In that high border region of western Maine known as the Dead River country, where temperatures often range from 20 to 30 below, cat hunters are sometimes referred to as men who are all brawn and no brains. Maine cat hunters know better. They are well aware that they belong to a select coterie. There are probably no more than a couple of dozen in the state with the stamina, the passion and the hounds to qualify as top-drawer cat hunters. For it is not enough to be just an enthusiastic cat hunter. To make the grade, a man has to know his cat country and his cats, and own a dedicated cat dog.
In Maine the "cat" is the bobcat, a wily and elusive carnivore which, unlike the bear and the fox, has a decided preference for killing its own meat, a job it accomplishes with surgical efficiency. A wastrel, killing not only for food but often merely for pleasure, the bobcat is on the blacklist of many conservationists, particularly in Maine.
Even a good cat hunter is hard put to explain what makes a cat hunter good. Newt Stowell of Dixfield, who keeps eight cat dogs, puts it this way: "Deer hunting is getting too crowded, fox hunting is getting too easy. A cat, now—well, you just don't get a cat every day in the week, and when you do get one, man, you've got yourself something and you've been someplace."
That "someplace" could be just about any place, were Newt Stowell speaking literally. When cat hunters set forth of a wintry morning on their quest they never know where they will end up at dark, nor do they care. From that charged moment when the strike dog, loosed on a cat track in the snow, sends its first challenging bay slamming against a frozen mountain to the climactic instant when the frenzied pitch of the pack's tonguing says "treed," it may be a span of 15 minutes or an hour or the best part of a day. Perhaps, even, there won't be any final act that day. It depends on snow conditions, the dogs and, of course, the cat.
If the cat has a full belly the chances are it'll tree fast. On the other hand, if the cat is light and the hounds have trouble bucking the breasting snow, the quarry may circle in a thicket like a rabbit all day long. If a cat is pressed hard it'll tree as a rule, but that rule has variables. There are slow dogs that tree cats as slick as a mitten, and fast dogs that just can't seem to tree a cat at all.
For the cat hunter, the track of the cat is like the track of nothing else. Once the pack opens up, men move, and the snowshoe pace is relentless. The cat hunter never knows where he's heading, and only a snowshoe trail will tell him where he's been. The curtain scene—the hunched cat glaring balefully down from a tree limb upon the baying, leaping pack—may happen within sight of the road or 10 miles in on the back of some nameless mountain.
Cat hunting starts with the first snows and continues until the spring. Storms and bitter weather hold the cats close to their dens in the rocky ledges and make for slow hunting. Foul weather, however, seldom keeps a hardened cat hunter home for long. When few cats are moving, the true hunter will think nothing of driving 200 miles on back lumber roads checking every slot in the snow. And every track needs close inspection, for in deep snow only the really expert eye can distinguish the telltale turned-in tread of the cat from the track of a fox.
In view of the fact that the state pays a $15 bounty on bobcats, purists might question the cat hunter's amateur standing. Although cat hunters accept this token subsidy (game wardens are the exceptions, being already on the state payroll), the profit motive in cat hunting may be dismissed as negligible. Cat bounties don't even cover the keep for one hound, and most hunters have two or three. A good hound, already started on cats, is worth as much as $500.
Most cat hunters consider themselves conservationists, but conservation as a prime motive for cat hunting falls flat on its face and just won't stand up against the fact that the cat hunter is the first to moan when game-killing cats are scarce. And when he is pinned right down as to why he prefers to take a torn rather than a female (a "yeoh," as he will call it) it's soon clear that sentiment plays no part in his preference. A dead female means no litter of kittens to grow up and be dogged another day.
Even the best cat hunter is no better than his dog. Whether it be a blue-tick, redbone, Walker, black and tan or Plott hound—all these breeds are used on cats in Maine—it has to be endowed with something a little special to make the grade in this demanding sport. Being big helps—four-foot snows are average—but most of all the dog needs heart and stamina, plus a good charge of cat hate.