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Mountain Lion Hunting: Where, When, and How to Hunt North America's Big Cats

Mountain Lion Hunting

Here is all you need to know about mountain lion hunting.

Mountain lions, cougars, whatever you want to call them. They are one of the most elusive predatory big game animals live in North America right now.

Not many hunters consider going after these big cats, but the few that do really enjoy it.

If you've been considering a cougar hunt, we've got you covered with all the information you might need to start planning for lion hunt today.

What states allow mountain lion hunting?

While mountain lion populations are present in many states, not every state has one large enough to make hunting sustainable. Thus, only a few places in the United States allow the hunting of these animals.

As of today, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada allow some form of mountain lion hunting. The Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta also have seasons.

It is worth noting that in some states hunting seasons are extremely limited, and licenses are doled out via a draw system, drastically limiting your odds of getting one. For instance, South Dakota only established an experimental season back in 2005 and it's open to residents only. The harvest numbers are extremely low. In 2019, South Dakota Game and Fish set a harvest limit of 60 mountain lions at the most, but only 21 were taken.

Nebraska also held their first experimental season in 2019. While the quota was eight cats, only one was taken.

Fees for hunting licenses vary by state, but for most locations you're looking at anywhere from $12-50 for residents and $180-390 for non-residents. For most of the top lion hunting states, places like Montana, Utah or Arizona, you can get a tag over the counter.

As for the best states to hunt, Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Arizona are considered tops as far as success rates and trophy mountain lion numbers are concerned. These are also some of the easier states to get a license if you're visiting from out of state.

When is mountain lion season?

Most North American big game species, like black bear, whitetails or mule deer, have specific hunting seasons that are similar from state to state. This makes hunting mountain lions seem even more confusing because it's as if there is almost no rhyme or reason as to when seasons are open for these big cats. Some states like Arizona and South Dakota have open season all year round.

In Wyoming the season runs from September 1 to August 31, but in Utah the season runs from November 9 to March 31. In many states, the season dates are often further broken down depending upon the hunt area that you are planning to visit.

To make things even more confusing, some states have seasons that can end suddenly and unexpectedly if harvest quotas are met. These quotas are sometimes based on sex. Once a certain number of female or male lions is harvested, that's it for the year.

Some states close individual seasons by hunt area as these quotas are met. Before you hunt mountain lions in one of these states, make sure you do your homework on past harvests to make sure you don't buy a license for an area, only to have it close before your trip.

How to hunt mountain lions

Hunting for mountain lions is very difficult. These big cats already don't like humans and will go out of their way to avoid them most of the time. They're also very smart. They know when they're being pursued.

It is possible to spot and stalk these animals, but mountain lion hunters should be prepared for this style to test their skills to the absolute limit. These animals can move fast and they range over huge areas. By the time you climb that ridge to where you spotted that big Tom, he may already be gone.

This is probably why most mountain lion hunting is done with the help of dogs. These big cats are so stealthy, it's hard to pick up a lion track. But dogs can do it easily. The dogs tree the animal or corner it on a rocky cliff where the hunter can get a shot.

We'd recommend watching a video of one of these hunts before you do it. This style isn't for everyone. Dog hunting isn't legal in all states either. The subject has been one of hot debate in Oregon in particular. At one point the state banned the use of dogs before trying to reverse it two years later. Dog hunting remains illegal for mountain lions there.

Some states mandate that mountain lion hunters use an outfitter. Even if the state you're hunting does not, it's not a bad idea.

For one, it's difficult to figure out how to hunt these animals with no experience. Next, a guide is more likely to be an expert houndsmen and to have animals that are specially trained for this style of hunting. Third, a hunting guide makes for a good backup. He or she will know what to do if things don't go as planned. For instance, let's say you've got a wounded, angry puma who has holed up in a cave. What do you do? A good guide will have likely a safe solution.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at outfitters is that these hunts are not cheap. You're likely looking at anywhere from $4,000-$11,000 for a six- to seven-day hunt depending on the state and outfitter. While doing some research, I noted that Montana mountain lion hunting outfits seemed to be the priciest. Big Sky country is also probably your best chance at an exceptionally large cat.

When choosing an outfitter, you may see terms like 1-1 or 1-2 on their websites. These terms refer to one guide, one hunter or one guide, two hunters. This allows you to customize the hunting experience. If you can wrangle a buddy to go along with you, you might be able to cut the costs of the trip down a bit.

One guide site I saw offered a reduced rate hunt for the following season if you were unsuccessful your first outing with them. Not a bad idea if you want to get the most bang for your buck.

Another great thing about hiring a guide is their knowledge of the rules and regulations. Sifting through info on a state wildlife agency's website to find out exactly what tags you need to buy for a specific hunt area can be frustrating. A guide can tell you exactly which ones to buy, no guesswork required.

What caliber should I use for mountain lion hunting?

Let's talk gear. For rifles, you're going to want a round with a decent amount of firepower. We'd recommend something like .300 Savage or Winchester Magnum, 300 Blackout, .300 Lapua, .308 Winchester, .30-30, .30-06, .45-70 Government and .444 Marlin.

You may think some of these are overkill for the size of the animal. That's fair enough, since many lions don't get much larger than 110-140 pounds. But keep in mind these are dangerous animals. Even more so while wounded. Ideally, you want to put the animal down quickly and cleanly with one shot. Why take chances or let the animal suffer more than necessary?

For handguns, there is some disagreement over what a good lion round may be. We'd say going with something at least as large as .44 Magnum is better safe than sorry.

Cougars are not an animal you want to mess around with when it comes to taking the shot. A wounded lion could get desperate and could injure dogs, your hunting buddy or yourself severely. Make sure someone is backing you up before you take the shot.

Most standard archery gear used for big game will work for mountain lions. One thing to remember is that your shots are most likely going to be aimed above your head either in a tree or high up in the rocks. Most of us are used to shooting down from a treestand and not up. Make sure you find a safe way to practice this type of shot in the weeks before your trip.

As for other gear you may need, make sure you have a quality pack to hold all your gear. A good pair of optics is a must. A lion's coat is perfectly designed by nature to blend into the landscape and spotting them can be quite a chore.

Lastly, get a solid pair of comfortable footwear made for hiking. You are probably going to have to do a lot of moving at high elevations over extremely rough terrain. Don't skimp on your feet or you'll be regretting it later!

Other considerations

When you are successful in your harvest, just be aware that you will more than likely have to check the animal in with a state wildlife agency. Unlike many other big game animals, checking in a mountain lion is almost always mandatory. State biologists want to gather as much information as they can about these animals. They will want to look over your kill before you butcher the meat or take it to a taxidermist.

Make sure you know where the check stations are for the state you are hunting. Most states mandate you get your lion checked in within 24 hours of the harvest. That means if you're in a remote area, you may have to double time it.

Some states also require you have some proof of the animal's gender when you check in, so double check to see exactly what they will take as proof before you field dress the animal.

Lastly, it's imperative we emphasize the fact that you shouldn't hunt mountain lions alone. This is a dangerous animal often found in very remote areas. It never hurts to have a buddy watching your back.

Follow this guide, and you should be well on your way to mountain lion hunting, and hopefully doing so successfully!

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis Youtube channels

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Mountain Lion Hunting: Where, When, and How to Hunt North America's Big Cats