GUEST AUTHOR: Jake Leonard
I want to share this story in the hopes that it may potentially save someone’s life. I want to bring awareness as this now can literally happen anywhere at any time so if my experience helps any fellow hunter, fisherman, hiker, trail runner, or anyone else in the woods for that matter then it was all worth it. I’m not the type of person who would be okay if I saw in the news somebody had been attacked, injured, or killed if I had not shared this story. I believe that if this happened to someone with less experience in the woods they may not be here today.
It’s important to know a little about my background to truly understand how this all unfolded … this will help make sense of the luck and skill that saved my life. My brothers and I were raised differently than most … The three of us grew up on an acre where my parents raised all kinds of animals; Chickens, Turkeys, Emus, Rheas, Sheep, Pigs, Pheasants, Ducks, Quail, Rabbits and the list goes on. We grew up fishing and hunting but to an extent that goes well beyond what most people think when they hear someone talk about growing up that way.
I remember helping push my Pops 2×4 truck out of ruts in the middle of nowhere, catching pheasants at midnight after thanksgiving dinner to trade to the pheasant club where we brought a number of our dogs out to hunt the wild pheasants on the edges of the stocked fields, going hunting for days instead of going to Disney World, staying up later than I should on school nights to help “candle” eggs in our incubator, overnight catfish camping trips, bullfrogging until we were covered from head to toe with mud, looking for arrowheads on lake shores, attempting to carve ducks … the list could go on and on.
We were raised outdoors, raised playing very competitive sports and that competitiveness trickled through every aspect of our lives. My Pops taught us the way of the land very early on. He taught us to respect the land and respect the animals we hunted. He taught us to pick up trash even if it wasn’t ours and to leave the land cleaner than it was left to us. I learned the art of rolling my hunting boots from heel to toe, trying to feel the earth and twigs through my boots, moving slower than you could imagine. He taught us how to identify birds and to this day he will still throw out a, “Hey Snake, what kind of bird is that?”, looking off in the distance with a grin on his face. I am very thankful for the way my parents raised us and strive to raise my baby girl the same way aside from maybe adding in a few trips to DisneyLand.
We all began shooting bows when we were roughly five years old or so. We have pictures of the three of us shooting in our backyard with arrows strewn across bales of hay as you would expect from a five-year-old archer. Before we ever stepped foot in the woods to hunt, we were all very good shots. I clearly remember when I was old enough to begin big game hunting seeing my first ever fresh mountain lion track. My pops saying, “make sure when you sit that your back is to a tree and the area you’re hunting is in front of you” as I gripped my bow tighter with just the thought of seeing a powerful animal like that in the woods. He said, “keep your eyes up, don’t get caught looking at the ground, roll your feet, look for movement, a tail flicker, an ear twitch … everything you would expect to hear from a seasoned woodsman. The lessons and tips were endless throughout our childhood while in the woods and we went on adventures/hunts all of the time. I often look back and wonder how that was possible with three kids … and I am very thankful to say the least.
For the past few years, since I moved back to California from Arkansas, I have been hunting on multiple properties very close to each other and all on public land. During the years I have been blessed to have a career that affords me the ability to hunt frequently due to the close proximity of where I live to these spots. I can honestly say that I hunt between 30-60 times over a year if you include hunting for all game species, granted most of those hunts are only the last few hours of light.
I have hunted these properties very hard, logging more miles than most people can fathom in a year. I actually tracked my daily average a few years ago in the month of October and had a seven mile average per day for the entire month. I have filled my tags just about every year on public land and have seen a lot of game in the process. I bow hunt 98 percent of the time I am in the woods, typically, success does not happen early or often.
I have had multiple trail cameras spread over miles of this terrain and have tons of pictures of very respectable deer from the effort. With that said, the craziest things I have seen on those trail cameras have been a hawk flying away with a rabbit and a river otter literally stalking a turkey (crazy!). Throughout those years there has never been a mountain lion in any of those pictures. I have never seen lion scat, not even one track and have never come across a fresh kill (which I have seen multiple times in other parts of California). I had never actually seen a mountain lion in person. Not in the zoo, not anywhere … and I’m stressing the fact that I hunt a lot. The closest thing would have to be a “pet” black panther, that I remember as a kid, this guy had on a leash off of Watt Ave, while my mom drove me home from soccer practice.
