Michael Abell

Apex Predator in the Utah Mountains

Michael Abell
Apex Predator in the Utah Mountains

Hunting in grizzly country takes on a whole new feel. The knowledge that you are in the territory of an apex predator, that could kill you in seconds, adds a sense of adventure and adrenaline that cannot be easily described. Every strange scent that wafts through the air, causes you to pause and investigate. Every bear track stops you in your tracks. Any stick that snaps behind you, causes a rise in adrenaline and your senses become fine-tuned, razor sharp and you feel especially alive. When you’re certain there’s a grizzly in the area you can almost taste the iron in your own blood as your heart races. If you actually see one, you’ll never forget it as you sort out the situation and evaluate the threat. I’ve hunted in grizzly country. I have also hunted grizzlies. I have a very healthy respect for North America’s largest predator, but I don’t worry about them. I prepare for them and have a plan, that allows me to hunt in grizzly country and enjoy it, without being paranoid or bear-a-noid.

The apex predator that gives me pause and worries me a bit is the Puma Concolor – the mountain lion. While attacks on humans are rarer than bear attacks, the mountain lion’s skill set and hunting technique is far more frightful in my opinion. They are expert ambush predators. Many folks throw the term “expert” around too loosely. Lions are absolute experts and there is nothing loose about that adjective in regards to their skills. They kill and eat one deer per week. Think about that, it takes roughly 52 deer or deer sized animals per year to feed a mature lion. Now, let’s talk about a few facts. They are poor runners, but are powerful short distance sprinters. So, they must get within a few feet of their prey undetected. The last time I checked, deer have better senses than humans and lions get close enough to take a deer once a week, every week. Mature male lions can be as tall as 36” at the shoulder, can reach 9’ in length and can weigh 220lbs. Mountain Lions also have the largest range of any large predator in North America. Thus, many more people have hunted in mountain lion country than in grizzly country. I often wonder how many times a lion has stalked within mere feet of a human, just to see how close they could get. I also wonder how many times a lion has been close to me on a backcountry hunt and I didn’t even know it. The thought causes me to look over my shoulder and I’m sitting in my office right now.

So, it was with a healthy respect for these cats that I started looking for an opportunity to hunt them. I spent a lot of time researching different lion hunts and learned quickly that most outfitters hire a houndsman and subcontract the hunt out to them. The outfitters I spoke with were knowledgeable and talking to them was insightful, but after I spoke with my first houndsman directly, I knew I wanted to find a houndsman who ran his own business. I was fortunate to find Lionsback Outfitters. The owner, Chris Gressman, spent a great deal of time on the phone with me and after we talked I stopped looking and booked the hunt.

Chris picked us up at the airport in Salt Lake City in late December. We would be hunting over the New Year’s holiday, because that’s all the time I could get off work, as I was still an active duty Army Officer at the time. We left the airport and started driving toward the Wasatch Mountains. Along the way we got acquainted of course, but I stopped talking and started listening when Chris began discussing his hunting strategy. He reminded me that hunting lions is easier if there’s snow on the ground and that there was not much snow right now. He also reminded me that the hunt would have been easier if I would have drawn a tag. But nevertheless, he was absolutely committed to getting me a public land lion on an over the counter harvest objective tag. Tomorrow morning, we would drive to a trailhead in sub-zero temperatures, drop the truck off and start trying to “cut a track” on snowmobiles. Aline and I were so excited we could barely sleep.

Upon arriving at the trailhead, it was impressive to see the system Chris used. He pulled a big custom trailer with snowmobiles and dog boxes with a heavy-duty diesel truck. He very quickly unloaded the truck, loaded the snowmobiles and we were off. As we departed the trailhead, Chris was up front, pulling a dog box on skis behind his machine. I trailed with Aline holding on behind me on my machine. The excitement I felt leaving the trailhead smoldered in my chest like a coal burning stove and the bitter cold grey morning rolled off my back like so much water off a duck. As we climbed into the mountains, the sun cut through the somber grey sky and burnt off the clouds, revealing a bluebird gorgeous day. It was not long before we found a dead moose carcass and stopped to inspect it. Chris was surprised to find it and I was shocked. After scouting around, we found only bobcat tracks and moved on. The day came and went without cutting a track, but what an amazing day it was. Even if we weren’t lion hunting, a day snowmobiling through the Wasatch Mountains was more than enough fun for day 1. We stopped and got dinner. Then we moved on to the hotel nearest the next trailhead were we would start in the morning and got some rest.

