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Chukar Hunting Handbook

The magic, mystery, and challenge of hunting the red-legged devils.

Chukar Hunting Handbook

Through the bug-spattered windshield the charred moonscape loomed before us, aftermath of a range fire that devastated the area last year. Blackened soil was buffeted by wind into wraith-like dust devils.

But a thin green band in the distance beckoned – riparian area bordering the gurgling creek that had always delivered in the past, and somehow had been spared from the flames. We cut loose the dogs and started the long, sweaty trudge uphill. In less than an hour we were walking alongside a ten-yard swath of willows and aspen, survivors of the searing flames that had leveled sage and juniper, grasses and the old cowboy line shack deep in the canyon.

Then, stillness. No rustling in the understory, no dogs panting or clinking collar tags. And a trio of chukars erupting from the brush, startling both of us into rushed shots. Dave shot upstream, I swung down, and watched a bird cartwheel into a tangle of willow. My wirehair snuffled among the boulders and soon returned with the bird, still and striking with barred flanks and bandit mask.


Chukars are where you find them, goes the conventional wisdom. In this case, we trusted our instincts, our dogs, and the birds, as well as intimate knowledge of that particular draw at that time of year.  And we did find them.

That’s a chukar hunt: grueling physical effort, gut feelings, and hard-won experience combining to make a game plan. Oh, did I mention the hard work? It bears repeating. For most of us, chukars are among the wildest birds we’ll ever hunt, lurking in harsh, desolate country where rattlesnakes outnumber hunters. When conquistadors first explored North America, they feared to tread the left-most edge of country they called “Northern Mysteries,” for good reason.

Bucket-list bird for many, bread-and-butter for some, chukars have grabbed and held onto many a bird hunter, and vexed many more bird dogs. If Alectoris chukar is on your agenda, here’s a manual, a starting point, for a first – or next – hunt.



Get in shape. Level ground is scarce out here, so spend considerable time on the stair machine. Almost every chukar hunt starts with an uphill climb. Your dog should also be well-conditioned. This is not a cut-corn pheasant stroll or pineland bobwhite walk. If your dog isn’t snake-broke, consider it, or at least up the odds with a vaccination (two required, plan ahead). Rig your vest to comfortably carry a gallon of water, or you’ll be calling off the hunt just as things get interesting up there.

Practice shooting low targets, hard-crossers, and birds flying down-and-away. Train your dog to handle running birds, and to recall when birds are 200 yards uphill so you can plan a stalk without his spooking them while you huff-and-puff to their altitude. Learn what good (and bad) habitat looks like; recognize key components including food sources, water and cover.

Then research likely regions to explore. Find nearby towns, swaths of public land, places to camp or stay. Read between the lines of the blustery social media boasts, figure out where wildfire has altered habitat, review what little scientific literature there is, talk with biologists and locals and take it all with a grain of salt.

Pick your place. Sure, you can hunt chukars in Wyoming and Montana, Hawaii, Utah and (allegedly) South Dakota, but they are few and far between in those outlier states. Boost your odds by targeting regions with strong populations: Northeast and southeast California, southeast Oregon, northwest Nevada, central and eastern Washington and western Idaho. Often, big rivers course this high desert country, weaving a web of tributaries and canyons ideal for birds. They are a good place to put your map pins.


Plan and provision: spend money as locally as you can when in chukar country – you are economic development. Bring spares of everything, from tires to shotguns. The nearest grocery store may be 90 miles from camp, there is no emergency roadside assistance, and there are a lot of cell-free dead zones – another good reason to take up the sport. Once there, find a draw and hunt it.

Choke your double gun improved cylinder and modified because most shots will be at 30-40 yards. You want to drop birds stone dead, or they could glide hundreds of yards down a hill that you’ll have to climb back up. I like #6 shot for the same reason.



The adage, “find cheatgrass, find chukars” is often true, except when it’s not. When pressed, the birds will forage other seeds, insects, tubers and shoots. In deepest winter, I’ve even found sagebrush leaves in a crop. Once rains fall, cheatgrass shoots are a primary food source. First-timers are wise to put binoculars on a slope before investing the boot leather … if you don’t see yellow-brown swaths of ripe cheatgrass, drive on.

