Don't Let the Cold Stop You
Posted by Kris Skelly - 60X Staff Shooter on Jan 10th 2023
The Cougar Hunt of a Lifetime
December 22, 2022 is a date I will always remember. As an Alberta, Canada resident, I have the opportunity to hunt many big game species on an over-the-counter tag. The ungulate species are heavily targeted during archery season, starting August 25 th right through November 30 th. When that’s all said and done, there's another season just starting December 1: cougar season.
In Alberta, cougar hunting is highly regulated using different cougar management areas or CMAs, where quotas of male and female cats are strictly adhered to. An individual CMA covers hundreds of miles of vast lands, with most CMAs having low numbers of each, where 2-3 males may be taken and 1-2 females. The harvests must be reported electronically and in person within 24 hours. Every day the hunters/guides must call in to see what CMAs are open and what sex of cat may be taken in the CMA of interest. Once a season closes, it is done for the year. Cat hunting is competitive and certain zones close to major centers are always the first to close.
A good friend of mine, Clint Taylor, guided for one of the best outfitters in Alberta, Kelly Morton Hunting. KMH is known for their selective harvests and targeting of big Tom cougars. When an opportunity came up to chase these large elusive cats with Kelly and his crew, it was something I had to jump on. Many of the houndsmen who chase cats have waiting lists. When you are one of the top guides, your list can be long and span over several years.
Wintertime in Alberta can have a variety of snow and weather conditions, ranging from temps in the single digits above zero, to temps below minus 40C and snow conditions ranging from a light skiff to several feet. Because of this, you must be prepared for almost anything.
I got the call on the 12th of December to get out and potentially get the dogs on a mature Tom. One of the main guides, Cee-Jay, had found a track with a back pad that measured close to 2.5” and a stride of 21-22” plus. Those measurements indicate a cat worth pursuing. After spending the day looking for the freshest track and using a technique known as “boxing,” we realized a pack of wolves had forced the cat out of the area we could release hounds in. The wolves pushed the cat along a river to a place it was near impossible to box him in, so we decided to re-group. I headed home to wait for the call when the guides had a handle on this cat’s location.
Back pad measuring close to 2.5"
I travel for my job, and I was caught up in the airport pre-Christmas mess, having flights cancelled and rebooked and changed almost by the minute. I got a message from Kelly on my way home while at a connecting airport and he said we must get after this cat tomorrow, “Can you make it?” I checked the weather and realized we were having some of the most extreme temps we see, -50C overnight with the morning being around -40C and the daytime high around -24C. Kelly won’t release his dogs if it’s too cold, but we gambled on the temps being ok. The snow conditions were prime, and Cee-Jay found the cat we were after.
Weather predictions for the hunt
The next day I drove a couple hours to rendezvous with one of the other guides named Butch and a couple of his buddies who were along for the fun of the chase. We then headed deep into the forest to catch up with Kelly, Cee-Jay, and Cee-Jay’s 12-year-old son, Rhyder.
We drove quite a ways back in deep snow on a single-track logging road and caught up with the main crew. Thankfully the farther in we went the warmer it got. The temps hit around -24C where we parked our vehicles.
We all geared up, as we had to use snow machines, one equipped with a special box to transport the dogs safely, and a monster of a quad that was on tracks. We travelled in for what seemed like quite a distance. I had to hop between guides and machines with my pack and my bow. If one machine was stuck, I would hop onto another and then another. I spent a lot of time doubling on the same machine as Rhyder. This young lad was a great skidoo operator and had experience beyond his years.
We finally got to a spot where the tracks were fresh, and we found a bed under a large spruce tree that the cougar had used the night before. We each grabbed a dog on leash (6 total) and headed on the track toward the river, hoping that we could tree the cat before it crossed over. Kelly found where we needed to let the hounds go. The dogs were unclipped, and they ran after the cat. We followed a short distance and Kelly went down toward the river to better determine if they crossed it or not. After a short time, Kelly came running back shouting, “Get to the machines! They crossed over!” Even in subzero temperatures, crossing a river in the winter is never fun. You must be extremely careful, and you have to determine where it’s safe to get across and back.
Bed the cougar used the night before
Kelly grabbed his snowmachine and went ahead following where the cat and the dogs crossed. The rest of us assembled and took off on the chase. As we got across the river and up the other side, we hit some steep banks and had to get up to the top where the dogs could be heard. It was musical chairs for me again, hopping from one machine to the next with my bow, making sure not to damage or break anything in the brutal cold. I ended up with Butch on the tracked quad and was told to hold on. Off we went following Kelly and Cee-Jay towards the sound of the hounds.
One of the snow machines
We got to a spot the machines could no longer go and headed out on foot toward the barking hounds, as they had treed the large cat! Kelly, along with Cee-Jay and Rhyder, got there before Butch and me and they tied the dogs off. I walked up slowly and saw the cougar in a good sized blown over tree. It was cool to see the cat that close staring down at us. Kelly and the other guides had a good look to make sure this was indeed a Tom, and it was the cat we expected to find. The way he was sitting in the tree was a bit deceiving, but they quickly decided he was a shooter. I brushed all the snow off my bow sight, rest, cams and grabbed an arrow. I made sure to give the arrow a flex in the off chance it was damaged during the chase. Cee-Jay asked for a second arrow to hold for me just in case I needed to make a quick follow-up shot.
Cat in tree
There was a small patch of snow on the cat’s fur that looked to me like the right spot to aim. I asked Kelly and he said if you can put an arrow one inch below that, that’s where I want it. I took a couple deep breaths and attached my release and drew back my bow. The pin settled and I sent the arrow on its way. The arrow hit exactly where Kelly had said to shoot and passed through. The cat jumped about 3-4 feet in the air, landed on the ground, and took off down the riverbank. I knew the shot was good and the rest of the guys knew it as well. I was really impressed that my equipment, including my 60X Custom Strings, performed perfectly after the long chase! Just to be safe, we waited about 10 minutes to go see where the cat had gone. Off we went down the riverbank; it wasn’t 40 yards before we found the Tom piled up in the snow under a tree.
Cat in snow
After some cheers and handshakes, we hauled the cat up to the top and positioned him in front of the dogs for some really stunning photos. The work wasn’t done yet, as we still had to get the cougar, dogs and the whole crew back out to our vehicles and everyone home safely.
A lot of hard work and time spent added up to a perfect result in some of the most extreme temps I have personally hunted in. This cat will score well over 14”, which puts him comfortably into the P&Y qualifying score, however this whole experience is measured by the efforts, dedication, and friendships made to meet the final goal.
Kris with his Tom cougar and a few of the dogs who helped with the hunt
Kris with his Tom cougar that he harvested with Kelly Morton Hunting
Kris Skelly is an avid outdoorsmen who resides in Alberta Canada. Kris started bowhunting with his father at the age of 16 and shoots 3D archery competitively, capturing several provincial and national titles. Kris is active in hunting and conversation effort and serves on the Alberta Bowhunters Association executive board. Kris has been a member of the 60X Pro Staff for around 10 years.
Photo credits: Kelly Morton, Kris Skelly, Butch Smith, Adrian Vos