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Painful is the only way to describe how cold it was the second morning. I will never forget driving past the local bank and seeing -14F on the sign. At that kind of temperature hypothermia and frostbite are serious concerns. Aline and I had spent some time before leaving Kentucky double checking all our gear and rehearsing our survival skills. So, on the outside chance a tragedy occurred we were ready. Plus, we were hunting with an extremely competent and skilled houndsman, so we didn’t worry. Still, -14F is painful – thank the good Lord we had the excitement of the hunt to help keep us warm and our skills to give us confidence. The second day came and went. We never stopped, from sunup to sundown, we drove our machines through the mountains, always on trails, some snowy and some barren and rocky. Alas, we cut no track. As we drove to the next hotel, again nearest a different trailhead Chris wanted to start on in the morning, we talked about public versus private land lion hunting. Chris was positive and upbeat, but made it clear that the lack of snow across the Wasatch Mountains and the pressure put on the lions by the myriad of public land users, not just hunters, upped the degree of difficultly for the hunt. I took it all in and tried to learn anything I could from this experienced man. I also realized that if we got it done, the fact that it was on public land with an over the counter tag, would make me that much happier. Really, I could not come out any other time. I was a Lieutenant-Colonel commanding an infantry battalion and the holiday around New Year’s was all the time I had to do it. Chris gently reminded me that if I were more flexible and waited until they had a good snow, that we would have cut a track by now for certain. Well, hell – if we didn’t get it done – so be it. I was certainly having fun snowmobiling with my lovely wife and trying to find a lion.

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            The quiet in the truck was heavy, as we set out on the third morning. We were going to a different area, with the same game plan and playbook. Driving through the mountains I drifted off and was in my own world, thinking about some far-off land or future adventure, when Chris abruptly stopped the truck and rudely brought me back to the present. He jumped out and checked the snowbank on the side of the road, we just cut our first lion track. Aline and I were ecstatic as we watched Chris inspect the track. The lion had crossed the road not long before we drove on it. He was not far away. How Chris spotted the track from the cab of his big pickup as we drove through the predawn grey light is beyond me, but I was certainly impressed. We had to get to another area and off the road before we could let the dogs go. We got the truck to a safe spot. Then Chris walked them into the forest away from the road, up the cold snow covered north face of a ridge and let them go where the lion tracks crossed into public land. As the dogs climbed the mountain, we were able to watch them with our binoculars. The snow on the north face of the ridge provided a stark contrast to the dogs and it was a memory I will never forget. Chris tracked them using their GPS collars. He drove us around in the truck and kept us in range of the dogs, which was exciting and warm. About 10:30am, the dogs lost the track of the lion on the south face of another ridge that was barren of snow. It was apparent they were going to be there a while figuring out which way the lion exited that snowless area. Chris asked, “Are you up for a hike?” We both responded, “Yep”. Just like that, he found an appropriate place to park the rig, we checked our gear and away we went. Aline was a trooper! She never slowed and kept up for the first two hours as we hiked from 6,000 to 9,000+ feet on broken trails and spotty deep snow. Finally, we got to where we thought the dogs had the cat treed, but we could not see it. We dropped our heavy packs and Aline volunteered to “guard” them as Chris and I made the final push. Well it was not the final push. How could it be? That would be too easy, right? The dogs continued and so did we. By the end of the day and nearly 14 miles covered on foot, up and down some of the steepest terrain Aline and I have ever hiked, the lion made it to his home base – a farm. Yep, this lion appeared to be living in the hayloft of a barn. Chris said very bluntly, “It happens. Lions are more plentiful than people think and they sometimes live right under their noses.” Chris went to recover his dogs and Aline and I hiked back to the truck. On our way back to the truck, we realized it was New Year’s Day – what a day, one we’d never forget.

