Chukar Crucible in Nature’s Deep Freeze – 5 Day Solo Trip on Salmon River

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About to turn age 65 early February, what to do?  Looking around at friends whom have checked out early, why not celebrate my still going strong by doing a solo winter float to chase chukars down the Lower Salmon River?  My dogs would kiss me for such access to Nirvana.

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Thoreau’s line: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” kept running through my mind  and made me realized there is still much music to be played.  Stagnation is all about becoming a dullard and I’m just not ready for a life without song yet, and probably never will be.

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But why Salmon River?

With several solo winter trips notched  in my gunslinger psyche  on Oregon’s Grande Ronde River and one through Hell’s Canyon, shortly after the “Green Room” at Granite Rapids was named (I was on that naming trip, too),  I simply never got around to doing such a float down my backyard river.   So it seemed only appropriate I was now old enough to let my more adventuresome side out of the box again.  With only one way to keep the primordial adrenalin glands working properly, and  as any biologist worth their salt can tell you, that old Darwinian axiom about “use it or lose it,” always applies.

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And, why solo? Well, finding other crazy enough hunters that want to hike their guts out climbing steep ugly slopes for  furious flying birds with far less meat than an elk, is hard enough, let alone braving winter extremes to execute such self-inflicted punishment.

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Besides, it isn’t that I don’t like people, but as a guide, most of my time is always spent adjusting everything to satisfy other people’s interests.  Sometimes it’s nice just worrying about my own wishes.  Traveling solo assures total self-gratification and the river’s lonely sound of solitude.   No competition for campsites, fishing holes, or hunting grounds, is another rarity of welcome freedom.

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Once intellectually committed, not to an insane asylum, but to the trip, then what? Planning is ground zero,  especially when traveling alone in remote country with no satellite phone under severity of error that is like standing at the brink of a black hole.    So, topping the list for a round-trip ticket into  the cold chukar crucible this time of year is choice of boat.  As an outfitter, I have many, and hard boats are my favorite and long time specialty. Unfortunately, the degree of risk for potential flips or romancing rocks goes up dramatically in a dory or driftboat. Righting an over turned craft of any kind by oneself in icy water is thin to thinner with dogs climbing your back and  hypothermia  squeezing  insidiously at your soul.  I’m doing this trip for comfort, not survival.

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Flip potential and nemesis number one in my mind is a rapid called Bodacious Bounce. In only very low flows does a menacing back curling wave appear, like hungry jaws in the unavoidable middle of this substantial drop.  A hairline cheat run exists to the left side that requires precise oaring and timing, but one missed stroke here is like landing on the loaded cylinder in a game of River Russian Roulette. Only the bullet here is a big bad swim and no trail to hike out. Having two dogs along that jump away from waves when they should be high-siding, also doesn’t help.

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Then there is Snowhole Rapid.  It isn’t an easy place to have a clean run in a dory at low water, either.  Many steep pour-over holes barely covering the rocks require extra-precise maneuvering with tiny leeway for error.  Though I’ve threaded the needle cleanly several times in warmer weather, it is still a duress filled run with tight-wire stress and enough draining tension to empty a lake. Who needs more of that?

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To sleep better at night, my decision boiled down to bringing my larger 19’ Aire baggage raft.  I liked the idea of being high, dry, and having less likelihood of a flip.  My dogs could bounce around shadow boxing with the waves all they wanted without throwing my trim off, too.

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Paying close attention to weather is another key ingredient to successful winter trips.   Timing is of the essence to have a relatively problem free adventure. Thinking back on my previous winter runs on the GR, in my early 20’s, I remember the ice bridge crossings, jagged edges of ice rosettes, and unusual conditions when arctic cold turns the river into a consistency that felt more like being trapped in the middle of snow-cone ice that is moving at a caterpillar’s pace.  It was a race against time before the river could morph into solid ice and secure my stay for much longer than planned. Eating fish and moss all winter is not very appealing.

