I wasn’t a happy camper. Within minutes of leaving the truck, Hanna had scampered directly to the top of a ridgeline, where she seemed determined to ignore me. I whistled, called, flapped my arms like a big, red-headed galoot, but although I was certain she could see me, my 10-month-old setter pup refused to budge. Finally, seeing no other option, I tapped her electronic collar.
And she still wouldn’t come in. I tapped the collar again, hard. Yipping, she tucked her tail between her skinny legs and ran all the way back to the truck, where—finally—she seemed to recognize me. It was only then that I realized she’d simply been confused, and the collar had only made matters worse.
I was still kicking myself 10 minutes later when she pointed a covey of Huns. With juniper trees all around, these cover-adverse birds shouldn’t have been there, but that’s precisely where they were, and Hanna was holding them like a pro. The birds got up, flew directly over my head and at point-blank range I missed with both barrels.
I miss Huns all the time. But in 2 decades of hunting them, I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times a flushed covey has flown toward me. Yet there they were, a dozen birds so close they looked like russet-colored basketballs. I’d have bet my last nickel they wouldn’t have flown back at me, which brings my career-long average of failed predictions to right around 98 percent, about par for the course on these infuriatingly unpredictable little birds.
Then again, no one ever said Huns were easy. That’s certainly not for a lack of birds, because in Montana and North Dakota alone, there are enough Huns to keep a wingshooter chasing their elusive little red tail feathers for a lifetime. Nor is it for a lack of good looks. A Hungarian partridge is one of creation’s more beautiful game birds, with a rich chestnut mask that fades into a creamy gray vest sporting silky feathers so valued by fly tiers that some of them have offered to buy the skins of the birds I shoot. No, the problem isn’t curb appeal, the problem is that it can be so tough at times to actually kill one of the little buggers that those who stumble onto a covey while hunting something else—which is the way most Huns are taken—might not get to hold a bird in their hand more than once or twice a season.
There is a solution, however. It’s called a bird dog. Huns are designed from the ground up for pointers. Now, before you send letters telling me otherwise, I know perfectly well dozens of otherwise intelligent people hunt Huns with springers, Chesapeakes and Labs. A couple decades ago, when I was just getting my feet wet, I spent the better part of 2 years hunting Huns over a springer spaniel. And yes, I even managed to kill a few birds.
But buying a Brittany changed my game plan forever. No longer was I limited to following my hyperactive spaniel across miles of hillsides before putting up a covey; now my pointer did the legwork. Granted, I did plenty of walking—still do—but now I was letting the dogs figure out where the birds were, which was a good thing, as it turned out. God knows how many days I’ve hunted Huns since then, but I still can’t predict with any certainty where they’re going to be.
Hun hunting is a numbers game. Like every other game bird, the cover they prefer fits within certain parameters, but at times those parameters can be so vague they seem meaningless. Other game birds are much more cover specific. Western pheasants, for example, are most likely found near water. Blue grouse like grassy ridgelines. Chukars like rimrock and steep, grassy hillsides. Yet, I’ve found Huns in all those places and more. And on other days I can’t find them anywhere.
Last fall, my buddy John Meyer and I drove to a ranch I’ve hunted through two owners and a dozen years. It’s not a big place, maybe three or four sections of wheat bound by a swath of state land to the north and a busy highway to the south. During good years, there are a half-dozen coveys tucked into the coulees that drain a ridgeline that bisects the ranch. If we don’t find a covey on one side of that ridgeline, we almost always find one or two on the other.
That day we found all of them. The first bunch was tucked into the wheat stubble near the intersection of two fencelines, and when the dogs went on point we walked in and the birds flew off squeaking—minus one. We crossed the creek, my setter and Brittany plunging into the icy water and up the far bank, and worked the covey again in the grass above. Two points, two flushes.
