Dancing with the Devil
The Mountain pulls me closer
Sweet sage on Her breath,
Offering up in equal parts
Life, and hard-earned Death.
Amongst the cliffs, the rocky crags
And cheatgrass covered slopes,
Dwells the fickle, feathered embodiment
And Sum of all my hopes.
Boots laced tight, strap vest snug
A twenty slung on my back.
Taking measure of the vast expanse,
There’s nothing this landscape lacks.
Up, Up, Up I climb,
Then Slip-n-Slide back down.
Satanic choirs serenade,
From the mountain’s jagged crown.
I can taste my lungs, both knees bleed,
There’s fire in every joint.
Scurrying, crawling, a cruel ascent,
I see my dog on point!
Head and tail scrape the sky
Tongue flickers, sipping scent.
Made of stone, each muscle taut,
The ground explodes, wings a whirl!
Now, to keep a shooting stance,
While slaloming down the mountainside
Atop a talus avalanche?
One ounce of shot, #6 size
Splits the frigid air.
Grey wings dive ‘round rimrock’s edge
Unscathed! Untouched! Not there!
Hour after hour I trudge along
Wearing weary as I go,
Embracing the price I choose to pay
For Secrets that I know.
Reluctantly I pull away,
Feeble, exhausted, spent,
Knowing I’ll dream again tonight
Of going where I went.
Such Love! Such Hate! A Paradox,
This high desert mountain grants
Each evil…wicked…wonderful day
The Devil asks me to dance.
Mile Post 9 – Marsing, Idaho. Anderson Ranch – Sunnyside, Washington. Red Rock – Reno, Nevada. Robertson Ranch – Payette, Idaho.These western trial grounds are located in terrain the chukar partridge calls home and test the mettle of every dog, horse, man and woman that dares to roam there. The rewards are as great as the effort it takes to prepare to run and compete with dogs in this hostile environment. The dogs that do well here have a specific set of characteristics and skills; so do the horses for that matter. As for the human part of the equation, well, I think most of them have a screw loose somewhere.
“Normal “people don’t spend countless hours, over endless years, chasing birds that one minute have you gasping in awe and wonder, and the next minute wanting to hurl your shotgun off a cliff. Welcome to the wonderful world of the chukar partridge, affectionately known by those who hunt them as the “Devil Bird”.
The first time I went chukar hunting, I spent most of the day chasing them…uphill. That’s right, uphill! That strategy is without a doubt, the dumbest, least effective way to pursue the chukar partridge. They can easily outrun a human, and when there is snow on the ground, times that by ten. I kept thinking we were getting close…oh, so close! But each time I thought we were narrowing the gap, they outran me. In my mind’s eye, I can still see their heads ducking and bobbing through the yellow bunches of grass protruding through the snow. They reminded me of little gray helmeted soldiers marching (at a furious pace!) up the hill. Despite chasing these birds for over two hours, I never got a shot, and my dog never had a productive point where I could actually walk in and flush birds. It gave a whole new meaning to “relocating”. Imagine two straight hours of relocations that never produced a thing! I have run marathons and done a couple of triathlons but I have NEVER been as exhausted at the end of any activity as I was after that day of chukar hunting. The word “masochist” comes to mind because as painful as it was, and as much as I HATED such self-inflicted misery, I dearly loved it too. Even then, I could feel the beginnings of a polarizing relationship. Those feelings only intensify every time I turn a dog loose in chukar country.
The chukar partridge was first introduced in North America in 1893, when W.O. Blaisdell brought five pairs of wild birds from India. Their introduction was attempted in most states of the Union and Canada in the ensuing years, but only in the most rugged and arid terrain did they survive and thrive, most of that being in the western United States. Since then, this elusive and challenging bird has become a favorite of sportsmen and sportswomen across the country.
Every spring, I (and most other chukar lovers I know) watch the weather with great trepidation. It can’t be hot and dry or the newly hatched chicks won’t survive; under extremely hot and/or dry conditions, the hens won’t attempt to nest at all. There needs to be enough moisture to create a favorable environment for both plant and insect production (insects are especially important as a source of dietary protein, during the first several weeks of a chick’s life), but not so much moisture that the chicks will become excessively wet, and as a result, chilled. Like most things having to do with these birds, opposites are at play here and a delicate balance is vital…actually imperative. More western bird hunters’ prayers petition Heaven during the spring and early summer than at any other time of the year.
