Chase was ahead of us, on a zigzag course up the hill, that incredible nose pointed into the wind. At the top were two bluffs, and the German shorthair was headed toward the northernmost hill.
The tops of my legs burned with the exertion. I drank in large gulps of cool, clean air. My brain, starved for oxygen, registered the fact the dog missed a crest of rock about 10 inches high just under the top of my hill. Ten inches … enough to hide a chukar … on the downwind side.
In a blur of motion, wings and sound, they flushed left and right. Four birds. My gun barrel followed one as it broke left, now 5 feet off the ground. I swung through it and squeezed, felt the punch of the shotgun against my shoulder, watched the bird fold against the cloudy sky and looked for another atop the bead of my gun. It was already a hundred yards away. Chase looked back over her shoulder and let me collect that bird myself.
The greatest chukar hunts take place on land that will never be developed, never be fenced off, where the roads will never be paved, where a hunter can walk public-owned ground for miles. All it takes is a shotgun, a dog and a pair of good boots. But you ought to bring a topo map and a compass. And there is a lot to learn about how the weather and the terrain can be used to a hunter’s advantage.
AFTER THE RAINS
Scott Linden, the host and producer of Wingshooting USA, hunts as much as anyone I know. His schedule leads him to haunt the desert ridgetops in a half-dozen states each season where chukar hunting runs strong. When the early hunt is over and November brings rain and wind, he heads for a favorite river canyon two hours from his home.
“I think wind is a major factor in November and December. Just like big game, chukar look for shelter. They just don’t need as much shelter as a bigger animal does, of course, so I look for folds in the ground,” Linden explains. “In my favorite canyon, there’s a gradual slope and what looks like a string of Indian burial mounds, about 18 to 20 feet in diameter and 5 feet tall. When the wind comes off the river, the birds are on the leeward side of those mounds because the wind is just a little bit less. In that same area, the folds run perpendicular to the river. That upstream draw doesn’t get any wind and it holds more chukar than any of the other finger draws.”
In November and December, chukar hunters are likely to find birds in smaller groups. Birds will be spread across a larger area and may cover more ground as they prospect for green-up. That’s key. Look for the feed. This transplanted upland bird from the Himalayas makes a good chunk of its living on another transplant from Eurasia, called “cheatgrass.” Where you find cheat, birds will be nearby. But cheatgrass is only part of a chukar’s diet. Russian thistle, grasses, dandelions, wheat, fruits, seeds and insects are all important to chukar.
“Sometimes the plants give them a place to hide from the wind,” Linden points out. “Tall sage is a great wind break. I’m looking for high stuff and low stuff to hide the birds, whether it is organic or mineral.”
East-facing terrain holds the most promise. One researcher found that almost 90 percent of chukar nests occurred on southeast slopes, and the locations most often coincided with the best chukar forage.
Water is still important to chukar, but they don’t need to travel as far to get it as they do early in the season. After the first heavy rains in November, water is easy to find in the hollow of a rock and on the stems of grass, and chukar don’t have to feed all the way down to the river.
HUNTING THE NOVEMBER GREEN-UP
With moisture in the ground in November, tiny shoots of green grass push up through the soil. Brown hillsides take on a verdant hue. The green-up draws birds into smaller coveys and disperses them across a wider range. They feed on new green grasses and broadleaf plants.
But Linden says he watches for chukar and sign in the low spots, and it can just be a rain puddle or the lowest spot in a stream that is dried up – the few springs and seeps that aren’t the usual suspects. “Early, you go to moving water,” he adds. “Late in the season, you have to find these other places.”
And that can lead a hunter off the beaten path to more birds.
“Hunt where other people don’t hunt,” Linden points out. “And that doesn’t mean climbing to the highest and most inaccessible peaks. I have found tons of birds on the flats next to state highways. It’s like fishing. If everybody else is in the good spots, you might as well have some fun and explore some new country, and often it pays off.”
The same thinking applies to the hilltops. When those early snows cover the high spots like a blanket, it forces some of the birds into the flats. But what is not readily apparent is that the wind blows the snow off the tops of the hills and a few birds go back.
“Conventional wisdom says hunt below the snowline,” Linden agrees, “but you’re neglecting some great, ‘birdy’ country up on the tops of the hills. If you don’t mind slogging through the snow, you might find bare ground — and birds — up on top where the wind has blown the snow away.”
But chukars can spend significant time on snow as well, Linden adds.
“Once, I was hunting with a partner and he found a set of chukar tracks (in the snow). He said, ‘This is so cool. Look at these tracks. They lead right up to this bush.’ Just as he said that, two birds flushed out of the sage. He missed them.”
COLD, SNOW & ELEVATIONS
Tim Curry, owner of Central Oregon Sporting Dog (www.oregonsportingdog.com), base
d in Bend, Oregon, has guided chukar hunters from Oregon to Idaho to Colorado. Before every hunt, he opens up a topographic map, much like a deer hunter does.