            When the clock went off at 3:30am, I woke Aline and then tried to get myself moving – sore, stiff, tired are all good words to describe the fourth morning in the hotel room. By the time I was tying my boots, the promise of a new day had washed away any remnants of the last three days of lion hunting. I was springing out the door with my beautiful bride in tow. Once in the truck Chris went over the game plan. We would simply run the playbook again (1) leave in subzero temperatures (2) offload the snowmobiles at a trailhead and (3) ride the trails until we cut track, or the sun went down. It felt good to pull my ski goggles down over my eyes and give Christ the thumbs up. He was optimistic about the new day and that gave us a spark too. As he sped away in front of me, I felt Aline’s grasp as she wrapped her arms around me on the back of my machine and I thought, “Thank you God, I am a lucky man.”

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            We were not alone on the trails today and passed a few folks doing some off-roading in the 4x4s. It drove home the public nature of our hunt and we pushed deeper into the mountains. Chris seemed to slow down and look at things on the side of the trail more often today. Was I imagining it or was there more sign today? Mid-morning, he stopped and said he’d seen a track earlier he wanted to go back and give it a second look, that it was maybe last night’s track or yesterdays, but it was certainly a lion. We doubled back and upon further inspection as the sun was starting to crest the southern sky, Chris decided to put the dogs out on the track.  It was off the trail to the north and went straight down into a deep snow filled canyon. He said if it was fresh enough for the dogs to follow we would know shortly. Well it was fresh and the dogs took off with tongues wagging and snorting smiles. We sat and talked, sitting on the snowmobiles and watched the progress of the dogs, visually at first, then on Chris’s GPS.

The sun was strong and after an hour of waiting and watching the dogs, we were all warm enough to take off our outer layers. We were happily soaking up the sun, when Chris stopped talking and walked back to his machine. He brought me back a radio and said, “The dogs have crested the mountain above tree line and are on the other side of the ridge. I cannot hear them, but the GPS says they’ve got a cat treed, which could really mean they are stuck on a dry spot and there’s no cat at all. I will climb down into the canyon and up the other side until I can hear them. If they’ve really got a cat treed I will know when I hear them. Take off all your extra layers, get your rifle ready, and listen for my call on the radio.” All I could say was, “Right, got it.” I was so excited. Then Chris pitched off the trail, down the steep bank, into the canyon and was gone.

Twenty minutes later, we saw him climbing the other side of the canyon up the north face of the mountain above tree line. Then I heard it, “Mike they’ve got a cat treed – go.” I kissed Aline and took off down the hill. The snow in the bottom of the canyon was old, crunchy and deep. I struggled through it as best I could. Out of the canyon bottom and climbing the north face, I had to paw my way through dense layers of scrub trees and bushes. That’s when Chris’s second call came in, “I’m sure it’s a lion they’ve treed. Haven’t seen it yet. Come on buddy.” I responded, “I’m rolling.” I was still moving pretty good, when I cleared the brush into the timber and a line of dog hair thick blowdowns. My heartrate was in the yellow on the tachometer, as the snow got shallow, but the north face got steeper. I was climbing on all fours like a mountain gorilla as fast as I could go, when the third call came over the radio. My heart leapt and my legs began to feel like concrete when Chris said, “Mike they’ve got a big tom in the tree. Not sure how long he will be here. You still with me buddy?” As my heartrate began to run into the red on the tachometer all I could get out over the radio was, “Yep”. Oxygen was at a premium as I finally broke through the trees onto the barren ground above the tree line. Even though I stripped down to the thinnest layer I thought was safe, I was sweating profusely and took my watch cap off and stowed it in my pocket. The shallower snow and the fact that I could hear the dogs pumped life into my burning legs. I was doing the best I could to climb, when Chris’s fourth call came in, “Mike you still with me?” I did not answer, all available oxygen was being used to move as fast as I could. In a few moments, I was over the ridge and down into the timber on the other side. The sound of the dogs grew louder and it sounded like the sweetest symphony I’d ever heard. Chris was crouching and looking up when he saw me. He stood grabbed me by the arm and pointed up into the thick canopy of the trees, “There Mike, there’s your Tom. He’s a big boy. Let me tie up the dogs. You catch your breath and get ready to shoot.” Exhausted and exhilarated I breathed deeply and forcibly tried to slow my heart rate. Then I realized the lion was in the tree top and the shot angle was severely vertical. I contemplated laying down to shoot straight up, before I decided instead to lengthen the shot by walking uphill about 20 yards, which would put me nearly level with the lion’s vitals. I found the limb of a spruce and leveled my Marlin Model 1894 lever action rifle on the lion’s chest. Chris was right, he was a big Tom. I took a couple deep breaths and watched the lion. The powdery white snow, the green and smoky blue of the spruce, the thinness of the air, the dark grey brown of the tree trunks, the smell of evergreen, the baying and barking of the dogs, the feel of the rifle in my hands, the cold air on my naked head, the sweat rolling down my spine, the magnificent gold of the lion’s hide and the piercing menacing stare with which he regarded me are forever burned into my memory. Chris finally got the dogs tied up, climbed quickly up to me and said, “Whenever your ready, take your time.”