Many things factor into being successful in this unique environment. Probably the biggest consideration is the terrain itself. Rocky, rough, steep and unforgiving are all words that describe a landscape that stretches as far and high as your imagination and legs (either your own or a trusty mount’s) can take you. Volcanic rocks punctuate grand expanses of grassy, brushy cover; great talus slides drape the hillsides and, along with plentiful sharp shale, can do a wretched number on a horse’s hooves, as well as challenge their ability to stay on all fours. In every direction, there are miles and miles of things to trip over and tumble or slide on! I recall one championship at Mile Post 9 a few years back, where 17 horse shoes were replaced during the first day’s running of an all age championship. It takes a good horse (prepared by a good farrier), to get you safely through that country for multiple days.
More than one “foreign” judge has been heard to comment that he really hoped, “A dog doesn’t have a find up there, cuz I ain’t riding up to see it!” There are places on the courses called things like “Dead Horse Knob” at the Mile Post 9 grounds outside Marsing, Idaho. Evidently, there have been some horses never make it off the course. On the Red Rock grounds in Reno, Nevada, the range of mountains bordering the course on the west effectively lures “chukar dogs” to run where they have always found birds in the past…the TOP. What a daunting hopeless feeling it is to look up and see how far the “top” really is! The times I have run in championships there, I found myself riding along, silently hoping and audibly praying (along with that “foreign” judge) my dog stayed up long enough to make a good showing but not long enough to actually have a find. The ride up to a dog on point makes you thankful (or willing to pay BIG bucks) for a good horse. My barometer of a “good horse” is one I can ride, for hours at a time, and never think about being on a horse. They must have endurance, confidence, and be extremely sure footed. If I can look back on a training session or several braces at a trial and only remember what the dogs did, then my mount was a keeper.
If you REALLY want to gauge your riding prowess, you might try going out for a training session with Richie Robertson at his place. What fun it is coursing across miles and miles of volcanic bowling balls, nary a hoof hitting bare ground! And don’t worry about slowing him down, Richie won’t be waiting for you or your horse to figure it out….he’ll be far ahead, off his horse and flushing birds for his dog while you are still back there wondering HOW to get down or around that 50 foot cliff!
The rugged rocky ground can also play havoc with a dog’s feet…heck, it plays havoc with a dog’s entire body! Broken or totally extracted toenails, torn pads, or pads gone altogether, shoulder and leg injuries, can all be common occurrences.
The subject of “feet” is frequently discussed among serious chukar hunters. Nothing will spoil a hunt quicker than a dog’s feet getting messed up, and you can forget about hunting multiple days. Some say the color of a dog’s pads (dark being better) is the determining factor, but I haven’t found that to be the case. I have seen dogs with dark pads blow them every time they run, and dogs with light-colored pads go day after day.
Aside from conditioning (which should be maintained), and in addition to the structure of the feet themselves (a chukar dog’s feet should be compact/tight, with well formed, closely spaced toes, not splayed or “coon-footed”), is the matter of how the dog carries himself/herself while running and hunting. In my opinion, this is the greatest factor determining how long a dog’s feet will last in chukar country. Dogs with a lot of hunting desire or “heart”, but having an inefficient gait (dogs that run laboriously, pound the ground, and carry themselves awkwardly when running) will have a lot more “foot issues” that impact performance, than the dogs blessed with both “heart” and “light footed” conformation.
An efficient gait is directly related to stamina, and it’s easy to see why, if you leave a dog on the ground long enough. This is one area where I don’t think most field trials provide a sufficient test. In my experience, one hour, even with a strong finish in front of a horse, just isn’t long enough to tell which dogs will give out, and which ones won’t, hunting for several hours (usually 3-5 hrs. for me), multiple days per week, over an entire chukar hunting season (16-20 weeks). Some nice trial dogs will be used up and “done” — ready to go back to the truck in an hour, and others are still running hard and pulling the hills after 3 hours. I want the 3 hour dog…more specifically, I want the “3 gutsy hours in rough country” dog. And I want to be able to run the same dog the next day if I so choose.
