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Bill Troutwine: It's Not Smart To Wrestle A Mountain Lion

Editor's Note: This is a hunter's story, with some graphic descriptions of an exceptionally close call with one of North America's most capable predators. Reader discretion is advised.

By: Bill Troutwine

A Montana Christmas Story

One of the main reasons Donna and I moved to Montana was for the hunting and the winter sports. Winters in Big Sky were fantastic, with three and four feet of snow and sometimes more. Donna and I would snowmobile all over the mountains all winter long.

Usually for Christmas, we would go to the Lone Mountain Ranch. Every Christmas Eve, they would have a horse drawn sleigh ride, that went about five miles back into the mountains to a big log cabin, where they would have a Christmas dinner that was prepared on a huge old wood cook stove. We would eat dinner by lamp light, and chat with friends and at about midnight, we would all take the sleigh ride back to the ranch headquarters. There was only room for about thirty people, and tickets would go on sale about two weeks before Christmas. When the tickets were sold, that was it, there was no more, and if you hadn't purchased one you were just out of luck.

One winter Donna and I didn't get our tickets in time, so we didn't get to do our normal Christmas dinner in the mountains. I suggested we do something different, so I contacted a Forest Ranger friend of mine, and asked if we could go up to an old fire tower ranger station on Lookout Peak in the Gallatin National Forest. This station was actually a small living quarters for a ranger to stay in, during fire season, but it was closed in the winter. Sometimes rangers and game wardens would use the station during elk season, but no one used it this time of the year. My friend said sure you can use it, and he gave me the combination to the lock. He said there was plenty of wood already cut and stacked, but we would need our sleeping bags and bring plenty of food, because they had emptied the pantry before leaving for the winter. He said, "Use it as long as you want, but be sure to secure everything well, and remove all food before leaving, so in the spring, the bears don't try to break in."

It was snowing on Christmas Eve. Big beautiful flakes were slowly falling to the ground. Donna and I loaded our snowmobiles with food and sleeping bags. We had a little dog, Cody that we had to take with us. Donna took her big down filled coat and put Cody inside of it. He crawled around to where his head was sticking out of the top of the coat directly under Donna's chin, but his body was still in the warm inside her coat. We started the ten mile snowmobile ride up the mountain to the lookout tower. About half way up, the snow had gotten so deep and fluffy our snowmobiles kept sinking in the snow and getting stuck. The snow was about four feet deep, but if I could keep my speed up, I could stay on top and travel over it. I told Donna to let me go as far as I could, then when I stopped, she was to follow in my tracks and come to where I was. After about two hundred yards, I would lose speed enough that I would sink back down in the snow and get stuck again. Donna would then catch up, and we would repeat the whole process over again.

During one of my stops, I noticed a big animal had made a deep trail through the snow. It looked like he would leap, then sink in the snow, and then leap again. I got off to examine the tracks, and I discovered it was a mountain lion's tracks, and they were very large. I estimated it to be at least a 150 pound male. I showed the tracks to Donna, and then we went on fighting the snow until we reached the tower. We went inside, and I built a nice hot fire, and Donna made some hot chocolate.

We set around drinking our hot chocolate and admiring the beautiful snow covered mountains, letting our bodies soak in the heat from the warm wood fire. After warming up, I told Donna I thought I would take my snowmobile and follow the mountain lion tracks and see where he was headed.

I started following the tracks. They went back into the thick timber, and it seemed they kept going and going. I had gone about as far as I could go on the snow machine, and it was getting close to dark, so I decided I had better turn around and head back to Donna and the security of the fire tower. As I was turning around, the light was growing dimmer. I started feeling a little uneasy and thinking that cat was up there looking for food and was probably very hungry. I reached inside my coat and pulled out my 44 magnum pistol and checked it to make sure it was loaded. I knew it was loaded, but it was something comforting in opening it up and looking at the six 240 grain hollow point bullets inside. I rubbed my thumb over the top of the bullets and swung the cylinder closed, hefted the pistol in my hand, and feeling satisfied with it, I placed it back in its holster under my jacket. I started back up the trail I had just come down. I hadn't gone 100 feet, when I saw fresh cougar tracks in the trail I had just come down. That cat had gone out the ridge, and when I stopped, he circled me, no doubt, sizing me up. Then he cut into the trail I had just made. I was again following the cat tracks. This time the tracks were going toward the fire tower where Donna was.

