A River/Chukar Guides Second Worse Nightmare

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Any time a guide is hired by the consumption oriented sportsmen, there is always an additional pressure  to deal with that guides leading non-consumption oriented trips do not have to endure. Both types of guides still have all the other responsibilities and risk assessment angst that comes with the territory, but wanting to catch a fish or shoot an animal or bird by those seeking a guide service to increase their chances for such, increases the pressure to “produce.”

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Most true sportsmen that are not green around the gills know that when it comes to hunting and fishing, the planets do not always line up, and the compass needle can sometimes go south when it comes to how nature unfolds. What we want and what we get do not always come into good alignment.  That is a given in the real world when it comes to chasing after something that can be quite aloof and fleet of foot.

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However, as a chukar hunting guide, or even a scenic/whitewater type guide, I have always been self-conscious about painting an accurate  picture  as possible of expectations to any potential guests when they inquire about a trip.  Having people show up with false expectations is my second worse nightmare as a guide. (number one nightmare is another story).  There are a few of those blow-hard truth bending culprits in the outfitting industry, just like any other subjective service oriented business that also has a few stereotypical high pressure type car salesmen.  That kind of bad actor is something I never wanted to be and carefully guard against ever becoming.  Even when it is tempting to embellish a bit when business is slow, I watch myself closely. In fact, one time years ago a potential multi-day guest declined to sign up for a trip because I would not guarantee him he would be shooting a box of shells each day and getting limits of birds most of the time. And that was when the bird season was very good.

That was ok though,  as these types of people are often highly critical and hard to please. Disappointing results are a common occurrence for those with faulty high expectations. And who wants to be around grumpy complainers?

With that in mind, I always try to evaluate potential results with as much precision to real world potential as possible. Unfortunately, I sometimes miss the mark farther than I like to admit to.  Living close to nature most of my life, I have always felt fairly attune to what is happening on the ground. But, sometimes (often actually) the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know.  Mystery uses the unknown as bribery for the curious. It is the carrot by which nature keeps us outdoor enthusiast wanting ever more. But, often, just when we think we have things figured out, well….

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This past chukar season again brought me back to my knees as my observations and resulting predictions did not prove out to line up very well.  During the summer, as a whitewater guide, I paid attention to all the new hatches of chukars  that we encountered during our floats. It was looking like the low numbers of birds the past couple of years were now turning around. After all, chukars have large clutches and with good chick survival can bounce back fast.

Though I didn’t mention it to my whitewater guests, I was thinking ahead to fall, giving chukars an out loud, verbal warning that I would soon be back, while simultaneously secretly celebrating the potential of some good hunts to come. But, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum,  or not so funny might be more apropos. Between late summer and early fall something in nature must have happened to change the mix.   What I thought was shaping into a decent season, turned out to be  much less than that.

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Unfortunately, it was not until I had several guests on the hill, whom were in shape, had good dogs, and the abilities to go everywhere I suggested (often into the nosebleed zone) that my own expectations hit me in the face with an unseen left hook.

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Ya, we got into a few birds, but not even close to what I expected. My anticipation was not of a banner year, but at least a fair one.  But certainly not a poor one, as it seems to be unfolding to be. This is one of those situations that makes  a guide to loose hair or turn it grey.

In Idaho, the aerial chukar surveys by the department of fish and game no longer are a part of management. So, there is no official science to back up guesses for the status of each seasons future bird population.  Not having this to rely on anymore, we can only go by what we see ourselves and what others see we share our observations with.  Based on my own encounters with good  (not great) numbers of hatches, as well as the opinion of a few fellow guides, I believed we would have a decent season, worthy of encouraging guests to sign up for.

Looking through the lens of hindsight, I sometimes wonder about my analysis of information shared by others about bird numbers. As a wildlife biologist, before guiding, I try to apply my scientific learnings during my evaluations when it comes to analysis. One thing comes to mind here that I often question is an ecological term called “shifting baseline syndrome.”  This is where expectations are reduced and become the new norm.  It is an acquiescence  of a newly accepted sustainability bar.

Perhaps Einstein’s Theory of Relativity comes into play here, too. Unfortunately.

Now that I am in an older age category myself, I realize that often I am talking to guides many years younger than me. So, going back to my experiences in the old days, seeing many groups of birds in every other little draw crossed, and sometimes even having chukars fly over my head in numbers like a plague of grasshoppers, my norm for “good numbers” may be quite different from guides whom did not see those long-ago days. They may have a new norm, so when they say good numbers, it doesn’t line up with what I consider good. Shifting base line, my best guess.

While I can still cover the same productive grounds of yesteryear, though perhaps at a slower pace than my younger days, not being able to covering landscapes afoot should not be a factor.  So, it isn’t because I can’t do the same things I did in the past to find good numbers of birds.

