheel-drive truck, an ATV, and a snowmobile to get where he wants to go. Radio collars mean it’s no longer necessary to spend the hours it takes to train dogs to hunt close.

Cellphones allow groups of widely separated hunters all after the same lion to coordinate their movements. And Kibler, 56-who wears Spurs first worn by his grandfather, was born on a farm, and has been raising and training his own dogs for more than 30 years is fully aware that he is one of the last of his kind, a dinosaur. He’s even thinking of trying to write a book about what he knows, not so much to teach as to document what once was common knowledge. He wants to call it The Lost Art.

Tough Dogs

Over steaks, double margaritas, and lots of Tylenol back at the trailer that serves as camp, I ask Kibler about which breeds work best on lions. “Now you’re opening a Pandora’s box,” he says. “See, I’m not stuck on breeds. I’m stuck on something else entirely: ability.” He explains that for a lion dog in the Southwest, it starts with good feet. It takes three to four years to get a dog up to snuff, and in the country he hunts, a dog will be lame by then unless it has tough feet. That the dog needs a good cold nose goes without saying. Beyond that it has to have the determination to stay on a scent trail for eight or 10 hours without flagging. This is known as the ability to “pound” or “hammer” the track. But a dog also must be able to run the lion fast enough to force it into a bluff or up a tree—to “drive or push the track. Bitter experience has taught him that registered hounds rarely fit the bill. Walkers, for instance, don’t have the foot toughness or the desire to keep pounding, although they are fast on a jump race after the lion has been sighted. Plotts don’t have enough nose, and the 30 or so Kibler has owned over the years were weak in homing instinct. A dog that can’t find its way back to the truck won’t make it in this country. Blueticks, though blessed with good cold noses and toughness are hardheaded and won’t push as hard as required. Redbones are good coon dogs, but he finds they lack the determination and drive for bigger game. Black-and-tans are ideal in many ways. They have good noses, will pound a track all day, and have tons of determination. The only problem is that they’re black, which is the wrong color for the Southwest. They tend to overheat. Kibler finds that the best dog for lions where he hunts is a combination of Walker, black-and-tan, and bluetick. Such a dog comes in a variety of colors, depending on its genetic makeup. His are a rainbow coalition bound together by a desire to hunt so strong that the ones left behind on a given day sometimes manage to break their chains and follow.

“I’ve been lucky.” he says. “Never lost a dog lion hunting, I’ve had them torn up pretty bad by lions—had them fall, get snakebit, and go lost for days. And I did lose a sweet dog, Annie, many years ago when she overheated one day. She died about 45 minutes before we got to the water that probably would have saved her. That was tough. But all in all, I’ve been real lucky.” Wally Kostelnik says that in 12 years, he has had to put down one dog that got bit through the head by a lion. Both men count themselves unusually fortunate. They say that dogs falling off bluffs is an ever-present danger. Lions bay up in high places, and the hounds follow. What happens is that a bunch will get to jostling one another trying to get at the cat, and the one closest to the edge goes over. Fortunately, neither man’s dogs have ever had a long fall

Kibler himself nearly got killed once out here. It was five years ago when a young mule he was training started bucking on a steep descent. The mule went down and landed on him. He sustained a concussion, dislocated his left shoulder, fractured his left shoulder blade, fractured two ribs in front, tore three ribs out of his spine, and dislocated his right hip. “I woke up after about half an hour or so, looked at the client I’d been guiding for the better part of a week and asked, ‘Who’re you?’”

The doctors told him he’d also twisted his vertebrae the same way that left Christopher Reeve paralyzed from the neck down only Kibler had so much muscle in his neck that it had kept his spinal column from being severed. “I was laid up awful bad. The doc said he thought he could get me to where I’d walk again, but that I’d never ride or hunt.” Kibler didn’t even bother arguing. After obeying orders for 10 months, one day he got back in the saddle and resumed chasing lions.

An Unforgiving Land

The next day, we make a 20-mile loop that starts at sunup and ends about three o’clock. During this time Kibler admires my Filson Tin Cloth jacket (“That’s the stuff to have out here. I go through a Carhartt a year”) and tells me the names of the plants that are drawing blood from the unprotected parts of my body: ocotillo, which has spiny tendrils 10 to 12 feet long shin dagger, catclaw acacia (also known locally as “wait-a-minute”), and worst of all, a subspecies of cholla cactus called Teddy Bear, whose dense spines will break off and cling to you if you brush against them. The dogs are silent the whole day. When a panicked jackrabbit zigzags right through the pack, they don’t even break stride. When we finally get back to a cold beer and a seat without a pommel or stirrups, Kibler looks strangely satisfied. “You know, a guy who didn’t know dogs would come in from a day like that and think it was a failure,” he says. “But look at it this way. We were crossing deer, bobcat, javelina, rabbit, and illegal alien tracks all day. And you saw how those dogs never broke off. That’s discipline. That’s dogs who know their business. Lying on my sleeping bag, feeling as if I’ve been beaten by invisible elves with ball peen hammers, I find myself wondering exactly how far away the nearest codeine is and whether the dogs could be trained to find it for me.

