My friend Roger Phillips, a talented writer and avid outdoorsman who lives, hunts, and rambles about in Idado, USA, shared an amazing personal story with me recently. I loved it so much that I asked for permission to post it here and thankfully he said yes. Enjoy!
Curiosity and the Cat
A gust of wind rippled the tan grass and exposed the tawny ridge of a cat’s back as it sauntered downhill and disappeared behind patch of bitterbrush. Bobcat was my first thought until I saw the unmistakable tail of a mountain lion.
In 50-plus years of roaming the woods, it was the first I’d ever seen one, but no doubt in my mind, not the first mountain lion that had ever seen me.
I had hiked up a slope that would make a decent black-diamond snowboard run, and I sat beneath a large ponderosa tree intent on intercepting any deer that might pass through a small basin spread in front of me. My binoculars hung on my chest, my .270 deer rifle was across my leg, and my backpack comfortably between my knees.
Because I am prone to fidgeting and nearly incapable of sitting still, I had peeled an orange and eaten half of it when the cat slipped behind the bush.
I focused my 10-power binoculars on the spot the cat was likely to emerge and locked my elbows onto my knees. I was hoping the lion would pause long enough to give me a decent look before it disappeared back into the wavering grass where it blended so perfectly, but it cleared the bush and climbed onto a rocky outcropping. It stopped and surveyed its territory, and it seemed to ponder the same thoughts I had just had. Was this is a good place to intercept a passing deer?
The lion glanced in my direction and seemed to pause and stare, but its focus shifted away from me, and after a few seconds, it reclined in the rocks with its shoulders roughly perpendicular to me and its paws in front so it could easily rise and pounce.
The questions started firing in my brain. What the hell? Was this really happening? How big is it? Will the wind shift and it smell me? Do cats even have a sense of smell that could cross this distance? What should I do?
I had a mountain lion tag in my backpack because it came with my sportsman’s package that included deer, elk, black bear, mountain lion and wolf tags. For years, I had wondered if I would shoot a mountain lion if ever I got the chance.
For nearly as long, I wondered if I would ever even see one, and that question was now answered. But if there was a slight urge to shoot it, my motivation would be the chance to see it better, see how big it was, whether it was a male or female, how old it was, etc. The thought of putting a cat-skin rug on my wall had little or no appeal, nor did eating it, although I hear they’re not bad eating. It also struck me as odd and sort of stupid to shoot the first mountain lion I ever saw considering, so far, it was a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounter.
So I sat stone still my eyes glued to the lion through the binoculars, and while it looked in my general direction, it was unaware of me. This went on for several minutes, and it settled into the rocky outcropping with the casual arrogance that felines uniquely possess when they’ve found their comfy place.
I knew any motion on my part would alert it, and while I was relatively comfortable, I knew I couldn’t hold still indefinitely. I was also growing more curious what would happen when it spotted me. Would it bolt like it was hit by a cattle prod? (Likely.) Would it charge me? (Unlikely, and probably more the stuff of Western legend than reality.)
Since I was unknown to it, I set the timeline, and my brain had fully accepted that this was indeed a mountain lion lying on a rock in front of me, and after several more minutes had elapsed, it really wasn’t doing anything except lounging and half-heartedly surveying the landscape.
I dropped my binoculars, and the cat caught the movement. Its ears perked, its shoulders tightened and our eyes locked on each other. Its body tensed, and its brain seemed to process the same set of questions that I had just pondered.
I looked through my binoculars to get a magnified eye-to-eye look at the lion and waited for it to make its move. As it processed its options how to react, it seemed to grow more curious than menacing, and then after a long pause, its muscles relaxed and its head drooped to its shoulder.
WTF? This wasn’t on my shortlist of likely reactions after a mountain lion realizes a man with a rifle is sitting under a tree about 75 yards away.
I carefully raised my rifle, set it on the monopod rest tucked in my backpack and cranked the scope up to 12-power. When I found the cat in the scope, the crosshairs rested perfectly behind its shoulder. Approximately 4-pounds of finger pressure on the trigger would end this cat, but there was still no voice in my head commanding to me shoot it.
If others were (and have been) in this situation and made a different choice, I have no qualms. It’s their call, just like this one was mine, and I simply had no desire to kill the cat.
The crosshairs shifted to its head, which filled up a surprisingly large portion of my scope. I briefly considered the competitor angle. That cat was trying to kill the deer that I was hunting, so should I should kill it to save all the deer that it might kill in the future? I’ve never really bought into that line of thinking, and the dozens, if not hundreds, of no trespassing signs I had seen during the season had cost me more opportunities at deer than that mountain lion ever would, or could.
The crosshairs rested between its dark, large, round eyes that tapered to points at their upper corners. It had short, round ears, a tan forehead with a brown crease, a dark muzzle and two perfectly symmetrical white patches in front of its long whiskers. It was so perfectly feline that it seemed fake, and while I stared, it stared back, then it gradually seemed to lose interest in the stare down. It slowly blinked its eyes, and momentarily looked away as if bored.
WTF? Who’s going to believe this?
Then I remembered my camera stashed in my backpack. What were the odds of fishing the camera out, turning it on and getting a photo without the cat bolting? I reached over and failed to subtly and quietly unzip the backpack and retrieve my camera, but the cat didn’t budge.
The Panasonic point-and-shoot turned on with its reassuring whirring buzz, and the lens jutted out ready to go. I pressed the toggle to full zoom and desperately tried to locate the cat on the shaky screen. I squeezed off a few quick, fuzzy shots and hoped that the lion would be slightly visible in the photos.
