Chukar Nuts

You have to be equal parts crazy and reckless to chase these tiny partridges in the vertical hell they call home. But these shotgun biathletes will do anything to flush a covey.
My hosts for this mid-winter hunt were a couple of hardcore Utah bird hunters, Travis Proctor and Mike Robbins. They hunt over Elhew pointers, wide-ranging, hardy veterans that can scramble rock chutes and find birds in 10,000 acres of cheatgrass and wind-blasted limestone.
We are hunting chukar patridges, pigeon-sized birds that are native to the Himalayan foothills of central Asia. Back in their native Pakistan, some hunters call them "red-legged devils" for their ability to vanish in the thin mountain air.
The Toughest Birds
Native to the Himalayan foothills, chukar partridges were introduced to Utah's rugged mountains half a century ago. They thrive on craggy, wind-blasted ridges where few hunters have the ability, or the desire, to go. Travis Proctor and Mike Robbins and their fleet of Elhew pointers spend the winter here. "The first time you hunt chukars, it's for fun," says Robbins. "After that, you hunt for revenge."
An Eruptions of Wings
Last year wasn't a good year for chukars, and coveys were small and scattered across vast mountain ranges. I hiked so hard and high the first day that I tasted blood and my thighs cramped and burned. Finally, in a high cheatgrass saddle, Proctor's veteran pointer, Gus, locked up so staunch he appeared carved from stone and glared at a rocky point. Suddenly, the air was full of whirring charcoal wings as a dozen chukars erupted from the shale. I hit a bird, then watched in dismay as it locked its wings and glided 500 feet down the slope. I've never been so punished for a pretty good shot. The retrieve took a full hour.
Light, fast-pointing doubles and shaved-down semi-automatic shotguns are favored by mountain hunters who might only hike two or three miles from their vehicles. But that distance can be almost straight up the ridges of barren mountains.
Proctor and Robbins pare weight on all their gear, from their minimalist bird vests to their layered clothing. They might start the day with a vest and jacket, but by mid morning they are hunting in shirtsleeves, even though it's February in Utah.
Like a Sheep Hunt, for Birds
"People want to know what are the easy spots to hunt chukars," says Proctor. "There are no easy spots." Find the steepest, most remote, cheatgrass-covered mountain, then hike every brutal inch of it, and you'll find birds. Essential gear includes mountaineering boots, hydration bladders, GPS dog collars and lightweight shotguns. Tough, wide-ranging pointers are required, but even the best hounds can be baffled by a scent trail that leads to a cliff and vanishes in the clear high-country air. By the end of the day, the dogs' paws are bloody and shredded.
An Exquisite Reward
"We've never run out of places to hunt chukars," says Proctor, who founded the Utah Chukar and Wildlife Foundation. "It's all public land and it's accessible to everyone." After my second day, blistered and sore, I marvel that anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to this degree of discomfort. My boots are ruined, my shotgun is scratched and my leather gloves have been shredded by the sharp shale. Then the dogs go on point and we run, gasping, straight uphill to a rocky scarp. The dogs are locked up, tails straight in the air, shoulders quivering with the anticipation of a rise. Travis is taut as a wire, hunched forward, holding his gun like he might snap it in half. We double on birds, and when I look at Travis he's smiling like a blissful child. That's what it's like when you earn a wild Utah chukar.
Sunburnt in February
We bust through knee-deep snow to a high hogback, working cheatgrass benches between the exposed ribs of jagged rocks. The south-facing slopes are blindingly bright with the mid-winter sun, and despite temperatures in the mid 20s, I'm drenched with sweat. The roof of my mouth itches, and I realize that it's sunburned. How? My panting, open mouth has caught the reflected rays of the sun off the bright snow. But hiking off the mountain, I'm satisfied. My game bag is full, my limbs are intact and I've kept up with the toughest bird hunters in America.
