2019-2020 Chukar Season Reflection

This has been an angst-filled season (and it’s not quite over) but it’s also had some unprecedented good things.

Here’s what I’ve learned this year that contributed to the angst:

  • Leslie, in her 3rd season, gained confidence and skill, as well as an independent hunting style, as any good hunter should; this proved difficult for me since I’m stubborn and pig-headed and want to hunt my way, which differs from hers. So we often disagreed over where and how and who would get which dogs to hunt with.
  • UTVs are becoming more of a nuisance and negatively impacting habitat, bird numbers, and others’ experiences. I’d heard of folks with big-running pointers driving UTVs along the roads in the Andrus while their dogs scoured the land, and that they’d stop when the dogs went on point and walk over to them. I doubted many did this, and thought about my neighbor Sam, an octogenarian (who only uses his UTV to get to spots to hike; he doesn’t road hunt with it) — I can understand older folks not able to scale the steeps still wanting to taste the chukar medicine, so I kind of forgot about this issue. Until I saw it first-hand: a bunch of able-bodied dudes in their 30s and 40s with multiple UTVs bedecked with custom aluminum dog boxes driving along the road, waiting for their pointers to beep on birds, and then they’d park the UTVs (sometimes right in the road), release the little setters to help bolster the pointer, and mosey over for the murder. I’d say, “To each his own,” but — if you’re able to hike — this is an absolute bullshit way to hunt chukar, and definitely not “fair chase.” This is what the nouveau-riche do on game farms in Georgia and Texas. In case any of this is unclear, I’m not calling out all UTV use in chukar hunting (although there’s a difference between hauling out a limit of chukar and hauling an elk, both of which can be done without a machine). I do worry, though, that public land and wildlife agencies are coming under increasing pressure from lobbyists and manufacturers (and the politicians in their pockets) to expand UTV use as hunters become more swayed by the idea they must have one to do any kind of hunting. Just because you can (and have enough cash), doesn’t mean you should.
  • Long-standing bird populations in certain “popular” areas have relocated, most likely due to increased pressure. Idaho Fish and Game, and other agencies across the nation, report that hunting license sales are declining. Chukar hunters, however, in Hells Canyon and other growing population areas (such as Boise, Bend, Twin Falls, and Ontario) have noticeably increased (Idaho license sales have actually increased 14% since 2011). We’ve noticed this, as has every other hunter I’ve talked to who’s hunted chukar in Idaho and Oregon for more than 5 years. The biologists at the Andrus WMA will concur. The angsty part of this fact is selfish (I’d like bird numbers to improve), but also relates to the previous point about UTVs: when motorized vehicles and big-running dogs cover (often on consecutive days) 40 miles or more per day in prime chukar country (which is 4 to 10 times what a hiking hunter would cover), birds are gonna move and their numbers diminish resulting from what I’d consider unethical harvest and stress (road hunting is not “fair chase”).
  • Covey sizes, birds per mile, and individual bird sizes are down (this is only based on my personal experience and informal surveys of other chukar hunters’ experiences this season, as well as my log over the past several seasons). The season in Idaho starts too early and the harvest limit should return to 6. I’m as guilty as anyone for hunting when Idaho’s season starts because I can’t help myself (and I do feel guilty about that). Neither can lots of people. We want to get out there. But the early start means lots of downy feathers and shrimpy-sized chukar, as well as smaller and more scattered coveys later in the year. Give the new birds a fairer chance at reaching adulthood, when they might fly well enough to beat the odds and live long enough to breed. And I’m sorry, but nobody needs 8 birds a day; based on the tailgate shots I’ve seen this season (often with a UTV in the frame), it seems lots of folks have no problem shooting a limit. I’ve always been able to find birds, but even if I shoot my absolute best, I’d have to hike 16 miles to harvest 8 birds; I’ve averaged about 5 miles per hunt this season, which is a record for me, so unless I double my shooting percentage and miles per hunt I’m pretty safe from limiting (I’ve averaged 2 birds per hunt this season, another best, which includes grouse and Hungarian partridge).
