In the first week of May, 2012, I traveled to a remote location in western Nebraska to hunt the elusive turkey. I chose to hunt in one of Nebraska’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMA). Not all WMAs provide wildlife with good habitat. The ecological viability of the WMAs varies greatly. Many of the WMAs in western Nebraska are waste lands, abandoned or sold by their original owners because the land no longer possesses any economic value whatsoever. For instance, there is a WMA near Big Springs, Nebraska, that is nothing more than an old gravel pit that has filled in with water. The pit is surrounded by a thin belt of planted trees and invasive European grasses. I visited this “Wildlife” Management Area to see whether it contained any turkeys. It did not. I did not see a single living creature inside its borders. It took a real stretch of the imagination to consider this place as wildlife habitat. Certainly the loud, incessant traffic on Interstate 80, less than 50 yards to the south, did not induce birds and animals to inhabit the place.
I eventually hunted in a WMA that appeared to have suffered severe soil erosion as a result of poor agricultural practices. The land had been cut up by deep gullies. In one section of the WMA, a gaping hole had been washed out of the side of a hill by excessive runoff from a nearby cropped field. Unable to farm the eroded terrain, the farm’s proprietors likely recognized the benefit of selling the land or leasing an easement to the state. In Nebraska, where corporate farmers and ranchers dominant the political discourse and the social agenda, prime real estate is infrequently set aside for wild things. Instead, critters get the leftover lands.
At the WMA I intended to hunt, I trekked almost a mile to its southern boundary. Once there, I set up a crude hunting blind in a grove of trees. The blind consisted of cut pine branches and dead fall. I placed the vegetation behind me to break up my profile. Twenty-five yards to my front, a farm road skirted a field of alfalfa. I knew the gobblers had been strutting along that road. I had seen their tracks, and the drag marks left by their wings, in the dust of the road. Ten yards to my rear, a steep hill fell away to a flat creek valley. I believed that if I sat at this place long enough, the gobblers would appear for a strut along the dirt road.
I settled in for a long wait. Sitting in a low depression, I made an occasional yelp on my box call. I remained absolutely still, knowing that any movement might alert the wary gobblers to my presence. After an hour of sitting, and infrequently yelping and clucking on the box call, I noticed the songbirds in the branches above me going berserk. The birds screeched, frantically chirped, and flew quickly from tree to tree. Something was not right, but I did not know what. Was a gobbler walking into the area?
After a few moments of excited chatter from the birds, I started to intently scan the ground to my front. I looked at the cropped field and dirt road – nothing. I examined the treeline to my right – nothing. I stared into the trees to my left – nothing. I finally looked at the grass immediately in front of my position. Only fifteen feet from my position, I noticed two very large eyes glaring at me through the tall grass. Above those beautiful, yet frightening eyes, were two erect, forward-facing pointed ears. I immediately recognized it as a large cat, lying low, in a prone position, possibly readying itself for a leap – at me. I immediately stood up. The cat stood up. I shouted at it to “get the hell out of here.” The cat looked at me and then moved only a few feet to its left, where it stopped in the grass and again looked at me.
Since I remained covered in camouflage from the top of my head to my boots, the cat probably did not recognize me as a human being; thus, its lack of any visible display of fear. I decided to remove my camouflaged face mask. But even after exposing my white face to him, he did not run off. I kept my shotgun, loaded with three, 3″ magnum shells, at the ready, just in case he decided he still wanted to rumble. After telling him again to “get out of here” he finally moved off into the woods at a slow gait. He never ran. Without wanting to put human thoughts into the mind of a wild feline, he behaved as if he was upset about being discovered only seconds before he pounced on what he believed to be a female turkey.
I do not know whether the animal was a bobcat or a cougar. He had the physical attributes of both species. He had a bobbed tail and a high rear end like a bobcat. But he did not have any spots on his coat nor any tufts of black hair growing from his pointed ears, which bobcats possess. He also lacked the long cheek fur common on adult bobcats. His fur was a reddish brown blending into a yellow. He was also much larger than the bobcats I have seen in the past. I estimated his weight at least 50 pounds and his length at between three and a half feet and four feet long. After a bit of research on the web, I learned that in areas where bobcats and cougars are rare, such as the ranching country of western Nebraska, it is possible, but not scientifically confirmed, that the two species will interbreed to create a hybrid. So maybe, just maybe, what I saw in the woods that day was a cougar-bob.
On the drive back to Boulder later that afternoon, I reflected on the incident with the big cat. I wondered just what kind of sound the cougar-bob heard coming from my box call. At the time, I believed I was making the sound of a female turkey in heat. But it is quite possible the cougar-bob heard my box call “yelps” as a turkey in distress and decided to come in for an easy kill. I also realized that the situation could have turned very ugly in a matter of seconds. I was fortunate to have spotted the cat before he made a move on me. Although I had a shotgun in my hands, had he struck me completely unawares, it would have been impossible for me to get a shot off at him at such a close range because of the shotgun’s long barrel. I have to admit, it did not feel good to be stalked by a big cat. I felt a bit humiliated knowing that he had been able to get so close to me without me noticing him. My sense of entitlement to the outdoors also took a blow. The woods were not just mine. There was another large predator out there, one that could do serious physical harm to me. That was a humbling realization.