An Eastern Oregon bowhunter comes face to face with a lion during last year’s elk season.
By Dan Lyons
There is no way Dad is ever going to find me. If he can even make it up the steep, rugged ridge, it would surely take a host of others to find me, or my body. I hate that he will have a helpless feeling when I don’t respond to him hailing me on my handheld radio. He will be scared when I don’t show up at the truck and don’t come out of the woods.
My kids and my wife – he will have to call them and tell them I didn’t show up. They will be devastated. My friends, and hunting buddies too. They would all feel the pain that always accompanies loss and tragedy. So here I am, deciding at this instant between fight or flight, and having no idea of the outcome of either.
I’VE HUNTED AND been very passionate about it since I was 12. I love everything about hunting, though truth be known, I am not very good at it. I have killed a handful of decent mule deer bucks, a couple whitetail bucks and have a raghorn bull to my credit. Besides a muley that I paid big bucks for through an outfitter in Montana I have had very average success here in the great state of Oregon. Maybe my lack of success is due to the fact that I like the cold beer, the campfire, the relationships with my hunting buddies and the stories as much as I like the actual hunting.
Because it’s hard as hell to draw a good deer or elk tag in my state without waiting five years between opportunities, I figured it was time to try archery hunting. Most units in Oregon don’t require a draw for a bow tag, so you can buy both a deer and an elk tag over the counter. This is probably due to the fact that killing an animal with a bow and arrow is flat out hard. Despite the texts I receive each fall from smiling hunters holding up their bulls, the many stories I hear, and the videos that make it all look easy, it seems the cards are stacked against us trying to outsmart and outduel a cagey bull with a bow. Still, with no rifle tags on the horizon I decided to go for it and give archery hunting a try.
With no rifle tags on the horizon I decided to go for it and give archery hunting a try.
I basically broke the internet doing my research. I went into discussion forums, watched every YouTube video ever made and bought every Primos and Eastman’s hunting DVD in existence. I bought some calls, sprayed some elk piss on my boots, and was ready to rock.
My father has archery hunted for 25 years and although he’s come close many times, he has never been able to close the deal on a bull. But for sure, even at 73 he was fired up to get out there with me. He is the single best person I know and any time spent with him is a good time. Typically, I rifle hunt with six of my lifelong friends, so this trip had a different feel from the beginning, and I liked it. The plan was to leave Portland on Wednesday at noon, get over there, and hunt Thursday through Sunday and then get back to work and the family. A rancher friend rents a bunkhouse near our hunting area, so we hit the easy button and spent the $100 per night to not have to deal with a camp.
IT ALWAYS TICKS me off that most hunting articles never tell you where the author was, so I will tell you. We were hunting in Eastern Oregon, north of the town of John Day at the northern end of the Northside Unit and just south of the Middle Fork of the John Day River. This all went down on Sept. 15, 2017.
Thursday started and ended with results that I’ve become accustomed to. I walked for what felt like 10 miles over large mountains, through beautiful draws, and across what appeared to be perfect elk country, but besides a few does and fawns, we drove back to the ranch without seeing or hearing a single elk. I thought this time of year they bugled like crazy and all you had to do was locate, stalk, and get ’er done. I had, and have much to learn. A touch of whiskey, some great conversation and an early bedtime closed down Thursday and we were stoked to try a new area in the morning that I just knew, for sure, would hold some elk.
There was frost on Friday and it was flat out cold. After a long hot summer, it felt like the first touch of fall. My research had told me that when the temperature starts dropping, these cold mornings really fire the bulls up, so I was eager to get into the woods. They were going to be bugling, fighting, and chasing cows, making it way too easy for us. I was where I wanted to be, at the time I wanted to be there.
A slow, steady, and quiet hunt coupled with a few perfectly executed cow calls on my Hoochie Mama resulted in zero elk seen and zero elk heard, and from what I could tell, there had never been an elk in this area, ever. The only excitement came when a grouse flushed up 5 feet from me, which resulted in only a minor heart attack. Otherwise, it was back to the truck to regroup for an afternoon hunt.
Although still in decent shape, Dad is perfectly satisfied driving the truck around as the pick-up man, maybe walking up the draw and patiently waiting for his opportunity, and he is not beyond a midday nap. After a lifetime of hunting and experience, his passion for killing a bull has waned, but his passion for being out there and being with his son are still on point.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON BROUGHT some wind and some smoke began settling in the valley from a host of wildfires across the state. After seeing a few other hunters in the area, I figured it was time to go to my secret spot, one I was confident no other hunter possessed the required grit needed to get there. Although a difficult hunt that required a straight-up assault of a mountain, the top offered a thicket that I had actually seen elk in before. Of course, that was during deer season, but there had been a good bull in that group, so I figured this mountaintop thicket was what they were calling home. It was on.
