Chukar hunters are masochists, mostly. You have to be to tackle the brutal terrain these birds call home. The elevation isn't necessarily nosebleed territory, but the angle of repose can be positively deadly—or at least painful. Add boulders, cliffs, broken rocks, cactus and rattlesnakes, and you're beginning to paint an ugly picture.
Except it's beautiful. Absolutely stunning, dramatic and gorgeous country, with hard-flying birds that arise in coveys of six to several dozen, providing more shooting in 4 seconds than some upland birds do in a day.
"Here's a point. Move in," Dave Lockwood called down.
"Uh, how?" There was a cliff between the dog and me.
"Can't you get around?"
"Not in this zip code. You'd better handle it."
"I'll try to push them over you."
He did, too, a dozen birds whirring up around him, then plunging like feathered rocks on either side of me. I went for one, rejected him for a closer one, then missed both.
Welcome to chukar hunting.
It isn't always that bad, of course, or no one would do it—at least not more than once. It's the more gradual slopes, the more accessible birds and the more reasonable shots that keep you coming back for more, if not for revenge.
Chukars are native to the mountains of Asia and the Middle East. I've actually hunted them in Kyrgyzstan, where their living rooms are remarkably like their adopted homes in Idaho. Same vertical terrain. Same dry, short vegetation, grass mixed with shrubs. Same rocks and boulders. Same mountain streams. Same gravitational challenge.
Over here one looks for three things to find chukars: steep, dry slopes; rocky or cliff-like escape cover; and cheatgrass. While chukars will eat a variety of leaves, roots, seeds and insects, they thrive on the short, annual weedy cheatgrass that came over from their home country. Thus, you find them in parts of Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state. Maybe California and Arizona, too, though I haven't checked there. Idaho, Oregon and Washington state are their strongholds, especially along the Snake River, where you find their habitat in spades. And much of it is wide open to public hunting as part of your national forests and BLM grounds. Perfect.
"Let's try this canyon area," Alan Sands suggested as he circled a gnarly looking series of topographical features on a map of southwest Idaho. As a former BLM upland bird biologist, he's seen the best and worst of chukar country, but he's always willing to explore more. "I know this creek holds at least some water year 'round, and the area is certainly cliffy enough. Shouldn't get much hunting pressure, as far away as it is."
Far? It took 2 hours to reach it. But there was no landowner to beg for trespass permission. We just drove right in. And then all heaven broke loose.
I won't even mention the amazing landscape that looked like a miniature Grand Canyon. Or the herds of mule deer and pronghorns we spooked. I'll cut right to the flock of striped-flanked chukars that dashed across the dirt track winding up the canyon. We drove past as if we hadn't noticed, then loosed the dogs and immediately raced for higher ground. You have to get above chukars to stop them. Otherwise you just push them higher and higher until they run over the top and either flush down the back side or wait until you arrive, then flush back over your head and down to where you started. And you have to stay far enough away that they don't know you're circling to get the drop on them. The more they've been hunted, the farther that distance must be, sometimes clear out of sight.
This time, opening weekend, we hung back a couple hundred yards, just enough to get above about a third of the covey. Sands' German shorthair locked up, we stepped up and three gray birds rose with a clatter as if something were the matter. Instead of taking the usual plunge downhill, they paralleled the slope. Easy shots, and we cleaned up. While Sassy ran for the retrieve, we heard other birds flushing above us. Some had made the escape. But Sota, my English setter, appeared to have at least one more pinned below us. Yee haw! Chukars on the downhill run. It doesn't get better than that.
In an average day's hunt we collect three to five birds apiece, and on a good day we'll lug home five to eight. At about a pound each, that's a lot of tender, tasty white meat. We often fry them right on the camper stove, sleeping out to be ready for the next day's chase … if we're not too beat up to try it. After truly tough chukar hunts, two Ibuprofen, a hot tub and a day off seem the more sensible option. To minimize climbing effort, we drive high and hunt down to another rig left at the bottom. During early season, birds congregate near water, so you can work along streams and rivers. Start high, where birds sleep for the night, then head lower toward midday when they hike down to water. Look also for springs, green spots on otherwise yellow, dry slopes. Often two or three local coveys headquarter around springs.
When a covey awakens at dawn, they'll preen or sit warming in the sun if it's cold. Soon they begin foraging, often on fairly flat, grassy spots. The roughest, rockiest parts of their home range are generally reserved for loafing and escape cover. Hunt the easier, vegetated places for feeding birds. When you find one covey, try to stay on that level, side-hilling to find more birds. Especially if there's snow up high, chukars seem to gravitate to a certain elevation. Side-hilling is easier than climbing up and down, too. Our motto is, "Don't give up elevation unless you've pinpointed a covey, even if only by sound."
Chukars call a lot. Chuck, chuck, chukkar arrr arrr arrr, saying their names over and over. Triangulate this by splitting apart from your buddies and pointing where you think you hear the sound. Cliffs and canyons can sometimes fool you. I usually carry 8-ounce Zeiss or Leica compact binoculars with which to glass distant slopes, too. While calling, these crazy birds often perch on rimrock or boulders. You can glass for them like mule deer, and then plan an approach and stalk in. Coming over the top of a ridge usually fools them, but the diving shots are tough. Try to pinch coveys, with hunters approaching from top and bottom. Or, better yet, use a dog on top. I've heard of dogs that circle above climbing chukars to stop them until master slogs up from below, but I haven't been fortunate enough to hunt over one yet. When forced to flush uphill, chukars rise rather slowly for easy climbing shots. Once they catch gravity and dive, all bets are off. Tough shots.
Plenty O' Firepower
You don't need huge guns and payloads, but firepower is useful. I used to hunt with over-and-unders, but got frustrated standing flatfooted with an empty gun while a dozen more birds flushed at my feet after I'd wasted two rounds at the first wild flusher. These days I pack a 51 2-pound Franchi AL48 semiauto in 20 gauge, 23 4-inch chambers. Dang thing holds five rounds, and I've used all of them a time or two. Never scored with all five, but it sure felt good trying. And rounds three through five have accounted for many a bird that would otherwise have escaped. I change the choke from Improved Cylinder to Full depending on how birds are acting that day. Sometimes they're in your face, sometimes they're waving bye-bye from 40 yards. I'll start the year with No. 71 2 shot, step up to No. 6s and rarely go with No. 5s during the late season when shots are long. I've never felt a need for 3-inch loads because the shorter ones pattern just fine.
When I'm feeling generous, I'll hunt with my Ruger Red Label 28 gauge over-and-under. It's been deadly when I've been on my game. I go out of my way to resist packing a heavy gun. Try it and you'll know why. Have I mentioned how steep the hills are?
I dropped off a snowy ridge in the Oregon desert one January afternoon in pursuit of a band of chukars that had lured me up and over the top. I saw several light in open sage in what looked like the shallow end of a draw. Figured it was easy pickings. Friend Phil Shoemaker was working his way up that same draw, so we might pinch them. We did. According to tracks in the snow, my birds raced down that draw until it became a classic, steep, cliffy canyon. Phil came up, I slipped down, the dogs slammed on point, the birds flushed and the guns roared. And roared some more. Pandemonium? Not even close. We were dialed in and shooting straight and 15 chukars went home with us to prove it.
That, my friends, keeps you going back for more.