When the Mountain Wins

5f71b7c6-def0-4fa3-9b2b-9bd5fcf6e66eChukar hunting is not for the weak of heart. Chukars are called devil birds for a reason. Just the pursuit alone is enough to have someone losing their religion. With waterfowl season wrapping up, I like to finish the hunting season with chukar. The chukar season in Utah goes until about valentine’s day. I had some time off and decided that I needed to get chasing chukar. I’ve chukar hunted before with differing levels of success. This year I have had horrible luck on upland birds. The determination was set in my heart and getting chukar would be the greatest of prizes.

I hadn’t hunted much last season. Life had thrown a few curve balls and my batting was below average. If I could be successful hunting chukar, the season would have been completely worth it. My preparation started a couple of days earlier at work. I took some time and pulled up the DWR website and looked at spots where Chukar had been released. In Utah, we stock chukar for a few different reasons. They are hard to survey, they live in hard terrain and trying to survey and count the population of chukars is very difficult. The other reason has to do with the inability of surveying chukars. There aren’t very many hunters that hunt chukar in Utah. Without getting good reports from hunters, the DWR has just found that a stocking program is the best way of managing the chukar population. The benefit is that the DWR shares that information with us hunters.

As I was preparing for this hunt, there was snow falling outside and there had been some significant snow a few days before. I had to keep this in mind. The amount of snowfall would directly impact my hunt. I like hunting chukar after the snow has fallen and has had a chance to melt. This exposes southern slopes and ups my chances of finding chukar, especially since I don’t have a dog to hunt with. Due to the snow, I chose to go further south. My thought was that there would be less snow and the warmer temperature would help me. The spot I chose to go has a creek that runs at the bottom of a canyon. The slopes have lots of grass and there are cliffs on the ridgeline. As far as I was concerned, chukar would happily live there. I asked a couple of buddies on how much snow was on the mountain I was planning on hiking. I got some mixed information, but I decided this was where I would go the next morning.

Most of my scouting was done on OnXmaps. I used the desktop version for my scouting. I like using both satellite and the topographical map. To the top of where I planned on hiking, I was looking at a 1500’ elevation gain in about half a mile. Being in the west, most of our topographical maps are full of tight and wide lines. Learning to read a topographical map can be a major advantage, along with a survival skill. Looking at the map, I thought most of it was doable. A challenge for sure but I’d be able to do it. I liked the layout of the land a lot. This area that I was going to is a Walk-in Access area. Some property owners allow hunting on their land but only as a Walk-in Area. I think that’s a great idea that the state had to partner up with landowners. I knew where I was going to go, and the excitement was electrifying. That night, sleep was questionable.

Morning came and I rushed home. I grabbed my shotgun and found that I had lost my hunting vest. I thought it was in storage, but it wasn’t. The vest I use is just a 20-dollar vest that did the trick. I stopped at a sporting goods store, but all the vests had been put away already. I was out of luck on that end, so I was going to have to improvise to carry any birds home. At least I had plenty of ammo in the truck so that wasn’t going to be an issue. I also made sure I had my shooting earplugs. I did not want the echo of me shooting to help me go deaf so using my Decibullz earplugs was a must. It felt good to be driving out knowing my shotgun was once again in my truck. My shotgun has become a companion and a time machine. When I think of getting a new shotgun, I almost feel like I’m betraying a friend. We both have scars and stories. We both get home tired and beat up. It’s a weird bond that I share with my shotgun. My boots are also companions to my adventures. They tell the stories of where I’ve been and the adventures we’ve had. Throwing boots away is hard for me to do. I still have the first pair of fire boots that I wore on my first structure fire. I put them on when I do yard work but lately, they don’t get much use.

img_5155After letting my mind wander, I finally got to the spot I wanted to hunt. It was 29 degrees and I knew that I was going to get warm hiking. I took a picture looking at the top of the mountain where I was sure the chukar would be. I checked my gear once last time and loaded my shotgun as I started hiking. Surprisingly most of the snow had melted in this area. The last storm must have missed this spot. The lack of snow was a little deflating. I was counting on it to find the chukar. Regardless, I pressed on. The top of the mountain had some rocky cliff sides. Directly below it, there was some significant rock scree with random patches of tall grass intermingled. Below that scree it was all grass. Tallgrass. Perfect feed for chukar. I could feel my hands shaking from the excitement. I created a plan to move north and then work my way through the grass and hopefully flush some chukar. Deer paths become my best friend during some of these hunts. I followed one heading north and into the shade of the mountain. The temperature drop had me thinking that there was no way there would be any chukar on that side of the mountain. I saw a drainage on this north side and for a second I thought about hiking up it. Instead, I decided to stick to the plan and maybe after getting to the ridge, I’d loop around and come down through that drainage.