Needless to say, I never thought in a million years that I would see a mountain lion on this land for a number of reasons that make a whole lot more sense than just saying I haven’t seen one before. There were no signs that these things even existed out there. In fact, the only possible way someone could learn that property better than me is if they actually lived out there for a very long period of time. I mean, there was absolutely no way, I, nor anyone else was going to see a mountain lion out there … but here I am writing this story.
It was the 18th day of archery season and I was hunting under an archery only tag. The first couple of weeks were very rough as far as hunting goes in these woods. One that didn’t mirror any of the prior seasons before. I wasn’t seeing very many deer at all the first week neither buck nor does. I am the type of hunter who is in it for the long haul. I was going to hunt it until I figured it out again.
A week in and it began to pick up as I switched from my initial strategy. My goal for this specific evening hunt was to cover ground, going through thick cover, true riparian jungle habitat, just as slow as I possibly could. I was still hunting and on my game. I like to compare getting into hunting shape to what some would call getting into football shape. Your body starts to get used to the movements after putting miles on through hunts. Whenever I still hunt it takes me back to those days when my Pops taught me how to play the wind as it can change and swirl as it makes it way through canyons, to take in smells as they can alert you to what may be ahead, and to roll my boots in order to conceal my footsteps. It’s almost as if I can feel the same rocks under my feet that I felt the first time I took a step like that. I have perfected becoming very stealthy in the woods over the years and an unbelievable number of miles. I typically can get very close to animals nearly every time I hunt and most of the time, they have no clue I am there. As a hunter it is a feeling that is hard to describe being next to a wild animal that close and completely undetected.
I began my still hunt walking very slowly on a road with the wind blowing fairly strong into my left shoulder. I made my way into the thickest part of the riparian jungle that borders what looks like two fields but is really dried up drainage overflow ponds. The wind was now blowing directly to me as I weaved my way over and under branches that seem to go in every direction. I slowly made my way to a clearing that I had been headed for. As I emerged from the riparian habitat through a small clearing, I looked back and got my landmark.
A few deer trails followed the same route through to the entrance tunnel made up of dead branches. I used them to move as stealthy as I could. At this point I turned back toward the “fields” and realized the weed cover was significantly shorter than any year before. I was looking at a field that looked very huntable instead of looking at weeds that typically towered over my head. I used to have to follow the deer runs to have a clear path to any huntable spot while remembering my trails from seasons before. I was feeling confident my strategy was going to pay off. As I felt the wind still blowing strong in my face, I knew anything in front of me was not going to have any chance of winding me. The bottom of the dried-up drainage pond has a firm but sandy feel to it. Covered in short weeds trampled by many deer who have used the trails before me. I could move through this incredibly quietly while truly taking my time.
I began to circle the outer left edge of this field hugging the riparian habitat using my binoculars to scope the field in front of me as well as the edges of any thick cover I could see. I made it maybe 200 yards in an hour. When you’re moving that slow through the woods you begin to entrance yourself with the wild world around you. You know what types of birds are making very specific noises in the bushes as you walk. You learn the sound of a squirrel running on the ground opposed to running through, down or up a tree. You also pick up on the levels of where all of those sounds are coming from. You feel like you are molding in to nature when everything begins to start communicating from the initial silence you embark upon. Birds chirping and feeding in the underbrush, squirrels running through the sandy weeded bottoms, everything calling to each other like you weren’t there at all. That feeling is what lets me instinctively know that at our core we are predators.
One of my main loves with hunting is observing and listening to the woods come alive as my presence is forgotten. It makes you feel small, a very surreal feeling, an amazing feeling that I am drawn to at my core. That feeling is enhanced when you are completely by yourself, away from any kind of hiking trail or scrub road … right in the middle of nature … existing within it … using all of the skills I learned growing up.
I had that feeling within the first 10 yards along the edge of the field. At this point in the hunt I still hadn’t seen anything other than squirrels in the trees and birds feeding in the undergrowth. The wind was still absolutely perfect, blowing directly into me and I was more than zoned in. I was existing in nature, completely aware of all of my surroundings.
