How Mountain Men star Jake Herak and his hound dogs keep Montana’s Ruby Valley safe from predator.
Jake Herak, a star of the History channel’s Mountain Men series, discovered his life’s ambition when he was still in kindergarten. It came one day while the six-year-old was watching Jeremiah Johnson, a 1972 film starring Robert Redford as a 19th-century war veteran who reinvents himself as a gritty survivor high in the Rocky Mountains.
Herak says he knew right then that he wanted to be a mountain man, just like Johnson.
“As soon as the show was done, I went to the kitchen and stole one of my mom’s steak knives and went outside and cut a bunch of willow branches down and started making arrows,” Herak remembers. “I took the shoelace out of my shoe and built myself a little bow out of a willow branch. I started walking around in the field, kicking over small hay bales, and shooting field mice. That’s how I got into hunting. I was just a little kid using my imagination.”
Today, the 33-year-old Herak has realized his longtime ambition as a regular cast member on the popular Mountain Men program. The reality show follows a group of independent-minded survivalists around the country who live in the wilderness, mostly off the grid. The bearded Herak, who joined the series in 2018, during its seventh season, has made his name on the show hunting mountain lions (also called cougars) in Montana with the help of his team of hound dogs.
Montana—which has long been a symbol for many Americans of isolated, rugged retreat—is where Herak was born and has lived his whole life. These days he plies his trade as a cougar hunter in the Ruby Valley, in the southwestern part of the state. The cold, clear waters of the Ruby River cut through the 50-mile-long valley, which is surrounded by more than half a dozen mountain ranges. They include the Ruby Range, to the southeast, and the Rocky Mountain’s Tobacco Root Mountains, with peaks reaching as high as 10,600 feet, to the north and east.
Brown trout are plentiful in the meandering river, and the area’s wildlands are home to elk, moose, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears—and mountain lions. Whenever those lions encroach on the valley’s towns and working ranches, Herak’s job on the show is to find them and drive them back up into the Tobacco Root Mountains. The cougars are sniffed out and tracked across the slick, steep, snow-packed terrain by Herak and his group of dogs, which might be considered stars of the show as well. Among them are Lefty, a full-blooded Treeing Walker Coonhound, and eight dogs that are half Walker, half English (or Redtick) Coonhound. “I don’t care what line they have, as long as they hunt,” Herak says.
And, hunt they do. During Herak’s first professional season on the program, the team treed and ran off a whopping total of 19 lions. That’s why, for Herak, lion hunting is “really all about the dogs”—not killing cougars.
“The dogs get out there and do what they need to do, and there’s no harder hunting in the world than lion hunting and running hounds,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you have the worst storm in the world blowing, if you’re hunting moose, sheep, ram, or elk, you can always turn around and go back to your truck—it’s a choice. But the second I turn my dogs loose, I can never go back to my truck without them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been two feet from my dogs, and a cat jumps, and I’ve had to go another six or eight miles. I will not leave my dogs on the mountain.
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for those dogs,” he goes on. “I spent one full season—pretty much all the money I got from the TV show—on their kennel. They live in a nicer house than I’ve ever lived in—it’s got AC! My dogs are my kids. I’m invested in them because they’re invested in me.”
Herak learned respect for hounds—and for mountain lions—from his good friend Jed Hutchinson, who mentored him in lion hunting over a period of three years. Gung-ho at first simply to harvest a cougar, Herak says that after treeing hundreds of lions during that time with Hutchinsonand Hutchinson’s dogs—and finally killing one lion, a 163-pounder—he came to realize that “I don’t care about killing them—I just want to have dogs.”
Little by little, Hutchinson allowed Herak to assume more responsibility handling his dog team. Then Hutchinson gifted his mentee at last with Lefty, a pup at the time, and an older dog named Maggie, who would train Lefty. “In the beginning, it was a glory thing: ‘We’re catching the baddest predator in the mountains. Not many people do it, and I’m really cool for doing it,’” Herak says. “Then it came down to: ‘I don’t really give a crap about the cat. I’m just out here working my dogs, and I love to do that.’ A lot goes into those dogs year-round, not just in the months we hunt.”
