He arrived like a ghost. One second there was nothing; the next he was there.
I was hunting squirrels in woods behind my east Arkansas home. Chickadees and kinglets buzzed in the trees. A pileated woodpecker flew past, with a brilliant red flash of her long crest. I found a mossy seat beneath a giant beech, drew a bellows squirrel call from my pocket and tapped on its rubber end. Fifty yards away, a fox squirrel responded.
The russet squirrel sidled down the hickory and cut loose with a string of profanities, lashing the air with its expressive tail. I sat, watching its humorous antics, and pondered the best way to approach it for a shot.
Beneath the squirrel's tree, something moved. The woods were open, but I could not discern that which had caught my eye. I squinted. I stared. But nothing was there.
I looked again at the squirrel. It had stopped barking and was stretched tight against the bark, motionless, its big black eyes locked on the ground below.
I looked again beneath the tree. A large male bobcat sat there. He was looking up at the fox squirrel, licking his muttonchop whiskers.
Though I'd focused intently on my surroundings, the big cat's approach had entirely escaped me. He was a phantom. His sudden presence startled me.
The squirrel was startled, too. He quickly ascertained his position on the lower end of the food chain and raced for a hole high above. The bobcat made a half-hearted leap for it, then started off as if the squirrel had never been there.
I tapped again on the squirrel call. The cat turned and captured me in its gaze. I remember most his luminous eyes, two pools of liquid gold. He looked at me intently, then turned away and was gone.
I saw that beautiful animal several more times over the years. His home range and mine overlapped. Often he hunted mice by the beehives at the edge of my garden. Sometimes, pulling into the driveway at night, I glimpsed his glowing eyes in the brushy woodland edge. I sat and watched for him on occasion, but even when he appeared, it was only for a moment. One second he was there, then he melted into the landscape. His camouflage was perfect. Even when in plain view he could wholly escape my searching eyes.
I never hunted that bobcat. He was too close to home, too much a part of my inner circle. I hunted others of his kind, though, and learned through the years that bobcats are perhaps the most challenging to hunt of all our wild creatures. No wild turkey was ever more challenging to call. No deer possesses more elusiveness and adaptability. No bear is more reclusive. No fox or coyote is more finely attuned to its environment.
The bobcat's amazing instincts and adaptability have served it well. Like many large predators, it was persecuted as vermin for decades. In 1727, Massachusetts placed a bounty on bobcats. In 1973 bobcat bounties were still paid throughout Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont and Utah. At that time, bounties were paid in some counties of 14 other states. Predator-control programs focused on its eradication. But the fierce bobcat, prolific and resourceful, matched the success of the coyote in its efforts to circumvent man. It is probably more common today than it was during colonial times. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service places the bobcat population of this country at 725,000 to 1 million adult animals.
One key to the bobcat's success is the animal's mastery of habitats. The species ranges through portions of all 48 contiguous states, plus southern Canada and northern Mexico, inhabiting boreal coniferous and mixed forests in the north, bottomland hardwood forests and coastal swamps in the Southeast, semi-desert and scrubland in the Southwest, and densely populated suburbs in the Northeast. Only large intensively cultivated areas appear to be unsuitable habitat.
Diet is another ingredient in the bobcat's recipe for adaptive expertise. Rabbits, hares and small rodents comprise the bulk of their food in most areas, but bobcats are opportunists and will eat grasshoppers, crayfish, raccoons, prairie dogs, porcupines, bats, peccaries, snakes and birds. They are known to take domestic cats, carrion and fruit, and male bobcats sometimes kill deer when winter snow makes running difficult. Diets vary by region and season.
Bobcat survival also hinges on the animal's uncanny ability to stay out of sight -- and trouble. Bobcats are natural scouts and spies. They have senses that are wonderfully acute, and a nature that is all suspicion. They believe in being neither seen nor heard; they have every art of precaution that the most accomplished spy could ever think of.
Add to this the fact that bobcats rarely prey on poultry or livestock. They mind their own business as far as human matters are concerned, thus they are seldom persecuted as pest species. This, too, enhances their prosperity. Bobcats are now the widest-ranging, most common wild feline in the world.
Few people consider the bobcat a varmint any more. We realize the vital role these beautiful predators play in the balance of nature. We know they provide a necessary check on rodent and rabbit populations, which make up over half their usual diet. And we know that proper management creates a surplus of animals that can be taken by hunters and trappers without affecting the overall population. Hunting and trapping are allowed in at least 37 states.
