It’s all Mike Duncan’s fault. Mike was one of my fishing buddies. There was one nagging issue though. Come hunting season, my buddies abandoned me like stale bread. Eventually they swayed me into trying the hunting thing, and I liked it, a lot.
Mike seemed obsessed with one bird in particular and I got swept up in his fervor. Every Monday at school it was the same drama. “I saw chukars!” Enthusiastically I would inquire “Well, did you get one?” This was typically followed by a recount of events ranging from “We were hunting rabbits with .22s” to some form of “Almost…”
Then one Monday, something was different. Mike’s glowing face poorly veiled the joy of attainment. Mike’s first chukar was an absolute comedy, like something from a Road Runner cartoon, but he was on the board and I was not. Such would remain my dilemma.
The following year a key component entered my life: my first pickup and thus the freedom to roam. Soon, a fateful day came when I held my first chukar in hand, tipping the dominoes toward a lifetime of exploration and athletic endeavor. Chukar fever was here to stay. I have learned a lot since that pivotal October day in 1988, some of it general knowledge and some of it minute detail that changed how I locate and hunt chukars.
First and foremost, cheatgrass equals chukars. Like any other game bird chukars spend a good portion of the day foraging. Where they forage depends on a variety of factors but by far the most important is their specific dietary requirements. Chukars subsist primarily by consuming cheatgrass. Areas devoid of this arid country grass will generally be devoid of chukars.
While a tad unpleasant in the socks, cheatgrass seeds grow chukars and chukars are what we are after. When coverage of this grass falls below about 30 percent, bird numbers decline quickly. That said, a huge expanse of cheatgrass alone is not good enough either. Shrubbery is of vital importance. The best scenario is a rocky mountainside with generous ribbons of brush lacing through the cheatgrass, providing a large amount of edge cover. Like all upland birds, chukars show a marked preference for edges and transitions. Sumac, sage, bitterbrush, and others all serve the purpose, but sagebrush seems to be the top option. I suspect it does a better job of offering protection from the elements. It also plays an important role in dry areas devoid of water.
Water is a must. Open water is best and it doesn’t take much more than hillside seepage to slake the birds’ thirst. If they can sink their beak, it’s enough. Of course, it needs to be reliable. Once a water source dries up, birds will move. Of course, during wet periods, water is everywhere and then even green cheatgrass shoots and morning dew provide sufficient water. Don’t count on birds staying near water when a season turns wet.
Oddly, there are areas in the American West that support chukars with no reliable source of open water at all. How is this possible? Sage brush. Chukars will dig up the moisture rich root bulbs and peck the heck out of them to get their daily water ration. It reminds me of how Mearn’s quail dig up tubers to feed in the desert Southwest. It’s a unique adaptation, but effective.
Much has been written about chukar habitat being steep, steep, and steeper. It can be. There are exceptions though. Chukars can often be found on the gentler north facing slopes until winter snows send them to the stereotypical south facing inclines that make our legs ache. Reasons for the north facing slope drawing in birds are many, but can be summed up by considering moisture retention. The north side of a ridge thaws later in the spring. This creates a cycle of increased shrub growth that holds more drifting snow, which in turn slowly melts into the ground later on the cooler side of a ridge, thus promoting vegetation growth. Chukars like these shady spots when interspersed with cheatgrass and tend to use them until winter snows force them to the south facing side where nature provides them with access to more cheatgrass, thanks to snowmelt caused by a low winter sun.
It is worth mentioning that chukars eat both seeds and tender green shoots of emergent cheatgrass. Given a chance, they will take the green stuff. Strangely enough, chukars find a lot of it in the dead of winter. I know this seems crazy when daytime high temperatures may barely crack zero, but the stuff is there. Rocks and dirt gather solar energy and the ground becomes warm enough at the surface to allow grass growth. Don’t believe me? Check the crops of birds harvested in January and you may be surprised at how much green is in there. Learn to spot these green tips amongst “dead” grass and under shrubs during winter, the birds sure know how to find them. Rimrock is a good collector of solar heat and grass sprouts can be seen tight to the base of the rocks too. It’s also a nice place for chukars to hang out and absorb a little heat from the sun themselves.
Come winter, snow plays many roles in the habits of the chukar and also in where we hunt them. Heavy snows push birds down a mountain where they stay below snow line or where snow is thinnest. A fresh snow is great for exploration purposes. Coveys leave tracks. New ground can be covered quickly or even scanned with good optics. One word about doing this though, wait until the sun has come out for a while. Chukars tend to remain holed up until after the storm has passed, sometimes until the next day if conditions relent slowly. It is common to find little sign of bird life immediately following a major storm, but see chukars aplenty five hours later. A nice overnight snowfall totaling an inch or two followed by a bright sunny morning is about as good as it gets for spurring chukar activity.
For a good learning experience, inspecting new country two or three days after a snow will not only show where chukars are, but where they have been and what their movement patterns are. Of course, this depends on one uncooperative factor out west-wind. High winds sweeping in behind a storm and drifting snow around can cover tracks in hurry. Warm systems that dump wet snow are far less prone to such problems, but come nightfall the wet snow freezes and crusts over. Until this crust melts, the only visible tracks will be where birds step from dirt onto snow, and that won’t be very easy to see.
A lot of chukar hunters hang it up once winter sets in, but I consider it prime time. Scenting conditions are better, I don’t need to carry as much water, and both the dog and hunter cool down easily. I suppose the number one discouraging factor in winter chukar hunting, is the lack of traction on snow covered slopes. People grow tired of slipping and falling and the situation can be rather treacherous. The biggest obstacle is finding boots that actually grip snow well. Almost none of them do.
