Snow falls lightly, creating streaks of white across the midnight sky. The pickup truck climbs a hill, stalls, begins to slide on a road made slippery by damp snow.
The three hunters bundle out of the warm truck cab to add chains to the tires.
The snow keeps falling.
It takes 10 minutes to wrestle the chains on the truck and get back on the road. The going is slow as the hunters scan the whitening ground for bobcat tracks.
“There. Stop. I saw one,” says hunter Dylan Hicks, 15.
His father, Tim Hicks, brings the truck to a stop as Dylan and his sister, Scooter, 13, jump out.
Dylan walks to the track, squats and studies the imprint for a moment.
“There’s no snow in the track. It’s fresh. Let’s get the dogs,” he says to his sister.
If the trail is old and cold, they’ll have to work the dogs to get a good smell of the bobcat. This track is fresh. The mother mountain/kemmer mix cur and her pups, raised and trained by the hunters, look once at the teens before taking off on the scent.
The chase is on.
Dylan tosses a grin at Scooter, daring her to outrace him as he sprints after the cur dogs.
“Not five minutes later, they were squealing,” he recalls.
Unlike other dogs, their curs only vocalize when they have their prey.
“I looked at the tree; a cat was looking down. The dogs were tickled. I lined up and shot it. Next thing I heard, a big crash and bang. The dogs were fighting and trying to get the cat out of the tree,” he says.
An outdoors lifestyle
Dylan and Scooter Hicks are Moffat County teens who have adopted outdoor skills as a lifestyle.
“They have been hunting and trapping since they were in diapers,” Tim Hicks explains. “No, really they’ve been hunting bobcats their entire life.”
The animal they prize the most is the bobcat, which grows to two 0r three times the size of a domestic cat and appears more muscular and fuller in the body. Also, bobcats’ hind legs are proportionately longer compared to the front legs than those of a domestic cat, according to David Armstrong, from the University of Colorado-Boulder Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology-Environmental Studies Program. Further, he says, bobcats are secretive, shy, solitary and seldom seen in the wild.
They are active during the day but prefer twilight, dawn or night hours. They tend to travel well-worn animal trails, logging roads and other paths. They use their acute vision and hearing for locating enemies and prey.
From napping babies to nabbing bobcats, growing into predator hunters didn’t happen overnight; Tim says he had a training program for his children.
“We trapped them first. The kids would check the traps with me, and when they got a little older, we’d go out coyote hunting when the weather was good. When they get a little older, tougher, we’d go call and hunt at night. Then, a little older, we went up to chasing with a cur dog up and down the mountain,” he says, then pauses to consider. “The next step, well … it scares me, what the next step would be.”
The teens have turned the pursuit into profit, and both are licensed to hunt and trap coyotes, raccoons and other fur-bearing game.
Colorado law allows hunters carrying either a small game license or a furbearer license to harvest bobcats. Colorado Parks & Wildlife Furbearer Management Report for the 2016-2017 harvest year estimates that, from 1998 through 2005, about 60- to 70-percent of the harvest was through hunting. The same report notes that, since 2005, the proportion has switched, and live trapping now represents approximately 60 to 70 percent of the harvest, with hunting methods accounting for the remaining 30 to 40 percent.
Available information indicates bobcat populations are stable or increasing in most or all of Colorado.
The Hicks family help Northwest Colorado landowners with predator control, while preparing and selling the pelts to fur buyers.
It’s a win-win.
The 2017-18 hunting season was the first year the Hicks used young dogs — Sugar and Jet — to hunt the cats. Nuisance animals provide an opportunity for the teens to train their dogs for tricky prey — like bobcats.
“They (bobcats) are a one-of-a-kind animal,” Scooter says. “They are really sneaky, and it takes awhile to get them figured out. We often go night hunting. When we see their eyes glowing, we call them.”
They use a FOXPRO game call and spotlights, for which they have special permits, to hunt the elusive animals.
“With bobcats, the electric call works well. If you keep a steady sound, it keeps the cat’s focus,” Tim says.
A call might help lure the animals in, but success often hinges on being patient.
“Even at night, it takes 30 minutes or longer to see them,” Dylan says.
That was the case with the first cat of the year, which Dylan bagged on the first day of the season when he was out hunting with Tim just before Christmas break.
“We were getting ready to call and walked into a wash. A coyote was standing in the wash, but I saw another eye in the distance. So we walked out across the wash and started calling. About 30 minutes later, the cat started coming back in, and it took 30 minutes to get him,” Dylan recalls.
That night, the weather was warm — 40 degrees Fahrenheit — with no snow on the ground and a full moon.
“He bounced back and forth. He sniffed every bush. I lined it up and shot it,” Dylan says, adding that the unseasonably warm weather seemed to make the pelt a little more red than usual.
Noticing such details seems natural for a family of hunters who live in a place only lightly touched by humans — Maybell, Colorado (population 72) — on property where they can look across the Yampa River, one of the last relatively free-flowing rivers in the Western United States, to see the tree where they treed their first bobcat.
Their mother, Candy Hicks, says her children have always participated in sports and played outside, and they always say a prayer of thanks after killing an animal.
“We don’t have a shortage of rifles in the household,” Candy says.
They are short, however, on some of the other items that fill the lives and time of teenagers.
“We don’t have a single Play Station or video game in the house,” Tim says. Candy adds, “We used the Wii for Netflicks.”
That was before Scooter and Dylan decided to take hunting to the next level.
“It used to be fun — a big old thriller to go out there — beaming and tickled to go out there. Since going really hunting, it’s a job; it’s more routine,” Dylan says. He pauses, thinking, then adds, “The heart starts to thump. It’s tuned up once the cat is found.”
Business is good, netting them about $2,400 on the toms they harvested.
“I had to show Dylan what a high-dollar cat looked like,” Scooter says, with a smile.
Her kills were fewer, but she earned the best quality prices on her bobcats – enough to buy a new hunting rifle.
Her first successful bobcat hunt was in a big draw owned by a neighbor; in Northwest Colorado, a neighbor might be miles away, leaving plenty of space for bobcats to thrive.
“I crawled up on a little hill and started calling. It came running down the hill, so I shot. I was a big old tomcat. The momma dog — Diamond — helped find it. It was strange that cat came running in like a coyote,” Scooter says. “It’s like a business now. One of the jobs we go do. When you get a cat found, it’s exciting, still really fun, more of a business. Hunting with dogs is more exciting.”
For the summer, the teens extended their kennel, so when they open each of their bedroom windows, the dogs can jump into the house to sleep and perhaps dream of the gentle touch of softly falling snow, a crisp night and fresh bobcat tracks heralding the start of another chase.
Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.