Hunting America's Little Leopard

This might not be Africa, but the excitement of hunting North America's spotted felines is through the roof.

The deer was not just dead, but freshly killed—and it wasn’t deer hunting season. Quite the contrary, it was opening week of spring turkey season at Pisgah National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. A logging crew had been using the forest road for a salvage harvest of pine trees felled like jackstraws during a freezing rain the previous winter.

The white-tailed doe was in the shallow ditch on the up-slope roadside, where the blowflies were already buzzing. I wondered at first if one of the trucks had struck the deer, or whether a poacher’s bullet had killed her before he was forced to flee the scene as the headlights of an oncoming log truck illuminated the illicit affair.

A closer examination showed puncture wounds on both sides of the neck, penetrating the jugular vein or carotid artery and, most likely, both. Engulfing the windpipe, the biting teeth had crushed it, suffocating the doomed doe while simultaneously cutting the blood supply to her brain and lungs. There were no signs of struggle. It was an instantaneous kill.

Quarter-sized pugmarks in soil bared by logging activity told the story. A silent killer had stalked the deer for 50 yards. The predator had the high ground in its favor as it crept along, parallel to the deer’s line of travel along the road below. Hiding behind a freshly cut stump, it pounced when the deer came within range. It had to re-grip only once, with its left paw making two sets of punctures in one shoulder. The right forepaw’s claws ripping into the back of the deer’s head held fast.

Grass kicked on the carcass and the scent of urine gave away the identity of the perpetrator. It had eaten a tiny bit of meat from one hindquarter that wouldn’t have made a decent hamburger. In wildlife management classes, I’d been taught that a bobcat might be able to kill a fawn or, perhaps, an adult deer if it was bedded. With new evidence at hand, I hurried the half-mile back to my pickup to fetch a camera for documenting the kill. I returned to find new pugmarks. The bobcat had eaten a second helping, expanding the raw-meat cavity two-fold.

I scanned the surrounding terrain nervously, uphill and down, for 360 degrees. It’s an eerie feeling, knowing you’ve been watched by eyes that can pierce dense brush like an X-ray machine. I slipped back down the road and didn’t make another turkey sound until I was well clear of the area.

In the 40 years since, I’ve seen many bobcats, shot a few and witnessed one more deer kill. A tiny bobcat—a yearling weighing about a dozen pounds—followed a herd of does and fawns from a deer-bait pile into a Carolina bay. A fawn’s frantic bleating scattered the rest of the herd, which snorted away in all directions. Two men can shake hands in the jungle of a Carolina bay without being able to see one another’s faces. It should therefore be apparent why I didn’t go in for a look until the following day. While the kill had been sloppy, it was successful, resulting in the bobcat making a meal of a couple of ounces of venison ham.

CHANCE ENCOUNTERS
Like most hunters, most of my encounters with bobcats have been happenstance—while I was hunting other game. Their sign is always present, but the furtive felines, which can top 40 pounds,are adept at avoiding human eyes. Nevertheless, there have been times when I’ve felt I was being watched, turned to look and could make out cat eyes peering at me before the rest of the animal’s body came into focus. The hair on the back of my neck always stands up at the thought of having my movements shadowed by a carnivore that can kill a deer.

I’ve written several stories in local newspapers about hunting bobcats. They bring howls of outrage from anti-hunting types who claim bobcats are rare. I counter with quotes from local biologists who say that in good habitat, bobcats are not rare. They’re just very difficult to see, unless a hunter targets them with intent.

Johnnie Dale (BuffaloCreekGuideServices.com) is one of those hunters. Some use coursing hounds to tree bobcats. Some blow predator calls to lure them into range. Dale hunts the spotted cats of our backyards like the great game animals they are, as America’s little leopards.

“I started hunting bobcats 13 years ago,” Dale said. “I was trapping beavers on the same streams where I hunt them now. Bobcats were killing my trapped beavers, dragging them out of the water and ruining the pelts. I also found a buck killed by bobcats and have seen other deer that were attacked but escaped with scars.”

Dale farms and hunts in eastern North Carolina, where he owns or leases thousands of acres. He traps beavers to minimize their damage, which includes flooding of the flat, swampy terrain and undermining roads and dams. At age 53, he’s been a trapper for decades, as well as a hunter, guide and outfitter. It took the trapper in him to focus on the methods he now uses to bring bobcats into view for hunters.

“My hunters take three to seven bobcats each season,” he said. “We hunt wild hogs, deer and black bears. You see hogs and deer nearly every time you sit in a stand. But it takes dedication to see a bobcat, because you might have to sit there 3 days or longer.”