"If you've ever hunted wild turkeys, you can understand why some of us have a passion for hunting bobcats," says John Heuston of Little Rock, Ark. "The same attractions are present -- the difficulty, the challenge. Bobcats are very cautious. They're well-camouflaged and very hard to spot. When you're calling, they don't come running right up to you like a fox does, or sometimes a coyote. They slip up on you. A caller may find one practically in his lap before he knows it's there. That's part of the excitement of hunting this amazing animal."
Heuston, an expert predator caller and hunter, has pursued bobcats for decades, from the high peaks of the Ozark Mountains to swampy bottoms along the Mississippi River. He begins each hunting season by scouting the territory he intends to hunt.
"Once good hunting territory is located through scouting or tips from farmers, rural mail carriers and others who spend a lot of time outdoors, you should map out a route that allows stands or hides every half mile or so," he notes. "The more stands, the greater your chance of success. You may make 10 or 15 stops and never see a bobcat, or you may make one or two and have no trouble finding a cat. You just don't know, however, so you want to be sure you have several different places you can try when you're out there hunting."
Heuston usually hunts on large public-owned wildlife management areas.
"I drive the back roads through an area and try to find places that look good to me," he says. "I'm primarily looking for habitat, the same kind of areas where you might find rabbits. If you have good rabbit cover -- edge areas, brushy thickets, successional clear cuts, places like that -- you have good cat cover. Bobcats will be where they can catch rabbits if they can."
The basis of Heuston's hunting technique is appealing to the bobcat's instinct to eat rabbits by using a call that imitates a rabbit's distress cries. When a predator catches a rabbit, the normally silent rabbit shrieks in fear and pain. It does the same when caught in a trap or fence or when accidentally injured. Bobcats know this sound and respond to it looking for an easy meal.
"There are many companies making mouth-blown predator calls, and though each call may have a slightly different pitch or sound, all of them will attract bobcats," says Heuston. "I use only the closed-reed barrel-type rabbit calls. But open-reed calls that make a high-pitched mouse squeal can also be effective.
"Camouflage clothing is very important," he continues. "You're going up against one of the sharpest-eyed creatures there is, and the more you camouflage yourself, the better. You'll have to hunt when it's legal in your state, but bobcats can be called year-round. You want to be at your hunting area when the sun rises, and the best hunting will continue until 10 o'clock in the morning or so. Up in the day, bobcats generally settle down and hole up somewhere. But they'll be active again at dusk and into the night."
Calling is best when there's little or no wind, which is one reason to recommend the first light of day, normally a period of calm. If there's significant air current, the call carries farthest in the direction, downwind, where you don't want it to go. Your best insurance is to have the prevailing wind at the back of your quarry rather than yours, blowing your scent away from the animal's keen nose.
"When you get to your hunting area, pull your vehicle off to the side of the road, and when you get out, be sure you don't slam the doors, don't talk to one another, and don't smoke," Heuston says. "You want to get 60 to 100 yards away from your vehicle, and you slip in there like you're stalking a deer. Get to your stand quickly but as quietly as possible.
"Sometimes I sit to call, and sometimes I stand, depending on the terrain. If it's brushy and you sit down, you may not be able to see anything. So sometimes I back up into bush or a cedar tree or something else that breaks my outline. A deer stand makes a great place to call from. I have a friend who hunts with his son. They carry a tree stand, then he'll get up in a tree and his son will lay down at the bottom of the tree. The son lays flat on his back and calls. He can't see what's coming, but his father can. And he can watch his dad up there in the tree, and when he sees his actions, he knows what to expect."
When you begin calling, don't let your enthusiasm destroy the reality of the drama you're attempting to create.
"You start calling quietly then put a little more blood into it with each call," says Heuston. You want to sound like a rabbit that's been caught in a fence or by another predator. Start your series real low, and if that doesn't bring results then you can kick the volume up. Some guys believe in calling continuously, and others do series of 30-second calls with pauses in between to look around and see what's coming.
"A fox or coyote will generally respond within 5 to 15 minutes. But a bobcat may take 30 minutes or more. I'll usually stay at each stand close to half an hour. If nothing has come up, then I'll move on to the next spot. If a cat does show, I have my gun at the ready and make my shot -- if I can. If I miss or spook the animal, I know I can come back and try him again. Coyotes are call-shy. If you miss one the first time, he may never respond to a call again. But bobcats aren't that way. A bobcat never seems to associate the sound of calling with the hunter. He's thinking "What's that fat guy doing between me and my rabbit?" Miss him the first time, and you can call him back again and again.
"Predator calling is not for the casual hunter," Heuston states. "Don't expect to fill up the back of your pickup with varmints. You're an amateur "rabbit" operating in a world of polished professionals who stay alive by not making mistakes. Arguably, no form of hunting is more demanding of skill, dedication, shooting ability and patience than bobcat calling. None. But that's what makes it so interesting."