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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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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