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Of course, there is the thought that perhaps younger folks cover more ground to find those reported larger numbers of birds. But, then again, that only reinforces the movement of the goal post idea.  Another similar idea is the possibility that birds are changing habits and occupying places that were not their previous normal hang outs. This is kind of like elk seeking steeper ground in wolf country (harder for wolves to make a kill there) and changing their normal behavior (adaptation).  I doubt this factor,  however.

What about disease? I know very little about this, or if there us much current research being conducted in this arena right now??

My best guess to date, is a change brought about by drought conditions as it relates to insect survival and integrity of plant nutritional values (plant/grasshopper/unknown insect relationship?) Food, water, and shelter are the three legs of habitat requirements for all wildlife.  Eliminating water and shelter, that leaves some sort of food related thing.

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What about birds being displaced by range fires? Yes, we did have a huge fire that burnt up about half of our good chukar habitat for this season (will be great next year). But the other side of the river where I figure birds could easily escape the large conflagration, was still a bit of a biological desert. Thus, bringing me back once again to some fall/drought/plant/insect dynamic – food factor.

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I will continue working on finding possible answers, meanwhile, dogs will lead me onward. You can’t catch a fish if you don’t put your hook in the water, and you can’t find chukars in the middle of your living room. But, I will revise my game plan for reporting, with a day by day, more closely scrutinized situational  methodology when it comes to sharing information with folks who inquire about going chukar hunting.

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In the absence of good science,  subjectivity creates a large campfire story in the hunting and fishing world. Educated guesses is the next best tool.  Any ecologist, biologist, botanist, entomologist, or veteran chukar hunter out there in cyber world with any ideas/opinions about this? I am certainly open.

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Chukar Hunting Isn’t About the Chukar

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At first, as you gather your gear to ready for the endurance performance lying in wait, you might think it is about hunting down the elusive chukar. But, in reality it is far more than that.  It is ironically more about the hunter than the bird.  Sure, we dress our delusions in all kinds of appropriate garb, from blistering  “see me from a thousand miles off” blaze orange, to thick-skinned gators for counteracting ominous rattlesnake fangs, and go about the business of putting one foot in front of the other.  Then we leap forward into challenging terrain meant more to accommodate an assorted disarrayment of miscellaneous  personality disorders, than common sense.

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Like the Tuhumarra runners, who run for the sheer joy of running, chukar hunters hunt for the joy of the hunt.  Getting  birds is only a mild side attraction that happens during a grueling confrontation with the self, as that is always the result when the extremes of mother nature rears its head. You don’t have to be crazy to hunt chukars, but it helps.

 

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It is not often easy to start oneself at the foot of any kind of precipitous slope.  But the real trick is how to get the momentum to move in the  beginning. Yet even when you find the right pull-cord to ignite that internal switch, there is still  that need to find enough courage to yank on the line. Sometimes, shutting your eyes is all it takes, other times all kinds of procrastinating mechanisms keep running in the background of our cerebral computer, so finding the right key to unlock access to them is ultimately required.  Whatever method finally works,  then it pretty much is about putting in the time, and repetition of increasing the amount of time one puts in. The more you add, the better you get at adjusting to the physical demands, and quelling those demons of the mind that always surface to tell you to go back home to a warm fire and comfortable recliner. Getting those wanton images of comfort  repressed, is no easy task as they keep permeating the mind like those nuisance computer pop-up ads that invites an angry smack-a-mole response.

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This might be more of a common  problem to those of us who hunt a lot; more than just a weekend warrior battleground; or are at least old enough to have already bagged  a vast number of heavenly treks to the skyward lairs of the ninja chukars.  So we, or I, in my case, sometimes find it hard to get all charged up with the enthusiasm like we did in our youth or when we were novice hunters.  When every thing is fresh and new, there is always more energy associated with the magic of anticipation.  Not knowing all the harsh realities that come with naïve exuberance helps motivate the uninitiated. While it takes a bit more to so thoroughly excite those juices of electricity for the more experienced veterans.

 

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More often that not my biggest help in getting motivated are my two weims. If I just mention the word “chukar” their ears perk up, tails go full throttle, and they stare me down with that can-we-go-now look, that just can’t be ignored.  Like kids excited for a trip to the carnival, I can’t say no. So before I know what happened, they are kenneled-up and on  our way to chukar-land.  Be it by rig or boat, lookout chukars, here we come. As if those rascally birds need any kind of warning once our presence is on their turf, they practically know when we are there before we do. But, all the same, we play on their board, their game and forget about the small print that spelled out the real rules we soon learn first-hand on the slopes.  For such a small bird there sure is a lot of ruthless ninja-ness to them.

Soon my attention is all on the dogs.  As their noses do their business they eventually find the money.  And nothing is so beautiful as seeing them on point and testing birds, or more accurately being tested by the birds.  The next test is for me to get in front of them to flush birds and get something on the ground for their next phase of the hunt.

