The Purgatory Lion

By Les Johnson

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Sitting under a big spruce tree as the soft pitter patter of rain continued to fall from the sky, made it feel like you could just slip into a deep sleep. It was cool, tranquil, and very soothing, yet it left you with a feeling of eeriness because the surrounding woods seemed like they were super quiet. I could hear very easily all of the noises that were being made in the woods, including the water droplets that were falling from the branches of trees overhead and landing on the forest floor with a thud. The droplets were big enough that whenever they would hit a leaf on the ground, they would actually sound like a twig snapping. My partner was sitting about 30 yards to my right, next to a quaken aspen tree which had an old barely visible logging trail that ran right in front of it and led past my position. The grass on the old road was 18 inches tall and scattered with the occasional small bush. Not really thick, you could probably see a mouse running through it.

My cadence for calling bull elk probably sounds very monotonous to some, but if its not broke, don’t fix it right? I’ve called a lot of bull elk in and primarily have always used just a cow/calf mew sound. Perhaps my sound might have a little distress in it, which would lead one to think that it might be more of a distressed cow/calf that is possibly lost from the herd? Either way, this location with the setup and the soft drizzle of rain that was falling made it a perfect opportunity for the lion hanging out with us on purgatory to make his stalk. Problem is, neither my partner nor I really expected anything but the slim possibility of having a bull elk show up in front of us.

It was September in the mountains of southwestern Colorado and I was on an archery elk hunting trip with a good friend and the Managing Editor for the NRA’s publication, The American Hunter. I’ve had good success calling in bull elk and this was just another time where I was out enjoying the Colorado Mountains with friends. Most archery hunts end up being a great chance to get a lot of exercise and to experience the sights and smells of the woods. Most times, it seems as if you are going to see things that you will never forget…and ultimately there is no chance to record what you see, whether sasquatch, chupacabra, or something else. So you’re never really prepared for the moment when all hell breaks loose.

Just too back up a little bit, the day prior to this setup, I was calling above our camp about ½ mile and across several ridges, so I was 1 to 2 miles away and by myself. I was in solid dark timber, but something told me to make a stand there. I could smell the muskiness of bull elk. I found a likely spot by a large pine tree; I knelt down, knocked an arrow and began to make an occasional cow/calf mew. Periodically, I would make the soft, subtle sounds of a cow elk that was looking for some company. About 15 minutes into my setup, I noticed a particular bird that started making some seriously loud, sharp, piercing chirps. To me, it sounded as if they were a warning call. 

And now, as I was sitting under the big pine tree with my hunting partner J.J. down the logging road from me, I hear this same bird start making the exact same piercing chirps as we sat in the drizzling rain. I thought to myself that I had a bull elk coming into my calls and that it startled the bird so it began to chirp. I was right about one thing, but wrong about another in that I did have an animal coming into my call, but it wasn’t a bull elk. As I scanned the woods with my eyes trying to notice the smallest of movements, I would ever so slowly move just my eyes from right to left and then back to the right trying to notice anything out of place and trying not to move a muscle. Several minutes had passed since I had last heard the bird that was making the sharp chirps and my eyes had just left J.J. to my right as I scanned left. It had felt like several more minutes had passed when I suddenly heard a loud yell come from J.J., I instantly thought to myself that J.J. had stuck a bull that had snuck in under my radar, so I spun my head his way expecting to see a bull elk running away, only to see a big mountain lion bounding away instead. When I first saw the lion, it was within 10-15 feet of J.J. With my natural hunting instinct and love for calling animals, my first reaction was to bring the call right back up to my mouth and coax, trying to stop the mountain lion. I was probably in as much disbelief as J.J. was and I am sure that he was wondering…“why the heck would Les try to call the mountain lion back towards us after I let out a huge yell??” As I coaxed, the mountain lion bounded over the slight descent just past the logging road, but then came sneaking right back up, poking its head up over top of the rise and staring right back at J.J. I’m sure it was wondering what the heck J.J. was, and J.J. was still in total shock that this big cat was that close to him.

hi58-prd-ljohnson05As I was told in the minutes after the crazy calling episode, J.J. had caught movement right in front of him coming from a sage bush that was about 3 yards from him. He kept seeing a little movement in a hole in the brush. As he focused his eyes on that movement, he saw a cat’s ear that was flicking whenever the rain drops were hitting it. Once he saw the ears, he thought to himself “Lester called in a bobcat, how cool.” Just as that thought raced through his mind, he then said the cats big, piercing, yellow eyes formed within its big bowling ball shaped head and that is when he threw his bow around in front of him for protection in case the cat would leap towards him and yelled some cat gibberish, which in turn caused the cat to go bounding away.

Many people over the years have asked me if I have called many mountain lions in, and I always say that I have probably called more than I have seen with my eyes. Whenever I think about it, I can give myself the chills knowing that we had two sets of eyes watching for an approaching animal, knowing that there was absolutely no way an animal could ever cross or get to the logging road without us seeing it. We were dead wrong. Needless to say, we were no longer going to call unless we were in more open terrain.

I’ve never in my life spent any time calling for mountain lions. I cannot even say that I have tried to call a mountain lion ever! Anytime that you are using a sound that mimics a sound from a prey species a predator hunts, you should always be aware of the fact that you could actually call in a predator. Many friends and acquaintances from Canada and Idaho have told me that they have called in wolves while bugling for elk. The predator is looking at the sound that you’re making as an opportunity. There might be an animal that is lost from the heard or injured, so the predator is just doing what its instinct is telling it to do. Predators need to eat just like us; their fight for survival begins and ends with killing or finding an animal that has already died. The majority of predators are looking for the next opportunity at all times. If they hear a sound and in that sound there is some wavering or a possibility of some distress in the tone, they are very apt to come “just take a peek” and see what’s going on with that sound that they heard. I love to try and get animals to “come take a peek.”

hi58-prd-ljohnson06Several years ago, I had a great opportunity to go hunt mountain lions in southern Wyoming with good friends Shane and Trinn. On the second morning of the hunt, their dogs had already bayed a large tom in a big boulder formation. There was no telling how big this cat was other than some quick looks at its head through a crack, which clearly showed that it was more probable to be a tom due to the size. This was my first ever mountain lion hunt, and I can tell you that I will have many more in the years to come. There is nothing like turning dogs loose on a fresh track in zero degree weather and listening to the dogs as they bark on the hot trail of one of the most proficient killers in the lower 48 states. Many mountain lions have an uncanny ability to outsmart their pursuers, so many hunts do not get the same results as my first encounter on the trail of a lion. I was lucky on several accounts with my mountain lion encounters!

Let’s Get To Callin!!!