Fortunate to live in our nation’s least populous state, Wyoming, I am also intimately familiar with many lovely and lonely places beyond its borders. All provide isolation from what sometimes seems like a crumbling world.
When Covid-19 hit I could see the writing on the wall and began preparing for the inevitable reduction of income and the corresponding boon of additional free time in a life already well supplied with the latter precious commodity. I hunt often near home, but the need to get away completely carried a greater pull this year. I mean, really, living in the spaces between media exposure, masks and other stress. So I set out on a series of great journeys that filled the prescription.
Nevada gripped my heartstrings first, the Ruby Mountains. in particular. Why? Well, it’s the only place in North America with Himalayan snowcock. Placing myself far from worries and the general populous was merely a matter of willpower, leg power and endurance.
To hunt snowcock is also a mentally demanding game. These birds are reputed to be the most elusive game on earth, a well-deserved reputation. The terrain they in habit is high risk with deadly potential everywhere. In such settings, with a quarry of this magnitude, a hunter must devote great focus to the tasks at hand. Other trivialities are purged from thought. Spectacular scenery certainly doesn’t hurt either. This is rugged and immense country, refreshing and rejuvenating. Deep valleys are choked with various forms of vegetation along small but vital watercourses with little transition between these and steep canyon walls dotted with jagged peaks. Daunting, exhilarating, a week pursuing Himalayan snowcock and the occasional blue grouse would cure my woes. I found my heart filled with joy as my legs burned onward during days spent upon high.
There was also the matter of meeting with a friend, Travis Warren, toward the end of my stay. Travis hosts the Upchukar Podcast, an enjoyable broadcast with lots of personality. While in Nevada I met two other remarkable individuals, both avid outdoorsmen, resulting in new friendships.
The first is Randal Stoberle, who among other things, is hired to trap excess predators in the area. During our discussion he showed me a photo of a ringtail he had collected near my camp and explained that the numerous small burrows and plentiful tracks I described were the result of these prolific nocturnal predators. I found our conversation very educational.
The second man is none other than Jay Beyer, a professional photographer from Salt Lake City, Utah. Jay is the guy who takes advertising and catalog photos for some of the premier outdoor product companies many of us are familiar with. He obtains all of his images on location, worldwide, so it came as no surprise that he is in superb physical condition, a man cut out for adventures like this. He has a great personality too. Jay makes friends easily.
Himalayan snowcock are fascinating birds with a serious case of paranoia. Picture a four to seven pound bird shaped like a chukar with plumage perfectly mimicking the granite amongst which it lives. Realize that this bird will flush wild at the first sight of approaching danger. By “wild,” I mean up to 500 yards. This is not a typical stroll for bobwhites. Also, a very short day in the mountains will equate to more than five miles with elevation gains of several thousand feet. The best days we averaged 16 to 17 miles. Elevation gain? 4,000 feet. Hard work? High fatigue? Absolutely. Worth it? Beyond a doubt.
Before my friends arrived, I fared well in locating birds and harvesting a pair. I learned a great deal and was also able to verify things I suspected the previous year. By returning to familiar locations, I was able to check locational trends and escape patterns. I discovered critical dietary habits. The fact that I hunted different parts of the season from one year to the next and the climate changed from wetter than average to unrelenting drought also proved valuable, since I could rule out environmental factors affecting consistencies in bird location.
On day one, two birds went in the bag. The first was the result of a successful stalk, and the second the result of a well-executed attempt at making second contact with the same group of birds – an event that consumed considerable time and effort. The two snowcock dinners were hard earned and appreciated.
My dog Rusty showed his worth, especially when bird two went down in a huge field of rubble. His nose turned up what my eyes might never have found. This would not be the first time he would “shine.”
Not all was rosy on day one, though. I wore a pair of hikers that I have put through equally demanding terrain many times. They seemed appropriate, given the mild temperatures. However, I had never hammered so hard in them for 14 hours. The load on boots here is tremendous. That night in camp not only were my toes sore, one of them was dark purple. Not cool. The real bugger was wearing a hole through a sock. The ball of my foot sported a large blister, in precisely the location and shape of the sock failure. Day two would be spent with a 2-weight fly rod at camp.
