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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

There are no guarantees in chukar country

HELLS CANYON, Idaho – The hill looked too steep.

It was brown and pointy, and we’d have to walk straight up a big expanse of grass to reach the top. Once there, we’d have to keep walking if we wanted to find any chukars.

Progress was quick at first, and then extremely slow. Halfway up, the trek began to follow a rhythm: a few steps, a pause to curse the natural forces that formed the deepest river gorge in North America and the hills around it, then a few more steps.

My lungs were wrecked. My hunting partner, who not long ago cycled across Washington and deep into Montana, was struggling, too. His English setter, Willow, was not. She can run forever.

I knew this was what I’d signed up for. I expected the pain. I expected the sweat. I expected the regret.

I also expected that once we reached the top of any of these hills I’d forget all of it, even why I was there.

And once we finally reached the ridge, I did forget. The river glowed at the bottom of the canyon a few miles west of us. Beyond it, the canyon walls turned into a vast cordillera of mountains, stretching deep into Oregon. Rocky outcroppings colored the mountains rising to the north. I set the shotgun down and grabbed the camera.

Then Willow appeared, looping back to us after running down the backside of the hill. She kept running, her nose looking for something that smelled birdy. We followed.

Chukars, a partridge species native to the Middle East and southern Asia, were introduced in North America throughout the middle of the 20th century. Wild populations took hold in 10 western states and in British Columbia, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The small birds with a striped flank and an orange beak thrive in dry, steep and rocky country, places like Hells Canyon and the rocky desert of southern Idaho. Nick Gevock, a serious bird hunter I know from Montana, called a few months ago to tell me he’d be in Moscow, Idaho, in October and he was bringing along his bird dog. He’d never shot a wild chukar, and he wanted to try.

The prospects were good. Jen Bruns, spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Clearwater region, said the agency expects young birds had a good winter and spring, with dry conditions that should have been easy on the birds

“We had pretty decent conditions for survivability,” Bruns said.

Of course, good weather is no guarantee of success. Finding birds of any kind requires long walks with a gun, and some luck. People who know a place well get lucky more often. Finding chukars means taking those long walks in punishing country – much of which neither of us had ever seen.

I met Nick in Moscow on a Sunday, and we drove southwest of Lewiston for a quick afternoon hunt. We’d hunted together a couple of times in Montana, looking for Hungarian partridge and sage grouse. I’ve watched Willow run big and point plenty of birds. I’ve also watched her disappear for a half-hour at a time, and I’ve watched her point absolutely nothing – just some piece of grass or brush holding zero birds.

That first afternoon, she got lost a couple of times, though not for long. She had a few false points.

The one real point was on a pheasant, which we let fly away.

The next day, we headed farther south and into Hells Canyon. We walked up that steep hill, followed the ridgeline and dropped down to the big bowl on the backside. We threaded through coulees and back toward the road, turning up nothing.

With more daylight to burn, we drove down toward the river. The hills were slightly less imposing but still looked right, so we parked and started walking again. Another hour passed without any sign of birds, and reality began to set in.

Even with a good dog, there are days when the birds just don’t materialize, and it doesn’t help when you’re in unfamiliar territory. You learn to appreciate the rest of the hunt.

The fresh air, the mountains, the river. The tracks in the dirt – bighorn sheep here, elk or deer there – and the occasional pile of bear scat. Well-maintained gravel roads, grocery store doughnuts, premade sandwiches and cheese crackers.

Add it all up and 1½ days of chukar-free chukar hunting doesn’t feel like a waste of time.

The hills may still be too steep, though.