Gordons and gray partridge in the Snake River Valley
By Brad Fitzpatrick
The landscape and terrain of Idaho’s Snake River Valley were shaped by extraordinary geological violence. Steep cliffs along the valley’s corridor are the result of seismic collisions between the Continental and Pacific plates, and the lava rock at its base was formed by an ancient volcano. Even the valley itself, a wide swath of dried grass and brush, was carved by the forces of rock, wind, sand and rain compounded over millennia. The entire land, from the hills to the plains and the river itself, was created through powerful natural forces.
It’s odd, then, that on this day things are so calm along the Snake. The prairie winds are almost dead, the occasional thermals tilting the yellow grass along the valley floor. Sagebrush stretches as far as one can see, and the sky is insulated with gray clouds that stretch in an unbroken cloak separating earth from sky. To the south, the spine of the great Owyhee Mountains lies quiet under a blanket of fresh snow. Other than a single harrier tilting on the wind, the landscape is still.
This is the great corridor that carried travelers west in the mid-19th Century: the old Oregon Trail. It is thought that as many as 400,000 pioneers used this trail, traveling at first on foot and later in wagon trains. From its starting point in Independence, Missouri, it was a difficult path fraught with danger—everything from raging rivers to starvation to dysentery. The trail provided the first inroads to California during the 1840s gold rush, and eventually it ran into the Willamette Valley, in present-day Oregon.
The Idaho country has appealed to immigrants since the beginning of these migration routes opened. Basque people settled in the Snake River Valley, taking jobs as shepherds. Irish and Scandinavian settlers came, too, to ranch or mine, and they made the backwater camp of Boise into a booming settlement that eventually developed into a diverse and vibrant city.
We are an hour’s drive from Mountain Home—far from the lights of any town—when Tom Loy, Craig Dinsdale and I set out from Tom’s truck. Craig is a Gordon fancier from Utah who is accompanying us to take photos, and soon his setters Molly and Pete are casting wide arcs through the valley. The plain rolls in a series of broken foothills all the way to the river, and although they remain largely unseen and even largely unknown, there are colonies of immigrants thriving in this valley. These immigrants, however, have wings and feathers and include Hungarian, or gray, partridge; chukar; and the occasional pheasant. And while these birds present some of the best opportunities for wild upland hunting in the country—and perhaps the world—we see no other hunters. As many birds as there are, they are rarely easy to find.
“I talked to a hunter who was staying in Pocatello,” Tom said. “The poor guy had been hunting here for a month and hadn’t killed a single bird.”
That’s the nature of hunting Huns in the valley. I lose perspective when hunting with Tom, who has studied these canyons and hills and, like a sea captain who can read the water and catch fish, knows where to find his quarry in this seemingly featureless landscape.
CLICK IMAGES TO EXPAND
Hungarian partridge are native to Europe and Asia, and they were imported to the US in small numbers as early as the late 19th Century. Like chukar and ringneck pheasants, Huns were said to be ideal upland gamebirds. In habits they are much like bobwhite quail, forming tight, circular coveys with the heads of all birds facing outward to identify threats and conserve body heat. The first large-scale introduction occurred in 1908, when 40,000 birds were released in Oregon. Like chukar but unlike pheasants, these days they thrive in rocky, arid country. But as robust as chukar are, Huns are perhaps even better adapted for the harsh Oregon Trail country, as they can survive in places where chukar cannot.
“Will the birds be at the snow line?” I ask Tom.
“No,” he says, “they can actually live in the snow. They don’t move to lower elevations like chukar.”
“So they’ll be up top?”
“They can be anywhere—from the valley floor to the crest.”
We follow the dogs, which are loping through the sage toward a low hill. There is a creek to our left, and the country seems like ideal habitat for California quail. Indeed, Pete falls on point, his black tail raised high above the brush, and Molly honors. When we flush the birds—which do turn out to be quail—we kill a single. A short while later the dogs point a covey of what I assume to be quail but turns out to be Huns. The birds rise and twist through the air like the coveys of wild bobwhites I remember hunting as a kid. And I miss them all.
