Throwing someone into the deep end is a great test to see if they can swim. In this instance, Hells Canyon is the deep end and my buddy Jon is the swimmer.
In June I took a trip to Iowa to meet with my Pheasants Forever colleagues, we had meetings, presentations, bounced ideas off of each other and shared beers and stories. At the end of our meeting our CEO Howard Vincent challenged each one of us to take someone new to hunting out in the uplands this season. This was an easy challenge for me as I had already planned to mentor someone in the upcoming season, this is where Jon comes in.
Jon, a good friend of mine, is a jewelry designer who lives in Downtown LA, not exactly the type of person you'd expect to frequent a place like Hells Canyon. He is however, an accomplished fly fisherman and someone that values the peace that the outdoors can provide - especially coming from a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles. The stress of every day life in a big city can usually be offset with a nice relaxing trip into nature, however there's nothing relaxing about Chukar hunting in Hells Canyon.
Hells Canyon is one of those places where the name really says it all. It offers some of the most challenging terrain an upland hunter could ever face. Opening day sees the Rattlesnake infested hills baked by temperatures in the 80s and as the season progresses, the winds pick up and the temperatures drop well below freezing impeding access and freezing water bottles.
The biodiversity in the canyon is incredible, especially when you're looking at upland bird species. You can find Chukar, Hungarian Partridge, Valley Quail, Ruffed Grouse, Blue Grouse and there's also very small populations of Sage Grouse and Mountain Quail which aren't open to hunting. The goal for the trip was to get Jon his first Chukar and then try and get as many additional species as possible in the short time we were there.
On our first day in the canyon, Jon and I were joined by Seth Bynum a veterinarian from Lewiston, ID. Between the three of us we had two dogs, my Wirehaired Pointer Cederberg, and Seth's German Shorthair Shine.
The conditions on the first day weren't ideal for the dogs, it was warm, dry and very little wind - In fact, the little wind we did have was working against us at the start of the day which made it difficult for the dogs. Despite the challenging scenting conditions we managed to locate the first covey of Chukar fairly quickly. Jon and I both had some opportunities on these wild flushing birds but we couldn't connect. Later that morning Seth managed to bag a bird from a beautiful double point down a steep hillside - at least someone had a bird in hand!
The frustration continued throughout the day as the birds seemed educated and enjoyed flushing when we were just out of range. We needed a change in conditions and needed it quickly if we were going to get Jon his first Chukar.
The second day saw a bit of a freeze the night before and that combined with an earlier start saw the conditions improve and results came quickly. As we were getting ready at the truck, I saw Ceder acting birdy almost immediately, he was following a scent up to the crest of a hill and then quickly disappeared over the ridge. We quickly pulled on our boots and threw on our packs and followed the dogs. Just as we approached the ridge line the GPS notified me that Ceder was on point and Shine's pinged us moments after - we knew we were right on top of the birds and an opportunity awaited. Jon and I scrambled down the scree covered hill towards the dogs and although the birds held a little tighter than the previous day, they still got up wild. A decent sized covey jumped up, a little out of range for Jon but I managed to connect on one. The first Hungarian Partridge was in the bag! Not the Chukar we were after but there's something special about these little birds and they are always a welcome surprise.
The quest continued for Jon's first Chukar and despite dropping a little in elevation we decided to maintain that trajectory and contour around the rim rock cliff above us. With our hearts still pounding from the first covey of the day, we were eager to find more birds and get Jon on the board. It wasn't long after when both dogs picked up a scent and started to move slower, more methodically and with purpose. We followed the dogs for another hundred yards or so and they both locked up, the beautiful staunch points indicating that the time was now. Jon and I picked two different paths and slowly moved into position, the birds held much tighter and this time it was Jon who was in the prime shooting position. When the birds got up, I immediately saw that they were Chukar and amid all the confusion from the covey rise, Jon managed to pick his shot and drop a bird. Ceder ran down to collect the bird and Jon being new asked if it was OK to call him over, I said it was and Ceder brought the Chukar over to Jon. We did it! Jon stood there with a look of disbelief, one of relief and also of excitement, we took a moment to soak it all in and congratulate him on his first devil bird!
By this time Seth had to hit the road back to Lewiston, so Jon and I decided to also make our way back to the truck and ultimately to camp. We were hungry and with a couple birds in our bag, we were ready to feast!
Jon wanted to learn to clean the birds and we opted for a quick clean, breasting them out on the tailgate. We looked through the cooler and pulled together ingredients for a stir fry. We gathered some noodles, mushrooms, broccoli, onions and garlic and topped it off with a Mongolian stir fry sauce. Within a couple of hours, Jon shot his first Chukar, cleaned it, cooked it and there we were, sitting on the banks of the snake river enjoying a meal amidst the beautiful scenery.
I knew that taking Jon to Hells Canyon would be a challenge but it was something that needed to be done to see if he was really serious about this whole upland hunting thing. We consumed a lot of Ibuprofen over those couple days, we were sore, our feet had blisters but we created some incredible memories. Despite the pain and suffering, Jon was now officially a Chukar hunter and here to stay in the uplands!
The number of hunters in the US is declining every year and while some may rejoice in seeing less people in their favorite cover, this is not good for our sport.
The money spent on licenses each year helps your local Fish & Game agency look after the wildlife in your state and the money spent on firearms and ammo contributes to wildlife conservation through the Pittman-Robertson act.
More hunters are a good thing if we want to protect our wildlife and our hunting opportunities, so do your part and take someone new out hunting!