To Catch a Cougar: A Bowhunter’s Search for a Colorado Mountain Lion
Calling mountain lions “elusive” is a radical understatement. It’s as if the ultra-secretive cats are equipped with cloaking devices that allow them to remain nearly invisible in their surroundings, while leaving behind only vague clues of their presence. In fact, relatively few people will ever catch a glimpse of a mountain lion in the wild, and most are perfectly happy to keep it that way. But, for bowhunter Mindy Paulek, seeing mountain lions became an almost routine experience. Finding and harvesting the “right” mountain lion, however, turned into a monumental challenge for the archer—one spanning three years and hundreds of miles in Colorado’s backcountry.
Sights Set on Tom Cougar
Fortunately, challenges are nothing new for Paulek. The 30-year-old Durango resident has amassed an impressive hunting resume, harvesting bears, deer, elk, wild hogs and bobcats — all with her Mathews compound bow. She’s also bagged kudu, bushbuck, springbok, wildebeest and jackals in Africa. But three years ago, Paulek set her sights closer to home on the one animal that had eluded her: a tom cougar.
“I think this was probably the most time-consuming and intense hunt I’ve ever been on,” explained Paulek. “I hunted almost every weekend during the 2012-14 seasons. As my friends and family would probably tell you, I became obsessed with going lion hunting every chance I could get.”
Paulek’s unyielding perseverance was not because she lacked good hunting opportunities. In fact, she passed up the chance to harvest nine other lions, most of which were either females or smaller toms. But for Paulek, lion hunting was truly about the journey rather than the destination, and she remained determined to hold out for the right circumstances.
“I absolutely loved chasing and catching lions, but I didn’t have a huge desire to harvest one myself unless it was the right one,” said Paulek. “I wanted a large tom and one that I worked hard for and that presented a challenge. I also knew that the opportunities to harvest a mature lion were few and far between, so the odds of getting everything I wanted were pretty slim. Still, I had my certain criteria and stood firm.”
Giant Lion Tracks
On Feb. 4, Paulek, along with a group of close friends, expert houndsman Clayton Wilson and his team of tracking dogs, set out across the snow-covered mountains north of Durango to give it another try. Like dozens of outings prior to this one, the morning trek through the San Juan Mountains was familiar, as were the huge lion tracks that Paulek and the rest of the group suddenly recognized in the fresh snow.
“I knew right away that we’d seen these same tracks before,” said Paulek.
“It can be hard to tell the size of a lion by its tracks. However, every once in a while you get the luxury of coming across a ‘no doubt about it’ monster-sized track — one you don’t have to second guess. This guy had that kind of track. He also had a large stride and, best of all, would drag his feet a little from his swagger, just in case you were questioning whether or not he was truly king of the mountain.”
The giant paws that were etched so clearly in the morning snow were also
permanently etched in Paulek’s memory after this same lion had cleverly evaded her on a previous tracking attempt. And for more than a year, this cat was simply a set of huge prints — a legendary cougar — that Paulek hoped one day she’d be lucky enough to actually see and possibly harvest.
“Like other hunters in the area, we tried to chase this same lion before but were unsuccessful,” said Paulek. “This cat was smart, and it seemed like we were either a day behind him or stuck scratching our heads wondering how he disappeared. He was also in country that was so rough and dangerous that you couldn’t afford to take many risks. On a lion hunt, you go where the dogs go, so once you turn them loose, you’re in for it. We hunted for large toms elsewhere and if we had caught the right one, I may have taken it. But I always had a longing and personal draw for this particular cat.”
After more than an hour of following the lion’s tracks and chasing dogs over steep terrain and knee-deep snow, Paulek finally came face to face with the animal, that up until now, she’d only dreamed about encountering in person. The baying of the hounds intensified and angry snarls filled the air. The dogs had the cougar treed and holding in a large pine. The tawny figure loomed against the white-and-green backdrop, and Paulek realized that this was the opportunity she’d been so eagerly and patiently seeking.
Face to Face
“When I first saw the cat, I knew that he was the one,” said Paulek. “There was pure joy and excitement in seeing him, but it was also bittersweet. I knew that with a well-placed shot my hunt and journey would finally be over.”
Paulek took a couple minutes to catch her breath and to gather her bearings. Then she grabbed her bow and prepared for her shot. With the lion angled and perched slightly above her, she drew back her bowstring, lined up her 15-yard sight-pin and took a deep breath to steady her aim. With a subtle “flick” she released her arrow toward the cat.
In that frozen moment, with the baying of hounds still echoing through the thin air, Paulek’s arrow struck the cat directly behind its left shoulder. The lion tumbled from the tree and was finished. And so was Paulek’s 3-year quest.
Tale of the Tape
Paulek’s lion measured 7 feet from nose to tail and tipped the scales at a hefty 160 pounds — impressive stats by themselves. However, for Paulek and other bowhunters, the only “tale of the tape” that truly matters is the one recognized by the Pope and Young Club — the national organization that records big-game animals taken with a bow and arrow. Pope and Young scores mountain lions based on the length and width of a cat’s skull. Although a 60-day drying period is required before official measurements and scores can be tallied, Paulek’s cat stretched the tape at a very respectable “green score” of 14 7/16.
Although Paulek had hoped for a measurement over the 15-mark, she says the score was insignificant when compared to fulfilling this journey. Without a doubt, the lion and the hunt far exceeded any of her expectations.
Honored to Harvest
“I’m honored to have had the chance to harvest this large, mature lion,” said Paulek. “To me, he represents every lion I’ve had the opportunity to pursue and catch, as well as every memory I’ve cherished during the last three years. It’s only fitting that I do this remarkable animal justice by having a life-sized mount done. I’m also looking forward to enjoying the meat and sharing it with friends and family.“
For Paulek, harvesting a Colorado mountain lion with her bow was truly a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment and one of her most-prized hunts. But she has no intention of resting on her laurels quite yet.
“I’m continuing toward my ultimate goal of getting as many different species with my bow as I can,” expressed Paulek. “I’m at the point now where much of that will depend on the license-draw results. I will continue to apply for moose, sheep and goat, which are all dream hunts for me here in Colorado. Until I’m given the opportunity to pursue these species, I will continue to learn more, scout and work toward becoming a better hunter, so when my chance comes, I’ll be prepared.”
Colorado Mountain Lion Brochure
For more information about hunting lions in Colorado, season dates and license availability, be sure to view the Colorado Mountain Lion Hunting brochure. Brochures are available online, at statewide licenses agents and at Colorado Parks and Wildlife service centers.
To learn more about lion hunting, please read Tips for Hunting Mountain Lions.
Article by Jerry Neal. Neal is the senior videographer and a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.