Close Encounter with A Big Kitty – Prey for a Day
A quick story on one of the cooler wildlife experiences of my life. As many of you know, Amy and I live in the epicenter of cat country. Our family’s hunting lodge sits in a cliffed in area, against a massive wilderness area, and there are no roads to cut lion tracks on. The private property surrounding the area makes running dogs by the public impossible. The lions have an elk/deer food source, great habitat, and plenty of security. Just in the past 9-months, my father-in-law saw a large lion staring at our dog not ten feet from the house and my father saw one at our drive’s entrance. Also, one of our hunters saw a tom sitting on a bull elk he had harvested.
Mountain lions are amazing animals and one of the most fun species to hunt. Lion hunting epitomizes what is represented by the old saying, “memories are made from the hunt, not the kill”. The thing is, my experience with cats has always been as the pursuer or distant observer. I’m always chasing them with dogs or catching a quick glimpse of them from a far. That is, until today.
Every couple days I do a trek through the snow. I coordinate it with checking pine marten traps, trail cams, and looking for lion tracks. The lion quota is filled now, so I hadn’t done the hike in the last couple days. I go up a well worn switchback trail, across a rock rim, through a rock notch, down through some timber to our pack station and bunkhouse, then back home. It’s a big circle. Things were uneventful up the switchbacks. 500-600 feet in elevation gain with not much for ungulates moving around. A few old tracks here and there.
Next, I follow the rock rim. Now when I say rock rim, I mean a rim of rocks that you aren’t going off unless you have climbing ropes. Across the rim, there is 4-5 in. of snow and zero fresh tracks. Not even a cottontail. Our snow is starting to melt. With no new powder, tracking conditions are poor. I get to what I call the “notch”. Some of you are familiar with this spot because I’ve had several chances to film moose, elk, foxes, and mulies dropping through it. It is the only way through the rock rim and game uses it heavily. The first video below is a young moose making his way through the bottom of the “notch”. The second video I took while trapping during a storm in late November. The first part I’m below the notch, it ends with me right at the base of the notch.
The “notch” is just eerie. Beautiful, but down right eerie as hell. I’ve told several people, before what happen today, that I dislike going through it. You just don’t feel comfortable. It’s steep shale rock, so your eyes are pinned to the ground making sure you don’t eat shit. The rim rock closes down tightly around you. There are rock shelves just above the passage that you can’t see across. You just get this odd feeling. You feel like prey.
I drop down into the “notch”. I’m in the top for a minute or two working on a camera, and I slowly make my way down. As I come out, just at the base, I get this feeling. This is no bullshit. The only way I can describe it is “pressure”. After thinking about it more, I believe that feeling is your brain quickly aggregating the tiniest calls from your five senses, making a snap judgment and saying “pay the fuck attention“. I look to my right and less than 15 feet from me a mountain lion is laying on her belly, her left side against the rock, overhang of sage brush over her back. Staring right into my eyes. And you know what? She runs right the hell at me. Some bullshit straight out of a nightmare.
It’s like a flash but I can make out the hair on her back. She is so close. I swing around and throw a round in my rifle, just in time for her to pivot by me at 4-5ft. She’s small, maybe 90lbs. A 90lb cat can kill a 700lb elk. She doesn’t have the fat across her sides that I’ve seen on other cats. I can see the drape of her skin. She’s a teenager, I think. Maybe just figuring things out. Regardless, she flies up through the notch like a damn super hero.
My heart is leaping, and I start to back pedal down the chute. I’m scared shitless and realize that I don’t know where I’m at on the mountainside. I get control of myself and stand still for a second. If she wanted to kill me, she could have. No problem. But when I made eye contact with her, she was scared and wanted out of there. The only way out of there was the “notch”. I was in her way. Hence, full throttle sprint towards me with a hard pivot.
It was one of those lucky experiences. I happened to come out right near her, and I scared her from a very close distance. Once in a lifetime.
Pretty cool, huh? Well, it gets better.
I continue down, and stop by the pack station to feed the barn cats. The one is a little bastard, he gives a good hiss when I step in. Laughable. I get to the house and give my father a call to recount the story. After chatting with him and my wife, my internal student gives me an idea. Correlating body size to tracks is something I’ve been working on and this is the perfect example. I have a good idea of the cat’s size because I was so close. I’ll go look at her tracks for comparison. Good practice. I throw my gear back on, say goodbye to the wife and head out up to the notch. My wife assumes I’m an evolutionary degenerate at this point, but she knows she can’t protect me from my own deficiencies.
As I go up the switchbacks, I follow the trail I broke in the snow on my first trip up. It’s easier that way. I’m day dreaming and only 300 yards from the house when I look down into my previous track. What….the….hell…
I’m still a good half mile from the notch. As I keep following my tracks it is amazing. For every 6 or 7 of my steps, there is a lion print going the same direction. On top of my boot print! She’s following me over snow patches, through mud where the snow freshly melted, and across the wide open. Everywhere I go, she goes.
Then, I’m at the top of notch. My trail goes down in, her trail just keeps going. Weird. I keep following her tracks. Within 20 yards, she makes a hard left and her trail disappears into the rim rock. I creep to the edge and realize that there is another way down. Not for a human or ungulate, but a cat could do it. She did.
All in all, the lion had followed me for roughly a half mile. I hadn’t sensed her and she surely could have killed me anywhere along the way. The reason she didn’t is because she knew where I was going. Where I was going was a better place to get a look at and kill prey. Some time in her life a lion, maybe her mother, had shown her that notch and how to utilize it as an ambush point. She had observed game dropping through the notch, just like I have seen countless moose, deer and elk make their way through it. Maybe she’d killed there before. When I dropped in, she knew how to play it.
Maybe she botched it or maybe she had just been curious. Either way, I walk away thankful for an opportunity to be that close to such a wild thing in such a wild place.
Eventually when she is mature, after an epic chase, I’ll get her up a tree or on a rocky outcropping. Then, I’ll decide whether to give her the pass that she gave me.
By Cliff Gray
Cliff is a registered outfitter in the State of Colorado, guiding and outfitting over 80 hunters a year for elk, bighorns and mule deer in the White River National Forest and Flat Tops Wilderness Area of the Rocky Mountains. He has years of experience hunting big game in the Rocky Mountains via remote backpacking and horse/mule packing. He is a private pilot and a certified wilderness first responder.