Doesn’t necessarily have to stay in Oregon. I recently joked with my gun broker about recent changes in Oregon and our trip to hunt Chukar and Quail. He said, “Guns and Methamphetamine together at last”. I replied, “Be still my beating heart” and chuckled as I walked out the door new 28-gauge side by side in hand.
The next day Jenna and I were saddled up and rolling, headed for the South East-Central region of Oregon. A desolate and remote place with a special austere beauty. For the record, the scenic by-way really isn’t the most scenic route to take. To be honest it is rather anticlimactic if not the most direct way to get to our designated accommodations.
When we drive, we drive. We care for our dogs, yes. After that everything else suffers to some degree. We had secured lodging with a regionally historic spot, and I was kinda looking forward to staying there. After a long haul we were immensely proud to have arrived in time to have been able to order a hot dinner, at least according to their electronic presence, only to be told – no dice. At least he was friendly about it as he nodded to the store, we were being welcomed to explore. I chose a bag of Lays Sour Cream and Onion chips and a Chocolate Porter produced in state. Jenna selected a potpourri of sweets. She may have chosen more wisely as my tongue was still tainted by the chips in the morning… but you aren’t here to read about this kind of stuff, or are you?
How can I describe Chukar hunting? Well in many places it can be a profoundly serious event. Like life or death serious for you and or your dog – I have a story or two I could use to highlight this for you, if you cared to hear them. This is after all part of the mystic of Chukar hunting. At its simplest terrain is your primary antagonist. Everything else is, well, optional. We signed in, and then opened our gate and headed up.
The trail was oft off camber and slippery, but no match for the Power Wagon or my resolve. Slowly we wound our way to where seemed like a reasonable place to stop and disembark on our Oregon Chukar adventure. We prepped Tule and Powder, then set off, uphill. So up we went. Going up isn’t something you to take for granted. Be it a step, or a hundred. You feel each one. Each and every step. Our objective was a high alpine meadow, nestled in a craggy bowl high up. Schlepping higher. I arrived behind the girls, slightly out of breath. Jenna is still climbing, dogs are on scent – of course they are. No rest for the weary, I trudge on. Powder is on point a hundred yards out. Tule is exploring space fifty yards to the North of her, the ground is now like walking on a large Twinkie covered in thick grass. Tule joins Powder. No mistakes are made, the second dog was too much, and the Chukar begin boiling out and across to where Tule was investigating. Yes! This never happens. The girls begin working the birds again. It takes little and they are out and up. S.O.B. Like a fool I pursue them to no avail.
We allowed ourselves to be taunted by the Chukar’s call to reconvene. Stalking one here and there only to be made to feel a fool, again. Chukar hunting, it gets personal quick. After getting our fill, we opted to hunt down and around. Possibly we could get into more chukar, but I had hunted here before, and there was a veritable army of quail living amongst the spring seeps dotting the mountainside. Surely, that would pay a dividend.
We looped around, the girls got birdy, and like many times in bird hunting you have a choice to do this or that. Literally a 50/50 shot at doing the right thing. Invariably I choose the wrong ‘50’. Powder was on them, the point indicator was right, she wasn’t lost and figuring her life out – she was on point. The birds flushed overhead to drive the point home – Jeeebuz. Where were these damn quail anyway? We zigzagged down, spring by spring. Nothing. Not a damn thing. What. The. F?! There was one much lower, but I called it. Jenna’s foot was sore and to hit the last one, we’d be all but on the valley floor – I did that last year, walking back up on cooked pasta for legs – yeah, it wasn’t so exciting. I was willing to give the quail a pass if they were there. You win, this time.
The truck wasn’t so far away. But it was so much higher. The Mandalorian could be there in a moment. I could be there in maybe an hour if I pushed. Jenna wasn’t having fun, so it was going to be a trudge. So we trudged. And in trudging one is given time for self-reflection. I came to understand. I am a good person, like many with some misgivings, but a good person nonetheless. Existentialism. Self-Exploration. F*@#king Chucker hunting. The truck was close – thank God.
The girls had been getting birdy off and on. Pushing here and there. Pulling back, searching. But the truck. It was close, right? Bing, bang, bong. Powder was on point, wait, Tule was too, just over there. The girls are juking and jiving. Point, move, point. One loses it and returns, then the other…
Holy shit it’s steep, but I can’t lose contact, or it’ll be another lost opportunity. The wind, what is going on? I can barely take a step. Tule on my right, Powder to my left, maybe at most 10 yards apart. The hail came. Punch, push, point. Finally, I found the energy and steeped through – they bastards flushed. Pop! I had one. The hail stung so badly. The chukar shot on it’s left it went spinning to the floor. Tule went one way, Powder the other. I went straight ahead to where the bird should have hit – nothing. Shit. Tule cruised by happy as a lark, without a bird. Where was Powder? She materialized up the insanely steep slope with a very lively bird in her mouth. Yes!
