We’d spun and slid ourselves up a snow-covered mining road that hadn’t seen traffic since a grizzled prospector and his burro passed through over a century ago. The terrain was steep canyons and footing more rock than soil, somewhere under a foot and a half of clinging, heavy snow.
But we had the fever. Chukar fever. And for that there is no cure.
Rain or shine, hot or cold, early or late season, if you are afflicted, you go. And then you go some more. Like a junkie, your hollow eyes scan, always searching for that next oxygen-deprived fix, staring upwards, seeking … what? Enlightenment? The glimpse of a bobbing head topping the butte?
A faint “chuk-chuk” draws your ear, only to echo off rim rock until you are more confused than when you left the pavement hours – or was it days? – ago.
Play this game long enough and you run into so-called experts at local watering holes and gas stations. Many have pet theories, and most are willing to share, freely bestowing their strategies regarding what hardcore hunters call “devil birds.” But be careful, because when wisdom is proferred unearned, it is suspect.
In this case, we knew better, having run the rock-strewn gauntlet a few hundred times.
“They are always right below the snow line,” was the counsel the night before this particular visit to northern Nevada. A good starting point if there actually is a snow line, but when the heavy, wet white stuff coats the valley floor as well as the slopes, all bets are off. We saw birds on the few bare rock outcroppings, but also schooled up on snowy benches, hunkered under sage and even among the streamside willows.
But inclement weather comes in all forms, and the (um, pardon the pun) polar opposite of a winter hunt is the sweltering early season.
Hunters whose shirt-sleeve elbows are worn from leaning on a bar and whose boot soles are shiny and intact, say you can set your watch by chukars as they scamper toward water in October … 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Until you’re jumping across that creek at 1 p.m. and your ten-point-oh landing is kyboshed by a thundering flush. (Lesson learned: we weave a route that brings us between high rocky roosts and water several times per day.)
But not every chukar hunter’s advice is suspect. The best advice comes from drivers of muddy trucks with two spare tires and a jerry can of extra fuel. If their gun stock has gouges and their dog is limping, they may actually have learned among the rim rock and sagebrush of chukar country. Here are a few observations that are true more often than not.
- The old wives’ tale about finding chukars in steep terrain is generally true. Except when you surprise them on the flats above that steep terrain. And even among the nooks and crannies of desert canyons, chukars will often loaf on the benches and saddles often found there. On windy days, this is even more likely if those spots have sagebrush.
- They run uphill when you chase them, and just about when you catch up they fly back down that same hill.
- There is almost always a sentinel bird perched on a rock, ready to sound the alarm when danger approaches.
- There is usually a straggler, too stupid – or is it too smart? – to fly when the covey flushes. Smart hunters save one round for this “gimme” bird.
- They go down soft. Unless you’ve centered them with a load of high-base number sixes, birds will lock wings and glide hundreds of yards. Often, they’ll run when they do land. Invest in a good retriever and save yourself some climbing.
- “Don’t give up altitude” is a mantra among spindly-legged chukar chasers. If you find birds just below the summit, sidehill the entire mountain at that elevation. Another covey may be just around that rocky point.
There are many more, but the lessons have a certain piquancy, are more relevant, when you learn them personally. When you are sweating and swearing your way up a hill where every three steps up are robbed by the two slides down you learn the most important axiom: the first time you hunt chukars is for fun, after that, it’s for revenge.