feature By: Dawson Smith | March, 20
“Ready?” Brandon asked. “Yup, let’s go,” I said. Deep in the forest above us, three redbone hounds bayed and bawled. Their chorus echoed throughout the still air. We stole a quick look at the handheld GPS and saw the straight line that all three dog collars left; the hounds were on a cat and we had to catch up.
I was with my buddy Brandon Tames a few miles north of Cranbrook, BC, hunting cougar; it was three days after Christmas and we were on the second “run” of the day. I had driven down from my hometown of Prince George on Boxing Day, a horrendous 16-hour white-knuckle drive through relentless falling snow and icy roads. But in order for our hunt to be successful we needed fresh snow, so the inclement weather was a good thing.
Of the estimated 4,000 cats roaming wild in Canada, there are approximately 3,500 in British Columbia. Vancouver Island is reported to have the world’s (and BC’s) highest concentration of mountain lions. The remaining BC population is spread throughout the lower half of the province. The East Kootenays, particularly up and down the Columbia River corridor, has long been a hot spot for hunting the tawny cats.
Earlier that morning, Brandon and I had come across a fresh set of tracks crossing the road. It was a few hours before light, so we drove back around the mountain to see if the cat had kept going or was in between the roads somewhere. It was a cold, dark morning and soft, light snow landed on top of a fresh few inches of overnight snow; the conditions were perfect. The minutes ticked by like hours as we sat in the warm truck waiting for first light. Occasionally one of the dogs in the box would bark or howl; they too were getting excited. As we waited and between sips of hot coffee, Brandon showed me how his GPS collars and tracker worked, a neat piece of equipment.
The dogs wore GPS collars, and each dog represented a “curser” on his handheld display. Once we let the dogs loose on a track, each one would muddle about, looking for the freshest scent which told it the direction the animal went; he called it finding the “hot end of the trail.” As the dogs worked around and around, it showed up as squiggly lines on his display. Once one of the dogs sorted the tracks out and led off, noisy and raucous, the others would join in the chase, and that would show up as a straight track on Brandon’s GPS unit.
Waiting for daylight is one of the tests of patience hunters continually go through. It is an exciting time as anticipation of the day’s events is high. Hopes and dreams of success ran wild and loose through our minds.
As the day came to life we got ourselves ready for the chase. Back in northern BC, I hunt on horseback. My partner and I take our horses far into the mountains off the beaten track, most of the time traveling just on moose or caribou trails. Horses are strong, amazing creatures. The power you feel sitting astride a good mountain horse as it navigates up, down, through swamps and across rivers is substantial. When we started unloading the dogs from the box in the back of the truck, I felt the same sense of raw power. These were strong, determined, single-minded animals and holding them back on their leash was like holding back their purpose for living. Brandon took the lead dog, Copper, over to the cougar tracks in the snow and got him on it – what a powerful dog.
Brandon and I stood in the falling snow watching the GPS display as the three cursers drew together into a straight line and went farther away. Just when we thought it was time to get packs on and follow them, the lines on the display became a squiggly mess.
“Oh-oh, they lost the track,” Brandon said. “We’ll just stay here and see what they do.” We could still hear barks and bawling but it was apparent from that and the display that the dogs had lost the trail. We set off into the forest to see if we could help them find it. As we neared where the dogs were, the mantle of snow was broken from them running back and forth. We looked and looked, but it proved to be impossible to sort out where the cougar had gone. The day was young so we clipped the hounds on leashes and made our way back to the truck.
Later that day we were making our way down out of a drainage where we had spent the late morning and early afternoon looking for sign. We had seen some tracks farther up the valley, but they were older so not worth running. As we came down past a little lake, a fresh trail crossed the road in the snow. We had driven in on the road so there was only our truck tracks coming in and it had snowed all day, so things were looking up. As we stopped and got out, Copper barked from the box in the back.
Sure enough, it was a cougar track. Brandon and I followed it a bit to determine direction and he was trying to sort out how old it was. It looked very fresh. “Let’s get ‘em out,” Brandon said. He got Copper out of the box on a leash and went over to the trail. The big dog’s nose was down and it was all Brandon could do to hold it back.
“Get the other two, Dawson,” he said. I went back and opened the door on their side of the dog box and the two females came roaring over to where Brandon and Copper were. He started up the trail with the big male on the leash, trying to hold him back. Once he was sure they were on the cougar’s trail, he let Copper go.
“Get the cat,” Brandon yelled into the still air. The dogs took off like a shot, baying, bawling and bucking. It was incredible to see, hear and to feel them work. As the hounds took off, we went to the GPS. All three dogs were together, moving fast and in a straight line. “They are on a hot trail,” Brandon said. “Let’s get ready to go.”
I grabbed my day pack and rifle as he climbed up on the dog box to watch the GPS and listen for the dogs. It sounded like they were quite a ways away and still moving. Their track got to the ridgeline above us and then turned right, paralleling the road. We jumped in the truck and drove farther along, watching the display as we went. It appeared at one point the dogs lost the trail, but after a few minutes they were quickly back on it and lined out again. We kept going and got to the top of a hill and parked the truck. It sounded like the hounds were coming along the ridge above and just behind us a bit. We could hear them coming and were following them on the GPS.
One of the neat features about the collars the dogs had on were “look up” sensors. Basically, when the dog looked up it showed on the screen. Brandon could also tell if they treed something by their barks. I didn’t know the difference, but the second their noise went from predominately barking to deep, loud, long bays, I heard it and knew they had treed something. The display confirmed it.
“Ready?” Brandon asked. “Yup, let’s go,” I said. We weren’t stealthy, quiet or slow – we hiked up the hill fast and without any concern of making noise. The baying from the dogs led us right in to where they had the cat treed. Rounding a stand of young fir trees, I saw the dogs worrying around the base of a big tree.
Copper was bouncing on his hind legs, baying and looking up at the cat. The cougar wasn’t very far up the tree. As soon as it saw Brandon and me come around the stand of trees, it jumped out of the tree it was perched in and took off. With three wound up, noisy, excited redbone hounds hot on its tail, it didn’t go far before it went up another tree. This time, however, it went way up high and settled on a big branch looking down. The dogs were going nuts bouncing and trying to jump and climb up the tree, baying and barking. It was a loud, vibrating and unruly scene. I kept looking up at the cat as Brandon and I got leashes on the dogs and tied them off a few yards away. It was a weird moment for me; usually I would be crawling across a talus slope or forest floor trying to keep out of sight of my chosen prey. This, like the rest of the adventure, was far from my norm. The report from my rifle echoed through the frozen forest, the dogs bucked and bawled on their leads and there wasn’t any need for being sneaky or quiet.
A fine snow fell as Brandon and I set about skinning the beautiful cat. “That was so cool,” I said to Brandon over the din from the dogs. The next morning I pondered the hunt as I swung my truck north for the long drive home. I had hunted cougars before but not with dogs; I had shot cougars before but in a totally different hunting approach. I am not sure if one way was better than the other, or if it even mattered, but I was feeling very thankful and fortunate for having had such an incredible adventure.