Most of the snow lay clean and unmarked. We could tell nobody had hunted this spot since this first big snowstorm of the season, three days before. We were jacked. It was cold outside and early in the day, the pine trees, bushes, and grasses were frilled with snow, it was magical and beautiful. Hunting chukar in the snow does have its advantages; seeing fresh chukar tracks in the snow, you know they’re there.
The snow was also unwelcome.
The first mile uphill, I lead the rhythmic march following the legible impressions left in the snow by the dogs whenever they were running in a straight line. Angus stopped to pee ahead of me. I got up to him and stopped to examine the hole in the snow. It was a cruel reminder that his urine was tinged with blood, something we’re seeing more often recently.
Bob followed behind in my footsteps and as I slowed he’d take over. I felt like I was walking on a beach in deep thick sand. We rounded a corner and the strong wind once at our backs was now in our faces. I pulled up the hood on my jacket and Bob stopped to take off his hunting pack and as he was pulling out his wind shell he said, “I can’t believe I’m actually cold.” He’s never cold when we’re hunting. I stood there for a minute waiting for him until he said to go ahead, and once I reached the saddle I should turn left. Angus turned left before the saddle so I followed. We got to the top of a ridge but the windswept snow drifts were up to my knees. I saw Bob from a distance across the other side of the ridge and could see him signaling me over to him. I slowly made it over to him, threading my way through the sage and wobbily walking across the baby-head rocks and larger boulders underneath the snow, trying not to slip. From the top of the ridge we could see an area in the distance on another ridge where the snow was burned off. Bob said, “I think we should go over there, and get out of this wind. I bet the birds are all out of the snow right now.” I agreed.
We headed down the ridge and came across a perennial deer path worn by hooves heading up and down the mountain. We followed it for a while until we could see Peat and Angus looking birdy down in a tight draw. Angus immediately went on point while Peat was above him honoring him like a statue. Bob, below me, was slowly heading down towards Angus. The covey of a dozen chukar busted and flew like missiles straight downhill and around a corner. A single busted later and Bob got one shot off and I could clearly see it getting hit but it kept flying downhill until disappearing into the bushes about 400 yards below us. “We have to go get it!” I yelled over to Bob, “I saw where it landed!” We headed down and recovered it after Peat found it, only a wing sticking out of the snow.
There are definitely times when you don’t shoot chukar no matter what for fear of not recovering the bird. During every point you analyze the situation and imagine where the birds might bust and fly, and, if you do manage to hit one, where they might land. Some dogs will go to the end of the earth to find a downed bird; Peat and Angus are that way and it’s not worth risking losing them by having them go down a super steep rocky cliff wall and fall or get stuck.
Some people also say they don’t hunt birds in the snow because it’s unethical. Yesterday, I think the birds had the advantage on us because of the icy and slippery conditions, and getting to a point before the birds busted wild was almost impossible.
Towards the end of the hunt, Bob and the dogs yesterday searched for at least 45 minutes for another chukar that went down. Bob saw it fall from the sky after shooting it and saw it hit the ground on a snowy, rocky hillside across a different ravine. I didn’t see it go down but he said he marked it and then yelled at the dogs, “Dead bird.” At this point in their lives they know what to do. Peat seemed part mountain goat, part house cat as his lithe body scoured the wall of snowy rocks, zigzagging back and forth and up and down, nose to the ground. I cringed from below, fearing he’d slip. He’s careful and cautious but also a little half-possessed while looking for downed birds. Peat couldn’t locate it, so Bob crossed the ravine to the other side to look for it while I stayed and watched from below. Once he got over there, the bird was nowhere to be found. Angus stayed closer to me and further below by busting through the brush looking for it. Between Bob, Angus, and Peat they couldn’t find the bird. Maybe it was buried in the snow? Maybe it landed only winged and stunned and then flew off and we didn’t notice.
When do you give up and walk away?
The sun was starting to set behind the mountain and it was getting colder by the minute. We’d already trounced around in the snow for 8 miles and were getting tired and the dogs were wet, it was time to start heading to the pickup before it got dark.
This wasn’t the first time this season that one of us has lost a bird we saw fall to the ground. I’m not sure what my odds are because I don’t keep records, but I’d say that of 20 birds this season, I’ve only lost one. Bob hits more birds so I’d say his odds are slightly higher.
It’s never easy leaving a dead or wounded bird behind, but it’s just part of hunting. I can still hear Bob’s choice words ringing in my ears when not finding downed birds; I’m sure nobody hates losing birds more than he does.