Gray Ghosts in the Gray Sage

Gray Ghosts in the Gray Sage | Shooting Sportsman Magazine
Java in another unforgettable moment—locked tight on a covey in the late-season grass.

She surprised me again, Forrest, I can’t believe what I just saw.”

Backcountry reception is handy, but I generally ignore my phone while walking the high ramparts where chukars spend their winters.

But having just knocked down a double over the most remarkable point, I excitedly voice-texted my longtime chukar-hunting partner from atop Devils Backbone, high above brooding canyons splintering off at shadowy angles. Seven years earlier a nine-week-old pick-of-the-litter Weimaraner had come home with me, and I’d introduced her to wild chukars at her own speed, let her learn on the job. My one basic rule is to never reward a pup by shooting a bird that wasn’t properly pointed. Java—Silver Rain’s Jump-the-Fence Jumpstart Java, to be formal—blossomed into the most adroit chukar dog I’ve yet had, and that includes some fine company. Excellent hunting grounds, years of abundant birds and many days afield melded fortuitously, flawlessly, with her pedigree and disposition.

Java takes a final look back before setting off into the rugged glory of chukar country.

“I heard the beeper in point mode, and when I came over top, she was locked up postcard pretty,” I said. Forrest had received plenty of text-message Java updates over the seasons, but most had ended about there, with reports of gorgeous points, save-my-bacon retrieves and wonderful dogwork. Citing old age, he had retired from the chase before Java’s first season. But mentally, Forrest, who passed away last summer at 78, was still as tough as they come, a trait that counterpoised his flagging gait and kept him climbing those rocky crags into his 70s. No, it wasn’t the physicality of chukar hunting that had stopped him, but rather the passing of his last pointing dog.

I cut my chukar hunting teeth with Forrest in the 1980s, when at times we walked into 100-bird flocks on public land in Oregon. Twenty years my senior, he taught me a great deal, and we forged a 30-year partnership with rod and gun. So even though he admitted to melancholic tears the first time I texted him a photo of Java on point, I know Forrest enjoyed the vicarious exhilaration, so I eagerly shared the unforgettable moments.

If only I could keenly recall each of her countless points, but at least this one is still palpable. I can see it, smell it, hear it. Java—a gray ghost in the gray sage—silhouetted on the ridgeline, with the far escarpment of massive, mysterious Black Canyon rising majestically into the cerulean winter sky; sage-scented wind stirring the bunchgrass, spiraling Java’s eager misty puffs back over her heaving flanks; the gentle click as I quietly close the barrels.

I described the scene: “It was a low-percentage setup this late in the season—not much future in walking over the dog and right down on them. I figured they’d flush out of range.”

By January chukars tend toward bad behavior. You would, too, if you’d spent three months being shot at, your numbers steadily being pared down. Trap a pointed covey between you and the dog, and you can grease the cast iron; but such luck is mighty fickle in the tough, hard country chukars occupy in winter. The easier—dare I say unsporting—days of October, when the birds are so vulnerable because they still must visit water, are long past. Unless snow drives them down, wintertime chukars hold the high ground; and they’re jumpy. You take what you can get, reading each point and seeking the best available approach.

“I was thinking I should back off, reverse course and work my way down a level,” I continued, “but apparently Java was way ahead of me. Forrest, she was ramrod straight, locked up so tight I could’ve tipped her over with a finger. But suddenly she slunk to her left and away from the scent and trotted past me, fast and low, headed in the wrong direction. Fifty yards behind me she picked her way down through the low rimrock to the next level, worked back into the wind with her tail in windshield-wiper mode, and reestablished point. She actually broke point to get a better point! And I mean she abandoned the scent cone altogether to find a better solution!”

Moving up is one thing; maybe the birds are walking or running away, or maybe the dog has deciphered the scent and decided she can move in closer without risking a flush. But abandoning the scent cone altogether to seek a better position? That’s next level, the ultimate in teamwork and engendered by deep experience.

Java had provided me a shooting solution. There was no need to text the rest of the story to Forrest, who probably holds the Oregon record for chukars killed by one hunter. I’d quietly backtracked, taking the route Java had just pioneered, and angled downhill to get below her, carefully securing each foothold on steep slate talus. When I’d skirted past her, she’d chanced a sideways glance at me without turning her head; our eyes had met, briefly. Quietly, I then had made 15 more steps and looked back at Java. She was stock still, cheeks bellowing as she inhaled scent; no question the birds were sitting tight. When I close my eyes and reminisce on the scene, I can still hear the steady point-mode cadence from her beeping collar echoing back from the far canyon wall: BEEP . . . beeeep, BEEP . . . beeeep, BEEP . . . beeeep. When the covey had exploded, a brace had fallen to high-brass 5s. Java had made both retrieves, and then I’d allowed her to linger excitedly on ground scent from the 25-bird flock.

