A serving of homegrown footage courtesy of our buddy, Brian Huskey. Pour a couple fingers of brown liquor, kick back and enjoy a little off-season succor. Er, chukar, that is…
There’s half an hour of shooting light left but with the snow blowing in it might as well be midnight. A handful of chukar call from across the canyon to the half-dozen a hundred feet above me.
A few minutes ago, my young setter got an honest-to-goodness point on this covey of 15 or so birds before they broke and flushed wild.
I was above her, looking down when I saw her go on point.
I’m still out of breath from the hillside sprint toward her.
It was like being the weakest link on the seventh-grade mile-relay team all over again, pushing as hard as I could and still watching it slip away.
It wasn’t her fault though. These are tough birds, tricky in the best of conditions and difficult for even seasoned dogs to pin down.
I got close enough to see them flush at least. And we saw some light halfway up the slope where we now repose.
It was pure adrenaline that got us up here and as it starts to darken, I wonder how I’m going to get back down the snowy slope without sliding on my ass through the mud and the muck.
I can see the road at the bottom and on the other side I can just make out the hillside where we started a few minutes before.
My legs are burning from the climbing, my feet are soaking wet, the truck is parked a mile down the road and I haven’t fired a shot.
But the young dog got a point on chukar and I’ll call that a win.
So when the birds above me answer the call of their covey mates across canyon and fly directly over my head, silhouetted against the billowing white snow clouds, I don’t even raise my gun.
I didn’t come to pass shoot them.
I came to see them pointed and for now, it’s enough.
January wilts and the wind whips. It is cold and dry and barren as an old cow. No winter really, or no snow that is. Doug fir pops in the wood stove and piles of gear lie around the shop, waiting to be stowed. A wall tent, last used a month ago in chukar country, hangs loose in the barn, as if putting it away for the winter is too much, too painful. Or perhaps it is just laziness, nothing more. No special or secret meaning to a tent un-stashed. But it is there and it will stay there for a while longer.
There is one more ahead. One last trip south. The runs there this year have been a thin broth–birds few and scattered wide. Land there as dry and parched as this cold Montana range. But the season is open a few precious days in February and then it’s done. After that point it will be time to stow and clean and repair. Time to give the right knee a break, to run patches through the auto-loader, to let the dogs rest and sleep and gain weight. But there is one more hunt. A meeting with a friend you’ve hunted with hundreds of times, a person who knows your moves and pace as you know his. It is a reunion of friendships, with some drinking, some cigars, lots of laughter. Some new country too, and some old. Good dogs and big hikes. Muscles hard at season’s end and fishing season still off there so far you can’t even imagine it.
Tomorrow and the next day you load the truck and then the next day, you will turn south with 12 hours in front of the hood and then five days of hiking talus and scree, smelling the sage on the dry high desert wind, the big open. Five days. Five last days and then that’s it. There will be time enough ahead for all that other stuff. But now, one more round. And that’s it.
There are few books written about hunting chukar, and even fewer that are really well-written by someone who has dedicated a significant portion of their life to chasing and learning about them. Maybe this is a result of the fact that the group of people who really go off the deep end of chukar obsession is pretty small to begin with. Maybe it’s because many dedicated chukar hunters, much like those who really get into chasing carp with a fly rod or mountain goats with a bow, tend to be a bit different; a hermetic lot, who feel their experience has been hard won (and rightly so) and are content to let others figure it out on their own, as they did.
It may have been the inimitable Charlie Waterman who first wrote about chasing wild chukar in the West, or at least he’s the earliest I’ve come across (if anyone knows of earlier writings, I’d love to hear about them). Buddy Levy’s “Echoes in Rimrock” is also a fine read. Other than the odd chapter on chukar in more general bird hunting books here and there, there isn’t much else, aside from Pat Wray’s definitive book, “A Chukar Hunter’s Companion.”
For practical info, “A Chukar Hunter’s Companion” is hands down the best of the lot I’ve come across. It covers everything from the cultural and natural history of the bird to considerations in planning a chukar hunt, tips for success, fine-tuning for chukar dogs, thoughts on ethics, gear choices, great recipes and more. Most importantly (well, for me, anyway…), the book is engagingly and well-written, offers great practical info based on extensive, real experience, and is full of wry observation and humor.
In addition, the book contains little gems like this;
“My friend Ed Park once told me a story about a native of the country of Lebanon, a serious chukar hunter. Commitment is pretty much required for anyone who hunts chukars more than once, but this gentleman took commitment a few rungs higher…into the heady realm of devotion. During the nearly continuous military squabbles taking place between Lebanon and Syria while he was growing up, he regularly crossed over the mountains separating the two countries to hunt chukars well into Syria. On several occasions he had to hide in the rocks to evade mounted Syrian military patrols.
