Slate & Silver
September 23, 2010
Northern Nevada chukars in winter
The authorÃ‚'s Lab, Chinook, makes a nice retrieve on a chukar taken while working around the base of the rimrock outcrops in the background.
The snowy canyon marched steadily and relentlessly north, twisting and rising toward an imaginary mesa rich with imaginary chukar partridge. Tracks littered the snow, stone cold evidence that we weren't far from a memorable winter day. The problem was that the one snowless south-facing slope in the whole semi-frozen country seemed to be marching ahead with the canyon, keeping me and my burning thighs at a frustrating distance.
The late afternoon shadows were beginning to fall off the steep ridges into the wild rose draws, bringing the realization that if the dogs didn't get birdy pretty soon yet another "almost" day of chukar hunting would soon be recorded in the annals. The more the sweat poured off my brow, the more I felt fortunate to have picked up a couple birds that morning, especially the single that rocketed out of the sagebrush rim on my way up the steep slope to the truck before lunch. I had thrown the Browning over/under 20-gauge up instinctively and squeezed the trigger just before the chukar slipped around the ridge. Convinced I was a fraction too slow, I got a nice surprise when Cheyenne emerged from the sage down by the creek with the same slate-and-rust gamebird I had expected to see curling down the canyon. But that was two hours ago and there were lots of tracks up here. No time to rest on a single lucky shot. This was the epitome of Nevada chukar hunting.
Chinook, my 1 1/2-year-old Lab with the hot rod heart, stretched his legs while Cheyenne stayed close. I trudged along, my tired legs wishing for the pickup. Yet with each step, the day grew more intriguing. Finally, Chinook's tail started that rhythmic beat. As if he'd been saving himself, nine-year-old Cheyenne hurled his still-solid frame into the fray, nose on the ground, cutting back and forth at an increasing clip up the slope. This is what I'd been waiting for so I let it all hang out. Scrambling up the hill, I crested just a bit late. Twenty chukars were silently in the air, skittering away seconds before I was in range. Chinook predictably and irresponsibly tore over the next cheatgrass ridge, leaving me in rapid pursuit of what appeared to be more futility. That's when I got a break.
On his way back, Chinook caught more scent and abruptly button-hooked down toward the creek. This time I was there for the explosion of feathers and snow as another small covey flushed and twisted down the canyon. I was behind on the first shot, but caught up with one bird in full sail on the second shot and tumbled it into the wild rose brambles below. Both dogs immediately zeroed in and Chinook fearlessly ripped into the rose and made a nice retrieve. With the thought of the flushed covey not far up the canyon and a good breeze in my face, I quickly got the dogs back up the ridge a ways and resumed pursuit. It was only moments before we were on birds again. Worried that my young Lab would commit another young Lab mistake, I kicked it into gear. We stayed a hundred yards above the creek, now on muddy soil where the snow had melted. Olive chukar droppings on yellow cheatgrass signified more good times to come. We were in birds and in them thick.
A classy combinationÃ‚ — the slate plumage of a Nevada chukar and a 20-gauge Browning over/under.
The dogs excitedly crisscrossed until about a dozen chukars, sandwiched and apparently tired of running, erupted from a gentle flat, nice and close--the stuff of a chukar hunter's dreams. I folded one easily, then broke a wing on the second and watched it curl down the canyon into the wild rose from where I'd come. We quickly gathered the dead bird and scurried back down the canyon a hundred yards or so and spent the next 20 minutes trying to extract the cripple from the hellish thorny tangle. Finally, concession outweighed determination and we resumed our pursuit up the canyon. Problem was, the day was slipping away. One more covey got up wild and we called it good. Heading back down the canyon I decided to give the wild rose patch one more shot. This time both dogs went berserk when we got near the suspected hiding place of the wing-broke chukar. Chinook muscled his way inside, rooted around fearlessly for a couple of minutes, then clawed his way out with a beautiful partridge held high and proud. Lost in near euphoria, I stuffed the bird in the game bag and happily started back to the truck.
The dogs weren't quite through, though, and the second little bench down the canyon held a small covey. The chukars exploded downwind, but I caught up just in time and dropped my final bird. Cheyenne outwitted his blood kin on this occasion, gathered up the chukar, and strolled merrily in small circles before finally bringing it back.
