Montana Headwall » Head Trip

I’m gonna get you Chukar

Old hands, young dogs and a search for the elusive upland bird

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For most of two decades, a single line in the Montana Upland Bird regs has annually piqued my curiosity: “Chukar partridge occur primarily in Carbon County.”

I’d moved to Montana in my twenties, and amid the embarrassment of autumn’s outdoor riches I never did get around to trying for chukar. But every year I encountered that line in the regs and knew it was something I would eventually do. I think the temptation involved the rush of discovery and wanting to sample every facet of the Treasure State’s trove. I knew the species thrives on a rimrock terrain I’d never hunted upon, and I knew as well that a near-cult exists around chukar hunting in Idaho and Oregon. A certain type of fairly far-gone bird hunter considers it the pinnacle of the upland hunting experience.

I thought of that cult status when I set out last October for an Absarokee-area antelope hunt. I called the regional FWP desk to see if it might be worth my while to add a bird-hunting day along the Wyoming border. The biologist in that office, Shawn Stuart, turned out to be a dedicated chukar hunter, but he hadn’t been out for them that season—at least not yet.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Tyler Pfiffner

“Snakes,” he explained. “They’re everywhere. Even if you don’t step on one, your dog will.”

He said it’d be better to wait until later in the season, after the rattlers went into hibernation. He added that if I really wanted to get into chukar, I should head west into Idaho, where they abound in the canyons along the Salmon River. I was aware of this, but something about that line in the regs had its fangs in me.

“Believe me, I get it,” Stuart said. “You have to experience Montana too.” He went on to tell me that the year before, he’d managed to kill just two chukar partridges.

As I headed to Absarokee, I kept hoping the weather would turn in time to drive the snakes to ground, but it didn’t. I made the long drive ahead of the pronghorn opener on an Indian-summer day, the sun yellowing the world through the glass of the pickup. An hour from my destination the sky began to darken, at first with nightfall, then with the black descent of a storm.

The state’s lower tier had been choked by drought for months, so the irony of cranking the top on my rickety 1983 pop-up in a sudden whiteout felt less like an answer to local prayers than some kind of personal jab from Mother Nature.

But I found myself on this seemingly luckless night camped beside what might be termed a godsend—a retired utilities lineman who towered not unlike a power pole himself. He introduced himself as Huck Hutson, a name the writer in me could only take as a sign that things were figuratively looking up as well.

“You brought it with you,” he chuckled, in an understated drawl that betrayed a Texas childhood. “We haven’t had a drop since Memorial Day.”

By coincidence, or maybe synchronicity, the ranch I’d signed on to hunt for antelope the next day belonged to Huck’s son. He invited me to his fifth-wheel for a visit. We talked bird dogs and guns, archaeology and books. And Larry McMurtry. I’d guessed correctly on Texas—Huck was born and raised there, in the same region as McMurtry. I told him I had a bird dog named Gus, after the hero in Lonesome Dove. Huck laughed and said his son’s saddle horse had the same namesake.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Tyler Pfiffner

The talk eventually turned to chukar. Huck told me he’d spent 40 years in Carbon County and had nearly foresworn pheasants altogether to chase chukar around the desert south of Belfry. He told me chasing the masked bombers was a young man’s game, that a working life climbing power poles had ruined his knees for the canyons. He told me he missed chukar hunting.

By the end of my stay that weekend, I’d made a friend. I knew I’d be back, not least because Huck offered to meet me in December in his old haunts and point me into the hills after his birds.

Two months passed. I hauled two hunting dogs and the pop-up to Bridger on an oddly balmy December evening. Midway through the night the wind roared in like a Mongol horde, filling the canvas like a bellows and disrupting my sleep, finally driving me early out of the sleeping bag.

Huck couldn’t meet that first day so I set out alone, the wind bending the sage along the highway, trash flapping like prayer flags from the barbed-wire fences. The analogy struck me as apt. The chukar has a native range from Nepal and the Himalayas, across India and on to Afghanistan. Early British adventurers shot the species for sport on its home turf. American game offices planted the bird here in the 1930s, establishing a hard-flying quarry in the rock canyons of the West.