This turned out just fine and relaxing. My foot reabsorbed the blister fluid. I met Mr. Stoberle, and discovered delightful angling for tiger, brook, and rainbow trout. The tiger trout are a gorgeous brown trout/ brook trout hybrid. I cherish catching them.
On day three, I opted for a shorter hike to avoid “reactivating” the blister. I also opted to wear my tried and true Salomon Chaltens and never experienced any more issues with my feet in extreme terrain. I regret that the company has recently discontinued this boot.
I pondered a crazy possibility. What if I could bag a snowcock with the 28-gauge. double? That would be amazing! Of the five birds I had previously taken during three seasons, I managed to get within 25 yards of four. The fifth was taken at very long range with buffered #4 shot in a tight choked Lefever 12 gauge. Optimistic and determined, I set out on a short seven-mile day with tiny shells loaded with buffered 5s.
It almost worked. The lone bird I encountered must have been a social outcast. During my return trek along a ridge that usually hosts a covey, the unmistakable alarm cries of a Himalayan snowcock told me I blew it. Down the slope and over a cliff it bombed. But it was just one bird, flushed 100 yards distant. If there were others, they would be vulnerable. Just hustle out of sight along the back of the ridge, and then pop up suddenly. Any remaining birds should be close enough.
With Rusty at heel, hustle I did. No others were there. To add insult, Rusty back trailed the scent of this bird. I followed. Its tracks were in my boot prints! The bird literally followed me up the mountain from an overhang where I stopped for photos two hours earlier. Ouch.
Perhaps blue grouse would rescue my battered ego. Nope. They heaped coal on the fire. The first flushed from a tree the instant I sneezed hard. No shot fired. In a moment of disgust and unbiblical thought, a second erupted from the same tree! Entirely unprepared, I made a frantic and crooked gun mount, placing two shot patterns where there was no grouse. At this point I am cursing my lack of foresight instead of stuffing two fresh shells in empty chambers. What could possibly be worse? Yep, a third bird exiting the same tree, gleeful in my predicament of an empty gun that he had allowed me sufficient time to remedy. Some days are just like that.
I took consolation in the complete solitude for our hike out in the gathering darkness. Sweet, forgiving Mr. Rusty, he should have disowned his master after such a performance. It’s hard to stay in poor spirit while in the company of a cheerful Border Collie in peaceful surroundings.
I sent word of my findings along to Travis, as if he and Jay needed further encouragement. The next day I fished near camp as they traveled. Travis arrived early and the two of us made a feeble attempt to locate birds a wee bit close to an access point. To be fair, we have seen snowcock there; I even photographed a few there in 2019. Realistically, we only had a few hours to hunt and didn’t want to start tomorrow’s 17 miler physically exhausted. Jay was settling in at camp when Travis and I returned after sundown.
Three of us shared stories and solidified plans to start hunting where I had up-to-date confirmation of bird activity. This would be Jay’s second hunt for the magnificent bird. Travis and I have taken these successfully, so the goal was getting Jay into feathers. The two of them opted for 20-gauge guns to save weight and I followed suit with a light little 16 gauge. Cogswell & Harrison with 2½” chambers, choked skeet/modified. I chose buffered handloads of #5 mag lead to tighten patterns.
We left camp in darkness the next morning; the sun would rise before we reached the snowcock zone. Once there, Rusty became noticeably birdy on a slope where a group of snowcock had already busted us and flushed from 200 yards. I cut him loose from heel and he bee-lined to a lone tree. Two blue grouse rocketed out. For fear of disturbing snowcock we let these go, a wise decision. Shortly afterward, he went birdy again on the upwind side of a steep ledge-snowcock habitat.