I began to get a little concerned, hoping Donna wouldn't go outside to get wood or anything. She also had a pistol, but Donna had a bad habit of not taking it with her if she just walked outside for a few minutes. As I got near the tower, I saw where the cat jumped off the trail, and it looked like he went out another ridge still looking for a deer or an elk to kill for a hot meal.

On entering the warm fire tower, I excitedly told Donna about my near encounter with a mountain lion. I told her if she had to go to the bathroom (outhouse) during the night, wake me up so I could go with her.

We woke up the next morning, to probably the most beautiful Christmas I have ever experienced. It was cold, maybe minus 10 degrees, but the sun was out and the snow on the surrounding mountain peaks was sparkling and glowing with golden rays dancing down from the sun. It was a gorgeous day. Donna and I stayed there until we ate the little Christmas dinner. She had prepared a delicious meal of eggs and elk steaks. We sat around letting our meal settle. At about 2:00 PM, I told Donna we had better start our ride back to the house if we wanted to get home before dark.

We started back down the mountain, and about 300 yards from the tower, there were two sets of lion tracks. One was the large cat from the day before and now a new smaller cat had joined him. Probably sometime during the night, they started following our trail going down the mountain. These cats went about three fourths of the way down the mountain before they left our trail.

Our trip the rest of the way home was uneventful, but my close encounter with the lions had sparked a deep desire in me to go mountain lion hunting and collect one for my trophy room.

I became so obsessed with getting a mountain lion, that every time I was in the mountains, I would look everywhere trying to find lion tracks. Just seeing the tracks would excite me. My close encounter on Christmas Eve had sparked a desire in me that could only be quenched by going on a mountain lion hunt.

Through the North American Hunting Club, I met Bruce Ramburg, a lion hunter from Oregon who had a pack of hounds. We made a deal. He would take me cougar hunting if I would take him on a pack-in elk hunt.

This was the beginning of a friendship that started in 1995 and still lasts today. Bruce and I have been on many hunts together, including deer, elk, bear, and moose hunts. We have been on thirty or more successful cat hunts, three of which I killed for myself, two mountain lions and one lynx. The rest of the cats were cats we chased down for our friends. Many of these hunts have very interesting stories attached to them, but the one that stands out the most in my mind was in Libby, Montana in December 1999.

Dean Upright from Edmonton, Alberta Canada, is a friend who I also met through the North American Hunting Club. Dean had taken me on a black bear hunt in Alberta in 1998, and now I was repaying the favor by taking Dean on a mountain lion hunt in Montana.

Dean drove down from Edmonton, and Bruce drove up from Coos Bay, Oregon. Tim Conway, my God-son, drove up from Louisville, Kentucky and met up with me at my home in Winnett, Montana. Tim and I were to drive to Libby and meet the rest of the guys. A fifth friend, Butch Keller, met us in Libby. I have been on many hunting trips with Butch, including a grizzly bear hunt in Nome, Alaska.

We all met in Libby, the evening before the opening of lion season. There was lots of good tracking snow, and we had high hopes of getting in some great lion hunting. We were going to try to get a lion for Dean. We had spent a couple of days looking for lion tracks, and finally, we found a fresh set crossing an old logging road. We released the dogs on that track, and after a two hour chase, they treed a lion up the side of a very steep mountain. We started making the climb up to them. The snow was waist deep and very slick. The going was slow. We would climb up three steps and slide back two. Finally, we reached the tree where the dogs were. A female cat was up the tree. It was a large mountain lion for a female, probably 110 pounds or so. Bruce asked Dean if he wanted that cat or did he want to wait and try to get a big tom. Dean decided to take the cat. Bruce and Dean climbed further up the mountain side where they had a good clear shot at the cat, and Bruce had a good camera shot, as he was going to video the kill.

Dean is from Canada and never shot a pistol before because handguns are illegal in Canada. He didn't bring his rifle down from Canada because of the hassle getting it across the border. When it came time to shoot the cat he asked, "Can someone hand me a rifle?"

All of us were carrying pistols, and Tim handed his pistol to Dean. He told him, "Sorry but no one has a rifle with them. It looks like you are going to have to shoot it with a pistol whether you like it or not."

After a very short lesson in shooting a handgun, Dean shot the cat. The shot was worse than a clean miss, because it hit the cat back, just in front of the back legs, without making any quick damage, which made her one very mad mountain lion.

