When the sun came up we were somewhere near Glass Butte, headed into the sunrise. The snow clung to the sagebrush and daylight twinkled like diamonds across the landscape.
Four hours and a cup of coffee east of Bend, we hung a hard left and pointed our rigs up-country.
When I signaled a halt, Ryan Bales swung his truck into a wide spot in the road. He and Kris Bales turned out the dogs — Royal, a pudelpointer and Solo, a small munsterlander with a big heart.
Across the road, Bill Herrick and I put Liesl’s jacket on her and thumbed chukar loads into our guns.
Seeing Solo reminded me of Melissa Herz. Solo had been Melissa’s dog before the accident that took her life earlier this year. She had trained Liesl too, so she was not far from our thoughts as we looked up at the snow-shrouded hills.
None of us had hunted this particular spot, but I’d had my eye on it, a corner of dense cover I suspected no one else had haunted this season. There was water, cattails, willows and rocky outcrops, the kind of place a wingshooter might find quail and chukar. We walked half a mile through sagebrush and looked down into a tangle of willows no one wanted to bust into. No one except a couple of pudelpointers and a small munsterlander. We followed them down.
Royal and Solo were in the lead when Royal put on the brakes. Ahead of the rest of us, Ryan was almost down into the cattails.
Kris, his eyes tuned for such things, stopped us.
“There’s something moving down there in the cattails,” Kris said. “There’s no wind, just those few stalks moving.”
We saw it. I guessed it was a coyote or a bobcat, hunting birds like we were, but a moment later there were two birds in the air — a flicker juking left and a rooster pheasant beating straight away. Bales’ shotgun floated up to his shoulder. He fired and the bird crumpled, arcing down into the tangle of cattails.
We marked the bird and watched Ryan point his dogs in from the other side. Then Royal emerged with the prize, a trophy as rare and fine as any hunter can wish for — a rooster with 24-inch tail feathers. No one expected such a bird at the ragged end of pheasant season.
We turned our gaze on the rimrocks like castles in the distance then plotted a path up a canyon. Ryan, Kris and Herrick were watching their feet when I saw eight chukar go up out of our canyon and fly over the crest. We huddled to make a quick plan. We knew the birds would beat us, they always do. But we had to try.
Chukar tend to run uphill and fly downhill. A covey might have 10 to 20 birds, but late in the season the snow can push groups of birds together. When we bumped the first covey from an open patch of cheatgrass, they joined up with another group. We followed and tried to cut them off, but each time the birds outguessed us.
Ryan and Kris cut up and around the top of a hill, while Herrick and I skirted below the rimrock. When they came back into view we saw Royal, birdy, cutting back and forth, and then, off to their right, four chukar pop into the sky. Ryan was closest, but he missed and the birds settled back to the ground out of sight.
By this time we were well over a mile from the trucks. I could just see the Ford off in the distance, a sliver of shiny white and chrome against the shine of the snow.
The dogs ranged ahead then dropped back to trudge alongside us in the snow, the temperature getting to them, ice balls on the pads of their feet, icicles in their whiskers.
“This is the kind of thing that separate real men from really smart men,” Herrick said.
Ahead of us we could see a bare spot in a narrow canyon.
“There’s a patch of cheat,” I whispered to Herrick, pointing with my gun barrel. I whistled Liesl close, checked my loads and closed the action.
When we dropped in, the birds were there, a covey of 10, and they broke from cover, flying out down the canyon and around the corner. I shot at a straggler and missed.
By dark we were comfortably ensconced in the Bates Motel in Vale. We dined at Chavelita’s Taqueria then broke out the maps. That little canyon stayed in my mind.
“We might hike back in there again,” I said to Herrick. It was going to be much colder in the morning.
In fact, it was minus-7 when we left the room at dawn.
If we were real smart, we’d have breakfast at the Starlite Café and stay there until lunch, and then drive home and pretend we went chukar hunting. But we’re not all that smart.
— Gary Lewis is the host of Frontier Unlimited TV and author of Fishing Central Oregon, Fishing Mount Hood Country, Hunting Oregon and other titles. Contact Gary at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.