Sorting Wheat from Chaff

The Chukar Grounds may not look like much to those who see it only from the valley floor

By Rob Breeding

I returned again to the Chukar Grounds last weekend. Through the process of revisiting place, over and over, certain landscapes become sacred to me.

The Chukar Grounds is such a place.

What drew me to this place in the beginning were, of course, chukars, game birds plentiful on its dry, wind-swept slopes. If you don’t hunt chukar, it’s a place easy to dismiss as good for nothing but rattlesnakes and sagebrush. Actually, it is good for both, though the buzzworms have usually retreated to winter dens by the time hunting season is in full swing.

Sagebrush is prolific, though location has its say. On the steepest slopes sagebrush barely grows. But where the slope relaxes past the angle of repose, sagebrush clings to life. And in the sheltered valleys and benches, where winter snow drifts defy expiration for a few extra spring days, and shade protects soil moisture from the ravages of summer sun, the sagebrush can grow taller than an NBA power forward.

These sagebrush nurseries are where I focus my hunting, working out from the cover. I don’t always find chukars in the heavy stuff, but on the ground sign of their comings and goings is everywhere. Tracks form highways through the twisted trunks, and the shoulders of the chukar expressways are littered with cylindrical, .22 gauge droppings — white tipped and gray, or near black when fresh.

On my visit earlier in the season severe weather from the north met me at the Chukar Grounds. Chukars were everywhere, but fierce winds gave all the advantage to the birds. The eventual arrival of a blizzard ended our visit, or at least the chukar hunting portion of my itinerary.

My return trip seemed promising with clears skies and temperatures in the mid-40s, and nary a breeze. Doll had barely bounded out of the truck when she found birds, a covey that flushed a little wild and fooled me by coming up in waves. When the first group of eight to 10 birds took flight they were a tad out of range. Instead of continuing my advance, I stopped to study the covey’s flight.

Chukars are reluctant to take to the air, and when hard-hunted birds succumb to that flight response, they usually put a lot of real estate between themselves and any perceived threat.

The birds of the Chukar Grounds aren’t pushed too hard, however. Bird hunters in these parts are vastly outnumbered by the big game guys, and those bird hunters who do exist are more likely to train their interest on pheasants.

These chukars didn’t fly too far, but stopping my advance turned out to be a mistake. I was still out of range when a second wave flew off, and was still so as a third, then a fourth group of birds erupted out of the sagebrush. I might have fired off a Hail Mary or two, but those usually only make the birds fly longer.

We worked scattered birds for a while, gathering a few that day, but not the “easy” limit the good weather tempted me to expect.

I am at home on the Chukar Grounds, though my actual home address is now hundreds of miles away. I once walked these slopes almost daily — alone except for the dogs — fall through spring until the warmer weather roused the snakes. Walking these slopes today is a little like traveling in a time machine; I keep bumping up against memories that distract from the birds.

The Chukar Grounds may not look like much to those who see it only from the valley floor, but walking its steep slopes transformed it into the sacred, a place with the power to distract, but also the power to help me see that sometimes the distraction isn’t a distraction at all.

Sometimes it’s the distraction that’s sacred.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.

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