The real test for stamina in field trial dogs is found in endurance events like the National Championship, the National Free-for-All, the Southern and Continental Championships, and the Quail Championship Invitational. I believe these longer events allow for a much more complete assessment of both the physical and mental capacities of the dogs that run in them. I feel very strongly about hunting a chukar dog on a consistent basis for exactly the same reasons. Only after regular and prolonged time on the ground can you identify which dogs truly have “durability” and “bottom/stamina”…traits that are important to every chukar hunter I know.
Even a dog that can run forever won’t be much use without a good nose, and intelligence enough to use it. Hot, dry conditions make scenting difficult during the early part of chukar-hunting season. Late in the hunting season, the wariness of the birds often demands that a dog must point well off from the game. Many times I have had to go 50 to 100 yards in front of the dog to get birds up. Sometimes the birds are on the opposite side of the canyon, or in the cliffs, over and down the hill from where the dog is standing. Other times they will be hunkered down in the shimmering snow, treating you to a powder shower when they flush.
I have long since given up any notion of deciphering what a dog smells, how he finds birds or gets them pointed. How a dog can tell EXACTLY how close or far away to point, on any given day, under a thousand different circumstances, is beyond my comprehension. I don’t try to understand it…having great reverence for the ability is all I can offer. The best thing we can do for our dogs is expose them to wild birds early in life, and then keep putting them down in productive terrain, time…after time…after time.
Frequently, the birds win, but when it all comes together and the dog and I win, the experience is an extraordinary one. I was reminded of that recently while hunting with my 2-year-old pointer, Sunny. Sunny was developed on wild chukar. Doubly blessed with a healthy dose of “bird sense” from both parents, she pointed and held her first pair of wild birds at 4 ½ months of age. That day in March changed her life forever. From that moment on, Sunny has been on a mission to find the same source of intoxicating scent that turns movement into masonry, a precocious puppy into a full-fledged bird dog.
It was a particularly cold day, in the single digits, with a steady north wind blowing. We had been out the day before but in near blizzard conditions, we failed to get into many birds (or at least birds I could see or hear), so I wanted to try again, hopefully, with better results. Whining in anticipation, Sunny disappeared to the front, running hard into the brisk wind. I didn’t see her for a while, but I have learned if she doesn’t have birds, she will be checking back…if she does, she won’t. She didn’t. The only difficulty was that she was close to 500 yards away by the time I caught a glimpse of her, standing just below the crest of a wind-swept hill, two ridgelines over. A LOT of steep rocky ground covered the distance between us and I wasn’t sure I could even get down or around some of the cliffy places, especially with snow on the ground. I had to stop several times along the way to catch my breath…okay, I had to stop several times to swallow the dry heaves creeping up my throat.
Sunny has been patient on game since puppyhood. Exposure to wild birds exclusively for a full year after that first puppy point, coupled with additional training done in the off season, has helped natural composure develop into remarkable reliability. It must have taken me close to 30 minutes to get to where she stood, rooted in place, until I arrived. I anticipated the birds would be a long way out, because of the puffs of snow that were whipping off the ridge, because I was having a hard time keeping my balance, and because I noticed that both of Sunny’s ears were “wind pinned” tightly to her head. I’m not sure she could have moved, even if she’d wanted to…it was so cold, there was a distinct possibility her feet were frozen to the ground! Over the crest of the hill and down the other side, safely tucked under the outcroppings below, a dozen birds flushed before I ever got in position to shoot. That’s chukar hunting!
For the next 2 hours, I watched Sunny work her magic. She had find…after find…after find. Some coveys, some pairs or threes, and a few singles. She found birds down in the bottom of canyons…she found them on steep hillsides…she found them buried in sage bush out on flat hilltop plateaus…she found them in cliffs, and in places where sparse bunches of cheatgrass was the only cover. She successfully handled birds that ran, and birds that sat tight. I shot a few, she retrieved a few, including one winged bird that ended up 200 yards from where I was SURE it went down.
Days like that keep me coming back. Days like that make me lace up my boots 75 times every year, eager to subject myself to all sorts of physical discomfort, just for the chance to see my dog pointing a covey of chukar…one more time. The steep price of admission will always be worth it.
“If you want to catch beasts you don’t see every day,
You have to go places quite out of the way.
You have to go places no others can get to.
You have to get cold and you have to get wet, too.” — Dr. Seuss
I wonder if Dr. Seuss was a chukar hunter?