I loaded my fanny pack and lined Dad out as to where I would be coming out. I told him I would check in on the radio when I got up there and that it would take three to four hours before I was out. He asked if I wanted to take the .380 pistol to scare off bears and cougars and, because I am a genius, I said no. “I don’t want that extra weight,” I thought.
The mountain was no match for me as my excitement and adrenaline got me to the top. I sat for about 15 minutes, sipped some water, and got myself rested and calm to still-hunt this perfect piece of country and stake my claim on a 330-inch-class bull with a whale tail, huge eye guards and massive antlers that reached to the sky. My cow call was going to be too much for him to resist and I imagined him running in and offering me a perfect broadside shot at 20 yards. In my new camo, although way too small for me, I blended into the landscape better even than the trees and bushes. My dreams were about to come true.
When the temperature starts dropping, these cold mornings really fire the bulls up, so I was eager to get into the woods.
It was hot and hard to be quiet. At 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, I don’t think I was exactly walking without sound, but I entered the thicket and tiptoed toward my destiny. The trees swayed with the wind now and there was just enough smoke to slightly alter the air and visibility. I snuck into some windfalls. A few game trails crisscrossed the area and I could see a good 30 yards into this elky-looking patch of earth – a perfect spot to sit, work my cow call, and wait. It was playing out exactly as it had in my mind a million times. I backed into a bush, sat down, and blended in perfectly. I nocked an arrow and let the cow call sing its song and bring in my bull. On all the videos I’d watched, the bulls just came rolling in to the hunter, all the while signalling their excitement with loud shrieks of intent.
Nothing. No retorts to my cow call, no snapping of limbs from an approaching bull, no bugles. Nothing but the wind and the eerie calm of this elkless thicket. Thirty minutes was enough, or at least all that I could handle, so I moved my eyes right and carefully scanned my view to see if I could catch a bull sneaking in before I moved on. I scanned center, down in front of me, and slowly scanned left. This is when it all got very real, and it got real quick.
TO MY DIRECT left on the same trail I had walked up and at what I estimate to be 25 to 30 feet sat a cougar, or mountain lion. Whatever you choose to call it, I noticed this one was an adult, it was large, and it scared the absolute sh*t out of me. I’d seen prints, once, but never in my 44 years had I seen a cougar, and now one was standing a pounce away. I was in his domain and from the first instant I knew that he was in control.
Yet for the time being it had no idea I was there. It was sitting like a Labrador with his butt on the ground and both front feet planted firm out in front of him. He was broadside to me and had his eyes fixed up the draw. He no doubt smelled me, or had heard my incredible cow calling skills, or maybe he was out for an afternoon stroll, but either way he was right there and for a few seconds I was frozen. If he turned and continued on his trail, he would run directly into me. Time to make a choice. Only a decent-sized windfall separated us.
With a cougar tag in my wallet I drew my bow back, but because I was sitting, I couldn’t get high enough over the log or one of its large branches that separated me and Mr. Cougar. No shot. It was time to stand and see how this tale would unfold. My eyes didn’t leave the cat as I started to stand. I believed that when I stood he would see me and hightail it out of there and go back to being a ghost.
This is not what he did.
I stood, he squared me up and dropped down, with his belly hugging the ground and his chin maybe an inch off the ground. His eyes were green and they stared right at me. Besides his oddly twitching tail he was perfectly still. To me, he was ready to do what cougars do, which is pounce, grab, bite, rip and kill. It was a good old-fashioned stare-off for 10 seconds and I made the decision that it was time for me to take action versus wait and let him make the first move, which, in my mind meant him ripping my jugular vein out and dragging me to his lair. He was not leaving, he was not scared, and with one pounce I would be dealing with 150 pounds of asskicker and I didn’t see that ending well for me.
I drew my bow back and held the 20-yard pin below his chin. Without a 10-yard pin I had to guess more than I would have liked and due to a slight angle down to him, my only shot was his face or neck. While I want to believe I was holding steady I doubt that was the case. When I squeezed my release, the arrow left the bow and immediately the cat raised his body very slightly. He raised his right front paw and the arrow snuck under his right foot, under his body and skipped safely past his back legs with no contact. A clean miss.
Now I was in trouble.
He took three stealthy steps toward me, his chin still an inch off the ground. While his tail twitched maniacally, I recall very clearly that his body flat out did not move. Rather, this thing floated up the trail toward me, stealthy, quiet, and in control. He was ready to go and he appeared to me ready to kill.
I figured this mountaintop thicket was what they were calling home. It was on.
He took those three steps and stopped. He tucked his ears back, showed me his teeth and hissed like a house cat. He was fierce. It’s important to note that while I am calling him a he, I have no earthly clue if he was a he or a she. Either way, for the first time ever in my life I was scared. I assessed the situation quickly. I was 8 feet away from this son of a gun, holding a bow with no arrow, and absolutely nothing else to fend off this apex critter. With my options limited, I accepted the fact that I was going to, simply put, fist fight a cougar. The odds weren’t good, to say the least.