On average, that’s a shorter time than it takes to see an African leopard over bait and, while the degree of difficulty might not compare, that same nagging thought in the back of your brain is always there. Align the cross-hairs on a bobcat and it will not be with the same confidence as centering them on the chest of a deer. The shakes set in. Wound a bobcat and it digs itself into the thickest cover, where it waits for you to follow. Rabies-deranged bobcats in this area have climbed into kennels and killed hunting hounds. I, for one, don’t want to rile one with a poorly placed shot. Dale warily eyed my Mossberg International 817 rifle, chambered for the .17HMR (rimfire) cartridge.

“A .22 Mag. will do it,” he said, “but I prefer my hunters use their favorite deer rifle. A .243 Win. or .22 center-fire is perfect. The hunter should use the rifle he’s most familiar with, because a taxidermist can patch a big hole in a bobcat hide. If you really want to kill one, shoot it at close range with a shotgun loaded with lead or tungsten No. 2s or larger shot. With a shotgun, you can get the shakes and still won’t miss.”

Dale traps about 40 beavers a year, freezing their carcasses for use in January and February, after deer season ends and bobcat season is still open. That time of year he has mostly hog hunters in camp, plus a few who want to try their luck at a bobcat.

“Bobcats move best in cold weather and mate in mid- to late-February,” he said. “When they’re on the move, their sign is obvious. They eat songbirds, feathers and all. Anytime you see feathers but no other bird parts, the predator was probably a bobcat. They really like cardinals, but they will also take larger birds such wood ducks and turkeys.”

We visited several of Dale’s bait stations, the first of which was a tree with a natural lean. He said any bobcat passing couldn’t resist climbing its angled trunk. “Once you know what to look for, you can check leaning trees for bobcat sign,” he said. “Look at the claw marks. I found those before I hung the bait.”

The claw marks led up to a beaver carcass he’d wired in place at eye-level. Only the bones remained, so he replaced it, wearing latex gloves to keep his hands clean. “A bobcat isn’t disturbed by human scent,” he said. “It really doesn’t care about you. In these woods, the bobcat is at the top of the food chain.”

Dale drove along woods roads, stopping to check baits. He wired beaver carcasses to logs he’d secured with wire at an angle against tree trunks and others so they dangled 3 feet off the ground. Bobcats had hit every bait, and one of them was missing. “As with hanging a leopard bait, you need to place it so the bobcat cannot run off with it,” he said. “I wired this one by the neck and backbone, but a bobcat broke it free. You might also have to put the bait beneath overhanging limbs so vultures can’t easily find it.”

Dale found the skeleton of the missing carcass, stripped of flesh. Dale sniffed it, confirming the scent of bobcat urine. He replaced the bait and doused it with bobcat urine obtained from a trapping supply outlet. “It took a big bobcat to make off with that bait,” he said. “Our cats average 30 pounds and our biggest weighed 39 pounds. This one might be bigger.”

Dale found that bobcats use game trails along creeks. He sets baits along the trails, especially where tracks show they cross water. However, he also places baits in open woods and fields nearby. Another important discovery is that bobcats are attracted to the same bait stations, year after year. He uses the same tree stands for hunting bobcats that his hunters use for deer and hogs. Baiting these other big game mammals is legal in North Carolina and one of his primary baits for them is corn.

“If you’re using corn to attract deer and hogs, you’ve seen songbirds and squirrels eat it. You’re already attracting bobcats to the songbirds and squirrels. If you up the ante with a specific bobcat bait, you increase your chances of seeing one.”

In a stark departure from leopard hunting, where the hunter enters a blind at dusk, Dale situates clients in a stand 30 minutes before sunrise and they remain until 30 minutes after sunset—the entire legal hunting day in North Carolina. Another difference is that the hunter takes the first shot presented. There’s no waiting until the bobcat climbs the tree and settles down to claw and gnaw the bait. Anything might spook the bobcat. It might have its attention distracted by a bird. During mating season, a male bobcat might just be checking the area for the scent of a prospective mate or rival, so he never climbs to hit the bait.

“The hunters who fail are those who don’t hunt long enough,” Dale said. “A bobcat can show up any time. It wasn’t there a second ago, then suddenly, you look at the same spot you’ve looked at a hundred times before and it just appears. It’s been sitting back at a distance, watching for anything out of the ordinary before committing to the bait. If you’re not seeing any bobcats it’s because they’re seeing you first. They have eyesight, hearing and intelligence beyond that of the prey they hunt and that you normally hunt. If you don’t sit still and stay quiet, they’ll slink away without you ever knowing they were there.”