There’s no substitute for experience, and Java had benefitted from several straight years of excellent nesting success. Chukars were everywhere, and three-hour hunts were producing eight or 10 points on a sizable property I’ve hunted since the 1990s. The opportunity to hunt private ground is immeasurably valuable, because vast tracts of public land have reached the saturation point with chukar shooters. Yes, shooters. I will not deign to call all of them hunters, not when I see ATV tracks straight up steep slopes, ending only when the terrain is no longer drivable; not when I see shells scattered around precious water holes where thirsty coveys were bushwhacked; not when I see four gunners fielding eight dogs to vacuum every inch of the landscape. I’m no élitist, and I still hunt public land, but I earned my private-property access the old-fashioned way: I knocked on doors during spring and summer, talked to ranchers and graciously accepted lots of “no” answers. I deeply appreciate the yeses, and I foster those hard-won relationships.

The gray ghost admires the gray bird, having delivered it to the grizzled gray author.

My dogs have benefitted from those friendships, and Java’s timing was perfect. One brumal November afternoon, her long-distance nose led us on a half-mile detour to a far corner of the ranch where a high peninsula forces a hairpin curve into the impenetrable canyon below. After her redolent quest, I knew Java’s bearings were true as she stiffened to that elegant high-stepping trot we wingshooters adore—the canine equivalent of a dressage horse. Translated, that stylish trot says, We’re not there yet, but chamber two rounds because we’re getting close.

When her equestrian impression transitioned to creeping and wagging and pausing and sorting things out, I knew the game was at hand. Java found her quarry deep within a sea of head-high old-growth sagebrush. Zeroing in on the wind-muted beep-beep-beep of the collar, I finally saw her, staunch and steady; click went the safety as I walked past Java and 50 chukars launched chaotically, speeding away low over the sagebrush. One bird made an easy mark, and I peppered empty sky behind another. Then we spent 15 minutes on the disjoined members of the flock, Java pointing singles throughout the expansive covert. I estimated the total at 70, the biggest covey I’d seen since those halcyon days of the ’80s. No wonder she had winded them from a half-mile out.

Two months later, as the season’s end drew near in late January, my favorite hunt was wrong-winded one morning, the icy breeze gusting up Java’s tail instead of coursing from the north as on most cold days. But by then she was an old hand at that game, steepening the angle of her casts to compensate. The occasional pretzel point—hind quarters pointing leeward, front quarters doubled windward—notwithstanding, she routinely locked up on as many coveys hunting downwind as upwind. It helps to know the ground, and any supposed dog expert who questions canine memory hasn’t seen a pointing dog hit the ground running in a stubblefield and go directly to a spot where she pointed a rooster last month . . . or last season.

Stiff wind blowing through heavy fog might seem counterintuitive, but it’s a common winter convergence on Oregon’s high plains—a combination that garlands every fence wire and phone line with hoarfrost icicles two inches long. It’s also dangerous. If you opt to navigate that fog, there’s no substitute for knowing your ground—intimately. GPS is handy, a potential lifesaver in fact, so long as you don’t follow a fog-enshrouded back-to-the-truck GPS course that leads you fatally off a cliff. Luckily my favorite hunt is a ridgeline hike, and I know it well: up the access canyon, then due west, gently gaining altitude through the CRP field to the top of the ridge; hunt down the ridgeline to the old fenceposts and follow them east; then stick to the high ground and stay on contour to wrap around three yawning side canyons; the fourth canyon is the way back to the truck.

Still, hunting in that frozen fog stirs anxiety, which is why I finally invested in a GPS collar for Java. The wind was blowing so hard that January day that I couldn’t hear her beeper unless she was somewhere out behind me and close. This is cougar country and also cliff country—perils abound for hunting dogs, and that beeping collar gives me peace of mind. But I couldn’t hear the beeps, and Java hadn’t checked in for a while. I knew she was probably on point, but I’m a worrier where my dogs are concerned.

I struck a course laterally: 100 steps to the west, over the lip of the precipitous slope that dives into a gaping canyon. My ears fought the wind for even the faintest beep as tiny frozen droplets peppered my shooting glasses. I retraced my 100 steps, then took 100 more to the east down the lesser slope. Nothing but biting wind through enveloping fog. Again I regained the ridgeline and gave four quick, hard toots on the recall whistle. I waited, then whistled again. Java is exceptionally well trained to recall (they all should be). Growing more worried, I blasted the whistle four more times, and then, wraithlike, Java materialized through the fog from the southwest, just cresting the ridge to where she could see me and I her. Acknowledging me, she excitedly flipped around and disappeared.