On the final day of the hunt, we ride into a place called Hell’s Gate, where several canyons come together. Almost immediately, the dogs strike in the dry creek bed. Kibler finds a print showing that the lion is headed the opposite way and gets the dogs turned around and headed back up Peck Canyon. But the scent peters out atop a tower of rock in the creek bed. “I’m thinking this is old scent, by the way the dogs are acting,” he says. “That cat might have laid up here for the night. Let’s keep going the way we were headed and see what happens.” Twenty minutes later, the dogs strike again, and even I can tell it’s a hot track. There is something in their voices that brings back the copper taste and the blood pounding in my ears. Kibler wants me to inspect the print he has found, but I can’t make it out from the saddle and don’t want to waste time trying with the dogs howling so hysterically. He thinks it’s a female or a young tom. We follow for a couple of miles, the dogs working steadily up and down the scent trail. It breaks left and up toward the red bluffs. The dogs scamper straight up, but the mules have to zigzag their way, setting off small rockslides at each rum.

My fear of falling is still with me. But now I realize that the mule has greater balance, strength, and a more even disposition than I do So I’m probably safer on him than on foot. I just want him to walk faster so that we can catch the lion. Sore muscles and all, I’m feeling strangely privileged to be alive and in this place at this moment. Right now—with the sun warming my back, little wildflowers poking their heads up from between the rocks, and the ancient music of the hounds floating on the air—I’m convinced there could be no more vivid or glorious way to spend your life than chasing lions.

As we near the base of the bluffs, we see the dogs spread out in a line racing along the rim of the canyon above us. They reach the saddle, cross it, and keep running up along the even higher ridge on the far side. Then they Cross out of sight, just over the top and into Beehive Canyon. We try two routes that dead-end into walls before we find one where we can lead the mules up a narrow opening bearing up to the ridge and across the saddle. Kostelnik thinks he hears the dogs faintly from Beehive, and it sounds as though they’ve got the lion bayed.

Half an hour later we finally arrive at the base of the tall red rock bluffs that make up the far ridge. These are higher and steeper than any we’ve been on. We tie the mules. The dogs are up top, just out of view but barking loudly and nonstop. “Climb.” Kibler orders. “Fast.” He takes off ahead of me.

Kostelnik is headed up a different route, just to our left. with Smetana and his cameras at his heels. It’s all-fours work, like climbing the Great Pyramid, scaling one big boulder to another, crashing through thorny undergrowth that tears at your clothes.

When we crest the bluffs, the wind is blowing hard and dogs are boiling all over the place as they try to get to the cat, which is hidden in the rocks a few yards below us. It’s a long way down to Peck Canyon, the one we’ve just come from. It’s an even longer drop into Beehive, in front of us. There are some places where you could climb down into Beehive, others where you’d just fall. “Right here!” roars Kostelnik, who is standing below us on a ledge and pointing to a place directly below me and out of my sight. Smetana is with him, already down on one knee and shooting film. I hear the lion hiss but can’t see it. I start to make my way left and down to the narrow ledge where the two men are, but something makes me stop and size up the situation. It’s only 10 feet from me to their ledge, but there are no decent handholds between here and there. The dogs are scrambling all over the rock in a frenzy to get at the cat, and I know I’m too excited to be jumping around up here. Then I look down and realize that I can’t see the bottom; I’ve reached a sort of chute in the bluffs. One slip here and your life ends. I drop to all fours as a trembling brown dog scrambles over me as though I’m just another piece of rock. By sheer force of will, the dog manages to cling to the rocks on the path I’ve just decided I won’t be taking. It attains the ledge and immediately charges ahead for the lion. The mad barking of the dogs has somehow risen to an even more frenzied pitch. I reverse direction and head up a few feet, trying to find another way down. Back where I was a long minute ago, I’m still just above the lion but unable to see it. Again, the cat hisses. It’s not loud. The lion knows the dogs are more nuisance than threat. But a lion won’t stay bayed forever. Sooner or later it will decide to take off.