My heart leapt and my legs began to feel like concrete when Chris said, “Mike they’ve got a big tom in the tree. Not sure how long he will be here. You still with me buddy?

Just as soon as I feel the first pad of my experienced dominant index finger on a trigger, I autonomically remember my infantry training and in my mind, is quietly replayed…. breathe, relax, aim, squeeze. I took one final deep breath, cocked the hammer, relaxed, put the bead of the front sight in the bed of the buckhorn rear sight, centered it on the lion’s heart and began to squeeze the trigger. In my memory, the rifle’s report happened in slow motion and I saw the slow moving 225 grain .44 Remington Magnum bullet fly, impact just about the lion’s heart and the Tom fell dead out of the tree. But, I was shaken out of my slow-motion trance by Chris’s leap into the air and down the mountain after the lion. I stood still and asked myself out loud, “What happened?” Chris was gone, no one heard my question. I said, again to myself out loud, “Did I miss? No, I could not have missed. I saw the bullet hit the lion.” I don’t know how much time passed, but like being jerked out of a dream I heard Chris say, “Mike, let the dogs go, I cannot find the cat!” I sat my rifle down and started downhill to the dogs. I stumbled and began to feel ill. I said out loud to myself again, “I missed? How could I have missed.” Then I dry heaved and forced some vomit back down my throat on the second heave. I reached the dogs and began to undo their tangled lines from their mooring, when I heard the most glorious calm voice coming up the mountainside, “Oh wait. No worries. The cat fell dead into a snowbank. I walked right passed him. We got him.” Then I collapsed, stared at the sky and thanked the Good Lord.

I’m not sure how long I laid there, so happy and almost in tears. The emotions of having successfully taken a lion and the sweet sadness of triumph only hunters know, washed over me, as my body started to shake. The adrenaline that had kept me warm was gone and I was a shivering mess. Chris climbed back up to me in no time and we celebrated a bit as he guided me down the hill to my lion. We dug the lion out of the snow bank and I marveled at God’s creation. A nearly perfect predatory animal now laid on the ground in front of me. I inspected his retractable claws, his teeth, his jaws, his ears, his coat – what a beautiful beast. I stood back up and smiled widely at Chris. We had done it.

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Chris asked, “We can take pictures, before I skin and debone him right here or do you want to drag him out to let Aline see him whole?” There was no thinking involved in those options. Aline was as big a part of this hunt as Chris, the dogs, the lion and I were. We had to drag the lion out. We decided to drag it uphill and back down the way we came was not an option. So, we went straight down the mountain, through the blowdowns, deep snow and brush to the frozen creek bottom. Then we went around the mountain that we went up and over earlier. It took a few hours and poor Aline was alone on the snowmobiles waiting and hoping the whole time with no idea what happened. Poor me too, I learned I was allergic to mountain lions along the way. The longer we dragged, the redder and more swollen my face became. I also left a trail of snot on that frozen creek bottom, that rivaled any of the giant snails of Africa. As we worked, Chris explained that it happens regularly and a few of his clients have had severe reactions. There is no way to know beforehand, so now he carries an epi pen just in case. I am not allergic to anything or at least I wasn’t – until I learned I was allergic to mountain lions. Now, on my annual physical when the doctor asks, “Allergies?” I get to respond, “Mountain Lion, no kidding, want to hear the story?”

