Venturing “out there” in the never-ending search for a bit of home water has its risks. They are different but probably more easily dealt with than the unpredictable collisions in the black hole of the city. You might trip and fall on your face, get a cold dunking in the river, or maybe even encounter a dangerous animal. The imagined threats, however, are usually much worse than those usually experienced, which reminds me of all the times my wife has cautioned me about rattlesnakes, and how few I’ve ever seen, even in the snakiest canyons of Eastern Oregon.
But this story is about cougars, not rattlesnakes, although I have yet to see a cougar despite all the time I’ve spent in their territory. That doesn’t stop me from imagining that I have seen one, right down to the details of what would happen if I did.
It all starts with borrowing a bicycle from from Josh Warburton, proprietor of the Steens Mt. Resort. The bicycle was required to make a three mile trip into the heart of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in search of rainbow trout. I was about to walk out of Josh’s office when he stopped me with a note of caution. “There’s been a cougar seen down in the marsh recently,” he said. “He’s left his calling card,” he added. When we came home from vacation there was a half-eaten deer carcass in the tree outside the house.”
His heads-up was duly noted, but I didn’t make too much of it because I’d seen the tracks of cougars that walked right past my tent while I was sleeping, and they never bothered me. So I went on my way, rode the mountain bike way down into the refuge, and fished my way up the river quite a ways. I was totally focused on the fishing, not on watching out for cougars.
I had a pretty good day stalking and catching my quota of hefty rainbows. I didn’t think about the cougar until the ride back, when I realized that Josh was probably going to ask about the cougar. This gave birth to a further realization: his asking would set up the perfect “Mark Twain” moment. He would be baiting his own hook. So I got ready.
Back at the resort I gave Josh a brief fishing report, and then the anticipated question came. “Didn’t see the cougar out there, did you?”
I nodded my head and adopted a serious expression. “I sat down to have lunch below that big rock outcrop up by the head gauge. I had taken about two bites of my sandwich when I got a sixth sense feeling I was being watched.”
“Oh, oh,” said Josh.
“When I looked up at the outcrop, there poised on a ledge was that cougar. He was watching me.”
“Yeah,” said Josh, and pulled up on his hat brim.
“I decided it would be a good idea to leave without finishing lunch. I left the rest of my sandwich on the ground, grabbed my fly rod and vest and backed away very slowly.” I could see the cougar moving down, but I never looked directly at him.”
“Her, I think,” Josh interjected.
I continued. “For every step backward I took, she took a longer stride forward. Still, I thought she might stop when she got to sandwich.”
“You’d think so,” said Josh.
“She didn’t even sniff the sandwich. It was me she was interested in. I mean I puffed up and tried to look as big and threatening as possible. But she kept coming. That cougar was getting closer and closer, not much further away than an easy fly cast. The creek was getting close and I didn’t see any way to cross it walking backwards.”
“No way,” said Josh.
“The only weapon I had was my fly rod. I was fishing with one of those big woolly buggers with the steel dumbbell eyes. I thought maybe I could startle her. You know, scare her off. So I loosened the fly from the keeper and slowly stripped some line loose from the reel.”
Josh’s eyebrows raised a notch.
“The cougar was a half-dozen rod lengths away, and I was afraid she might lunge at any moment, so in a lightning quick motion I fired that fly right in her face.”
Josh got a puzzled expression but I couldn’t stop now.
“She was startled alright but she raised a front paw just in time for the line to wrap around her leg three or four times. She tried to get it off by whipping her paw around which only in wrapped more of the line around her leg.” I demonstrated with a whirling motion of my arm.
Josh started to smile.
I continued. She was grunting and squalling, acting very pissed off. The more she shook her paw the more tangled up she got. Then she started whirling her whole body around trying to get rid of that line which got it wrapped around her neck and shoulders, and pulled line off my reel in violent jerks.
“Keep going,” Josh said.
“She made a loud roar and took off through the sagebrush. My reel was screaming, a 200-pound cougar on the end of my fly line. In seconds all my fly line and 200 yards of backing was gone.”
“I’ll bet,” said Josh, laughing.
I paused and put on my best serious expression. “It took me all afternoon to run that cougar down and get my line back.”
“I thought you looked a little tired,” Josh said, sounding as serious as my expression. “But I don’t blame you. Those lines are expensive these days.”