I took off my vest and arranged the birds, ate a granola bar, and swigged icy water. The sky was as blue as sky gets. High up on the ridge in the sunshine wingbeats caught my eye, but not chukars this time. A dozen sage grouse sailed off the peak down the long snowy slope. Meanwhile, my two Labs rolled in the snow as white flakes peppered their jet-black coats. Their eyes, wild with determination and excitement moments ago, settled back to a look of complete satisfaction as the shadows deepened. "Time to go, boys," I said.
The author's Lab, Chinook, delivers another chukar.
Winter Chukar Country
In Echoes on Rimrock, Buddy Levy sums it up: "Winter chukar country is an alien land." This is the great puzzle that confronts chukar hunters the first time they stare out at the vast emptiness of rimrock canyons blanketed in snow. It is not as simple as October and waterholes, but an exquisite test of bird hunting imagination and feel, one that requires insight into the winter habits of the wily chukar partridge and strong legs to overcome the inherent advantages the birds possess in their expanded universe of rimrocks, cheatgrass, and sage. However, for bird hunters who love the challenge of good dog work in big country, northern Nevada in the dead of winter is one of the country's best-kept upland game secrets.
Winter is the time of year when chukar hunting reaches the combined zenith of challenge, success, and aesthetics. Nevada's winter chukars are fair game for both flushing dogs and pointers and can offer fabulous wingshooting, but the real key is to learn how to break down this vast landscape into segments that can be approached skillfully. Wandering a
imlessly through snowy canyons hoping for your dog to catch scent will give you a perspective on Nevada you won't obtain in the smoky casinos, but it's not likely to put many chukars in the pouch. There's just too much country. Likewise, young legs and birdy dogs are important, but winter chukars will lead you on an endless chase if you and your dog simply try to overpower them with endurance and heart. I know; I learned the hard way!
The first step to being successful in winter is grasping the concept that chukars stay pretty tight to the places they were raised--the springs, creeks and other water sources in Nevada's arid landscape. They will disperse outward when the winter rains green up the hillsides and snow makes the waterholes a non-issue, but they don't often leave the country. The depth of snow influences chukars, and this can provide the hunter with a major advantage in late winter. I've found birds in six inches of snow, but for the most part they stay around the snow line and gravitate to the south-facing slopes where the afternoon sun turns the blanket of white to a muddy hillside of cheatgrass a few days after a snowstorm. This really helps you break down the country into manageable chunks after a good snow; one of the reasons that the Nevada locals generally refer to January as the prime chukar month. That one took me--a pheasant hunter to the core--awhile to figure out. How could the hunting be best after the birds had been chased for three months?
It registered one December day after my dad and I wandered up and down a snowless canyon full of chukar droppings without flushing a single covey. They were somewhere in that vast canyon, just not where we were hunting; hence the need for a little snow to narrow the search options. Cheatgrass has long been regarded as an important chukar food source, but there are miles of cheatgrass canyons in northern Nevada and I've found that the other key habitat ingredients--rimrocks and sagebrush--are just as important in winter. Rimrock outcrops are great places for chukars to roost and seek shelter during bouts of nasty weather. Sagebrush may be the most under-appreciated element of winter chukar habitat. I've flushed countless coveys in chest-high sagebrush, often on little benches or where two draws came together. Sagebrush pockets provide protection from the wind and shade during warm winter days.
Dog Work for Winter Chukars
It is important to dissect Nevada chukar country at a large scale to figure out where to hunt, but it's equally important to get an idea what to do once you are in it. I hunt chukars with my two Labs but, regardless of the breed, the general approach is the same--you need to anticipate the birds and develop a strategy for slipping up on them.
|Hunting Information and Contacts |
|The NDOW conducts helicopter chukar surveys in August of most years across the primary chukar range of Nevada to identify regional population trends. It's best to get the results from NDOW, then contact the local wildlife biologist at the numbers listed below to get some specifics prior to making a trip. My experience with NDOW staff has been very good; the biologists are more than willing to share their knowledge of chukar populations in their respective regions. |
Game Division, Hunting Information and Survey Results: (775) 423-3171
Reno Headquarters: (775) 688-1500; San Stiver is the chukar specialist
Western Region, Fallon: (775) 423-7577
Eastern Region, Elko: (775) 777-2300
The Nevada chukar season runs from mid-October through the end of January. The limit is six chukars or Huns, singly or in aggregate, with 12 in possession. NDOW also offers an excellent deal for non-resident hunters--a one-day license for $16 with additional days for only $5 per day.