  • Medusahead Rye is getting much worse, exponentially taking over some areas it didn’t exist in three or four years ago. Biologists in Oregon and Idaho are concerned because it quickly eliminates other vegetation and cannot be controlled or mitigated in chukar habitat, and chukar do not stay in mono-typic ecosystems.
  • Chukar will be all but extinct in Hells Canyon and other places in Idaho and eastern Oregon within 20 years if things continue the way they are. Medusahead by itself might accomplish this impressive feat. But with increased pressure, the expansion of UTV use, the early season start, and excessive harvest limits chukar hunting does not seem sustainable. I’m not a scientist, but I know Fish and Game biologists are aware of and concerned about these threats yet they don’t have the budget to conduct studies that affirm these concerns, and the agency and its myopic legislative overlords want to make hunters happy in the short term (i.e., sell as many licenses as possible!).
  • Social media has creepily colored chukar hunting (along with the rest of existence). I’m talking mainly about Twitter (which I never use but only know about because it has become, surreally, our country’s governance platform), Facebook, and Instagram; I don’t consider blogs per se as social media because it takes more time and effort to write and read a blog post than it does to post something on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter — has helped publicly enable and amplify our most vitriolic and inhumane traits; this is obvious to everyone who uses these things. If you’ve followed this blog this season, you’ve seen that attitude leak into some of the comments and a couple of my posts responding to this disturbing trend. If you follow Instagram, you might have noticed several upland hunting wannabe “influencers” out there whose main goal appears to be to promote themselves to get “sponsorships” and amass “followers” and “likes” (which can be, and are, purchased by the “influencer”). One of these wannabe influencers in particular, who’s distinguished himself by posting photos of himself with dead game birds in compromising (highly sexualized and disrespectful) positions, and who was the focus of a mostly slow-motion video by a well-known upland hunting promotional group (which deletes any comments on the video that aren’t hagiographic, as is their right), recently stated that he wanted to be the “badly-needed figurehead” of upland hunting (since when did upland hunting need a “figure-head”?). No, this is not a precis for a bad novel, although the thought has crossed my mind… Predictably, this post generated a mass of attacks from other wannabe “influencers” on Instagram, one of which appears to exist solely to make fun of hunters who take themselves too seriously but actually seems to be focused more on attacking a specific conservation group and its president. And on and on. These little wars and battles. This discourse. Three years ago I was unaware of any of this and obliviously torturing myself in pursuit of public land partridge. Thus my new year’s resolution to unplug from it all: I have enough angst from other, more honest, sources.
  • Small American manufacturers, some of whom make bird hunting vests, don’t appear to be faring too well. The three best known vests for their popularity with chukar hunters have been hard to come by this year, if not impossible. While I have no idea what’s behind this for these particular companies, it’s frustrating and weird (angsty) in the 2020 economy, which is supposed to be so amazing, to see obvious production slowdowns or outright stoppages. Soon I’ll have a review of the vest I waited over a month for.
  • Angus getting cancer.