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The look on Aline’s face was worth the hours it took to drag the lion back to the snowmobiles. We celebrated, took pictures and enjoyed an hour of precious daylight. Chris and I discussed taking the time to skin and debone the lion but decided it would be safer to use the daylight to drive out of the mountains. We would worry about the skinning and deboning later, it was cold, and the meat would certainly not spoil. The lion was too big to strap to the seat behind Chris on his machine. He strapped it across the top of his dog box on skis that he pulled behind his machine. The lion was so big his head and his shoulders hung off one end, his hips hung off the other end and there were three full grown hounds in that box. By the time we got back to the trailhead it was dark and bitterly cold. We were too tired to skin and butcher the lion. I decided to spend the money and let a taxidermist do it in the morning after we checked it in with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

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After a great dinner celebration, we went to a hotel close to the Salt Lake City Airport and crashed. We spent the next morning slowly regenerating some energy and power in our tired bodies. At breakfast Aline said proudly, “You know you climbed the mountain just as fast as Chris yesterday. I timed it from when he left us, until he broke tree line. You made it to the tree line in about the same time.” I responded, “Wow, thanks baby, but Chris was navigating and talking on the radio like he was out for a Sunday stroll. All I had to do was follow his footprints in the snow and go as fast as I could. My heartrate was redlining and I couldn’t even answer his radio calls by the time I climbed above tree line.” Chris picked us up and we checked in the lion at the UDWR. Then went to the taxidermist, paid him to skin and debone it. Then we did the paperwork to have the lion delivered from Salt Lake City to my taxidermist in Kentucky. Just like that, the hunt was over, but what a hunt! I was so proud of the team and I could see it on Chris’s face when he dropped us off at the hotel to rest up before we flew out the next morning. Aline and I simply rested in the hotel, well Aline rested. I was a sneezing, snotty, allergic mess for almost ten days.

Post script –

Since hunting my lion I’ve talked to many people who think mountain lions are somehow threatened or endangered. I am not sure what gives people this idea, but I suppose it is the laws in certain western states like California, where lion hunting is illegal. To tell the truth, I am not sure where their misplaced idea about mountain lion populations comes from. The truth is that lion populations are growing. Lions have pushed across the Midwest and are pushing across the Mississippi River back into the eastern United States as we speak. In Utah this year, the lion season started in November and does not end until May. In the units we hunted, the objective harvest was 33 lions. There were 32 total units or hunting areas where the type of permit I bought was valid in Utah. In 8 of those units the harvest objective was, “unlimited”. Yes, ladies and gentlemen “unlimited”. In the other 24 units, where a “harvest objective” was listed the range was as many as 29 in a single unit to as little as 4. The total harvest objective for the 24 units listed as something other than, “unlimited”, was a total of 324.

It is important to remember that trained biologists who work with diligently to determine population densities of species and the carrying capacity of the ecosystem set the harvest objectives for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. That is not unique in North America, that is the norm in North America. In fact, the North American model of wildlife management, is the gold standard and is envied by every other nation in the world. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation explains it best at this link:

http://www.rmef.org/Conservation/HuntingIsConservation/NorthAmericanWildlifeConservationModel.aspx

If that harvest objective of the 24 listed units, 324, seems like a lot of lions – remember that lion numbers are growing. What you might not know is that mule deer (mountain lion’s chief prey species) numbers have been shrinking. It’s more complicated than simply mule deer and mountain lion’s direct relationship. Lions are generalist predators and can survive on many different types of prey, but where their ranges overlap, lions predate as much as they can on mule deer. Mule deer are poor “generalists” and require specific types of habitat and forage. Encroachment on their habitat was already hurting their numbers, before growing numbers of predators, not just lions, but wolves, black bears and grizzlies became a reality. But just to throw a number at you – 324 lions eat roughly 324 mule deer a week or 16,848 mule deer a year. Now, certainly 324 lions on the landscape would also be eating sheep, cattle, young horses, pet dogs, coyotes, alpacas, ponies, pet cats, etc. The fact remains that a lion must eat a deer or deer sized animal weekly. So, that’s 16,848 prey animals for just those 324 lions listed as the harvest objective in those 24 specific units in Utah. If left unchecked the population of lions would certainly outstrip the prey species and deer, moose and elk would be the first to go; then sheep and cattle in unacceptable quantities to ranchers; then house pets and worse. The fact is that lion populations must be kept in balance with the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. Man has been on the planet long enough to change the balance of things and now we must rebalance every single year, based on solid science, to keep nature in balance in the wake of human progress.


