Last-gasp partridge on the steep & slippery
By Garhart Stephenson
Last winter I stood on a ridge in west-central Wyoming above an immense basin listening for the tattletale chatter of chukars. I had listened from this spot a number of times in the past 20 years, but this day the birds remained silent. Tracks along the snowline indicated that plenty of chukars had been here recently. They were not here now, however, and with eight inches of snow covering any food on the gentler north-facing slopes, they wouldn’t be there either. Steep, crumbly south-facing slopes like the one I was about to descend often draw coveys in winter, as the snow there melts sooner, revealing bare ground.
I glanced at my dog, Rusty, and thought, It’s a long way down . . . and back up. But unconcerned and eager, he turned and eased down the narrow passage between two rock walls. He has the nose, so I followed—hunting down even though I prefer not to.
There really are only three options anyway: up, down or across. And each has pros and cons. While working downhill may be easier on the legs, it gives escaping chukars an advantage, as they blend in marvelously when flying over drab backgrounds. In addition chukars, never known for a slow lumbering exodus, have gravity on their side—the same gravity that is pulling me downward, adding to the challenge of planting both feet to make a decent shot. And finally there is the dreaded climb back to the truck after I am worn out.
Which is why I advocate the aching-leg, uphill assault. Think about it: Chukars flushing overhead are fanned out against an open sky—the stark, contrasting patterns adorning their throats and sides clearly visible. Now the birds, instead of getting a camouflaged head start from below, must blow past the waiting hunter. The result is closer shots at more visible birds. Plus it’s easier to stop and shoot. And it doesn’t hurt that at hunt’s end it’s all downhill to the truck.
Unfortunately, the only access road to the mountain I was hunting that day runs the ridgeline, so Rusty and I had no choice but to head down and across. A sidehill search pattern saves a good amount of effort, limiting major elevation changes until the dog crosses scent and a covey is located. The one challenge is traction. South-facing slopes are notoriously steep in chukar country. This is not the place to wear a set of kangaroo boots with hard, smooth soles unless bleeding elbows and scraped gunstocks are the goal. I finally gave up buying “hunting boots” and started buying lightweight, supportive, “grippy” boots from mountaineering companies like The North Face. These folks seem to grasp the concept that slipping may result in death. When snow covers an incline, I appreciate good products that can handle the situation.
While chukars will use an entire mountainside, there are pockets that offer food and shelter that will draw them most of the time. As snow depth increases, coveys will move to lower pockets, if necessary. Like any gamebird, chukars spend a good portion of their day foraging. Where they forage depends on a variety of factors, but by far the most important is the birds’ specific dietary requirements. Chukars subsist primarily on cheatgrass. Areas devoid of this arid-country grass generally are devoid of chukars.
As mentioned, the best locations are “pockets”: V-shaped notches where eroded soil has piled up, sometimes even forming shelves, where water collects and soaks in and results in denser cheatgrass. Mix in a rock outcropping and some mature brush (often sage or sumac) so the little partridge can dust themselves or quickly access escape cover, and you have the ideal chukar haunt. Variety and edges are important.
During the torturous ascent, my 7½-pound gun continued to gain weight.
Coveys will frequent these areas and leave sign. In winter, when birds concentrate, communal coveys numbering 30 to 80-plus birds are possible. They usually split into individual coveys once rousted.
Aware of this, I followed intently as Rusty worked along a deer trail. Soon the dog’s body language and attitude indicated that there were chukars about. Just as I was hoping for an opportunity, I spotted birds in the distance. The covey was not well organized but scattered across an old landslide. Most of them scrambled uphill with ease, and then flushed.
My gun of choice that day was an old Syracuse Lefever 12-bore choked exceedingly tight in both barrels—quite appropriate for skittish winter birds. It is the nicest gun I own, and scratching it is a risk; but for this particular task it is my best choice. Unfortunately, these chukars jumped beyond reach, even with 1¼-ounce handloads of No. 6 lead.
As I picked my way through, over and around the obstacle course of massive earthen rubble, several stragglers flushed individually and in pairs. I exchanged five shells for two chukars and sent Rusty to retrieve them from far below.
With two plump birds in the bag, I followed Rusty across to a small shelf surrounded by waist-high sage. As on the adjacent debris field, cheatgrass was prevalent, with new green shoots emerging where the soil was warmed regularly. Later when I checked the birds’ crops, I found them bulging with green tips and dried seeds.
As I stood daydreaming, a chukar flushed nearby and sailed down the mountain, finally swinging upward in a tight fishhook to land near the bottom. This bird would be best left alone, as eventually the anxiety of separation would loosen its beak. Then others would answer and reveal their whereabouts.
Before long chukar gossip broke out from various points around us. With a bit of “persuasion” from Rusty and myself, two coveys eventually placed themselves amongst juniper-dotted sandstone and limestone strata that resembled a tapered row of boomerangs. Ambush country for sure.
One undeniable attraction of chukar hunting is that most of it occurs on public land in the West. Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Wyoming all have public land where the birds reside in worthwhile numbers.
A major reason that so much chukar hunting takes place on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service and corresponding state agencies is that the harsh country where the birds live generally was considered undesirable when the West was settled.
Of course, bird populations can change from year to year, so getting a scouting report before heading out is wise. Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon publish population-survey results on their wildlife-department websites prior to hunting season.
In general primary locations for chukars in each state are as follows: Nevada hosts birds in mountainous areas statewide. In Oregon and Washington birds exist along eastern river courses. Idaho chukar country is typically found in the Clearwater, Magic Valley and southwest regions. Utah chukar enthusiasts typically find birds in rougher portions of the state’s western desert. And in Wyoming look for chukars in the west-central and north-central regions.
The situation was ideal, allowing our approach to remain somewhat undetected, and all went well until a straggler sprang up, skimming low toward a nearby drop-off. Just as the bird reached the edge, a puff of feathers signaled that I had hit it solidly. Rusty charged ahead, and then stood at the edge staring down. When I peered over, I saw that it was a long way to the bottom and not easily traversed. I picked a route that eventually would get us to the bird at the mountain’s base.
Upon retrieving our prize, I took a moment to bask in midwinter’s golden rays, nursing my dwindling supply of water and gnawing on some goose jerky and a Cliff bar. Eventually it was time for the penalty stage: the climb back to the truck. During the torturous ascent, my 7½-pound gun continued to gain weight. Often at this time of year I carry a tightly choked Fox 16-gauge loaded with 11/8 ounces of No. 7 or 7½ shot. It’s a good pound lighter than the Lefever but about the minimum required for pressured chukars. Expecting the worst, I had come prepared for long shots at bothered birds. Packing the 12 had been the right decision.
Five chukars in my bag added warmth and weight, and soon my back started to ache—a reminder that I should have brought more water or carried a filter for the mountain seeps. But knowing that a fresh shirt and pair of socks and shoes as well as water and high-protein snacks waited in the truck served as motivation to strain onward.
Eventually we made it to the top. And once I was in comfortable clothes, I pointed the truck toward home. It had been a long but rewarding day, and I looked forward to a hot meal and well-deserved rest. Rusty curled up next to me and stirred very little during the drive.