The cat was unmoved and disinterested by this minor flurry of photography, and continued its… whatever it was doing.
I calmed down, switched the camera from its screen to the digital viewfinder for a better look and took several more shots to ensure I was getting a good focus and exposure. But I still fretted that the long zoom and low light would result in a blurry mess and an image closer to a furry ghost than a living, breathing mountain lion.
I hit the replay button, and the cat appeared visible. Then I went into photographer mode and took multiple shots with different levels of telephoto and different exposures in hopes that at least one would come in fairly clear and reasonably well exposed.
Then I wondered how far this cat actually was from me. I guessed about 75 yards, but I tend to underestimate distances under 100 yards and overestimate longer ones. I unzipped another pouch in my pack and grabbed my range finder, pointed it at the cat and pushed the button. The digital number read 80 yards.
How long, I wondered, would it take a motivated mountain lion to cross that distance? Probably pretty fast, but I knew a bullet could close the gap much quicker.
I took a few more photos, just in case the others were blurry.
I looked at it through my binoculars again, and its head seemed to droop a little, and…. Was it nodding off?
I grabbed my rifle and rested the crosshairs on its nose. Its eyelids seemed to grow heavy and closed for several second before reopening. Maybe I should shoot the rock just to wake it up. And what the hell? Aren’t we supposed to be hunting?
I had occasionally glanced up to see if any deer had wandered into this stand off, but none had, and I wondered what would happen if one did. Would I witness a first-hand, real-live predator/prey battle royale, or would I wave off a doe and/or fawn before the cat could spot them?
What if I shot a buck? Would the cat and I have a predatory duel for the prey? Seemed unlikely, but I thought about myself gutting a buck while trying to look over my shoulder to see if the cat would challenge me for it. Again, it seemed more like a Western fantasy than a possible scenario.
But I did congratulate myself on picking a spot that even a mountain lion agreed was a good place to intercept a deer. (Apparently, the deer disagreed because none happened by.)
I glanced down and saw the other half of my orange lying in the pine needles. Seemed a shame to let it go to waste, so I picked it up and bit into a slice. Juice shot into my throat and I stifled a choke. Surely that would spook the cat, but not how I wanted it to happen. I fought the urge to hack, then slowly and cautiously finished the orange.
I looked at the lion again through the rifle scope and wondered if I could get a photo with the camera lens looking through the scope. I fiddled with it for several minutes and failed to get a decent shot. I settled on a long-distance photo of the cat in the background with my rifle barrel in the foreground as an attempt to roughly show my location in relation to lion’s.
He/she/ it remained unimpressed with my antics, and at this point I conjectured it was likely a young male. Seemed to fit the profile: no kittens, aloof, kind of cocky and unafraid of things to which it should rightfully be afraid.
As the sun settled behind the ridge, and about a half hour since we met, I was growing more curious how this would end. I knew the cat was posing no imminent threat, but that didn’t mean I wanted to walk off a steep slope in the dark with a mountain lion lurking about. And just how concerned should I be about its lack of concern about me? It was a legit question. Although I calculated the odds of getting attacked as astronomical, what if it happened?
It wasn’t the pain I feared so much as the embarrassment of having a rifle and countless opportunities to pull the trigger and then having the mountain lion pounce on me like some unsuspecting fawn. I heard myself explaining this hypothetical attack to my brothers and hunting buddies, and heard them unleashing a relentless, wrath of ridicule way worse than a mountain lion mauling.
I know this because I would do the same to them. That’s who we are.
Besides, my butt was sore from the hard ground and my legs stiff. I’m not used to sitting on hard ground for along periods without getting up and occasionally stretching my legs.
The shadows around me faded as the landscape grew darker. I knew I had a steep descent ahead, and I would be surrendering the high ground to a nocturnal, ambush predator. Hmmm, I thought. Maybe I don’t want it to let it get too dark before I hike off the hill.
So I stood up, rifle in hand, and shouldered my backpack. This was too much activity for the lion, and he raised up and locked on me. His front paws were pointed toward me and he seemed to be crouched, but I couldn’t tell because his haunches were obscured by the rock.
I waited to see what came next, and so did he.
I slipped around the ponderosa’s trunk, put some brush between me and the lion and descended about 25 yards and looked back at the rock. He was rock solid and now a dark silhouette of vertical forelegs, muscular chest, and round head with two half-moon ears.
I tried to simultaneously pick my way through rocks without stumbling down the slope while also keeping him in my peripheral vision. I never caught any movement from his direction, and after about another 150 yards down the slope, I got my last glimpse of the cat’s silhouette perfectly perched on the rocks against the graying evening sky.
The only time I felt remotely nervous coming off the hill was imagining the casual kitty now teeth and claws launching off a rock above me, erupting out of the brush, or making a mad downhill charge toward me and wondering if I could make an accurate shot before it hit me. I brushed it off as paranoid, although technically not paranoid since any of those scenarios could occur.
But in reality, falling and cracking my skull on a rock while hiking off the hill was a much higher probability than a cat attack, and despite a few ankle-twisting rock rolls and one graceless butt drop, I made it back to my truck.
I unloaded my rifle and double checked my camera to make sure the images were there.
And that’s when it dawned on me. I had shot a mountain lion, just not with my rifle. I had the trophy I wanted, and I decided to claim my “kill.” I took my mountain lion tag out of my backpack and notched it for Oct. 27, 2016.
I’m going to mount my mountain lion, but instead of a rug with a snarling head, I will blow up the photo as large as possible, put it behind glass and a dark, wood frame and place the notched mountain lion tag in the lower righthand corner.
It will proudly hang on the wall beside my other hunting trophies.