South out of Belfry the country turned to desert, rough-and-tumble BLM ground dedicated to well pads and scorched-earth grazing. A ribbon of creek wound through a canal along the roadway—otherwise the land rose out of the basin in boulders and reefs and stone palisades.

I popped the door and a gust wrenched it to its hinges. I looked across the flattened sage at the brittle quivering salt cedar along the wash and actually had second thoughts. But the dogs whimpered in their crates; I’d brought them a long way. I pulled my vest and gun out of the truck.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Tyler Pfiffner

I’d left my old veteran bird dog, Gus, back home in order to work two very young dogs, French Brittany brothers named Chief and Hubert (the latter, after the patron saint of hunting, rhymes with au pair). I wanted to give these rookies one last crack in their inaugural year.

We worked through the salt cedar along the creek, a no-man’s-land of scratch and scrape and prod, then back up into the wind’s slap to an endless view of limestone jumbles and sand. The terrain was all violent pitch and broken contour.

After three hours the gale blew all three of us back to the pickup. I hadn’t seen a sign of game birds and I owed the dogs at least some chance. I trucked back toward Bridger to public ground with the unmistakable look of pheasant habitat.

Here the wind blew in fits and starts. The bank along the river showed signs of habitat restoration, scores of Russian olives bulldozed into mountains of slash, green fruit strewn across the ground. In the dust was also the unmistakable dinosaur-stamp of pheasant prints. The dogs got a blast of scent and began to work like veteran chasseurs.

We worked the trees along the water. With the dogs birdy I tried to ready myself, and as always was only partly successful, only partly collected when a rooster blasted not from ground cover but out of a tree, sailing for safety across the river.

The gun bucked. The bird came down in the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone. I watched it drift and bemoaned the absence of Gus, an old hand at water retrieves. As it was, three minutes of goading the pups into a winter swim got me nowhere. Finally I tore at bootlaces and socks and, ignoring thoughts of broken glass and fishhooks, started wading.

The water stabbed at my legs like an icepick. I tried both to balance and to keep my Carhartts above my knees and quickly jettisoned the latter goal, wincing ahead across the cobble.

Hubert powered by me with the easy glide of a muskrat. He flinched to encounter the pheasant. “Fetch,” I wheezed, and beat feet for shore the second he seized the prize. Saint Hubert was evidently on my side.

My pants dried in the wind within an hour. The boys put up a second rooster, which I shot and knocked askew over a cattail slough, shot again and marked down near a cluster of downy heads.

The needle is of course relative to the haystack. This particularly dense area stretched acres each way. I locked my eyes on that specific cluster of cattails and crashed forward, checking the safety by feel, fumbling blind in my shell bag for rounds.

I got to the markers and shoved dead stalks aside, saying, “Dead bird, dead bird,” like a skipping record, hoping to teach my young etudiants something they might carry forward. Chief was beside me, Hubert rustling invisibly a few feet away. Then the rustling quit. I gave it five seconds and pushed ahead. He’d frozen on point above the dead bird.

I made sure Chief got a good noseful of his brother’s trophy and told him he’d better look alive. And he did. With the breeze in his face he worked the tall grass, nose to the ground, tail like a metronome cranked to some speed-metal setting. In no time Hubert got into the act as well. Both dogs engaged in that crisscrossing charge usually reserved for galloping pheasant.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Tyler Pfiffner

I jogged to keep up and huffed onto a knapweed-corrupted rise. The dogs kept on, running rings around each other. They climbed another bench and disappeared from sight. I heard Chief’s unmistakable barking frenzy and was thinking Either he’s put up the bird or he’s jumped a deer, when a mature rooster shot over like a Chinese rocket and removed all doubt.

I was stupidly congratulating myself on shooting a limit when the pin clanked on the most deafening empty chamber in the world. Disaster. The rocket shrank. Evidently I’d never reloaded after dropping the first bird in the river, which left me with two shells in the magazine and none in the barrel.

The dogs charged back off the shelf after the bird and it was my turn to feel like an amateur. Then again, maybe that’s what this trip was about.

