It’s the tension, three-toed tracks by the waterhole and a bird hidden in the bunchgrass. It’s the ache you feel in your muscles, a blur of wings and the thump of the gun.
By Gary Lewis
Seth O’Hare, 32-years-old, was on the first bird hunt of his life. In one hand he held a borrowed Remington 870 and in the other he held a bird aloft. He had just made a beautiful shot on a towering rooster pheasant.
“Can you do this without a dog?”
“You can, but it’s a lot harder.”
On the other side of a strip of sagebrush, Chavis Heath watched Liesl, my pudelpointer pup as she worked ahead, her nose into the wind.
While we walked - while the dog quartered back and forth and pointed and shook her head when we missed and trailed them when we didn’t - I thought about what it takes to become an upland bird hunter.
A few years ago in these pages, I wrote about sheep hunting and the dedication and finances it takes to hunt bighorns. Outfitter and guide Bryan Martin told me, “Going sheep hunting is like going to the Ferrari dealership. If you want to own a brand new Ferrari, you’re going to have to earn a great deal of money.”
Getting set to be a chukar hunter is like shopping for a horse in your grandpa’s barn. There might be a pony he’d let you ride for free, but you’ll have to buy a bag of oats to “get her going.”
The funny thing about the comparison is that chukar hunting takes a person to some of the same places sheep hunters go.
On this hunt I was with a group who do business with the Carson Company in western Oregon. They had driven from the wet side of Oregon, over to the dry side for a hunt with TREO Ranches.
On the first day we shot sporting clays. We each emptied half a dozen boxes, about 150 rounds apiece. The jitters were long gone after the pounding we took on ten stations.
A couple of guys had not hunted pheasants since they were in their teens. A few more said they had never hunted birds in their lives. Several had to look at pictures on my iPad to get an idea what a chukar looked like.
A Transplant from the Himalayas
If you are not acquainted with the bird, this transplant from Eurasia makes its living on another transplant from the same region: cheatgrass. Where you find the best cheat, you’ll find the birds.
From the flats to the tops of the cliffs, you may find chukar anywhere, but certain types of cover hold more birds. Look for features that seem out of place: where the green shows against a dry brown hillside, where a bump in the ground provides a little shelter from the wind, or a rocky outcropping on an otherwise bare hill.
On dry days, chukar go to water, feeding downslope in the morning. Look for their track in dried mud near a waterhole, for their feathers in hollowed-out dusting bowls and for droppings in the shadow of a rock wall.
As a general rule, chukar run uphill and fly downhill. Hunters do well to hunt down from above, or find the level where the birds are feeding and follow the chow line sidehill.
This hunt was the first real test of the new season for my dog, Liesl. My pudelpointer was 22-months-old. What she lacked in seasoning, she made up for with heart.
We started away from ranch headquarters. Rod Logue, Mike McMurren, O’Hare, Chavis Heath and I headed into the canyon while the other group hiked the opposite direction.
We walked a hundred yards and felt a slight breeze began to build. Liesl quartered back and forth then locked up, tail rigid, one foreleg off the ground. Her eyes burned a hole through tangled trunks of sage.
The first bird was a rooster and we missed it. The bird banked and turned and hit the ground running two hundred yards away. Next we flushed a pair of chukars and missed them both.
Hunting with the young guys caused me to reflect back to when I packed a shotgun and a couple of friends along and we walked up our first chukars with the help of a sedentary black Lab.
It is still as simple as that. And this year’s bird numbers - chukar, Hungarian partridge, quail, pheasant, and forest grouse - across the West make this a good season to get started. Chukar and Hungarian partridge offer late season opportunities after other hunts have closed.
Bird Hunting on a Budget
Here’s a step-by-step, cost-conscious approach to bird hunting on a budget. And there are still places to hunt in January and beyond.
1. Pick up a copy of the Bird Hunting Regulations for one of the western states. I recommend Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, or Washington. Go online to look at pictures of chukar to make sure you know what the quarry looks like.
2. Buy a license and an upland bird validation. Approximately $40.00 for residents.
3. Buy, beg, or borrow a shotgun. A good place to start is with a Remington 870 pump-action. New they run $349.99, but a person can pick up a used one for a bit less.
5. Find a place to hunt. State wildlife areas offer public land access to good populations of upland game. Another good option is private grounds enrolled in access programs like Oregon’s Access and Habitat program, which has provided hunter access to over 7 million acres.
6. Plan to visit a licensed bird hunting preserve. Budget $125 to $300 per day. Perhaps the guide is a bit of a shooting coach. Try to pick up a few tips on good shooting form. Hunt with a friend and keep in mind - upland bird hunting is about good manners and sport - there is an etiquette to observe when hunting with partners.
You might need a dog if you are headed into the chukar hills. A grouse hunter can get by without a pooch, but those of us who hunt chukar with pointers or flushers can’t imagine it any other way.