What a Mountain Lion Taught Me about Fly Fishing

A chill surged through my body. I was standing on a high ridge in Montana’s Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness area with a compound bow in one hand and an elk bugle in the other. Moments before, I tried my best to sound like a young bull elk as I blew on my bugle. The sound echoed off the peak to the north. Then silence.

“Turn around and look,” whispered Jeff.

I was hoping to see a six-point bull elk, but the sight that sent a chill through my body was a mountain lion sitting on its haunches. It was about 35 yards away. What struck me was how still it sat and how it blended in with its surroundings. I had seen mountain lions before while hunting, but it was only a glimpse as the big cats bounded away through the timber. This image was uncanny.

Jeff and I looked at each other, and I remember saying, “I think we should get out here!” I had an idea what to do if a grizzly bear showed up, but a mountain lion? Besides, I knew that shooting a mountain lion, even in self-defense, could land me in more trouble than if it attacked us.

Jeff and I began walking back down the game trail we had been following. So did the mountain lion. When we stopped, it stopped. This continued for about a quarter of a mile, and it was unnerving. Finally, the big cat seemed to vanish. That was even more unnerving. Was it circling us for a surprise attack?

But about thirty minutes later, we made it down the mountain to the trailhead.

I’ve thought a lot about that encounter over the years. Jeff and I figure that we got close to a den, and the mountain lion was making sure that we left the area. Whatever the case, I learned a bit more about the predator-prey relationship. The mountain lion saw us first. It blended in with its surroundings and didn’t make a sound.

Months later, it occurred to me that those same “predatory” behaviors work well for fly fishers. We improve our chances of catching trout when we see them first, blend into our surroundings, and move soundlessly.

Perhaps most impressive, though, was its patience. The big cat did not seem in a hurry to chase us out of its area or “confront” us, though if we had inadvertently walked on top of the den, its behavior may have changed dramatically. The mountain lion’s patient, non-anxious character is a trait to emulate.

There is a romantic notion tied to fly fishing. It conjures up images of fly fishers moving leisurely through the water making artistic casts.

If that’s what you’re thinking, stop it! At least if you want to catch more trout. The best fly fishers are predators. They move stealthily and purposefully, staying hidden and keeping quiet until they are ready to overtake their prey.

Just like a mountain lion.

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3 thoughts on “What a Mountain Lion Taught Me about Fly Fishing

  1. The stealth in stalking trout, rely’s greatly on the subtle things often overlooked. I fish the smaller streams. The tributaries that make up the larger river. The headwaters are seldom fished. I think that wearing camo is a bit of an overkill for anglers. Just wear colors that are natural in nature. Cross streams where there are spills and riffles. Naturally occuring sounds helps disguise sound. Stepping on the fish with your shadow is not something you should do either. Fish without getting into the water where possible. In my silence, allows me to see things in nature that would ordinarily be spooked by my noise. This is a nice way to enjoy the surroundings. It is also a dangerous way that may be asking for trouble. I have been within feet of Elk and Deer and realized that if they spook, they could easily run over me. It is not wise to be so silent in bear country as well. Cougar will stalk to kill and eat you. A few years back, a “Turkey Hunter” was making calls. So well that a cougar hit him dead in the chest before realizing it was not a turkey. Luckily, the cougar ran off. Around those same years, an angler and his dog were walking and fishing a small river, when a cougar attacked the dog. Apparently the collar on the dog kept it from entering the neck of the dog. Cougars, such single minded animals, remain focused on the one thing, food. The angler picked up a rock and hit the cougar on the head repeatedly. It knocked the cat silly, enough for it to drop the dog and wander aimlessly away. So the story goes. The angler reached down for his tramatized dog, and got bit. I have put together some notes on paper the last 20+ years of the 50+ years of flyfishing. It is mostly all about stealth. Focus is on small streams and the dryfly. Things from making unneccessary movements (false casting), to making so much unneccessary noise. Why fish “this first” and making only one lift out, one backcast before presenting the fly to a different spot. Fish the closest waters first and never put your flyline in front of the fish (only the leader, tippett, and fly) you are attempting to catch. Roll casting and false castings. WF Weight Forward lines throw more water than DT Double Taper lines. Don’t throw water on top of the fish. Approach beaver ponds, with your eyes at water level. Fish the exit portion of the water and then move toward the entry portion of the water. These are where the currents exist the most, concentrating nutrients and the more likely positions for the trout feeding lines.

    • Thanks, Michael, for sharing your wisdom from over 50+ years of fly fishing. Impressive! Yes, mountain lions have gotten bolder over the years, and you’re right about not going silent in bear country. Where do you live and fish? I’m guessing it’s in the west (although there are some streams on which a Pennsylvania fly fisher might get within a few feet of an elk!).

      • Steve,

        I just found your letter to me, dated the 2nd of December 2015. I’m ashamed of myself as well I should be. I live in northern New Mexico. Fish these waters, but primarily fish southern Colorado as far north as Salida, CO. It’s becoming more difficult to find new waters. Off season, guides have a particular interest in writing books and giving away the best of fishing waters.

        Respectfully,

        Michael L. Wiley