A look at the dangers of chukar country and how to avoid them
I recently came across an article written by Chuck Adams titled Eight Ways to Die in Elk Country. It was his clever spin on the TV series “1000 Ways to Die” which details the strange ways people punch their final time card.
Then I got to thinking: I spend all my time hunting chukar and I’d be lying if I said the thought of dying out there never crossed my mind. My imagination began to whirl as I thought about all the crazy ways that it could actually happen.
This may sound morbid, but I had a conversation with my wife the other day regarding my death. I romantically detailed how after hunting chukar all day, I arrived back at the truck (a very old man at this stage) with my old gun dog and while sitting in the front seat of my truck, both me and my dog kick the bucket together. Now, I thought it was a fitting ending. My wife however simply stated, “You’re just gonna leave me to find you?” My reply was simple, “You could just leave me out there.”
Freezing to death
Chukar country weather is notorious for changing rapidly, especially when you don’t want it to. My friend Scott and I ventured deep into the Nevada desert during December a few years ago. We knew the forecast called for snow/rain. I naively believed that we would be okay.
Everything started off easy. Scott had a young pup he brought along and before we knew it, that dog topped a ridge and vanished. He had no GPS collar and I was still a dog-less hunter, so I was zero help. Concern set in and we both blindly set off looking for his puppy. Soon we covered a lot of ground, but neither of us had taken note of the direction of the truck. We stood there, completely turned around. However, across the canyon we saw his dog coming back to us. Thankfully!
That is when the weather essentially dumped all over us. The wet snow was falling so quickly we couldn’t see in front of us. My denim jeans and not-so-DWR soft shell were soaked and I was freezing. To make matters worse, we had no idea what direction the truck was in and stupidly began walking in the direction we thought it was. I had never experienced actual panic before, but I was now. I kept telling myself this was not how I wanted to die. As the snow began to lessen in intensity, we stopped and really tried to assess how to get ourselves out of this mess after we realized we had walked in the wrong direction.
Due to the fact I am writing this, you know I survived. That one single experience had an indelible impact on me. I learned preparedness the hard way. I now ALWAYS carry a rain jacket, never wear denim or cotton, always carry fire starting material, a water filter and know my orientation. I might get lost, but I sure as hell won’t freeze to death. Hopefully.
Caught in a fire
Chukar country has wildfires. It’s sad, but a fact. These wildfires can pop up at any moment, given the right set of circumstances. I can’t think of a worse way to go, burning alive. Nothing about that says painless or quick.
Now this isn’t technically chukar country, but I was still bird hunting. Last year, my friend Matt Hardinge and I had hiked into the Ruby Mountains of Nevada to hunt for Himalayan snowcock. Unbeknownst to us a grass fire had started near the mouth of Lamoille Canyon, apparently as a result of a police chase. The suspects were wanted in some sort of kidnapping and their vehicle had caught the brush on fire. I know . . . crazy, right?
We noted the smoke, yet with spotty cell reception, we were not privy to the details. Our friend Alaskan Terry was. He had arrived later in the evening and decided to stay in his truck to monitor the fire in the event he needed to quickly run up the mountain to rescue us. Luckily the fire was contained by authorities.
Sadly, Lamoille Canyon did end up burning later that season and several hikers and campers had to be escorted to safety.
The lesson? Monitor weather reports, and if you find yourself in a situation where a wildfire ignites near you, know your escape routes. Wildfires can move quickly.
I’m happy to say that I have never run into a mountain lion while chukar hunting. I know people who have. The closest I have been was when I caught one in the headlights of my truck along a dirt road. It was a brief moment, but enough for me to know what I saw.
That being said, every time I move underneath a large boulder or near a cave in the rocks, I’m on high alert.
There was recently a big story in the news about a Colorado runner who was attacked by a mountain lion. This guy turned out to be tougher than Chuck Norris and choked the cat to death. That cat picked the wrong dude on the wrong day.
The reality is that mountain lions are just trying to survive, and quick moving “things” are potential prey. When you are out in the middle of nowhere, that’s generally where these cats like to be. If you are hunting with your dog it can also be a potential food source for a cougar.
Bottom line: pay attention to your surroundings and check behind you every once in a while.
I will be the first to admit that I fall on my ass almost every single time I hunt. Not the graceful fall of a professional stuntman, but an ugly tumble-slide, ankle twisting pile of meat. I try to be graceful, but I don’t think that is an appropriate word to describe me. Ever.
I carry an over/under which does provide me with a small degree of assurance that as long as the breach is open, I’m far less likely to have a discharge if I drop the gun while falling. However, as many of you know, falling happens at inopportune times, like when you are closing in on your dog on point.
This year I had one of those moments. I was walking along a steep slope, filthy with rimrock, and I lost my footing. The breach was closed and I slammed the gun down hard as I fell on the rocks. All I could think of was “SHIT!” Luckily the safety stayed engaged and the gun did not discharge.
This is my single biggest fear when hunting. Probably because if this happened, I would be labeled as “That Guy.”
Kissed by a serpent
I’m not scared of snakes but every time I see one my initial thought is “Shit!” as I violently jump in the opposite direction. I have encountered them, infrequently, but I’m always on high alert.
A few years back I was hunting with my buddy. We were on our way back to the truck and I stepped down off a rock. The distinct buzz of a rattlesnake’s tail erupted next to my foot! I don’t think my feet touched the ground for another ten feet as my two-hundred-pound frame executed an Olympic-level high jump.
Safely out of the danger zone, my curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to SEE the snake. I walked back over to the rock and discovered that it had a slight undercut at the base. That was where the snake was, tucked underneath. Now, this is where my brain finally showed some common sense. The snake was tucked so far under the rock I would have to compromise safety to see it. I decided “screw this” and left it be.
Due to the infrequent nature of seeing a snake, every time I encounter one, I leave it be. I have heard differing points of view on whether to kill the snake to prevent another person, or dog, from getting hurt or leave it alone. My feeling is that I have ventured into their home. They aren’t actively seeking me out. Encounters are unfortunate but I feel that my approach of “leave them alone and they leave me alone” has resulted in my infrequent encounters with them considering how much time I spend in their home.
Every year I take my dog through rattlesnake aversion training. Also, educate yourself on how to treat rattlesnake bites if you plan on spending time in the hills.
Falling to your death
Finding yourself in steep, rocky terrain is just part-and-parcel of chukar hunting. Chukar will roost in rock outcroppings which provide safety from predators, both avian and four-legged. When hunting chukar, looking for this rock-band, or rimrock, is like finding the “X” on a treasure map.
It’s common parlance to say “Just look for the nastiest, rockiest stuff you can find, and that’s where chukar will be.” Unfortunately, this is not hyperbole; the nastier the better. Because this holds true, I have often found myself atop steep cliffs, slowly shuffle-stepping closer to the edge to see if the birds are just below. It’s not hard to imagine being startled so severely that I could lose my footing and fall. All cards on the table: I hate heights and fear this the most. Likely because I’ll have a least some time to contemplate my misfortune as I tumble through space and time.
In reality all of these scenarios can be prevented and/or avoided with proper preparation and planning. When venturing out into the chukar hills remember to always stay calm in an emergency. Losing your head will only make your situation much worse.
Travis lives in Spanish Springs, Nevada with his wife and two daughters. He is the host of the Upchukar Podcast, a show that highlights the pursuit of Chukar hunting, a prolific and challenging upland game bird found in the Western US. Along with the website Upchukar.com, Travis documents his travels and experiences while hunting in the West.