When questioned about his reasoning, he said simply, “Chukar hunting was a lot better in Syria.” It is an explanation chukar hunters would understand completely.”
It also happens to be the only chukar hunting book I know of with a handy, accurate test for gauging just how bad your chukar affliction has become. Useful stuff indeed, compadres.
You can find out more and order “A Chukar Hunter’s Companion” here.
It was a romantic dinner. Candlelight. A fire crackling in the woodstove, splashing orange shadows on the walls of the old ranch house. A decent Malbec. Some tunes.
And chukar. Sauteed in olive oil with an excellent mild curry paste added on low-simmer. Red peppers, cloves of garlic, slivers of sweet onion. Served on a bed of rice. Delicious white, wild meat, spiced just right. A most successful evening.
A week later, my old die-hard bachelor habits resurface. I dig in the refrigerator, find the remnants of that spectacular meal. I’d sent half home with my lady and she prudently ate it the very next day for lunch. My half I forgot about and now, like a treasure discovered at a garage sale, it resurfaces. Eureka! I’m not shoveling in microwave popcorn after all.
When was that meal anyway? I wonder, asking my canine friends. They don’t remember. Surely this has still got to be good, right? They agree. Offer to eat it for me.
Without female wisdom this night to guide me, I dive in.
I can put it on a tort! Melt some cheese! Dab a little Indian hot relish to top it off!
And so I do. And it turns out well. Nearly as delicious as the first time, with only the lovely company lacking.
Two hours later, a rumble. Hark! What was that? Distant thunder. A crack of gastric lightning! Silence rent with a sound much like a stepped-on frog. From under. Fumunder. What?! I’m tore up. Battered in a bile hailstorm!
I sprint from bedroom to bath and fling porcelain out of my way. An explosion! Then silence. A thunderclap!! Another! What?!
Two hours later, I shiver and sweat in bed, timidly sipping water, awaiting the next distant rumble and thinking: Goddamndable chukar partridge. Even in the off-season, they win. Little bastards.
The road there sings anticipation. Dogs grumble from the shell, butts and junk sniffed, dominance decided but as tentative and thin as September ice. In the cab, laughs and Dew and miles to go. This year a new place relayed by another with “don’t tell any-damn-one caution,” a place of memories yet made and you push it, this road. It stands in your way, between you and the reason, between the dogs and the birds, in the way of the canvas that awaits your paint and your brush. So you grasp steering wheel, cradle caffeinated drink in your crotch and shovel mini mart popcorn. At the end of the road, you will work it off on canyon rim and shale.
Once in a while you find a safe and lone ranch road–“no service”–and you pull down it and stand spraddle-legged and piss on cracked gumbo and tumble-weed scrap and let the pack out to piss on each other and sniff ass and walk stiff-legged around the stranger and grouch at him. Goddamnitttttttt, c’mon, Ike. Sonafabitch. And back onto the road, slab concrete beating radial in three-quarter time. When finally you hit dirt, ten hours of truck seat imprinted on your butt, BLM map folded out in your lap, camp circled in pencil, ridges marked with “CKR,” you crack the first beer and crescendo down gravel-clay. The dogs up on all four, nose to the crack-wind coming through. Wagging, whining. The blank sheet awaits your notes, maestro.
A week later the road home. Carrying one hundred pounds of Nevada gumbo in the undercarriage. One spare flat. Rock break. Cab stale cigar and jounced beer. Feet hot and damp in two-day socks. Legs tired and complaining of the hop from gas pump to steering wheel. Dogs flat and dead out, not moving for ten hours and then only to stiff-sore piss and back to bed. No whine no grumble. Founder on Winnemucca Basque, sleep in Motel Six between pipeline workers grilling Sunday dinner on homemade grills in pickup beds. Up at 3 into a gray dawn as overcast as your mood. Heading out, heading home and the road slapping on rubber . It went too quickly, this road, and a year is a long time.
It wasn’t a conscious decision; we had merely started moving in slightly different trajectories, and in this sort of country that means that before long we were almost a mile, and a deep gorge, away from each other. I look across the rim at the small figures, the even smaller brown and white dots that represented the dogs. Even at this distance it is obvious that they are covering ten times the amount of ground that the humans are.
I find reasonably stable footing amidst the slippery skateboards of sandstone talus piled atop each other, and look over the rim. Even in February, the creek flows assertively. Yes, people would have lived here, and probably would have done pretty well at it, considering the harshness that lay to the horizon beyond.
