Chukar season is open until Tuesday, Jan. 31. For more information and hunting regulations, visit fishandgame.idaho.gov.
I regretted the shot as soon as it happened. The bird flew up and out in front of me, so I pulled up and fired. Then I watched as the chukar fell down a nearly 100-foot cliff to the bottom of a ravine.
"That is gonna suck for you," mumbled my hunting partner.
With the bird at the bottom of the ravine, I had to turn around and hike almost one mile back, then hike to the bird and back out to the truck. All that work for about 1 pound of meat. But, as those who hunt chukar know, those are the ups and downs of hunting the elusive bird that so many chase across the hills of Idaho.
Chukars are not native to Idaho. They're a transplant from southern Asia. The first chukars were released in Idaho in the 1930s, and the first hunting season was in 1953, according to a 1967 issue of The Idaho Wildlife Journal. From 1950 to 1962, nearly 20,000 chukar where released in 81 different locations across the state.
The birds--ash gray with a black band running from head to stomach--have flourished across a wide swath of the state. A map on the Idaho Department of Fish and Game website shows that chukars can be found across about 50 percent of Idaho, favoring areas along the Salmon, Snake and Boise rivers throughout Southern and Central Idaho. IDFG refers to the habitat as "steep, rocky canyons with grassy and brushy vegetation."
Perhaps a better way to sum up chukar country is: "Holy crap, are you actually gonna walk in that?"
The birds are notorious for living in hostile, ankle-wrecking terrain--think rim rocks and shale. Add a little sage brush, lots of climbing and some cheat grass, and the picture is complete.
The tough terrain inspires a certain type of hunter. They are the type of people who will literally walk straight up a mountain for a chance at a shot.
"I have never met a chukar hunter who was an a-hole. Really. Think about it. You can't be an a-hole and be the kind who would be willing to walk eight miles through a snowstorm over rough rim rocks. If you are the eight-miler type, you are automatically a non-a-hole," wrote Sean English, a blogger for the Upland Idaho Forum.
With this year's late chukar season, some say it is not only more work to hunt the birds but more dangerous.
"Since you basically hunt the more remote areas along the Salmon by raft or boat, pushing the season 10 days later is a poor decision," said Bill Bernt, owner of Aggipah Boat Tours in Salmon. He argued that the later dates can be dangerous to rafters who want to shoot birds.
"Last time I was guiding in October for chukar on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the water temperature was dropping 2 degrees per day. ... By the time we pulled out, the water was 36 degrees."
In years past, the opening date for chukar hunting in Idaho was the closest Saturday to Sept. 20. This year, opening day was pushed back to Oct. 1.
Bernt proposed a different season along isolated waterways.
"We have all kinds of special hunts for big game. Why do we have to have a one-size-fits-all season for chukar? I would like to see an earlier season for backcountry corridors, otherwise it is just a waste of the resource," he said.
Another change this year is the way chukar populations are monitored. In the past, IDFG would take annual helicopter surveys near Brownlee Reservoir and biannually near Luck Peak. But after a fatal helicopter accident last year killed three people, the department reassessed its population count methods, suspending helicopter surveys.
According to Fish and Game biologist Michelle Kemner, the accident was not related to the counting of game birds but still had an impact.
"The crash caused us to re-evaluate the need for dangerous flights in order to judge population counts," explained Kemner. "We now use other things besides the helicopter counts to predict populations. With weather patterns and our professional backgrounds, we can get an understanding of how good a chukar-hunting season can be. While it might be anecdotal, it is still close."
The department is also using other methods, including placing wing-collection barrels at popular hunting locations on opening weekend and asking hunters to leave the right wings of the birds they shot. The wings allow IDFG officials to determine the juvenile-to-adult ratio of harvested birds, giving biologists a clearer picture of the last hatch. Officials then work backwards using the harvest data to come up with a population number and use that number to predict the next year's hatch.
For now the chukar population seems to be holding.
"The typical chukar pattern is peaks and troughs," said Kemner. "We seem to be on an upward swing compared to 2007 and 2008. We are about flat to last year, based on my personal opinion."
Anecdotally chukar hunting has been great in some areas and poor in others. This year's wet spring and hard, long winter may have caused population issues.
I had my own issues when I finally found the bird I shot at the bottom of the canyon. The fall had left it a jumble of feathers and broken bones. Looking around at the Mars-like terrain, I found even more respect for that little bird. The pain in my legs reminded me that I had a long hike back to the truck. I was paying for the shot, and I was certainly earning the meal to come.