Water is critical, but traditional sources aren’t the only ones. I’ve found birds drinking at depressions in flat rocks, muddy seeps and cattle troughs. Once rain falls or snow flies, birds will scatter because their moisture sources have multiplied.

Speaking of snow, sure, birds will not spend a lot of time on it. But the adage of hunting below the snow line only holds true most of the time. Birds will skitter up to snowy ground once they’ve fed, if the cover is better there. I once tracked a bird to a snowy summit, circled a big sage, and as I brought it to my partner’s attention, the bird squirted out, unshot.

Bear in mind, all these factors don’t need to be ganged up in a single draw. Chukars will walk a long way to water, only feed for a few hours each day, and loaf for most of the time in cover with some sort of overhead cover. Night roosts defy logic: in the open on rocky soil, alongside big rocks that retain heat, under tufts of bunchgrass, or in sagebrush groves. For all I know they book hotel rooms on cold nights.

Strategy and Tactics


Birds will often stage just below the highest spots, posting a sentry on a nearby promontory. Search out ridgelines, rimrock or boulder piles that offer protection from avian predators. Send dogs to probe the areas downslope from your walking route, as birds will often run uphill to escape … and you’ll be there waiting.

A starting point on chilly mornings is the south-facing slope as birds will go there to warm up after a night of shivering. Likewise, on windy days, birds will hunker on the leeward side of ridges, and on warm days, they’ll seek out shady slopes.


Sometimes, it’s more tactical. I spotted a sentry bird on the second-highest boulder in a pile, pulled the dog to heel, then used terrain to sneak uphill. Using the higher boulder to block that lookout’s view, I cut the dog loose, but he wouldn’t budge. The up-slope breeze had locked him into a point. My scrambling in the loose rocks was all it took to send a covey into flight. Luckily, one flew uphill (a rare occurrence) into my shot string.

If you have a partner, draw lots with the loser going uphill another 50 yards. Give him 25 more yards ahead of you as each side-hills in the same direction. You might send runners up to him, and he might flush birds down to you.

While verticality is critical to chukar habitat, they’ll often take advantage of flat spots just like footsore hunters. From your vantage point, identify bowls, saddles, benches and terraces. If there’s cover, water, or feed, all the better. Set up like a pheasant hunt with blockers on the edges. Run a dog or three into the middle and plug your ears.

Generally speaking, chukars will run uphill and fly downhill. As you’ll often be uphill from your dog and the birds, sneak down to get a more comfortable shooting angle. It’ll be less down and more across, or if you fall far enough, maybe even a sorta-rising bird.

Once a covey flies, they’ll often head for the nearest obstacle to your shooting, for example the nearest point on a ridge, pile or boulders or even a grove of juniper trees. Plan your approach to a covey with that in mind and set your feet for it before you pull the trigger. The hair-raising roar of a big bunch of chukars is sure to bollix your shot, so save one barrel for the late-rising bird that hopes you’ve emptied your gun.

Somewhere in Nevada (or was it Oregon?) we’d found a gentle slope sprinkled in gem-like obsidian chips and chunks. Acres of it. While we marveled at the geologic treasure-trove our dogs got bored and slipped into the scent cone of a small bunch of birds loafing in the shade of head-high rocks. At the flush, one bird chose the wrong route – a driven-pheasant shot right over me.  It was one of the few flat ground chukars I’ve shot.


The end of your hunt occurs when you’ve run out of water for your dog (likely), you shot a limit (less likely, if you shoot like me), or the ice chest and fellowship beckon. On your way down, re-visit water sources as much for the dog as the chukars. Don’t let your guard down. Cooler temperatures enhance scenting conditions, and often an upslope breeze in the morning reverses itself in the afternoon.

Back at the truck, water the dogs and give them a thorough once-over. Everything out there will sting, scratch, bite, gouge or embed itself in a dog’s coat, eyes, mouth, paws and um, other orifices. Pop a top, but make your priority the dog while you’re sipping. Give him a warm dry bed so he’s rested and ready for another day chasing these fascinating birds in country that mystifies newbies and hypnotizes some of us.

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