Sunday, November 18, 2018

Great piece by Greg Munther especially cause my name is in it. Hunting…When the Dog is Too Pooped to Pose
Too pooped to pose.

Chukarland.  The steepest, most arid, often overgrazed and neglected lands of the West were adopted by these beautiful imported birds from the Middle East.   Cheatgrass, chukar’s staple food, is an undesirable range grass invader which thrives on overgrazed and burned over lands. But sometimes chukars’ favorite refuge slopes are simply too steep, too dry, and lacking soils to grow much of anything.   The lands chukars thrive in were those previously rejected by early homesteaders due to the steepness, shear rock walls, scarce water and nearly non-existent soils. Fortunately, these lands were retained as your public lands, and any hunter has ample opportunities for pursuing chukars in many Western states.  
Upper elevation of chukar habitat.  We found chukars at nearly 6000 feet, well above this site.
Devilbird is the moniker most birdhunters eventually mutter to describe chukars, as these same hunters sweat, pant and reach for their nearly empty water bottles they toted up a few thousand feet.  Chukars may smile as they normally run up slopes that we can only crawl up in pursuit. Then, without effort and just before we get close enough for a shot, they fly off down and around mountainsides disappearing  like Starwar’s jedis. Loaded with nearly a box of shells, water, minimal emergency gear, and dog electronics the hunting vest is nearly 20 pounds, plus the shotgun is scratched and dented from falls. Friend Larry has had four major repairs or replacements on his shotgun stock in the last six years.  Proper footgear is necessarily heavy on deep tread and strong ankle support to trek where chukars are hopefully found. Normally a day of chukar hunting involves a climb of thousands of feet up and down plus slips and slides on slopes where a toehold or the edge of your boot sole catching on something solid is what is between you and a steep, rock filled tumble.    While I often despise the damage caused from cattle on public land, a scant cattle path across a steep mountainside heading in the desired direction is appreciated and rarely bypassed
This is country that challenges any field dog.   A couch potato dog’s feet without toughened pads will likely come home footsore with cuts or pads worn to raw flesh.  Cheatgrass awns can penetrate eyes, ears, nose and in between toes that, if unremoved, can be fatal. Pointing dogs, including German shorthairs, English pointers, setters, wirehairs and Brittany spaniels are usually the breeds of choice in chukar country.   Long legged, slender dogs capable of 20 miles plus each day best fit the bill. Keeping weight on an oft-hunted chukar dog is a challenge. High fat and high protein content foods are the norm.
Oakley is typical of breeds fit for chukar hunting  . Shorthairs, pointers, setters and brittanys are among the favorite breeds of chukar hunters.

The perfect chukar hunting day is cool to cold to facilitate both hunter and their dogs climbing many hours of climbing in open sun.  Early season hunting can end by midmorning as temperatures often climb into the 80s. Shade is nearly non-existent. Late in the season frozen ground makes the ever present steep sidehills even more treacherous.  Its huge country so a steady breeze helps bring chukar scent to the dog for more than a hundred yards. A dog typically covers at least three or four times as much distance as it’s human partner. Scanning the slopes for the steepest slopes with outcrops or rock ledges is a good place to start.  Often hunted birds fly out of range, so more remote, unhunted coveys are preferred. While most seasoned chukar hunters have their favorite slopes, watching for fresh droppings can confirm their recent presence. Experienced chukar hunters mentally record the aspect, elevation and vegetation where chukars or their droppings are encountered, and seek more of the same. While chukars are often tied to water sources early in the season, a fall rain can bring grass greenup and supply moisture allowing chukars to spread out over several thousands of feet vertically and into habitats not used when dry.   This year we found birds scattered over four thousand vertical feet once there was some greenup.
Chukar nest under bunchgrass  on north slope
For most of us, the dogs are why we are there.   Lucy, nearly 10 years old, never fails to amaze how businesslike she hunts.   She and I have hundreds, if not thousands of bird encounters together over nearly ten years.  With nose high in the air, she can detect a bird covey’s faint scent up to a couple of hundred yards and then systematically narrows the scent cone as she gradually closes to a solid point. If the bird moves, her nose goes to the ground to track where they headed.   Once her tail no longer wags on point, you’d best get your gun into shooting position. And her retrieves are nearly flawless. During a recent short afternoon hunt for huns Lucy and I crossed a relatively gentle slope searching for a hun covey. The intent was to make her day complete after staying behind while Oakley and I hunted.   Her covey find and point was flawless as expected, and I was fortunate to shoot a double, both birds falling a good distance below us. Lucy pursued, but didn’t return as soon as I expected. When I went down the hill I found she had both huns lined up neatly next to each other, apparently trying to figure out how to carry both birds up to me at the same time.  
Lucy finishing a long retrieve

