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.

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