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To Hunt a Ghost

By Sean C. Fulton

To Hunt a Ghost

South Dakota opened its first mountain lion season in 2005. Each year, the stipulations have changed a little, but it’s still a quota-type limit based on the current mountain lion population. In 2007, the limit was 35 lions or 15 females. No lion may be taken if it has spots or is accompanied by another lion.

In 2005, my opinion of the season was undecided. After talking to several biologists and South Dakota GF&P officials, however, it became very clear to me the season was necessary to maintain a healthy population of cougars. This is when I decided to hunt one of the most elusive big game animals in North America.

There is only one catch: Dogs are not allowed. This makes hunting and finding or seeing a mountain lion almost pure luck.

There are a couple ways to increase the odds. Many hunters use predator calls. Others sit over fresh kills or track the animals in snow. The more time spent looking for a cougar, the better the chance of seeing one. Believe me, I have logged my time.

My hunt started in the fall of 2006 and continued into 2007. I hunted 14 of 19 days during the 2006 season and all 23 days of the 2007 season.

In 2006, I experimented with predator calls, looked for sign and just kept searching for anything that might lead to a lion. What I needed was snow to help me cut a track.

I would have been in the field every day but I was asked to film a mule deer hunt for some friends in Montana. During this time away, it snowed and several lions were harvested, quickly diminishing my chances of finding a trophy.

On what turned out to be the last day of the season, I did cut a track, but after closer examination, it was a female with kittens, so I did not pursue it.

That same day, the eighth female was harvested, and my season was over. Not being successful left me wanting to hunt the ghost even more. I became addicted.

Throughout the off months, I searched for videos, articles and other media that might help increase my chances of finding a lion. I even bought a scouting camera and placed it over a watering hole. Surprisingly my first three photos with the camera were of a large lion.. I bought another camera and hung it near several other holes throughout the summer. Unfortunately I didn’t get more lion pictures before the season. I did get many great images of other animals, making using the cameras very exciting and satisfying.

Finally, the first of November was getting near, and I started scouting. I hung treestands over waterholes near known habitat. I was planning on sitting in these stands on warm days hoping to harvest a lion with a bow while it lapped up water.

Finally it was Halloween, the eve of the day I’d waited nearly a year for — my second chance to legally pursue the king of the mountain. This is my year, I thought as I lay in bed before falling asleep. I slept rather well, considering my excitement.

At 4:30 a.m. the alarm clock sounded and I rolled out of bed. I quickly checked the weather, got dressed, grabbed my gear and practically ran out the door. This became my routine for the next 23 days.

Hunting became a long and exhausting ritual for me. I logged hundreds of miles walking and sneaking around in rugged terrain, tens of hours of glassing steep terrain and predator calling two or three times a day. All was to no avail, for I had begun to learn that what I needed was a blanket of snow and it wasn’t looking good.

On Nov. 14, I downloaded the images off a camera I had set over a rugged and secluded waterhole. Noticing that there was a really nice buck visiting that water guzzler during the day, I quickly decided to move one of my treestands to try to harvest this deer with my bow and hopefully call in a lion or catch one visiting the water.

I spent a couple of hours hunting the next morning and, after seeing several deer but no lion, I jumped in the truck, drove to one of my treestands and decided to relocate it to another waterhole I had hunted the previous day.

After hanging my stand I decided to check the images from the past 24 hours. A couple of nice deer, then “Oh, my God.” I saw that a mature lion had visited the water guzzler just after dark the night before. I was ecstatic, “Was this my chance?”

I instantly made a decision to sit in that stand that evening. I spent the next three days in that stand with my bow and rifle just hoping for my chance.

This area is high in the mountains of the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was getting really cold at night and freezing the water. Just my luck -- the wildlife quickly stopped coming in. I was becoming more and more discouraged.

After a half of a month of walking into the mountains before the light of day, it became mentally exhausting trying to keep my spirits up and not just giving up the “ghost.”

Then I watched a weather forecast that called for snow on the 20th. I was up at 3:30 that morning and racing into the hills.  I ended up driving nearly 200 miles that day looking for a lion track.  I also knew that the fresh snow was going to give other lion hunters the same advantage by making tracking a plausible method of hunting a cat, finally taking luck out of the equation for skilled hunters. With the quota of females nearly full, I knew my time to find a cat was limited.