I eventually abandoned all traditional hunting boots. The one time I did find a suitable product, it was immediately discontinued the following year. Go figure. I guess it’s mostly a tree stand world out there, but we don’t shoot chukars from tree stands. I continually search the hardcore outdoor market for footwear offerings. Some companies seem to grasp the concept of “slippage may result in death”. Unfortunately the best boots I ever owned for tackling ice and snow covered slopes were discontinued several years ago and that company has pretty much switched to outdoor fashion. Another popular company recently moved manufacturing to a different country and stopped making the second best winter chukar boot I ever owned. At least I stocked up when they went on close out sale and still have two pair (a valuable lesson here). Currently, the Oboz Bridger Tall Winter model is about tops for gripping snow-covered rock. It is lightweight and supportive too. My only gripe? Not enough arch for my foot. But that is the nature of feet; they’re all different. A switch of insoles solved that. The next person may find it perfect. The search continues. Anyway, when you find the perfect boot, buy as many as you can afford.
When it comes to shotguns, chukars are an equal opportunity quarry. Choose what you like: semi-auto, pump, over/under, side by side or even a single shot. They really don’t care what you miss them with. Personally, I like a double, especially a side by side, but have used all types. The two-barreled gun gives the advantage of two chokes. Odd choke combos like skeet and modified, improved cylinder and full, or modified and extra full are great since one close shot and one long shot on a covey rise is common. Gravity really aids their acceleration rate. Interestingly, I see a lot of British doubles for sale with these choke combos.
That said, one of the finest chukar shots I ever hunted with was a young ranch kid who used a cheap single shot with a full choke. He burned very few shells and came back down the hill with his birds, not a bad program with today’s ammo prices. On the flip side of the coin, a pump or auto gives a lot of available shots when a big covey gets up and there are plenty of stragglers.
I guess it all boils down to personal preference as to what type of gun you carry. I will say that a lightweight gun noticeably reduces fatigue by day’s end. What gauge? It varies but bear in mind that shooting ranges tend to get longer as season progresses. Those of us who hunt behind a flushing dog also expect shots to be five-to-10 yards further than what is to be expected over pointing breeds. Once pressured, chukars abandon any manners they exhibited earlier and reach is the name of the game. I have harvested chukars with every standard bore from .410 up the mighty 10 gauge. The .410 is a game of patience. The 28 gauge is fun when birds hold well. A 20 gauge is minimum for covering the bases well all season. A 12 gauge is a superb choice. The 16 gauge may be the ideal chukar gun though. A proper lightweight 16 gauge is a joy in the hands and it does 90 percent of what the 12 gauge will do. No matter what you choose, don’t be afraid to err on the tight side with chokes come winter.
A hotly debated topic is ammunition choice, shot size in particular. It is ironic that #8 or #7½ shot is almost universally recommended for Hungarian partridges, but I hear tales of needing pheasant loads in #5 to kill chukars. These two partridges are about the same size and at best, half the size of a pheasant. Chukars have a reputation for being tough, but it does not take a neutron bomb to kill them, although by day’s end in canyon country, you may wish for one. Truth known, the main reason that pheasants and chukars earn their reputation is that if you don’t hit them well, they run off as soon as they touch ground, and they run fast. Of the two, chukars are harder to hit with their rapid descending flight. This, compounded by the fact that most shotguns are regulated to actually shoot high, makes for a lot of weakly hit chukars. The tendency when we have weak hits is “these shells don’t have enough power”. I went through that stage and found crippling rates increased as shot size increased beyond ideal.
After decades of shooting chukars, a great many of them, I have pretty much settled on 1ounce to 1¼ ounce of #7 ½ shot as the standard load for chukars. In small gauge guns, either with open chokes or lighter payloads, I drop back to #8 shot since there is no need to use pellets capable of downing chukars at 45-plus yards in a gun/ choke combo that is only good to 30-35 yards. It is better to fill in the pattern with small shot. At the other end of the spectrum, a full-choke 12 gauge can take advantage of the extra punch of #7 shot (available to hand loaders and in some foreign made ammo) or good a buffered load of #6. I should mention that buffered loads generally pattern one choke degree tighter (full becomes extra full). The popular #6 shot has typically given me higher crippling rates in anything less than a full choked 12 gauge That comes as no surprise. There are 345 pellets of #7 ½ per ounce of shot and only 225 #6 shot per ounce. The whole goal of selecting a gun/choke/ load combo is to run out of pattern at the same distance you run out of “punch.” Having extra punch, but insufficient pattern density means you loose effective clean killing range. Having plenty of pattern density but not enough knock down accomplishes the same. Chasing down a crippled chukar is not to be envied, even with a good dog.
Non-toxic shot choices are pretty simple. Number 7 or #6 bismuth is good stuff, as is #6 or #5 steel shot. Essentially, anything that will kill a small duck will do the same to a chukar.
The arduous demands of chukar hunting may not be everyone’s cup of tea and physical therapists tend know us better as the years go by, but it’s a healthy form of insanity. Chukar hunting has one of two effects on the first timer: “What on earth was I thinking?” or “When can we do that again?” Those of us who fall into group number two, spiral wildly out of control into full addiction, plotting and scheming late at night. We’re certain that if we go over just one more ridge, chukar nirvana waits on the other side. Of course, if we ever find it, chukars will inevitably laugh at us from the far side of the gorge. Game on.
Garhart Stephenson is an avid outdoorsman residing in west central Wyoming. Throughout the year he is typically outdoors with rod or gun in the company of his faithful Border Collie, Rusty.