Stick & String Cougar Hunt

By Dave Spellman
May 29, 2006, 08:35


It's been several months now since my lion hunt with Leroy and Annette Nielson of Sunrise Outfitting, but every second is still fresh in my mind. I suppose that happens when the course of events unfolds to a dramatic conclusion as my hunt did on February 20 of 2006.

Born and raised in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, I grew up with fishing and hunting as a part of my life. I can't imagine not having them entwined in my existence. As a young teen I dreamed of many exotic hunts I was sure I would get to experience as an adult. Life has a funny way of working out differently and most of those dreamed about hunts remain just that.  Hunting our American Cougar, Puma, Mountain Lion, or as the mountain men of old called it....Catamount, was one of those hunts. When my 59th birthday came and went I decided it was now or never.

Finding Matt Burrows of Stick and String Outfitters is a story in itself so I will just say I spent months researching lion guides, and just two days short of booking with a different guide when my Traditional Bowhunter magazine arrived with an article on lion hunting and there was Matt's contact information. (Dec./ Jan. 2006 issue) It only took a few questions from me and answers from Matt for me to realize I had finally found the right connection. Matt booked me with guide and houndsman Leroy Nielson who offers something hard to find in the world of lion hunting. Leroy has "dry ground" lion dogs. Most guides need fresh snow for their dogs to pick up the lion's scent and stay on the track. Leroy's dogs can work tracks in the dry dirt and the pace can be such that you can walk along with the dogs watching them unravel the trail. Having dry ground dogs is a real plus, upping your odds of punching your tag. Think about it - you travel halfway across the country to hunt for the needle in the haystack which you need to find in one week or less out there in ten thousand square miles of rough country and the dogs need fresh snow? That's why I chose Leroy. Little did I know good dogs weren't all he has going for him. His success rates and the number of big toms he leads his clients to will tell the rest of that story.

Leroy hunts a huge area in the southwest corner of Utah near St. George where he lives. He also hunts most of the southeast corner of the state near Blanding, Utah where his brother Lloyd lives (Matt also books for him). Lloyd Nielson is also a houndsman and guide and owner of Sunrise Outfitting. On certain occasions the brothers will team up and guide two hunting buddies at the same time.

On the first day we found three sets of tracks. Two were females with kittens and the third was either a large female or young Tom, but the track had some age to it so we decided against turning out the dogs.

A lot of time is spent searching for the track you decide to let the dogs loose on. Be prepared to put in your time on this because it leads to one of the most important decisions of the hunt. Rely on your guide's expertise. I was blessed in this regard. We cut the track we wanted on my third day at 11 A.M.. The hunter who came after me used 6 of his 7 days trying to find the right track. By the way, he scored on a mature tom weighing 170 pounds with a 14-1/2 inch skull.

The third morning greeted us with fresh snow. Although not required for the dogs it was a welcomed change and provided for great photos in an already beautiful place. Around 11 A.M. that third morning we cut a heart-stopping track that left no doubt and no question. Larger in size than a big man can spread his hand, this was a big mature tom and the track was smoking fresh.

Letting the hounds loose was a sight to behold. They went to work before they had all four feet on the ground and were busy baying and trailing a moment later. Something of interest I would like to mention here is that I fully expected to hear barking dogs for a solid week as we drove around with all the hounds in their boxes in the back of the pickup, but to my pleasant surprise those dogs never made a peep until they were turned out on the fresh track.

A few hundred yards from our starting point we discovered the big cat’s scratching and scent marking, further reinforcing that it was a tom.  Then the dogs took us up the mountain in half a foot of fresh powder. The air got thinner, the climb got steeper, and my legs turned into rubber. I worked out for months before the hunt, but little could be done about the lower levels of oxygen at 6500 feet. We stopped often to let our lungs catch up with our feet and I was relieved to see I wasn't the only one looking for oxygen. At one point in the ascent I had to stop and put on my gloves as the steepness of the climb had me on all fours clawing my way upward in the fresh snow. It took us several hours to reach the crest where we took a short rest, rehydrated, and listened for the hounds. It wasn't long before we picked up the baying of the pack far away and down the opposite side of the mountain in an area of rock ledges and outcroppings my guide was familiar with. Leroy listened intently and said the dogs don't seem to be on the move anymore and are barking "treed.” Boy, that got the juices flowing again and everybody seemed to get their second wind at the same time!  Down we went, slipping and sliding our way toward the dogs, often using our butts for brakes and grabbing for bushes and branches to slow our descent.

