YAKIMA – A day hike along Yakima County’s steep and rocky hillsides offers a tough fitness test in a harsh environment.
Many find it worth the hard work, especially when the reward of chukars awaits. Few know that thrill better than Mitch Rohlfs, a Pennsylvania native in his 36th year of hunting the colorful, resilient chukar partridge.
“It’s like walking into a minefield,” Rohlfs said. “You know the mine is going to go off, but you’re not sure which step.
“But you walk in front of that point and all of a sudden the world explodes and there’s birds in the air all around you, and if you have any sporting blood in you at all, that is an adrenaline spike.”
Rohlfs bagged the daily limit of six birds when he went out for his fourth time this year last week at the Yakima Training Center, covering about 10 1/2 miles while his two dogs searched for birds over the course of 4 hours. That’s actually on the low end of his typical mileage, and he’s looking forward to another good year, thanks to all the snow in February and March that created good habitat for the spring.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Jeff Bernatowicz agreed in his annual hunting prospects, noting bird populations should be highest in the north and western portions of the Yakima and Kittitas county district where snow was deepest and spring temps the lowest. Hunters in Yakima County harvested an average of 1,811 chukars from 2014-18, the state’s second-highest total behind Chelan County.
It’s the only type of game that has seen a steady increase over the past five years, thanks largely to population growth. Rohlfs said chukar numbers peaked in the ’70s before finding an equilibrium, but they can still oscillate quite a bit depending on weather conditions.
The Yakima Valley provides numerous opportunities for avid chukar hunters, although Rohlfs said the best places in America to hunt the birds brought to the west from Europe and Asia are Nevada, eastern Oregon, southern Idaho and parts of Utah. For reasons not entirely clear to him, though, interest in chukar hunting seems to be fading in Washington.
Perhaps it’s because chukars prefer to live in rugged desert and semi-arid mountain ranges, keeping high on the rocky slopes. Rohlfs said that makes them the area’s most difficult upland game bird to hunt, tougher than the plentiful quail or even the hard-to-find pheasant that live in generally flatter areas.
They can be found on public lands throughout the region, and Rohlfs tries to stick to warmer, south-facing slopes, especially after mid-November. Some of his favorite places to hunt include Rattlesnake Ridge, Mount Clemans, the Wenas and LT Murray wildlife areas, and the Yakima Training Center.
YTC wildlife program manager Colin Leingang said chukars are the most sought-after upland game birds on the training center. Hunters harvested 258 chukars there last year, down from 331 in 2017 largely because of limited public access.
Leingang said unusually heavy usage will continue this fall, so hunters won’t often be allowed in many areas until December, toward the end of the 107-day chukar season that concludes Jan. 20. They must also purchase a $25 YTC Outdoor recreation card along with their $43.50 small game license from the state and follow additional regulations beyond what the wildlife department requires.
“Understand that our primary mission here is to train soldiers and so that training schedule really dictates that available access from day to day,” Leingang said. “That’s especially true this year.”
He also acknowledged that fires – such as the Boylston, Saddle Mountain and Range 12 – in recent years have significantly damaged prime chukar habitat. Bernatowicz said the rapidly disappearing shrub steppe represents the greatest long-term threat to the red-beaked, white-throated birds that need cover for their nests and winter survival when snow falls.
It takes patience and persistence to find places where the coveys are hiding. Rohlfs has found a 12-gauge shotgun with 6-shot shells gives him the best results once they take to the air. He also relies heavily on his disciplined German longhaired pointers, although Rohlfs said some chukar hunters don’t consider dogs a necessity.
“The only way I could describe them would be masochists who just really get off on failure,” Rohlfs said, noting that strategy would be a little more effective early in the season when birds are concentrated around water or later when snow reveals tracks that can be followed.
Rohlfs grew up hunting big game and other birds with his father before benefiting from a valuable mentor when he moved from Auburn, Alabama, to Auburn, California, shortly after earning a doctorate in philosophy in 1983. Don Wescott taught Rohlfs how to find chukars while hiking rough terrain in the Sierras.
Those hunting trips often provided memorable glimpses of other wildlife and scenery, making the trip worthwhile even on unsuccessful days. Rohlfs agrees with the common adage that it’s rare to find a casual chukar hunter since it’s so addictive. The 66-year-old said he’s surprised few young people seem to be drawn to the sport.
“It doesn’t really take much in the way of money,” Rohlfs said. “Basically a good pair of boots, a shotgun and a dog, and then it’s public ground and it’s a game where fitness is really helpful.”
WDFW doesn’t keep track of the demographics of chukar hunters, but Bernatowicz said the amount of chukar hunters has remained stable statewide. Like nearly all kinds of hunting, the long-term trend indicates a decline.
Rohlfs wants to help raise interest and plans to keep seeking out the rewards of a long day looking for chukars. When he’s lucky enough to find a covey of 35 birds like the one he stumbled upon last week, it can provide a main course of white meat he ranks just below quail.
“They are challenging and they eat great,” Rohlfs said. “When you bang out a 15-mile day on the hill and you realize not just anybody could have done this today, you’re proud of yourself.”
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