By Greg Stamatov
This past week, I had the pleasure of returning to Idaho to join fellow hunting guide Harry Youren from Youren Outfitters while he hunted for mountain lion in Boise County. Harry and I have guided elk hunts for Pistol Creek Outfitters in the Frank Church Wilderness, but come winter, Harry and his dogs are in the thick of mountain lion season.
Boise County has received record amounts of snowfall this year, making the hunting that much more difficult. With snow up to our belly button, just getting away from the roads is no easy feat!
Before recapping the 3-day hunt I want to mention how special and rare it is to hunt big game with hounds. In Idaho, you must be a resident with a Houndsman License, or be hunting with an outfitter that has one. It takes years of experience to learn how to track cougars, but it also takes years to become a great houndsman.
Wake up call was at 4:30am. Harry, his client for the day (James), and I set off in Harry’s truck. Our gear consisted of four dogs, two sleeping bags, two snowmobiles, and bologna, a lot of bologna. We headed up the river in the snow on a windy, single-track road. I was thinking to myself, how are we going to find a mountain lion in this winter hell? As if reading my mind, Harry rolled down his window and hung his head out of the truck as he drove. He was looking for cougar tracks. We drove slow and kept a sharp eye for anything that was long enough in stride to be a cougar, but light enough in weight to not puncture through the snow to the earth, like an elk or deer would do.
Around 10:00 am, Harry shifted into reverse to look at a track a second time. “That’s a cougar!” Harry cried, and we sprung into action. The dogs were released from their kennel and they expertly got to work and followed the scent trail. Harry pulled out a tape measure, measured the stride, examined the tracks, and predicted that we had found a female. Harry does not shoot female mountain lions.
We started up the hill with our snow shoes. 175 yards may not seem like much, but it was up hill in waist deep snow. At times it felt like I would never get there, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other until we found where the dogs had treed the first mountain lion. She snarled at us from 30 feet up in a pine tree, but she had nothing to worry about as we let her be. The dogs were put on the leashes and brought back to the truck. It was amazing to see the dogs work – they are indeed a hunter’s best friend.
After only a few more minutes of driving and scouting, we saw something sticking up 40 yards off the road. Upon further inspection, we found the remains of an elk buried in the snow, a classic signs of a cougar’s work. Harry trudged through the snow a hundred yards in each direction, the cougar had to be in this small area between the river and the road. Suddenly I heard an excited shout from the woods, “Let the dogs out!”
The mountain lion had been staying low in the brush. The hounds were quickly on the scent trail. Minutes later, the male cat (a tom) was treed. James was ready with a .243, and he had himself a young, sprite tom.
Day two started at 7:00am after sleeping in a freezing truck and eating more bologna sandwiches. However, today’s client elected to stay with the truck until we found a cougar. Harry and I threw on snowshoes, got the dogs out, and started scouting up a creek. Making our way through hip deep snow was using up vast amounts of energy. Even with snow shoes we were sinking into the snow several feet. As my grandfather always says, “The longest march starts with one step”.
We continued up the creek, weaving our way through willows and black hawthorns. They never seemed as troublesome as they did that day, ensnaring our snowshoes and making us fall. After two miles, the dogs had not found a scent trail and there were no visible cougar tracks. Harry called off the search in that area and we headed back out, the same grueling way we came in. It was noon when we finally made it out, and I was spent! Harry was already telling me what creek we were going to scout next, all I could do was catch my breath.
The next creek was not quite as easy as the first one. It was longer and far more steep. But the extra effort paid off, there were animal tracks everywhere. As we looking for the “right kind” of tracks, one of the hounds let out a yelp. He was on to something, and both dogs took off! Harry raced ahead of me and let out his signature “woohoo!” The dogs were on scent trail of a big tom, Harry deduced, based on the cougar tracks that were heading back down the creek.
After the most difficult snowshoeing of the hunt, I finally caught up to the dogs and Harry, and a big, nasty tom. We radioed the hunters, but there was no response. We tried to radio the hunters again, but it was useless. By this time it was getting late and the terrain was too challenging to get to the treed cougar before dark (or to pack the harvest back out). We chose to leave the tom in the tree, but not before taking advantage of the moment for some photos.
Day three started with some extra excitement, we were going to try and find the big tom again. We knew where to start, but we didn’t know how it would end. Harry was confident, but he also confessed he’s seen a pressured cougar travel 15-20 miles overnight under the same circumstances.
We set out on the same snowshoe trail as the day before. Starting from the tree we left him in, the dogs got to work. They started off in an ominous direction, “we are going to have to go over that”, Harry pointed to the giant mountain across the way. No sooner had he spoken than the dogs changed course, Harry followed his comment with, “maybe not…”.
Against all odds, the cat had stayed in the creek! Harry and I split up again and started making our way to where the dogs had treed the cat. I got there after Harry, only to see the cougar climbing down the tree, apparently, he had learned his lesson. The tom jumped down and headed across the creek with the dogs, again, in hot pursuit.
This was my favorite part of the hunt, we got a perfect view of the dogs chasing the cougar in a full sprint. Darting in between trees, the cougar was elusive, but the dogs wore him out. Mountain lions are powerful, but they are built to sprint, due to their small lungs the dogs have much more stamina. When the cougar treed again, we made our way across the creek, through the willows, and up to the tree. We watched the dogs frantically bark while sitting under the tree patiently waiting for the clients to snowshoe their way in. Another happy client reaped the benefits of Harry and his dogs’ hard work.
Hunting with Harry was a privilege, I got to see someone who is a master at their craft doing what they love most. It is a level of expertise and success that Fin & Field looks for in the guides and outfitters they work with. Visit Fin & Field and find your next adventure!
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