On autumn’s final day, a bluebird one sandwiched between sheets of wet gray weeks, I headed to an old favorite spot from a few years ago when we lived in the city. I got there to find way too much snow even to make an attempt on the ridge. So I kept driving, looking for the slightest bit of open ground. On a sage-brushy flat a covey of chukar got up and flew toward the river. I stopped the truck, got the dogs out, and went after them. As we wove through the snow and sage, half a dozen chukar scurried away from me toward the cliff. Peat was in the way so I couldn’t shoot, and the birds managed to drop down to the water and land on the other side. While the dogs ran around filling their snouts with alectoris molecules, I stood on a rock listening to and watching dozens of chukar laugh at us while they gathered and relocated to a sunny patch down on the opposite bank of the river.
This is a bittersweet time of year. We badly need the snow and rain, but it severely dampens bird season. I feel like a spoiled brat who wants his triple layer double chocolate cake and his dignity; impossible to have both. I lack confidence finding birds, or imagining strategies for hunts when all ground, even the south-facing crotches of draws – chukar concentrators in most other times – are covered in white. So I sulk when the gorgeous snow comes down. I’m looking at the mountain outside our living room window, illuminated by that rich winter morning light, the slopes and meadows and draws and rocks and dense stands of fir all covered in a uniform, clean, glowing white. The sky is that ephemeral blue like a meaningless reprieve, and grayish clouds moving from west to east across the peak suggest it won’t last. NOAA confirms this. I need to get out. The dogs, especially Peat, need it more. Where?
While watching the chukar across the river, the ones higher up the hill, in the sun, near some burned off greenish dirt, a chorus of what sounded like hundreds, began crowing. So there they sit, still, safe. I continued on, and on, and on through spectacular public land, nobody in sight. Quiet, calm. I found a spot that had a few little ridges crowned by rockpiles, so I parked and headed up the snowy hill with the dogs. Before long we cut some fresh-ish chukar tracks heading up toward the ridge. Five minutes later, I saw a dozen or so chukar running up the snowy spine about 40 yards above. I moved to the other side of the ridge hoping to sneak up to them, but they crossed over to my side and kept going. I went back to the other side, and so did they. Pointless pursuit. I decided to start running, as much as one can run in knee-deep crusty snow. This got the birds to fly.
They sailed down the draw, across one ridge, and landed near some rocks. I cut across the slope at the rocks, keeping the dogs on heel, and as soon as we appeared on the leeward side of the rocks, the covey busted. I picked a bird and knocked it down. Then another. Then another. Only my second triple ever. Unreal. But could we find them?
Angus got the first bird, which Peat was attempting to steal as is his wont. But Angus had the bird in his mouth, pinning it against a bitterbrush so Peat couldn’t get it. Then they each found the remaining birds, and I managed to get Peat’s without much trouble.
We tried hiking to some similar terrain, but the snow just got deeper and deeper and tougher to walk in. Angus was leaving little blood spots from his left rear foot because of the abrasive snow. So we headed back down to the road. I felt great with three birds in my vest and was happy to call it a hunt. The dogs were beat from the extra work caused by the snow.
As we neared the truck, I saw a couple chukar run across the road from the river side up toward the ridge we’d just hunted. I waited until the last one crossed, and then ran toward them, hoping to catch up to them on the lower slope. But then they busted back toward the river. I stepped below the road and took a prayer of a shot at one just as it crossed the cliff which dropped straight down to the river. I hit it, but had no idea where it might have landed, and couldn’t get to the edge to see because of a huge pile of boulders in my way. Somehow Angus knew where to go, and he found a route down to the river and disappeared. I sat there with Peat and waited about 10 minutes, starting to worry. Then Angus came back with the bird. Unreal.