The next day I was out super early, driving back roads before dawn looking to cut a track. At about an hour before sunrise I did cut a track and had to wait for the sunrise to legally start following it. I was excited and knew the cat had at least an hour head start on me. It was very cold out that morning, (4-5 degrees F. I threw on a couple extra layers of clothes, slung my binos, pack and rifle over my shoulder and started after that cat.

I followed the track for miles, starting out early with a quick pace knowing that the lion had a good jump on me. Early on, I noticed it looked like the mountain lion was hunting. Thus, I made sure to keep looking ahead of me and checking my backtrack. Lions are known for circling when they suspect they are being followed. I would follow the tracks ahead with my binos and try to see where the tracks were going, hoping to get a glimpse of the cat.

The tracks led me through all kinds of terrain most people wouldn’t consider entering. The trail started out on top of one steep sided ridge, dropped down to the bottom, up to the top of the next ridge, back down and up to the top of another, up and down, up and down. This went on for several miles and led me into an area that was almost all deadfalls.  Here, it was obvious that cat was taking its time, sneaking around, walking down logs while looking for its next meal. The tracks were looking really fresh through this area and it didn’t seem like the cat knew I was following it.

I could sense that I was closing in on the cougar.  Slowing down my pace so as not to be detected, I walked about another quarter mile and felt that I was really close. I really began to take my time and went into my still-hunting mode: take a step, glass the trees and terrain, take another step, glass, etc. I was getting really excited and had to force myself to slow down and take a few breaths.

My excitement came to an abrupt halt when I looked down and saw a second, smaller set of tracks. As I looked around I noticed that there were smaller footprints everywhere. I’d been following a female, not a tomcat.  The rules and regulations prohibit shooting a female with kittens.  I thought about it for a while and decided since I had walked this far, at the very least, I wanted to see them. To see a cougar in the wild is rare, and to see one with kittens is even more rare.

I decided to press on, and soon  spotted movement ahead. The cat I had been following for nearly four hours was less than 100 yards ahead.

As she sleeked out of sight, I noticed a head pop up and another. I stared in amazement as I watched them run towards each other and tackle one another, rolling and jumping around like there was no effort involved in their actions. The most amazing thing about their playful chase was that the hill they were rolling and tumbling on was so steep that I could barely keep my footing on it. Within a minute or so they had disappeared, following their mom. I stood there awestruck!

It didn’t take long for me to compose myself, but it took me over a half hour to go the next hundred yards. I am a photographer, and even though I didn’t had my professional camera with me I still had my pocket camera. I wanted to see them again and in close quarters.  Hopefully, I could get some photos.

Silently and ever so carefully, I approached the area where the kittens had been. I felt that I was really close, so I got out my camera. All of a sudden, no more than 30 yards away, there she was.

The mother cougar was running down the hill, slowly at first, then really fast. I was awestruck at how fast she could move down the near-vertical slope. One by one the kittens emerged, and, to my surprise, there were actually three of them. They came out to see why mom had run away. They ran towards me with no idea I was there. I watched them walk around and climb onto a log about 20 yards away. It was pretty cool to see three lion kittens sitting on one snow-covered log. One stayed on the log, and the other two jumped off and walked even closer to me. I just kept taking pictures.

After a couple minutes, my hand became extremely cold because I had taken off my glove. I had to move to put it back on. That’s when the kittens became aware of me and they ran down the hill. I walked down to look where they had been and caught one of them sneaking back up the hill see what I was. At about 10 yards, I took a couple of pictures of that kitten crawling back in right underneath me.  The spotted kitten eventually went down the hill towards its siblings. That was the last I saw of them.

I did not fill my mountain lion tag again in 2007, but I was privileged to see something that most outdoorsmen will never get to see in their lifetime. I am glad that I didn’t see the female before she had joined her kittens. I might have mistaken her for a young male.

Another point I would like to mention is that these cougars were collared.  The researchers have collared and are monitoring many lions in the Black Hills.  It is an ongoing project to benefit the cougars, to learn more about them and determine the healthiest approach maintaining a viable population.

Most stories you read about the pursuit of game come to a more dramatic conclusion of success.  I can only define success in this manner:  For many days I chased the stealthy mountain ghost, catching glimpses of her, photographing her kittens and watching her disappear deeply into the Black Hills forest. She and her kittens are forever etched in my mind. I have known and experienced a success that few people will ever have.

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