Once again the hunter returns, humbled by a bunch of birds

By Jayson Jacoby January 01, 2010 09:18 am

The point when you know, beyond all doubt, that you’re the worst wingshooter alive is when a fleeing bird slows right after you’ve fired at it.

And I mean “at it” in the theoretical rather than the literal sense.

It’s as if the bird, having recognized that the person wearing the vest with a recoil patch is about as malignant as a kangaroo rat, is curious to see how wildly astray the next wad of pellets will fly.

This is, of course, a dangerous habit for a chukar to indulge in.

The odds are good that the next hunter who comes along will pose a rather more immediate threat.

Actually the odds are better than that — 100 percent, not to put too fine a point on it.

In my hands a 12-gauge is not so much a weapon as it is a noisemaker that litters lead.

Although I suppose I could inflict grievous wounds on a bird by clubbing it with the shotgun’s butt, if only the bird would sit still for a moment and let me get my feet set.

Except chukar never sit still.

Oh sure, the occasional bird with a keen sense of the absurd might, as I’ve mentioned, tarry a bit to revel in a display of historically inept marksmanship.

But that’s just for amusement.

In the main the chukar, along with its slightly smaller but similarly fleet cousin the Hungarian partridge, strives to depart with all possible haste any place where shotgunners are present.

This instinct can annoy even a skilled shooter.

But it’s especially irritating to someone like me, who hands the birds the equivalent of a four-touchdown lead before I even get out of the rig. And no matter that I’m carrying the gun and the birds aren’t.

Truth is, I’m more likely to come away from the hunt with scars, and maybe a nice tibial fracture, than the birds are. (I’m not sure chukar have tibias, but you get the idea.)

Once in a great while you see a chukar as you’re standing on ground that’s flat, or anyway almost flat.

Only there’s hardly any ground that’s flat, or almost flat, where the chukar live.

Also, the chukar never go to those places.

Although sometimes a bird will fly over one of those places.

At Mach 3.

Which reminds me of a discrepancy about which I’ve long been puzzled.

The military, quite naturally, has affixed avian nicknames to many of its speedy fighter jets.

I don’t quibble with most of their choices — falcon and eagle, for instance, are appropriate.

What I don’t understand is why nobody has yet bestowed “chukar” on one of these sleek planes.

Eagles and falcons are majestic in flight, to be sure.

But I doubt any raptor could match, for sheer aerobatic agility, a chukar that’s diving for the shelter of a patch of sumac at the bottom of a sagebrush canyon.

It’s a wonder the birds don’t trigger a sonic boom.

As for my point about terrain: to enjoy even the dubious pleasure of wasting a box of shells you have to go into steep country.

Here you will fall.

Fortunately, because the ground is nearer to vertical than horizontal, you won’t fall for long before fetching up against something.

Usually this is a rock, an accessory with which chukar country is lavishly appointed.

The birds seem to know when a hunter is in a particularly clumsy pose — trying to kick a toehold into a slope that resembles nothing so much as a frozen waterfall, for instance.

(I’d carry an ice axe when hunting chukar in winter except I don’t have an ice axe. And I have trouble handling the shotgun with both hands free.)

This is when the birds flush.

Yet the knack for evading at the instant when the hunter is clutching a rabbitbrush to avoid a lengthy slide is but a fragment of the chukar’s omniscience.

They can sense when a shell jams the breech, and when a hunter pauses to rummage through his pack for his water bottle.

Also they can make themselves invisible.

Chukars are not, however, invincible.

They would be, except that people who aren’t me sometimes shoot at them.

We were hunting the day after Christmas down on the Brownlee breaks.

I had already jumped maybe 10 birds and fired half a dozen shells without ruffling a single feather.

A pair of birds erupted from a patch of sagebrush about 40 yards ahead and slightly above me.

I was getting ready to miss again when my brother-in-law, Dave Britton, fired from the top of the ridge.

One of the birds dropped straight down, like an engineer’s plumb bob.

We found the bird — it was a Hun rather than a chukar — after a few minutes.

That was the only bird our party brought down, although I expended more than my share of ammunition.

It was nonetheless a pleasant day, as most days are when you travel by foot for many hours in remote country without seeing a car.

The air was cold and clean and the snow crust so firm that you hardly ever broke through and had to wallow.

All six of us — Dave’s brother, Chuck, their dad, Howard, Chuck’s son, Levi, and Dave’s boy, Tyler — got in a bit of exercise.

I suppose it wasn’t much of a hunting trip; none of us put a sizable dent in our eight-bird daily bag limit, anyway.

But later we drove downriver to the cabin that Howard and his wife, Sandee, own and we amused ourselves for an hour or so by heaving rocks and driftwood and assorted other shoreline detritus onto their frozen cove, to see if we could punch a hole in the ice.

The only meat I got that day was a chunk of pepperoni stick from the cooler.

But there was this: It’s the only hunting trip in which I’ve wondered whether, with the aid of a long roll on ice, I could drive a golf ball clear across the river to Idaho.

Next time, Dave and I vowed, we’re bringing our drivers as well as our shotguns.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.