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A Novel Pursuit
Exploring a wide-open tradition of wild birds and wild places.
COLUMN BY Matt Hardinge
Between Oregon and Idaho lies a canyon so deep and wide that it seemed unassailable to early explorers heading West. The sheer walls that rise from the Snake River to form the deepest river canyon in North America, have a habit of chewing up and spitting out all those that attempt to conquer it. From the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1806, to Wilson Price Hunt and then the massacre of 1886, the rugged canyon brings the strongest of men to their knees. This desolate river gorge has thwarted miners, homesteaders, and ranchers alike with perhaps the only group of people able to live harmoniously within its walls being the Nez-Perce tribe. Today, prospectors come in the form of chukar hunters in search of game not gold and they are given the same inhospitable welcome.
My annual pilgrimage to the place they call Hells Canyon coincided with my birthday this year and similarly to my previous visit, I arrived with a new upland hunter in tow in the hope of converting them to my cult-like passion – chukar hunting. A place that humbles even the most experienced of upland hunters, this challenging terrain is hardly an ideal location for an introduction to the sport. The logic behind it is that regardless of the suffering involved, Hells Canyon is among the most unique and beautiful landscapes in the country and surely an adventure one wouldn’t soon forget.
We eased into the trip and began by chasing California Quail on the first day. These little but fast-flying birds can live in huge coveys and are primarily found on flatter terrain and in creek beds with dense cover. My brother-in-law Tayler, who had been hunting just a couple times before, was yet to shoot a bird and was eager to break his duck. After returning empty-handed day one and day two, it was a rogue quail who stumbled into our camp which would be his first bird to pursue and joyously bring to hand.
My wife Tara and our new baby also accompanied us on the trip but unfortunately this meant that she was unable to commit to a full day of chasing Chukar. She didn’t want to miss out on the action completely, so we opted to walk a creek bed early that morning in search of ruffed grouse — what I consider to be one of the best tasting birds around. The creek we chose was lined with aspens, their leaves displaying vivid fall colors and rustling in the wind. It was a beautiful scene and the perfect way to start our day.
We trekked along an old logging road that paralleled the creek as the dogs worked the dense and poison oak infested cover along the water’s edge; a location not known for having high bird numbers but one that usually holds one or two to pursue. The calm morning was soon interrupted by the explosive flush of a grouse; without hesitation Tara took one shot and stopped the grouse in its tracks. Our older dog Cederberg was first to the scene and quickly retrieved the bird, to Tara’s disappointment he brought it straight to me. Regardless of deflating mixed loyalties from our dog, she was ecstatic at bagging her first ruffed grouse. Reveling in our success was short lived however as baby duties beckoned. We quickly turned around and made our way back to camp to meet up with the group to start our assault on the local Chukar population.
By now a group of friends had joined us back at camp, and we had assembled quite the team to take on the mountain. I quickly gathered my things, loaded up the dogs, kissed Tara and the baby goodbye and jumped in the truck to make our way to the base of the mountain. The drive to the area we planned to hunt involved a narrow dirt road cut into the mountainside, one wrong move and you’d roll all the way into the river, a fate we hoped to not have to consider.
We reached the bottom of the mountain, parked the trucks and looked up at what was before us. In typical fashion I had picked the tallest, gnarliest, most intimidating mountain of them all. A 3,000 ft vertical climb to the summit beckoned but it was one I was sure would result in birds to hand. We spread out along the base of the mountain to cover more ground and each picked a different path to the summit. Tayler and I went together along with our two dogs and started the long ascent to the top.
Hearts pumping and gasping for breath, we finally made it to the midway point. While taking a quick breather Ceder picked up a scent on the small saddle where we stood. He put his nose to the ground and started tracking the birds. As I looked at my GPS I could see Ceder ranging further and further down a draw below us approaching 250 yards. Ceder’s range slowed as he hit the 300 yard mark and then the sound every bird hunter loves to hear, the tone of the GPS confirming that he’d gone on point. I looked at Tayler and he immediately said “No way!” I wasn’t too keen on that treacherous descent either, but when a dog puts in the work to find birds, you have to honor it, regardless of what it takes to get there.
I scrambled down the steep and rocky draw towards Ceder, or where I thought he was at least. I still couldn’t put eyes on him but the GPS was guiding me in his direction. I slipped and tumbled my way down, landing on my backside several times until finally I could see him on a staunch point below me. I had my gun at the ready and moved in, then again, I slipped and fell sending rocks rolling in his direction. A couple whizzed past him but he didn’t flinch, keeping his eyes on the prize. I quickly picked myself up and kept moving downwards when suddenly a dozen chukar burst out from below the dog and hurried off into the distance. I took a moment to choose my shots and fired, picking out two from the sky. Ceder made two quick retrieves as I pulled myself together, wiping the blood off my hands and removing the grit from my wounds. I put the birds in my bag and turned to look up above me, with no brother-in-law in sight, only the summit looming above me. I put my head down and started the long trek back to the top.
We worked that mountain hard that day, the steep climbs seemed to last an eternity and the birds we came across rarely held for a dog, let alone long enough for us to get into range. We found a small covey of hungarian partridge on the way out and I managed to pick off a solitary bird. Three measly birds in the bag, close to 20 miles covered and Tayler’s first Chukar still eluded him.
Chukar hunting is hardly a pursuit to fill the freezer, it’s one of adventure, where you learn to push yourself through the pain. Every time you stop to catch your breath however, you are rewarded with incredible views and appreciation for how far you have come and how far you still have to go! For me, upland hunting isn’t so much about putting birds in the bag as it is about camaraderie, the dog work and the beautiful places it takes us. And the hunt for Tayler’s first Chukar continues to drive us forward another day.
A native of Montreal, Canada, Matt’s journey to his current home in the Western U.S. wasn’t straightforward. He primarily grew up in London, England with stints in Australia and the East Coast but realized quickly that when it comes to opportunity in the outdoors, the West is best.
He’s a passionate fly fisherman, hunter and climber that cares greatly about the environment and the preservation of wild places. He holds life memberships to multiple conservation organizations and is a huge supporter of outdoor education.
After graduating college with a degree in Sports Marketing, his career path has taken him from professional sports, digital advertising, outdoor retail, foreign policy and wildlife conservation. While the mediums may have changed, Matt’s focus has always been the same – Marketing, Social Media, and Events.
When he’s not working, you can find him chasing upland birds and wild trout with his wife, young daughter and two bird dogs by his side.
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