Cutthroat Chukar Hunting
You start sucking air within seconds, sweating within minutes. Your mouth dries and your feet blister. Hunt long enough and your legs begin to shake, your knees to ache. Your head might swim, but that’s as close as you’ll get to water on a September desert Chukar hunt.
Anyone who’s climbed the steep, desiccated mountain slopes chukars call home has thought “there’s got to be a better way.” Idaho outfitter Brad Frei knows the way.
“Chukars! River left, base of the rock slide,” the big Idaho guide called from his raft, pulling back on the long oars. I reeled in, hooked the Humpy to the keeper, set the rod in the holder and reached for the waterproof shotgun case.
“Where’s my vest?” Betsy asked, handing me her flyrod.
“Right here under mine.” I flung her the orange pack-vest draped on the arms of the casting basket in our raft’s stern, shouldered mine and grabbed our guns “Don’t chamber a round until we’re on solid ground,” I reminded my bride. We didn’t want a hole in our rubber craft or anywhere else.
Marty Grabijas, inventor of the Mother line of hunting packs, was tying off Brad’s raft when our guide, Fred, bumped us gently against them. “Right up there,” Brad said, pointing. “Hopping on the boulders. Behind that big bush.”
“I see them.” Six stumpy gray birds hopped and fluttered nervously up gray and black slabs of broken mountain, their cinnamon flanks striped with black and their buffy throats outlined by bold, black ribbons running through their eyes and down onto their plump breasts like necklaces,
“You can see their red beaks,” Brad was saying to Betsy. “There, one just flew up to that rock.”
“I see them, I see them!”
“We’d better flank them,” Marty said as he looped to the right, one of his chocolate pointing labs at heel. I went south with my setter, Cheyenne, hopping boulder-to-boulder much like my quarry, but without the benefit of wings to break my fall. Betsy and Brad climbed right at the covey, trusting the birds could not escape this time. Above them rose a sheer wall of rock. Instead of running to the top of the mountain and flying off the far side, these birds would be trapped between a rock and four hard hunters. Well, soft hunters. Anyone who floats a river to hunt chukars can’t truly be hard.
Hard. That four-letter word pops up regularly around chukar hunters. “Ready for a hard hunt?” aficionados will ask as they buckle on their vests, stash their gallon of water and gaze up a big desert ridge. Later someone will surely say “Hard keeping your balance on this loose gravel, isn’t it?” Or “Falling doesn’t hurt. It’s that hard landing that kills you,” as they pick themselves off the slope. After the smoke clears and the last echo rolls back from the far canyon wall, your partner is liable to eject his smoking hulls and complain about “those damn diving birds are the hardest shot in bird hunting!” And you’ll agree.
The hard truth is that chukar hunting is hard work in a hard land. Sometimes it hardly seems worth it, though it must be because pilgrims embark on the journey again and again, year after year, following reports of concentrations, praying for snow to push the birds low, hunting the opener when the long summer drought still forces coveys to hang near springs, pools or stream banks. And, once you’ve conditioned yourself, there’s a smug satisfaction in making the climb, keeping your balance, covering the mountain and bagging a few birds. Now and then you put it all together, catch them just right to achieve what good friend Alan Sands calls a “pay back day.” You feel like a competent, tough predator, like you could walk to the horizon, like you’re starring in a beer commercial. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Getting into “chukar shape,” alas, becomes harder with each passing year, and sometimes you just want a break. A float hunt is that break. “We started offering what folks call the cast-and-blast a few years ago,” Adventure Sun Valley owner Frei said as we hauled gear from the landing strip down to several inflatable rafts bobbing in the current of Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. “It’s already become a September classic.”
The isolated Middle Fork springs to life in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness north of the Sawtooth Range and flows mostly north through that wilderness until merging with the Main Salmon, the raging, whitewater monster that forced Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery back to the Continental Divide on their search for a route to the Pacific.
