‘Cat Quest

Cody Arrington glanced at his watch and accelerated, heightening the pace of his truck over the gravel ranch road.

 

“We don’t want to be late,” he explained. “We’re going to need a good meal.”

 

Minutes later, we walked into the main lodge at the Rocker b Ranch, greeted by the aroma of sizzling steaks and the buzzing of a room filled with relaxed hunters.

 

Between bites of Texas beef, we exchanged pleasantries with the other hunters, most of whom were from Dallas. After we listened to their accounts of chasing pointing dogs rounding up blue and bobwhite quail, one of them asked, “How’d you guys

do?”

 

“We’re just getting started,” declared Arrington, a wildlife associate for the ranch, his eyes glimmering. “We’re on the night shift.”

 

Crying in the Wind

Tears pooled in my eyes, quickly careening off my checks as the liquid escaped my eyelashes.

 

Arrington piloted the dune buggy, an open air machine with seating for four and gun racks for two on the upper deck. I clutched my shotgun as we ripped through the West Texas night on the way to our first calling site.

 

Behind me, Lohman/Circe Sweepstakes Challenge winner John Almquist gripped a Thompson/Center .22-250. He was joined up top by Tad Brown, a predator caller on Lohman’s prestigious Gold Staff.

 

Almquist, a retired high school science teacher from Watertown, S.D., was drawn from more than 2,000 entrants to hunt predators on the Rocker b. Serving as the public relations director for the South Dakota Trappers Association, Almquist is an avid trapper who targets mink, raccoons, beavers, foxes and coyotes.

 

Despite his years of trapline experience, he had never taken a bobcat, nor had he called predators.

 

I pulled my stocking cap lower in a feeble attempt to ward off a stiff wind that was exacerbated by the speed of the buggy and sub-freezing temperatures. As much as I desired to shield my eyes, I couldn’t. Instead, I marveled at the creatures of the night as we sped past. White-tailed deer darted in front of us. At one point, Arrington braked hard to avoid a collision with a white-racked 8-pointer.

 

Cotton-tailed rabbits and jack rabbits scurried to avoid our tires every 25 feet.

Raccoon eyes lit the path like guard rail reflectors as we zipped along. Some animals zigzagged in front of the oncoming buggy before diving for cover. Others stepped aside and curiously watched four grown men dressed in camouflage zoom toward a seemingly arbitrary destination in the darkness.

 

“Aaaahhh!” I blurted, causing Arrington to bind the buggy’s momentum.

 

We stopped a few feet from the puckering pee-ew maker, thankfully not close enough for the striped one to trigger its alarm. Had that skunk unleashed its potion, I’m certain more tears would have followed.

 

I glanced over my shoulder, wondering whether Almquist was regretting his decision to enter the sweepstakes drawing. He nodded at me, and I concluded that the allure of getting a chance at a bobcat was still overpowering the discomfort of our hunting conditions.

 

Arrington killed the motor and the buggy coasted to a stop in a rough clearing atop a flat rise. He plugged the spotlight into the cigarette lighter and climbed onto the upper deck behind Brown and Almquist.

 

Brown broke into his best rabbit squalls and Arrington worked the light, its red beam bouncing from bush to bush, wavering slightly in the wind.

 

Eyes dotted the landscape — nervous rabbits and rustling deer surrounded us. An owl peered eerily from nearby scrub.

 

After Brown’s second set of screams, Arrington picked up another set of eyes, these belonging to a slinky invader that seemingly stalked the buggy.

 

Almquist shifted behind me. I tightened my grip as I pointed my shotgun barrel above the hood. We waited, wondering if the reflections were ‘cat eyes, hoping the critter would keep closing in.

 

A powerful northwestern wind whisked Brown’s pleas across Texas as Arrington’s locator light scoured for signs of the approaching predator. A flickering silhouette melted into the night, taking with it our first near miss of the evening.

 

“Was that a ‘cat?” I whispered as Arrington climbed back into the driver’s seat.

 

“I think so,” he said.

 

“Was it?” Almquist queried, his voice shivering.

 

“I told you we’re going to get one,” Arrington said confidently as he started the buggy’s engine.

 

The wind clawed at our skin as we raced toward our next stand, but I silently wished Arrington would drive faster, skunks and watery eyes not withstanding. We were in bobcat country, and every animal on the 173,000-acre ranch seemed to be on the prowl.

 

A Rough Morning

The same wind that coursed in the darkness plagued our morning hunt.

 

Arrington picked us up and headed for a section of the ranch characterized by brush-choked draws. Our plan was to hunt for a while that morning, take a nap and then prepare for our first night hunt.

 

Brown thought it was a good idea to introduce Almquist to predator hunting with the aid of daylight. It would also give us a chance to scout the terrain as we hunted.

 

After two unproductive stands, Arrington parked the pickup just below the rim of a draw.