I woke the next morning to utter calm and drove to a pump station chosen by Huck Hutson as our meeting place. I knew he’d be another hour, and knew as well how to kill the time: I’d cut the motor and listen for a sound like barbed wire stretching and scraping through a rusting staple. The sound wouldn’t come from barbed wire, of course, and not from a chukar either, but from Montana’s other imported partridge: Huns.

I turned both dogs loose along that same no-man’s salt cedar along the creek. They busted the covey in minutes, the birds invisible through the warren save one, streaking like a comet through a clearing. I swung and missed with the first barrel, swung harder and connected with the second. There was a drift of feathers where all the furious momentum had just been.

Both dogs looped back. Hubert again fetched the bird and I tried, really tried, not to revel. Five minutes out of the truck and the first bird fetched to hand. It had the makings of a jinx.

A little later I saw dust roil off the roadway and heard the pop of gravel under truck tires. By the time I’d made my way out of the creek bottom, Huck had already uncased his shotgun and uncrated his Labrador. He towered over the salt cedar, or “rabbit brush,” as he called it.

“I shot my first chukar partridge at the head of that little wash, right about 42 years ago,” he said, pointing to the gash in the earth I’d just clambered from. Forty-two years ago, I’d barely clambered into the world at all.

He’d warned me already the drought had things even more parched than usual. “It’s dry ground anyway, only five inches of moisture in a normal year,” he said. This, he allowed, was as wrung-out as he’d seen it.

He pointed to an acre of bare ground, a blank bowl in the sage. It once held cheatgrass, Huck said, a vestige of the herders who used to trail sheep across the desert, camping on the same sites year after year. The patch was grazed now to the nub, but in better years such an area will predictably hold birds. Likewise the shade of an escarpment in the noon sun, or a creek bottom in morning and evening.

We hunted for hours with Huck down in the lower terrain with his vintage Winchester and white-muzzled Lab and me scrambling uphill after my crazy dogs into the Limber pines, or way up around the treacherous rim of a box canyon. Today none of those places held birds, but they all held Huck’s stories. Here is where he and his field cocker broke a covey and hunted the singles to a limit. Here is where he felt a thump on his lower leg and realized a rattler had just struck.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Tyler Pfiffner

“Only thing kept me from getting bit was my 16-inch lineman boots,” he drawled.

By lunchtime I’d begun to wonder about the likelihood of snakes even today. The temperature had climbed to the mid-60s, and Christmas felt months rather than weeks away. “I wonder if your best bet’s not the creek bottom,” Huck mused. “Dry as it is, the birds may be near water all day.”

The theory made sense. Warm day or not, the sun had that low December slant, the hours limited by the looming solstice. So I spent my afternoon crisscrossing the creek and did indeed find chukar, in coveys 10 or a dozen birds strong, three separate times as the daylight listed and finally plummeted toward dark.

I never killed one, never even mounted the gun because I was never near enough to see more than the strobe of wings flashing. I never heard the birds’ panic and the dogs never came close enough to catch a breath of scent.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Tyler Pfiffner

Anyone who spends any time chasing game birds knows the reality of wild flushers, their flight instinct honed to a hair-trigger by hunting pressure, or by predators like hawks and owls. They’re tuned always to something like existential dread. They’re birds that “get up out of range.” A biologist told me this is especially typical of chukar in used-up cover, where the birds perceive threats from what seems like miles away. By this point I was encouraged simply to glimpse them at all.

I knew the dogs were whipped from two long days, but figured after a solid sleep I could get another morning’s effort from them. December weather dictated otherwise—the wind roared again out of the night, buffeting the rickety camper. It felt like I was in a half-yurt, half-tin can, and the situation was wholly inadequate for rest. By first light a storm front glowered in the north. Chips of ice sailed like Hail Mary birdshot when I collapsed the pop-up.

I checked the forecast in a nearby café. Days of snow and gale ahead.

I drove out with coffee and no regrets. I had pheasants and a partridge. Another long hunt had mostly come together. I knew I’d be back the following autumn, and I hoped Huck would too. I’d barely scratched the surface of his stories, and I was certain he’d have more. I’d listen to as many as he cared to tell. It’s all stories, in the end, and this one wasn’t over.


Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Jonathan Marquis

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