We finished our pheasant hunt early. Pete Peterson, our guide from Ruggs Ranch, said he thought we could pull off a quick, easy chukar hunt.
These were wild birds, he told us. “I’ve got a canyon close to the lodge that should hold a few.”
A quick, easy wild chukar hunt? Fooled me again.
It was early December and I had arranged to meet my old friend, Grant Gehrmann at Ruggs, outside of Heppner, for a day of pheasant hunting. Now we were looking at the mountain with a couple of pointers ready to go to work for us. I laced up my boots. This might start out easy, but it wasn’t going to end easy.
Peterson looked like he wished he had a horse. I wished I had a horse. Ruggs offers horseback hunts, but this wasn’t one of those.
We shut the doors quietly and Peterson kept the dogs on leads until we were well into the canyon. The trail began to lead uphill, or maybe I should say up-mountain.
Peterson let Earl, the German shorthair, go first and then he let Megan, the English pointer, off-leash. Earl’s body quivered and his short tail began to flag.
“Earl’s looking birdy,” Peterson said. Then the dog locked up, his nose pointed at the base of some higher sagebrush. I checked the wind to see where the scent would be coming from and then we walked in. There was more than one bird. The chukar blasted out in all directions, but there was only one for me and I swung hard, squeezed, and watched it fall.
Moments later, Earl pointed a single beneath a cliff and Gehrmann walked in, flushed it and finished it. We could have quit right there and it would have been an easy chukar hunt. That’s not how it works. We had a lot of mountain above us and there might be more birds for the dogs to point.
One thing we know about chukar is that, like most other wildlife species, they go through boom-and-bust cycles. In the 2005 season, hunters bagged a reported 221,418 birds. It is hard to remember in the boom years that a crash is coming. Just two years later, in 2007, the chukar success trickled in at a paltry 41,712.
According to the indicators, the 2013-14 season is not likely to break any records. An Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife forecast reports that last winter, spring and summer’s extreme dry weather in southeast Oregon was hard on the habitat. Overall chukar populations were expected to be similar to the 2012-13 season, which was still below the 10-year average.
Historically, chukar harvest runs highest in Malheur and Harney counties. The next highest harvest comes from the Columbia Basin, which includes Hood, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Morrow and Umatilla counties.
Brood surveys in Malheur County counted 22 chukar per 10 miles and production of 7.7 chicks per brood, a 42 percent decrease from last year, 63 percent below the 10-year average.
The outlook is brighter in Baker County, where brood surveys showed similar numbers to last year. In this region, late-season hunts can produce more birds than early October outings.
Surveys in Morrow, Gilliam and Wheeler counties report upticks in chukar and quail numbers, which bodes well for late-season hunts in and around the Columbia Basin.
Looking at the predictions through the lens of our early December hunt in Morrow County, I can appreciate our success. Perhaps, if we had worked all day, we could have bagged our limits of chukar. Grant finished with two chukar and a Hungarian partridge. I missed another and was content with my single.
There was a snowstorm with an arctic cold front looming over the Ochocos, which was as good as an excuse as I needed to get off the mountain. My legs were sore for two days afterward.
In Umatilla and Morrow counties, chukar season runs through the end of December. In the rest of eastern Oregon, the season runs through Jan. 31.
Chukar numbers go up and down with precipitation, predation and pressure. If chukar populations are low this year, remember that old rule about the boom and bust of upland birds: They could be up next season. This year, you might work harder, but the birds are there, faster and tougher than any grouse or pheasant and a challenge like no other. That’s what keeps us coming back.
— Gary Lewis is the host of “Adventure Journal” and author of “John Nosler — Going Ballistic,” “Black Bear Hunting,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Lewis at GaryLewis Outdoors.com.