The beauty and torture of Chukar Hunting
Your dog is locked on point 150 yards up the hill. You haul yourself up the slippery slope, cursing all the pizza you ate last year (and maybe some of the beer), hoping the birds won’t bust before your overweight ass can get in position for a shot. With lungs crying out for more air and quads about to give, you finally reach the still-still pointer frozen like a statue. You prep for the shot, and hope. The chukar bust about thirty degrees to the left of where you thought they’d erupt from, and you move your feet to compensate, and…
You step on a loose rock and fall backward down the slope, before you can get a line on a chukar and trigger a shot.
If any type of hunting is fair chase, it’s chukar hunting.
To be fair, it’s not all pain and frustration in chukar hunting. Ardent chukar hunters aren’t all complete masochists. The challenge has its rewards, which multiply with preparation and knowledge gained from experience. Converts to the endeavor usually remain so until their bodies give out before their interest.
Why? It’s badass, for one. But it’s also the perfect sport for anyone interested in not running into anyone else while doing it. The steep, rocky, dry terrain chukar inhabit isn’t kind. And so—in the seventeen years I’ve been doing it—I’ve run into exactly one other hunter. “Run into” is perhaps too strong. He was an entire ridge away and when we noticed each other, we just put further distance between ourselves.
So anyway, how do you do it? First, you need a dog. Preferable one that points and retrieves. Finding the birds isn’t easy, especially in low-bird years, so a quality upland bird dog will enrich your experience immeasurably. The retrieving part is huge. A chukar falling from the sky will be next to impossible to find without a dog if it falls into a pallet of safebrush, bunchgrass, bitterbrush, and rocks the same color as the bird.
The next most important thing is knowing where to go. As the season changes, so do the best spots. In the early season when it’s warm, birds will be near some source of water, whether it’s a spring, a reservoir, or a tiny creek. As the moisture increases throughout the season and fresh vegetation starts coming up, coveys tend to expand across the terrain. At all times, though, birds will be near cover of some kind: rocky outcroppings, big tufts of bunchgrass, mixed sagebrush, bitterbrush, or shrubby crevices.
In stormy weather, they’re more likely to be on the leeward side of ridges. When it’s warm, they’ll move from sun in the morning to shade in the afternoon. As with the stock market and prescription drugs, though, your experience may vary. If you’re lucky enough to kill a chukar, look in its crop when you clean it and you’ll find a pretty good indication of its hangout spots and the things it’s eaten there.
Boots, good ones, are paramount. This goes more for chukar hunting than any other activity I’m aware of except maybe ballet dancing or the Tour de France. They must be stiff, fit perfectly, and not move at all on your foot. They can’t be too tight. I use lightweight mountaineering boots which do not flex in the sole which is important for rocky hillsides. These have comprised the majority of hiking in any chukar terrain I’ve hunted.
Your boot should act like a shelf for your foot, so you won’t end up with bruised metatarsals from the constant radical and unpredictable flexing the rocks subject your foot to. I recommend uninsulated boots, because even in the coldest weather your feet will be hot. I’m a huge fan of Gore-Tex since it breathes really well. It seems like I’m constantly crossing creeks or hiking in the rain and I’ve rarely had any issues with my feet. I also wear the thickest wool (Merino if you can find/afford it) socks, for cushioning and wicking. Make sure the boot size can accommodate a really thick sock.
Other gear-related concerns are more personal: vests and packs (I like a pack that can carry extra food and water and safety stuff), water (bladders or bottles; regardless, always bring more than you think you and your dogs will need, and this gets heavy), technology (I’m a recent convert to GPS collars for my dogs because I like knowing where they are), guns (I like my Benelli Ultra Light because, well, it’s light and I rarely ever have a need for more than 3 shots at a time), gauge (most chukar hunters seem to live in the 12-gauge world, but I know plenty who swear by 20-gauge), and shot size (I have used 7-1/2 for years but am considering switching to 6).
Strategy is hard. I am constantly either under or over-thinking it. Sometimes I go high and the birds are low. Other times, it’s the opposite. It never makes full sense. One thing that rings pretty true from my experience, though, is that if you find a covey at a certain elevation, it’s likely you’ll find more coveys at the same elevation that day. So I’ve had good luck on big hills where the birds could be anywhere. I’ll cut a diagonal uphill until the dogs catch scent, then we’ll end up hunting that elevation much of the day.
The other tried-and-true strategic element that took me a long time to figure out (yes, I am a slow learner) is that—even though chukars run uphill—when they bust and fly one ridge away and you see them land, they will most likely stay there at least long enough for you to get over there for another shot at them. I used to think they’d run uphill from where I saw them land and so I’d head over to that ridge but much higher, never find them again. I’ve started going straight to that spot and have had much better luck relocating busted coveys.
If you end up with birds, consider aging them. Everyone has their own method, but I put them in an outdoor fridge for a couple weeks. I find the aging process to dramatically improve the tenderness of the meat. I clean them and vacuum seal the breasts and legs separately.
Finally, don’t forget to compensate your dog adequately. A few years ago I didn’t feed my dogs enough protein. The older dog lost a lot of weight and muscle mass, only to develop arthritis. Chukar hunting is brutal on dogs, especially in the early season when it’s hot and later on when they’re working through snow much of the time. Feed your partners a high protein diet (at least 30%). Give them something with fat and protein after every hunt. We have a case of Vienna Sausages in the truck that seems to do the trick.
For my older dog, I also have a bottle of baby aspirin (81mg). I will either medicate him before or after with two aspirin. That’s worked wonders for him. For us, the dogs are the main reason we’re devoted to chukar hunting. It makes sense, since they’re so devoted to us. Good luck out there!
Last modified: December 2, 2018