Soloing the Snake through Hells Canyon in my mid 30’s, was an epic story itself. Where rocks were a problem on the GR, mammoth sized rapids was the feared devil in Hell’s.  Also, the phrase, “when Hell freezes over” takes on much more significance when trying to get a hard boat down the deepest canyon in North America when it is not “hotter than Hell.”

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What could the Salmon Canyon have in store?

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With  more than a dozen ice bridges between Riggins and Wind River as I prepared for my journey,  I had to be sure none existed  at the lower end.  However, with 425 miles of free-flowing river, the Salmon slices through enough distance that geology transmutes the canyon into several different geomorphological sections. Each is affected differently by influence of elevation, aspect, and weather.

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From North Fork to Riggins the river flows due west, but when it reaches Riggins, turns immediately north until the last 5 miles, where it changes west again to collide with the Snake.  The lower end does not ice up as often and melts off earlier when it does.    Learning that there were no ice bridges in the lower gorge, in addition to a favorable long-range weather report, was my green light to go.

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Boat of choice finalized, having other essential gear for the most extreme conditions and a sudden emergency is also crucial.  The difference between comfort and keeping the grim reaper at bay is made by astute attention to detail and advanced prep for potential uncertainties. Traveling solo also adds greater danger with far less wiggle room for being dumb when situations go south.  My northern experiences boating solo and doing commercial trips in Alaska, also taught me to be on guard at all times to the nuances of nature, because often that is where weird things like to hide out.

Ever heard of a jökulhlaup? This is an Icelandic term for outburst floods caused by glacial lakes being breached and sending a disjointed tsunami down the river course that is fed by these mega ice plugs.  Camping on higher ground is essential when floating some places in the far wilds of the Last Frontier.

It is always the small things that seem at first to be quite innocuous, that often have a sleeping demon just below the surface.  It is surprising how much a simple episode can escalate into a tidal wave of tragic wipeout. One missed oar stroke, poor entry, or catching a wave wrong; breaking a leg on a high  ridgeline; falling down in a patch of prickly pear cactus; burning a hand cooking dinner;  falling off a frosty raft and getting wet in water intended for coffee;  and so on.  Karmonic vigilantism lies in wait for the disrespectful and unaware, so fine tuned weariness is always required.

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With game on, under cerulean sky and a low slung sun, my two Weims and I were off and running in my big red raft. The dogs love it as they can remain dry and have a high platform to ogle at all the surrounding chukar landscape.  It is a bird dogs dream boat.

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Frost covered every rocky shoreline and sandy beach that lived in zones of the all-day shade.  Isolated from  sun, the inner sanctum of the canyon was coated with mold-like tendrils of white ice, called verglas. It was like floating through  nature’s freezer box.  I half expected to see packages of elk burger and salmon fillets stacked in rows along each side of the river.

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 The sheer beauty of the gorge stripped of her summer clothes, is outrageous enough to make even an envious lover jealous.  A low hanging winter sun creates long shadows across the viewscape and marbles the terrain with sharp contrasts that simply are not possible any other time of year.  It conjures up various moods, as if some ancient shaman was stirring up mystical magic and sprinkling it generously over all the world.

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Excessive chasms inspire deep thoughts, about as much as high ridges inspire lofty ones.  Finding ones self alone in the middle of such largeness and solitude while hunting chukars makes me feel my smallness..  It unleashes my mind to be wild and free as if being blown by gale force winds and whipped across infinite horizons to be absorbed  by the far off hinterlands.  Getting so lost is the best way to find yourself.

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Living in the Land of Oz can’t last forever, as I was reminded when  chukars  rudely burst  into the sky and triggered me back into the real world.  When chasing ninja chukars, also known as “devil birds,”  during the winter in steep canyons it is quite important to consider how much snow accumulates, where, and in what condition it is.  Footing is treacherous enough in good conditions, but downright dangerous when snow freezes hard after a slight melt. Elk, deer, and cow carcasses can sometimes be found in gullies after taking a slip on steep side slopes in such extremes.  Unlike clawed animals, they can’t just turn over on their bellies and dig themselves a self-arrest. A tragic end for them, but lucky for ravens, magpies, and coyotes.

