A two year quest for Colorado's top predator
It all started on Instagram. Garrett Gillespie followed me and, after looking into his profile, I decided he seemed like a hardcore do-it-all kind of guy. A few months later we exchanged numbers via Direct Messaging and he invited me down to Colorado to hunt lions. People thought I was crazy to just get on a plane and head south to meet up with a complete stranger I met through social media.
When I had an opportunity of a lifetime in front of me to go chase these astonishing creatures I jumped on it. Little did I know it would take more than one trip to get that chance.
I was set on filling my tag with my Hoyt. Being an optimist, I also brought the AR for bobcats, fox, and coyotes; I was able to get a chance at all of these animals over the course of two trips. I also packed the handgun in a Ruger .45 auto.
A must have in any wet terrain is a waterproof set of lightweight boots paired with gators to keep snow out of the tops of your boots. Trust me: The snow will get thigh deep at times.
The first trip occurred in 2015. I flew down to Grand Junction, Colorado for 10 days. I wasn’t a fan of flying because it limited what I could bring with me. For all the gear junkies out there I'm sure you can relate. My flight landed late in the day and I met the Gillespies (Garrett and Grant) for the first time. Upon arrival, I unpacked all of my gear at Farmer Dan's Hotel Service, took the cat identification test and drove straight to the local Sportsman's Warehouse to purchase all the needed licenses for the beginning of what would be a two year journey. My adventure started bright and early the next morning.
We hit the ground running during the first couple of days with fresh snow on the ground but just couldn't cut a fresh track if our lives depended upon it. As the snow conditions began to fade so did the hopes of cutting a fresh mountain lion track crossing a road so we switched gears for a few days until the next snow. It wasn’t all bad news, though. I managed to cross the first cat species off my list with this big tom bobcat.
After several more days of poor snow conditions, we finally located one out among the thousands of animals crossing the roads and other vehicle tracks packing down the snowy roads. Damon Larson was gracious enough to help look for tracks.
All the tracks we’d located traced back to this respectable mule deer buck kill. It was impossible for the dogs to run and get lined out on a tom without any new snow and with animal tracks littered all around it. This left me without any time left on the clock to notch my lion tag. I headed back to North Dakota where all I could do was chalk it up as a heck of an experience created with some new lifelong friends.
I kept in constant contact with Garrett and Grant throughout the rest of the year (and rest of the hunting seasons). At last, it was time to head back to Grand Junction and start tracking lions. This time, I drove because I wanted to time it right with the snow conditions and bring along all the gear I could possibly need. As I drove along the Colorado River I was stoked that the 950-mile trek was nearing an end. Yet, by the time I got back to cat country, Garrett had already taken his mountain lion for the 2016 season.
Our team had grown enormously. Since my last trip, the number of dogs had increased from four to 12 with the addition of another houndsman, Sam Kesterson, whom Garrett and Damon had met earlier in the 2016 season. It only meant one thing. Increased odds, more people trying to cut tracks, and more noses pounding the trail. I was ready and so were the hounds.
This time we had four vehicles trying to cut tracks every morning bright and early usually finishing our routes by daylight. Compared to 2015, with only one rig, our odds had significantly increased for the better. Cutting icy, snow covered, rocky cliff walled roads is not for the faint of heart. It takes someone much more experienced than me with my flatlander driving skills to conquer the conditions we encountered on this trip.
The first few mornings we only cut two to three day tracks of old toms or females with kittens. We opted to wait for another fresh snow that was only a day away and decided to chase another predator in the meantime. I was able to take my first gray fox along with a red fox the same afternoon.
Fresh snow and a hot track that the other houndsman found led us to our first dog dropoff. The dogs were off and so were we after a few moments of waiting for the hounds to show that an animal was treed on the GPS tracking system. While it wasn't going to be a lion I could shoot, being part of the chase for Matt's mountain lion was just as good as being the trigger man.
The group started at the bottom of this incredible canyon. That was only the halfway point to where the dogs had treed Matt's cat.
A big tom the dogs put in the tree.
Pictured L to R: Tanner Dolbec, Sam Kesterson, Damon Larson, Matt Wood, Garrett Gillespie
While I may not have been the trigger man, being at the tree was just as surreal and an adrenaline rush unlike anything I've yet to experience. As I approached the tree, my legs started to get a little shaky. Excitement overcame me. The dogs were screaming, barking, jumping, and howling at their prize just 15’ above them. After we got the dogs pulled and the cameras rolling Matt took this fine specimen of a lion. (I have the video of the kill if you'd like it.
