This Happened to Me: I Was Stalked by a Family of Mountain Lions on a Shed Hunt

When the cat got to its feet and ran away, I had six or seven rounds left in my pistol. I also had a mile and a half between me and my truck, and as I headed in that direction, I wished I’d brought a second magazine.

I was spinning in circles as I walked, looking for more threats as I worked my way around the thicket where the mountain lions had been watching me. Stepping out into open country, I ran as fast I could, constantly looking back over my shoulder until I made it to the truck and locked myself in the cab. Still fully adrenalized, I called my buddy. I needed him to tell me what to do.

“Go ahead and call it in,” he said. 

A Solo Shed Hunt in the Southwest

I was born in upstate New York in a small town called Cattaraugus. I grew up hunting and fishing, and trapping was a source of income in our house. Few people live that way anymore, but being outdoors is more than my way of life. It is my life. Whether hunting deer and turkey close to home, chasing big game out West, or guiding offshore fishing trips where I live in North Carolina, I’ve always loved the sense of freedom and adventure I get in the wild.

Even if I’m not pursuing game, I find peace far from pavement and I surround myself with like-minded people. So, when a buddy from Arizona invited me to go hunting for elk sheds in Unit 6A outside of Flagstaff, I headed West. The spring shed hunt has become a recurring event over the last few years, and every year my buddy reminds me: “Make sure you’ve got your pistol, there are mountain lions.” I knew he was right; I’d seen their tracks all over the mountains. But after a few shed hunting seasons I had started feeling like, Yeah, okay. I’ve been coming up here for three years and I still haven’t seen one.

My friend had to get back to work after a few days, so I was alone on April 1. I had a 6-mile hike just to get to where I wanted to look. My time in the Marine Corps had instilled habits that serve me well in the outdoors, and I’d run through my backcountry checklist that morning. I had an extra Gore-Tex jacket, a survival kit with medical supplies, and, as my buddy insisted, my Springfield XD .40.

The hike in was beautiful, and I finally found a couple of sheds on a hillside about 10 miles into the 15-mile day I’d planned. By that point, I was also hungry.

It was about 2:00 p.m. when I eased off my pack and sat down next to my antlers to eat lunch. There was snow on the ground and in the limbs of the trees, and it was now warm enough that the snow was melting and dropping from the branches. It sounded a little spooky. But I‘m used to being lower on the food chain than most folks, and I wasn’t all that concerned when I looked up from my lunch to see a mountain lion watching me from about 70 yards away. 

An Eerie Find in the Pines 

I was an infantryman in Afghanistan. Seeing one mountain lion wasn’t that big of a deal compared to walking into an ambush or stepping on 40 pounds of homemade ammonium nitrate left by someone who wants to see you split in half. The big cat wasn’t threatening me anyway. He was only curious about what I was doing in his territory. I just wanted him to leave so I could do the same.

Still, I didn’t want to give him time to think about it too much, so I pulled my pistol, stood up, and tried to get big. Then I yelled and made a short charge toward him. I still don’t know if trying to bluff him was the right decision, but he ran away. The whole exchange was only a minute or less but it felt much longer. So much for lunch.

I was probably three miles from my truck, so I packed up my ruck and started hiking, the Springfield still in my hand. I was physically gassed but mentally wired, feeling more like a Marine on patrol than a shed hunter looking for antlers.  

By around 3:30 p.m. I’d moved about a mile and a half from where I scared off the mountain lion. The pines were getting thicker, but my GPS told me I was on track and that I was only a mile and a half away from my truck.

Then I found an elk carcass.

The cow must have been shot and never recovered, and she was pretty much just bones and hide. But every elk has a set of ivory teeth and hers were still there. Taking them home with the sheds I found would be icing on the cake.

Back-to-Back Charges

I looked around and didn’t see any sign of danger. So I set my pistol down and took out my knife. I had just started digging at the elk’s ivories when I heard something to my left — a sound much more substantial than snow dropping off a tree limb.

I grabbed my Springfield, then turned and looked for the source of the noise. I didn’t see anything. Given the encounter I’d already had, I didn’t like being hunched over and focused on elk teeth, but I turned my attention back to the carcass and got the first tooth out. As I worked on a second tooth, I heard the noise again behind me. I kept looking over my left shoulder as I dug, the interval between glances getting shorter each time.