1000’ feet of elevation gave me some beautiful views. To the East sat the Wasatch Mountains and there was a cold wind coming from that direction. Clouds were making their ways down the deep snow-covered canyons of the Wasatch. When clouds do move that way, they always make me think of how I’d imagine giants would move, just slow and steady. Making my way through the grass I soon was able to hear the talkative chukar above me in the rocky cliffs. It made sense, there was a steady wind and being able to stay in cover was probably the best decision for a small bird. The problem is that it created a challenge for me. The last 500 feet of elevation was more of a rock climb than a hike. Since I had heard the birds, I knew my chances would only work if I made my way up there. My hunting boots are technically mountaineering boots. Suddenly, I remembered that hunting chukar is not meant to be easy and that some of the best hunts come after the hardest work. It was time to make my way to the cliffs.

img_5157Heading to the cliffs may have been a mistake. This is where the hunt went from a chukar hunt to a Man vs. Mountain situation. I had some recent Avalanche rescue training at work, and I couldn’t help but think about it as I zig-zagged along this steep rock scree. There was not a point of my hike that I didn’t have on hand down on the mountain and my shotgun over my shoulder. At one point, I realized that taking a shot at a chukar would be inaccurate and most likely would send me tumbling down the mountain. Even with these thoughts, I could still hear the chukar on the cliffs above me. In the cliffs, there was grass all over. I was betting that there were probably small pools of freshly melted snow that would keep the chukar fat, happy and warm. The image of one of those small birds with their bright red legs in my hand kept me moving along. Every step was proof of perseverance or stupidity. I moved from a small grass patch to the next. Eventually opting to go as high as I could in the small patches of grass before making my way across the steep loose rocks.

Getting closer to the cliffs I felt accomplished. Despite my legs being tired and shot. I chose to ignore the screams from my quads and calf and knew I was too committed now. There was one major issue, the mountain was still steep, and my body had been balancing me with every slipping step and my body was already tired. Taking a small break, I once again looked at the Wasatch Mountains and looked down at where I had come from. The wind was considerably colder, and my hands were now a bright pink with my fingertips wanting to become purple. The hike to this spot had taken a good chunk out of my will. The worst part is that along these rocky cliffs, the mountain continued to stay steep and my choice of paths had quickly shrunk. The chukar had gone quiet. They had probably watched me hiking and thought I was crazy. Now that I got to their spot, they had a new strategy, be quiet and he’ll move on. The thing is, I don’t think that chukar has ever shot a shotgun and there was no way I’d be able to shoot one safely anywhere on that mountain. I debated trying to flush some chukar, but the decision became obvious that even recovering a chukar would be near impossible. At the top of this mountain, I looked at it and quietly whispered, “dang red-legged devils”.

img_5151Now it became time to make some decisions. I had found my self in an interesting situation. I could try and continue hunting or I should make my way down the mountain. I really hadn’t gone very far, which was disappointing, but I had found my self in the right territory. I pulled up my OnXmaps app and looked at the topography some more. I found a small flaw in the system. Not OnX’s fault but more a flaw to the topographical maps. Some are more detailed than others and I found myself with a less detailed map on my phone. The issue that created is that even though I was in steep terrain, it didn’t look so steep on the map. The reason for it is the spacing on the lines. They gave a general pitch but with how little elevation gain I had, it failed to show how steep those last hundred feet were. I did make one decision; I wasn’t going to shoot a chukar that day and it was time to head down the hill. Looking at the map I saw the drainage that I mentioned earlier. On the map, it looked like the best way down the hill. I was sick of slipping and sliding and I wanted some vegetation for a foothold. This was the way down this mountain. Little did I know, the mountain had more tricks up its sleeves.

