Keys to Successful Predator Calling
By Major L. Boddicker
Key #9: Mountain Lions – Calling’s Top Trophy
Curiosity Kills the Big Cat
One early summer morning in 1979, the phone rang.
“Major, could you come over and look at a dead deer at our place? It’s laying about 20 feet from our bedroom window, and it’s had some meat eaten off its shoulder,” Cathy, our neighbor said excitedly.
“Sure, be right over. When did this happen?” I asked.
“Last night some time. It’s scary,” she added. “What could it be?”
“Dogs or a mountain lion would be my guess,” I replied. “I’ll tell you when I see it.”
So I drove the two blocks to my neighbor’s place. She and her husband met me in the driveway and led me to the deer. It lay 20 feet or less from their open bedroom window. About 10 pounds of meat had been eaten from its shoulder. The carcass was partially covered with grass.
“Looks like mountain lion kill to me; the grass cover and location of the feeding are signatures,” I said.
“How can this be? We had the window open all night and did not hear a thing,” Don said.
“Lions are silent killers, sure doesn’t surprise me. I can tell for certain by checking out the neck. It if is broke, it was killed by a lion,” I suggested.
I picked up the large doe’s head; it was loose as a wet noodle. There were large fang punctures right over the spine. That was impressive.
“It’s a lion for sure and a large one,” I said.
My kids were ages two through 16; my neighbor’s kids were 1-3. They played without worry throughout the neighborhood, not exactly expecting mountain lions to be lurking nearby.
“What should we do?” Don and Cathy asked.
“Well, we call the Division of Wildlife, and I will get a permit and set traps and snares for it,” I replied.
“This scares us, what do we do about the kids playing?” Cathy asked.
“Well, until we get the lion out of here, I’d be sure they were not playing outside after dark. If you see the lion is lurking around here, let me know.”
I called the Division, and they said to go ahead and set some equipment. If I caught a lion, I was to call them so they could relocate it. “Sure,” I said. If I caught this lion, it would have been relocated permanently without further ado.
A predator which can instantly snap a 120-pound doe mule deer’s neck offers a real threat to people, particularly kids. And, more particularly, when the predator is feeding, loafing, and hunting in our landscaping, there is no theory about it. The appearance of a person eaten by a mountain lion is a whole lot like the bag of bones and guts that they leave when a deer is eaten. Having kids, wife, or neighbor lying eaten in a pile of grass, dust, and cougar pee would be a nightmare no one would forget.
So, I was excited about it and in no mood for getting the typical Colorado agency responses: We will relocate it; or it’s part of life in the West, get used to it; or it was here first so it is your fault it ate your kid. That doesn’t do it for me.
I went out around the neighborhood looking for tracks and sign and putting out the word.
Come to find out the lion had been coming through the subdivision for about a month. It was a female lion with two half-grown cubs. Its normal time appearance in the subdivision was 3 am on Saturday morning. It followed a large irrigation canal down from some high ground north and west of LaPorte, crossed Highway 14 just east of Vern’s Cafe going south, then followed the front range ridge east of Horsetooth Reservoir, and down to Highway 34 at Loveland. It turned there and headed back north up the second ridge and back to LaPorte in a 30-mile circuit. The round-trip took a week.
I set two very large cage traps and six snares.
On the following Saturday morning about 3 am, the neighborhood dogs raised cane. The lion and her cubs were back. A horse was attacked near Vern’s Cafe, which ran in terror through a fence and out onto Highway 14 where the horse was killed by a truck. The lion was not interested in my baits in the cage traps. It just lucked out and avoided my snares by taking one trail I did not set.
Two days later, the lion was killed by a Loveland rancher as he caught it stalking his calves. The two cubs were captured and taken to a rehabilitator.
Our neighborhood problem was over, temporarily.
My guess is lions go through my yard or close by monthly, without leaving a trace. It makes me apprehensive when I go out to shut off my irrigation water at 10 pm. Sometimes I take my .357 S&W. I have not seen lions in my yard, but I have found their tracks.