If I was going down, I was going down fighting, so I yanked an arrow from the quiver and held it in my hand. If he pounced, I could stab the arrow into him and then scream, kick, bite, punch, spit – whatever I could to make him not end me.
He held his ground, which bought me some time. I waved my arms. I yelled, “Get out of here!” three times. He didn’t twitch or move an inch. I pulled my mesh camo mask down from my face so he could see my eyes. He took another slight step toward me. As he showed me his teeth, I remember thinking, “I wonder what he last ate with those things?”
I nocked the arrow and was prepared to pull it back and get one into him on his advance. I just didn’t want to shoot again at this close range because if he pulled his Matrix trick again and dodged my arrow a second time, I felt he would for sure have no choice but to attack. I waited, and I stared back at him, ready for his pounce, and ready for a fight.
I DECIDED TO take a small step backwards. He returned the favor by taking one stealthy step toward me. I took another step back and he obliged again. I knew he was keeping me within a one-pounce distance. I took a third and arrived at a large pine tree. I stepped behind it quickly and peeked around it like you might when playing hide-and-go-seek and he remained in that position, ready to go. I got behind the tree to where he couldn’t see me and hoped like hell he would forget about me. I waited and carefully peered around the tree again. Still there.
I got behind the tree at an angle that he couldn’t see me, then backed up to try to create some space. I picked up a good 10 yards and then looked back toward my new friend. Still there, but now he was standing and no longer in that godforsaken horrible killer pouncing position. I continued to back up and was thankful I could create some space between us.
The angle I’d chosen didn’t allow him to see me, so I decided my time to fight was over and it was time for flight. I put my arrow back in the quiver, turned the other direction, and ran as fast as I possibly could up the trail. I had no idea at the time that the absolute last thing you do when you see a cougar is run. I jumped logs and sprinted uphill, and kept looking over my shoulder, sure he was chasing me. I got a decent distance away and stopped, turned around and again prepared to fight. Back down the trail the cougar was still there, staring at me, standing calmly. I imagine he was laughing at me; my heart was racing at 787 beats per minute, but I could tell his was not. I renocked an arrow. He flicked his huge tail twice, turned to his left and bounded down the canyon, away from me and into the abyss of my thicket. I noticed that his first bound was much longer than the distance that had separated us just moments earlier.
As he showed me his teeth, I remember thinking, “I wonder what he last ate with those things?”
With adrenaline still pouring through me I regrouped and again ran as fast as I could up the trail to the top of the mountain, where it opened up. I might have set a land speed record while doing so, but I remember clearly that I was not tired. My lungs did not burn. I was focused and I was acutely aware of my surroundings. Adrenaline had taken over and offered me some juice I had surely never felt before. I now believe the stories of mothers lifting cars to save their children. There is within us a superhuman element that, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t ever need to experience again.
ONCE I CALMED down and came off the adrenaline rush, I was shaking very badly. I don’t know if I was in shock, or just scared out of my mind, but I remember having to kind of wrap my arms around myself to stop the shaking. I gathered myself and called Dad on the radio.
“How about it, Dad, you down there?”
“Hey Dannyboy! You bet, just having a cold beer, and I found some cool rocks out for a walk.”
“Awesome, Dad, I will be down there in about 20.”
“Sounds good, son, I will have a cold beer waiting for you”
“Copy that, see you in a few”
As I stepped out of the woods he immediately asked, “What the hell happened to you?”
I guess my skin coloring was still somewhere back in my thicket.
We cracked a cold one and sat on the tailgate and I told him every detail of my story. In a way that only a father can, he made me feel comfortable, safe, and he calmed me down without even really trying. Since that day we have talked about it a few times and I can tell it bothered him. I just cannot imagine the pain it would have caused him if that son of a gun had attacked me. I am thankful for Dad every day and thankful for what he has taught me about hunting, and life.
I had no idea at the time that the absolute last thing you do when you see a cougar is run.
When I got home I sat my family down and told the story. My 11- and 9-year-olds were on the edge of their seat. It upset my daughter and my son is still pissed that I missed the one shot I had at the cougar. My wife was also scared, and appropriately did find some humor in it.
A quick google search told me that there has never been a reported cougar attack of a human in Oregon. The article said if you see one in the wild, you should look big, show it your eyes, and yell at it. It went on to say that no matter what, never run. Oops.
In the end it was an experience I guess I am thankful for. It is a hell of a story, one I will tell forever, and I did feel something I have never felt before. Was that cougar really going to attack me? I thought so, but maybe I just surprised him the same way he surprised me. The truth of the matter is, I will hunt that thicket again and I can’t wait to get back in there. When I do, I can promise you just a few things. First and foremost, I will be carrying my 7mm Mag and not a damn bow and arrow, and second, if I do get lucky enough to see a cougar again, I won’t run! NS