I told Jay to get ready, birds would be right in front of him the moment he got to the edge. Rusty had ratted them out. I dropped lower to get out of the way and shoot birds flying down slope. Travis was already above us. The moment came quickly and Jay was right on top of them. Wanting a trophy for taxidermy he lined up on a sitting bird. Just as he pulled the trigger it flushed out of the way! Travis fired two shots into one bird and was doing the celebration chant as I emptied my gun without cutting a feather. Travis’ bird…got up and flew away! We watched in agony as it gained on the others, predictably vanishing to the back of a peak over a mile away. Later contact with these same five revealed they were not hurt one bit!
However, the early group that flushed wild went to the same rock outcropping I shot bird one from, days earlier. We made a successful stalk. Birds flushed, four of them right over my head. I centered one hard with the little British gun. A beautiful opportunity for a double, I passed for fear of shooting one out from under Jay. He and Travis were somewhere above me while I took a low route out onto a ledge. It turns out they were shooting at the other seven around the corner.
Unfortunately my bird was the only one down, way down. It fell 500 feet. It was agreed they would go to where I was certain they could relocate both groups of snowcock while I went on the most terrifying retrieve of my life. If my bird fell all the way, Rusty would get him. If not, I would get to be a rock climber, something I am rather uncomfortable with. It was the latter. By time I held the prize in hand I had made the climb up and back down. I started a second climb when a lone feather drifted from a shelf about 60 feet above. What joy when I finally held the stiff but still warm bird in hand!
Later, we made one more successful stalk. Rusty caught wind of a pair that Jay and I tried for, him shooting for the larger and me taking the smaller. As luck would have it, just as he fired the first shot, his bird jumped out of the way. Not again! I missed once, but connected with the second shot. The winged bird plummeted over the edge, a fall of over 700 yards. Then I made my mistake, one that still haunts me. Travis spotted a bird gliding around a cliff some 800-plus yards below. I saw it too. He thought it was my bird. In a moment of excitement and confusion I figured he was right. I could have sworn I saw the bird’s right wing break in the middle, eliminating any possibility of a glide, but sometimes adrenaline tells lies.
I went down and across in search (for the wrong bird!), never finding it. I didn’t see Jay or Travis again until back in camp long after dark. Jay and I discussed it and he said he saw the wing break deep as well. A third bird had flushed below and fooled me. Somewhere below that towering wall, a fox or ringtail was eating my bird for dinner. Odds of a bird plummeting 700-800 yards straight down and surviving an impact on the granite below are mighty slim. I always knew that if I shot enough of these birds, I would eventually lose one, but it still hurts.
The final hunting day, we split up. I watched headlamps disappear up the mountain at 4:38 a.m. while my now very weary body struggled to get going. Recurring health issues surfaced, and combined with days of fatigue, slowed me down. My friends made a second attempt on the same birds and darn near pulled it off. They told me that with Rusty giving them advance warning of birds, they would have had it “in the bag.” Little did I realize that I almost caught up to them below the pass where I could have joined them. Not knowing, I stuck with plan “A.” I blundered and spooked four deer. These bolted ahead, spooking a covey of birds to where I could not follow. At least I did put a blue grouse in the bag earlier. That is when Travis heard me shoot and later told me I was less than one-half mile behind him.
Our journey had come to an end. We were all tired, and reviewed incredible opportunities and agonizing “almost.” To be fair, Jay was handed quite a run of bad luck and still thoroughly enjoyed himself. We will be doing this again.
The following morning, we recorded UpChukar episode #78 live from camp then set out for home. Election day now past, I had yet to tune in for any news, not yet ready for the hoopla.Coming home was tough. The world was more in turmoil than ever. “News” of things I could do nothing to change. Controversies. Faceless beings under masks everywhere. I remember being human… and I missed it. Depression set in. I was not coping well with the general mood around me.
Weather in North Dakota was forecast to be nice for weeks. I have a camper on my buddy’s farm in unpopulated country. Pheasants, Sharptail grouse, ducks, and geese? An open schedule until mid December? Isolation. Quiet. Escape. The “doctor” had already issued the right prescription and it needed refilling. I think you all know what I did. The glory of autumn hath the power to heal.
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.