Chukar Battle in the Sheepeaters' Canyon
That's when I met Brad Frei (pronounced "Fry"), ex-fighter pilot, river guide and owner of Adventure Sun Valley, our outfitter for this trip. He's tall, lean, well-tanned and has a firm grip and a look-you-in-the-eye "Hey, how are ya? Great to meet ya!" enthusiastic greeting. He was wearing a blue-and-white tropical-print sport shirt that leaned toward shouting "Jubilant!" on the outdoor-clothing fashion scale. It turned out to be an accurate projection of his big and buoyant personality.
"Wow, a side-by-side!" Brad said in real surprise as I readied the gun for packing. "Two shots. That takes a lot of confidence when you're chasing chukar up and down in this canyon. Just two shots!
"I've got a gun that's nowhere near as pretty, but it holds a lot more shells. It's like a war out here for me. By the time I finish chasing birds up these walls, I want as many shots as a gun will hold."
There actually was a shooting war in the rugged terrain of the Middle Fork: the Sheepeater Campaign of 1879. The Sheepeaters were the Native Americans who had subsisted in the valley for millennia through their skills hunting bighorn sheep. Their red-stain pictographs on rocks and cave walls still tell their hunting stories and stand as the little evidence of human history here. The Sheepeaters were accused of having massacred five Chinese miners early that year, and detachments from Fort Boise were sent to settle the matter. Ambushes, skirmishes and a few gunshots marked the campaign, but the harsh territory proved arduous for both sides. In September that year, 51 Sheepeaters, mostly women and children worn down by pursuit, surrendered unconditionally and were led away as captives.
Perhaps it was foreshadowing, but in our battle too, not many shots would be fired...
[img 2 left]Marty Grabijas, the entrepreneur behind the innovative Mother line of bird-hunting packs and a veteran of both the Middle Fork and the arid pursuit of chukar, had included this daily itinerary with his invitation: "Wake up in riverside camp; eat breakfast; soak in hot spring; get in raft; catch cutthroat; eat lunch; see chukar; get out of raft; shoot chukar; get to camp; eat great dinner; go to bed with sound of river lulling you to sleep; wake; repeat." He'd made it sound wonderful, of course, with nary a mention of the hard hiking associated with hunting wild chukar. We would chase plentiful birds, catch fish, tell stories around the campfire and sleep under the starlight of Western skies.
I had accepted Marty's invitation.
That first morning on the river we loaded up the huge inflatable barge with supplies for 12 guests and seven guides and four dogs, bringing just personal gear aboard the more nimble three-person rafts. I hung my loaded hunting pack on the metal frame in front of my stern seat and found places to stow my water bottle, camera and fishing gear. My 110-year-old William Evans was in a clever prototype gun case by Cascade Designs that had the flexible, roll-down closure of a river-runner's dry bag with a soft padded lining and rigid plastic sheets built in to disperse the force of dings and bangs. The case functioned wonderfully, and the only real threat to the gun came not in the raft but in stumbling around on the rocky slopes high above the river.
By all accounts, the 10,000 or so visitors who float the Middle Fork each year see a lot of chukar. The birds thrive in this remote wilderness, with a comparatively lush green microclimate along the river providing food and water, vast slopes folding on themselves to the horizons covered in dry brown grasses and sagebrush and punctuated by Ponderosa pines and narrow draws, and the rocky areates and broad cliff bands that provide refuge from predators. Frei and the other guides said the chukar roost in the unapproachable heights, feed throughout the morning and come down to the river for water as each day warms. Coveys range from 20 to 150 birds. The hunting season begins in mid-September, and there is a generous daily limit of eight. Many of the outfitters with permits to run trips on the Middle Fork market cast-and-blast adventures well into October.
When pursued, the chukar use this canyonland to their advantage, running uphill with amazing speed. They are faster than most hunters in this terrain, and dogs are a huge advantage, even if the birds' numbers or guttural clucking mean that noses aren't always necessary to find them. We had Marty's two "pointing" Labs along, and Idaho native Ron Spomer had brought a handsome young setter to try to pin some birds. A guide's chocolate Lab, a veteran of many seasons, rounded out our canine crew. When flushed, chukar can seem to pour out of the rocks, launching briefly upward before zooming downslope as fast as gravity and their stubby wings will take them.
[img 3 right]The problem with our plan for an idyllic river-borne hunting trip developed after a steak dinner at the first evening's campsite: A light rain began to fall. Rain is rare and welcome in these parts, where annual precipitation averages just 15 inches. A typical September sees less than an inch of rainfall. We received the entire month's allotment and then some during the next 24 hours.
We broke camp the following morning-opening day of hunting season-amid intermittent showers that reminded us that living outdoors comes with some inconveniences, even with the "pampered camping" offered by our outfitter and crew. (The luxuries were not insubstantial, considering that this was wilderness travel, what with the wines; fresh salads; sticky, Dutch-oven-baked goods at breakfast and dinner; hot showers and toilet facilities. This was hardly "roughing it.") We didn't let a little rain dampen our enthusiasm, though, and by the time the river opened onto the first broad benches offering likely chukar habitat, we were out under cool, clearing skies, sweeping through damp and deliciously fragrant grasses and brush.