The more Tom and I talk, the more I realize that very little is known about Huns in the West and how these birds thrive here. The largest coveys—those with 10 birds or more—are perhaps family groups. Smaller coveys of four or five birds might be bachelor birds, but this is largely conjecture. Much of the information that has been gathered about the ecology of Huns comes from hunters like Tom, and many of the birds’ habits are still a mystery. Like the immigrants they are, they have assimilated, adapting to life in the Snake River Valley quite well. Their ability to feed on invasive plants contributes to their success. Medusahead rye and cheatgrass represent serious ecological threats in Snake River country, displacing native plants and creating fire hazards, but Hungarian partridge are one species that actually have benefitted from these invasives. The increase in these plant species has allowed Huns to increase, and in areas where the plants have overtaken natural grasses, Huns are common.
I would assert that, based strictly on field experience, Tom Loy has as good a handle on the life and habits of Hungarian partridge as many scientists who study them from afar. Tom travels into this country often—all along the old Oregon Trail—and he has an innate understanding of the birds. He knows how they tend to flush and where they tend to fly, and he seems to have that ability that all great hunters do of simply looking at country and knowing that it will appeal to game.
Next we head higher into the hills, careful to step around the broken brown pieces of basalt. The dogs are working ahead of us, two graceful black figures moving across a south-facing slope. We crest the ridge, having managed to stay on our feet (Tom has broken both ankles at different times in this rough country) and work our way down to a narrow outcropping. Ahead of us, Pete falls on point.
One key to any good Hun dog, Tom tells me, is a delicacy with birds. When pushed hard, wild Huns have a tendency to break out of gun range. I don’t know if Pete has learned this or it is innate, but he holds at the top of the ridge with his nose pointed into a rising thermal. When Tom releases him, Pete sidles forward in a low crouch that seems to indicate the birds are just ahead. I scan the sagebrush, but it takes a trained eye to recognize the mottled grays and browns of a partridge in this dry country. Even a whole covey right underfoot can go undetected.
I trust Pete’s nose far more than my eyes, and within a few steps the birds flush and pour out over the valley. Two shots ring out—Tom’s connecting, mine not.
We move to a different patch of ground, in part to give the dogs a break (this big, rough country is hard on hunters and hell on dogs) and, I suspect, to allow me to regroup mentally and shake off my misses. Pete is kenneled, and Tom’s young Gordon, Dot, hits the ground along with Craig’s young male Tyree, a relation of Pete. The dogs cut down a pair of jackrabbit trails, and we push through the sage, avoiding it where we can, walking through it where we must. I hear an electronic beep from Tom’s direction.
“Dot’s on point,” Tom says.
All we can see is the black mast of Dot’s tail rising out of the brush. We are still 30 yards away when the birds flush almost directly beneath her.
This time fortune favors me. The Huns scatter against the backdrop of the hills, and I take a straightaway shot that connects with unmistakable results. As the bird falls, I switch to one on the left, and my Benelli claps twice. I see a leg drop, and the Hun eventually tumbles into the sagebrush sea.
It is a banner day. The birds are plentiful—likely a result of ample rainfall, a mild spring and a good crop of seeds. But even on such a day, none of us shoots a limit of eight. Hunting these imports is less about shooting limits, though, and more about pushing limits. Simply being with good dogs in country that looks as it did when the first settlers crossed it 150 years ago is as much a part of the hunt as a heavy game bag.
Dot finds my second bird. She carries it to Tom, who hands it to me. I turn the bird over in my hands, examining the delicate patterns, the horseshoe of chestnut feathers on the breast, and the contrast of tan and gray on the back of the head. I’m sorry I always have thought these birds drab. On closer examination they are actually quite beautiful. I have only a moment to examine the bird, though, because there is another electronic beep from Tom’s direction.
“More birds ahead,” he says. And I fall in step.