So here I am, at Dismal River Outfitters in Western Nebraska, place called Sand Hills. It is mid November 2009 and this is my third time here. Dismal guys run awesome outfit, this is one of the few places that makes me feel like home. Very nice and friendly people, comfortable and clean lodge, beautiful area surrounding Dismal River. I have always felt so good here. And I’m in for a surprise this time.
After couple of years hunting with a rifle I’ve decided to try something new this time. NIck Hansen, dear friend of mine, said bow-hunting is fun and challenging. I’m always in for some fun. Nick has helped me to get the gear and setup together, and I got a bit of practice in our garage and behind our house after killing tool box, wall and my wife’s decorative vase behind it. My wife recently bought me one of these laser rangefinders, it has improved my accuracy.
The Dismal River ranch is only 7 hour drive. We’ve arrived a bit late on Monday and went straight to bed. We have three hunting days ahead of us. This trip will be quite busy. My wife wants to kill a mouflon, one of the exotics that are available at Dismal River and I need to learn everything there is to know about bowhunting and hopefully kill a turkey and a whitetail deer.
First day of hunting. I woke up around 10am and there’s nobody around. I’m guessing everybody has gone hunting. After preparing my hunting gear and bow I’m practicing outside the lodge, trying to sight in the bow. Jimmy, guide and good friend, is coming to help me with my baby steps, then Joe, the co-owner I’m meeting for the first time is joining us to give his advice. After couple of hours I get tired and fed up with looking for arrows. I’m good on 20 yards, and feel comfortable to head out this evening for my fist bow-hunt.
Joe has setup a nice place for me – down by the river, in a small clearing with the river just behind the blind. Beautiful place, almost like a painting in the late afternoon sun. This will be nice. Joe, my guide for tonight, is quite patient and explaining me 101 of bowhunting, which in my case came down to quit making noise and sit still. Don’t move! and Sit still! are especially popular phrases of Joe, but my ass is going numb, I’ve been here for an hour and a half already. I’m full of excitement and it is so hard for me to keep it down. And the moment is finally here. And I’m of course missing my first doe, and the second one too. It is dark now and we are meeting back at the lodge with my wife and her guide John. They are sharing a story about their day pursuing mouflon and then getting distracted by finding a fresh mountain lion’s track. Apparently it is something unheard of in this part of Nebraska. Well, who cares, I’ve seen lion before but I am bummed by missing the two does. That’s my first day of bowhunting. All the excitement is gone and I’m sad like a little boy with a broken toy. Only till morning though.
Second day of hunting starts early in the morning with a little surprise. I’m being sent to hunt on my own. I’m amazed by everybody’s confidence in me. They apparently do not know me god enough. I’m 35 and still sleep with a light on when alone, and here they are, sending me to the dark strange woods all by myself. I’m a city boy that has never been alone in the wilderness, I’ve always hunted with a guide. My loving wife is telling me not be a wuss, that this wilderness is only 15 minutes from the lodge and there are no bears and wolves here. What does she know?!
It is still dark when I get on my ATV and head out to the blind, same one as yesterday. At least they gave me a radio, and I had a knife for the wildernesse in case a bear shows up. I’ve parked the ATV as close to the blind as possible (apparently not a smart thing to do when deer hunting, but hey, only one of many stupid things I do). I walk to the blind, get everything ready and sit and wait. In ten minutes it is getting brighter as sun comes up, and it seems it will be a cloudy day. I’m sitting quiet and still, just like Joe has taught me. Near heart attack comes when bunch of turkeys that were sitting right above the blind decide to fly down and land on the clearing in front of the blind. This turns out to be nice learning experience; there are louder animals than me in quiet woods, and it takes a while to settle my irregular heartbeat. Damn turkeys. For the next hour I’m watching the turkeys come and go. I take couple of pictures, and decide to test my luck today. There is about 8 hens, and 2 gobblers. I pick one, fix my scope and shoot. Hit! The turkey flops its wings three times and quiets down. I’m amazed and happy. My first official bow kill. The remaining turkeys could not care less about my success. I wait for about 20 minutes. I’m not sure what to really do, so I go and put the gobbler away into the ATV, thinking dead thing in the clearing would only scare the deer.
I’m sitting in the blind for another hour with my compact binoculars on. The turkeys came back. There is no other action, I’m taking out my camera and taking pictures of the turkeys. As they slowly leave, I’m leaning out of the blind’s front opening taking last camera shots. Suddenly I feel there’s something moving on the other side. I’m slowly backing into the blind, camera still in hand. I see big tan spot moving through the brush into the clearing. My heart beats like a bell and I forget to breathe. Instead of deer there is a mountain lion standing 20 yards in front of me, looking right at me. We both are staring at each other for 30 seconds. My professional instinct of a photographer finally kicks in, and I snap the picture. God bless Nikon for Image Stabilization system in their lenses, because my hands were shaking violently. I’ve been around mountain lions before, never wild ones and never alone, and never in Nebraska! This is for me the same like seeing a polar bear in this place. Couple of quick pictures flash in front of my eyes; cougar running towards me, cougar jumping into the blind, cougar chewing on my lifeless body, or nice cougar mount in a living room, or me in jail after strangling a cougar. Fortunately the cat does not give me much more time to think. It turns and slowly and gracefully walks away.
My hands are shaking when I’m picking up the radio and calling the lodge. At first they do not believe me, then I hear them to relay the story to John. He seems to be excited when I tell them that I have the picture. My only thought is to get back to lodge and get the picture on the computer. I’m not feeling all that good walking to my ATV only 50 yards away, and I’m not feeling good riding to the lodge in the direction the cougar went. I can almost feel its paws on my neck. My wife is right, I’m a wuss.
They are waiting for me at the lodge, all ecstatic to see the picture. In about 10 minutes John and my wife show up all excited. The picture came out nicely. And I feel like a thousand bucks. John wants to see the tracks, and after about an hour we do find them by the river bed and take pictures of the tracks. I am not going to the woods alone again, so in the afternoon I’m joining Alice and John in the hunt for her trophy. The mouflon is nowhere to be found, so we got to the bottom of elk pasture to see the cougar tracks from yesterday and it turns out they are about twice as big as the ones from this morning. Great, that means two different cats within 20 miles, what a special day for Dismal River and for me. My picture and talks about mountain lions are all that we can talk about that night and John is answering tens of phones of his hunting friends who just received the email with my cougar picture.
The last day of the hunt. I’m going back to the blind. Not empty handed, John lets me have his revolver. One never knows. It is beautiful and I’m sitting for about 3 hours not seeing anything. What animal would hang around cougar anyway. When I get back my wife is smiling at me, she’s got her mouflon, and she’s telling me all about her hunt. In the evening Joe and John set up different blind for me, and Alice joins me. I want to show her what bowhunter I am. We get excited when a doe shows up and I am estimating the distance (forgot my rangefinder in the ATV, duh). My estimate is off as I can see the arrow hitting dirt in front of the animal and before I draw another arrow, she is gone. I’m missing my third doe. But who cares now, after day like yesterday.
That evening we said our goodbyes and we head home, leaving behind one of the most exciting days of my life. This trip turned out to be quite an adventure for me. I’m hooked on bowhunting, I got nice gobbler, and I’m the only person who has seen mountain lion in Sand Hills of Nebraska. I can’t wait to get back to Dismal River next spring for turkey hunt.
Thanks to John, Jimmy, Joe and everybody at Dismal River Outfitters.