The cat jumped out of the tree right in the middle of the pack of dogs. All the older dogs had enough sense to stay clear of her mouth and claws, but Bruce had a nine month old pup that he was training. The pup wasn't smart enough to avoid the business end of the cat. He rushed right in. The lion grabbed the pup in her mouth, crushing his neck in her powerful jaws, and almost shaking him to death.

I was down lower than everyone else and probably only 20 feet from the lion and dogs. Bruce yelled at me, telling me not to let the lion kill his pup. I started to run toward the lion; and hopefully, scare her into dropping the pup. I slipped, and my feet flew out from under me. I went sliding down the steep mountain side in the loose snow flat on my back. I came to rest directly under the lion. She was standing on my chest. Her face was no more than a foot from my face, with her yellow eyes staring coldly into mine. I could actually feel her hot stinky breath on my face. Probably, the only reason she didn't immediately sink those long yellow fangs into my face, was because she still had the pup in her mouth. I knew I had to do something, and I had to do it quick, or I would be the next thing in her mouth.

My right hand went down to my side. My fingers were groping for the butt of my 44 magnum pistol. My left hand went up grabbing the pup's collar. The fingers of my left hand were actually against the side of the lion's mouth. I pulled the pistol from its holster and brought it up towards the lion's head and at the same time pulling the pup to the left, so when I brought the pistol into shooting position, I wouldn't shoot the pup. As the pistol came up with my right hand, the lions head was twisted around from the pulling motion of my left hand. I was able to place the pistol barrel directly against the skull by her left ear. I pulled the trigger. The cougar instantly fell dead on my chest.

Blood from the wound in the cat's head, and from her nostrils sprayed in my face and all over my chest. I pushed the lion off me and started to get up. The rest of the guys were getting to me now and were grabbing me, pulling me up, and saying, "Oh my God, how bad are you hurt?"

I said, "I'm fine. I'm not hurt at all." They said from where they were it looked like she was chewing on my face, and when I raised up; they saw all the blood on my chest and face. They thought for sure I was badly injured.

The pup had a thick leather collar on with a heavy brass name plate. The lion had bitten through the brass plate and through the heavy leather collar, and had done considerable damage to the pup. Because of the collar, the cougar's teeth did not penetrate deep enough to damage the spine or the juggler veins, however there was plenty of tissue damage. With some antibiotics and several stitches, the pup slowly healed, and became one of Bruce's best lion dogs, and I vowed never to wrestle a mountain lion again!

Although, I have been on many lion hunts since, I have never had the same drive as I did before that hunt. It seems that incident tamed my desire for mountain lion hunting. I still love going lion hunting, but it's not the driving force it once was. The hunger that was created on a mountain outside of Big Sky, Montana that Christmas Eve, was satisfied on the side of a mountain outside of Libby, Montana in December of 1999, some five years after following the lion tracks on Lookout Mountain.

Author's Note: There are many names for the mountain lion, depending on what part of the country you are in. In some places, it is referred to as mountain lion or just plain lion, and other places it is called cougar. In the South, it is referred to as painter or panther, and in the Midwest it is referred to as catamount. In the Southwest and in Mexico, it is called puma; whatever, you call it, it is a big powerful cat that is capable of killing an 1800 pound moose, and is one of the fiercest predators in North America. More people are attacked by these cats each year than by grizzly bears. As far as the danger involved in cat hunting, I would say in this country, only man and grizzly bears would be more dangerous to hunt.

Lions are found in over half of the states. The largest population is in the Rocky Mountains, but there are some cats as far east as Florida. There have recently been reports of occasional sightings in the Great Smoky Mountains. Lion populations are definitely moving east, and increasing just as the coyote did some thirty years ago.

This story was posted on 2014-12-21 09:41:37
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Bill Troutwine's First Mountain Lion

2014-12-21 - Montana - Photo Troutwine family .
This is my first Mountain Lion. - Bill Troutwine

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Bill Troutwine's 2nd Mountain Lion, at home in Pellyton, KY

2014-12-21 - Pellyton, KY - Photo by William Troutwine.
My 2nd lion. He is a 150+ pound male, and he resides with us in our home in Adair County. He is one of my most prized trophies. To answer a question some of you are thinking now: Yes we eat mountain lions. It is surprisingly good. It looks and tastes like pork loin. - William Troutwine

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