The son of a bar owner and a bartender/waitress, Herak earned his tough-guy cred as a youngster in Dixon, Montana, and Charlo, about 12 miles north, on the Flathead Indian Reservation. There, Herak says, he “grew up a white kid on the reservation and fought my way to the top. I can’t tell you how many times I came up to a group of Native American kids that wanted to beat me up, and I ended up battling with them. I hate to say it, but they’re taught to hate the white man. It’s crazy. I have friends now that I met back in the third or fourth grade, and the first thing they said was, ‘We can’t be friends, because you’re white.’ I said, ‘What?’ That’s sad.”
He also toughened up playing eight-man football—he was both a running back and a linebacker—in high school in Twin Bridges, where he transferred from Charlo in 2007, during his junior year. Herak was so good, high school officials asked him following graduation to coach the Twin Bridges Falcons in football, which he did for five years. In 2011, Herak’s team won the state Class C state championship—the school’s first championship since 1952.
Herak continues to live in Twin Bridges and, in addition to his hours spent on Mountain Men, does several other jobs during the year. “When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, it’s very rare to be able to do just one job and survive,” he says. So, he sprays noxious weeds during the spring and summer, cowboys for three months on a cow-calf ranch operation, and works as an outdoor guide for three companies: Rack & Reel Montana (deer and elk hunting, a little fishing); Four Dot Outfitters (deer and elk hunting), both of Twin Bridges; and Treed Up Outfitters (lion hunting), in Sheridan. He also participates in the Sig Sauer Hunting Preferred Guide Program and, in July, found time to marry Dr. Anika Ward, a Twin Bridges veterinarian who has also appeared on Mountain Men.
Nearly three decades after watching the Jeremiah Johnson flick, Herak knows he’s come awfully close to emulating the man who inspired his childhood ambition. “There’s no such thing as a real-life mountain man anymore who lives off the grid and is 100 percent self-sufficient—that just doesn’t happen in the 21st century,” he says. “But I tell people, ‘I’m probably the closest you’re going to come to a modern-day mountain man.’ I take all the money that I can save and then go spend my time in the woods. That’s just what I do.”
How to Be Self-Reliant in the High Country
Here, in his own words, are Jake Herak’s four rules for surviving in mountainous terrain:
- You need to know your body’s physical condition and your limitations. If you’re going into a high-altitude environment, you’ll need to acclimate yourself to the elevation first before diving into something. If you don’t, you can get in a lot of trouble, fast. I keep myself in shape by working out at the local high school gym every other night from one to two and a half hours. But there’s nothing that will train you for the mountain like the mountain.
- You need to have the proper clothing. Your boots and your clothing are absolutely key. I call them PPE, or personal protective equipment. If you get soaking wet, for example, you need to be able to keep your body heat up so that you don’t get frostbite. In one seven-day stretch on the mountain here, I think the high was negative 20 degrees, and at one point it got down to negative 58. And the wind is always blowing—anywhere from three to seven miles per hour and then on up to 20 or 40 or 60 miles per hour.
- You need to know the terrain—and be prepared for it with the right equipment. In certain areas, for instance, you’re going to need to bring along rain gear. Even if you don’t plan to spend the night on the mountain, you’d better be prepared to do so. I’ll sleep in a tent or on the ground. Sometimes I’ll just bring a sleeping bag and a ‘bivy sack’ (a lightweight ‘tent shell’ that zips over a sleeping bag for additional protection).
- You need to bring along ‘the essentials’ including a first-aid kit, something to start a fire, and a way to filter water. For filtering water, I use either a tiny little pump (no bigger than a pack of gum) or a LifeStraw water-filtration system.
Why We Hunt Mountain Lions
It’s important for multiple reasons to keep the mountain lion population in check, Jake Herak explains. “If the lions start over-populating, they’re going to get diseased. If they start over-populating, they’re going to kill off all the game in an area,” he says. “And once they kill off all the game, that’s when they start coming down to the lower elevations onto ranches and start getting under people’s porches, for example.”
Fortunately, mountain lions in Montana are thriving these days. That’s partly because the state’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks department carefully manages the population and encourages limited mountain-lion harvesting opportunities for hunters between December 1 and April 14.
A total of 515 lions were killed in Montana in 2020, up from 493 the year before, according to FWP.
The hunting opportunities are made available in specific regions in the state and in certain “lion management units” within the region, each with its own annual harvest quota.
To set those quotas, the state routinely monitors and estimates the cougar population, often with the help of hound hunters like Herak. “Mountain lions are very hard to get a count on,” he says. “And nobody in the Ruby Valley hunts more days than me. It’s my job, seven days a week.”