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Elk Camp: Coming down from the mountain

For the past five years, my friend Larry Large and I have outfitted elk and bear hunts on a ranch located in northern Colorado, not far from Wyoming’s southern boundary. This is rough, wild country and game is plentiful. It’s one of the few places that I know of with such a large population of black bear. Elk are always plentiful here and because we hunt during the September archery season, before snowfall triggers the resident elk to migrate to lower, warmer valleys, the animals are using their summer pattern of bedding in the black timber up high and moving into the valleys and lower elevations during the day to feed and water. 

Each season is a unique challenge. It’s impossible to anticipate just what will transpire during the few weeks we spend in the mountains. We’ve been hunting the high country long enough to come to expect just about anything and everything and we know how to prepare for most things that can go wrong. We carry spare parts for the electric “buggies” that we use to transport ourselves and clients to the hunting areas each day.  Conditions such as slick roads and the occasional mechanical problem are to be expected. We have all had some closer than desired encounters with bears but this year a hunter and I experienced a very close call with a mountain lion. Recalling the incident causes the hairs to raise on my arms! Here’s how it transpired!

Chris Brunner decided he would like to have a big bear rug and some bear steaks and sausages for the freezer. Chris had been concentration on elk for a couple days and decided to spend a day with me bear hunting. I know of a remote little water hole that has always been a hotspot for bear, especially on warm, sunny afternoons when the bruins like to go for a swim to cool off. By early September, they already have a good start on their warm winter’s coat and when the afternoon temperature soars in to the seventies (warm for northern Colorado), they enjoy a refreshing dip in the cold mountain water.

The little water hole has a bank on the upper end that is cloaked in oak brush. The bank rises a few feet above the water and is the perfect spot to ambush game coming in to water. I situated Chris in some cover above the pond, in a spot that afforded good visibility and shot opportunity for approaching bears. I then settled in behind some brush above the pond. My plan was to text Chris when I saw an approaching bear or, possibly elk coming to water.

All was quiet for about an hour then I heard rustling in the brush and the very excited Chris appear walking toward me, backwards, his eyes fixed on the spot where he had been hiding.

“Luke, you won’t believe this, but I just starred death in the face at a mere 12 feet!" Chris blurted out. "I was setting quietly, waiting and watching for bear and when I looked to my right, there he was, a full grown mountain lion. He was facing me and I could see the muscles in his shoulders move as he crept forward.”

I gave Chris a moment to gain his composure and he resumed with his account of what had just occurred.

“I didn’t hear him at all, I just looked to my right and he was there. I was at a loss for what to do," admitted Chris. "Should I jump up and walk toward him? Would that cause him to pounce on me? Or should I remain still and maybe move around a little bit on the ground? I was confused and probably a little bit in shock. This is not an everyday occurrence and I’m sure my subconscious was working overtime. I found myself moving around a bit and the cat looked at me more intently and then simply vanished as though he were a wisp of smoke. Then, I saw his long tail and head in the brush above me. He had circled above me to gain a better position for attack.”

This is when Chris wisely decided to back out of there, keeping his eye on the cat. His cool head under extreme pressure possibly prevented an attack. Since the pond was a red hot spot for bear, or at least it had been before the apex predator in the area moved in, I decided that we should hunt the spot again the next day. I never dreamed the cat would return. I set Chris up on the opposite side of the pond, in a much more open area with just enough cover to serve as a make shift natural blind. I was a few yards above him in a spot that afforded good visibility to the entire area. About an hour before dark, I spotted movement in the area above the blind where Chris had the up close and personal encounter with the lion. Sure enough, the big cat was back.

I let it walk out of cover and then stood up, waving my jacket above my head in efforts to scare him back into cover. He did not scare easily. He set on his haunches and glared at me from across the little pond. In an attempt to scare it off, I mouthed a few words and walked toward him, again waving the jacket above my head.  I was more concerned for Chris than myself because he was much closer to the lion. The lion moved to the shadows to the brush and set glaring at me. I motioned to Chris to follow me slowly out of the little basin we were hunting.

As we slowly departed, keeping a watchful eye on the lion, the animal crept a few feet closer to us and continued his cold, predatory stare. I snapped a couple of images of the cat with my cell phone that I wish were of better quality so that I could share them with you here. We estimated the lion’s weight at over 100 pounds. When notified of the threatening lion, the ranch owner vowed to remove him when the season opens later this fall.

A day earlier, Bryan Hancock, another of our hunters, had another big mountain lion round a bend in a trail where he was elk hunting and approach within 25 yards before disappearing into the aspens. Until this encounter by Chris with the cat almost within spitting distance, Bryan’s encounter was the talk of the camp. The close 12 feet encounter obviously dominated the talk around the campfire the remainder of the hunt.

We all experienced some great elk and bear hunting, the outing was not all mountain lion drama. A hunter I was with saw a migration of eighty head of elk pass by just out of bow range. But, I’m positive the lion encounters will be the dominate topic among those of us that actually saw the big predator.

On a much more tame  note, on one of my day’s off, I used my Airforce Airguns .25 caliber rifle topped with a Sun Optics scope  to collect some Dusky grouse for the mid day meal. Dusted with flour, fried until golden brown and then slow cooked in a cast iron Dutch Kettle for a couple hours with mushroom gravy, grouse make for some mighty fine eating!

Outdoors writer, radio host and book author Luke Clayton has been addicted to everything outdoors related since his childhood when he grew up hunting and fishing in rural northeast Texas. Luke pens a weekly newspaper column that appears in over thirty newspapers.