“Cutthroats and chukars are a natural combo”
“Cutthroats and chukars are a natural combo,” Brad continued, “The summer float season is over and the crowds are gone, but it’s still hot enough to enjoy the river. Cutthroats are feeding heavily and the birds are down along the water. You can fish and enjoy the scenery until you see birds, then start hunting. Your lunch and plenty of cold drinks are right in the boat with you and if you overheat, just jump in.”
And if it rains there are hot springs and evening campfires. Rain is unusual, but it happens. It happened to us our second afternoon, slowing the fishing and inspiring the birds to stay high. We loosed the dogs and climbed, looking for and finding a few birds, but paying the price. “This is too much like typical chukar hunting,” I noted. “Where’s this easy, shoot ‘em from the boat action I’ve heard about?”
Brad laughed. “We can get you down the river, put up your tent, make your dinners and clean your birds, but we can’t control the weather. Don’t worry. It’ll clear up tomorrow and the birds’ll come out.”
It did and they did, eventually leading to the mid-afternoon jump shoot that started this tale. Betsy took a bird with her first shot, after which it was every bird, man and dog for itself as the covey broke right, left and nearly straight up. The dogs searched several minutes to find all the downed birds between the boulders. It wasn’t their first hunt of the day, either.
We’d earlier spotted several fat blue grouse in a fringe of yellow pines and deciduous brush along the bank. Beach the boat, load the guns, turn out the setter, see her point. Flush the grouse. Dinner. Repeat. By late afternoon our group had plenty of fresh birds. “We’ll marinate these and make kebabs,” Brad promised. “Everybody loves them.” No kidding. We appeased our appetites round a lively beach fire while the Middle Fork gurgled by, a few folks fished and Brad’s crew set up camp to prepare the main course. The bird kebobs disappeared all too quickly.
We vowed to get more the next day, fishing our way from covey to covey while the guides rowed and dodged whitewater holes. The native cutthroats weren’t as stupid as their reputations, but they fell for our offerings often enough, taking an eclectic variety of dries and nymphs. Trout were never on the dinner menu, however, because the Middle Fork is catch-and-release. Even if it weren’t, Brad wouldn’t risk depleting one of his star attractions. “The Middle Fork is one of the last pristine, free-flowing, native cutthroat fisheries in the country,” he pointed out. “How many rivers can you name that flow completely within wilderness and not only still have undiluted, native trout but strong, healthy numbers of them, year after year?”
“Not counting Alaska, right?” I wisecracked. Historically, the Middle Fork was a major steelhead and salmon spawning site, the millions of eggs and thousands of dying salmon providing rich forage for resident cutthroats and bull trout. Too many dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers have reduced most anadromous fish numbers to endangered status, although hatchery fish still provide good steelhead fishing on the main Salmon. “Trout are our summer fish,” Brad explained. “They aren’t huge, but they are plentiful and usually easy to catch.”
“And the casting is a delight,” I added. “No overhead limbs, a clean shot at eddies and boulders from a high seat. And who’d complain about catching dozens of ten- to eighteen-inch trout a day?” No one in our party. While drifting through some holes we’d hook three or four fish at a time. Otters competed with us, rippling over bank boulders like ribbons before slipping under water for the hunt. Bald and golden eagles watched our slow progress through the shadowy canyons from a blue-black sky, hunting trout and chukars of their own. Families of unfledged mergansers churned the shallows if we drifted too close. Enough whitewater rocked and splashed the rafts to add carnival thrills without putting anyone in danger. Brad even allowed Betsy, a river runner for years, to row. And all the while chukars scolded and laughed from hot rocks and grassy benches, tempting us away from the cool water and eager fish.
“Decisions, decisions,” Betsy said once, fly rod in one hand, shotgun in the other and the roar of whitewater ahead. In mid-September on the Middle Fork, there are no bad choices.
-By Ron Spomer
A version of this article first appeared in Sporting Classics magazine.