I continued following the edge as I made my way to a pinch point that lies almost smack dab in the middle of where a few very large oak trees intersect these two fields. Just as I began stepping into the second field, I suddenly heard an eruption of leaves and broken branches. I immediately knew it was multiple deer when I heard the way their hooves struck the ground as they bolted through the sandy bottoms. I counted six heads bounding off heading through the riparian jungle. As I watched them flee, I noticed the last doe stopped, at about 40 yards from me, frozen, as it looked back curiously at what had spooked her. I caught that look in my binoculars and knew in an instant that it was not my presence that kicked those deer up. The doe was looking off of my left shoulder clued into something behind me that I had not seen or heard. I knew there was no way those deer smelled me with how hard that wind was blowing and absolutely no way they heard me. The wind would have helped cover any distinguishable noise if I had made any missteps. I didn’t make any missteps. I know for certain I wasn’t what had kicked those deer up.
My first thought brought me back to the hunts leading up to this one. I had been seeing a coyote every hunt for the first week of the season and a coyote at least every other hunt the second week of the season. I thought there must be a coyote nearby that just spooked these deer, in that instant I suddenly felt like something had just breathed on the back of my neck sending chills throughout my body making the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Something felt off, something was close to me, something was directly behind me. I then heard the smallest “snap”. The kind of distinct sound that is only made by something big, something with enough weight behind it to break a twig sharply on sandy ground. Whatever it was was suddenly directly behind me. I know from experience in the woods not to make any sudden movements and as I turned slowly to look over my right shoulder, as soon as my eyes steadied I realized a mountain lion was now staring at me, right into my eyes. It was very close, at what I ranged after to be 16 yards away. I believe the only thing that held this thing up from attacking my back was that misstep. I believe that snap had it frozen. The same reaction I would have made if my prey had heard me stalking in on it.
The thoughts in my head went wild. I can only try to explain my actual reactions and write this in a way that will let you try to paint a picture of how this actually happened. It was almost as if my thoughts were background music playing in the back of my head while my body and mind instinctively took over my actions.
I was turned around and squared up to this thing with an arrow nocked and my bow still in my hand. I threw my hands, bow included, above my head and as wide as they could be in an effort to look as large as possible, I began screaming at the top of my lungs. I am 6’1, 220 pounds, and in my head I thought, damn … those deer just got away by running – yeah right you know not to do that … you run your dead! I thought, why the hell can’t bowhunters carry a side arm, that could save my life right now, I thought this thing is hunting you – keep screaming at it – as loud as you possibly can! I thought this could get bad, you’re going to be attacked by a mountain lion – it is hunting me – it can come any second!
All this as I am still actively yelling at the top of my lungs. I think, what the hell is this thing thinking I’m 6’1 220 lbs, with a pack on, with a 34” bow in my hands while screaming at it at the top of my lungs, why isn’t running off and then I realize he is set on killing me. I think, get to full draw, NOW!
As I am still screaming at the mountain lion, for what felt like forever and my thoughts were running wild in the back of my head, I knew it was too long, completely uncomfortable with the thought that I had any chance of scaring it off. I realized the lion wasn’t going anywhere. I realized this thing just followed my steps exactly. It was directly behind me for who knows how long as the wind was playing to its favor covering any potential misstep it had made before breaking the twig at 16 yards behind me. It had come through the same exact route I took to my current location 16 yards in front of him. I knew it was going to turn into a knife fight real quick if I didn’t act as my bow could only be used as a shield if I hesitated any longer. I also knew I had to keep yelling just in case I had a chance of throwing him off of his intentions and holding him up.
The lion still had not blinked once, had not flinched or moved a muscle, he was already positioned head low and ready to go from the moment I saw him. I got to full draw while screaming, “get the **** outta here!!!!” and mock lunged at it while at full draw. Still no blink, no flinch, no movement. I repeated those words desperately again at full draw as I lunged slightly forward one last time and yelled as loud as I possibly could. It seemed as if the cat and I both knew at that moment there was nothing left to do but react.
I saw the head drop about an inch and the tail flick. Suddenly, instinctively, with the thoughts in the background music to myself, I fell back to what I was taught growing up, pick a spot – leave your bow up – pick a spot – leave your bow up, I let the arrow fly.