I had the second ivory about halfway out when I heard something that made the hair on my neck stand up. There was a different quality to the sound and I remember thinking, Something’s just not right. I quit digging at the tooth, picked up my pack, and decided it was time to get out of there.

I’d only taken a few steps away from the elk carcass when I heard the cat scream behind me. I spun to my left and saw a mountain lion running toward me, now 40 yards away and closing. I raised my pistol and started screaming as I stepped toward a large tree that I wanted between me and the cat, which was now in a dead sprint. 

But then, as it got to 25 yards, the lion turned and ducked into some nearby bushes, adding another surprise to a day full of them. 

As soon as the lion disappeared into the brush, I heard more snarls and screams. I could see movement but no details until, suddenly, I saw two big cats staring back at me, their tails twitching. The one that made the initial charge made eye contact with me as it started working my way yet again. The second cat sat down.

I wanted to scare them off so I fired two rounds into a mud hole left by melting snow. It was a poor decision and a waste of two potentially critical rounds, but in the moment I was more worried about getting in trouble for shooting the mountain lions than I was about the cats themselves. That kind of thinking could have cost me my life.

The two .40 caliber rounds kicked up a big rooster tail of mud that I hoped would scare the cats. It worked for the closer lion, which turned and ran. But the mountain lion that had been sitting in the bushes was no longer seated. He was bounding toward me, accelerating as he ate up the space between us.

With eleven rounds remaining in the XD, I started shooting. I didn’t stop until the cat went down and rolled just 10 yards away from me. The lion got to its feet and fled. I quickly checked how many rounds I had left. There were six, maybe seven, still in the magazine.

Explicit language warning.

Surveying the Scene

I don’t think the Arizona Game and Fish Department took my report as a joke, but considering it was April Fool’s Day, it probably seemed like a prank at first. By the time I was transferred to a game warden, I had calmed down enough to tell him my story. He said he couldn’t make it out that night, but that he’d get out there first thing in the morning with a team of dogs to look for sign. He told me if they deemed the lion unsafe, they were going to dispatch it — if I hadn’t already done so.

The following evening, I got a call from AZGFD officer Edward Sini, who told me he’d gone into that part of the unit with a team of lion trackers, their dogs, and other wardens. 

“At first, when you told me the story, it seemed like something was fishy about it,” Sini said over the phone. “But after getting up there and seeing what you described, and what the tracks showed, you described it to a tee.”

Sini told me they found the elk carcass, along with my .40 caliber casings and multiple sets of lion tracks. This wasn’t too surprising, as I knew I’d seen more than one cat. But he said it took them a couple of hours to get on the right tracks because they’d identified not two, but four different sets of mountain lion tracks. By following these tracks, he was able to recreate the encounters I’d had the previous day.

Sini said the first mountain lion I ran into was a collared male. His tracks showed that when I scared him away, he ran in a wide “U” shape, and then hid at the edge of the brush to watch me leave the area.

As for the two lions that charged me in the pines, Sini figured they were 12- to 16-month-old siblings, and likely the offspring of the collared male. It appeared that one of the young cats — most likely the one I shot at — had been paralleling my tracks for 300 to 400 yards before it hid in the bushes. I never would have known.

The trackers saw where the lion had settled into the brush to watch me. They think the other lion — the first one to charge me — must have seen its sibling and jumped into the brush to play fight rather than attack me. But they could tell that the other cat had charged me in earnest. They also found a set of big female tracks nearby, which means the whole family was probably watching me on the mountain that day.

Based on my recounting of what happened and the clues they got from the tracks, they deemed the lion I shot at to be unsafe. They found where I shot at him, but there was no blood trail. They tracked him six miles over the snow and into the night, but they couldn’t get him treed, and last I heard they were still trying to find the lion.

Arizona has never had a fatal mountain lion attack, and I think I avoided becoming the first by being prepared. Officer Sini said I did everything they recommend when traveling in lion territory. I was armed and aware, and I got out of the area as quickly as I could.

I still don’t know how close is too close, but I do know there is always a risk when traveling alone in the wild. That’s part of the attraction.

The post This Happened to Me: I Was Stalked by a Family of Mountain Lions on a Shed Hunt appeared first on Outdoor Life.

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