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Bird Hunting Spotlight: Great Basin

Mystery, magic & wild birds in this upland paradise.

Bird Hunting Spotlight: Great Basin

Adventure lives; geology is writ large—and the wildest birds in the country skulk among the sage and lava fields. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

The coyote coolly scanned my old dog and me, focusing laser-like on my pup as he charged. My right barrel rolled him, his assault barely slowed. A second shot knocked him back again, and he limped off to die as prey, not predator. To deliver a merciful coup-de-grace, I searched but never found him.

After the adrenaline subsided, I hugged both dogs and we swung uphill to a saw-toothed lava outcrop. The wirehairs tip-toed, stopped, and chukars erupted in a roar from all points of the compass. Dogs ran and shooters missed. On the way down slope, we found a crumbling stone dugout in the hillside, surrounded by valley quail. The shooting improved.

Such are the gifts of the Great Basin, bitter alongside sweet, a ragged edge in a bubble-wrapped world. Harsh, full of subtle beauty and nuance, I’ve wandered its sandy plains and rocky crags for 30 years and every hunt is still a revelation.

Native pictographs record hunting exploits and visions of the supernatural. Sheep and cattle pushed in, range wars fought, and a shaky peace holds to this day. Stage stations became general stores, the occasional horse is still tied up outside. Cattle are still king in this mélange of 19th and 21st centuries.

What’s Out There?  

Beyond the two-tracks, hunkered on wind-swept knobs, lonely escarpments and scree-covered slopes dwell chukar. Vast sagebrush plains hide sage grouse so big they’re called “bombers.” Dots on the desertscape, valley quail skitter in the watercourses, jinking in head-high cover when pushed too hard by young pointers. And every once in a while, if you’ve been kind to your dog, you may jump a covey of Hungarian partridge.

male sage grouse displaying
Sage grouse are a bucket-list bird for many, but unfortunately, the arcane permit process, threat of endangered species listing, and short seasons make Montana a better bet. (Photo By:

You walk among myth and mystery, legends and romance. Moccasined feet created paths we still walk. The Great Basin is peopled by Indians, fortune-seekers, buckaroos who trail the cattle and scratch a hardscrabble living among volcanoes, mountain lions and bandit hideouts.

One blue-ribbon day was capped by a tumbling, off-balance shot on a towering chukar and a 200-yard retrieve. We’d pushed birds to volcano rims above the clouds, followed three-toed tracks in the snow and admired quivering pointers on knife-edge ridges. We watched a golden eagle’s talons seize “my” chukar in mid-flush. Over very old whiskey that night, we marked our camp on the map for future visits. Only later did we learn university herpetologists go there when they need more rattlesnakes.

Rivers go here to die, trapped by sheer lava cliffs and sucked dry by vast playas. But not all of them sigh, give up and sink into the dust. Massive enough to carve an escape route, mighty rivers with names like Owyhee and Snake offer hunters rugged breaks and steep canyons.

hunting dog walking in desert canyon bird hunting
Unforgiving lava rock and steep canyons make for grueling hunts throughout the Great Basin. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Habitat and Hiding Places  

I crossed from one state to another on a cheatgrass-covered slope—patchy sagebrush, rocks, and a few folds in the crusty earth. My wirehair side-eyed me from a gully until the rusty-gate creak of Huns broke the still air. My gun barked, my dog fetched. But that’s the Basin—full of wonder. We could just as likely have jumped valley quail or a badger. At the summit were petroglyphs and more chukar droppings than I’ve ever seen.

Scabby, volcanic upthrusts are chukar hotspots, as are alluvial plains fanning down to rutted roads. Benches, plateaus, and saddles are hideouts for any of the game birds if your timing is right. Creekside willows and alders shelter valley quail, foot-high sage is grouse country. Slopes carpeted in shin-high grass and softball-sized rocks are likely Hun habitat.

We often camp on the banks of an ankle-deep creek draining the east slope of a towering mountain. Following it upstream, we pushed the tangle of alders and willows until the stillness was broken by the “pit-pit” of panicked valley quail. They juked when I didn’t, but my second shot dropped a male bird, painted in vivid shades and dappled by sunlight on the creek bank.