Lions are incredibly stealthy; people live among them for a lifetime and never see one. They are so common in Colorado that they have adapted well to the suburbs and mountain subdivisions, eating cats, dogs, llamas, 4-H sheep, and thoroughbred colts. They rest under people’s decks, watch TV through the sliding patio doors, and have kittens in the hay lofts of old barns.
In the past 25 years, there have been two human deaths in Colorado from mountain lions killing people and eating parts of them. There have been at least three child disappearances that could have been lion predation where no traces of the kids were found. Two of these were within a few miles of my home. The danger from lions to humans is real. That makes calling them very exciting.
Mountain lions are big cats comparable to leopards and jaguar in size and food preferences. They like larger prey, in the deer and antelope size range, killing animals up to 450 pounds or larger. A cow elk size is no problem for an adult male or female lion. That puts people in the preferred food size.
Like most cats, lions find their food primarily with their eyes. Their ears are also acutely sensitive with their noses being of somewhat less importance. Lions are very heavily into meat, fresh meat, and are not attracted to rotten or spoiled food. They rarely feed on prey or carcasses which they have not killed. Fresh gut piles and road kills may be eaten, but when the meat starts turning foul they move onto another kill. Research over the past 40 years with radio telemetry has found they kill from 1-3 deer per week. A substantial lion population really knocks the deer herd as we in the Western USA have discovered.
There are at least 3500 lions in Colorado. If they eat one deer or elk per week, that adds up to 182,000 deer and elk per year. That is a sizable chunk of our big game herd.
Restrictions on dog hunting, severe penalties for trespassing, an “exclusive trophy” lion management approach by the Colorado DOW has resulted in lions here about as thick as Mother Nature can stand them. Young lions are frequently encountered well out onto the plains to the Kansas border. There is no room left for any more in the mountains.
Lions love cliffs, rocks, brush, and mixed types of tree stands with lots of deer, sheep, elk, and bighorn sheep. They have large territories, 3-10 square miles for females and 100 square miles for males.
When looking for a place to call lions, have great lion habitat all around you. Lions love to rest during the day on big boulders, in the sun, tucked away in inaccessible places where they can overlook large amounts of territory. When they travel rough terrain, they follow the benches just below or above the cap rock. Trails and road crossings are consistently used by succeeding lions. When crossing open valleys, they will stick to the lines of trees and cover along stream bottoms or fence lines. They walk the same trails as bobcat.
A woolgrower friend of mine back in the early 1980’s was having trouble with lions killing his lambs. He bought a #4 ½ Newhouse trap and called me, wanting to know where to set it. He said he wanted to catch and kill the lions before they ate his sheep, not after. He lived at the bottom of the Bookcliffs between Rifle and Grand Junction, Colorado. The Bookcliffs are sheer cliffs, maybe 1000-1500 feet almost straight up in some places. They extend from Rifle, Colorado out into Utah desert, many miles to the west. Lions love them and use them like Interstate 70.
Across the face of the Bookcliffs is a trail which has been used by mountain lions for thousands of years. I told him to climb up to that trail and set a blind set where the trail squeezed between two large boulders. I had taught him how to make an Indian trail set, no bait or lure, which is deadly for cats. He wired a large colored flag to the trap on a long wire so that when the trap was sprung, the flag would be jerked out of place. He could see the flag with binoculars from a mile away. While he was on that ranch, he averaged catching seven mountain lions per year with that trap. It cut his sheep losses by lions by 3/4ths.
What does this B.S. story have to do with calling lions? Everything. It tells you that lion calling is a real toss-up hit-and-miss thing. To have a chance at calling a lion, you need to know its habits and its hangouts. Call where you know they cruise through and approximately when they are going to be there. The remote sensing camera traps set in lion trails can give you photos of lions and times and dates when they are using trails which can help you know when you have your best chance.
Otherwise, it’s fun to call lions when you have no idea whether or not they are around. Generally, in lion country, there are black bear, coyotes, bobcats, and gray foxes as well so you always have a great time.
I have to confess, I have called only two lions that I know of in my life. So, most of what I think I know about lion calling comes from descriptions of my customers’ successfully calling the cats.
