Day of the Lion

As Otto bolted towards me I could hear Kris yelling at him, ”Otto here! Otto here!”  I didn’t think anything of it until I heard a high pitch yelp come out of Otto’s mouth.  As I turned to see what was going on, I heard Kris yell out, “Holy crap! It’s a mountain lion!”  I looked behind me to see Otto tangling with a very large cougar which only seconds before had been stalking me.

It was a chilly October morning as I pulled into the Cheesman Canyon parking area near Deckers Colorado.  My good friend Kris was already waiting for me in the parking lot with his German Wirehair named Otto.   Kris, an avid bird hunter, had bought Otto a couple years earlier and had been training him as a bird dog.  Kris never wastes an opportunity to train Otto and today was going to be no different.  As we started our hike into the famed Cheesman Canyon of the South Platte River, Kris began working Otto along the trail.  Kris would give verbal commands and hand signals for Otto to engage in search patterns on both sides of the trail.  Otto would complete his searches and then return to Kris’s side when Kris would call or motion for him to return. 

After about a mile and a half of hiking along the Gill Trail, I could finally see the spot where we planned to fish… a boulder filled 90 degree turn of the South Platte River known as Cow’s Crossing.  I had fished Cow’s Crossing many times before and it always seemed to produce some great fishing action.  It was far enough from the parking lot to give us some early morning privacy from the crowds of fisherman that typically cram into the first half-mile of the north end of Cheesman Canyon.  

Otto and Kris fishing together on the South Platte River in Cheesman Canyon.

The river was running pretty thin with a flow of about 100 CFS but due to the dark shadow being cast by the easterly ridge, it was difficult to spot any fish.  We crossed the river to access the east side of the river.  We hiked to the 90 degree turn in the river and found a nice sunny spot and began to set up our rods.  Kris stood up on the hill about 15 feet from the bank and spotted a few active trout holding in a decent sized trough.  We agreed to fish the trough together until the sun broke over the prize water we wanted to fish.  As we began to make a few casts, Kris noticed a change in Otto’s behavior.  A once obedient hunting dog, Otto began taking off up stream and running up the hill towards the northeast ridge that overlooked our fishing spot.  Otto seemed distracted and slow to react to any of Kris’s commands; even disappearing for several minutes at one point.  Little did we know that Otto was trying to tell us something that Kris and I were oblivious to… we were being hunted.

I looked down towards the prize water and it looked like the sun had broken through.  Not having any luck at the trough, I told Kris I was going to move down river.  Kris was casting to a couple nice fish so he decided to stay.  As I began to walk down river, Otto followed me.  Kris would call for Otto and he would eventually turn back, quickly check in with his master but then again head down river with me.  Kris continued to call for Otto until he finally submitted and stayed.

The prize water looked great!  I could see several fish popping out from one of the large boulders on the west side of the river.  I stood in the river just off shore with my back facing another boulder on the east side of the river.  After several unsuccessful drifts I maneuvered around the boulder hoping to find the right angle for a drag free drift next to the rock.  As my eagerness to be the first to hook a trout got the better of me, I found myself too close to the boulder.  I soon realized that I spooked the fish out from under the rock and I was now fishing to nothing but rocks and river grass. 

Just beyond the large boulders lies the 90 degree turn in the river called Cow's Crossing.

As I turned to head back to the east bank of the river I saw Kris and Otto rounding the bend.  Kris yelled out, “Get anything?”  I yelled back, “Nope.  You?”  I could see Otto break from Kris’s side and start intensely running along the east bank of the river in my direction.   As Otto bolted towards me I could hear Kris yelling at him, ”Otto here! Otto here!”  I didn’t think anything of it until I heard a high pitch yelp come out of Otto’s mouth.  As I turned to see what was going on, I heard Kris yell out, “Holy crap! It’s a mountain lion!”  I looked behind me to see Otto tangling with a very large cougar which only seconds before had been stalking me from the same rock I had my back turned to while I was fishing. 

Otto looked like a miniature poodle as he fought the cat that was easily three times his size.  The lion, which was obliviously taken by surprise, perched on his hind legs with his front paws up in the air in defense of Otto’s onslaught.  Once the lion regained his balance and wherewithal, he cracked Otto in the face with his right paw. Otto, no doubt realizing he was out of his league, ran down the boulder towards Kris.   The mountain lion stayed hot on Otto’s heals drawing the cat away from me but now bringing the cat dangerously close to Kris.  

The mountain lion that was stalking us.

Knowing that animals engaging in predation can more easily be intimated than let’s say a mother bear protecting her cubs, I yelled to Kris to throw his arms high up in the air and start yelling and I did the same.  Otto stopped short of Kris and put himself between the lion and his beloved pack leader.   The cougar stopped about 10 feet from them both and quickly realized he was outnumbered and made a slow retreat towards the east ridge. 

He put about 40 feet of distance between us before he stopped.  The lion began pacing back and forth along the hillside, never taking his eyes off of us.  He looked as though he was sizing up our strength and even daring another run at us.  Kris had a small snub nose .38 handgun tucked away in his pack but it wasn’t easily accessible.  Not wanting to back away and possibly provoke a charge, Kris dug out his .38 revolver while I kept my eye on the cat.  The lion crouched down near a tree but stared intently at us.  I told Kris to keep an eye on the cat for a few more seconds while I took a photo.  Kris wasn’t crazy about the idea and in hindsight it was a very foolish move on my part but honestly, who would believe us if I didn’t get a photo.

After I took a few snapshots, Kris suggested that we stop pressing our luck and get the hell out of there.  I asked Kris if he could fire a round from his pistol in the hillside to see if that would scare the lion into leaving the area.  While still holding onto Otto, who was gearing up for round two, he put one well placed shot into a safe backstop a couple of yards to the left of the cougar.  In disbelief I watched as the lion didn’t even move his head as the report of the shot echoed off the canyon walls.  A few seconds later as to say, “You guys are boring.  I’m out of here.” The cat slowly rose to his feet and walked up to the top of the ridge.  We seized the opportunity and waded across the river to the west bank.  We stopped to check on Otto after Kris noticed he had blood on his hands.  Turned out that Otto had a claw size puncture on the left side of his snout.  It had stopped bleeding on its own and Otto seemed no worse for wear.

The claw puncture Otto took to the left side of his snout.

About a hundred yards down from where the incident took place we saw another fly fisherman casting from the east side of the river.  I called to him and told him that we just had an encounter with a mountain lion and that the last time we saw the lion he was on the east side of the river.  The angler didn’t seem to care and went back to fishing.  We hiked another 100 yards and felt that the distance we had put between us and the lion, coupled with the fact that there was now a meat shield in the form of another angler between us and the cat, meant that it was probably safe to get back to fishing.

We fished for the rest of the day, slowly making our way to the north end of the canyon and closer to the parking lot.  The fishing was slow but Kris was able to land a really nice bow.  But the thrill of catching a trophy trout paled when compared to our earlier encounter with the mountain lion.  I found myself taking solemn breaths throughout the day and taking time to marvel at Otto’s courage and loyalty; not only to Kris but also to me, a relative stranger in comparison to his master.  Otto truly kept me and Kris from becoming kitten kibble that day and I’ll never forget it.  Now I understand why dog or in our case “Otto” is truly man’s best friend.

Written by TIm Sayer
Founder of Combat Fly Fishing,LLC

Otto overseeing the release of the large bow Kris caught a couple hours after the mountain lion encounter.