Enough ranting. The good things:

  • Angus appearing to beat, or at least hold off, cancer, for now. Diagnosed on August 30th and given 1 to 3 months to live, we allowed ourselves to hope only for one chukar hunt with him. We were ecstatic on opening day to have him with us. He’s hunted the entire season as well as ever (with a few more days off than before, but he is, after all, almost 13).
  • We’re hunting harder than ever, if not smarter and better. This is why I keep a log. In all the categories I track (miles, duration, elevation gain, dog miles, shots, kills, and averages of these per hunt), this season is better than any previous season, with the exception of my shooting percentage, which continues to hover just around abysmal. After last year’s spine surgery-abbreviated season, I’m thrilled my body is working well enough to continue this insanity.
  • We’ve hunted a bunch of new places (thanks partly to ONX Maps) and have been fairly successful finding birds in each one. It’s good to know that if a place looks like it should have chukar, it probably will (although I will admit that we’ve yet to find any place that has as many birds as we think it should).
  • I started reloading our own shells. While I’m pretty sure this is not an economically sound endeavor, it’s been fun and a challenging learning experience. I haven’t found “the perfect load” (open to suggestions: send me your recipes!), but have had some apparent improvements with some loads (although the data set’s pretty small to come to any solid conclusions; biorhythmic theories might hold more water).
  • Peat is better than ever. That’s saying a lot, because he was already really good, and has been since the end of his first season. This season he’s just been great, in both solo and partner situations. He’s become stealthier, and yesterday he showed me more clearly than ever that his number one concern when he finds birds is to hold them or — at the very least — make sure they don’t bust before I’m within range. I’m convinced he knows exactly what my shooting range is and isn’t, which I find remarkable. Yesterday he found a covey of chukar and pointed them from a reasonable distance. The birds slalomed through the sage, but Peat didn’t want to risk busting them so he held still. Angus came along and — as I’ve always known he’ll do — crept past Peat and followed the ambulating chukar carefully. Peat, the consummate backer, wanting to stay connected to the action, executed his short bursts toward the birds, at one point (see photos below) wedging himself discretely between a large rock and sage bush! He’s covering more miles and slightly extending his range and, as a result, finding more birds than ever. He’ll be 5 this spring, and I’m already lamenting (very prematurely, I know) his demise. I should probably take comfort in knowing that he’ll far outlast my ability to hunt these birds (if they don’t go extinct before then).
  • Sunburst Brittanys is not only still in business, but doing very well and still producing phenomenal chukar hunting dogs that naturally point, back, and retrieve. Just as wonderfully, their dogs are good family dogs. This sounds like an advertisement, and maybe it is, but it’s heartfelt. Not a day goes by where Leslie and I don’t marvel at our canine-caused joy, whether it’s somewhere on a ridge during the 4-month season, floating down the Missouri in a drift boat, poaching heat and affection from them in bed, or watching them enjoy being the dogs I’d trade my life to be.

So there you have it, the bad, the good, and the no-good-to-look-at. And there’s still a few weeks before that sad, long off-season. I hope I haven’t bummed anyone out too much, but it is what it is. At this point, if there’s even one person still reading this, I’d count it a success. Best wishes to all for a good 2020.

chukar hunting dogs pointing chukar
Peat moving up toward Angus on point (Angus on the right, mid-frame). Peat bounded to a low spot between the sage brush behind Angus and wedged himself, on his belly, between the sage and a rock (see next photo).
Peat hunkered between sage and a rock, waiting for his next move toward Angus (top center).

30 Replies to “2019-2020 Chukar Season Reflection”

  1. An excellent post Bob. The UTV thing is really aggravating. I’ve hiked 90 min to where “I knew the birds were” only to have a UTV come chugging up a trail not 100 ft from me. It ruins the whole beauty of the Chukar hunt experience. Those riders just don’t get it. It’s about you, the dog, the bird and the magnificent silence under our big sky Add a machine and you’ve ruined it. I’m good with 6 birds and a season that starts Oct 1. Too snakey before that anyway. Glad your dogs are doing well.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Phil. We’re really focusing on hunting areas that UTVs can’t get to, which seems to be getting a little tougher. Those machines are only going to increase, so I hope the access to public land improves (but kind of doubt it will).

    2. As always, well said Bob! It’s all about fair chase and the hunt, not how many you kill. I hate seeing UTV’s when I’m hunting. I see a lot of them up in the Clear Water every year when I’m whitetail hunting. Just the sound of one ruins my hunt.

      I’m also glad to see Peat still up and hunting, I’ve always admired him, he is a wonderful dog and you are lucky to have him.

  2. Good post Bob but I have to disagree on a few things. There is no reason to lower the bird limit to 6. You are a hard hunter and how many times do you get 8 birds in a day. I hunt chukars 60 or more times a year and very seldom get 8 so lowering the limit will not save that many birds. Also, (this is only my opinion) be careful what you ask for when it comes to the season opener. Once you lose something it’s hard to ever get it back. Most people don’t like the early season because of the heat and snakes. So, don’t go. I usually don’t like January because the hills are frozen and it hurts to fall. Closing either one of these seasons would not effect the bird numbers. The early hunters, like myself, just scatter the birds more for the October hunters who don’t like the early season. The late season hunters have a tough time even getting close to chukars. I would rather have the early season over the later for the reason I mentioned. I don’t like carrying the extra water either but I shoot fewer birds on the early season because I pick and choose and let the young ones go.

