“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
So far this season, Bob and I have been only hunting at higher elevations where the earthy golden grasses and light green sage colored hills meet up with the forested mountains. These are places to take advantage of now. Soon these places will be almost impossible to reach when the winter snows start falling, which will be any day now. Intrepid hunters that don’t mind post-holing for miles can get to these spots when the snow is really deep in December and January. We’ve done it before but it’s really hard on the dogs. It’s hard on us. And you wouldn’t see birds anyway.
Five years ago in Mid-November, Bob and I hunted on top of a higher elevation plateau covered with big basin sagebrush and antelope bitterbrush. It was remote and far from any roads or two-tracks and undulated like a rollercoaster and required a steep downhill hike first, then a climb up to the top of the plateau, then back down again before climbing back out. It had all the things you would want for good habitat for chukar: steep slopes, rocky outcrops, water, plenty of things for the birds to eat, and cover from predators.
A couple of weeks ago, waking up to almost perfect health for my age and the sweetness of early morning darkness, I suggested we make the drive back out there. I’m not particularly fond of hunts that start with the downhill first, unless we’re doing a shuttle, but I’d thought of that place often and really wanted to go back. The motivating force was, besides being incredibly scenic, especially in October, was that historically chukar were there before, so they should still be there, right? I do know that every year things change, every month and even day changes your odds of finding them, but it’s the eternal hope that really drives us.
We left home and after about an hour drive on a gravel road, we arrived to the place where we wanted to start our hunt. We put on our heavy packs, mine weighed down by what felt like gallons of water, and took our shotguns out of the cases. Before letting the dogs out, we put their orange Garmin hunting collars on, which is never an easy process when they are excited and know what’s about to happen and behave like wiggle worms or house cats not wanting to be held.
The early morning sun was still behind the horizon as we started our descent and the air was cool and frost coated the short green up. In the distance, a rosy alpenglow lit up the hills to the west. At the start of the 1,000-foot descent on a game trail meandering through a dark and shadowy ponderosa pine-lined draw with a tiny dribble of a creek running down it, Bob insisted that I go in front, so I took the lead, which was unusual. I prefer to follow because I’m usually slower and don’t read the terrain as well. I try to make a mental map of the landscape but I’m prone to daydreaming and I once got us temporarily lost in a snow storm, a few seasons ago, in a maze of game trails and rocks and ridges that all looked the same.
I felt excited to be back and descending on this trail again after five years. A trail that’s been used by wild animals for time immemorial that leads to a place that hasn’t been destroyed by humans. It had rained the day before and prints of deer and dents by bigger and heavier hoofs of ungulates still wandering the area were on the trail. Some tracks were going uphill and some downhill. Peat’s petite little prints and Bloom’s bigger ones were freshly impressed into the earth heading away from us. I looked back up the trail and saw my own tracks. The sound of a grouse busting got our attention and we both removed our shotguns from our shoulders and looked into the direction of the sound. Peat tracked it down across the creek and found it up on a limb of a tall pine tree and starting barking. This is what he does whenever grouse are in trees. He usually barks his head off until we can’t stand it but I don’t like shooting grouse out of trees and Bob really doesn’t either so we buzzed Peat back and decided to continue walking and leave it be.
I stopped and examined scat of a black bear which was berry- and seed-filled. I pressed it with my boot, and thankfully it was dry. We kept going, more scat, maybe a coyote or fox, turds full of fur. The front of my thighs and ankles started to feel the terrain and I was cursing at myself for suggesting such a strong and steep place this early in the season in when not really knowing my fitness.
We got closer to the bottom of the damp draw and near the creek the banks were all muddy and eroded and the gooey mud stuck to the bottom of our boots. The creek was a welcome relief for the dogs as they paused to drink water before crossing. Bob took the lead in front of me and stopped and swished the soles of his boots in the water as he crossed, to get the mud off. He said, “I don’t want the extra weight for the long climb.” I did the same but stepped into a slightly deeper section of the creek and water splashed inside one of my boots and got my wool socks wet.