A prerequisite to hunting chukars in Nevada is obtaining good land ownership and topographic maps and perhaps a DeLorme Nevada Atlas & Gazetteer. BLM maps can be obtained for $4 each from the following field offices, or contact the BLM State office for an index of maps and an order form.
Carson City Field Office: (775) 885-6000
Winnemucca Field Office: (775) 623-1500
Battle Mountain Field Office: (775) 635-4000
Elko Field Office: (775) 753-0200
BLM Nevada State Office: (775) 861-6400
Winter chukars have generally been chased enough that the element of surprise is essential. A good way to get up on them is to work along the base of rimrock outcrops in the cheatgrass early in the morning. By curling around a rim with your dog reasonably close you can use the topography and rock outcrops to stay out of sight and often surprise feeding chukars. I also like to hunt south-facing sagebrush benches below saddles by climbing up the north face and dropping in on the bench from above. While I usually prefer to come in from above, sometimes you can work up a creek bottom and surprise chukars on gentle flats at the forks of draws. In all cases, being quiet is a must.
The issue of whether to keep your dogs close or let them range wide is one that will be debated by chukar hunters forever. Since my Labs cut their teeth on river bottom pheasants and don't quite get the concept of heeling in open country unless it's strongly suggested via a few sharp whistle blasts, I typically lean toward letting the dogs work when I'm not sure--after all, a broken covey is a known commodity. Sure, this results in blowing up some coveys out of range, but those birds are not always lost. I'm often able to mark them down either by sight or intuition, put together a plan on how to approach them the second time, and end up with a perfectly executed flush at close range. This tactic makes more sense in winter when birds are not so concentrated around water sources. Keep your dog close all day and you will inevitably walk past birds. Visuals on chukars flushed by your hunting partners can be invaluable, but once again you still must use topography and the wind to get close and predict what the birds are likely to do when they are on the ground. Winter chukars typically sail around canyons then scramble uphill into the nearest rock outcrop, so it's best to come in from above or side-hill around at the base of the rocks. Making your dog heel is essential when you've marked birds down!
Don McKenzie of Ward, Arkansas, with his first ever limit of Nevada chukars.
Northern Nevada Chukar Ranges
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) owns 48 million acres in Nevada and the northern part of the state is about 95-percent public land, so finding a place to hunt is not an issue like it is for other upland birds in agricultural areas. Nevada's best chukar hunting generally occurs across the northern third of the state in Washoe, Pershing, Humboldt, Elko, and parts of Lander and Eureka counties. The Jackson Mountains northwest of Winnemucca are a good place to start in that th
ey typically have some of the highest densities of chukars in the state. For example, the 1999 helicopter surveys conducted by the Nevada Division of Wildlife (NDOW) revealed a staggering 258 chukars per square mile in the survey plot in the Jacksons. However, chukars are well established all throughout northern Nevada. Here's a quick synopsis of some of the better chukar ranges.
Starting in the western part of the region, good chukar hunting exists in the Pine Forest Range and Black Rock Range north of Gerlach and the Buffalo Hills and Granite Range to the south. This country is accessible within a two-hour drive of Reno, thus is an excellent choice for nonresidents that choose to fly into Reno. Good bets around Winnemucca include the Jacksons, Bilk Creek Mountains, Double H Mountains, Santa Rosa Range, and Bloody Run Hills to the north and Sonoma Range and Humboldt Range to the south. Moving to the east, it's typically the Sheep Creek Range, Tuscarora Range, and Independence Mountains north of Battle Mountain. The bird numbers tail off in the far eastern part of the state, but the Snake Mountains north of Elko can be worth a try.