I guess you can’t fault Idaho for being steep, rocky, hot and dry, nor gravity for pulling unremittingly 32 feet per second. It is what it is. And you can’t blame a chukar for trying its best to avoid capture. Nor a setter for trying to catch up to it. So I guess it was my fault. I get full blame for not providing enough water to fully hydrate old Tilly.
We were where chukar fools often are in late September—Idaho’s Hell’s Canyon. Appropriately named, it is technically North America’s deepest gorge (if you measure from the tallest peaks of the Seven Devils Range down to river level on the Snake). It is also radically steep and thoroughly littered with rocks begging for an excuse to roll, sometimes right off a cliff.
But chukars love those rocks and cliffs. They run up them, hide beside them, launch off them. That’s why chukars live in Hell’s Canyon, and those challenging birds are why Tilly and I were visiting Hell’s Canyon.
The hunt was typical for early season, starting deceptively cool at dawn, turning dangerously hot by mid-morning. We took our share of birds, pushing them up one ridge, down another. We pinned a covey or two on top, missed some, hit some as they dived for the bottoms. Then we did it all over again. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The problem was the canteen. It was soon flowing with about as much water as was running in the creeks we were crossing. Normally burbling or at least trickling, they were stone dry. Tilly’s usual refreshment stops had trickled away. But the chukar kept calling, leaving scent and pulling that sharp-nosed little setter on and on with her overeager master right behind.
By the time I realized the errors of our over-enthusiasm, we were miles and thousands of feet from water. By the time we got back to the truck, Tilly required intravenous fluids to recover.
We weren’t the first, nor will we be the last hunting team to suffer on a chukar hunt, but our experience suggests wannabe chukar sports consider all their chukar hunting options.
The summer version of cabin fever practically mandates that a hard-core bird hunter and his carefully trained dog take advantage of the early season. This is when chukar populations are at their annual peak, young birds are dumb and accommodating and even old birds have forgotten some of last season’s wildness. After the usual summer drought, coveys are concentrated along rivers or isolated springs. It’s a great time to make meat, but you have to take precautions.
First, pack more than enough water. This could vary from a liter to three liters depending on how far you hike, how long you stay out, how hot it gets and how much free water you find. Don’t assume the latter will even be available unless you’ve already scouted it.
The easiest early hunt is by boat. Not only do you have nearly constant access to water for drinking, but cooling, too. A mid-day swim in the Snake, Salmon, Columbia, Grande Ronde or any other northwest chukar river cools and revives.
Riverside hunts are productive because local chukars gravitate to it for their own refueling. Boaters look and listen for birds, circle above and push them down toward the water. This saves miles of steep climbing by discouraging these notorious runners from scampering and flitting to the highest point before flying or holding to a point. As long as chukars have a clear field on the uphill side, they’ll run to it. Loop above them if you can.
The second wettest way to hunt early is by targeting up-slope springs. They can usually be seen as dots or clumps of dark green on a slope of dead-grass yellow. Alders, willows, hawthorns, tall grass and sometimes even cattails or bulrushes mark the spots. Not only will these provide water for Dog, but they’ll concentrate chukars.
Streams coursing down from the mountain tops are another good option, especially if you enjoy mixing your chukar chasing with Huns, blue grouse, ruffed grouse and often valley quail. All species can be found near east-west mountain streams in Hell’s Canyon and similar Northwest river valleys. The south-facing slopes are usually hot, dry and grassy. The ridge tops provide a seam where this grass meets Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs where blue grouse like to hang out.
Down the wooded north-facing slope you can usually find blue grouse, and, the closer you get to the wet bottom, ruffed grouse. If the creek valley is wide enough with a mix of deciduous brush, grasses and weeds, quail are possible. Huns fan out in the flatter grass sections going up the next south slope. It’s more tiring hunting up and over and down and up again on these tall ridges, but your chances are good for finding water in the bottoms and birds anywhere.
Another viable option for the hot, early season hunts is shortening them. Don’t let the birds lure you ever and ever farther from your truck. Pack all the water you can reasonably haul, plan a circuitous route and stick to it so you can return for water at a reasonable time.
This can be made easier with two rigs. Park one at the bottom of a mountain, drive the other up, hunt down and drink heartily as you wend your way back to the high truck. With careful mapping it’s also possible to start hunting from roads running a shorter distance above creek and river bottoms. That way you can hunt down, water Dog and hunt back up for your next watering at the truck.
By mid-October summer’s drought in chukar country has usually been broken by a combination of cool fronts and rain or snow. Moisture inspires annual cheat grass seeds to sprout and native grasses and forbs to resume growth, providing birds with a smorgasbord of moist forage nearly everywhere. Water often pools in creeks, ponds and mud holes, making it easier for you and Dog to stay out all day.
This is good because you’ll probably need all day to round up birds scattered across the hills. Yeah, mid-season comes with a lot more hiking. Play it smart by watching (binoculars are a good idea) and listening for birds. Chukars often call (rapid, staccato “chuck chuck chuckahcah chuckahcaah”). When you find a covey, continue hunting at that elevation rather than moving up or down slope.
Carry twice as many shells as you think you’ll need and twice as much food, too. Bring high energy treats for reviving Dog’s energy. A long, mid-day break is a good idea. Two or three are even better.
Snow can happen anytime, but it usually doesn’t accumulate until December. When it does, chukar hunters are in business because these little birds don’t dig snow. They’ll move lower to roost and forage right under the snow line. Perfect. They’re concentrated near valley bottoms and you don’t have to wear yourself out fighting gravity 2,000 feet up.
Complete snow cover forces birds to live in it, but they’ll still look for open ground, often finding it on sunny, southern exposures and under small pines or big sage that roofs the ground. We commonly spot coveys huddled on the south side of big sage, soaking up the sun or scratching through the skiff of snow to reach seeds, green plants and dirt. When the sun is low, it casts strong shadow in little bird tracks. With a binocular you can easily spot the worming trails of a chukar covey on a snowy slope.
When pursuing snowbound chukars, start low even if snow is deep. Chances are the birds dropped as far as they could as the snow got deeper, and it will likely melt first at low elevations. In new country, drive slowly and watch road edges for tracks. Chukars often loiter along sandy and gravel roads that don’t see a lot of traffic.
Tom Clayburn and I cruised one such road in Idaho last January and discovered a maze of tracks that led to a couple of coveys, both within shotgun range of the road. They quickly scattered, of course, and led us on not-so-merry chases up and down the sagebrush slopes. It was great late-season exercise and resulted in just enough chukar breasts to lure us back for another try. That’s typical of chukars. They’re such teases.
A Final Point
Old Tilly survived her dehydration episode and went on to pin many more chukars and Huns, including one covey that sailed through a narrow gap in a ridge, beyond which the uplands plunged nearly vertically into Hell’s Canyon. We approached that gap reluctantly. I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow that covey to Hell, but maybe a little ways in.
As we neared the entrance, my old setter fixed on point well over 100 yards from the gap. I hadn’t seen any birds drop out of the covey, so maybe there was a second bunch? An easy opportunity? I walked up, kicked the grass, found nothing, sent Tilly forward—and she pointed again. And again. We beat that cover right into the gap before I concluded she was pointing scent washed off the original covey as it sailed through. What a nose.
Amazing feats of olfactory showmanship are just one reason to gird your loins and tackle chukars. In any season.
Just play it smart.