 

“This looks catty,” Brown declared as we separated to find seats along the rocky ledge.

 

I scanned the draw as Brown’s muffled rabbit woes echoed. Suddenly, my vision b lurred, and I strained to see.

 

“Dammit, not now,” I thought as a migraine headache gripped me.

 

I didn’t want to ruin the stand for Almquist, so I sat for a couple minutes. Finally, I stood and walked to the truck. As a chronic migraine sufferer, I’ve learned that the sooner I take my medicine, the less impact the headache has on the rest of my day.

 

I took the pill and sprawled in the back seat.

 

“We can go back to camp so you can lie down,” Brown offered.

 

“No, I’ll be OK,” I said. “You guys just keep hunting. I’ll stay in the truck and try to sleep it off.”

 

Two stops later, the hunters were talking excitedly as they returned to the truck.

 

I hadn’t heard a gunshot, but I surmised the wind might have swallowed the sound.

 

“What happened?” I asked with as much interest as I could muster with a pounding head.

 

“Tad called a bunch of raccoons really close,” Arrington said.

 

“That was really neat,” Almquist piped in. “I think that one would have been on my leg if I hadn’t moved.”

 

“They heard the dinner bell,” Arrington said. “I thought John was going to have to

swat them away.”

 

After two more unproductive stands, Brown and Arrington decided it was nap time.

 

“I sure hope this wind dies down for tonight,” Arrington said as he dropped us at the guest house.

 

Night Stand No. 2

The sky spit as Arrington steered the buggy off of the trail and killed the engine. He jumped up top, as he had on the previous stand.

 

I untangled the light cord as Arrington swept the brush with the beam. Brown blew hard through his tube as Almquist and I waited for a reflection in the night.

 

“There,” Brown whispered, almost under his breath.

 

A critter lurked in the brushline 60 yards away. Brown switched calls and starting emitting mousy squeaks instead of rabbit wails.

 

Arrington trained the beam just above the approaching head. The critter walked toward us, pausing for a second as Brown quieted his call.

 

As sleet switched to snowflakes, identity questions faded as the predator closed in.

 

“Can you kill him?” Brown hissed excitedly as Arrington held the beam.

 

Crack!

 

Almquist answered the question. The bobcat crumpled.

 

“Nice shot!” Brown exclaimed. “You got yourself a bobcat.”

 

We scrambled from the buggy, fumbling through the cacti with flashlights. Snow stung our faces, but none of us cared.

 

We quickly located the bobcat, a 20- pound female with distinct belly spots. Almquist’s shot had pierced the ‘cat’s eye for a clean, quick kill. The pelt sustained very little damage.

 

Brown and I congratulated Almquist, and we loaded the Texas trophy onto the buggy.

 

“You know,” I said, “Some guys who’ve called predators for an awfully long time have never shot a bobcat. That’s really a special thing. You’re awfully lucky to get one on your first day of predator hunting.”

 

“Let’s go get another one,” Arrington said.

 

We hunted until 3 a.m. and spotted suspicious reflections at almost every stand, including another set that we concluded with 99 percent certainty belonged to a bobcat, but we weren’t afforded another shot.

 

Daylight Fright

As might be expected, we slept in. Arrington picked us up late in the afternoon.

 

Our plan was to make a few stands, head to the main lodge for supper, then load up the buggy for another night hunt.

I hoped aloud we’d call in a coyote, but Arrington said coyote numbers were low

on the ranch.

 

At our second stand, a tell-tale flash in the brush stole my attention. A pair of rare Rocker b dogs were sprinting toward Brown’s coaxer.

 

Within 30 seconds, the leader of the pair stood 40 feet in front of Almquist, who later explained that he was watching the other coyote and only swung on the one in front of him at the last minute.

 

Almquist shot, and the coyote tucked its tail and tore past me. I found the fleeing predator in my crosshairs and was starting to squeeze when the animal flipped in front of me. Brown beat me to the shot.

 

“They sure came in fast,” Almquist said. “I wasn’t ready for that.”

 

A Quiet Night

After another grand supper, we ventured the trails in the buggy. The wind was noticeably absent, although the crisp January air was no less punishing as we sped along between calling sites.

 

Deer were bedded. Rabbits squatted in the brush. Raccoons roosted in the low

branches. Browns’ squalls echoed, alerting owls and all critters in the distance that we

were a meal for the taking.

 

On one stand, a coyote circled our location, never quite affording a shot. At another, a raccoon investigated. But bobcats and other predators eluded us. At 2 a.m., suffering from cold and fatigue, we agreed to end our hunt.

 

One for the Wall

Two days and nights in Texas dealt Almquist a pair of conclusions: Predator calling is fun, and he had collected a trophy hide for his wall.

 

“I had a great time,” Almquist said. “I’m sure happy I was able to go on this

trip and learn about predator calling.”

 

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