I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many chukar in one day as I saw yesterday.
I also have never seen so many chukar and took so few. Zero to be exact. Not for lack of trying: in 3 hours we hiked about 3-1/2 miles in the snow, climbed 2,000 feet, shot 12 times, all in the 35-40+ yard “wing-and-a-prayer” range. Yes, the birds were busting wild, but also – like Tucker’s Chukars’ Larry wrote recently – it was just really tough to get close to a pointing or creeping dog.
After driving to burned-off spots in Hell’s Canyon for the past several weeks, places which have been hunted hard by many people (judging from shells and footprints, and the frustrating commonality of wild busts), I thought it would be a good idea to take the boat on Brownlee and find some promising ground where birds might not have been pressured so much. That made for a pretty chilly start, but after surveying several spots from the reservoir, we motored into a bay which looked like it would afford a good hunt for two people starting in opposite directions and working toward each other. After tying up the boat, though, I noticed bootprints in the snow, probably from the day before. I’ve never felt crowded or annoyed by the hunting pressure on Brownlee, or in Hell’s Canyon generally, and I’ve yet to run into another chukar hunter in the years I’ve been doing this. But it struck me as pretty ironic that my plan to find some untrammeled ground had obviously failed despite the extra effort of taking the boat (it was 10 degrees when we left), especially since I’d noticed no boat trailers at the main put-in the last three weeks. Sure, we could have relocated and found a spot that hadn’t been hunted, but it was very cold and windy and we wanted to get moving.
Which we did, and soon were into lots and lots of day-old bird tracks in the snow. I was amazed to find chukar tracks heading up deep snow drifts to the top of a snow-covered ridge, all of which led to a cluster of big sagebrush. A pair of bald eagles soared overhead against the slate sky. I dislodged a large herd of mule deer as I neared the peak, and then, hunkered even deeper into the bowl, an even bigger herd of elk. Oddly, the bird sign got fresher the farther up the ridge, maybe the result of the hunting pressure from the day before, or maybe just one of those mysteries for which this bird is famous. Or infamous, depending on your perspective.
Finally, Angus kind of pointed. Snow seems to have a weird effect on his nose; maybe this is true for all pointing dogs. He’s either way, way extra cautious or completely clueless in it. I can’t draw any conclusions and have no theories. I’m sure there’s a good scientific explanation for his erratic work, but I don’t know it. Sometimes, though, it works out, and on this one I actually got into a decent position for the bust, which was uphill slightly, and – as was to be the case all day – came in at least three waves of birds, followed by one or two singles farther down the slope. I missed all three shots, none of which was high-percentage as the birds were tailing around the curvature by the time I drew a bead on them. Okay, not a bad start. Birds at least.
I chased the remnants of that first covey deeper into the snow toward the termination of the bowl, hoping to send them back down in the direction of my buddy hunting below me and back toward the water. It didn’t work. The birds just kept busting wild and going higher up and eventually out of the drainage altogether. So I turned around and headed toward the undulating, frozen but (treacherous) open south-facing slopes and began seeing lots of sign. In fact, I have never seen more chukar poop scattered over a large area than in this drainage. Most of it was a couple days old, but all was pretty recent. I’d only seen a small covey so far, but knew there had to be larger numbers somewhere.
They were lower down. I started getting into them about halfway down from the top. Angus was birdy all the time. His tail stump must be sore today from all the oscillating it did yesterday. But the birds were either in totally open ground so it was nearly impossible to sneak up to them, or wedged in spring crevices that amplified our traverse so that they busted before we even knew they were there. Still, every crack held birds, and I must have seen at least 250 chukar during the last hour of the hike. It’s nice to know there are so many birds this late in the year, and I hope they fare well over the winter and into the critical spring season. Think good weather thoughts if you have a moment.
With a month left in the season, it’s hard to imagine much more, or any, decent hunting given the weather we’ve had and will continue having. But I believe I’ll test it at every chance.