Recipe –

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED, “SOUP TO NUTS” TO SERVE UP YOUR OWN LION ADVENTURE -

Ingredients:

____ A willing soul, a semi-stout heart, good legs, feet and hips – priceless

____ Time Off – one week – 7 x what you get paid daily

____ Tag – Utah Non-Resident Harvest Objective Permit and license $358

____ Houndsman – approximately $4,000

____ Firearm –  you should already own it

____ Round Trip Plane ticket - $350

____ Ammunition - $100 (5 boxes of 20; 4 for practice and 1 for hunting)

____ Clothes –  you should already own it

____ Ski goggles - $40

____ Boots –  you should already own it

____ Pack –  you should already own it

____ First Aid Kit –  you should already own it

____ Survival Kit –  you should already own it

____ Food & Water – Breakfast $8; Lunch $8; Dinner $25: $41 per day x 6 days = $246

____ Hiking Stick(s) –  you should already own it or can make them yourself

____ Taxidermy – in Utah to skin and flesh $155; price varies upon amount after that your choice

____ Shipping – FedEx overnight frozen to my taxidermist from Utah to Kentucky - $306

 

Directions:

Start by finding a houndsman who books hunts themselves, not necessarily an outfitter. All the outfitters I spoke with took a cut of the price and subcontracted to a houndsman. The trips booked directly with houndsmen, that I researched were all cheaper than those booked through an outfitter. Obviously, I recommend Chris Gressman at Lionsback Outfitters. Remember that the entire price is not due at once, usually a deposit of 30% to 50% is due the year you book the hunt and the remainder is due the following year when you take the hunt. So, the cost is not “all at once” in that regard. I recommended a lever action rifle with iron sights chambered in a large pistol caliber .357 or better. I used a Marlin Model 1894 chambered in .44 Remington Magnum. The firearm will have to be with you on every chase and along for the ride on snowmobiles, ATVs or horses - lightweight and durable are key. Also, remember the bullet does the killing, so make sure you have a well-made bullet. I used the Hornady Lever Revolution 225 grain Flex Tip eXpanding. Remember that lever action rifles have a tubular magazine, so a flat nosed or polymer tipped bullet is just safer, so you don’t have a spire pointed bullet touching the primer of the bullet in front of it. Many weapons will dispatch a lion, so if you decide on another weapon, consult your houndsman before you make the final decision.  Obviously, the less gear you have to buy, the cheaper the hunt will be. You can do this hunt in your best cold weather whitetail gear and don’t need any specialty gear other than ski goggles. Food and drinks are your choice of course. The way we did it you ate quick in the morning and got on the road. Then we snacked all day, really whenever you stopped. Finally, we had a good healthy dinner and crashed into our beds. You can find ways to get cheaper or more expensive plane tickets, that’s your call. You could also drive, but that would require more days off work, so that’s a tradeoff. Now that I am retired, I drive if it is at all practicable. That way I can get there on my own time and do some sightseeing along the way. I also have a freezer in my 4x4 RV, so in this case I probably could have saved some serious money on shipping and having a taxidermist prepare the hide to ship. Truthfully, skinning and rudimentarily fleshing of the hide is included in the price of the hunt, but since we dragged it out for Aline to see it, we didn’t have time. It was simply safer to drive the snowmobiles back in the daylight, than to spend the remaining hour of daylight skinning and deboning the lion. Actual packing lists are something I can share directly via email or I am working on posting them via my YouTube channel; that includes overall packing lists and lists for smaller kits like first aid, survival, etc. so you can simply check there and stay tuned.

Total Cost:

$358                Tag
$4,000             Houndsman
$350                Plane Ticket
$100                Ammunition
$40                  Ski Goggles (I didn’t have this and it was the only “must have” I didn’t have)
$246                Food
$155                Taxidermy in Utah
$306                Overnight shipping of Cougar hide/head via FedEx
$500                Incidental expenses and folding money
$6,055             Total

So, as far as “trip of a lifetime” goes. You could put $20 in a coffee can once a week for 303 weeks (5.8 years) to have the trip of a “lifetime”. If you can afford to save more, well then, you’ll get there that much faster. I compared prices with multiple outfitters and they were all $5,500 to $6,000 just for the hunt. So, by picking a houndsman like Chris, you get the whole trip for about the same price.