When It Rains, It Pours
But we didn’t move another bird for the next 2 hours. The sun dropped, and by the time we crossed the ridgeline to the far side we were working the dogs in the rosy light of late afternoon. Then Powder, my Brittany, got birdy. We were in a dry creek bed lined with snowberries and hemlock that fanned out into an acre of grass, and as we rounded the bend we found my setter, Scarlet, locked up tight. When the covey got up, John and I both shot, and the sound startled another covey, and an instant later they went up, too. We took a few more steps and another covey flushed, squeaking to beat the band. Suddenly, there were birds everywhere.
When the smoke cleared, we had a pair of Huns on the ground, a pair of bird dogs looking for singles with bulging eyes, and the satisfaction of knowing that, for once, everything had gone just right.
That was hardly the case 2 weeks later, when I returned with another friend and ran the same dogs through the same cover. We found exactly one covey, which flew directly into the sun, prompting a futile shot from my ex-cop buddy and a streak of blue language that will probably scar that bird’s emotional development for life.
Where did they go? There’s an easy answer to that question: nowhere. They were still there, undoubtedly watching us as we walked by. But that afternoon they decided not to play ball. And that, my friends, is why Huns can be so difficult to hunt.
By almost every measure, Hungarian partridge are a superior game bird. They hold reasonably well for a pointing dog, flush hard and fast and are fine table fare, but walking into a wheat field expecting to shoot a limit of Huns is like walking into a Las Vegas casino expecting to beat the house at roulette. It might happen—it’s been done before—but I sure wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.
And then there’s this: No matter how many coveys you locate—and over the years, I’ve located plenty—sooner or later you’re going to have to walk a long, long way to get into them. That alone will keep them from ever taking the place of pheasants or ruffed grouse in the minds and hearts of the country’s bird hunters.
But now that I’ve got the bad news out of the way, here’s the good stuff: Huns aren’t impossible by any means. Throughout the West, Huns like two things: wheat fields and grass. Throw a little sagebrush into the mix and a few hillsides for the birds to run up into, and you’re looking at prime Hun habitat. Don’t make the mistake of searching for birds in the thick cover along river-bottoms; Huns need elbow room, and you’re far more likely to find them in open, sparse grasslands where they can see what’s coming to get them.
Second, get a pointing dog. Labs and spaniels, et. al., are great dogs, but hunting Huns with a flushing dog is like flying cross-country in a hang glider. Sure, you can do it, but you’ll spend an awful lot of time covering unproductive ground before you get there. Dogs that range at 300-400 yards make some people uncomfortable, but trust me, when your dog starts finding coveys you’ll get over it.
Fortunately, Huns hold surprisingly well. My dogs have held birds for 10 minutes or more. Although coveys can be anywhere from a mile into the grass to smack in the middle of a 2-mile-square wheat field, I play the percentages by working my dogs right along the border between wheat stubble and grass, letting them cast a couple hundred yards on either side, and giving them complete autonomy to work any likely looking cover they run across. Then it’s just a matter of walking until we find something.
Once your dogs find the birds, move to the point promptly. Most of the time Huns will hold, but they won’t hold forever. There’s no need to run, but don’t dawdle, either. I’ve seen over-anxious hunters go sprawling when they ran to a point, stub their toe and take a header into the rocks, sending their cute little side-by-sides skidding across the gravel. Walk past the dog, because eight times out of 10 the birds will be somewhere within 20-50 yards ahead.
When I was younger and considerably more ambitious, I used to chase every covey I saw. Sooner or later, if you flush a covey often enough, they’ll circle back to where you first put them up. Last season, in southern Oregon, my dogs put up what I thought was a covey of chukars. They flew a couple hundred yards and lit in the sage, and the chase was on. Four flushes later, we were right back where we started, and it finally dawned on me that what I’d been chasing weren’t chukars but a rogue covey of Huns, sent by God to complicate my simple life. That realization was something of an empty victory, though, since I never got close enough for shot.
On the other hand, I probably needed the exercise. And now that I know where they live, I’ll be back next season.