“Before putting foot to ground I start by studying topo maps of the area I am interested in,” Curry explains. “I look for creeks and especially seeps and springs indicated on the map. Once I have circled the possible water sources, then it’s time to do some hiking and narrow down which water sources to count on.”
But not all the water indicated on the map will actually be there year ’round, Curry warns.
“Once I have located water sources, the more ground I can cover, the more I can learn about (the birds’) habits and regular roost locations. If you know of good roost areas and where the birds have to go for water, you can pretty much find them somewhere in between those two areas throughout the day. They will be close to their roost in early morning and in the later evening, and near water during warmer midday temperatures.”
When colder winter weather hits, Curry says, hunters need to adjust their strategy.
“The same coveys you have been hunting early season are still in the general area,” he says, “but have probably moved to the opposite slope or different elevation. During the cold weather they need to seek sunshine on the southeastern slopes. Not only will the thermals help them stay at a more desirable temperature during extreme cold, but they have a better chance foraging for food. Keep in mind chukars will adjust their habits due to what the day throws their way. If it’s pouring down rain or snowing, they will seek the cover of the rocky cliffs and overhangs, spots where they can hunker down and wait out the weather.”
Hunters do well, too, to use the time between birds to look for sign. Chukar droppings are about 1 inch in length. The older droppings look tan in color, while the fresh stools appear green with a white uric-acid cap. Find fresh droppings and you have found the elevation at which the birds are feeding.
By this time of the season, the younger birds have gained some experience. At the first sign of danger, the covey begins to move. Pressured, they run uphill, disperse and hide. Anticipate at what point the birds might flush. If they are moving to the crest, they will flush when they get there. If the dog goes on point, circle him and work back in from 50 yards ahead. Watch his eyes for a clue to where he last saw a bird.
After the flush and the shots, reload quickly and wait to see if the dog picks up another scent. There may be a single or two left in the grass.
Afterward, take a break and listen. The birds want to regroup, and the only way they know to do that is to call, usually within 15 minutes after they have been disturbed. When the birds are calling, they are on the move. And when they are on the move, they are headed uphill. Look around and locate the best cover or pull out the topo map again.
Want the greatest upland bird challenge of all? Hunt chukar late in December and into January. These birds sneak and run more often than they flush. And when they fly, they quickly range 40 yards out, launched like fighter jets streaking off close to the ground, flat-out in a blur of wings and sound.
Late in the season, Curry says it’s time to change tactics again.
“Let’s say you just hit the chukar slopes and climbed to a ridge top that hunted good three days ago due to the green-up, but today you woke up and a wind blowing 30 miles per hour has kicked up. Now what? Now,” Curry says, “is a good time to check the back side of that ridge and, more specifically, some of the smaller finger draws where the birds will move to get out of the wind.”
Curry also insists chukar hunters follow one general rule: Once you have found a covey, you will most likely find others at the same elevation and on the same side of the slope, as they are all responding to what Mother Nature has thrown at them on that given day.
With cold wind, persistent rain, and ice and snow on the desert, the south-facing slopes are more likely to hold chukar. And the birds won’t stay as close to their water source when Mother Nature provides another.
On windy days, the birds seek out shelter, which might mean craggy rim rock, a draw choked with sagebrush, or even a rocky depression just off the crown of a hill. It doesn’t take much cover to hide a 10-inch bird.
When the weather gets rough, chukar migrate vertically in elevation. In heavy snow, the birds find feed and cover in habitat more typically associated with quail, hiding in the willows down along the creek.
Now, even the youngest birds know enough to go on alert when they hear humans shouting commands to dogs or calling to each other. An entire flock might freeze when alerted by the sentry. When danger approaches, they run low to the ground and they don’t wait around for dogs to go on point and hunters to walk up and kick them into the air.
Late in the season, hunt down on chukar from above them. When the dog goes on point, get between the bird and its escape route. The bird wants to fly downhill. To get around you, the bird will have to tower, or flush side-hill. Both scenarios make for better shooting.
Late-season hunters might also find themselves hunting in freezing fog. Indeed, chukar are easier to approach in the fog — you just have to know where both the birds and the dog are. One of the new GPS-assisted collars can help you find the dog. And if you outfit your dog with a collar that emits a hawk scream when he goes on point, the birds will often hold long enough to allow the hunters to get into shooting position ahead of the dog before the birds flush.
The first thing a chukar hunter learns is the birds run uphill and fly downhill. True enough. But chukar seek their food at certain elevations for a reason. When they flush, chances are that after they swoop around that hill out of sight, they hit the ground to feed at the same elevation on the other side of the ridge. Employ a topographic map and you can quickly figure out where they are headed. Don’t waste time and energy looking for birds where they are not likely to be.
Knowledge of the prevailing winds is a big advantage, as well. A dog needs the wind in his face before he can smell a bird. Start the hunt where the wind is in your favor. Push the birds and head where they are headed. Orchestrate the hunt with a topo map and at the end of it, your dogs will lock up for a last, spectacular flush.
(Editor’s note: To order a signed copy of Gary Lewis’s new book, Hunting Oregon, send $24.95 to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit www.garyle