I followed Bob up the other side of the draw as we zigzagged our way out of the bottom of the creek bed. Five years ago, we flushed chukar out of this spot. This year, nothing. I finally caught up to Bob taking a quick break to catch his breath. He said, “I’m taking 61 steps before stopping to rest.” We continued. I tried 61 steps for a while, hoping to find my rhythm but couldn’t. Mind games to get you to the top where sometimes your mind is your worst enemy and the relationship between walking and thinking and the movement of memory when you don’t have what I call “chukar legs” yet in this early part in the season.
Almost to the top of the plateau after two hours of hiking, we heard chukar calling in the distance but couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was coming from, but it sounded like they were on the opposite side of the ridge, the one we just came from.
I truly believe that some of the chukar up there have never seen a human or hunting dog before. This could be a good thing or bad? Some chukar hunters say birds bust wild and the dogs can’t hold them in the early season because they’re not used to being hunted, or just that they’re young birds. Others say towards the end of the season in January when they’ve had tons of pressure from dogs and people, that’s when they really bust wild. From years of experience doing this, I believe it’s a total crapshoot and there is no rhyme or reason for their jumpiness.
Once up on top, we split up to cover more ground and to increase our odds of finding old deer or elk sheds. Bob and Peat went one direction, and Bloom with me. Peat stopped ahead and pointed solidly, then three or four dusky grouse busted from the ground one by one near some ponderosa pines just ahead of us. The grouse were too far for me to get a shot. Bob tried to hit one but missed. Bloom, with his strong prey drive and inexperience, saw one flying in the sky and took off like a high speed freight train to pursue it. I buzzed him to come back, which he did. We continued hunting, keeping each other in sight as we headed down a ridge, Bob in front of me.
The dogs methodically covered the terrain doing circuits and periodically returning to get some water. We noticed Peat was favoring his front right leg and wouldn’t put any weight on it. We examined it and didn’t find any cuts on his pads, and after palpating still didn’t find anything. We kept going down the ridge. A few minutes later, we watched Peat, who we’ve dubbed “The relocation specialist,” find one of the grouse from earlier hunkered down in a sagebrush as it suddenly busted wild before he had a chance to point it.
The descent down the open ridge felt like it went on forever, and it was covered with loose rocks. I didn’t remember it being that way before. It’s funny how you don’t remember certain things about past hunts. They always seemed easier. Once back down, we crossed over a different section of the creek before heading back up. The climb from the bottom was hard and it was hot. We used as many game trails as we could find and I pulled myself upward using bunchgrass to hold onto, but I felt wimpy for getting sick of it and stupid for complaining about side-hilling and being afraid of traversing one particular loose scree vein on my hands and feet. I had to remind myself that this is part of the game and that every hunt after this will be easier.
Bloom, our workhorse, continued to cover tons of ground all the way up which took about an hour. Peat kept stopping and laying down in the shade of sagebrush. I worried about him and the possibility of having to carry a lame dog up the rest of the 1,000 foot climb. In the 16 years of hiking these chukar hills with Bob, this was the first time I thought about getting a dog sling for emergencies.
Almost towards the top of the climb we entered another small forested area. My Garmin handheld beeped that Bloom was on point above me. Bob said, “He’s your dog; you better go.” I picked up the pace, climbing uphill and looking for him and busting through the thick hawthorn and bitterbrush. Then suddenly a grouse busted above me, flew past, I shot, and missed. I felt defeated. It was an easy shot on a big bird.
On top of the last ridge, the final point of the day was Peat finding a covey of chukar just below the rocky ridge with Bloom backing him. Just as we were carefully navigating downhill getting into position in front of Peat, they busted. We both shot and Bob hit one. The chukar landed on the ground and started running. Peat chased it down and did the most remarkable retrieve despite his handicap. The only bird bagged in our five hour hunt was pointed and retrieved by a three-legged dog.
When I get nostalgic about the past, which seems more often these days, there are things I’ll remember on this beautiful autumn day engrossed in the intimacy of this remote landscape, and I will love them all.
Peat is now fine if anyone is wondering.