Cross It Off The ‘Bucket List’: Bobcat Hunting

It took over 50 years, but I just checked off one more thing from my “bucket list.”

I’ve spent thousands of hours in Minnesota’s forests hunting deer, bear, squirrels, and grouse. From my first time deer hunting in heavily forested Koochiching County in the far north central part of the state, I’ve wanted to see a Minnesota bobcat in the wild. I have seen bobcats while hog hunting in Texas, but those were Texas cats!

There are from 2,000 to 5,000 bobcats in Minnesota, primarily in the northeast one-third of the state, the area of coniferous forest. Hunters and trappers harvest from 200- to 800 each year, depending on fur prices. Each bobcat harvested must be registered with the DNR and tagged.

One of the guides, Randy Bartos, is up a tree to see if a bobcat is in a hole.

It started when I contacted B&B Guide Service near Waubun to arrange for a bear hunt for my son, Forrest. Forrest got his bear and I learned that B&B had hounds and hunted bobcats. I asked Todd Borgrud, one of the Bs in B&B, to give me a call when he thought we could catch up to a bobcat. He said the best time is right after a fresh snow, so fresh tracks can be picked up crossing forest trails. He said he would call me.

Dogs Get On On A Fresh Track
Three months later, he called and I met him the next morning at 7:30, anxious to get going. We found only one fresh track after driving several miles of trail.  Randy Bartos, the other B in B&B, met up with us at about 9 a.m., we let three coonhounds loose on the cat track and they were off to the races!

The cat and hound race went on and on and on! Once, when we thought the hounds had a cat treed, we trudged through a mile of brush and blow downs, only to have the howls fade farther into the distance. Borgrud had to use his tracking antenna to tell, which direction the hounds were headed. This tracking technology, where a directional signal is picked up as a “beep-beep-beep,” has been outmoded by GPS tracking, but that was for day two!

Almost five hours after turning the hounds loose, we drove about five miles to get to where we thought the dogs might be. Sure enough, they had something treed abut 300 yards in the woods. Fortunately, there was a frozen slough we could use to get within 50 yards of the tree, avoiding busting through the brush.

It got more exciting with each step closer as the hounds were howling excitedly. Then Borgrud said something like, “they’re slick treed,” meaning there was nothing up the tree. Apparently, the cat had gone up the tree and somehow escaped without the dogs seeing or winding it. The hounds had been there for close to an hour, as evidenced by the tree bark they had removed and the lack of snow around the base of the tree. End of bobcat hunting day one. I was dog tired — no pun intended!

Day Two: New Snowfall
Day two started when I met Borgrud at 8 a.m. after an overnight snowfall. We were shortly joined by Bartos and by Borgrud’s buddy from “Up North” who brought four dogs, two other hound handlers, and a GPS dog tracker. We set out in three pickups to search for fresh cat tracks and found four sets!

Two hounds were released with their GPS collars and, again, the chase was on. This time, however, we could not only listen to the chase, but “watch” it on the 2×2-inch screen of the GPS. After an hour, we released another hound, so now there were three numbered, moving spots on the GPS.

At one time the hounds were 1.6 miles away and going in circles. We caught up to them and tried to get a shot at the cat as it ran the hounds in circles in the tamarack/cedar swamp, but had no luck. A while later they were treed again. When we got to the tree there was a bunch of raccoons in the top of a big oak tree. The tree was hollow, so Bartos climbed up to see if a cat had chased the raccoons out of their winter bed. There was no cat in the tree, but the dogs were off and running again!

The coonhounds getting their reward for a long chase.

Once again a cat was taking the hounds in circles in a swamp. Borgrud had me post in a low area where he thought the cat would exit the swamp and he went in to break up the circle. The hounds were coming straight at me. They were getting louder and louder! I thought the cat would come by any second, but the hounds came by and kept right on going past me.

When Borgrud got back, we checked and saw fresh cat tracks right where he thought it would go. The cat must have gone by just seconds before I took up my post! We followed the fresh track for about 100 yards to a point where Borgrud said, “we were right here before, if only we had stayed here it would have been a dead cat.” As I told him several times already, “that would be too easy.” But I didn’t really mean it. At this point, easy would be good!

Follow Dogs On GPS
Now, as during most of the day, Borgrud, Bartos, and the others, were speculating about where the bobcats might be going, whether the dogs were “hot on trail” or not, or where we “should have been.” They’d watch the dogs on the GPS screen trying to psychoanalyze both the bobcat and the hounds — or I thought was it just to entertain me? It was, in fact, both interesting and entertaining spending time with these dedicated houndsmen.

Each hound on the chase had a distinct howl, so we could tell which one was doing what. Each hound also had a specialty, such as cold trailing, lining out, or being silent until on the cat. It is easy to see how houndsmen can get so into their sport.

By early afternoon on the second day of my hunt, we were ready to call it a day. The hounds were still circling in the swamp about 600 yards away when we got to where we had left one truck. Two of us waited while the others went to retrieve the other two trucks.

It wasn’t two minutes when Borgrud’s friend from Up North said, “do you hear that? They’re treed.” That was probably the tenth time over two days I had heard “they’re treed,” so I wasn’t as optimistic as I was the first few times. Nonetheless, we walked two-thirds of the way across a small lake to where the hounds were, then into the dense swamp for 200 yards.

The author holds up his Minnesota bobcat.

Finally, A Treed Cat!
It was sounding pretty good, but when we got close, we saw the dogs were barking up two different spruce trees about 40 yards apart. We quickly checked out one and didn’t see any cats up the tree. As we approached the other I heard “shoot, it’s going to bail.” So I leveled my single-shot, 12-gauge on the cat out on a limb about 10 feet above the ground and fired. Having a load of 3-inch BBB, I aimed just in front of the cat’s head so as not to destroy it with my shot from less than 20 yards.

The hounds were on top of the 20-pound bobcat the instant it hit the ground. It wasn’t the biggest cat in the area, but it was an exciting hunt! Although killing a cat wasn’t on my Bucket List, I’d hoped to just see one in the wild, harvesting one was a bonus.

We leashed up the dogs and headed back across the small lake to where three trucks were now waiting. The hounds had run for over 10 miles since we let them go earlier in the morning.

What an experience it was with the coon hounds, houndsmen, bobcats, raccoons, fancy GPS tracking electronics, and several miles of walking in picturesque Minnesota forest and swamp land.

Now, let’s see what was next on my outdoor adventure bucket list?

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