The impact of starting the day in a steady drizzle was not yet clear to us. However, after several hours and miles of hiking behind the dogs along benches and far up the slopes, there had not been a single bird flushed or shot fired. With the efforts of nine hunters and four dogs spread across perhaps a half-mile of ground, it seemed unlikely that there were any birds there. We hunted in a ragged line heading downstream, and I clung to a position near where the trees petered out, feeling no compulsion to sidehill it through the upper boulder fields or to beat the thicker brush along the river; someone in our dragnet was sure to find the elevation holding the birds. No one did.
When we regrouped for lunch, we concluded that the hardy chukar had received plenty of rainfall in their airy ramparts. And seeing as they are renowned for surviving with slight traces of water and barely damp seeps, the birds obviously were perfectly provided for way up the canyon walls.
That afternoon we made it to our campsite early enough that we had time for a brief sortie before dinner. On our side of the river a steep and brushy slope rose to a beautiful, deep bench. Where the two met, I walked fairly level ground with a view to the river, 70 feet below, and to scree and a cliff rising perhaps 2,000 feet up the other side. The bench I was on went back for miles.
We got into our first covey less than a half-mile downstream from camp, where Ron and some others were working the dogs in the difficult brush near the river. Standing on a rock promontory 30 feet above, I saw the little setter getting birdy, heard the shouts and watched about a dozen birds rocket up out of the cover and veer out across the river. Rapid-fire volleys rang out from at least three guns, and several birds fell to earth on our side. Most of the covey, however, sailed on, eventually dropping out of sight on the far side.
While the hillside group hunted for the downed birds, Brad started on a single-minded mission to follow up the scattered covey and flush the birds back toward us. That there was a raging river to ford and an arduous climb to reach them gave him no pause; the next time I saw him he was quartering across the waist-deep current in his tropical-print shirt, his black-stocked chukar gun being carried combat style above his head. In the next hour we climbed an outcropping on our side, and the Labs flushed a few birds wild. A half-dozen poured over me on their full-speed drop-and-dash to the other side, and I managed to get in a couple of slow pokes well behind them. By now Brad had gained more than 500 feet on the opposite slopes, chasing running birds all the way and occasionally setting off clattering rockslides as he scrambled across loose scree. He was called off only by the gathering evening and the lure of dinner back at camp.
During the next several days we saw few chukar, though we sporadically would spot small groups, chase them uphill and get off shots as we could. With the chukar staying high, we could have chased them all day, except that we had a schedule that required us to cover some river miles. So we floated the rapids, enjoyed the guides' insights and cast to untold thousands of native westslope cutthroats, all the while keeping an eye out for chukar in the rocks. It made for several days of an enviable tension, as our drive to find birds waned in proportion to the rising trout, and attention to the perfect drift of a hopper or caddis pattern might be interrupted by the sudden suspicion that looking up now would reveal the outline of our avian quarry. I caught a lot more trout than glimpses of chukar, but the pursuit of both in this extraordinary wilderness was its own reward.
I finally connected on the fourth day, when circumstances came together to put two birds within my gun's reach. Brad was rowing, Outdoor Life writer Will Snyder was in the bow, and I was in the stern, when we rounded a bend and spotted several birds running uphill through boulders and brush. We put ashore and jumped out, guns quickly at the ready. Will took the upstream side of the boulder field; I went downstream 100 yards and turned uphill. It seemed from the outset like we had them, as the slope ran out a few hundred feet up, ending abruptly in a sheer cliff face. We climbed in a classic pincer movement, the birds' retreat cut off, and the challenge of sprinting uphill across the jumbled boulders while keeping an eye on the running chukar made me realize that Brad had been right: When the moment comes that these birds flush, I am indeed going to wish I had as many shots as possible.
That moment came as I was out of breath and teetering on the brink of imbalance between a boulder and a narrow sheep path. The cliff-backed amphitheater echoed whirring flush after whirring flush from the top of the slope. I found a bird in a safe quadrant and brought up my gun, finding the chukar's path just as it accelerated downward. I connected with the first barrel and the bird crumpled, though its momentum carried it a long way down. I turned to find another chukar approaching from above, reached for the back trigger as I pulled ahead, and fired. This bird folded too, landing 10 yards upslope of me. Its wings continued flapping as the chukar tumbled from one rock to the next-flap-flap-flap... bump-until I scooted a toe forward a few inches and blocked its next roll. One double, second bird delivered.
Overall, I'd be lying if I didn't say our group was disappointed by the paucity of chukar, but amidst the beauty and wilderness splendor of the Middle Fork, no one grumbled. Brad apologized profusely, as if he should have tried harder to hold back the rain and keep the chukar to their habits. "The hunting was pretty poor," he confided later. "Water is definitely the key to bird behavior." He offered a standing invitation to return, seeking to prove that the canyon's chukar can be as cooperative as its cutthroats.
Needless to say, such an invitation is almost impossible to turn down. Who wouldn't want to spend another week floating one of the most spectacular rivers in the country? Not only that, but I still have plenty of ammunition saved up for my next skirmish in the canyon of the Sheepeaters.
Author's Note: For more information on Idaho wilderness rafting trips, contact Adventure Sun Valley, 888-311-RAFT or 208-507-1012; www.adventuresunvalley.com.
Ed Carroll is Shooting Sportsman's Associate Editor.
- By: Ed Carroll