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When I wasn’t hunting chukars, which were hard to find,  I was dodging rocks and avoiding splash. In the process,  I did see a few bald eagles, 3 or 4 otters, 10 whitetail deer, and an assortment of ducks, geese, and birds. But, no elk. Not even in the upper reaches of the canyon  did I see one anywhere.  Where were they? And where were all the chukars that normally fill this riverine niche?

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My theory is that during mild winters the lower elevations are in the shade far too long during the day while birds can enjoy wind-swept ridges in the sun for far longer periods of time. Food, cover, and water is all there. They don’t need to get to the river for critical water like they do when it is hot. Nor do they need to leave the heavenly heights for food and can bask above while laughing at me far below.  They innately seem to know that negotiating through  layers of edgy lava flows can be demoralizing and the tortuously rugged steepness will wear me out before getting to their level of refuge.  Did I mention the canyon is a mile deep in places?

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So though I did have chukar for dinner, the conditions were not that great for good hunting. But they were nice for making an off beat outdoor adventure down the canyon much easier. Sure it was cold, but in a tipi style tent accommodated with heater and plenty of blankets, it was a cozy affair.  Unfathomable numbers of stars sparkled like diamonds dancing in a frigid sky, despite the inevitable pee break that was usually needed in the middle of the night. Did I mention ice box canyon before?

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While my primary goal was chukar hunting, another aspect I enjoy about solo running,  is the ease to become so thoroughly absorbed by such  moments smack dab in the middle of nowhere (or everywhere)  that one can get lost in time.  Since I have never had a wrist watch since high school, and due to the nature of my lifestyle and allergic reactions to strict schedules and time tables, I often don’t know until I need to know, what day it is.

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Such was the case by the time I got to Blue Canyon, not too distant from trips end.  It is one of my favorite places and its vertical cliffs are so steep and narrow, it is more like being far enough in the bottom of a well to see the stars in the middle of the day.  Though not able to see any constellations, it did allow for much pondering. I like that feeling of getting all swallowed up by great natural beauty and getting lost in space and time. Day what?

On the last day as I was pulling into the take-out, I reminisced about my more youthful days that helped make this type of journey possible. Having a track coach dad helped, , whom taught me early on, to always get up when I fall down, and that finishing the race is far more important than how fast you run it.   Never say die, and keep on keeping on, soon became my life-time mantra.

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Of course, I was also thankful that I was a distance runner and wrestler in those days, too. In my profession and in the crucible of chukar hunting world, endurance sports make a big difference.  65 isn’t my IQ, though it helps for running after chukars, but it is proof that doing things like this is possible to do and still live to tell about it, despite age. Keep on, keepin on, even if death is an inch or mile away.

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Note: Anyone who would like to see video footage of our run through Snowhole Rapid can go to: https://www.facebook.com/Riverdoryfun

Gary Lane
Wapiti River Guides
www.doryfun.com

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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

Chukar University Field Work

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Ember: “Hey Sugar, do you see any chukars up here?” Sugar: “No, I think that fall, two draws back, when our master-guide hit the ground as his shotgun flew through the air, must have thrown his thinking off.”

Sugar: : “Hey Ember, I think I got some chukar dust in my ear, did he say we had to go up again?”

Sugar: ” Ember, don’t look now, but do you see those two elk behind me?”

Sugar:  “Ember, do you remember reading that chapter in our chukar book about what it means when you see more elk than chukars?”

Ember: ” Ya, I think it said that when  elk are found bedded down in the high country, it is time to get a book on psychology for your master-guide, because he might not  know up from down.”

