It was December 1978 when I received word that my grandfather was home from his annual Pennsylvania whitetail hunt and had scored on a nice 10-point buck. Back in those days, there weren’t nearly as many deer running around the New Jersey woods, so anyone getting a buck, especially a 10-pointer, was big news. I ran down to see him, and after hearing the story of his success and seeing the modest rack, I asked if I could see his rifle. New Jersey doesn’t permit rifle hunting, so my experience with them at that point was limited to a .22 my dad kept for target shooting. My grandfather pulled a handmade wooden case from his closet and removed the old Marlin lever action 30-30 from within and handed it to me. I recall feeling like I was holding an antique from the old west. The finish on the stock and forearm was worn and peeling badly, and the gun looked like he had drug it home behind the truck. I asked if I could borrow it for a bit, and without hesitation, he handed it to me. I had completed several woodshop classes in school and thought I’d like to refinish the gun for him as a surprise. I disassembled it and sanded the parts down to bare wood. I restained and applied a poly finish, and in no time, the gun looked almost like new. I couldn’t wait to return it to him. With great anticipation, I handed him his rifle. He smiled but really didn’t say much for a moment or two. Then he looked up at me and handed me the gun back. I’ll never forget him saying, “You hold onto this for me. I’ll know where to find it when I need it”. That proved to be Gramps’ last Pennsylvania deer hunt because he never did come back for his rifle, and some 40 years later, I still have and cherish it.
About five years ago, I took the Marlin to a local gunsmith and had the bluing redone and it reminded me of how I always wanted to take an animal with it. I decided to make a trip out west for mountain lion. My plan was always to take a lion using archery equipment, just to add more challenge to the hunt, but the thought of using Gramps’ gun seemed to mean so much more. What a great way to pay a small tribute to one of the men who introduced me to hunting and fishing. I spent many days walking in bird fields, sitting in goose blinds, and floating around the bay fishing with that sweet old man, and today, I miss him and my father more than I can put into words.
In the spring of 2018, I spent five days hiking and riding mules through the canyons of Utah. The whole time, all that was on my mind was shooting a mountain lion with that old rifle. It was some of the toughest hunting I had done up to that point, putting on somewhere near 200 miles over the five days. We came close to a couple cats but just weren’t able to get them treed before they made their way onto the Indian Reservation or we ran out of daylight.
By the time I left for home, I had already made a plan with JT Robbins of Allout Outfitters to return in the winter when hopefully we’d have some snow on the ground. Unfortunately, my second go around with JT didn’t prove to be any better. We managed to run a couple more lions, but, once again, we just couldn’t close the deal. Being the kind of man JT is, he again asked me if I wanted to come back. My determination just wouldn’t let me quit, and we made a plan for round 3.
The 2019-2020 winter proved to be one of the warmest in a long time, and as I boarded the plane in February, I can’t say I was overconfident. When JT picked me up at the airport, we began discussing plans. The Manti unit was opening up to over- the-counter tags the next day and there was snow anticipated, so the plan was to head down there in two days. The first day of hunting we would head into the Book Cliffs to check out conditions and do our best to stir up a cougar.
At about 2:30 in the afternoon, we cut a reasonably fresh track and cut the dogs loose. They ran it until dark when we pulled them off. With a cat in the area, we elected to go back to the Books for at least another day before heading south. When we returned in the morning, we discovered the rain we experienced overnight at JT’s home was snow up in the mountains. It had dumped over a foot of the white stuff in the area we were hunting, making navigation tricky. We decided to stay in the lower lying areas and give the snow a day to settle and then return with snowmobiles.
As the morning sun rose off the horizon, we were already unloading the sleds and blazing a trail in the still fluffy powder. By lunchtime, we had cut a fresh track of a good cat and set the dogs loose again. In no time, they vanished into the snow and brush, singing loudly as they pursued their quarry. JT followed them on his GPS tracker. Maybe an hour into the chase, the dogs seemed to be hung up and JT headed out to try to help them remain on the track. I stayed put for a while and waited for assistant guide Schuyler Kaczor to come by and pick me up. He had gone back to pick up the dog sled and now the two of us were headed out to catch up. By the time we rode around the canyon and caught up to JT, the cat was treed at the bottom. We approached the tree just in time to see the cat jump and head down the rest of the canyon and up the other side.
It didn’t take long before the dogs were baying again with the cougar up in a tall pine tree. He was still antsy and looked like he might jump again, so we didn’t spend a lot of time taking photos. I circled around the tree vying for a position that might allow for a broadside shot, but the way the lion was positioned, it just wasn’t going to happen. I was almost at eye level with it as I stood with the rifle at my shoulder and the cat snarling at me. I was going to take a frontal shot but needed it to raise its head. Moments felt like hours when it finally turned to look back and I squeezed the trigger. It crashed from the tree and ran a mere 30 feet where it piled up. After three trips to Utah and 13 days of hard hunting, I had fulfilled my dream of 40 years and taken a beautiful, mature mountain lion at the same time.
By the time we took photos and skinned and cut up the lion, darkness had fallen in the woods and we were packing out by the light of our headlamps. In all the excitement of the chase, I had lost track of how far into the remote mountains we had travelled. With the dog sled full and two dogs left, we struck out to head back to the trucks. I was riding behind JT barely hanging onto his jacket with one of the hounds riding on my lap. Schuyler had another dog on his lap while we made the 90-minute ride back to the trucks. As we rode along, I looked to the star-filled Utah sky and I swear I saw my grandfather looking down at me with a big smile on his face. Next to him, my dad stood with his hand on his father’s shoulder, beaming with pride. I felt my eyes tear up and was worried they’d freeze shut as the cold wind struck my face. Of all the hunting trips I’ve taken, I don’t think anything has ever meant more to me than what I had done here.
I remember well the disappointment I felt after the first two unsuccessful trips. It was almost as if I had let Gramps and Dad down, but now, after succeeding, I appreciate the fact that I had to work hard for this mountain lion. If I had gotten it on the first attempt, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much. Gramps’ gun is back in my gun safe, cleaned and polished. It’s not likely I’ll use it again, but like Aaron Lewis sang, “I can’t wait to pass it on to my grandson.” Thank you, Dad, for making me a hunter.