Spent Yellow Shells

A final hunt of the season has become my January tradition

A final hunt of the season has become my January tradition. Bird hunting may be over in Montana, but Wyoming’s chukar season lingers into the new year.

January, or even February bird hunting is the norm in southern states. Some folks wait until the new year to allow late-nesting coveys to mature. I hunted bobwhite in Oklahoma in December a few years ago and bumped a covey with younger birds. They flushed, but didn’t fly far or strong. I took one shot, then got a clue.

I picked up the barely grown bird and went off in search of a more mature covey.

Young birds aren’t an issue this far north. I didn’t see any undersized chicks on my season finale. Heck, I barely saw any game birds at all. I stopped first at a steep draw where, in September, I killed my first bird of the season. Over the years that draw has provided many meals, but as I stepped to the rim that overlooks the stand of sage where the birds congregate, I noticed three spent yellow shells on the ground.

To the uninitiated that might not mean anything, but to bird hunters three yellow shells is a clear diagnostic for chukar hunters — or more precisely since they didn’t pick up their shells, slob chukar hunters. Only 20 gauge shotgun shells are yellow to serve as a warning that they’ll load nicely into the more popular 12 gauge, only to slide past the forcing cone and lodge in the barrel. When confronted with a seemingly empty chamber, the mistaken shooter reloads with a proper 12-gauge round and bad things happen.

Three shells means a pump or semi-auto. Many chukar hunters prefer a single barrel so they can take advantage of that third round. The single barrel is also significantly lighter than a double. When the bulk of your hunting time consists of climbing steep slopes after running birds, weight becomes an important consideration.

The covey wasn’t there, though sign remained. The slobs didn’t get them all.

At another favorite spot I was distressed to see that cattle had been let out. Chukar can tolerate grazing better than other game birds, but the proliferation of cow pies was such that I had to be careful with almost every step.

I had my camera out when a lone bird flushed, in range, but since I was taking photos I’d left the action open and there wasn’t time to respond.

There’s never just one bird so Doll and I spent the next hour scouring the hillside. She got birdy a couple of times and I spotted tracks in a patch of snow that pointed up a steep canyon. I went on a lung-bursting hike, to no avail.

I returned to the tracks, followed them a little farther and discovered they turned away before the steep canyon. They may have been older than I thought, and instead of escaping birds, were probably evidence of a meandering, feeding covey.

Still, there was plenty of company on the chukar grounds. Ravens are a constant presence, and a lone bird drifted our way, burbling a gentle salutation as it drifted 20 feet overhead.

Above the rimrock at the top of the slope, in the pillow of air that forms where north-south currents meet, rough-legged hawks hovered, hunting rabbits.

There were also the usual golden eagles, but they never let you get too close.

I didn’t fire a shot, but it was a good hunt, one I will take sustenance from until I return in the fall. It’s not that far away.