Following the dogs on a hot scent, I notice splotches of blood on the white snow. The dogs' feet were bleeding, lacerated by the rough rocks. Travis inspected the pads, rubbed on some rubber cement to toughen the skin, then sent the dog back in the fray. "I could try pulling her off, but it wouldn't be fun for either of us, and it probably wouldn't work," said Proctor. By the end of the day the dog's feet were toughened, though on the drive back to town all the dogs spent a good deal of time licking sore pads.
In a year like this, with coveys spread out over miles, you spend a lot of time simply looking at the remarkable vistas that stretch endlessly across the West Desert.
The hunters stay hydrated by sucking at bladders of water. The dogs get a little water from the snow, but Proctor and Robbins are constantly urging them to take nips from water bottles. In the morning it's a struggle to keep the water from freezing.
A classic chukar loafing spot, at the very edge of a long ridge that drops into a deep, steep boulder field. With one flush, the birds can escape almost any danger that approaches. It's a wonder we took any birds at all.
Proctor's cap betrays his passion. One of the charter members of the Utah Chukar and Wildlife Foundation, Proctor and a handful of committed upland bird hunters raise money for chukar conservation, habitat projects that benefit a wide spectrum of wildlife. Check out their work at www.utahchukars.org .
The sunny side of the mountain. North-facing slopes can have as much as 20 feet of wind-packed snow. But the southern slopes are typically bare and dry. Add rock faces, and microclimates can reach 60 degrees, even on winter days. It's here that chukars will come to warm up and pick at seeds. In the spring, these are the places that see the first insects, and where young chukar broods come to feed.
After a full day of hiking, the afternoon sun starts to lengthen the shadows across the Great Basin.
Robbins makes contact with one of his dogs. The pointer had followed a scent trail nearly a thousand feet down an open ridge. We discussed the wisdom of following the dog, but eventually opted against the hike, which would have put us even farther from our vehicle as the evening approached.
Typical chukar habitat. Note the variation in slope, aspect and snow cover. In a good year you might strike a half dozen coveys in habitat like this.
We finally gain the top of the main ridge. After nearly six hours of constant hiking, everyone is getting bushed. But some of the mountain's best chukar habitat is still ahead of us.
Photographer John Hafner documents our slog along the top of the ridge. We only had to tote guns and shells. Hafner had to carry many more pounds in lenses and other camera gear but he kept up and kept shooting.
One of the effects of prolonged drought in Utah's West Desert is wildfire that has scorched timber and native browse species like bitterbrush. The first plant to return after fire is cheatgrass, which tends to crowd out the native brush. For chukar, cheatgrass has been a boon, but cheatgrass monocultures spell trouble for wintering mule deer and other browsing species that require a more diverse array of food sources.
You'll still see juniper in the moister areas of the higher elevations, but other species such as subalpine fir and oak don't return quickly following wildfires.
We part ways. Mike and I head straight up the slope while drops onto a lower ridge. He will hunt his way to the truck and pick up Mike and me on the north side of the mountain range. We won't see each other until well after dark.
Finally on the very top of the mountain, Mike takes a moment to enjoy the last of the February sun.
The view to the northwest shows us isolated mountain ranges across the Bonneville Salt Flats into eastern Nevada.
The dogs know we're getting near the end of the hunt, but they're not ready to slow down.
We had spotted a mountain lion basking on a sun-struck ledge on the other side of the mountain, but when Mike's pointer came running at us after peering into a basin we were sure a lion would be on his heels. Instead, the dog checked in, got a drink of water, then ranged away again in search of more birds.
Mike snaps a photo of his own from our vantage point. Then he unloaded his shotgun and peered over the corniced edge of the ridge. We're going down there, he said, pointing into a bowl as steep and snowy as any black-diamond ski run.
Mike prepares to pitch into the snowy bowl as the distant Wasatch Range catches the last of the afternoon's sun. Somehow we kept our feet as we sluiced down the bowl, powdery snow up to my hips. We had just enough light to flush one covey of chukars on the lower, snow-free slopes. Then it was dark, and all of us were ready for recovery. It had been a long, physically exhausting but exhilarating day.