Chukar on the Cheat
By Gary Lewis
It's the tension, three-toed tracks by the waterhole and a single hidden in the bunchgrass.
It's the ache you feel in your muscles, a blur of wings and the thump of the gun.
If there's one great ‘everyman's hunt' left in these United States, where a hunter can walk his own (public) ground for miles, it's in pursuit of the Himalayan import called the chukar. All it takes is a shotgun, a bird dog and a pair of boots. But there's a lot to learn about what makes these birds tick.
My friend Tim Curry is a chukar hunting fanatic. At the ragged end of an 11-day chukar odyssey, he met us on the road between Vale and Juntura in eastern Oregon. In the dog box, he had six pointers. Each day, he'd worked a different pair, giving the others two days rest between hunts.
Today, Axel, the English pointer, and Jesse, the German shorthair put their noses to work. Curry pointed us westward to the top of a high ridge with the wind in our faces. I dropped a pair of 6s into the twin steel tubes of my shotgun.
Axel and Jesse cut back and forth with their noses up. The birds had been here, but now they were gone.
On the horizon, a dusting of snow capped the peaks of the Strawberry Mountains to the north and the Steens Mountains to the south. Cumulus clouds drifted with a stiff wind against the clear blue sky.
Lee had the high side, Tim had the middle, and I was on the slope below when the dogs pointed. Curry signaled the point with a hawk scream which serves the dual purpose of alerting the hunters, while holding the chukar.
I was still out of position when the birds erupted from the sage. Pick one out, swing, squeeze. Squeeze again. A bird tumbled. Two spent hulls popped out of the gun and I slapped two more from the vest, plunked them in the steel tubes and locked the gun shut in time to see one more bird cross like a rocket. Got ‘im.
Every time we bumped birds they swung ahead, going to ground close to the same elevation we'd found them. Soon, I'd figured out Tim's strategy. All those birds were kegging up in the last canyon we were going to hunt. Every step took us closer. Soon, the game bags began to sag with a pleasant plumpness.
At the end of it, footsore and tired, we hooked around the point. Usually the birds would be in and around the rocky crags, Tim indicated. He started from the bottom and the birds began to pop up and out.
As a maneuver, the plan worked almost to perfection. From the final covey rise, Lee took one and Tim took two, while I looked on from out of range.
Prospecting for Chukar
Chukar can be found in almost all the major river drainages east of the Cascades. Best bets include the Steens Mountains, the John Day River breaks, the Malheur River, Snake River, Powder River and Owyhee River drainages. Closer to Portland, the Deschutes River canyon is an option. The more rugged and inhospitable the terrain, the better.
This transplant from Eurasia makes its living on another transplant from the same region: cheatgrass. Where you find the best cheat, you'll find the birds.
From the flats to the tops of the cliffs, you may find chukar anywhere, but certain types of habitat hold more birds. Look for features that seem out of place: where the green shows against a dry brown hillside, where a bump in the ground provides shelter from the wind, or a rocky outcropping on an otherwise bare hill.
On dry days, chukar go to water, feeding down the slope in the morning. Look for their tracks in dried mud near a waterhole, for their feathers in hollowed-out dusting bowls, and for droppings in the shadow of a rock wall.
As a general rule, chukar run uphill and fly downhill. Hunters do well to find the level where the birds are feeding and follow the chow line.
Later in the season, with cold wind, ice and snow on the desert, the birds' patterns change. South-facing cheatgrass slopes are more likely to hold chukar most mornings. The birds won't stay as close to their water source when the sky brings water. On windy days, the birds seek out shelter, which might mean craggy rimrock, a draw choked with sagebrush, or even a depression just off the crown of a hill.
A pointing dog needs the wind in his nose. Plan the hunts to move the birds to a final spot for one last flush. A topographic map that shows elevation change is a good tool in planning such a hunt. That's how Tim found the areas we hunted last November.
On the second day, Curry let out Red, an English pointer, and Yeager, a young German shorthair that, Curry said, "had the right stuff." Yeager's first points were disappointments. Here, a rabbit caught his attention, there ten-minute old sign stopped him cold. We kept moving birds before we could get close enough for a shot.
In the cheatgrass on the backside, Yeager pointed again. Moving in, I saw the dog break concentration to look over his shoulder to see if we were coming. Another false alarm I guessed, but my heart beat faster. I swung wide in front of Yeager to let him get me in his vision and walked in. Lee and Tim approached on the dog's flanks.
Yeager looked hard into a bush then swung his head to look at something else.
They broke from cover like seeds blown from a thistle. For a moment, 15 chukars were frozen against the cloudy sky, the belly feathers and bars on their breasts backlit by the sun.
Three birds fell to our first three shots and the dogs set to work to bring them to hand. One spectacular moment – a dog on point and birds against the sky.
We may not have bagged our legal number of chukar, but the birds had pushed us to our limits. That's why we'd walked all those miles. And that's why we'll do it again.