The Quest for Columbia River Chukar

I knelt on the edge of the precipice with my knee dug into a sandy spot beneath a massive aromatic sagebrush while Finn ravenously lapped water from a small, green collapsible bowl. Behind and below us, the Columbia River wound lazily between lush, orderly, emerald orchards, rock faces, and scree slopes – a peaceful and extravagant scene. My friend Chas stood slightly downhill to my left with his upland vest in hand, packing away a massive wild chukar that he had come to harvest with a combination of Finn’s good work and a peck on the cheek from Lady Luck.

Years had passed since I gazed upon the Columbia from the cliffs above. Taking a spill on an icy slope nearly ended with a bobsled run into a jagged boulder field below, leaving gouges and scars in the gun stock, glute muscle, and Carhartt pants. A dastardly covey nearly coaxed Finn over a ledge that morning. Another typical day in chukar country. Luckily, I limped away with only minor cuts and a disdain for the cliffy coverts, but swearing them off for good was laughable. Subconsciously, I knew our quest for the devil bird would one day drag us back there, mostly because the challenging covert provided a stronghold for big wild coveys.

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Although Finn and I found ourselves back on the familiar mountainside, lessons learned in approaching the cover and coveys led us to start on top rather than scramble up from the bottom, which proved strategic for encountering birds and conserving energy. We walked into the rising late October sun without a hint of wind. The bone-dry vegetation crunched like potato chips underfoot from a lack of autumn rain. Among the golden grasses were the chalky, seafoam tones of sagebrush and the verdant ridgetop pines. The enchanting aroma of sage wafted up sharp and rich as the rigid stems zipped across the legs of my brush pants. A gorgeous morning for a hunt, albeit abysmal scenting conditions.

It was the second weekend of the partridge season and we were not the first to arrive. Canine scat and fading boot tracks suggested others had come before, and the birds were flighty, as chukar can be. Was it simply their nature or the prior pressure that made them run like the wind? Recalling seasons and covers pasts, I surmised it was simply their nature. Had we been first, we may have been greeted by a truck covey, but to remain consistent with every other covey I had encountered over the years, they likely would have flushed well outside of the gun range, as did the first two coveys of this morning.

For the first time, the conditions allowed Finn to work the scent, regardless of how fleeting it may have been among the dusty soil and shrubbery. She must have found the birds peculiar because her tail flagged subtly as they fled on foot. Scurrying ahead and flushing down and out, nary a bird came up in range, and that would not change for me this day.

The third covey of the morning was feeding across the riverside cliffs. Chas motioned with urgency as he could hear birds “chuking” below. Simultaneously, a chukar glided in from around the face of the ridge, landing atop a stubby finger ridge about 200 yards below. I gathered Finn and the three of us dropped out of sight opposite the covey for a nimble stalk.

Rolling back up and over the top, we came in under the finger ridge with Chas taking the lowest route across the slope. Finn wound her way through the waist-high sage just off the top where I expected to find the covey. The Garmin GPS beeped “point”, leaving me confident that it was finally my time to miss a chukar with no excuses or put that first bird in the vest with my most reliable setter. Rushing in for the flush sent the covey on a dead run and squirting out from below again, but this time they flushed directly over Chas.

Two reports from Chas’ 20-gauge pump concluded the stalk. Finn stood steady to shot, convinced a bird remained tucked into the sage, and I obliged with a fruitless check for stragglers and snapped a couple good shots of her on staunch point. Spotting Chas searching down the ridge, I asked how he made out.

“One down but I can’t find it. I tried for a double and lost sight of where the first bird fell.”

I will never come to terms with how well game birds hide in plain sight, and rooster pheasant are the most obvious example of them all. A bird that big and colorful should be visible damn near anywhere, but they can literally vanish amid a barren slope, let alone a charcoal and beige chukar with black striping resembling every single spec of their surrounding habitat.

As Chas and I discussed the bird’s trajectory, Finn trotted down below him and locked up tight, just uphill of a large bitterbrush that looked charred from autumn senescence, yet retained a hint of its yellow summer flowers.

“There’s your bird right there” I said, pointing at Finn. Chas walked in behind her to collect the chukar that was laying on the far side of the bush.

Admiring the bird against the rugged terrain and expansive view of the Columbia River canyon made the milestone that we had reached exceptionally sweet. I was only slightly disappointed that the bird fell to Chas rather than me, but it made no difference. Finn worked well and a chukar fell from her point and my flush in a covert that had defeated us with malice in the past. We had finally won.

With drinks complete and a bird in the vest, we circled the ridge, slowly gaining elevation across the near-vertical slope. I suspect the gunshots tipped our hand as we found fresh sign, but made no further bird contacts. The morning had bloomed beautifully and the temperature was reaching 60 degrees. Finn had run about 10 miles of steep ups and downs and exhausted her water supply. We stopped to photograph the dramatic beauty of the landscape, then headed for the truck, successful.

Brad Trumbo

Brad lives in southeast Washington State with his wife Ali and pack of Llewellin setters on a small homestead. He serves the public as a fish and wildlife biologist and active Pheasants Forever life member. His free time is devoted to habitat, the pursuit of fin and feather, and writing about his outdoor passions.

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