Hail, Columbia

The Columbia River covers a huge swath of partridge country
The Columbia River covers a huge swath of partridge country—with Huns in sagebrush areas and chukars higher up. Photographed by Lori Thomas
By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.

The first law of chukar hunting is that dogs always will go on point uphill in the steepest terrain around. The second is that if the birds don’t hold, they will extend the chase by running even farther uphill.

That didn’t bother me when I first started hunting chukars in Washington State’s rugged Columbia River breaks 60 years ago. But one recent October day when Max, our German wirehaired pointer, went on point, I knew it would take me longer to reach him than it used to—and that if the birds didn’t hold, I might never catch them.

But the birds did hold . . . sort of. As I neared Max, the rocky cliff ahead of us erupted with the sound of wings and alarm calls. Chukars love to fly downhill as much as they love to run up, and one member of the covey offered me an overhead snap shot. I was so busy trying to maintain my balance that I ignored my second barrel.

Western public land usually wound up in public hands because no one else wanted it at the time it was surveyed. Land with agricultural value quickly got snapped up by homesteaders, most of whom went bust anyway. That’s why so much prime habitat for ag-friendly species like pheasants is off-limits today.

Fortunately, our two imported partridge—chukars and Huns (or gray partridge)—were perfectly content with the leftovers. I’ve hunted chukars throughout the Northwest, mostly on public ground characterized by sagebrush, rocky terrain and crowded topo lines on the map (read: steep). While hunting pressure often goes with the turf on public land, the nature of this rugged terrain makes it self-limiting.

First described for the Western World by Lewis and Clark, the Columbia rises in Canada and wanders for 1,200 miles before meeting the Pacific. It’s hard now to imagine the river as the explorers saw it, teeming with salmon and free of the dams that now check its course. While Lewis and Clark described dozens of new-to-us species as they traveled the river, Huns and chukars were not among them. They were still in Asia.

Now both species thrive along the Columbia from Canada to Oregon. Chukars prefer steeper habitat, while Huns are more likely to be found in nearby sagebrush. The Columbia covers a huge swath of country, much of it good partridge country. The area north of Wenatchee, Washington, is a good place to start. Oregon’s Northeastern Area, which includes part of the Columbia Basin, offers excellent chukar hunting in similar habitat.

The Columbia River breaks consist of a patchwork of state, federal, tribal and private land. As always, it’s essential to know where you are. An onX app can prove very useful, as can maps and downloads from the sources below. Even unimproved roads can be few and far between, but off-road driving is both illegal and unwise. A boat launched at one of the numerous ramps on the river allows access to terrain that receives little hunting pressure. The season for Huns and chukars generally runs from early October through mid-January, with conditions ranging from hot and dry to snow and ice. Snakes may be active during the early season.

Back in the cliffs that day I didn’t know whether or not I’d killed that first chukar. The shot felt good, but the bird immediately disappeared overhead. Max knew, though, and when I shouted “Fetch!” he tore downhill in a clatter of loose gravel. His determination saved me a lot of climbing and likely a lost bird.

That’s chukar hunting. 

For more information, contact the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, the Wenatchee Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management or the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.

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