I had whistled her off point.

And it didn’t matter that I had. Her body language told the story: She was headed back to re-point the covey.

Quickly, I strode in her direction and dropped over the edge, sidestepping down the steep slope rendered slick by hoarfrost. I heard the beeper through the wind but struggled to see Java—gray ghost in the gray sage in the gray fog.

Finally I spotted her in a crouching point, her chest nearly touching the ground, her tail arrow straight and quivering. Well back, behind and above her, I plotted a solution—eager to reward, or perhaps apologize to, a dog that had obeyed a recall command even with a nose full of intoxicating chukar scent. I eased downslope, angling below Java, open Beretta in my right hand, my left hand serving as a third leg on the icy escarpment. Finding a trace of secure footing, I moved up. A dozen birds exploded 20 yards out, and the hard wind stood them at bay for one easy shot before they banked with the wind and disappeared into the fog below.

We didn’t linger. The air seemed to be cooling, not warming, and I always remain cognizant that Weims have thin coats and lack for body fat. At the old fenceposts—reminders of the mile of nefarious barbed wire I removed one spring to make a safer hunt for Java—we bore eastward and dropped downslope until the increasing gradient told me to turn south. Invigorated with the wind in her face, Java made short work of pinning down another covey. Her position told me the birds were above her and well out front. That nose tells her when to point from afar; remember: Chukars are mighty jumpy by January, and a learned dog values stealth and distance. I came up behind and then angled upslope, knowing that if I gained position above them, the birds would not run uphill to escape. Java remained a statue, ghostly in the fog; I could barely see her when the covey flushed nearly half a football field from her green eyes.

Five minutes later she locked up again, pointing downhill. I figured she’d pinned a single that had run out from the flock before the flush, and runners like to keep running. Well out of gun range, I stood and watched, expecting the stalk-point-stalk-point game to begin—a contest she usually wins, because she doesn’t push, she follows. That’s one aptitude of great chukar dogs: The best of them never push runners but instead use both air scent and ground scent to follow at a discreet distance until the bird(s) decides to hold tight. It’s a treat to watch, and that’s what I was waiting for; but she stood pat.

We all learn and relearn and constantly remind ourselves to trust the dog. I’m glad I remembered that, because when I walked up the slope, 20 chukars launched in a tight covey. I waited for them to bank safely away from Java, and then I shot one bird, which cupped its wings and glided into the head of a slot canyon before crumpling. Java needed five minutes to find the downed bird, but she finally hefted it up the mountainside to me—a gray ghost emerging from the gray fog with a mouthful of gray.

We’d had enough for the day. I don’t like to shoot legal limits of eight, and four birds comprise my usual self-imposed limit. But I always try to honor a point, and Java pinned two more coveys before we reached the trail that led down the canyon to the truck and a thermos of hot coffee.

Downhill is more perilous than uphill, particularly on frozen ground. My favorite shotgun has a badly dented rib that probably saved my head from a denting one day when a boot heel skidded off a frozen rock. Downhill punishes aging hips and knees and feet; uphill reminds one of the inherent logic of getting into hunting shape preseason rather than in-season.

I’m at that age where those long ascents to wintertime chukar habitat don’t seem to be getting any easier. So is Java, though she has yet to show it. I wonder if she will be my last hunting dog. I waver on that question. A few seasons back I phoned Forrest during the long winter drive home from chukar country. We reminisced about countless days afoot high above the basalt palisades skirting the canyons that carve that favorite hunt of mine. It was Forrest’s favorite as well. As our conversation waned, Forrest mulled the idea of getting one more dog. “John, if I decided to get another dog, I’d need you to promise me that if I died, you’d take the dog and give him a good home and maybe hunt with him.”

I would, I assured him.

I’ve killed more than enough chukars for one lifetime thanks to fine dogs and obdurate doggedness. I don’t embrace the killing. I do my best to drop a bird from each pointed covey to reward Java, and chukars are the finest of cuisine, with delicately flavored white meat. But after all these seasons, each squeeze of the trigger brings a pang of remorse for a life taken.

Still, I never tire of watching pointing dogs work birds and, while in recent years I’ve pondered knocking on some more doors until I find a big flat wheatfield inhabited by well-behaved Hungarian partridge for my waning years as a wingshooter, I do love chukar country in all its rugged glory.

For now I relish my good fortune, because Java and I—the graceful gray ghost and the grizzled gray ghost—have two or three seasons left in us, together, amid the gray sage.

An avid upland hunter from Oregon, John Shewey is a freelance writer and photographer and the editor in chief of American Fly Fishing Magazine.

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