On another day Lucy and I had been on the return route of a warm brutal late afternoon hunt over very steep rocky terrain filled with ledges.  We were moving slowly due to both fatigue and numerous rocky outcrops. I managed a crippling but not fatal shot on a tucked, rocket-like bird barreling down a steep ravine.  The steepness and momentum carried the bird far down the ravine. The situation looked hopeless to me, but Lucy saw the bird falling and headed down after the bird. The scent trail of the wounded bird took Lucy at least 300 yards and at least 300 vertical feet down the rock filled ravine.  Minutes later I was amazed when I looked far down and spotted Lucy with the bird, slowly weaving through the rock outcrops toward me. Halfway up she was too exhausted to continue and layed down next to the bird. Knowing she would not stop unless absolutely exhausted, I started working my way through the outcrops and scree to meet her.   Then amazingly I saw her in motion as she again cut the distance in half before laying down again. When I finally reached her she layed next to me and drank our remaining water. I gave her a long appreciative hug reminiscing the nearly 10 years of amazing moments we have shared. May her hunting life never end.
This year I was somewhat desperate to get my year and half old German shorthair Oakley onto some wild birds.  I obtained Oakley from Bigfork trainer Doug Tweto. At 13 months with some basic training, Oakley had few bird encounters and no wild bird experiences.   I was able to provide some experiences pointing and retrieving a couple of captive pigeons and a few scarce local Hungarian partridge. In 2018 the bird opportunities in Montana were very limited. Tough winters, unusually dry summers, and cold wet springs left us with scanty wild birds across the state.  Fortunately, chukars and huns can be found a couple of hundred miles away and had good hatch this year. So this year meant three weeklong trips over a month’s time.
As we close out this year’s 15 days of chukar and hun hunting , Oakley is becoming what I had hoped she would become.  For training purposes I have tried to keep her in sight to better monitor her behavior. Beyond 150 yards and out of sight  she can become too independent for my training preferences, so I continue to work on range containment for now, knowing it costs me some covey finds.  Fortunately she has abandoned the summer meadowlark points she was reduced to when we couldn’t find gamebirds. She now responds strongly and decisively to the scent of huns, grouse, pheasants and chukars.   She has located many coveys at least 200 yards upwind and narrowed the scent cone into solid points. She can occasionally creep to relocate on her own, but almost always after I give her a release command. At the beginning of the season she was retrieving everything everything well, except birds.  I tried frozen huns, pheasant and hun wings, and even pheasant skins over dummies without success. Perhaps the nibbling of anything with feathers was a fascination with the scent or the texture of the feathers. Resorting to reward biscuit treats for a retrieve and a lot of patience seemed to finally help.  Now she normally performs some level of bird retrieves, and occasionally to hand. And often to my surprise some amazingly long retrieves on lightly wounded birds. Fittingly, her last chukar retrieve was perhaps the best. My shot had lightly wing clipped a chukar which fluttered downhill at least 150 yards into heavy grass, but Oakley hadn’t been in a position to see the bird go down.  Once I called her over upwind she picked up the scent and after a couple of relocations she had the bird pinned. However, before I could get to her, the bird took flight to fly low into some nearby extremely heavy brush that was inpenetrable to me. She disappeared into the thick brush in pursuit and disappeared for some time . I feared she may lose the bird or catch it but not retrieve it.  I used the GPS on her collar to determine where she was a couple of times, but could not see her. Finally I heard her steps and there she came with the still alive chukar and brought it to hand. What a fitting way to end the chukar season.
Oakley on point on a small covey in typical chukar terrain.
Of course, repeat, long term chukar hunters are a breed apart, and few and far between.  Masochists perhaps, but they have love for the big country with enough energy and drive to get off the couch and up the hill day after day.   My friendship with the Idaho chukar guru, Larry Szurgot, has fondly developed over several years. He has willingly mentored me on the ways of chukar and supported me positively when needed, including a recent shooting slump.  No matter how far or high I go, Larry is higher and further. When I hear his supercharged shells in his 12 gauge Citori I have little doubt he has been successful on another bird. His GSP dogs, seasoned Jake and youngster Grady make quite a team,  and a game vest full of chukars are the norm for those three. Also, Idahoan native Jeff Barney took time to share one of the most spectacularly scenic and productive chukar hangouts, and taught me that chukar listening and followup pursuit is an effective hunting strategy.   His gift of beautiful photos are already framed for long term memories. Fellow Montanan Brian Riggers and his lab Misty joined me to cover chukar hills with gusto, and Brian even managed to forgive Oakley for helping herself to a pile of dead birds in his truck for her amusement.  


Chukarchaser62 said...

Greg, I have been reading about you on Larry's post and am hoping I can still chase these beautiful birds and enjoy the solitude, scenery and dog work into my 70's and beyond. Very much enjoyed your post and thank you for sharing. I grew up in Whitefish so your Bigfork bred GSP is of interest, my old girl is nearly 11. She had a great chukar season and locked down a ton of birds for us, I too had some poor shooting and had to work through it....hint....more miles,shells and vertical:):)
Do you live in NW Montana?
Cheers - Rich

Greg said...

I live in Missoula. Call me anytime or

Larry said...

Great story Greg. Thanks for writing it and thanks Larry for posting it! Nice to know it is possible to keep on Chukar hunting!! Inspiring for sure!