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feature By: Jim Matthews | January, 19
Mike Davis, a retired state policeman who lives on the Oregon/Washington border, has become perhaps one of the most successful mountain lion hunters in the West – and he does not hunt with hounds. Over the past decade, Davis has called in and shot more than 20 lions. He will not say exactly how many mountain lions he has shot because “People can go crazy when you put numbers to something,” Davis said, but he hunts each year in both Oregon and Washington, which means he buys three tags each season (two in Oregon, one in Washington). He mostly hunts within 50 miles of his home in Walla Walla, and he hunts as often as possible; that can be seven days a week.
Davis will tell you there are three keys to calling mountain lions: Using the right sounds, investing the time learning about lions and scouting, and camouflage. Even with all the background and success, however, it’s not a lock. “I’ll spend a week and not see or know if a cat came into my calls,” said Davis. Those are the quiet times, and with cat hunting, most of the time is quiet.
Sound and Setup
Davis mostly uses mountain lion recordings on his Fox Pro e-caller. He has sounds of a cougar feeding, purring, making soft vocalizations, chewing, cougar kitten sounds, mountain lion communication whistles, female barking and breeding vocalizations. He also uses deer and elk distress sounds, and he will throw in other sounds on occasion. He varies his calls by season and situation.
If he is hunting near a recent kill, he will use feeding sounds. In the winter he likes to use breeding sounds. In the spring or summer, he might start with elk or deer sounds and then switch to a female cat chirp. In the summer and early fall, he uses whistles or chirps more, often in conjunction with deer, elk or turkey sounds. Davis said cub calls will work during the summer and fall, too.
“[Lions] make so many different sounds. They have a whistle that almost sounds like a flicker, especially in the summer. They will respond to a lot of different sounds,” said Davis, who has been collecting different sounds for years, and he frequently hears cats calling back to his recordings before he can see them. “I’d say only 40 percent ‘talk’ to me when I’m calling. The other 60 percent just come in,” said Davis. “I hunt them kind of like turkeys, calling for over an hour. If I catch a glimpse of a cat, or if I see fresh tracks or a kill, I stay two hours.”
Dedicated, Davis hunts from dawn to dusk. Setting up multiple stands at least a mile apart in country where he has seen fresh sign, the calls can be heard for a half mile under the right conditions. “I’ve had [lions] come in all times of the day,” he said. Davis usually sets up at least a quarter mile from his vehicle, and frequently is a half to a full mile from the truck. He likes to have a vantage point from where he can see for some distance, usually on sidehills or ridgelines with a good view, preferably, of at least 200 yards or more. The cougar he bagged early in 2018 was shot only 200 yards from his rig in thick cover at just 20 yards.
“I hadn’t been out much that year, and I went to an area I hadn’t hunted before. It was brushier than I like,” said Davis. “I could see 25 yards max and started doing breeding calls, and she popped up. I looked at the pistol on the ground next to me.” With the lion focused where the sounds had been coming from, he was able to shoot the cat before it noticed him.
All but two of his cats have been taken inside 40 yards as they came to the call, usually at a quick pace. The one lion he shot at 300 yards he saw coming, but it did not act like lions normally do. The cat hung up down the ridge and would not budge. It was late in the day, so Davis made the long shot. “Most of the lions I’ve shot have been shot in the front of the chest as they came to the call,” said Davis, and he sets his call at least 30 or 40 yards from where he sits. “It’s dangerous to sit close to the call.” Then he laughed.
Davis also likes to hunt black bears and uses his calls as effectively for the bruins as he does for lions. “You can get a big, dominant bear to come into the cat calls looking for the cat’s kill,” he said. A hunting friend wanted a bear, and Davis took him to a spot where he had seen a lot of bear sign. They set up with his buddy fairly close to the call and Davis up above him 40 yards away. Almost immediately it started to get exciting.
“After just two minutes, [a] cat came up out of the canyon behind him, running right to the call. It was coming in hard, and I put two rounds into it, and it went down just 10 yards from him. He never saw the cat coming,” said Davis. Then, laughing, he added, “Word spread like wildfire, and nobody would go out with me for months.”
