The wind was blowing hard enough up the Snake River canyon on Monday morning to rock the pickup after I shut down the engine. The light drizzle splattered the windshield like a load of No. 9 shot with each gust.
This wasn’t a good sign for two guys and a dog getting ready to head up the basalt-studded slopes in pursuit of notoriously flighty partridge.
Chukars don’t need any more advantages. They thrive in a no-man’s land of cheatgrass, rattlers and crumbling cliffs where every step is either up, down or on sidehills that would be double black-diamond runs if they held enough snow for skiing.
But Monday was the last day of Washington’s upland bird season. My friend Jim and I were determined to give it a shot.
My English setter, Scout, immediately raced downwind – the term raced is not an exaggeration – a couple of hundred yards and then back into the wind and up to the first ridge, where he stuck a covey of Huns with a tail-to the-sky point.
He stood motionless except for the feathers of his tail fluttering like a thread-bare flag for several minutes while we climbed the slope. Jim and I set a pace that would leave us with enough gas to shoulder our shotguns on the ridge.
The wind had enabled Scout to peg the birds 40-50 yards away. We reached the dog and continued in the line of his nose another 10 yards before the covey exploded into the air a hair wild and out just beyond my comfort range.
Minutes later, Scout found them again around the point of the ridge, this time on a cliff. They flushed, hit the full force of a 30-40 mph gust and snapped at a right angle with velocity of feathered bottle rockets. The bead on my Citori over-under couldn’t get close to being on the birds much less ahead of them.
Again I didn’t even shoot. Partridge 2, hunters 0.
We turned upward, and made a wind-aided ascent. Jim smiled as he held out his arms to form a sort of sail. Chukar hunters rejoice at any rare advantage against gravity.
Scout performed well, although the strong winds led to a few false points, or at least we thought so.
Once we skidded toward a point far below us with our eyes watering like the springs bubbling out of the basalt hillside. No birds were there when we arrived and released Scout, but we weren’t sure if they’d simply flushed wild.
“I couldn’t see my eyes were watering so bad,” Jim said.
And the howling wind would have washed out any wing sound.
Indeed, both of us were nearly blown off our feet several times as we wobbled on loose rocks. We looked down on the Snake River to see the wind sometimes ripping the surface into spouts of water that shot 100 feet high.
A third of the way up toward the rim, a covey flushed straight out from the hillside scree. One partridge folded as I shot, but its momentum carried it more than 100 yards farther down and out of sight.
Scout made the nearly vertical plunge and disappeared, too. I started side-slipping down to start looking, but Scout soon scratched his way back up and into sight with the bird in his mouth. Good dog. The rest of the say would be a bonus, birds or no birds.
We reached the top of the rim and found another covey of wild-flushing Huns in the plowed wheat stubble. Unlike Huns and pheasants, chukars have little interest in cropland. The ground must be too flat and the rocks too small for their comfort.
So we contoured away from the fields and around the rocky rims, donning our rain jackets to fend off wind and hypothermia now that we were no longer climbing.
We made our only brief stop of the 6-hour hunt to drink and eat an energy bar. I tried to call Scout back. He looked over his shoulder and continued into a finger of brush 60 yards away. I called again. He looked back again but turned around, snooped and probed, forcing his way into a thicket where he went on point just as a rooster pheasant flushed out the other side.
Scout looked back at me as if to say, “Did we come to hunt or eat?”
One thing for sure, the wind came to blow. Every 5 or 10 seconds, waterfall pouring down a basalt cliff nearby was reversed into a “waterup” by gusts that shot the stream skyward.
The partridges had not scored a shutout when the three of us finally ended our season back down at the river. But teamed with the wind and their home-field advantage, they definitely won.