Ember: ” I’m starting to get a fear of heights. Sugar, whadda think about  getting ourselves down off from here?”

Old guides axiom: When big rivers look small, it means you are too high up and  have entered the oxygen deprivation zone.

Warning:  Hunting chukars in this zone can cause delusions of grandeur.

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

For my Natures Apprentice blog: http://wapitisriversedge.wordpress.com/

Chukar University

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Naturally, like any good parent wishing for a good education for their kids, so too, do bird hunters wish the same for their dogs.  That is why, as the master (more like parent) of two Wiemaraners, I want them to gain all the best training and schooling they can get.

So. part of the curriculum at Chukar University, where I teach, is a great textbook by Pat Wray, entitled “A Chukar Hunter’s Companion.” Not only is it filled full of good facts about every aspect of chukars, and chukar hunting, but good humor too. I’m pretty sure I saw one of my dogs chuckling when she glanced through some wryly worded text.

When we are out on the chukar slopes in the middle of Chukar University, I sometimes have to threaten my dogs when things get tough, for them to go back to the book and brush up on some of their chukar hunting  facts.

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
For my Natures Apprentice blog: http://wapitisriversedge.wordpress.com/

 

The Beauty of Low Numbers

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When chukar numbers are down, it can be very demanding trying to locate birds because  actually finding them becomes much harder. Duh. No great revelation there. But, such has been the 2011-12 season in the area I mostly hunt, which is north central Idaho in one of the deepest gorges in North America, the Salmon River canyon.

In my traditional places for hunting chukar, habitat is vast and tortuous for human pursuits. My sore joints and muscles can attest quite strongly to that. When one must climb from river level to ridge tops in a canyon of this magnitude, distances and  up-ness is severe.

However, the old saying that a pancake has two sides can apply here. Ironically, there-in lies part of the beauty of this dilemma. When not many chukars are out there in “somewhere land” to find, more knowledge can be gained from fewer numbers. Not to mention a side benefit for those in search of these mighty feathered foes. Often the terrain traversed leads to astonishing vistas of tremendously expansive country. Peering  into the far beyond of such places can penetrate deep into the soul and create a  sensation similar to what a sailor might feel when  lost in a huge sea. It is a place man can  confront his place in the cosmos, and feel  gigantic-dwarfism, or  jumbo-shrimpness, for those inclined to like  such oxymoron’s, to help describe this dynamic.

Longer forays deeper  into ever yet more remote country provide such experiences. But beyond that, and back to the increased learing part,  field time can also fine-tune abilities to find chukars when conditions become extreme and low populations a challenge. It is relatively easy for most experienced bird hunters to find chukars, when number are high, but not so much for the opposite scenario. Those willing to travel far and wide at the expense of low ROI, (return on investment) in terms of red meat in the frying pan,  at least up their knowledge about chukar lore. Expanding horizons  often leads to new discoveries of places birds use, that might have been overlooked before.

It is similar to steelhead fishing when the river gets crowded by other boats. Steelhead habitually use “lies” and learning where these are in the course of the river is a big trick to becoming a better fisherman. If other boats are fishing well-known “lies,” one is forced to fishing other potential areas, not normally fished. Sometimes you luck out and find another niche that you never thought would hold a fish. Thus, the same holds for chukars, because sometimes these birds will have little “hot spots” they habitually will return to, though it might not look like such a spot to a hunter. One such spot I discovered years ago, I now call “chukar pass.”  It almost always holds chukars and I am thankful I stumbled on to this out-of-the-way, hard to get to, secret place.

Lastly, crawling around challenging terrain is a great way to stay in shape, which is even that much more important the older one becomes.  Improving circulation also contributes to better brain function, which is a good thing, because chasing chukars can often make one feel like they are going crazy.  Considering those borderline, insane places we are so willing to go into for such pursuits, more oxygen is greatly needed.

