By Gary Lewis
Up on that ridge there are junipers that were old before there were any Himalayan chukar in Eastern Oregon.
In my mind, junipers and cheatgrass and this Eurasian import are linked. And there is no time when I look at those hills that my mind does not stray to January, with mud caked under the wheel wells, a shotgun in hand and a good dog out ahead of me. These days, more often than not, the dog is my young pudelpointer, Liesl, and she has a lot to learn. This time she would hunt with Cotton and maybe she would learn from her elder.
Mike Crawford told her to wait and she waited. Liesl, on the other hand, blasted off through the sage. She came back when I called and kept running by me. It was a training day and it would be Liesl’s first time hunting with another dog since she was a pup.
We could hear the chukar when we started away from the truck. Liesl cocked her head. Those sounded like birds, but she had been a quail and pheasant hunter for most of the year and wasn’t quite sure.
Stephen Wymer thumbed three rounds into the magazine of his Weatherby and I dropped two rounds into the tubes of my side-by-side 20 gauge.
Liesl covered a lot of ground, quartering back and forth, while the older dog scent-checked the wind and cast a look over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t too far ahead. Twice I called Liesl back. And then the white dog’s tail began to flag.
We read their body language as we worked uphill from the truck. First they quartered back and forth and then Cotton’s tail flagged. She slowed, she tested tendrils of wind. Liesl still made big passes; aware Cotton was onto something, still not sure what it was.
The pudelpointer had her head up. Twice she passed through the cone of scent and barely gave it a thought. This was the same dog that, on the last hunt, had locked up hard, twice, on solid points. It was like her nose wasn’t trained for chukar.
Then I saw the bird, folded into igneous rock, like brown-barred lichen with a red beak. Liesl jumped over it, not once, but twice, while Cotton held solid on point. Then I “whoaed” the pudelpointer and we stepped in and the chukar whirred away. I don’t recall whether Wymer shot or not, but I missed and the bird flew 400 yards along the ridge and hooked right, to dive into a fold in the ground. Crawford marked the spot and we continued to work the shoulder of the ridge, weaving in and out through rocky outcrops and stands of junipers.
Now we were on a high hogback with the clouds low in the sky and the mud clinging to our boots. She’d get it or she wouldn’t, but we’d work it out together. And this is the magic. Each time we go out we make it harder; she learns something, she makes a connection.
It seemed this dog’s nose, used to pheasant and quail, was not tuned to chukar yet. Each time Cotton went on point, Liesl would try to figure out why. And then the bird would rocket off the side of the hill and one of us would tumble it out over the tops of the junipers and sage. Or not.
Half a dozen times the older dog pointed and half a dozen times we walked in, our guns at the ready. Our game bags grew pleasingly heavier, but the young dog still seemed unsure, unsteady.
Now a bird was out in front of us and the dogs were tracking. For the first time, Liesl, was ahead of the English setter. She had the scent of chukar in her nostrils, her tail flagged and then she spotted it. The bird was on the top of the ridge, which meant it would take to wing. I had no more than thought it, when it was so.
Stephen Wymer was closest and the chukar took him by surprise as it towered at a 45-degree angle. He swung and barely tipped it with the first shot, like a bumper in a pinball game and then it arced, still going strong and his second shot folded it. It was the seventh time the dogs had found a chukar for us that morning, but it was a breakthrough for Liesl.
This was a new and glorious thing, this was a chukar.
We were almost back to the truck when the dogs began to track again, tails flagging, making smaller circles. There was a moment beneath an old pine tree when Liesl locked up, then Cotton put on the brakes behind her, honoring the point.
We followed the line of the young dog’s nose and figured the bird was five yards out. When it jumped, it hooked around the far side of the tree and we watched it go. I fired a shot, but it was too late, the bird was too far. Liesl chased off after it, then turned around and trotted back to find us. She decided we’d missed it.
That was something she’d learned on earlier trips. Master doesn’t get them all. Maybe he’ll improve.
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