BOISE, Idaho (MCT) - If upland game bird hunting is a gentlemen's sport, someone forgot to tell the chukars.
Chukars are the blue collar bird of upland wing shooting. You don't have to join a hunting club to pursue them, you don't need permission to access private land, and you don't even have to drive all that far to reach good chukar habitat.
But there's a Hells Canyon-wide chasm between knowing where chukars live and actually bagging them.
John Ryan and Derek Kubacki of Boise have been chasing chukar for more than 20 years, and it's more than a pastime, it's a competition with the terrain, the climate and most of all, the birds.
"I think it's about the open land, to just be able to take off and go hunting," Ryan said.
The challenge of chukar hunting starts with their home terrain. They favor steep, rocky slopes, and their first line of defense is running uphill.
They will rarely fly unless forced to by a hunter or dog descending on them, and getting above them is no easy task.
"When you hike all the way to the top and a get a chukar, it's pretty rewarding," Kubacki said. "It's a challenge, and not everyone can do it."
Ryan got his first taste of chukar hunting in 1983 and was humbled. He found himself winded from climbing the steeps slopes and then trying to hit them when they flew. He vowed to get better at it.
"It was having them just make a fool of me and telling myself I have to get in better shape and become a better shot," Ryan said.
Chukar flush like bottle rockets and almost immediately arc away, often contouring the hillside or gliding downslope or across steep canyons.
"It's a challenge hitting chukars," Ryan said. "Because of the terrain, they can put so many moves on you. You have to have so many shots in your bag of tricks because the shots are so different."
Ryan and Kubacki hit Brownlee Reservoir last week in Ryan's 21-foot jetboat to take their first crack at chukar for 2007.
Ryan bought his boat years ago specifically for chukar hunting, and Brownlee and the Snake River offer hundreds of miles of prime chukar habitat.
But Mother Nature hasn't cooperated this year. Drought, heat and fires have conspired against chukar. They had poor conditions for breeding and rearing young, which reflected in Idaho Department of Fish and Game's annual chukar counts on Brownlee Reservoir in August.
F&G biologists counted 42 birds per square mile, which second-lowest number in 23 years. Last year yielded 71.5 per square mile, and the 10-year average is 17.6 birds per square mile.
But that didn't sway Ryan and Kubacki from heading out last week for their first chukar hunt of the season.
They weather had cooled, and it was rare opportunity for an early season chukar hunt in mild weather.
Ryan also started hunting with an English setter pup, Grady, that was just months old last season.
He said the best way to train a young dog is to get it lots of time in the field hunting wild birds.
Kubacki brought along Jasmine, a gray-faced Viszla.
Grady glided across the grassy slopes like an afternoon wind, his white plume of a tail fluttering as he criss-crossed the slopes with his radar-like nose testing every molecule for bird scent.
The pair climbed the slopes behind the dog, waiting for his loping gait to stop and his body to lock onto a point.
The higher they climbed the more the anticipation grew.
The pair split with Kubacki and Jasmine, heading across a shallow basin and Grady and Ryan tracing the spine of a ridge.
The veteran Jasmine flushed the first covey, but the chukars dodged Kubacki's shots.
After an hour of climbing a large covey of chukars broke loose and flew down slope.
Ryan knocked one out of the sky, and Grady grabbed him, and the first bird of the season was in the bag.
The first chukar seemed to kick the energetic pup into hyperdrive.
He methodically roamed the slopes, covering so much territory at times he even overwhelmed Ryan's ability to track him. He would be under foot one minute, and hundreds of yards away the next.
His bright coat shone brilliantly across the dry, tawny slopes.
The pair of hunters and their dogs covered their favorite hunting spots, searching the ridgelines and nooks and crannies of hilly terrain searching for chukar.
The slopes were eerily silent. One of the thrills and frustrations about chukar hunting is you can often hear their taunting "chuck, chuck, chuck," as if they're daring you to chase them up the hill.
But F&G's surveys and predictions of lower numbers played out in real time as the dogs fruitlessly searched for the birds.
Even with the few birds, no one was calling the hunt a failure. The pup tirelessly plied the distant terrain while the Viszla worked quarter close by Kubacki.
"It's amazing to watching them in their element," Kubacki said.
"I look forward to that as much as anything," Ryan added.
(c) 2007, The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alectoris-chukar-001.jpg