Walking around the cliffs at the top, I still heard no more birds. There was some crow that was flying in front of me and below me. The air was chilly, and it wasn’t willing to let up. My hands were hard to shut as if the blood in my veins turned to cold grease. Still, I kept my shotgun loaded and ready to possibly make a shot. Chukar likes to flush in two different directions, uphill and downhill. I was hoping for one to flush uphill so that I could try and get a decent shot out. The ridge itself wasn’t as steep and I thought maybe I could get a good shot out. Those thoughts quickly went away, I had found my self on my path down the mountain. This time I looked closer at the map and using the satellite view I was able to see some cliffs that were in between topographical lines. I noticed them because they cast a shadow on the satellite view of the area. This was the only way down, but I was being forced to once again think about every step I took. Looking at over my shoulder I let a sigh out, my hunt was over.

img_5167To be safe, I unloaded my shotgun. I didn’t know what was ahead of me and I didn’t want to risk anything. Beginning my descent, I took every step very deliberately. I was tired of slipping all over and I just wanted to get home safely now. I soon found that the best way to come down this mountain was to stay close to the cliffs. They created handholds and helped me be more stable. Still, the climb down was steep. I planned out a route that looked promising, but I found it to still be a challenge. Some of my steps seemed to create more rockslides. I worried as I got mid-slope that I would cause a rockslide. Eventually, I came to a small cut between two cliffs. I made my way down and found a cave with some random animal’s femur bone at the mouth of it. I realized I had found a den. My primary concern was that I had found a cougar den. I climbed down and to the mouth of this cave and saw that it went deeper into the side of the mountain. I then realized that cougars don’t chew on bones, but coyotes do.

Finding a coyote den was interesting to me. I didn’t expect to find any signs of life here. All there were around it was rocks and more rocks. Since the snow had melted, I had no idea if this den was still in use or not. Walking away I did take a few looks over my shoulder. The one thing that den did mean is that I was closer to the vegetation in this ravine. The main thing to remember about this ravine is that it was on the north side of the mountain. What this meant is that I was still hiking in the shade and that the chance of me seeing a chukar was pretty much out the door. My shotgun was still unloaded and across my back. There was no way I’d even be able to get a shot out. I managed to finally get to the part of the ravine I was looking forward to. I did have to turn around and scale down a 10-foot cliff but that’s irrelevant. This part of the drainage had some vegetation. It had bushes that had grown out of control and sat naked on the coldest part of the mountain. Here I looked down and saw a patch of snow. Like a slap to the face, I saw chukar tracks. These tracks were fresh and crisp on the snow. I looked at the direction it had traveled and the chukar had gone up the same way that I had come down.

img_5168This felt like the mountain was subtly talking to me. It had said “Homer, good effort but I win.” I win. That is what I heard in my head. I felt it in my bones and every time I could feel my legs shaking as I was heading down the rest of this mountain. Eventually, I found the same spot that I had been in before. Where I had looked up and chosen to not hike that drainage. I wondered if that decision had cost me the hunt. Now the mountain stood above me and I was taking the long hike back to my truck. I went hunting expecting to work hard and have an adventure. I guess in some ways that is still what I found. No one hunts chukar expecting an easy time. This hunt was a challenge. I saw my self get excited over the prospect of having a bird in hand and committed to something that became less than ideal. I really didn’t hike a long distance. I think my mind had gotten the best of me a little bit too. Still, I blame the mountain that day. From when I parked my truck, it knew what I wanted, and it had decided it would win. I feel like I put up a decent fight. My reward for it was the heat of the sun as I got to my truck. I debated on trying some other spots, but it was time to go home.

 

Lessons Learned:

  • Sometimes birds will break all the rules.
  • Follow your gut instincts.
  • Don’t rely so much on technology
  • Think before committing to something. If you wouldn’t take your dog a certain route, maybe you shouldn’t hike it.
  • Take time to enjoy where you are

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2 thoughts on “When the Mountain Wins

  1. I loved it bro! One of your best yet. To me, these kinds of hunts tell you a little about yourself. At the same time they give you the opportunity to make some choices about what kind of man you are or want to be. Even in defeat you can say, “you win…this time, but I’ll be back.” It’s a defining moment for us when we decide what to do when faced with temporary failure.

    Liked by 1 person

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