When I ventured out on my first big game hunt in Washington state, I was pursuing mule deer, not predators. At the advice of a hunting mentor prior to season, I had purchased black bear and cougar tags on the off chance I stumbled across one. Never in a million years did I anticipate spotting one of these critters, let alone both, on my first true public land hunt.
It was a quick weekend hunt chasing muleys, as many of us who work standard 9 to 5’s are forced to condense our wilderness adventures to.
If you’ve hunted public land in Washington state, you are familiar with the chaos that ensues. Opening morning is characterized by headlights barreling down forest roads in every direction, specks of blaze orange visible on nearly every ridgeline, and slams of truck doors echoing across the canyon you’re glassing.
Of course, if you’re more experienced and want to get away from the masses, you pack deep into the wilderness areas where the majority of hunters won’t pack into. But, I was a new hunter and time constrained.
Putting on the Boot Miles
Over the first two days and 15+ miles of hiking steep terrain, we’d only spotted three pressured does bounding through an old burn.
Around noon on the second day, my hunting partner and I pulled out our Jetboil to heat up some lunch. We were perched atop a boulder pile on the tip of a fingered ridgeline. As lunch was cooking, we set up the spotting scope to glass into the valley that extended in a horseshoe formation in front of us and around to either side.
Perhaps a half hour later, mid-bite of my Mountain House beef stroganoff, my partner whispered, “Come look!”
Excitedly, I slid over and peered one eye through the scope, expecting to see a legal buck that we could put the stalk on. To my surprise, there was no deer at all.
Instead, I saw a beautiful brownish-black bear. She was walking down the slope opposite us, likely 700 yards away. A few seconds later, in the corner of my scope view, I saw two little fur balls a few bounds ahead of her. One was toddling across a log as if it were a balance beam, the other close on its tail.
A mama bear and her two cubs!
I couldn’t be disappointed that we hadn’t spotted a muley buck instead. The circle of life is so majestic, and this first observation of the black bear species in its natural habitat was a reinforcing moment on my journey as a new hunter.
After watching the sow and her young saunter safely off in the opposite direction, we continued our trek with no sign of critter life for the remainder of the day. We made a plan for the next day to switch areas and caught a few hours of rest before our 3am wake up call.
Tracks Along the Creek
The third day we leveraged a connection to access the unit through private property, which were hoping would put some distance between us and the masses of hunters out and about.
Our morning started out full of action, which sparked hope that our day would prove productive. We had hiked up to the nearest ridge and crept to the top. I slowly popped my head up over the edge so that I could see atop the small mesa.
The first thing that caught my eye was the flick of a tail.
The tail was attached to a doe mule deer extending her neck up and pulling leaves off a tree. One tree over, another doe and a spike were replicating her behavior, all oblivious to our presence.
Not wanting to startle them, we silently sunk back below the ridge and worked our way down the slope and around the mesa the deer were feeding on. We hiked deep into the area several miles and circled in a loop to follow a creek bed back.
We saw plenty of mule deer tracks along the way and some footprints of people who’d explored the area before us, but one track stood out.
It was a large cougar track. Assuming the cat was long gone, we thought nothing of it and continued on in stealth mode in search of a 3-point or larger.
Less than a mile from the private boundary line we accessed the area through, we were climbing a particularly steep cliff. Near the top, I caught my breath and proceeded to slowly peer over the top, ensuring I didn’t silhouette myself to anything on the other side.
As I stared across a narrow ravine with a heavily foliaged creek down below, I passed my gaze under a tree on the opposite side of the tiny canyon eye-level to me. Perched in the conifer’s shadow was a mountain lion, likely the one whose tracks we passed earlier on.
I froze, not daring to take a breath, my mind racing as to what to do next.
In mere seconds, the cougar turned its head and locked eyes with me. For what felt like eternity, we stared each other down. Eventually, the cougar rose from his perch and prodded his way down the gravelly canyon side into the thick draw below.
So, we waited.
We set up the rifle, lying in sniper position and listened for anything that would indicate where the cat was at. Evidence of his location came via the faintest of rustlings that were barely audible over the sounds of the creek.
Eventually, the mountain lion emerged out of the brush in the exact spot he disappeared, evidently convinced that we had retreated. His intent was undoubtedly the same as ours, to resume his lookout for prey that would serve as his dinner.
One clean, lethal shot from 60 yards was emitted from the Winchester Mag .300 I had been patiently waiting behind. By this time, it was nearly sundown.
Skinning, quartering and packing out the estimated 170-180 lb tomcat took nearly six hours between the two of us. I remember driving back home over the mountains with my cooler full, my body still shaking with exhilaration, awe, and shock.
If I’ve ever had a spiritual experience, it would be found in moments such as this hunt. The connection I felt to that cougar is one I will never forget. Both of us were predators with a singular purpose. The sacrifices made in the wild are full of infinite meaning.
After meeting a game officer in Seattle to extract a tooth for aging purposes and seal the pelt, I sent off the hide to be tanned. I brought the meat to Fischer Meats, an outstanding butcher shop in Issaquah. The cougar produced back straps, summer sausage, pepperoni sticks, and ground sausage that filled my freezer for months to come.
The pelt will be a staple of my home décor for life. Not because he is a trophy, but because he symbolizes a powerful force of nature that I am now connected to forever. I will always hold space in my heart for the animals I harvest and never let anything go to waste, if I can help it.
Cougar Management Perspectives
I have heard countless opinions on my choice to harvest this animal, and I have listened to them all. Any words directed towards me that were unkind I simply view as a portrayal of those own individuals. But, for those of you who asked questions and presented alternate perspectives, I listened.
After researching cougar management strategies, I have altered my viewpoint on the unbridled hunting of mountain lions. A study by the University of Washington found, “As hunters kill disproportionate numbers of mature, male cougars, a generation of disorderly teenage cats is taking over their turf.”
As hunters, we have a tendency to celebrate the harvest of older and wiser game animals. When it comes to cougar hunting, we may want to re-evaluate this practice and pause before harvesting an animal that may impact our ecosystem in a way that opposes the goals of conservation and human-animal conflict mitigation.
This is not to say that anything I did was illegal or unethical, nor do I discourage cougar hunting as a discipline of outdoorsmanship. However, I encourage each and every one of us as hunters to research the animals we pursue, maintain an open mind, and be receptive to the research as it evolves and influences the game management theories that we implement in our states.
Happy hunting, my friends.