Scratchin’ for Lion

By Dennis L. Ingram

[Click to Enlarge] By the early 1900s, man’s migration West with cattle and sheep had landed him in wild country, places that were often dry, arid regions with rivers and streams that flowed down narrow canyon bottoms. Those canyon bottoms were often surrounded by adjacent rim-rock country or in the foothills of nearby mountain ranges that brought ranchers into conflict with mountain lions.

Professional hunters like Ben Lilly, the Lee Brothers, and Jack Butler were among the most famous of men that ran hounds down the tracks of these secretive, elusive creatures. The big cat tracks often led through those narrow side canyons and river bottoms; up through the rim-rock ledges into pinyon/juniper forests or onto a rocky outcropping where most men dare not go. The land was often dry or covered with ice and snow and had open south slopes where the sun would beat down on its surface and wipe out anything but the faintest trace of lion scent. These men and their hounds learned to scratch down an old lion track to its end, for they were hunters with a purpose and a sense of pride in the job they did.

Times have changed--and the land in many places—but a few of the hardiest of people out West still follow their hounds down these big cat tracks with similar conditions, and similar results. They have also taught their hounds to finish a lion track over the same topography those early pioneer hound men had trailed. Today’s lion hunting differs greatly from place to place. The southern portions of Arizona, New Mexico, southern Utah and Nevada are regions outside the Snow Belt, which force hunters to ride horseback and strike a cat track usually during early morning hours. Conversely, northern regions like the Bitterroot of Montana, the Selway of Idaho, central and northern Utah, or Colorado often provide 100 percent snow cover during the frozen winter months where snowmobiles provide another but different hunting adventure. However, most lion trees throughout the West are made or approached afoot just like those early hound men did it.

I remember my first lion tree over a decade ago. We’d had a spring snowstorm that laid down 4” of overnight snow on March 18th. We cut a club-footed old tom in that fresh snow at nearly the end of his night’s travels. My hunting partners had veteran hounds that—in typical fashion--stuck their noses deep into nearly every track to verify it belonged to a lion. They’d then lifted their heads and bawled a deep, beautiful proclamation across the countryside and the hunt was on. That tom weighed 155 pounds and scored over 14 ¾”, a real trophy in most anyone’s book.

To a visitor from outside the sport, a catch such as the one mentioned in the previous paragraph seems pretty easy. A hound handler finds a track, throws his best dogs out and catches the lion in less than a mile—simple. Right! Our sport draws many different people from the recreational, weekend hunter that only chases lions in fresh snow to the die-hards that will take an old track across open ground and walk with and help their hounds from daylight until dark in an attempt to make the tree. The latter of the two has probably raised all their hounds from pups and has the same sense of pride in their efforts as the early day hunters and trappers.

This past winter my hounds and I took an old lion track like I just described. I was hunting sacred tribal ground on Dry Mountain in northeastern Utah for a good friend who is a full blood member of the Ute Indian Tribe. Conditions were less than ideal throughout most of the winter (2000). That March day was not unlike the others as open ground trailing across sagebrush, sandstone ledges and pine needles was mandatory if a hunter wanted to see a tom lion. But I was full of myself and eager to show my friend what my hounds could do on old lion tracks.

We found the tom’s tracks along a narrow two-track road, leading south over a ridge in a skiff of old frozen snow. The track wasn’t very good. It was melted out and retained very little scent. Nevertheless, these are the kind of tracks that build character in a pack of hounds and the hunter as well. I started three of my best cold-nosed hounds down the tracks as we grabbed our gear for the trek.

My hounds screamed down the tracks to the summit of the first ridge before slamming on the brakes. That was where the old, crusty snow ended. When hounds blow down a melted out snow lion track like that they are sure to momentarily lose the scent after trailing conditions change to dirt. They did scatter momentarily when the visual aid of snow was removed, then backed up and started working the ground hard for direction. If you haven’t seen hounds move a tough dirt track you’ve really missed out on a treat, for they begin to suck and blow air very quickly through their nostrils knowing the lion is at hand. They did, however, pick at the lion’s tracks until certain of his direction and began the long, arduous task of finding him.

Occasionally, a particular lion trail will provide the hunter some insight into the animal’s past and present activities. Such was the case with this lion. He had looped out of a deep, rocky canyon from the north onto rolling hill type sagebrush habitat, which is primarily deer winter range. We hadn’t gone far before the first pile of old deer bones was discovered. It isn’t clear why a tom will visit an old kill site, unless maybe the deer was ambushed on past travels by the same lion while hunting.

Another mystery is the lion scratch or scrape. It is accepted by most that a tom lion will scratch and defecate or leave urine usually under a tree to warn off other tom lions; another purpose is to leave male scent for the felines to follow during their estrus cycle. Before the day’s end we’d found where this tom had scratched thirteen times and killed at least twice more on previous hunts. Some of those kills were bleached out scattered bones of deer that had fallen months before.

As the hounds would approach a scratch under a pinyon tree, Ike and Ryan would lock down and bawl an almost wishful howl of recognition, hinting to me that they had him. The lion often left those scratches across dry pine needles on a surface that tipped toward the sun leaving almost no scent. At nearly every scratch, my hounds would have to suck and blow for up to fifteen minutes to start the track again. I felt helpless at times because of my inability to show them the track, not possessing the legendary skills of woodsman like the famous Ben Lilly who reportedly could see tracks across that surface. However, not a single hour would pass that I didn’t find at least one track in a skiff of old snow or loose dirt under a ledge or tree that proved my hounds were still moving the same tom.

By early afternoon, we followed that tom east into a rock pile along the sandstone ledges where he might lay up. I began to think we had him as my hounds sang their songs up a narrow fingered canyon and back down under an overhanging sandstone ledge. But it was wishful thinking, for the trail lead back out onto the rolling hills of sagebrush and pinyon/juniper where more scratches were found. I decided that we were at least a day behind the tom and dark overtook us by the time the hounds trailed back into the rock ledges. We had spent over nine hours following this tom without getting him jumped.

A few days later an inch or two of snow fell on Dry Mountain. My friend and I found where our tom crossed the same little two-track road only headed north into that long fingered canyon that ran east toward Rock Creek. It was just after daylight and perfect conditions. I gathered my gear once more and caught up with my hounds at the banks of Rock Creek. My hounds and I crossed the river together and trailed up through the red, rock cliffs toward Talmage. They dug and scratched their way through those ledges and I could tell my lead hound Copper had struck hot scent—she’d bumped him.

The tom rimmed out and turned north along the tree line leaving big paw prints in the fresh snow. Those tracks were spaced a good, full stride apart as I stepped out trying to stay in the hunt. After a mile or so the tom turned back west and dropped back off the ledges into Rock Creek and treed in the only large fur in sight. My friend took that Pope & Young class tom with a bow and arrow.

Unlike the hunters of old, the modern day hound men tree far more lions than they ever harvest.

Furthermore, many lions these days are taken by hunters who only visit the sport, usually with a guide or friend. Lion populations have also increase far beyond the historical numbers found throughout most of the West. Nevertheless, the call of the hound shall always beckon man to follow, along the rocky and dangerous wintry slopes where Puma Feline (mountain lion) lies in wait.

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