I am convinced at this point that I had absolutely no direct control and my instincts had completely taken over my actions. Almost like someone pulled the release trigger for me as I felt my back tension. I didn’t know it at the time but it was suddenly all over. The lion that was hunting me was no longer a threat, the arrow found its mark and just saved my life. I looked in disbelief as I saw the lion crumble where he stood. It didn’t take one step.
I knew he was dead instantly. I saw the tail flick one time from nerves firing off after it dropped. I began shaking uncontrollably. I nocked another arrow, with the thought of trail camera pictures from throughout California that had mountain lions in packs. I was in the red and I was not going to be blindsided by another lion if there was one. I feverishly scanned the woods beyond the lion, and through the thickets surrounding me at this pinch point. I was still shaking and hadn’t taken another step other than pivoting to search all around me. I finally settled in on the direction the lion laid. I immediately called fish and game … a warden I had seen out there many times before who knew how well and how often I hunted the area.
I could barely get my words out over the phone trying to explain what had just happened. I managed to get out what had just played out and dropped the warden a pin so he could make his way out to my location. I told the warden I hadn’t walked up to the animal yet and I didn’t want to, that I wasn’t going to touch it at all. I accepted at this point that I was in complete shock from what just happened and took his advice on confirming the lion was dead. Through my experience in the woods I already knew it was, but I also knew that I had to confirm.
I began to walk up to it as slowly as I crept through the pinch point originally with the second arrow still nocked. As I got closer, I saw that my arrow had found its mark. I had hit the lion in his left eye and killed it instantly. I walked backwards away from the lion and called the warden back and confirmed the lion was dead. He assured me a warden was on his way.
I called my pops as he knows this area just about as well as I do and let him know what had just happened. Throughout the entire conversation none of what I was saying felt real or like it had actually happened. I looked back at the lion on the ground and realized I had just escaped this situation with my life and became so grateful for everything. For the way it unfolded. For the skill to pick up on the little things that didn’t add up, to hear the twig snap, to have been shooting a bow since I was five years old, to have stood my ground, to have pulled the trigger release when I did, for the luck that was on my side. I began playing everything through my head again, and again, and again. The situation was so surreal that to this day when I tell the story I get goose bumps, the hair stands back up on the back of my neck and on my arms. I vividly remember every little detail about the events. I feel incredibly lucky.
I called my wife and explained the story to her and that I would be home late as I was waiting for the warden to arrive. I told her how much I loved her; how much I loved our baby girl and that I couldn’t wait to get home to give them hugs. My wife is truly awesome. She understands how much passion I have for hunting, and how much time I have put in since I was a kid. After we got off the phone, she sent me a text, “Babe … nice shot, I’m so proud of you, so thankful you are ok but I never have to worry about you out there and this just further solidified that.” It made me feel incredible.
It helped me realize a lot of what just unfolded only happened because of my experience in the woods, because of the skills I have developed over my lifetime of hunting just as that lion had developed his. The mountain lion was coming for me and I had no choice but to let the arrow fly. I didn’t want to kill that animal. I had always hoped my first mountain lion sighting would be one from afar where I could truly admire it in the woods. I have a ton of respect for mountain lions, more so now than ever. The fact that archers are not allowed to carry a sidearm for protection under an archery only tag has been on my mind significantly. If I would have had a sidearm at the time, I am confident that situation could have turned out completely different. A gunshot is completely different than simply shouting at the top of your lungs. I could have shot into the ground in front of him or over his head possibly preventing having to actually kill the lion. Even if the first shot didn’t scare it off I would have others if it came at me and I am very confident it would have ended before that lion got to me regardless how it unfolded.
Unfortunately, with a bow, you simply don’t have that luxury, not from 16 yards away. I could have hit that lion in a non-lethal spot and it could have easily got to me before I could do anything other than use my bow as a shield turning it into a knife fight. I’m incredibly thankful that didn’t happen. I strongly believe that my experience should be used in trying to argue the legality of allowing bowhunters to carry a sidearm with them for personal protection.
While feeling so incredibly grateful I immediately thought about how lucky I was. I also thought about how unfortunate the situation was. It was a predator out there doing exactly what I was doing. The beauty of seeing my first mountain lion ever was certainly overshadowed by the overwhelming fact that it was hunting me. It only made one mistake that made me physically turn my head. Without hearing that twig snap I may have not made it out of the woods that day.