The Unexpected Cougar

Posted by on Feb 6, 2013 in Feature Articles | 0 comments

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When I entered the dark, unassuming elk woods in early September, 2011, I never imagined what I was going to walk out with only a few short hours later. It was the second day of the elk bow season in Washington, but it was the night before opener that seemed to set the stage for the unexpected that was going to be the theme for this elk hunting trip.

I was at elk camp by myself, as my buddy, Rich Sandstrom, was going to be delayed a few days. The restless night before the opener included a roaring fire, and me playing my guitar under the stars. This is perhaps not that unusual, but as I was putting away the 6-string, I heard a mew in the thick stand of trees nearby.  And then footsteps and more elk chatter.

“You’re kidding me,” I whispered to myself. I was elated that there were elk in the area. But I was shocked that they were not spooked. The fire, the smoke, the human and food odor, the attempted singing and twanging of metal strings; none of it seemed to scare the animals off. My only conclusion was that they somehow didn’t care, feeling protected under the cloak of night. In fact, they felt so safe, that the entire herd—however big it was—surrounded camp and stayed there. I even woke up in the middle of the night to use the “restroom,” and heard chirps, quiet barks, and mews all around me in the still of the black night.

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When I eagerly but carefully jumped out of bed at 4:30 the next morning, the nearby woods were quiet. The elk were gone. Or so I was convinced. I busily heated some water for coffee, packed a lunch, and finished preparing for first light. I was about a half mile from where I wanted to begin hunting, but I didn’t want to start the jaunt in the dark for fear of jumping something on the way in.

Minutes before legal shooting time found me applying my camo makeup by lantern light. Then to my surprise, I heard the snap of a stick in the thick black woods behind camp, and looked to see a large silhouetted body standing in a very small opening only yards away. The image reared its head in my direction, and let out a soft bark. Bull! And if that wasn’t enough to get my adrenaline flowing, footsteps and mews followed within yards behind me. Cows! After all the noise and smells of my morning routine, I was still in the midst of the herd!

I lifted the binoculars hanging on my chest and through the trees in front of me, strained my eyes and made out what I thought to be a small 5×5 standing in the stubborn darkness. I plucked my bow that was hanging from the vine maple next to me, and knocked an arrow. I lifted the bow without drawing to see if I could make out my pins, but it was just too dark. All I could do was stand there motionless; hoping that the days light reach my pins before the elk bolted.

But to no avail. A dimly illuminated pin placed somewhere in the middle of a dark mass of an animal at an unknown distance didn’t fit my definition of a smart shot, so I simply watched the shadowy animal walk off. The others answered with more elk talk, and crunched their way through the woods behind it. I tried to cut off the moving animals on a logging road nearby, but instead was greeted by a pair of young cows. My opening-day camp miracle would not happen.

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Three hours later and a mile away, I called a mature bull into about 60 yards. It was interested enough to circle around before it got closer, but the cow it was with was even more curious. It came right to me, and busted me at 30 yards before the bull had a chance to close the distance. I spent the rest of the day walking, glassing, and calling to no avail. No more encounters, no more sightings.

On the second day, I decided to set up overlooking a confluence of trails that led to a nearby, fairly popular wallow. I positioned myself on the upward side of the mountain, in an old depression in the ground left by the root ball of a fallen tree perhaps a century ago. The log was now merely sawdust and woodchips on the forest floor, but the hole I was standing in offered me cover up to my chest; a perfect scenario to ambush a bull that might be heading to the muddy mess below.

Aside from a couple curious camp jays, nearly three hours of dead quietude ensued. Nothing. Finally, the silence was broken by the faint snap of a twig uphill behind me. I turned—expecting, hoping, and desperately wanting to see an elk unknowingly meandering down the mountain. Instead, I was taken aback to see a smallish, blonde mountain lion weaving through the underbrush heading in my direction! Almost a year to the date earlier, I saw an adult cougar on the logging road behind camp, and was elated by my once-in-a-lifetime sighting. Now it was happening again!

The multi-game hunting license I carried afforded me the prospect of harvesting a bear, cougar, deer, and an elk; all of which are in season once elk opens. Not wanting to let a rare opportunity pass me by, I grabbed my bow and without taking my eyes off the cat, clipped my release. Suddenly, a second lion appeared! The larger cat sprang from behind a fallen tree—perhaps 35 yards away—and continued to make its way in my direction.

With only my shoulders and head protruding from where I was standing, I quietly drew my bow. In the 2 or 3 seconds that followed, my mind flashed with scenarios. Here I was, downhill and in a hole, potentially looking like a play toy to the mountain lions coming at me. My pistol was lying on the ground only feet away, but getting it would have required me moving, and I really didn’t want to be the mouse-on-a-string or an easy meal.

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At 20 yards away, I settled my top pin on the chest of the big cougar as it stepped to its right around a small bush. I had no idea if the animal had sighted me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the mark on its side. Now offering me a slightly quartering shot, I released the arrow. The big cat spun and somersaulted in an instant, as I saw my fletching disappear behind its shoulder. After what seemed like two leaps, the cat stopped behind a tree some 40 yards away, and fell to its side motionless. The other cat vanished into the brush higher up the mountain.

I sat back against the dirt wall of my hideout, and in a daze, wondered what had just happened.  I was completely awe-struck. The entire ordeal, from the time I heard the snap to the time the lion was still, took no more than 10 seconds. I was elated, but in shock. I remember very vividly not experiencing any form of buck fever or nervousness. No tension, no shaking. My instincts had taken over during those 10 seconds, and the rest of the world went black.      

After gutting the animal and taking a few photos, I hoisted the 120-pound feline onto my shoulders and made my way out of the woods. I went in for an elk, and walked out with perhaps the greatest, most unique trophy of my lifetime.

The wilderness has no fences. It does not separate animals according to species or hunting seasons. How often does it happen that hunter goes into the woods in search of a particular animal, and comes out with something altogether different? Perhaps it’s not that uncommon for those hunting the big woods of the mountain west. But for me it’s a reminder not only of the generous bounty that Mother Nature offers, it’s a reminder that sometimes try as we may, she will provide only what she wants to provide, and exactly nothing more. In this respect, Mother Nature won again. And I couldn’t be happier.

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