Snow was a couple days out and that was opportunistic, to say the least. A very large group of Canadian geese had been feeding in a huntable field close to Grand Junction. We took full advantage of it and knocked a few of these wary birds out of the sky.
All the rigs were back at it with new snow falling. A big tom track was cut, but the snow just didn't want to let up and it became cold in a hurry.
A picture of the fresh tom that was cut that morning. The snow covered the hot track in just minutes.
It ended up snowing late into the night, causing minimal time for movement and an unproductive search the next morning. The weather turned brutally cold and I was glad I had brought warm gear for the early morning track cutting that we ended up having to make on snowmobiles. Warm boots, gloves and ski goggles became a necessity. We used razors, snowmobiles, and trucks to look for tracks every morning.
Grant and I had been cutting the higher elevation trails and roads on snowmobiles for the last three days of the trip.We were constantly stopping to keep in contact with the rest of the group and checking to see if anybody else had cut a runnable track.
The constant early mornings started to wear on me. Every morning started out with an energy drink. Everybody was out and headed to their final area to look for tracks. Grant and I were still sticking to the high elevation area. For some reason, that morning, Grant took a wrong turn, which ended up being the best thing that could have happened for the entire trip. As we approached our turnoff for the final area before I had to head back to the 701 it happened! We couldn't believe our eyes as a cat leaped across the main highway in front of us in the headlights! We now had the hottest track in the country.
Grant and I ran back down the road to get better phone service to pull up the OnXmaps and make phone calls to get the dogs headed our way. We decided that if the tracks turned and went up, then the chase was on. If the lion had turned down we wouldn’t be able to let the dogs loose because the cat would likely run onto private land. Yet, after walking the track to the rock cliff, we discovered that the lion had traveled the right direction. All we had to do now was wait for Damon and his dogs to arrive and let the sun come up!
After starting the hounds on the track it was obvious they were fired up. Jake, Gila, Ranger, and Jo were off. In just a matter of minutes, we began to follow the dogs in the truck as they headed up the ridge.
Damon and I had barely hopped into his Tacoma when we could hear the dogs barking treed and looked at each other in shock. Damon said, “They got him.” Not long after that, the GPS System started firing off the message,“treed.” Little did we know that this lion had bedded up just several hundred yards off the highway. I was about to get my opportunity! As we approached the tree, it got wild. The hounds were going to get hurt so we ran in to pull them off when the cat bailed off the cliff and onto a bench below.
It all played out in just a matter of seconds. After the lion had jumped, my heart sank. It had jumped off a cliff too far for the dogs to clear. But just as quickly as the lion disappeared, it reappeared when I put the handgun away. Grant handed me Damon's single action .223 rifle. As I pulled down on the rifle my adrenaline was through the roof. The cat had made its way out to another rocky ledge with no dogs on its trail. I squeezed off the best do or die shot of my life and the infamous, “whop” echoed through the tight canyon walls. The truth was in that sound that every hunter knows all too well.
Once the lion had expired, the dogs were all over it tugging and ripping at it to claim that they had completed their job. As for the rest of us, we were jumping around hollering and high-fiving as if we had just hit the lottery.
The adrenaline high just kept on rolling as did my beautiful lion. We got him off the cliff to the bottom where we dragged him about 100 yards to the vehicles. There was no pack out necessary and not really any time for that matter as we had gotten word from one of the other rigs out looking for tracks that he had re-cut a tom track.
All the rigs were headed to the other hot track. Still on cloud nine I didn't know what to think. I had my lion, but, somehow, I didn't want it to be over quite yet. We ended up getting left in the dust on the second track of the day but it was still another wild ride.
Garrett, Grant, and I headed up the trail to get GPS reception with the dogs. The dogs were lost so Garrett spent the rest of the day with Sam trying to find the dogs as Grant offered to skin my cat. Grant and I bailed off the mountain to get the cat skinned out and checked in because I was rolling out in the morning. I watched with a coaching voice, “Be careful.” I didn't want any extra holes in this magnificent creature that was now dubbed my lion.
As I headed back home impatient to tell the stories to family and friends, I couldn't help but reflect on the two year journey. I made lifelong friends and earned a great respect for what a true houndsman really does. Damon treats his dogs with respect and phenomenal care year round, not just the couple months out of the year that he gets to use them. A huge thank you to everybody involved in this cat quest. I will be forever grateful for all the hard work that went into getting myself a lion before some of the guys that helped everyday ever got the opportunity at a lion.