I look over the edge again, on the off chance that the cat may have moved to where I can at least glimpse it. Just at that moment, I hear the men below both shouting at the same time. Then I watch, horrified, as two dogs fall off the ledge below me. They wriggle silently in the air, spinning their back legs for something, anything to push against. The next moment they’re gone. “Two dogs gone, “I call to Kibler somewhere above me, trying to keep control over my voice. I hear Kostelnik shouting some more, and this time he’s cursing. The lion made her move moments before, bounding right be. tween Kostelnik and Smetana and leaping from ledge to ledge, then vanishing over a ridge. She either swatted the dogs over or they were jostled. But the toll is not yet complete. A third dog has also fallen to its death. Then Kibler, whom I’ve not seen all this time, though he has been just above me, yells that another dog went over, too, but apparently landed 30 feet down on a ledge. For the moment, that one is presumed alive. The dogs are still barking like crazy, but suddenly everything has changed. This is the dark side of that ancient music, the price that can be exacted at any time when men and dogs and wild game get mixed up together.

Kibler, Smetana, and I meet atop the rocks “We’re not hunting lions anymore today.” Kibler says evenly. We’re hunting dogs.” It takes us a while to get the remaining hounds leashed. All three of the lost—Tilly, Sally, and Spook—belong, by pure happenstance, to Kostelnik. Brownie, the one that fell onto the ledge below, is Kibler’s, Kostelnik has already gone, taking the long way down to the canyon floor to find the bodies of his dogs and retrieve their collars. Kibler and I gather the remaining five dogs we took off with nine today and take them down to where we’ve tied the mules. Kibler is all business. “I really need you to stay here and keep these dogs quiet,” he tells me, his face just inches from mine so I’ll understand exactly what he’s saying “If they start barking, smack ‘em. Hard. Use a stick if you have to. I’m afraid Brownie might do something stupid and fall if she hears them.” He retrieves the 30 feet of cotton rope he carries in his saddlebags, undoes one of the mules’ leads to add to it, and disappears at full speed back up the rocks. I sit with the mules and the straining dogs for 45 minutes, clamping a hand over their muzzles whenever they howl. I try to stop replaying the image of the dogs in free fall. I’m okay. I can think clearly, but I’m not all right.

Finally Kibler and Smetana come back with Brownie on a leash. Kibler is wearing a tight smile, a mixture of regret and joy, and shaking his head. You’re looking at the luckiest dog in the world right now.” He tells how he put a loop in the end of the rope and dropped it down to the ledge. Miraculously, it caught on the one tiny bush down there. Miraculously, it landed with the loop open. When he called Brownie, she turned toward his voice and—miraculously—stuck her neck and one leg into the loop. He jerked the rope closed and hauled her to safety. Her rescue, like Kostelnik’s loss of three dogs in an instant, is a 1-in-1,000 shot. Yet both have come to pass in the same hour.

Kostelnik finally returns with three collars in hand and slumps heavily against a rock. He is a big guy, a weight lifter and lifelong outdoorsman who works as a firefighter in Phoenix when he’s not guiding. He doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t want his sandwich, doesn’t want to be consoled. “They were the heart of my pack, some of my best dogs is all he’ll say. You couldn’t have bought those dogs off me for $10,000. There is a force field of grief around him, and nothing to do but mount up and start the long ride back to camp.

After the Fall

During dinner we make small talk about everything but the elephant standing in the corner, the lost dogs. I’ve endured enough losses in my life to learn that silence is the worst remedy for grief. Suddenly, my eyes are wet, and everyone’s busy not looking at me. “Jesus, Wally, they weren’t even my dogs and I’m all broke up about them,” I say. “It must be worse for you.” He clamps a big hand on my shoulder for a second, then goes back to scraping a frying pan clean. But at least the elephant is gone now. The grief has been spoken. A little while later, he starts talking about Sally, who was his best dog, a superb striker, a dog that never walked over a track and would push it harder than any other dog he ever saw. Kibler recalls Annie, the dog he lost to heatstroke a few years back. “I’ve been raising dogs for more than 40 years now, and you never get over the ones that die before their time.”

The next day we pack up. Kostelnik loads his mules and dogs into his truck. Then he goes to perform his last chore, fetching the three chains and water bowls that no longer belong to any dog. Our good-byes are formal. His suffering still hangs about him like a parka.

As I’m driving out, Kibler, walking to his truck, smiles and gives me a wink. It is a throwaway gesture that somehow contains a lifetime’s worth of experience and wisdom. It’s as if he’s acknowledging that sure, we had some hard luck. But you can’t give up because of that. Despair is a bigger liar than hope will ever be. Broken hearts are made whole again in time. The gesture stays with me for a long drive and two plane rides, until I’m finally home.

A week later, Kibler calls me. “I wanted to let you know Wally’s okay. He took it hard, but he’s hunting again. He found out the sun still comes up and the world still turns, so he figured he’d better get his pack back in shape. There’s still a lot of lions to be caught down here.”

We make small talk for a while. Then we get down to business. I ask when exactly would be the best time next year for me to come back. “I was hoping you’d say that,” he says.