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However, admittedly my  first objective is to get the “if-I’m-only-quick-enough” photograph, and this often means sacrificing  good shots or an opportunity to down a bird.  Sometimes I even hesitate to tell friends about my skirmishes with these devil birds, as they already think it crazy to hike to such extremes and then return home without a bird or any trace of the feathers.  What to show for?   But I am not married to having preconceived numbers to satisfy, or some sort of symbol to represent my hunting prowess or lack thereof. It isn’t about the chukar, it is all about the hunt, the dogs, the views, the falls, the challenges, the feelings of being alive that always comes with the evoked inspiration of special places.

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So, that’s ok, the old proverb about great rewards come with great difficulty is also true.  And, once I find myself out on the hill again, soloing silently in  solitude and never knowing  what new drama nature has in store still makes me thankful every time I go.  And in reality, those are all the things, rather than the actually killing of a chukar that stir my juices and get me going.  A sip of that lingering thought is the catalyst required for me to lower that  first foot down, so the other can be lifted up to seek the lofty stratosphere enriched with that  rarified air so invigorating to the soul.

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Gary Lane
Wapiti River Guides
www.doryfun.com

What Do Chukars Think?

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Lake Ck Ember & Sugar Jan 16, 2013 060

Well, it is awfully tempting to dive into some imagined chukar   humor and wonder what kind of diatribe  they might use to poke fun at us hunter’s with.  As if they communicate like us humans do, which they don’t, but we like to anthropomorphize about, that is. Such are some of my thoughts  as I hunt along various terrains with not only my dogs, but my brain as well.  My mind contours the landscape with similar speed as my legs do. Sometimes I even get lost in this parallel world and forget that I am even hunting to begin with. At least until something triggers me back into reality, like  tripping on a loose rock, dog on point, or sudden burst of wings taking to the sky.

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Also, in my self-talk,  I sometimes try to think like  a chukar in order to find them. But how can I do that, I’m a human, so I can only use human ideas.  It is difficult even trying to understand women sometimes, how would I ever begin to understand a chukar?  Telepathy is out. So is any chance at really communicating with any kind of animals, when us humans can barely communicate with each other.  Our astronomers think about what messages aliens might be sending out through space, yet learning what our own earth creatures have to tell us might be much more valuable.

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But, Earth to Gary, back to birds.  If chukars think, they must not think in words, but what kind of language to they use, if any?  I always wonder how their brains work.  For example: when serious snow hits the high country in an over night storm, but leaves the ground bare on the lower foothill sections, use patterns of chukars can change and adapt to the new situation.

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So, from a chukars view-point, I wonder if they can see their landscape and differentiate which areas to change to for food and shelter.  Can they see bare ground amidst the snow, like wind-blown open ridges and draws, and make an effort to seek it out.  That is,  as opposed to just stumbling upon it, or never finding it to begin with.  For another example, if a major mountain side contains some snow free zones that can be seen from a far off distance, can chukars see this and fly over to it?  Do they think, hey there is a good place to find food and shelter? Or is that more like an instinct, or some kind of built in survival detector they just know to do?

Lake Ck Ember & Sugar Jan 16, 2013 018

I think about the same sorts of things about big game when I am hunting them. In what kind of ways to they use thought, if at all, about how they negotiate their terrain and survive the elements, including predation?  The natural  law of conservation of energy affects the survival abilities of all critters, but they don’t think about it, any more than us humans think about how gravity affects our movements all the time.

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Thinking about predation could jeopardize survival, as opposed to acting without thinking about it first.  So immediate dangers that require fast reaction times are better left to the innate “fight or flight” responses for better success potential.

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What about other abstract things, like a bird  learning about what happens when they fly  off a high  mountain to go all the way to the very bottom. Do they know how much more work will be required to climb back up to the top again?  Could this be any part of reasoning when a bird flies around the mountain so as not to lose too much in elevation, rather than sailing all the way to the bottom? Knowing it will be less energy draining and arduous, than leaving it up to chance alone.

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What about late in the season when birds get up quicker and farther away from you when they see you coming, than they did earlier in the season? It would seem they have learned that distance is important for survival. It is almost is if they know the range of a shotgun. Or that humans require different strategies than other predators. They hunker down when golden eagles soar overhead, hold tight when dogs are on point, and jump into the air as soon as the two-legged hunters show up. How do they know? How abstract, if any at all, is some of their thought?

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As you can see, I may have been out on the chukar slopes a little too long. My thoughts, like my dog sometimes does when in hot pursuit, seems to be getting a little too close to  the edge. Those darned chukars. They can make some of us humans go crazy.  It’s probably just another chukar survival strategy.