About 15 feet out she was met by Tule who lowered and turned her head. Powder, slowed, and gently lowered the very much alive bird to the ground and opened her mouth slightly, but kept it penned on the ground and allowed Tule to pick the bird up. She walked side by side with her, as Tule brought the bird to me. Who are you kidding, these dogs are Super Pro! Now, please make the hail stop.
It’s been said many times already but please indulge me, just one last time. We had one heck of a busy summer. Tule and Powder have not just timed their heat cycles together, but they have taken it to a level we think few would believe. Their cycles are not the same duration, and they ovulate at different times in their cycles. Starting their heat cycles on the same day, well, that’s for rookies. These girls started when they needed to start to begin their ovulations within twelve hours of one another! Yeah, it’s like that around here. They also gave birth barely eighteen hours apart. It was very generous of them to allow us some rest and the threat of getting some sleep. But within short order we had a baker’s dozen of gorgeous pups to attend to. You can visit their litter pages HERE & HERE to see and read about these glorious pups. These litters came a bit later in the summer than we would have preferred, but it’s not like we get a vote…and as we were gearing up to receive our clients for pick-up week, others were hitting the field and getting into birds.
We had been kicking around plans to hunt Eastern Idaho since last winter, but when it came time, we heard the call of the Montana Hi-Line. We had never hunted the region, and it had been a full decade since I had hunted Sharptailed grouse – I no longer had a dog with experience on the species. As we juggled client communications and care for the pups, Jenna did what she does best and hatched a travel plan. With just a tiny bit of input from me she lined out an excellent itinerary – holy crap, we were going!
Like crazy people, the last pup left and the next day we were on the road, hoping that our newly installed and minimally tested sprinkler timers would not disappoint. We started our journey exhausted, but it was fueled by the hope of being like those we saw on the various Facebook groups we are members of.
Montana’s system of block management is quite frankly a wonderful example I feel more states should try to emulate. Landowner recruitment is good across the state and in some areas nothing short of amazing. Better yet, the properties enrolled in the program, generally speaking, are pretty darn good, or in many cases downright amazing – quite unlike what we have here in Eastern Washington…
For our first hunt, we had selected a place where three large parcels converged, one Bureau of Land Management (BLM), one state owned, and the other a beautiful piece of block management land. We stopped to look over the map to locate the sign-in box and to our surprise, we were gifted with an enormous covey of Sharptail crossing the road. From the private block management property to the BLM property – no sign-in required, have a nice day.
We took our time and put both Powder and Fowler down and within moments, they were on the birds – but the birds had really covered some ground in these few minutes. As you might expect, Team Double Dutch worked them perfectly and I was able to pull two Sharpies from the first covey rise. One for each dog. How about that?
What follows here was a series of poor decisions on our part. We had assumed Ila was ready to hunt in a brace, and that running her with Tule, our other Higgins dog, would be fine… yeah, about that. They weren’t ready to be run together and the experience was an unmitigated disaster. Each dog caused the other to make an error, and those errors only created more energy management problems, and errors. It was like a hurricane made of fire. Ila was running around like a total lunatic, chasing every bird, and not heeding any input from either of us – so far from her norm. The disaster culminated in her putting up a large covey of Sage Grouse and promptly ran them off the block of BLM. Finally, she regained control of herself and was returned to the truck. It was a quiet, tense, eternally long walk. At least for me that is.
We took Tule back out and as we did a new covey of Sharptail came over from the block management property to the BLM and landed about one hundred and fifty yards in front of us. Can you believe this? Tule had also regained her self-control during the intermission, so she was allowed to hunt these birds. She over pressured her first contact and they flushed. She remained steady. We caught up to her and set her out again. This time much more careful, but more or less the same result, too much pressure. The birds were spread out now, so it was all about remaining calm and allowing her to work. Then, bam. We had a point. The birds were running, so Tule carefully began tracking the bird(s). Point. Stalk. Point. And so on. She was being very careful now and then it happened. We had The Point. She had one dead to rights. I moved into position and released her to flush. She did so and I did my job for her and took the bird. Once it was down, Tule was released for the retrieve. Tule did a great job working the rest of the birds, and just like that we had a limit of Sharptail in a matter of no time.
Now to let us fast forward to Ila’s redemption. We had explored nearly the full expanse of Greater Middle of Nowhere, Montana. Some places more productive than others and some much less so, but that’s hunting for you and to be expected when you don’t have any honey holes mapped out. Ila and I came to a nice-looking piece of block management filled with a lush carpet of prairie grasses. Two of its edges were bordered by cut wheat fields – promising. Just as I was finishing up my sign-in card a local pulled in. Geez, I thought to myself, “It’s not that big, you saw from a mile away I was here…really”? He seemed just as off put by being beaten to the spot, yet he went and signed in. He opened the conversation sheepishly asking how I had intended to hunt the property. I basically stated I was planning to try to keep my pup into the wind as much as I could by doing a rather large counterclockwise loop in the large rectangle set before us. He offered to go to the far end and hunt the fence bordering one of the cut fields. I said, “sure”. In hindsight I’m positive it came out quiet curtly, much more so than intended, but in the moment, I thought I had done a good job of sounding out a compromise. Ila and I set out, and he drove off.
I have been blessed with some really nice hunting dogs. However, no matter how good your dog is you have to get through their puppy and juvenile phases. Ila is cresting her juvenile phase and so is subject to some young Drentisms. Said quirks can be outright comical most times, but in the same breath can be so frustrating when the timing isn’t optimal. All my Drents have enjoyed pointing field mice and working up a few meadow larks as a pup, some more so than others. Then there is Ila. She has taken the art of hunting mice and larks to a rather elevated level, really, I should just call it what it is – fine art. Few have seen such exquisite work from any dog! I have a friend who regularly produces National Field Trail Champion German Shorthairs – Terry, who has seen countless dogs work in the field would have his spine shiver to see her work (on field mice).
With that said, yes, the first thirty minutes were filled with this ‘great dog work’ on field mice. My soul slowly filling with despair. I was thankful that Jenna, my beloved, wasn’t with us for the first time ever – she would have been spitting red hot nails. Yet Ila went from mouse nest to nest, working each one with such great care, then mounting such dramatic and stylish points as ever recorded in Drent history. Each time, my excitement was like a veritable tidal wave. Rising. Climbing far above the ocean floor. Rolling. Growing. Climbing. Cresting…then crashing into oblivion. We walked on. Ila happy as a lark. Hunting for whatever may be possible.
In my mind I had resigned. Partially a good thing. Being detached can be quite amazing for your energy management and how that may potentially affect your dog. Her search was arrested abruptly. She geared down and was for a moment channeling her grandfather, Booker. A panther, stalking in the grass. God it was beautiful. This wasn’t a field mouse; it was something special. “Jesus”, I thought, “It’s happening”. She carefully stalked and gently eased into a point. I still had ground to cover forty yards at least to even consider being in range. Her point only magnified. Intensified. Did she grow in size? This was it. I carefully positioned myself. She differed to me and a moment later I gave her the queue to flush. She launched herself into the grass with abandon and a hen pheasant erupted. She remained steady without any encouragement from me, and we watched her fly away. I went and knelt by her side, stroked her up, and told her what a good girl she was. Was this it? It was time to hit the part closer to the road, where the local was to theoretically have hunted.
Within a few minutes I was able to see, he never came to our field, but instead hunted the coulee bisecting the other cut wheat field which ran up to the road. Soon after Ila began a ‘wiggly butt’ march. Clearly a sign of being birdy, but not with the level of self-control I wanted from her. I handled her away and watered her. No matter once released she resumed the behavior within moments. Then without warning they flushed – Sharptail! She stood and watched. I shot at one like a fool. We regrouped, shared a snack and a drink then set back out. Just like before, the wiggly butt started again. She was tracking Sharptail. But was she being too aggressive? One flushed wild. She stood, and I let it go. Inside I was like, damnit. Our chances are near done, if not… But we did still have a long walk back to the truck.
Again, her body language was telling. She had bird. This time she was more controlled. More calculating. Still, far out of range, but I know if it’s going to work out, it will. If she gets the point, it doesn’t matter how far out she is. She trailed the birds, I trailed her. This game of ‘cat and mouse’ went on for some time. It was intoxicating. Then suddenly it happened. Her point. She was nearly two hundred yards out. The exhaustion of the sleepless nights and never-ending work of the puppies, these days of relentless hunting and driving from sunup to sunset, washed away. It felt as if I floated through the thick as molasses prairie grass. Still she stood, as if hewn from granite. I drew closer. She stood. I started think, it’s going to work, she has them. She stood. I closed ground. She stood. I realized I took a line which veered me left of her by a fair distance. Floating or not, the grasses where dense and high. Making a bee line just wasn’t practical for me. As I drew abreast of her still a good twenty yards away. She differed to me. I paused wondering what the right answer was. It was then the covey flushed from between us! I looked to Ila; she was statuesque. I picked out a bird and shot – it fell. I looked back to her, still standing, motionless, watching the birds. I looked back, and thought, I can take another. So, I did. It was soft hit and did quite a dramatic ‘danza de los Muertos’ for our benefit. Still, she stood. Watching the covey vanish from sight. I came to my senses and released her to retrieve. Still she stood – LoL. I released her again and stepped off, she followed suit and there is it. A covey rise double on Sharptail over my fifteen month old pup.
Yes, there was much, much more to this trip than this brief excerpt. We had a grand time, met up with a former client, and fellow DPCNA Board member and now friend. We also had several Sharptail hunts ruined by hundreds to pheasants… We were also left wondering why we had not been doing this every year.
I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Fifty some years later this is what you get.