Gary Penrod was out for the late whitetail buck hunt in Pend Oreille County last month when a mountain lion caught him with his pants down.
The Nine Mile Falls sportsman rallied to the moment, rendering a once-in-a-lifetime memory from the daily duty of answering nature’s call.
At the least, Penrod’s encounter reaffirms basic rules for getting close to game: He was sitting still, and it’s pretty clear the cougar must have been upwind.
It’s an example that the more you get out in the outdoors, the more you’ll get out of it.
“I’m a retired teacher and I’ve always wanted to be able to hunt an entire season,” he said, noting this was the year he made that happen.
He didn’t fill his deer tag during the general season despite hunting every day in his familiar stamping grounds near Steptoe. Undaunted, he was determined to bring home venison during the late buck hunt farther north.
On Nov. 15, with his deer tag as well as tags for cougar and bear in his pocket, he set out with hunting partner Wayne Reome to explore a new area northwest of Priest.
After the hunters split up and took stands for the first two hours of daylight, Penrod was moving to another ridge when he had the undeniable urge to take a backcountry potty break.
“I had just finished and was just about to pull up my pants when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye,” he said. “I slowly turned my head and all I saw was this cougar tail 20 feet away right where I had been walking.
“I grabbed my rifle. He saw me move, took off, and I dropped him at about 25 yards from where I was standing – with my pants still around my knees.
“I know this sounds farfetched, but I swear on my reputation as a teacher of 30 years that this is how it actually played out.”
Penrod did not suggest that keeping his cool and killing a cougar at close range makes him braver or more studly than other hunters.
The cougar might have left him alone as soon as it figured out he was a human, not to mention a significantly lighter human than he had been a few moments earlier.
“I had an opportunity and a cougar tag and I took advantage of it,” he said.
A Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologist estimated the cougar weighed more than 150 pounds. Penrod’s taxidermist said it weighed closer to 170 pounds.
Either way, it’s a huge cat. It measured more than 8 feet long when he brought it to the taxidermist and would stretch to 9 feet.
Penrod and his buddy hunted deer for a few more hours after his hair-raising encounter, “but I was so excited about my cougar that my heart really wasn’t into deer,” he said. “I must admit that I did keep turning around to check my backtrack.”
His buddy, Reome, said he may never again feel safe taking an afternoon break to doze and nap on a south-facing exposure.
But the thrill of the hunt soon evolved into the anticipation of the harvest.
Penrod and his wife, Lonna, butchered the cat the next day and remarked to each other that the meat was notably clean and odorless.
Last week they invited Reome, his wife and another couple to savor the rare chance to feast on cougar meat.
“Only one of the ladies thought the meat was a little too exotic for her to try,” he said.
Pendrod admitted to being overcautious and overcooking the cougar meat to prevent any chance of dealing with trichinosis. Cougar meat and pork are common carriers of the parasitic worm that causes the disease.
Health agencies say the meat is safe to eat when cooked until the juices run clear or to an internal temperature of 170 degrees.
Even though Penrod apparently exceeded that safety bar, he said the cougar meat was “fantastic.”
“It was really mild,” he said. “We cooked some beef the same way and served them together for comparison, and the beef tasted stronger than the cougar.”
The couples paid the ultimate respect to the big lion Penrod had harvested.
“We sat around the table and talked about the meat, the taste and texture, the way it kind of flaked without being chewy or stringy,” he said. “Wayne thought it tasted like pork tenderloin. It was very interesting.”
The deer hunt that produced a lion of a story will be hard to forget even after the last package of meat is devoured. In a year or so, the taxidermist should be finished with the full-body mount of the massive cat.
“Lonna and I talked about the layout of the house and decided the best spot for the cougar would be coming downstairs into my man cave,” he said.
“Hopefully, it will turn out to be a very noble mount. I didn’t want a snarl on its face. It’s a magnificent animal. I like the animal. I really feel fortunate.
“I want to be at peace with it.”
Penrod seems to be at that sportsman stage in which everything about killing an animal comes together.
“This hunt was a huge reminder as to why I keep at it,” he said. “It will always be one if not the most memorable experience I have had while hunting.”
Indeed, everything came out just fine in this Big Moment of his hunting career, hereafter to be known simply as Gary’s BM.