Lions on the Lam
By Wayne Derrick
This article published in Trapper’s World magazine, September, 2000.
I started work in 1984 for the government, as a trapper. Not long after, I started helping another trapper, Bill Fletcher, on lions. I was no lion trapper, but I could carry two 41/2 traps on 12 to 14 ft. of chain and Bill could carry two of the same. Bill would then get his lion traps out faster with fewer trips back up the rim. I watched Bill put in a lot of lion traps and I put in some myself when I would go help Bill. Then I would go back to my own assignment and work on coyotes and bobcats. Bill would call me when he caught a lion.
That first year I worked on 2 different lions on my assignment. I would look for sign for several days, take a horse and pack traps in and make sets, then check the traps for days and weeks and catch no lions. Then the permit would run out. Then it was go pack them out and wait for them to come back and kill again.
In New Mexico, the Game Dept. will issue a permit after a lion kills livestock, and if you find more kills they will extend the permit for 15 days more. If there were no more kills I had to pull my equipment. Usually when I get the equipment in place, the lion is gone making a big, big, circle. When I get all the equipment pulled and back home, well then he, she, or they are back and here we go again. When I was a little boy, I didn’t like playing ring-around-the-roses and this just seems like the grown up version of the same game. Work hard for weeks, just to pull all the traps and go put them back out after the next kill. Boy, did I hate to work on lions.
I moved to a new assignment. No lions, just coyotes and red fox. Lots! Lots of coyotes always in the sheep killing business, keeping me very busy.
Four years ago I went back to the mountains, back to the lions. Same game, same winner. I had helped catch lions, worked hard to catch them on my trapline. They just wouldn’t stay.
The winter of 1999-2000 I started seeing tracks of lions every few days to a few weeks. I saw lion tracks but no kills, so all I could do was watch and wait. Spring came and still no kills, but lots of sign.
On May the 8th, I came out of one ranch onto the Hondo Ranch, there were buzzard and crows everywhere, 30 to 40 of each. I thought, “Well, here we go!” I walked to the first lamb. I found he was eaten on like a bobcat eats on one. Then I skinned his neck and there was no doubt, cat teeth punctures, Big Cat. The next lamb had his skull crushed, the next 4 were like the first one.
My son Ronny, worked for the Hondo Ranch as a private control trapper, so I went and got him and called the Game Warden. He came and confirmed the kills and issued a permit. Away we went, looking for sign to set on. That afternoon we set two 41/2 Newhouse traps and 5 trail snares. The next day we had an airplane hunt for a coyote that was killing so we got a late start on the lion work. We found 3 more dead lambs. The wind was blowing over 50 mph, so we were glad to get in a canyon. The next day, it was 7 hours horseback, it was close to 100 degrees, and wind was over 50 again, but we did get 10 more good snares in.
As I rode, I thought of the lessons I had learned from Bill. I owe Bill for the knowledge. I thought of the time I ran Bill’s lion traps while he went home for Christmas. My sons, Bo and Ronny (my two oldest, then 10 and 9) and myself had caught a lion and that was our first live lion in a trap. Then I thought of Bill saying that you have to do the leg work to catch a lion. Well, we rode horseback in the rough country. Then we walked and walked some more. I like to ride and walking isn’t bad as long as it isn’t very far from the truck to the horse trailer, but any further is not my thing. It was down in the canyon on foot and walk and look for sign. We would take our ax and snares and when we found some sign, we would cut a log drag to tie to. Bill once had a big lion tear a lock out on a snare, so we tied to a drag.
We found several scrapes where the lion was marking his territory and lots of droppings. So we would fence off the draw, pput in a jump stick so the deer went over and hopefully the lion would go in the snare. The next day, 2 more lambs were killed by the lion. We set 4 more snares, and spent log hot days on horseback and walked a lot.
Now you might think this is a lot of fun, but this was the hottest May I can remember. Nearly every day it was close to 100 and the wind blew from 20 to 60 mph. Plus I still had to work other ranches too. I thought about how Bill had killed more than 80 lions and walked most of the country. He killed several that were not in traps or snares and no dogs, just walked until he found them. Boy, can he walk.
When I went with him, we would start to climb out of a canyon to get to the truck. Bill would stop at a big rock and proclaim it as the ‘breathing rock’. Boy did I need a breather! He would continue to talk and I would continue to gasp for air. I really liked that rock and looked forward to that place whenever I went with Bill. I could go on and on about the things I have see and done with Bill. From good days to days when a strange illness set in. But maybe Bill will write about these things.
May 12th started out good, well it just started at 4:00 a.m. Got up, made coffee and left by 4:30 and went to check a neighboring ranch because the smaller lion we started on had disappeared and a Big Tom had taken his place. So now we were looking for 2 lions, and had 2 permits. Just like I thought, 2 more dead lambs. BOY! I love this job.
On May 15th I spent 7 hours on horseback on 2 ranches. No new sign, no kills, no tracks, no nothing. I thought ‘Here we go again.” We looked and looked, so I called Bill. I bet they are gone. I told him what I had found and told him about all the sign, all the scrapes and kills, the canyons and how they lay. Bill just laughed and said, “You have moved in the lion’s house and he is yours. Just be patient and if the permit doesn’t expire, you will get him.”
Then it was go check empty equipment and check it again. To add to all of this, a coyote started killing on the south end of my country, as did a bobcat. But that is another story. On May 25th, I caught 3 coyotes in snares, so it was a good day.
Ronny called and said he found 3 dead lambs, killed by the big lion. The holes the teeth made were so large he could stick his finger through them. But the good news was that the lion was in a snare! Ronny had him down and needed my help to get him out. Boy, was I glad we had at least 1 of them. We huffed and puffed (I sure needed that rock of Bills) and finally got him out. He weighed 130 pounds, a pretty nice cat.
My backside was starting to look like a saddle. We still had 1 more lion to try to catch, and just over 1 week before the permit ran out. We saw sign, but I thought he was gone for sure. Bill kept saying “You are going to get him.” Bill was proud of us. He knew it had been a lot of hard work, and was hoping we got the other one.
On the last day of our permit, we saddled up and went to pull equipment. I was cool early, but was going to be hot again. We unloaded the horses and started up the canyon talking as we went about how we knew the country better and if he came back we could get set up in a hurry and get him before he pulled out.
I told Ronny that I thought I smelled something dead and we weren’t far fromour first snare. I thought, maybe, just maybe. The first snare, drag and all, were gone, nothing torn up. The lion went about 30 yards around a tree with the drag and there was lion number 2. His sheep killing days were over. We shook hands, glad the work was done, but wishing it wasn’t over. Boy, I must be going crazy…I am starting to like this.
Look out Bill!
Flying H, NM