    One other thing I might mention. I remember back in the 80’s when people were talking about all the new comers to the sport. I was one of them. Sometimes us hunters that love hunting chukars so much have to realize that. As many vehicles and utv’s I’ve seen this year I have only ran into another hunter on the hill three times of the 51 trips out. I still think we have the best thing going for us and hate to see it change.

    I’ve seen the pictures of you and Leslie following the boys up those hills and I know those 4 wheelers aren’t going to get to where you go. Those guys driving the roads aren’t killing half as many birds as they are educating but they sure do ruin the looks of our great challenge to get chukars.

    1. Thanks so much for your wise comments, Larry. What you say about the season dates makes a lot of sense, and I’m not sure I’d argue with you about the effect it has on bird numbers. I do know, though, that I’m not able to discriminate old from young birds on a covey bust, and — even in October this year — took some very puny chukar. Personally, January is often my favorite time to hunt (because fewer folks are out), but my main hope — like everyone’s — is that there are more birds next season than there were this season. I’m not sure anyone really knows the best way to achieve that, other than closing it down for a while like they did the fall turkey general hunt up here (which has resulted in a massive increase in turkeys along 71). And good reminder about being one of the “newbies”; everyone deserves a chance for sure. We, too, still rarely run into people, largely because we go to a lot of trouble to make sure that won’t happen, which seems to be getting harder. I am seeing a big increase, though, in boot tracks in places I’ve never seen them, so I know there are more nutjob hikers like you and me getting into the nooks and crannies!

  3. Always a great read, as a newer chukar hunter I appreciate the insight and stories. The experience of watching the dogs, seeing this great landscape, the peacefulness and possibly harvesting a bird.

  4. Mixed feelings on your UTV comments. At 76 I use one to access hunting areas late in the year. I stay on approved “roads” on BLM land, but go to areas I would not drive to in late winter. I do not turn my dog loose while in the UTV. I fully agree that doing so is not appropriate and should be prohibited (if it is not already).
    Not sure about the comment on “big running dogs”. I do not have one, but do not see a problem with one. The real issue that affects chukar kill rates is the use of electronic collars. They have made us far more effective hunters. Without them in most chukar country the range of a dog is pretty much limited to 200 or 300 yards. With a collar, a dog can range much, much further. They kind of gradually infiltrated the sport and I would not want to be without one, yet the ethics of using them is questionable. I view them somewhat like radios, airplane spotting, and drones in big game hunting.
    While I see relatively few hunters in the Owyhees where I hunt, more hunters are coming. Access to public land across private land is closing, and more and more hunting rights on private land are being leased. The result is more and more pressure on available public land.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Robert. I didn’t intend to disparage dogs with big ranges, but rather the driving along while they’re hunting. I agree with your comment about the questionable ethics of GPS collars, but I also wouldn’t want to be without one now that I’ve gotten accustomed to it; it’s especially helpful finding our old, deaf dog, who likes getting lost more frequently now. And yes, we’re all noticing the synching down on access and its effects on public land.

  5. Thanks Bob. Glad you had a good season in many respects. It has been a hard one for me as I did not find birds at all on several hunts in areas where previously we found them. I don’t think I was high enough on the hills in November. I often thought a utv would be nice as I trudged up. Truth is I don’t really like them and rarely use the one I have, but it isn’t in ID. I only read two of these blogs and I enjoy them both. Sounds like there is no reason to look for others.

    We had An outstanding day yesterday. No gun, just a training session on numerous quail that cooperated well in some snowy sagebrush. My pup had many good points and I was able to discourage her from chasing. Great fun and I didn’t miss a single shot!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    Larry

    1. Thanks as always for your comments, Larry. If I had a UTV I’d use it to get to spots I wouldn’t normally access just from the truck, as long as I could get a key (which got much tougher this year). Glad to hear your pup’s coming along. Hunting quail in sagebrush is a blast, especially with a disciplined dog! Cheers!

  6. I’ve seen the UTV thing, nothing more aggravating after walking into an area and seeing a UTV with dogs out running drive past me. Not that I’m against UTV’s, could be me one day, when I lose the ability to walk the miles I do now. But when you see young healthy people drive up to their dogs,get out and kill birds, just doesn’t seem very sporting.