The first lion I called was at night in the mountains on the Wyoming border north of Fort Collins, Colorado. Two good friends were with me. They had our only spotlight and were sitting on a rocky point about 50 yards to my left. I sat at the top of a ledge looking at a steep rocky face that tapered down to a grassy open meadow. Snow covered the ground. The night was quiet and clear. One of my friends had a .30-30, and I had a .223 bolt action rifle. We were expecting coyotes.
The sound I used calling that night was a low-pitched jackrabbit squall. It carried very well and echoed off the canyons and cliffs around us. After 20 minutes of calling about 8 squalls, twice per minute, nothing showed up. I was watching the star-show above and enjoying the atmosphere when I heard my buddies whispering. Then they yelled, “Hey Boddicker, there’s a big lion right under you, looking up at you!” They then dropped the spotlight, and it went clanging, rolling down the rocky slope. I jumped up and looked over the ledge to the snow below to see nothing but some fresh disturbance in the snow about 20 feet down. The lion had escaped into the shadows. How it got there without them or me seeing it we never did figure out. I never did see it, just the tracks.
Another time a friend and I were calling near Red Feather Lakes (Colorado) after a 12-inch snow. We set up about 150 yards from where we parked on a rocky mountainside covered with cedar trees and boulders. I used a high-pitched cottontail squall for about 30 minutes. Neither he nor I heard or saw anything. On our way back to the truck, about 80 yards from our stand, a fresh set of tracks crossed ours. A big lion had circled between us and the truck. When it hit our scent, it veered and trotted off. We tracked it for a mile or so but never got a glimpse of it.
Several hunters I know who regularly get lions with calls say to take a partner along and set the partner up to do the shooting about 80-100 yards up-ridge from the caller in the direction from which the lion is most likely to approach. The partner will get the shot as the lion circles the caller and walks into the partner.
Lonnie Jackson, a good friend of mine from southern Colorado, has called up 6 or 7 of them during the past four years by taking advantage of the lions’ habitual selection of loafing and feeding spots. He finds their tracks where they have been feeding on deer and scouting his horses. The lions habitually lay up for the day in some rocky shallow caves in cedar-lined draws. When he spots the tracks, he sets up where he gets a good view of the cow and game trails coming out of the ravines. He hunts lions using the Crit'R•Call Standard and PeeWee, making rabbit squalls and fawn bleats. From basically one stand he shot four lions in two days several years ago. The predators had unsuccessfully attacked his horses so he got permission to control their depredations from the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He sure has been successful at it. His ranch is the lion honey-hole of all time.
Several customers of mine have called in lions when they were calling elk, using our Cow/Calf Mew call which is our PeeWee with a special reed. They make a distressed calf call.
Another friend was calling deer with the Crit'R•Call Peewee, making a fawn bleat, while he was bow hunting. He spotted the lion about 100 yards away, stalking him. It stealthfully ran low toward him, taking advantage of the rocks and bushes, until it was 10 yards away. He sat with his bow arrow notched, in his lap, not thinking about what he was going to do when the lion got there. All of a sudden it was there, crouched, ready to spring, with its tail raised and tip twitching from side to side. All he could think to do was to draw his bow and fire. So he did and hit the lion in the front of the shoulder. The lion turned and leaped away, leaving the arrow hung in a mountain mahogany bush that it bounded through. My friend said he ran back to his truck. He has been somewhat hesitant to try calling deer since that close call.
Big cats are as curious as house cats. Teasing them with distress cries is good strategy. Having a deer-type decoy or eye attractor can help too.
The major key to successful lion calling is finding stands which get you into the hearing range of the big cat. Once that is done, sound like a deer, or something good to eat.
It is a good idea to take a partner to watch the back door, don’t get sleepy, and keep the eyes glued to the avenues by which the lion will approach. They show up sometimes instantly, other times after an hour. Sometimes they are very close when you finally spot them; sometimes they are hundreds of yards away. They always give you a big thrill when you see them coming. It’s nice to have a proper license when you do so you can bag the beast.
Lions are not noted as being particularly tough to kill like bears, but take enough gun. I usually take my .308 H&K when I am calling in lion country. Lots of lions have been killed with .22 long-rifle cartridges and .38 specials from hand-guns, but a .243 or larger is better for calling because a long shot might be all you get.
Next: Key #10—Mountain Lions—Key Strategies