In the distance, the rooftops and glass reflections of a border gambling town can be seen. I am less than an hour hike from the road, but I know that no one has likely stood where I am in a long time. They come in vehicles of sealed, conditioned air, never leaving pavement, and head straight to the dim cacaphony of casinos where it could be any time of night or day. Indeed, this lack of any reference to time of day is the deliberate strategy from the casino’s point of view. And then, broke, satiated, guilty, elated, hungover or maybe even lucky, they get back in their cars and move on, their feet likely never touching real soil, their menthol-pickled lungs taking in as little fresh air as possible throughout the entire endeavor.
I drop below the band of rimrock and continue to parallel the ridge, the creek now audible below. Here and there are concentrations of tiny obsidian flakes on the ground, doubtless in the very same spot where they initially fell, as someone ages before fashioned a tool or killing instrument of some sort. I continue on, lost in various thoughts of the people who used to live here, losing recollection of the quarry I came here to find, not even sure exactly where my dog is. It feels good to be alone in this place, walking, consumed by the moment, surrounded by scatterings of human evidence, reminded that I am but one in a long chain that stretches way back. Something incongruous catches my eye and I bend down. A tiny chert arrowhead, perfectly formed.
I move on, still deep in thought, looking down as I pick my way along, only half-heartedly still in the hunt. Hank pops over the rim above to check on me and then disappears again.
And then suddenly, there it is.
I stand there stunned as everything around me slows and focuses in the middle, on what lies in front of me, blurred around the edges, like an old tintype. Despite the mid-day temps hovering around freezing, it is clear that the cat hasn’t been dead for long. It is also clear that this had not been a quick death; that nothing dies quickly this way. There would have been hours, if not days, of struggle, of life slowly ebbing, of creeping cold, until this. Wind moves the soft fur, and I can’t resist – I kneel down and run my fingers through it. There is this brief, purely sensory moment where my thinking, judgmental mind is as numb as the carcass before me. This incredibly soft coat. I want to continue running my hand through it and not think about anything, but thoughts begin to creep back. I stand up and wonder if the trapper is watching me from somewhere in the distance. This is easy country to remain undetected in.
I try to get it back, but the rest of the day is not the same. The usual burning desire to continue hunting and covering country has been dimmed to a flicker and all I want to do is put the gun and the rest of it all away and go sit somewhere with a flask of whiskey and a good view and not think about anything but the biting February wind chafing my face and the little chert arrowhead, smooth between my fingers.
It begins with hearing the creak of the stove door opening, with someone throwing a few sticks on the coals from last night. Before long, you hear a little crackling and periscope one eye toward the still tightly drawn opening of your sleeping bag to find a greyish hint of daylight. No one really moves much, but a gradual, collective realization that morning has arrived seems to pervade. Before long, it’s almost too warm in the wall tent to stay inside the bag, and a restlessness follows and people start to emerge. A dog stretches before curling up and laying down again, a little closer to the heat source.
Muscles are stiff, and there’s the faint remnant of retribution from last night’s whiskey, preventing much conversation. Or coordination, for that matter. An empty bottle or two get knocked over in an effort to get the coffee pot on the stove. Someone throws on boots and trips over the tent door, cursing, on a relief mission.
Presently, frying garlic and onions awake what is left of dormant senses and the mental fog begins to lift. Sausage and peppers get added to the mix and take it to a new level. Something which probably wouldn’t be funny in an otherwise full state of consciousness cracks all of you up. Soon glorious caffeine is infusing the body with fresh fire. Yesterday’s beatdown, traversing steep cliffs, slipping and falling on greasy rock, and the ensuing aches, forgotten. Tails start to wag and a cup of coffee goes over. So the day begins anew and nothing else really matters in high, windswept country where humans and dogs and chukar sometimes cross paths.
There were long hours behind the wheel. There was more snow than we’d expected. There were roads that could have stuck our vehicle for days. Roads we turned back from. There were blown shots on what should have been easy covey flushes. There was a jaw-dropping running point by a setter that has taken her craft to the level of artistry. There was cold, biting, open country wind that leaves you feeling ragged and still slightly on edge when you finally get out of it. There were practical jokes, which some found funnier than others. There was setting up camp in the dark, in the snow. There were deep discussions about the relative virtues of one cheap beer over another. There was forgotten dog food (yours truly…). There were, at the end of 3 days with the combined effort of 3 guns and 6 dogs, half a dozen chukar in the cooler.
But then, there were also moments like this: