Fresh Snow, Blaze Orange and Opening Day Roosters

Turning down Lewis Gulch, I spied a beautiful draw curling into the wheat fields, free of human track. A sight for sore eyes on the eastern Washington pheasant opener. Whipping the Tundra to the shoulder and throwing her in “park”, we finally had something to look forward to.

Deciding to try something new this year, I quickly re-learned that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We had left home at 5:00am. Four hours hence, we had yet to put boots on the ground for lack of room in the bird covers.

Releasing Finn and Zeta and wading the waist-high grasses, we took delight in our first snow romp of the season as about an inch had fallen above 2,500 feet in the wind farm. The girls and I climbed steadily through the white fluff with the anticipation of pushing roosters to the end of the draw began building. My gut tied in knots with visions of the red-faced, cackling prairie clowns erupting at field’s edge. I knew birds were there. The variety of thick and thin shrubs and grasses was too good to be void.

Zeta inspects the field edge, pretending to find a wily rooster.

It was risky running Zeta the only hour we would hunt this opening morning, but she needed the exposure and the exercise. Half way up the draw, the grasses began to shorten and the cover narrowed to a teardrop point in a ridge-top saddle. Exactly where a running rooster hesitates briefly at the open field before bursting airborne as the dog creeps onto point. And bursting pheasant is precisely what Zeta had in mind.

Shifting my grip on my 20-gauge double for a quick mount, I spied Finn trotting back toward me, eyes on the wheat field. She then stopped cold, turned and came at a run. The gig was up. Finn always returns when a dog bumps the birds. Sitting at my feet with a sheepish gaze, her wide eyes tattled on young Zeta, who was ranging out of sight in utter merriment, according to my GPS locator.

Finn and I crested the hill to find Zeta frolicking in the snow and leaping grass tufts as she does at home, double-checking the brush in the ditch after blowing through at the speed of sound to scatter in terror the birds, cats, chickens, deer and anything else that cares to run. She lives for the chase.

Disappointedly laughing it off, we circled the draw, coming off the far side, and marveling at the splendid winter view. Every visible piece of habitat simultaneously under dissection by hunters, revealed by the specks of blaze orange sprinkled across the landscape.

Descending from the ridge crest, my mind escaped from the hunt into a state of winter stroll. Finn scented below hillside pines while Zeta plowed beneath piles of tumbleweed and thick reed canary grass. At the truck, I emptied snow balls from the front of their jackets and turned the rig toward home.

Finn boasting her snowball collection tucked neatly in her vest. Best laid plans for revenge on Zeta’s follies.

The sun was already warm and rich back on the homestead and Yuba was due a hunt. It had been two months since her second hip surgery to correct dysplasia. She lives to hunt pheasant and her pride was bruised over not loading up with the others this morning. Grabbing the gun and vest from the back seat, I kicked open the paddock gate and smiled as “wobble dog” disappeared behind the barn into the golden, waist-high wheatgrass.

Rounding the barn, I spied Yuba on point, statuesque, her tail-feathers wafting gently in the breeze as the afternoon sun streamed through the long strands of white hair. She encircled a path I mowed for watering our golden currant plantings, catching the scent of birds feeding along the path.

Closing in, she broke point to follow the scent and a dozen pheasant erupted 20-yards to my right, silhouetted against the sun. The occasional down-feather drifted behind them, lit up like orbs and boasting a starburst edge as sun rays streamed through them. Swinging through and squeezing both barrels, the birds vanished unharmed. I had once again delivered a stellar lesson as a professional wildlife educator.

Whistling Yuba back, I sent her into the hillside weed hummocks where the birds had flushed. We entered nearly side-by-side when she slammed onto point simultaneous with a single rooster rocketing from beneath my feet. Sufficiently startled, I whiffed with the right barrel, but as the bird made the 30-yard mark, the left barrel connected perfectly, securing our first bird of the year.

“Wobble Dog” Yuba with her first rooster of the season.

Racing as fast as two unsteady hind legs can carry pup buzzing on the rich aroma of roosters, the black and white flash claimed her bird, mouthing it gleefully as I approached.  Admiring the bright plumage of the young wild rooster and the curiously long, banded tail feathers flanking the two longest in the middle, the success was just a bit sweeter coming from the homeplace where we work the land to serve the birds, and take just one when the numbers are high.

Prancing to the house with our prize in hand, Yuba’s exuberance defined the highlight of her fall. Reveling in the sweet opening day success on the homestead, a dozen birds, no competition and a tight-holding rooster set the bar abundantly high for hunts to come.

Upland Pursuits – Short Hunts for Sunset Roosters

Published December 19th, 2020 in the East Oregonian

The sun rested against the crest of the horizon, a massive sphere radiating vibrant magenta. Wind turbines stood solemnly shadowed in the foreground while a rich golden hue settled across the bunchgrass sea laid out beautifully across the hills and swales before us. Yuba trembled in anticipation as the GPS collar chimed and vest straps clicked securely. 

Leadership training taught me the most valuable lessons of putting “first things first” and “taking care of myself and others” to maximize effectiveness as an employee and satisfaction with life in general. Therefore, as the clock struck 2:30pm on this gorgeous afternoon, a run on the Palouse rose to the top of my priority list like the cream materializing in a freshly squeezed jug of milk. Silently, I dropped from my conference call, tossed Yuba in the back seat and made haste for the wind farm.

Hitting the ground running, Yuba bee-lined to the east. But the faint whisp of wind suggested another approach. Whistling her back, we continued south into the swale. The plan was to cross the swale, ascend the far hill, hunt the ridge line east, then circle back to the north in a pattern reverse of how many hunt the property. Roosters up feeding would be preparing to drop into the swale to roost and I wanted to catch them on flanks before they hit the thick cover.

Llewellin setter, Kea, works a ridge line as the shadows settle upon the Palouse.

Dense reed canary grass envelopes the swale, providing superb roosting cover from predators and cold temperature. It also prevents a pup with bad hips from hunting efficiently, sapping stamina. Hence, I waded quickly through and across the mattress of bent, swishing grasses with Yuba in tow to keep her from expending too much energy in the impossible cover.

Emerging at the toe of the hill, a few colossal tufts of Great Basin wild rye stood clustered along the outskirts of the reed canary tangle. Strolling past, Yuba encircled a cluster of bunches and failed to reappear. Peering around a nearby tuft, Yuba’s breathtaking point offered an eyeblink’s notice before the rooster exploded nearly under my right foot.

Amid the startling heart palpitations, my practice of quick target acquisition instinctually kicked in, securing the roost with an instantaneous burst from the cylinder-choked barrel. Most upland birds begin entering roost covers approximately one hour before dark, and this guy was just on the edge, about to dive in for the night.

Yuba rushed in, securing her prize and whining excitedly as we marveled over the bronze, bared tail and brilliant iridescence of the overall plumage. The Palouse landscape against a gorgeous fall sunset presents a stunning watercolor painting. Throw in the varied tones and flashes of setter and rooster to orchestrate a unique masterpiece worthy of marvel and never to be seen quite the same again.

The author and Yuba revel in the success of an evening hunt.

While those clear, crisp evenings along thick drainage cover are ideal, draw-bottom grasses on higher ground can serve as sufficient roost cover as well.

One rainy Friday evening, my youngest pup, Zeta, ran the high ground below a perched wheat field. The shallow draw opened slightly into a beautiful bowl below the abrupt field edge. The kind of area you would expect to glass a bedded mule deer. While the flanking grasses were little over ankle-high, the draw bottom grasses were knee to thigh high, enough to swallow little zeta as she quartered through the cover like a trick bicyclist in the half-pipe, zooming through the bottom and up the side hill to the rim, then back down again.

Circling down from the left rim, Zeta bumped a covey of Hungarian partridge. A great disappointment as Huns are a rare find for us and I hate to miss possibly the only opportunity of the season. Unlike quail, I have never seen any stragglers. The entire covey goes at once. Yet, hope springs eternal, so I hustled closer in preparation for a second flush, which failed to materialize.

Approached the top of the draw, Zeta became birdy and began working frantically up and down the thick grasses. Simultaneously, Zeta flashed on point, prompting a rooster to rocket from the cover, presenting a beautiful crossing shot. My 20-gauge double rose quickly, depositing the bird in the short grasses. Numerous roosts and scat piles were strewn about. An identical scene presented in the adjacent draw where we pushed up a hen.

While morning and mid-day hunts appear to be a standard for may uplanders, the magic hour before dusk can be nothing short of spectacular for both scenery and locating birds that may sit just a little tighter than typical. If the season is slipping away to other priorities, try putting first things first by squeezing in a short evening hunt. The minimum reward is a run with your pup beneath a painted autumn sunset, and you might even swing a bead over a bird or two.

Upland Pursuits – Seeking the Elusive ‘Devil Bird’ in Eastern Oregon

Published January 16th, 2021

Carefully picking myself up from the edge of a jagged, ice-covered, granite face, I grimaced at the sharp pain in my right hip. My setter, Finn, was entangled between intense interest in a lone sagebrush in which a brace of chukar had just departed, and passing sidelong glances of puzzlement at me as I stretched, groaned, cursed, and struggled to remain upright. Although furious and frustrated, I gazed in awe at the high bluffs above the Columbia River, covered in a fresh blanket of light snow. The water was glass-slick reflecting perfectly the contours of the shoreline.

Wincing again, I recovered the new Browning pump that my wife recently purchased as her upland bird gun. I decided I would “break it in”, and did a fine job by the looks of the fresh and excruciatingly deep gouges in the sleek walnut stock. The chukar pair young Finn had busted were the cause of the fall. Reacting in panic as they careened across canyon, my footing failed on the iced-over, near-vertical slope. “The fall didn’t kill me, but Ali might.” I explained to Finn as she wagged, blissfully ignorant. “I am done with chukar!” was my next utterance.

Like most of the prairie birds we upland hunters are so fond of, chukar are not native to the U.S., initially introduced from Pakistan in 1893. Wild populations presently thrive in 10 western states (California, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming), and British Columbia, Canada.

Chukar can also be found on the main Hawaiian Islands. If you’ve ever been to Kauai, ponder running the rim of Waimea Canyon as the chukar bail over the edge, laughing heartily. Would you shoot? I am far too excited about hunting again tomorrow to even consider recovering a bird in such exaggerated, death-defying terrain. For the record, I never saw or heard chukar in Waimea Canyon (the habitat is all wrong).

In my early upland days, I remained in the dark about areas like the Owyhee and Steens where birds can be found along rimrock and out in the sagebrush. Rather, I traveled to the upper Columbia, scrambling up scree and clinging to the faces. The “Chukar Palace” was a place my buddy Chas introduced me to. Dog-less, he climbs the slopes, taking limits, and never returning with less than a couple birds a day. With or without a dog, I have never even gotten a shot at chukar while hunting the crags with Chas. Holding true to my word, I haven’t returned to the Chukar Palace.

The “Chukar Palace”

Chas’s dog-less success comes from knowing the habitat and reading the bird sign. And I am not convinced that a strong element of luck doesn’t factor into the equation. Sagebrush and cheatgrass are important food sources and water is critical in the early part of the season. Fresh snow holds the birds a little tighter; their tracks betraying their presence. Even without snow, Chas traverses the rolling sagebrush beyond the cliffs, inspecting the recency of scat, and slowing to a halt when its fresh. Remaining still unnerves birds that may be holding nearby. I’ve seen it work time and again. The covey’s thunderous flush like a timebomb exploding at an unknown moment. Remaining calm on the flush is key to drawing an accurate bead.

We have had some good days in the rolling sage. The place literally crawling with birds. A large sagebrush-steppe slope with a few deep crevasses rolls along the western edge of the central Washington scablands, much like the eastern Oregon landscape. I recall a day running Finn with Chas and having a ball. Coveys dappled the terrain, flushing wild and valiantly fleeing into the cliffs where they would “chuk” manically, tempting the foolish predator. At long last, a covey held tight and two came to the vest once our barrels were empty.

A hard-won chukar of the sage-brush steppe.

With the season ending January 31st, only a few weeks remain to seek the elusive “devil bird” in eastern Oregon. The grasslands west of the Blues are usually a good, relatively local area, but chukar numbers seem a bit lower than usual this year, which is interestingly consistent with central Washington. Puzzling is the conversely exceptional Hun year about an hour north near Walla Walla.

Regardless of bird numbers, you should take a hike. Your scatter gun and bird dog, if you have one, would appreciate the exercise. And cabin fever looms, compounded by another nine months before the 2021 chukar season.