I remember Leroy saying something about getting close and my mouth feeling like it was stuffed with microwaved cotton balls. The rubbery feeling in my legs changed from what the mountain had done to them into what the anticipation of what was going to occur next was doing to them. I remember thinking everything that has happened so far had been Leroy's effort, planning and execution, but in a few moments the spotlight would be turned fully onto me, the old guy from Wisconsin with a little wooden recurve. That put a lump in my throat the size of a Volkswagen.

Suddenly, as we slid out onto a rocky outcropping, Leroy told me to get an arrow on the string and get ready to take my shot. I had not yet seen the lion and didn't realize we were as close as we actually were. A step and a half later I was eye to eye with the big tom. Almost at the same elevation as us because of the rock ledge we occupied, the big cat was twenty feet up a Ponderosa pine sitting perfectly in a cat sized opening. The sun had him well lit and I went into full predator mode, dropping to one knee to set up for the shot. I vaguely remember someone telling me to get closer, but I was already committed. The distance looked to be 28-30 yards and my instinct told me I could get it done. My fear in getting closer was spooking that cat out of the tree for another long chase or worse yet losing him to darkness. So, this was it.

As I drew my bow, huge white flakes began falling as if on cue. They stuck to my brow and melted on my lips. It was absolutely magical and those brief seconds are etched in my memory as long drawn out moments in which the rest of the world just stopped. Nothing else existed, just me, the bowstring touching my cheek, the feel of the taught string in my fingers, and the little bitty spot right behind the lion's front leg. Even the rest of the lion was not present in that surreal realm.

The frozen moment began to thaw and I surprised myself with the release. The arrow was on it's way. Then everything took on a blur and lurched into high speed as if to try and make up for the slow-mo segment.

The shot was good although not spot on. A rare occurrence, the big cat died in the tree, fixed in a handcuffed position by a fork in the branches. It was a quick passing. Less than twenty seconds from the arrow's impact the lion was lifeless and stuck in the fork.

The total elapsed time since turning out the dogs.... six hours. It was now five o'clock in the afternoon.

It has been several months now since my hunt. My family and a few good friends have enjoyed a number of lion dinners. One of note was prepared with fresh morel mushrooms. I must agree with all I have heard and read about lion meat as great table fare. What a shame so many hunters don't know the truth or have some stigma about eating a cat. It's not a cat, guys, it's a lion.

The Nielson's have become friends and I hope to spend some hunting time with them again, though I doubt that I will hunt another lion. It would be pretty hard to beat the one I have. I would like to tag along and video a hunt just to be out there spending time with Leroy and Annette.

As for my lion, at 175 pounds with an empty stomach, he measured 7 feet-8 inches nose to tail before skinning. He had a 35 inch girth just behind the front legs and the skull scored 15-3/16 inches (Boone & Crockett is 15”) not dried for the required two months. I have been told by a Pope & Young scorer to expect about 1/16 shrinkage. This may make my Lion the fourth largest bow kill for Utah in the last ten years and about 25th all time P&Y.  I don't know how it would rank as a stickbow harvest.
Am I happy I chose this hunt? My legs are still shaking. Can't you hear them knocking?
My equipment: I used a 52-inch Golden Hawk Magnum recurve made by Steve Gorr of Cascade Archery. It pulls 60 pounds at my draw length. My arrows were Gold Tip Hunters with Wensel Woodsman broadheads. I freed up my hands with a bow hammock sort of thing made especially for me by a gracious mother-in-law. That thing proved to be a real plus and I highly recommend something like it. I wore a fanny pack to carry water, snacks and so forth. Good, comfortable, broke-in hiking boots are a must.

If you want the hunt of a lifetime, let Matt Burrows of Stick & String Outfitters book you with Sunrise Outfitting and spend your week with Leroy and his dry ground lion hounds.  But don’t delay as many of the available dates for 2006 and 2007 are booking up fast.  You can contact Matt at (303) 524-2461,, or visit his website at to learn more about all the bowhunts he offers.


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