The cover thinned to sage, and my buddy’s old Lab nudged a single chukar that hooked hard, right into my shot cloud. Its trajectory arced around a rocky promontory to the creek bottom. A fruitless search ended with a pin on my map, a big circle around and upwind where my wirehair pointed, two feet in the water, two dry. His eyes bulged and I walked in on a bird nestled in the brush as if placed by a taxidermist. I let the dog snuffle a bit. After all, he’d done the hard work.

Water is the Great Basin’s lifeblood, sustaining mule deer and birds, cattle and remnant trout populations. At a crossroads gas station, an old timer assured me a certain creek would have chukars coming for a drink at 1 p.m. He told me about that burnt-out block wall at the bottom of the hill near my camp, where his great-grandparents were the last casualties in the Bannock Indian War. Sharing a bottle that night, he regaled us with adventures torn from the pages of a Zane Gray novel. His prediction was true, and so were his reminiscences.

upland bird hunter and german wirehaired pointer with a chukar partridge
The author, his wirehair, and a hard-earned chukar. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Jumping Off Points    

It’s a mega-valley bigger than most states, a gigantic sump draining streams from a ring of mountain ranges. It’s that big flat spot on satellite images, bordered on the north by Idaho’s Snake River plain, on the south by Death Valley, Great Salt Lake to the east, Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains on the west. But don’t let first impressions be your last. Square-mile mountain ranges and micro-forests dot the Basin and hold most of the wild birds.

Working away from city limits as far as your nerve will let you is a good strategy. Try Elko, NV; Nampa, ID; Burns, OR; Susanville, CA; Reno, NV; Yakima, WA; East Wendover, UT; Barstow, CA. On a topo map the vast yellow blots administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are a good place to start your quest. Look hardest at state borders and the rivers that form them.

great basin desert landscape
Hunting the Great Basin is not for the faint of heart. Steep ravines and sharp rock are the name of the game—but the views and upland pursuits are worth it. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Tips and Tactics  

While chukars, valley quail, Huns, and sage grouse are found in all the usual places, thinking outside the box is sometimes rewarded. Juniper groves can host chukars—deep snow, too. My dog once pointed a cave on a rocky cinder cone in chukar country. Quail streamed out and we both had to duck. I’ve shot birds on moonscapes blackened by range fire. On more than one occasion, quail and chukar have launched from streamside rocks.

Chukars prefer vertical terrain with boulders and rocky outcrops and generally, the more cheatgrass you find, the better your odds. Even in the bitterest winter, you’ll find cheatgrass seeds in their crop, often with the green shoots of new growth. Work them from above as they’ll run uphill faster than you or your dog (then, fly down!). Other coveys are probably at the same elevation.

Hungarian partridge are rightly a “bonus bird,” a surprise more than a planned objective. Low grasses, rocky slopes and adjacent grain crops form the nexus of favorable habitat. These birds make any pointing breed look good, holding well and often flying straight away. Pointer owners have few shooting excuses.

The salvation for many a thigh-burning chukar hunt, diminutive valley quail mutter to each other on more level ground, scratching in streamside brush and adjacent sage-covered desert. They like waist-to-head-high brush with a clear understory. Their escape strategy is to run then fly, but once a covey is busted, singles often hold motionless for a disciplined pointing dog. They fly low—so safety first.

a flock of chukar partridge in snow
The Great Basin is home to a variety of upland species in its vast expanse, including the elusive chukar partridge. (Photo By: David Burke/

Be Prepared  

Vaccinate your dog against rattlesnake bites, bring water, and a first-aid kit. Condition them well, bring a GPS, personal locator device, and an extra spare tire. Hunt with a partner. There is no sheriff’s deputy or search and rescue team.

Civilization is often just a wide spot in the road where the general store is also the café, post office, gas station and motel. According to the New York Times, you are farther from a hospital and a Starbucks than anywhere else in the Lower 48. It’s one step closer to heaven, and likely as near as I’ll ever get. 

Stay in the Game

Other than a mountain lion scare, torn pads on your dog will be the most likely kibosh to your hunt. This strategy has paid off with three injury-free seasons. Think green, flexible leaf versus brown and dry. Every morning of a hunt, my dog gets a generous application of commercial pad conditioner (I like Happy Jack Pad Kote). It does much the same as the cream, but on steroids. Then, put cream on each night as you’re doing your tailgate exam.

upland bird hunter applying dog pad cream to dog's foot happy jack pad kote
Daily application of a good human heel cream all year keeps pads supple enough to fold over sharp and pointy stuff where a hard crusty pad will crack. (Photo By: Scott Linden)
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