Guides Guide for Guides Guiding Chukar Hunters

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Note:  this post was first published on my River’s Apprentice blog: http://wapitisriversedge.wordpress.com/2011/10/  on Oct 26, 2011

For those of you who find yourself trying to organize a chukar hunt, professionally or not, following are a few tricks that have helped me over the years when guiding wing chasers.

As a river guide, with the advantage of floating into remote country to access hunting areas with a little more elbow room, I have ample opportunity to size up guests whom want to chukar hunt. This is especially important for evaluating first time chukar hunters.

They often, despite ample warnings, have no real idea about the consequences of pursuing birds in seriously challenging canyon country.

First of all, chukar hunting is not for everyone. Like in elk hunting, you have to go where the elk are. Well, I consider chukars the elk of the bird world. While often one must go into some deep, ugly canyon hole, to get an elk, one must climb high, rugged terrain to find chukars.  Boiled down, this spells good health and being in reasonable shape, or better.

If birds are at the 4000 foot level, and you can only climb to the 3000 foot level, guess what? You won’t be eating much chukar stew.

Like reading water to negotiate the river, reading people helps when planning a chukar hunt. The old saying: “You can’t judge a book by its cover” has always been highly questionable to me.  A persons physical stature is like the title of a book. It reveals a lot of what might be inside. ( an over – taxed heart, or a great engine) and is an important indicator of what to expect and how to deal with it.

As a long time observer of many things in nature, with well over 50 years of experience doing so, I believe everything your eyes see, will tell you something. So I pay close attention to every guest when I first meet them. Their body size, clothing, how they move, their agility getting in and out of my boat, what comes out of their mouth, attitudes, everything.

After considering all these factors collectively for all whom wish to make the hunt, and not remain at the boat to fish, I plan our initial attack.  Of course, choices are sometimes quite limited by terrain, so options very with each area. If I have people in questionable shape, I will try to go to areas (if available) where I know trails exist to make climbing easier. It is more like using a ramp rather than stairs which require higher foot lifting each step.  Cross country climbing always involves more resistance due to vegetation or negotiating obstacles, thus increasing energy drain more significantly than a trail walk.

Of course gun safety is priority one, before we get out of the boat. Muzzle awareness is critical all day long, From every time a gun is grabbed, rather it is to get in or out of the boat with,  or engage the hill, is of utmost importance to maintain.  Not only for people, but for any dogs helping us find birds.

The first mistake most people make, is wearing too many clothes when they start out. Sure, the morning might be cold in the early hour, but once the climbing begins, that changes fast. In the boat blood is idle, on the hill it percolates and warms body parts. Unless you like to carry heavier shed clothes most of the day, leave warmer stuff at the boat for later. Your body temp will soon  acclimate to the exertion on the hunt.  It is better to carry more water, (for yourself and dog) than extraneous clothes.

As any experienced chukar hunter knows, you seldom get birds hunting them uphill. Unlike most upland game birds, that seek cover for refuge, chukars like to find open rocks or terrain where they can see danger coming. That way, they can run like hell up hill, or dive off the edge and fly like a bullet to safety far below, or across to the next canyon.

My normal game plan is to hike everyone in a group at first, all going straight up, or zigzagging when we can, to gain altitude. Then, depending on each hunter’s physical shape, and/or desires, each one will stop at a designated elevation, until we are all evenly spaced along the slope.  Then the top person will be the lead hunter and key to the intended hunt.

Did I mention the use of radios? I like for each hunter to have one, as it is so much easier to keep track of everyone. It helps to direct people when they get “cliffed out” or terrain challenged, and need eyes from afar to help determine their next move.  Sometimes even quick radio talk can alert hunters for potential action when dogs are getting birdie or on point. Increased anticipation adds more excitement and sometimes more success to the hunt.

 

Once the line is established, and the top hunter (usually the guide, but not always) begins walking, then the next guy in line below, will follow. But, most importantly, each successional hunter down the line should always be behind the hunter directly above, by about 50 yards or so. This allows a broader radius to swing a gun when following a bird for the hunter above, and better safety zone for the hunter below.  Basically, a long diagonal line will be maintained as each person contours around the hill, hoping to slip up on some unsuspecting chukars. Often, more than one gunner gets shooting as birds fly wildly around the hillside in and out of range for various positions on the line.

Because birds often fly back around to the same area we just hunted, we can turn around at the end of our predetermined area boundary, and hunt back through the same area already traversed.  So it pays to observe where birds land once flushed. Other times, hunters continue in a downriver direction to an agreed upon meeting spot, while I go back to the boat and float it down to pick them up.

Once back to the boat, fishing sounds like a great idea. Did I mention thirsty, tired, foot- draggers ready to rest? Or that the next chukar chasing opportunity suggested by the guide is often referred to as a revenge hunt?

 

Rivers make good medicine with us, we make good medicine with rivers. For river trip information, please go to our website: www.doryfun.comor Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/Riverdoryfun