The Race Was On
I can still hear the music of the hounds as they sang "treed" across the canyon. Their voices had changed from the erratic bawling and howling to a series of staccato barks no longer moving through the dense underbrush and trees of the lush countryside. This was what I'd come to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington to hear; the announcement by a pack of hounds that they had treed a bobcat.
Our hunt had started early Saturday morning, the 10th of February. I was hunting with guide Kevin Blankenship of Forks, Washington. Kevin operates the closest thing to a guaranteed hunt, as he keeps taking a hunter out until he's successful in bagging one of these elusive 18 to 30 pound cats. I've spent thousands of hours in the woods over the past 37 years and have seen only two bobcats in the wild.
Along with my son-in-law Steve Felbinger, and friend Stan Nelson, I met Kevin at 5:15 AM and headed southeast out of Forks for our day's hunt. The weather had turned from clouds and rain to clear and cold and everything was covered with a crystal layer of ice and frost that sparkled in pre-dawn moonlight. It promised to be a wonderful day for hunting. About 20 miles out of town, Kevin put several "strike" dogs on top of the truck and we slowly cruised the logging roads waiting for them to catch the scent of a cat recently in the area. Kevin runs a group of well-trained and disciplined "Walkers" and is extremely successful in chasing and catching the bobcats and cougars so plentiful in this area. When the strike dogs get a scent, they open up with barking and jump from the truck. If the scent is fresh, they're off and running. If it's too old, they sniff around a while and return to the road.
We spent the next 12 hours covering as much territory as possible. Though we got several cold strikes, we didn't hit a track fresh enough to set the dogs to running. It turned out to be a day of sightseeing as we inhaled the beauty of the Olympic Mountains and the freshness of the Rain Forest. What an incredible day!! When Kevin dropped us off at the motel, we were ready for a good night's rest.
He picked us up at 4:50 AM on Sunday morning and our spirits were soaring, as again the weather was beautiful. The stars were glowing like cats' eyes in a crystal sky but the temperatures had risen enough to thaw the ground and leave a film of moisture. It was perfect weather for bobcat hunting. This time we drove southwest from Forks and eventually looked out over the Pacific Ocean. We could hear the roar of the waves in the distance and see them as they crashed against rocks on shore. With four strike dogs on top, we began driving the roads. Several times the dogs hit a cold track but nothing to get excited about and we were beginning to wonder where the cats were hiding. About 9:30 all four dogs began barking and jumped from the truck. They sniffed around but were quiet, so Kevin called them in. Three dogs came, but Dixie was gone. Kevin called and called but she wouldn't return and wasn't making a sound.
After 20 minutes, Kevin turned a receiver on and we heard the constant beep from the radio collar Dixie was wearing. She had gone down into the canyon and would only occasionally bark or bawl. Each of Kevin's dogs wears a radio collar to aid in locating them should one get lost. But now, rather than waste time waiting for Dixie, we left her and continued hunting in another area. Half an hour later, when we returned, we could still hear her down in the canyon, but the barking was more frequent and with more intensity. As we sat in the sun eating some lunch and listening to Dixie, Kevin decided to set a few more dogs loose. Like radar, they honed in on her barking, and were off. What music we listened to as the sounds of their baying echoed across the canyons. The race was on.
Before long, Kevin had released the rest of his dogs and we followed the sounds of their barking as they chased a cat. My blood pressure peaked when Kevin finally said his dogs were barking treed. I grabbed my bow as my hunting partners snatched the camcorder and backpacks. Walking in the forests of the Olympic Peninsula is an experience in itself. It took us what seemed like an eternity to hike down into the canyon, wade the stream, (thank goodness for Gore-Tex boots) and pick our way up through the trees and downfalls to where the dogs were doing a tap dance around the base of a large evergreen. Stan spotted the bobcat perched on a limb about 60 feet up. As Kevin gathered and tied all the dogs, we looked for a shooting angle and got the camcorder ready. I had a two-inch target to hit the cat.
I judged the distance to the tree horizontally to be about 18 yards and vertically about 60 feet. I decided to use my 20-yard pin and slip the arrow just over the branch and into the target, but I knew it wouldn't be easy. Being careful to take a solid stance, I aimed and released. The arrow went about one inch under the limb and rattled through the branches above. The last thing I wanted was to have the cat climb even higher in this huge tree. I wondered how these cats knew how to pick the tallest trees around? I nocked another arrow and took aim. I didn't compensate quite enough and the arrow slammed into the limb directly under the cat sending him fleeing to the trunk where I could no longer see him. We picked our way around the tree looking for another shooting lane. Finally, when I was almost directly under the cat, I could see his underside as he stood with his hind feet on one limb and his front paws on a higher branch.
Having never shot straight up before, I made the mistake of raising my bow arm before drawing. By doing this, I lost the draw distance between my shoulder and anchor point. In drawing the extra distance, I had to move my head into an awkward position just to see my sights. (If I had it to do over, I'd draw the bow in a natural position and then bend backwards till I was on target.) I was uncomfortable as I released my third arrow and it slipped between the cat and tree missing the vitals by about 2 inches. Kevin had warned me to bring lots of arrows as he'd watched hunters go through a dozen or more and never touch a cat. Shooting through dense trees at awkward angles isn't as easy as one might believe. I inhaled several deep breaths and took aim for the forth time. After my release, the cat sprang up the tree another 20 to 30 feet and out of sight. I was sure I had hit it this time though. A few seconds later, he made his non-stop voyage to the ground and was dead almost immediately.
I was elated to find that I'd just harvested a large mature tom with a beautiful winter coat. After having him tagged by the Washington Department of Fish and Game, I took him to Zach Wise of Rainier Taxidermy where he's being mounted lying on a branch in a relaxed pose. It just doesn't get much better.