No Catbird Seat

On a turkey hunt in South Dakota this month, two-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Tom Hamlin was doing his best turkey call when an animal apparently mistook him for one of the big birds.

He would have preferred that a turkey so erred. Instead, Hamlin was set upon by a mountain lion that stalked him from behind and pounced on his shoulder.

The big cat set upon Hamlin, then, perhaps realizing its error, was gone "like a ghost," said Lance Robinson, a friend of Hamlin who was hunting with him that day.

"I thought I'd been tackled by a football player," Hamlin said. "That's what really got me, how hard he was able to hit me, and I only had about a quarter of my back exposed."

To that point, the men had enjoyed a blessed hunting trip. Hamlin, who qualified for the Classic in 2003 and 2007 through fishing the Opens, hadn't been turkey hunting in years. To him, the rolling hills and valleys in the Sioux-controlled area in the southwest part of the state, near the Badlands, were "the most beautiful country I've ever seen." And the birds were abundant. Hamlin estimated that he saw 600 of them in four days, and everyone in their party killed a limit.

On Monday, April 7, a little before 7 a.m., he and Robinson set up near the top of a grass-topped hill. Hamlin, who owns a company in Macon, Ga., that represents outdoors manufacturing companies, put his back against a pine and began using his diaphragm call. Robinson, who knows Hamlin professionally as the national sales manager for Heritage Safe Company in Grace, Idaho, dug in a few yards away on the other side of a pile of branches, with his back to Hamlin.

The men heard several birds gobbling in response to Hamlin's call. Then, for about 20 minutes, all was quiet. "I already knew something was amiss," Hamlin said. That's when something "the size of a small Lab" clobbered him and began striking at him with its paws.

"This thing is whop, whop, whop, whop," Hamlin said. Stunned, he thought it was a turkey battering him with its wings. "As quick as it started, it's over. By the time I gather my composure, he's already off of me, probably 15 yards away from me."

Hamlin yelled, "Yaaa!" to scare it away. Robinson looked up in time to see the tip of a tan tail disappearing over the crest of the hill. He heard the thumping noise of the big cat slapping at his friend, but never did see any more of the cat.

"That thing was totally stealthy," he said. "By the time I whirled around, he was gone."

Hamlin had a bloodied chin and a scratch on his bicep where a claw had penetrated his coat, but nothing severe. In the gash on his coat, several long, tawny cat hairs poked out. "If that thing had had its claws out," Robinson said, "Tom really would have been messed up."

Their guide later told them that in decades around that land, he'd seen only one or two mountain lions. It was a rare encounter, and harrowing, but at the time, given a few minutes for his heart to settle down, Hamlin was game to continue the hunt. The men continued over the ridge where they saw the cat running, and toward the calls of nearby turkeys.

"Trust me, when I called this time?" Hamlin said. "I had Lance where he could come in. And I still caught myself looking over my shoulder."