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

Chukar Hunting and “The Observers Effect”

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Note: this post was first published on my Nature’s Apprentice blog: http://wapitisriversedge.wordpress.com/2011/10/ on Dec 6, 2012

Events are the catalysts that cause thoughts to be linked from one realm to another. Chukar hunting one day, one such event happened to me as I sat down to rest and weather out a snow storm. I was soon getting hypnotized by a be-zillion flakes of snow whirling past me from the sky. They looked like tiny star fish with many legs, spinning in circles so fast that it almost turned them into white blurs.

Interestingly, it also created the illusion of flying through an asteroid belt by rocket ship,  as an infinity of  flakes zoomed wildly past me.  This thought immediately linked me yet to another previous experience watching boulders on a river bottom, fly by as I was scuba diving in a down stream motion. Intending to see what a steelhead might experience during its migration, I suddenly found myself dodging various sized rocks coming at me intermittently with increasing speed the faster the current became.  Then my mind morphed another thought into yet another recollection of an experience I had felt several times while sitting in my  tipi, looking up at the stars through the smoke flaps. The sensation was also like being in a space capsule traveling through time.

As I rebounded back again to the mesmerizing snow flakes, it seemed I was sucking some of them into my face by some magnetic mental force. I was like a human vortex matrix.  Why were the flakes that landed on me, the chosen ones, while all else missed? Mere coincidence? Or were they simply falling on me because they were pre-ordained by some higher force in the universe ? Could it be my thoughts of influencing the destiny of a few of these flakes, actually determined  where they might fall?

Grandiose thinking, surely. But if one is going to aim a bow, wouldn’t it be better to aim at the  sun and hit only the moon, than to aim at the moon and hit only a rock? I always liked that idea when I initially  heard it, wishing I had thought of it first.

This sense of traveling, yet sitting, and pulling flakes into myself, made me wonder if it was similar to what physicists call: “The Observers Effect.” Basically, it says that an observer can have an effect on that which he observes.

If such is the case, then could I apply this to chukar hunting and finding birds? Would it be possible  in some way , to pull a few birds towards me and my dogs? In the case of chukars, the hunter definitely has an effect on the hunted. But usually the opposite effect intended.  It is more of  a deterrent than an attraction.  So indeed the observer effects the observed. Only, mostly  chukars  run  uphill, fly real fast, and head for the next horizon if they see me and the girls, as soon as we see them or smell their scent.  So much for the “Observers Effect.”  I wonder if I am getting this idea confused with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle?

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

Two Excuses for Missing Chukars

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Note: this post was first published on my Nature’s Apprentice blog: http://wapitisriversedge.wordpress.com/2011/10/ on Nov 1, 2011

Ember and Sugar are the two main reasons I often see chukars fly away rather than drop to the ground when I shoot.  When I see this mother daughter team of Weimarieners go on point together, it is just too tempting for me to try to get a picture of them. Often I try to get a picture and a shot at birds.  This sometimes works, but most often birds get too much of a jump on me, while I fumble around trying to get camera in pocket and gun to aim. It’s worth it though.

I normally try to get in front of the girls to get a picture, so that if birds do flush, (I make birds  nervous with my photo fidgeting) it was my fault and not the dogs.  After all, it is my job to flush birds not theirs. They are pointers. Sure, I have to endure dirty looks from the girls at time. But they don’t hold a grudge, and soon forget all about it, as they get their noses back to the ground again.

My best success is when I can use only one hand to snap a picture, as it is faster to put the camera into my pocket afterwards. This allows me to have my gun in a better position to more quickly get it into shooting action. It is when I have to use two hands for picture-taking, that costs me more in positioning time. It means I have to put my gun under an armpit or between my legs, to better hold the camera.  Somehow, chukars always seem to know when a gunner is at the most compromised situation, before they jump to the sky.

Fortunately, I do not measure a successful chukar hunt by numbers of birds on the ground.  Sharing some great times with the girls out in the majestic landscapes of chukar world, watching them do what they do best, is a real treat for me.

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

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