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Christmas lion: infinite patience, extreme endurance -- and an understanding wife -- combine for a special Christmas present.

DAVE WILLIAMS MET ME at the bus station in Salmon, Idaho, on December 21, 2001. I would be hunting mountain lions with him over the Christmas holiday. His truck, equipped with a dog box and a snow machine in the bed, was unmistakably that of a houndsman. At his homestead I settled into a bunkhouse that would be my home for the next 2 weeks. That first night I didn't get much sleep. Too much anticipation.

Dave believes in an early start, and well before daylight we loaded the dogs and were off to our hunting grounds. After about an hour's drive we stopped the truck and locked in the hubs. We then proceeded to look for lion tracks in the snow. Being a novice, I had to learn what to look for, and thankfully, Dave was patient with me. I must have driven him crazy with my constant, "Was that a lion track?"

With old snow already on the ground, the tracking conditions were not the best. The nighttime temperatures of -20 degrees F. and daytime temperatures only rising into the teens left the snow extremely fluffy. We did locate lion tracks on every day of the hunt but all were female or female with young. I was holding out for a tom.

The game sightings were plentiful, and viewing elk, mule deer, river otters, bighorn sheep, and even a bobcat, helped to keep the days interesting. Our days started well before light and ended between 3 and 4 p.m., with an average of 150 miles of driving per day. Coming back at that time allowed me to get in some coyote calling in the surrounding foothills. I was a novice at predator calling but was intrigued by these canines.

ON THE FOURTH MORNING we cut some questionable lion tracks. The snow conditions were still bad, but Dave determined the tracks were those of a female or a small tom. We needed a run and so did the dogs, so we put their tracking collars on and were off to the races. The hounds' barking in the crisp, clear Idaho morning was a beautiful sound. We positioned ourselves so that we could get a better view of the area.

After about an hour the tone of the dogs changed. Dave said, "It's time to go," and off we went. There are two directions in Idaho -- up and down. This particular chase took us up a steep, rocky chute. As we approached, the feline had second thoughts and decided on another tree. However, the dogs had their own plan and chased the lion back up the same tree. When we arrived I took some pictures of the first mountain lion I had ever seen. Then Dave said, "We can do better than this," and we leashed up the dogs. Going down the mountain was difficult due to the snow-covered rocks and gravity. I am an occasional skier, and this run reminded me of a double-black diamond. We made it down and went on to check more places.

The temperatures gradually rose and the snow became a little more readable over the next few days as we hoped for even warmer temperatures and a new snowfall to cover the old tracks.

On Friday we got snow all right, but now it fell all day and covered tracks quickly. We kept looking, but we had decided that Saturday would be the day. By then I had made up my mind that any lion would be better than no lion.

Saturday morning we got off to a super-early start and events took a while to unfold. On our way to the hunting area we almost got run over by a herd of elk stampeding straight toward us. As Dave's Ford truck came to a complete stop a couple of the elk missed the truck by inches. The look in their eyes said that something had spooked them. However, closer inspection of the surrounding area did not show any lion or wolf tracks.

We continued on in the dark, and after checking a couple more areas and not seeing tracks, I expressed my disappointment. My last word had barely ended when Dave said, "What was that?" He backed up and saw fresh lion tracks in the headlights. They came off the canyon wall and followed the logging road in front of the truck. We got out to check the tracks.

"This is what we've been looking for," Dave said.

The tracks were easy to see as they followed an old tire track. The lion, to our surprise, followed the tire track for quite a distance and at times changed lanes. At one point we could see where the lion had lain down and melted his outline into the fresh snow. Even his tail mark was clear.

"How hot are these tracks?" I asked.

"Very."

We followed the tracks until they left the logging road. Because daylight was still a couple of hours away, we drove back to the intersection of another logging road to sleep in the truck until daybreak.

About 7 a.m., while repositioning myself for a few more winks, I noticed headlights in the side mirror. It was a Fish and Game officer. Dave and the officer exchanged words and the officer checked my license and tag. Seeing that everything was in order, he reminded us that we would have to wait until 7:45 a.m. to start the hunt and then drove off.

The wait seemed to take an eternity. Finally, at first good light we drove back up to the point where the tracks left the road and let out Scratch, Ruby, Bell, and Bird. Dave's four veteran Plotts wasted no time getting on the lion's tracks. The dogs' sound traveled well in the crisp morning air, and the intensity of the hunt was definitely building.

Hunting with hounds is never a sure thing. Hounds can lose a track and false tree, run into another lion track and switch, or even get sidetracked on a bobcat track. I kept my fingers crossed and hoped for the best. All was going well, and the hounds sounded hot on the trail when it happened -- the pulse of their barks slowly became fewer and farther between. They seemed to be circling a ridge top, and finally my worst fear happened. Complete and utter silence.

We unloaded the snow machine and took another logging road up an opposite ridge. At a sharp bend in the road we could hear the dogs again and they seemed to be up the left fork of a canyon with a dogleg in it. We listened for about 45 minutes, and now they sounded excited with a steady bark.

Leaving the snow machine, we climbed along a ridgeline, trying to stay near the top. At a saddle we came across two different sets of lion tracks and feared that the dogs had switched tracks and treed the wrong lion. As we sidestepped the ridge I was wishing my downhill leg was a couple of feet longer than the uphill. This mountain was steep! Finally, when the dogs were directly below us, we began our descent. It was like downhill skiing, with my bow tied to my backpack. I used a walking stick for balance as I slid down the hillside.

IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL SIGHT to see the big tom in one tree about 40 feet up, and Bird and Ruby in the next tree about halfway up to the lion. Scratch and Bell were content to keep all fours on the hillside. Dave climbed up and retrieved both dogs and handed them down to me. We then leashed them up for their protection.

I climbed up the hillside to get a more level shot and launched an arrow into the lion's ribs. The big cat leaped into the air and came crashing down the tree, taking branches with him along the way. He ran off and after about 60 yards, expired. After a mountain man yell and a photo session we caped the lion, then packed him down through the valley.

This had been a long hunt that required a lot of patience. Eighty percent of the hunt was spent looking for tracks, but the remaining 20 percent was extremely physical, and I was glad to be in good shape for this hunt. Over 8 days of hunting we had traveled 1,100 miles over snowy logging roads.

I had a wonderful holiday in Idaho (I was there December 21 through January 1). I truly thank my wife for her present to me -- her understanding and approval to let me be away during the holidays. I also greatly appreciate Dave's generosity for giving me a couple of extra days to hunt. They paid off in a wonderful Christmas lion.

The author is a dedicated bowhunter from Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania.

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Dave Williams also offers bear hunts in the spring and fall with his Plott hounds. Anyone who is interested in an exciting backcountry hunt in Idaho, contact: Dave Williams, Box 8, Carmen, ID 83462; (208) 756-2018; or Cliff Graham at Associated Hunting Consultants; (724) 772-HUNT; cliff@hunts.net. I was shooting a Bear Epic, Easton XX75 arrows, and a 125-grain Rocky Mountain broadhead.
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Author:Losk, Thomas
Publication:Bowhunter
Date:Aug 15, 2002
Words:1549
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