Knowledge and Scouting
Davis said perhaps the most successful ingredient in becoming competent at calling mountain lions has been learning about the cats, their vocalizations and spending time in the field. “I’m in the woods a lot, but in the years I’ve been hunting cats, I’ve only seen two just walking along,” he said while talking about their secretive nature. He pointed out that female lions have
Davis scouts in very traditional ways – driving dirt roads and walking trails looking for tracks – but he also spends a lot of time looking for fresh kills, watching for magpies and crows that are drawn to kills to feed when the cat moves off. “I spent my first year researching cougars, bought recordings, and watched and listened to videos on the Internet,” said Davis “The cats make over 20 different sounds that you hear, and there is a lot of variety.
“They are so good at killing. If there is lots of game, they don’t need to eat anything but the best parts. I was out calling, and I found where a big tom had killed a deer and ate the liver out. The next day he killed another deer, and also only ate the liver. He also killed a cow elk in that drainage,” he said.
Davis has taken cats out of the same areas over and over because there are always young males and females looking for a home range, especially one where there is lots of game. It doesn’t take long for one of these wandering cats to find the home range of the lion removed. An interesting study done in Southern California, where there is an isolated population of mountain lions surrounded by urban areas, indicated most of the young produced each year eventually were killed by other cats or hit on freeways by cars as they try to disperse. One young male managed to survive in a home range that was more than 40 miles long but only a quarter- to a half-mile wide. To reduce conflict with other toms that would have killed it, or at least driven it off, the cat carved out a home range from the edge of a major freeway up to the ridgeline adjacent to the freeway. Many of the lions in this study area were either killed by cars or were at least hit one or more times in their lifetimes.
Lions are very adaptable and will feed on a wide variety of wildlife when preferred species are in short supply or they are forced to live in marginal game habitat. Mountain lions adjacent to urban areas frequently make a fine living feeding on domestic livestock and pets, but they are rarely seen by humans because of their secretive nature.
Camouflage & Scent Control
For Davis, complete camouflage is perhaps one of the most critical elements of being successful once a lion caller has found an area with the big cats and has learned the proper vocalizations and calls to use.
“They have amazing eyesight,” said Davis, talking about the many times when he has found fresh sign (like tracks in his boot tracks) after calling but not seeing a cat. In those cases, he is certain they caught sight of a movement he made and figured out the game. He also works diligently to keep noise to a minimum, although the cats are accustomed to hearing sounds in the wild. A branch snapping, or the rustling of brush or leaves, are all sounds they hear frequently and may alert them, but not entirely spook them. However, alien sounds spook them just as much as seeing a hunter standing on a ridgeline in a white t-shirt. So, he eliminates the possibility of metallic sounds and scraping, rifle slings squeaking or boots creaking.
He doesn’t worry much about wind. While cats can smell as well as most predators, it does not set off alarm bells like it does with coyotes and bears. “I have had mountain lions come in from directly downwind,” said Davis. As such, his goal is to blend into the background as much as possible, so his outline is not readily noticed. He always wears a facemask and gloves so there are no flashes of light off his skin. The idea is to blend into the landscape as much as possible.
Choice of Rifles
The one motion Davis cannot eliminate is raising his rifle when it’s time to shoot. Even if the cat sees that movement, it is usually too late because it will almost always pause – even if momentarily – before it runs. He shot his first mountain lion a
“Most of the cats I’ve shot have been dumped with one shot, but that one ran off,” said Davis. While following up the cat and moving ahead slowly after finding blood, he saw the cat “pinned to the ground with its ears back” just a few feet away, and he quickly finished it off before things could get ugly.
“I’ve had four cats that were double-shot, and the rest were one-shot kills,” said Davis, and most of them have been shot “right under the chin” in the front of the chest as they came in to the call, and went right down. He says he keeps shooting if they don’t go right down.
Davis loves to talk about hunting – bear hunting, deer and elk hunting, coyote hunting – but he admits he is kind of partial to hunting the big cats. “They are just the coolest animals,” said Davis. “They’re like a ghost.”