By Pat Wray
The land where chukars are found is big country. And you may never be able to see so far or so much as when you are chukar hunting.
You’ll stop to rest on a steep hill and turn around to look. Maybe you’ll be gazing down on a river that has reshaped our nation’s history. Perhaps it’s the Snake, the Colorado, the John Day, the Yakima, the Owyhee, the Green, the Columbia, the Gunnison or the Yellowstone. It could be the Los Angeles Aqueduct, or it may well be a small, green spring that is the headwater of some nameless creek. About then you’ll realize that much of the world’s population would give a great deal just to stand on that hill, breathe in that air and see that view and hunt those birds. It’s enough to make a person feel spiritual.
After their first chukar hunting experience, novice chukar hunters often say they like the country, but some say it the way they might describe a blind date as being “very nice.” Those folks were not prepared for the size of the country, for its appearance of stark emptiness, for the steep, rocky inclines and uncertain footing. They were not ready for the elevation, and they definitely weren’t ready for a climb of 1,200 vertical feet just for the possibility of finding birds. This is often true of people who have grown up hunting quail and pheasants, who tend to their business in relatively flat, agriculture-based land. It’s remarkable, and unfortunate, but many hunt chukars once and once only.
They don’t let time and experience give them the gift of a chukar hunter’s perspective.
If you keep at it long enough, chukar hunting changes your perspective on a couple of levels. On the macro level you stop seeing chukar country as a harsh, unforgiving, dangerous place and begin to see it as a beautiful and productive land. You begin to appreciate the variety and diversity introduced at every spring, under every tree, in every dry streambed. After hundreds of hours spent prowling around the high desert, you’ll begin to understand a little bit about how this incredible ecosystem functions. You’ll see the interactions between the critters that live there. You’ll experience some of the potential weather patterns. You’ll want to learn more. You’ll read, you’ll ask questions, you’ll start arranging your schedule to spend more and more time hunting chukars and just poking around in that dry country. One day, without knowing how it happened, you’ll realize how much you’ve come to love the high desert. At some point shortly thereafter, you’ll begin to feel it loves you, too.
You will be wrong.
That’s when chukar hunting starts getting risky. Because the high desert is harsh, unforgiving, dangerous – a tough place to stay alive in when things go wrong. The inexperienced chukar hunter enjoying his new love affair with the desert is in the same situation as the new pilot whose 500 flight hours and sense of competence and complacency blind him to the risks he just doesn’t recognize yet.
An experienced chukar hunter thinks about chukar country the same way a high-time pilot thinks about flight. He will love it, be drawn to it, hate to leave it, spend every possible minute in it – but he’ll never forget that mistakes have a higher price tag in the high desert realm, that it will kill him if given the chance.
On the micro level, chukar hunters learn to notice and understand the very small things that most people never see. You’ll learn to look beneath the sagebrush, bitterbrush and cheatgrass to find bird tracks on the dirt between the rocks. You’ll learn to distinguish their droppings and the places where they took dust baths. You’ll recognize the rocks where their lookouts perch from the buildup of droppings, and you’ll find the rocky bowls that catch rainwater where they drink during the day. You’ll find feathers where a chuka
r made a mistake and a hawk made a kill. You’ll find tracks you won’t recognize until the day you watch an animal making those same tracks.
Gradually, you will open the book the high desert offers and turn its pages slowly. You’ll find shed mule deer antlers, rodent tracks in the dirt, badger dens, occasional obsidian flakes or even Indian arrowheads and other tools. You’ll find rattlesnake skins and mountain lion scat. If you get high enough, you’ll find small depressions in the rock where pikas have their toilets. A week’s worth of feces in a small rock bowl is not something you see every day, and it will make you ponder those strange little whistling mammals.
After you’ve paid your dues, after hundreds of muscle cramps, frozen eyelashes, blisters, windburned cheeks, sunburned ears, fingers so cold they won’t bend and lips so cracked they can’t smile, after days when you’d trade your shotgun for a library card and your dog for a goldfish, you’ll look out one day over a landscape that opens itself only to those people who love it and realize you are one of them. You’ll turn around on a steep slope that has been kicking your butt to see the sun’s reflection on the river far below. You’ll gaze at the mountains 80 miles away, and see the world between in wrinkles, in springs, in knife-edged ridges, in rimrock as strong as the gods and fragile as eggshells. And above, you’ll hear that rhythmic chuk … chuk … chukkerrr from the birds you pursue. Rookie chukar hunters consider it mocking laughter, but you’ll know better. You’ll know they’re talking to you, telling you: Hurry back, hurry back – bring it on. That sound, that invitation, that challenge, helps you put the entire experience in perspective.
A chukar hunter’s perspective.
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