  7. In 2003 Urbie and I drove up the West Fork of Brownlee then west to the big saddle to hunt new ground. We saw chukars but they were extremely wild, often flushing a hundred yards before any dogs were near. We later found out guys on ATVs were riding the trails all the way to the Lake road, letting their dogs run, then getting off to shoot birds over the points. So that problem has existed in some spots for a long time. In West Virginia it is a growing problem where there are navigable trails to ride, follow the dogs and kill ruffed grouse. I think the issue will get worse but there are still plenty of places to hunt where good boots and strong legs are required.

    Since I am primarily a wade fisherman, I look at drift boats and rafts with the same disdain. Streams I’ve fished for decades are now overrun with floaters and it has become a challenge to find boat proof fish that have not had dozens of flies cast over them every day.

    On public lands, I don’t see any of the agencies doing anything about medusahead rye until it starts having a negative impact on deer and elk where the big $$$ comes from . Up north where we hunt, the number of chukars has dropped noticeably as the star thistle spreads and completely takes over whole hill sides.

    In my 28 years of pursuing all of the Idaho upland birds, I have seen population fluctuations of all the species, none due to hunting pressure. It all depends on weather effecting the nesting and brood rearing. Extremely low numbers can rise sharply with the right conditions. I never like to hear any language about lowering bag limits or shortening the season because it is extremely hard to raise those standards if desired in the future.

    I just want to see enough birds to get the adrenaline pushes so my legs will keep moving and don’t let the dogs get bored and start pointing mice and grasshoppers..

    1. Cliff, you forgot to mention we had a pretty good day once we climbed a couple hundred yards up above the corral and away from the rodeo below.

      Bob, so glad Angus is doing well.

    2. As per usual, Cliff, I defer to your superior wisdom and experience. I would, though, personally, be okay with a permanently shorter season and lower limit even though it wouldn’t necessarily improve bird numbers. I’d argue it wouldn’t hurt them, either. I think of Haris, on Cypress, who gets a 17-day season and look at my near-60 days (while working a day job) and feel spoiled, not to mention increasingly remorseful about killing anything. I hear you on fishing boats, and have experienced the same thing wading on the Madison over the past 45 years (which I don’t float); I wasn’t crazy about getting a drift boat, but wanted to start fly fishing again and since Leslie has taken it up we couldn’t do it unless we had a boat (can’t leave the dogs and can’t take them wading). Malthus, though, despite everything, will have the last laugh. So I’ll enjoy what we have while we still can.

  8. My preference would be an Oct. 1 opening date every year. Too many late hatch young birds in mid-Sept.. Anyone who wants to hunt birds in mid Sept. can look for forest grouse. Ever seen mid August hatched quail in mid Sept.? Tiny. Same for mid or late August hatched chukars and Huns. My personal daily limit is 4 birds and I very often shoot less. Just getting 4 doesn’t end my hunt, just my shooting. After 4 birds I’ll usually head in a direction I usually don’t take and often learn a new or better pattern to walk next time. Asking to reduce the limit to 8 birds unleashes a torrent of opposition and really won’t make much difference except, maybe, in some of the areas that get pounded. We had a 6 bird limit about 10 years ago and got it raised back to 8. I do think an 8 bird total daily limit of chukars and Huns combined is reasonable (instead of 16). Last I knew, that was how Oregon is but I haven’t checked in years. I remember days when guys I know got limits of quail, chukars, Huns and pheasants in a 1 day hunt and tore their vests trying to cram all 29 birds in.

    1. I understand a lot of that but why is it acceptable to shoot grouse in September but not chukars. They hatch about the same time.

  9. This is a subject that I am particularly harsh about. In Alaska we call UTV’s ATV’s and they are a scourge. They most commonly allow lazy and/or fat people to access areas that in the past have been the sole domain of foot hunters. It is not uncommon to see a 5k trailer with four 10k ATV’s being towed by a 60k truck hunting as subsistence users along the Glenn and Denali Highways in Alaska. The power of the manufacturers, the retailers and the users is so entrenched that reasonable regulations for ATV use have become nearly impossible with their loud voices and strong lobbies. If you want to see something shocking open Google Earth and scan any area in Alaska within 50 miles of any road including secondary ones and you will see habitat damage that would persist for over a hundred years even if the use stopped today. With the climate change catastrophe that is resulting in rapid permafrost melting we will see increased tundra damage from ATV’s.

