Sunday, January 24, 2010

Vermont: "Hunting the ultimate hunter — the bobcat"

January 24, 2010

Outdoors: Hunting the ultimate hunter — the bobcat

By Lawrence Pyne

Think you’re a good hunter? Try calling in a bobcat. They may not have the keen nose of a deer or the sharp eyes of a turkey, but for sheer wariness alone, bobcats are second to none.

Taking a bobcat during the Jan. 10-Feb. 7 season is arguably the greatest challenge in Vermont hunting.

The cautious cats can make even coyotes seem dumb at times, to say nothing of humans who try fooling Vermont’s most stealthy and reclusive hunter. Bobcats can prey on everything from song birds to deer, but they are inherently shy, solitary animals that are rarely active during the day. Evenwhen on the prowl, they seldom venture from thick, brushy cover, where they go largely unseen and practically unknown.

One thing bobcats are not, however, is rare. Vermont is probably home to more bobcats today than in pre-colonial times, when the winters were harder and catamounts, wolves, lynx and fishers provided fierce competition for limited prey. But it wasn’t always so. In 1842, the famed Vermont naturalist Zadock Thompson reported that the “bay lynx,” as the lynx’s smaller cousin was then known, “is now very rare” and found only “in the most unsettled parts of the state.”

Yet bobcats were one of the few large predators to survive the 19th century, a period marked by year-round human persecution and the wholesale loss of habitat as forests were cleared for agriculture. But as abandoned farmland began reverting back to forest in the early 1900s, bobcats likewise rebounded, despite being the last mammal in Vermont to have a bounty on its head.

For much of 20th century, expanding young forest cover and a rapidly growing deer herd provided ideal conditions, and up to 500 bounties a year were paid.

The bounty was finally repealed in 1971, but shortly after bobcats were nonetheless in decline, this time as a result of what state wildlife biologist Kim Royar calls “a perfect storm of events.”

Steadily maturing forests and a series of severe winters resulted in a dramatic decrease in the deer herd, which had helped carry bobcats through the winter in their mountain sanctuaries.

At the same time, reintroduced fishers and newly arrived coyotes produced new competition for what prey was still available.

Even as fur prices soared in the 1980s, only a few bobcats were taken each year by hunters and trappers. But over the last two decades, bobcats have again rebounded, in equal parts due to careful management and their own adaptability.

The annual bobcat take, including incidental losses, has climbed from about 20 in the 1990s to more than 70 in recent years, which Royar believes reflects a similar increase in the population. An estimated 2,500 to 3,500 bobcats live in Vermont, based on a preliminary analysis of a bobcat study by the University of Vermont and the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

A big reason for the resurgence is bobcats are now common in many areas where only a few decades ago they were seldom found. That includes the Champlain Valley, which today is home to as many or more cats than the large blocks of mountainous habitat that was once their primary range.

“We’ve almost seen a reversal” in bobcat densities from the mountains to the valleys, Royar said. “When you look at how the prey has shifted, it only makes sense.

The mountains no longer have as many deer, while the valleys have a higher density of small mammals, like rabbits, and they also now have turkeys. It shows what a prey-driven species bobcats are.”

The mixed farm and forest land around my Addison County home supports more bobcats today than anyone can remember. But that hardly means taking one during the winter hunting season is easy. I know. In three years of trying, I have yet to draw a bead on a bobcat, although I am learning more each time out and steadily getting closer. For starters, I no longer try to call a bobcat out into an opening, as I would a coyote or fox. Instead, I set up in thick cover, and I stay longer at each calling location, knowing that bobcats come slowly and stealthily. I also try to mix up my calls more, often starting with the pitiful squalls of a dying cotton-tail rabbit, then adding in the excited cawing of crows that have chanced upon an easy meal.

I’ve also swapped my rifle for a shotgun loaded with size T shot, because when I do call in a bobcat, it will be close and the opportunity fleeting.

That point was driven home last year during a cold, early February afternoon.

The sun was beginning to slide behind the Adirondacks when I sat down at the base of a large pine at the end of a narrow, rocky ridge that gave way to overgrown pasture. After 45 minutes of intermittent calling, I neither saw nor heard anything, and my toes and legs were numb from having remained motionless so long. But before I decided to leave, some sixth sense told me to look behind me. Peering over my left shoulder, I stared directly into the fiery, amber eyes of a bobcat crouched under a low cedar bough not 20 feet away. For several breathless seconds, neither of us so much as blinked. But the instant I reached for my shotgun, the bobcat disappeared in a spray of snow.

The experience was so surreal that I felt compelled to check for tracks to make sure it wasn’t some cold-induced delusion. It wasn’t.

But by bobcat hunting standards, it was still a very good


Note: Successful bobcat hunters must have the pelt tagged and surrender the carcass to a state game warden, so biologists can monitor the population. Should the total take from trapping and hunting exceed 100, the season will be closed.

Lawrence Pyne writes about the outdoors from his home in Cornwall. He can be reached at Pyne


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