    There might be legitimate uses for ATV’s but I am hard pressed to come up with many that are related to hunting. Our moose season opens when the grouse chicks have only fledged for 2-3 weeks. The percentage of moose hunters that use ATV’s now is probably over 90% and many carry a .22 with them. Piles of grouse carcasses with an entire family obliterated before a clutch disperses with just the breast stripped is pretty common. These hunters are ATV hunters. This is a time when they are particularly vulnerable but I challenge anyone to try to get the bird season opening delayed until after the moose season closes.

    A rant? Yep, it is. Here is an additional challenge to the to motor head hunters and prospective motor head hunters: get a bike and ride 20 miles daily, or; walk 10 miles three times a week, or; go to the gym and use a stair stepper or treadmill, or; ????? You might simply discover that that you are fit enough to hunt in silence, at a slow pace allowing you to fully absorb the incredible country that is home to the birds that many of us love.

    1. Great contribution. Grouse hunting in Oregon is not what it could be with all the road hunting and sniping them with .22’s.

      I see more and more UTV’s on trailers and in the back of rigs here. What’s kinda funny is back in the day most hunters just drove their family car to the hunting spots and had no problem getting animals.

      I drive a two wheel drive SUV and stick close to well-traveled and well-maintained roads. I always get into birds. The difference is where I hunt there are no atv trails that lead to the top. You park at the bottom and you have to hike. Knowing I must do this I make sure I stay in good shape. Chukar hunting becomes a year round thing this way.

      I’ve shot more chukar this year, have hunted more new spots this year, and have seen plenty of birds. I have only had to alter my course once while in the field because of approaching hunters this year.

      Not sure if I have a point other than I want to share some positivity.

  10. Thanks for your “rant”! I noticed years ago that even the hunting related manufacturers complained about fewer hunters while at the same time doing their best to convince everyone that they don’t have enough gadgets, gear or vehicles to hunt properly. If young people could be convinced that successful hunting doesn’t require $1,000’s in gear plus a UTV, trailer and truck to pull it with, they would be more inclined to be bird hunters. I’d rather see my favorite cover overrun by novice hunters trying to learn bird hunting than one guy hunting off his UTV.

    1. Good point, Randy. Those expensive UTV/ATVs seem immune to recession if you look at the steady growth of that market over the years (and projected growth). It’s not about nature anymore, is it? Gas motor assisted killing. The kids I’ve taken hunting, and the ones who decline our invitations, seem to find it too much work to want to get into it (the way we do it, anyway).

  11. I had a guy on an ebike pass me this fall as I was mountain-biking into a remote area of Idaho this fall. Not sure if that is much better than ATVs passing me up? Seems slightly better. No cooler of Busch Light on the back I guess.

    Fewer satellite roads would be my choice. But, closing roads is like taking away holidays. Tough sell politically.

    Keep the faith Bob. Those of us hunting in the West, for all wild birds are still the envy of most.

    1. Thanks, Jay. The e-bike thing is bizarre, like a motorized oxymoron. I agree on the roads. So would Robert Frost. And yeah, I don’t want to be that guy who takes his wild birds for granted. Thanks for the reminder.

  12. Great post as usual Bob. Very happy Angus is out there with you all making a year of it. It seems to me the lifespan of a dog is long enough to cover a chapter in one’s life, and it seems to me your Angus chapter is something many people don’t get to have (and his Bob and Leslie chapter, conversely).

    Hate ATVs. It isn’t hard to figure out. ATVs allow people to hunt source populations that didn’t used to get pressure. It’s the same as for elk hunting as it is for chukar. People will drive as far as they can, and it’s getting to the point where people can drive everywhere. I get the concerns about older hunters, and boy do I aspire to to be an older hunter one day, but the able bodied younger guys on ATVs are just yahoos who either don’t know better or just don’t care about anyone else. Sadly the slop hunter element remains strong.

    Interesting about medusahead. I’ll keep an eye out for it down here.

    1. Thanks, man. The Angus chapter isn’t finished, but it’s been one of the best. We’re on the same page re: ATVs. I won’t rule out using one in my twilight years. Medusahead: just more evidence that humans really know how to ruin a good thing.

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